“I’m feeling much better now. Clearer.”
— Sarah Connor
Why do they have to call it “mutilation?” That’s such a murder word.
The nurse who checks my bag says I’ll have to leave my facial astringent and mouthwash in an assigned locker. “They’re hot,” she tells me. I will soon learn “hot” is psych-ward code talk for, Sorry, these items contain alcohol. Our facility has strict rules against clear skin/fresh breath/pulling an Amy Winehouse.
It’s my first night of a two week stay at the Crossroads Center for Psychiatric Caring. A palm tree infested facility stiffly posed between the cow patty waft of farm town concrete and wine vineyards. For reasons I’ll never be clear about, this hospital likes its adverbs, italicizing the word CARING on every sign, pen and document. The nurse wears her CARING tag pinned to the breast of her Winnie the Pooh scrub smock because the slightly emo animals of Christopher Robin’s childhood emphasizes someone who cares in a way that plain green never could.
“I’m not going to drink my makeup,” I say. I’m sweaty and itchy and nervous. Outside the temperature is just a little over a typical July afternoon in California’s Central Valley. 112 degrees. I know this because the EMT who rode in the back of the ambulance with me kept saying, “A hundred and twelve? Really? Really?”
This is the first time I’ve been out of the house in three weeks. I haven’t slept in three days. Winnie the Pooh is upsetting somehow.
“Sorry,” The nurse says. “I know it seems silly but we can’t take chances.” She pulls the rest of my belongings from an old duffel bag I bought for a quarter at a garage sale. It’s hard to find sensible luggage in orange. Someone wrote WE LOVE OUR COACH in black Sharpie on the nylon handles, and I thought maybe someday I might take a trip somewhere, and the people in the airport would look at that bag instead of a grown woman who has to continuously snap her fingers to the count of seven to stop herself from thinking about the ineffectiveness of airplane seats doubling as floatation devices.
Look what her team wrote on her bag! What an inspiring person she must be.
The nurse makes a list of all the things I have brought in my pursuit of turning into someone worthy of WE LOVE OUR COACH. Socks, hair clips, notebooks, a carton of Marlboro Lights, pajama bottoms and a Depeche Mode t-shirt I stole from Ross. “These are the only clothing items?” She asks. I answer her by pleading to keep my jar of Vicks Vaporub in my room. I need a lot of Vicks. I forget to answer about the clothes. Aside from nightgowns and basketball shorts, I haven’t been concerned about fashion for a while now.
“Let’s see,” she says, flipping through my file. She opens up the lid of my Chapstick and sniffs it.
“How did you get my paperwork so fast?” I ask. But I really want to know about my Vicks.
“It’s your ER file,” she tells me. “As soon as dispatch calls us they bring it in from downstairs.”
I know a lot about downstairs. Downstairs knows a lot about me. Until I sought counseling for my panic attacks I was a regular on the EKG machine. Chest pains, palpitations: “I think I’m having a heart attack.” Shortness of breath, blurry vision: “Maybe I caught listeria from bad lettuce, but maybe a heart attack too.” Tingling hands, nausea: “My neighbor cut my grass and he didn’t look well. I touched the lawn mower when he was done. I’m almost positive it’s some sort of heart attack.”
Yes on the Vicks. I want to put some in my nose right now. I want to think of my dead grandmother and my dead mother and all the mentholated chest rub times between us. I would also like to stop thinking about these things. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here.
“Okay, I see it now,” the nurse says. “Obsessive compulsive disorder, acute depression, self-mutilation—”
Why do they have to call it mutilation? That’s such a murder word. If I had bigger boobs and could sing there’d be a sort of Bette- Midler-in-The-Rose awesomeness to cutting. But hearing this woman in her nursery room clothes say “mutilation” gives it all a Jeffery Dahmer/ Hannibal Lector quality. I’ve never mutilated anyone. I’ve never ate someone’s face. But I’m also not a Janis Joplin type who died on stage of an overdose. So at least there’s that.
“Where do you cut?” I’m asked. I show the nurse my arms. They’re not that bad. I have a cat no one likes so that pretty much takes care of questions from people who aren’t looking at my file. “Can you write something else besides mutilation?”
“Not my word, Sweetie,” she says, and it’s only now do I realize the name on her hospital ID badge reads Bunny. “It’s the doctor’s diagnosis. But don’t worry,” Bunny says, “you’ve got a self-risk analysis coming up tonight and it also looks like you’re due to fill out your two week action plan. You can ask your doctor to change it then.”
I’ve been in therapy on and off since I was a eight-years-old. OCD, panic attacks, depression. I was once so preoccupied with spontaneous human combustion I kept a Ragu jar filled with water next to my pillow and slept with my hand bubble-gummed to the lid. Also, my brother spent the majority of his teen years calling me Hemorrhoid. I know The Couch. I know the psychobabble. But I sometimes wonder if everything would be clearer, work faster, if doctors and nurses showed more concern for honesty than regulation? “Ok Ms. Foust, it’s pretty apparent by the Hello Kitty stickers on your Ace of Base sweatshirt you’ve got a lot of issues, but we just need to make sure you’re here for legitimate medical reasons and not because you’re trying to score a free vacation and worried about the bed sheets at Econo Lodge.”
During my hospital stay I’ll learn a sufficient amount of facility shop talk to earn lifetime status as Top Contributor to Urban Dictionary. I’ll help a Vicodin addict stay awake long enough to finish a game of Mouse Trap. I’ll watch a screaming naked man receive an injection that shrinks him into stars and cellophane right in front of my room. And I’ll learn this sudden calmness is what’s known as Waxing the T-Zone: An altered state of Jim Morrison in the Mojave Desert reality, only sleepier, usually achieved after large doses of Thorazine or Ativan. After his morning medication Harvey waxed the T-Zone then nodded off during rainbow parachute time.
Crop Dusting, is another medical maxim that will come up often among the Birkenstock-footed doctors and wearers of Disney apparel. This is the slow and steady release of flatulent vapors accommodated by a Walking Dead shuffle in mismatched socks or pre-approved house shoes. Kelly waited for the schizophrenics to finish crop dusting the day room before she went in to straighten the magazines.
And speaking of magazines, all of mine are confiscated. The Atlantic, Scientific American, Skeptic. Woman’s Day is ok after Bunny scans it thoroughly. The others will be waiting in a locker alongside my shaw-shankable makeup and feminine deodorant spray, the idea being that an article on Bill Clinton’s blow jobs can be just as dangerous as an aerosol can of spring meadow freshness. It seems nothing I’ve brought to this place is safe enough to earn the status of caring.
I push down my sleeves and sign papers.
“…Bouts of aggressive behavior,” Nurse Bunny goes on, “non-compliance with prescription meds.”
By now I’ve started to cry. My therapist told me crying was nothing to be ashamed of so I’ve been doing a lot of it. I want to tell Nurse Bunny she’s got it all wrong. Bunny and her Winnie the Pooh smock. Bunny and her ugly fingernails that have been chewed down into scary scabs of hard Jell-O.
File that under mutilation.
“You can cry if you want,” Bunny says, which makes me not want to cry anymore. What I really want is to explain myself. I want to tell her that this “non-compliance with medications” thing has more to do with non-money than compliance. There’s a big difference between not taking your drugs, and not being able to afford them because your kid’s daycare price went up twenty bucks more a week due to you continuously forgetting to pack his lunch. And when you did manage to remember about children having to eat, you packed only a Cup-O-Soup and a banana in his Power Rangers backpack. But not because you’re a bad mom and you’re tired and you owe the cash advance place seventy-five dollars. Cup-O-Soups and bananas are the only things your kid will eat, and if you put something else in front of him like the spaghetti you’ve served your other children for three nights in a row, he’ll cry until he throws up. So you let him have the fucking Cup-O-Soup and the banana because maybe you really are a bad mom and you’re tired and there isn’t much else in the way of lunch because you owe the cash advance place seventy-five dollars.
Bunny’s on the heavy side and works in a hospital. I bet she completely understands Cup-O-Soups.
About the Aggressive Behavior part: That’s wrong, too. In a way. Last month I stuck a note to the windshield of a dented multi-color Chevy pickup that had boxed my little Geo Prism so tight in the Wal-Mart parking lot I had to squeeze myself in through the passenger side. As a result, I lodged my right knee into an open Big Gulp that was doubling as an ash tray. Here’s what I wrote: Hey Asshole, wouldn’t it be nice if compact cars folded up like real compacts? I was on my way to see my therapist that night so of course I told him what happened when he saw the stains on my pants. I thought my note was funny. It made me feel better. But I sure wouldn’t have laughed so hard and used the term, fucking hillbilly, if I would have known someone named Bunny with a serious nail biting problem would be locking up my magazines and taking notes on my aggressive behavior.
Kurt Cobain died two years ago. Everyone keeps saying Universe and Spiritual. I don’t know what to do with all this.
Nurse Bunny rubs my arm. She says I can cry whenever I want to. I don’t like being touched by people I don’t know. “I just want to keep my magazines.” My voice sounds like my kids when I try to convince them Captain Suds from the Dollar Store is just as good Mr. Bubbles: Genuinely woeful yet completely ineffective. Pathetically fit for the pictures on Bunny’s smock. This will be the voice I use pretty much the whole time I am here. It’s a tone of acceptance and failure, it’s begging for one more cigarette, a stronger sleeping pill. It’s having to apologize to another patient when I call her a cunt in such a way that I want her to hear me and forgive me at the same time. It’s the voice I’ll use when I phone my sister to tell her I’ve screwed up again.
Later when I’m fooled into thinking I’ve got this Universe/Spiritual nonsense down, that same voice will plead with a police officer while he handcuffs me and explains I’m being arrested on domestic violence charges.
“It’s going to be okay,” Bunny says.
I know it’s going to be ok. It’s always ok. Until it isn’t.
“We’ll get you settled in, get you some meds onboard—we’ve got lots of books and magazines I’m sure you’ll enjoy.”
Of all the bizarre expressions I will learn to describe folks who are not allowed to wear belts or go outside to smoke without a bright pink bracelet that specifically states: I AM ALLOWED TO SMOKE, my favorite phrase will quickly become, “Meds onboard.” If Traci could get the right meds onboard maybe she could stop dust busting the inside of her dishwasher long enough to find a decent job. From the beautiful Puerto Rican bed check nurse to the terrified Mormon volunteer boy who passes out dessert cups, at some point I will hear everyone say Meds Onboard. Sure there will be endless talk of comfort zones, emotional projecting, and affirmations to declare that this is the first day of the rest of our lives, but it’s Meds Onboard that will make me giggle inappropriately when I’m supposed to be listening and caring.
One night, with the help of a gorgeous and way too-strong sleeping pill, the phrase will induce a Timothy Leary-inspired dream of colorful pill capsule people donning sailor caps and giant leis as the SS Meds Onboard sets sail for a happy holiday cruise. The Captain, a peppy hypodermic needle in an inner tube, dances a little medicated jig as all of us—the compulsives and the manic depressants, the mutilators and the combatives, the T-Zoners and the crop dusters wave goodbye in our bathrobes and I AM ALLOWED TO SMOKE bracelets. We throw streamers of single-ply toilet paper into shimmering waters while the reggae version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” carries us into the first day of the rest of our lives.
Bunny says I cannot make or accept phone calls until the psychiatrist comes to assess me. “That’s fine,” I say. “I don’t want to talk to anyone anyway.” Which isn’t all together true. I’d like to call my sister. She owes me forty Xanax and some muscle relaxers. My almost ex-husband knows I’m here but if I call him he’ll be mad about money, about having to stay at home and watch the children, two of which aren’t his. “You remember that the next time you say you hate me, Traci.”
“Can I call my boss?” I ask.
“Not until you’re assessed.”
I lost my job three weeks ago. I’m not sure why I’m talking about bosses.
Nurse Bunny asks me to follow her down a hallway that could be any hallway in any hospital except the pictures on the wall of seascapes and mountain streams are covered in brown-flecked Plexi glass. You can’t break one over your knee and cut up your Trivial Pursuit partner but you can still see your reflection in the scratchy cover. I catch sight of my sweaty face, a melancholy monster creeping past a contemplative woman holding a parasol.
There’s a demon on this beach Ma’am
Or haven’t you heard the news?
She’s come to fix her brain up,
Getting pink for grays and blues.
They tell her she’ll get normal,
Not clear about just how.
She’d take her life, or at least a pill,
To be where you are now.
“So here it is,” Nurse Bunny says, she makes a ta-da! sweep with her arm as we walk into a room with nothing much to ta-da! about. There are two beds, a nightstand and a dresser. There’s a window that looks out into a row of air conditioning units. There is no TV.
“We’ve got a big screen in the day room,” I’m told, which makes it sound like we’re not allowed to watch TV at night. Or at all. We’re not allowed to fall asleep to Bewitched or eat a bowl of Frankenberries while watching Dionne Warwick’s infomercial because cereal helps resist the urge to call a Psychic Friend. “This is a group meeting kind of place,” Nurse Bunny says. “We talk and we share. That’s how we’ll get you better.”
“I think I can get better faster with cable,” I say. “Do you have cable?” But the talk and the share part already answered my question.
Nurse Bunny says they have movies. “Good ones. With uplifting messages.”
Now I feel funny. “That sounds like Church,” I say. “They’re not churchy movies are they? Do you have Jaws?” I like Jaws. My boys like Jaws. I like to see people in shitty, life threatening situations. It makes me grateful.
“They don’t have Jaws. They don’t have nothing.” This is Heather. She’s come in from smoking and she’s mad about something. I’m guessing by the way she’s flopped herself onto the bed next to mine that she’s my roommate. “Jesus fucking Christ, it’s hot outside,” she says.
Heather and I are introduced. She doesn’t want to shake my hand. But she does ask me if I smoke. And what brand? And did I bring a whole carton? In a place with lots of talking and uplifting movies, cigarette stats are pretty much all you need to make friends.
“I’m going to let you get settled,” Nurse Bunny says. “You’ve missed dinner,” she looks at my chart. “You’ve got some nighttime meds coming so we’ll take care of that before evening group.”
“Can I have a cigarette?”
Nurse Bunny reads more about the things I’ve got coming to me. She says she needs to do a risk assessment before I get my wrist band.
“Can we do that now?” I haven’t yet learned about the smoking wrists bands. I just really want a cigarette.
“Let me check on something and I’ll be right back. Go ahead and unpack. You girls get to know each other.” Meaning a very involved conversation about cigarettes is about to begin.
I ask Heather about the wrist band. I already have two. A yellow one with my name, my doctor’s name, my birth date and some abbreviations for what I think are either the meds I am currently taking or punk bands of the 80s. I also have a red wrist band that says Sulfa, Penicillin and Morphine, just in case someone wants to put me into anaphylactic shock they’ll know which drugs to inject.
“A smoking band,” Heather says. “They ask you all kinds of questions first. You know, to make sure you’re OK to go outside, then you get your smoking band.”
“Why wouldn’t I be OK to go outside? What kind of questions?”
“Stupid ones,” Heather says. “You have to sign this paper promising you won’t jump out into traffic or climb a fence or start throwing patio furniture around. Shit like that.”
I threw an ex-boyfriend’s electric guitar into a swimming pool once. I don’t know if I’m capable of ruining patio furniture.
Heather doesn’t ask me why I’m here. She watches me put away my clothes and talks about Henry in 236. Have I met Henry? I have not. But in less than thirty seconds I know he killed a man in high school and he has really nice eyes.
Within the course of me filling up a single drawer with things that aren’t my magazines I will also learn this about Heather: We are both 24. Our room number is 204 which means something more than we are both 24 and in a psyche ward. Heather is originally from Hawaii but moved to California to be with a man who is as equally good in bed as he is at cooking meth. Heather likes raw potato flakes. She used to eat a lot of them before she stopped eating all together.
Already I want to go home. But that won’t last long. Once I sign my paper about respecting patio furniture and get my pink wristband I’ll start to feel better. I’ll put Vicks in my nose while I cry in the bathroom because my anxiety about car crashes has stopped me from driving my children anywhere and I’ve had to hire a total stranger to take them to school and daycare while I wave goodbye on the lawn in my nightgown. I’ll sit in group and listen to a story about a woman who ties her shoelaces to railroad tracks yet has no desire to get hit by a train. But I’ll get my nighttime meds and my nighttime cigarette and I’ll be especially pleasant in group when I think about how good that cigarette will be once the meds wane me smaller, mildly important. It will be almost impossible to think about close calls with Amtrak or my children who cannot be in the car with me.
Outside on the patio Heather asks if I color my hair.
“I do,” I answer. “A lot.”
Then she asks if I know anything about aliens.
My answer is the same.
“Fucking A,” she says. We both light our cigarettes. “There’s three of us here.”
“Mexicans?” I ask.
She laughs and coughs and calls me a riot.
It hasn’t cooled down much. The smells of hot manure and grape vine vinegar make the air like a basement where you’ve locked the door to do something bad. But the Xanax won’t let me notice the stink much longer. My eyes are clear. My neck muscles untangle.
My boys are ok in that van.
It’s not a total stranger who drives them. My head lied about that. She’s actually a very nice lady out of five nice ladies I interviewed for the driving job. I tell Heather all about it. She nods and says, “TCB right?”
“Exactly.” I exhale and watch the smoke purl away from my mouth. Someone else’s angel hovers in front of my face. I’m slipping past the parts where I think I don’t belong here, floating nicely between Poor Nurse Bunny With Those Awful Nails and Why The Fuck Can’t I Have My Magazines?
You want too much.
Nothing makes you happy.
But the Xanax says I could be, and that it’s OK to want. And that maybe Heather and I will be best friends forever.
I ask her how I get Nurse Bunny to give me back my magazines.
“She won’t,” Heather says. “They’re probably making a bonfire right now and dancing around the contraband.”
I take another drag from my cigarette. “Well, that sucks,” I say. But give me ten more minutes. I’ll be totally fine with all of it.