My first hospitalization I had a roommate – Anna, an old woman who seemed to be 90 years old. I wanted to call her Dora the Explorer. I don’t know why either, evidence of a mind’s incapacity to think clearly. She had been an illustrious artist in her day and had taught art at New York University, but when I came to know her she was somehow lost in her mind. She was waiting for a long-term facility to open up to keep her the rest of her days.
I made friends with a young woman, Susanna. She was a few years older than me and had also worked in fashion. She had a scar like the one on my wrist and another to match it where her neck met her jaw. When exiled from the world friends are important and she became mine. Her stories in group therapy made my heart ache. Those brownies my sister’s best friend sent, we secretly shared away from the eyes of the nurses. She never had visitors. She had a husband but he could never get away from work in San Francisco, a thirty minute drive from where we were locked up, during visiting hours. I left before she did, but heard from her by way of a letter she sent me a year later. She told me she was doing well, hiking 3-6 miles a day, anxious to get back to work, but my communication back with her went unanswered. Over the years I have thought of her often, but worry that maybe she didn’t make it, maybe her depression was a Siren’s call to death.
Leo marched the halls with psychiatrically-approved iPod buds in his ears. Sometimes he played imaginary instruments, like a drunk man in a bar strumming his invisible strings to his favorite Bon Jovi song. He always wore a brown tweed jacket with a bit of paint on it and basketball shorts, sometimes inside out. He liked to paint his face with blue and green paint. His way in was interesting – in a busy intersection in California he lay down and refused to move.
Marcus was mean. Fighting with the nurses was how he spent his time and every day, multiple times a day, they threatened to revoke his privilege to use the smokers’ room. It seemed to keep him in check but didn’t stop him from getting too loud or riled up. Sometimes they threatened him with medication – poisons that erase you. Silenced. There were a few people he chose to talk to but I was one of them. He did not smile, he didn’t laugh. He had been placed on the ward after he was arrested. He wouldn’t tell me why. He ate with me from time to time; we killed minutes.
The thing was, I never believed Marcus was a bad or particularly violent guy. I think he was so tired of being misunderstood that the frustration manifested into a rage against those who didn’t understand, those who couldn’t. Like the rest of us he had an illness no one could see. The madness lived inside each of our brains tucked away in gray matter.
Perhaps the saddest among us was a girl barely old enough to be in an adult ward. I remember her hair and how the light bounced off it as she sat next the window looking out at the hillside dotted with houses. I remember how my already aching heart found more room in it to ache for her as well. I wished her well when she left us, but there was no smile as she walked through the doors into the hallway. I think she forgot how to smile.
I honestly believe the most interesting people exist inside the locked doors of a psych ward. People of passion, who feel things perhaps a bit too deeply, too intensely. It is a place without fault because who gave me bipolar disorder or what made Susanna so sad she tried to kill herself or why was Dora the Explorer so lost? It has to do with chemicals and predispositions and gray matter. The environment plays a part, but I believe our minds play a bigger one.
These people are the handful that have stayed with me these years later. There names have changed and I have forgotten bits, but their character remains fixed in my mind – Marcus’s anger, Leo’s energy, Susanna’s warmth. They helped me through a time that was confusing and foreign. I am better because I knew them.
*Names have been changed
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