Any one who casually dropped by to see me that Tuesday afternoon would think I was going on vacation. My luggage was stuffed with lounge wear, a pair of house slippers, a pair of Addidas, t-shirts, CDs, books and magazines. I was going away, but not on vacation. I was checking myself into the Psychiatry Unit of a major hospital.
All this came along with my visit to my primary care physician, Doctor Schmidt. Earlier, I had been in the emergency room twice in the past three months thinking I was about to die of a heart attack. The ER doctors informed me they were just panic attacks that have the same symptoms of a heart attack and usually pass with time. So I went in to talk to my doctor about my panic attacks and asked her to prescribe valium. She said, “Rosie, I think you are past valium at this point.”
I did not say anything so she continued.
“I know a place you can go to. It is quiet and you can recuperate over this Thanksgiving Holiday.”
“Where?” I asked.
“There is a psychiatry program at the Medical Center in …”
“No. I am not going. I am not crazy. I just need something for my nerves,” I said.
“Psychiatry is not just for insane people. You are having panic attacks. It is a major psychological and physiological problem that can lead to long-term health issues,” she replied. “They will prescribe the right medication to help stop the attacks.”
I was not listening. I was concerned about what people would say, what my family would think. The last time I visited a psychologist to deal with what she diagnosed as Major Depressive Disorder, my sister almost lost it.
“What is wrong with you?” Patricia asked me, her voice raising an octave with each syllable. “Our people don’t do such rubbish! We are tough people. We deal with things as they come by. Don’t buy into all this western bullshit about depression and such nonsense.”
I was wondering how I would explain her sister was about to be sent to a nut-house when Dr. Schmidt said, “look at it this way, you know how diabetics use insulin to regulate their sugar level. It’s the same for depression and panic attacks.Your brain needs to re-up its serotonin and neropeniphrine level to the normal rate so you can get your life back to normal.”
So, after a lot of arguing back and forth, ending with her refusal to give me valium unless I went to this place, I drove myself to the hospital to ‘re-up’ my whatchamacallit.
The place was nice and innocent looking. I followed the admissions lady up the elevator and down a long hallway decorated with modern art work. The floor was woodwork and shiny. My shoes made a click-click sound that echoed up and down the hallway. It looked like a hotel to some degree. We turned a corner and came to a sudden stop. The admissions lady pushed a button on the wall and said, “bringing in Rosie.” She might have well have said, “Open Sesame,” because the door opened and we walked in.
Two nurses were waiting for me. One took my luggage, my stuffed animal and my purse, the other slipped a band on my left wrist. I was now officially patient number 58647. They searched my luggage and removed my CD player, my bottle of perfume and my cell phone.
“I need my CD player !” I said.
“It has a cord,” one of the nurses said holding up the earphones and displaying the very tiny cord. “We have to protect all our patients.”
‘That is not even strong enough to choke a person or even hold up a body,’ I thought to myself. I knew this was going to be a long week and silently cursed my doctor for thinking this up.
On the evening of that first day, I surveyed my environment. The patients stared at me like inmates, wondering what I was in for. I did not speak to them or acknowledge their presence. I sat on a sofa and watched TV in the dayroom casually observing my surroundings. As if on cue, the dinner trays came up. These people were serious with security. The plates were made of paper. The silverware was plastic as well as the cups. I was feeling more and more like I was in a movie like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Right away, I noticed the cliques as everyone sat down in the dinning area to eat. The High-Functioning Depressed Group sat at one end of the day room, the Schizophrenics sat at the opposite end, and the Psychotics sat close to the main exit of the dayroom while the Recovering Addicts, who spend half their time walking endlessly round and round the circular unit, sat in the middle. Then there was the Suicidal Group.
Since I was the newbie, I decided to cement my street cred by sitting with the Schizos. The High-Functioning Depressed Group looked at me in surprise. I didn’t care. Before dinner was over, we were trading juice boxes. If you take away the wild look in their eyes and their inability to follow a line of thought, they were not really bad.
The next afternoon, I got bored and changed cliques. The High-Functioning Depressed Group seemed to have better conversation, so I joined them for lunch. Right after lunch, I called my friend Lisa.
“Hey, crazy girl! How are they treating ya?” she asked.
“It’s not bad,” I said.
“When are you coming home?” She asked, suddenly serious.
“I don’t know. They have me on so many meds, they are still busy adjusting the dosage. I am either too wired or too groggy.”
“Hang in there. No one said it would be easy. I am proud of you for doing this for yourself. So many people would not even consider it. Everyone at work is asking about you. I told them you traveled to Detroit to see old friends.”
“Thanks. I don’t need more drama.”
“Call me if you need anything,” Lisa said.
“Okay. Bye.” I hung up.
Since, my alibi was up and solid, I decided to have some fun. I gathered the Psychos and Suicidal Group patients in the day room and while the nurses were not looking I removed the belt on my sweater and showed them how to tie a noose that would not break. They were impressed. After that we walked around the unit, finding all sorts of dangerous items that could be used for no good. All in all we found a silk scarf and belt that belonged to me, another leather belt,bed sheets you could tear up to make more nooses, door handles that were strong enough to holdup a body, breakable plastic, electric outlets that could be unscrewed, pills hidden away by another patient, a smuggled in lighter, a metal fork that must have been used by a nurse and forgotten, a plugged-in radio and a bathtub – and we could have found more until one of the nurses figured out we were up to no good and made us sit down to do arts and crafts.
Throughout the week, the doctors struggled to find the right drug cocktail that would not render me incapacitated. Their strangest discovery was that in addition to my panic disorder, I was apparently a die-hard insomniac. That made things dicey. Now, they had to figure out how to get me to sleep without knocking me out cold.At first I was irritated with all the attention I was getting – nurses taking my temp every hour, asking me if I wanted something to drink, making sure whatever I wanted to eat was prepared just the way I liked it and so on and so forth…then I got used to it. I liked being waited on hand and foot. They even rented me some classical music CDs to help me relax. When I mentioned I was into historical movies, a nurse made a run to the video store to rent “Victoria and Albert” and “Wives and Daughters.” Life was good – and I had insurance to cover my medical bills.
By the fourth day, I had really settled into my routine and
was kind of liking the place a little. It was stress-free and quiet. I even discovered they had a hot tub complete with jet stream. Booyah! If you took away the tight security, it was actually like a cheap spa. Before long, my week was up. The doctors had found the right medication and dosage for me and besides being overly mischievous, I had no side effects. I left the hospital armed with my prescriptions and went back to see my doctor for a follow-up visit.
“I am proud of you for doing this Rosie. Not a lot of people are willing to go through this because of the stigma of being in a psych hospital,” my doctor said as she wrote my prescription for Ativan, a souped-up version of valium – twice as potent. I waited until she handed it to me before I replied.
“Don’t worry Dr. Schmidt. I’m not worried about the stigma. I did for the Valium,” I said with a smile.