The ambulance pulled around to the back entrance to the psych hospital, and my panic level was off the charts. My pulse was fast and I could see it shaking my eyeballs. My BP was so high that I may have had a few strokes on the way over and I just didn’t notice. The female EMT kindly let me put on my pants, then she walked me into a holding cell full of police officers with handcuffed people, some of whom were bleeding, screaming, fidgeting, or drooling. I took a seat on a bench next to an officer struggling to keep a bleeding teenage girl seated, trained my unfocused eyes on the ceiling, and played BLACKBIRD by The Beatles in my head. This is a practice that served me well over the next 24 hours because the emergency suicide watch ward housed people from all walks of life and all levels of psychosis and violence. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was draw attention to myself.
An intake counselor checked me into the system and talked me through the process ahead of me, painting rosy pictures that never manifested themselves. She said I would spend my first 24 hours in the room behind us on suicide watch. But I’m not suicidal. I thought this but didn’t say out loud as I figured it was something a lot of patients say walking through those doors, and saying it now wouldn’t change a damn thing. She walked me into a large echoing rectangular room with warehouse-high ceilings. Roughly 60 reclining chairs crowded into the open space, on which sat people in various states of consciousness and undress. The counselor parked me on a bench in front of an occupied padded cell which emitted waves of unintelligible screaming. I sat there staring at the ceiling, still trying to figure out how to breathe, for almost an hour before I was ushered to a table and asked a thousand more intake questions. The tech who talked to me was obviously new and flustered, and it didn’t help him that I, in my hyper-vigilant state, kept correcting his spelling and grammar. (“Yo, somebody! How y’all spell ‘syringe’?”) Even in a crisis I cannot help myself.
He then began to disembowel my giant Mary Poppins-esque purse and wallet and documenting all contents. Poor newbie probably wasn’t used to patients paying as much attention to what he was doing as I did. He also wasn’t apparently used to people carrying as many legal medications or credit cards around as I do.
Newbie: (holding my wallet) How many credit cards do you have?
Me: I…can’t you just count them? They’re in your hand.
Newbie: Oh. Yeah. Ok, syringes, cell phone, cash, another cell phone, iPod, bandage scissors, hemostats…more hemostats?
Me: I work in a veterinary hospital.
Newbie: Thank you for serving those who served our country.
Newbie: Seriously?! Why would I joke about that? There is nothing funny about giving your life for your country…
Me: No, I mean I work with animals. Veterinary.
Newbie: Oh. My bad. (pulls out some capsules from my purse pocket) What is this medication right here?
Newbie: What does it do?
Me: It’s for allergies.
Newbie: And what is this one?
Newbie: What is it for?
Newbie: (now eyeing me suspiciously for some reason) What about this one?
Me: Azo. For urinary tract infection pain.
Newbie: Urine what?
Me: Urinary tract infection pain. When it hurts to pee. (I said this a little louder than necessary)
Newbie: (shrugs) A’ight. (tosses capsules into a pile) And what is this medication?
Me: That’s a contact lens.
He continued taking everything out of my purse and arranging it on the table in front of him and taking a picture- a painstakingly long process. Then the purse disemboweling and questions were done, he pointed over my shoulder and told me to, “Go see Anita for a skin.”
I was pretty sure I misheard him, “Go where? For a what?”
He pointed over my shoulder again, saying, “Anita there will get your skin.”
I looked where he was pointing. “I- don’t understand what you want me to do. You appear to be pointing to that older bald woman who’s having trouble working the water fountain. You want me to go see her…and give her my skin?”
He pointed again and said, “Just go.”
With trepidation I started walking toward the woman at the water fountain, who, as soon as I got close, started gumming the spout and trying to talk at the same time. Ok then, having water here, ever, is now out of the question. Just before I tried to speak to the woman a technician, Anita, swooped in and led me by the arm into the bathroom to do what they called a Skin Check. They explained that they were going to note any injuries, scars, tattoos or third nipples* on my skin so they will know whether I tried to hurt myself while I was there. Now that I think about it, though, they only ever checked my skin the one time.
*Again, they didn’t specifically mention third nipples, I just wish they did.
The Skin Check began promptly with the technician barking orders at me. “Let me see the inside of your bra.”
I tried to figure out what she meant, and after a few too many seconds of staring blankly at her she sighed and said, “Take off your shirt, hand it to me, flip your bra up, and show me the inside.”
“Oh, ok. You could have just told me you wanted me to flash you.” The look on her face told me that this was not a joking procedure. I returned to generalized panic.
“Remove your pants, pull your underwear to your knees, squat, and cough.”
This command made me forget my happy place altogether, but I obliged. After a number of other barked orders, they seemed satisfied that I wasn’t using any of my lady parts as a suitcase, and they led me, fully dressed, into the main ward. They parked me in one of the chairs, handed me a blanket, and said, “This is you.” Then they walked away, leaving me to sit on my ass for the next 24 hours and try and figure out what the hell had happened to get me into that chair. Was I going to get any medication to try to calm my anxiety? Was I going to get to see a doctor at some point? Is there someone I can alert if one of these people tries to kill me? Hilariously, I seemed to be expected to sleep in that chair, with people wandering around the ward, talking to themselves, talking to me, screaming about things that weren’t really happening, screaming at the staff. These people were very very sick. What the hell was I doing there? I will attempt to answer this question for myself in the next installment of this story. Thank you for reading.