This is a short exert of my upcoming memoir exploring my time in a psychiatric center. Can’t wait to share more. My hope is to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health facilities and start a bold new conversation about mental illness and wellness.
Sanctum by the Sea
There is a jarring snap when the staff sit you down in front of that blank white wall and snap the picture. Before this moment, the reflection has lived. The eyes move in panic and sweat beads just below the wrinkles of the forehead. The image itself couldn’t be described as “pretty,” but it is alive. The perpetual state of panic nursed over weeks in some ways creates a nightmarish “hyper life” and leads the oppressed to react to all manner of stimuli the way a dog does after multiple surgeries at the same vet. It’s easy to grow accustomed to the image of oneself as broken, afraid and failing at the laborious task of masking all of those things.
But the picture depicts something shocking in it’s unfamiliarity. The figure looks dead. Eyes locked forward, the mouth hanging open with chapped lips cracked and slightly swollen. The hair parts down the middle, but the line revealing the scalp shivers it’s way up from the widow’s peak. The man doesn’t look into the camera, but rather stares straight past it. It’s not quite a mugshot as there is no sense of guilt or defiance. The face is empty, frozen in a moment where all the emotions simply failed.
I am in triage at a psychiatric institution. I will never again be a person who has not been in this place. The photo is the bottom, a memorialized testament to the -single worst moment of my life. I realize the doors have shut and there is no leaving the now collapsing beige walls. The hospital itself is in the process of remodeling. Exposed silver, red, and copper wires dangle from missing ceiling tiles and piss yellow insulation lies piled on the floor of intake. The lady helps me fill out the last bits of paper work. She isn’t as nice as the younger girl who broke the news earlier.
“There is someone coming to pick up your wife right?” She chews gum as she types in furious bursts. “She was pretty upset.”
“I don’t know.” The sound of my voice is faint. I feel like an actor in a terrible made for TV movie. “I shouldn’t have…”
“It’s not like it matters now. You should have known better than to pack razors.” She rifles through my things as she speaks. She separates out my toothbrush, looks through the pockets of my pants and opens a long box that once held trading cards. Now it contains deodorant and a pen. She flicks the pen into a wastebasket.
“Take off your shoes.” She spits out her gum and begins to unwrap another piece.
My arms extend and my fingers work the laces. I am not processing these things. It is as if I can see my own sluggish limbs from within the collapsing ceiling. They call this dissociation and it can drive you crazy. I don’t need any extra help with that.
“Take out the laces.”
I imagine how awful it must be to hang oneself with shoelaces. They are thin. The skin of my neck burns as I imagine them cutting not only through my skin, but straight into the muscle. I could honestly see this decapitating a person, especially one as fat and tall as me. My mind has been a gruesome place for a long time.
She takes the shoes and returns to the computer. I am left to bask in this thick and monstrous moment once again. My shoes feel wrong without the laces. The chair is wooden, and my ass has begun to go numb. I begin to register the sounds of my new home for the first time. We aren’t alone. Triage is apparently within the structure of the facility. Patients in bathrobes walk up and down the halls aimlessly. An occasional shout floats from somewhere deeper within. Laughs haunt the air, but the sound of an older woman weeping also rises and falls amongst the mirth. Fox News blares its typical cacophony and an old man screams for his mother. He just wants to know where his mother is.
I had hoped Sanctum by the Sea would offer refuge or at least a quiet place to think. I lie to myself so often that my brain actually believes all it needs is silence to put the pieces back into their lost positions. Now as the the mix of cream tiles and broken hardwood floors shine the harsh brightness of flickering fluorescent bulbs into my already bloodshot eyes, I see that silence will be an even rarer commodity here. I have no energy left to feel despair. I simply am. The commotion includes me regardless of how little of myself remains.
A man about my age walks up. His beard scraggles like unkempt pubes and his brown eyes dart back and forth with speed. He chews the inside of his cheek and asks when the next smoke break is.
“If you ask again, there won’t be a smoke break at all.”
He winces, pulls up the hood on his baggy, grey sweater and turns his eyes to me. His hands drift to his pockets. The hair around his lips curves around a wide smile as he speaks.
“You seen them titties?” His teeth crawl out from behind his lips. He sways back and forth in anticipation of my answer.
“Um…no…I haven’t seen the titties.” Somewhere even further down the hall a lady screams for her medication. He looks a bit dejected, as if I had told him his cigarette break was cancelled.
“You know how to kill that Cyclops?” Conversations like this are still new to me. I have no answer. “You poke them motherfuckers in the eye.” His smile returns. He is pleased with himself for sharing this information.
The woman handling my paperwork gets up. She moves toward the voice yelling for pills. I am alone with the bearer of monster combat tactics. He suddenly becomes still.
“They gave you a real pen?”
I completely forgot about the pen sitting between my gnarled, callused fingers. There is still a flake of moist flesh slipping in and out of my teeth. I am likely bleeding out the tip of my thumb. Moving my hand is difficult, like reaching through water. I place the pen on the counter, careful to not let it roll off. These actions are slow like cane syrup dripping from a fork.
The man takes the pen with enthusiasm and giggles. He drifts back down the hallway to the center of the noise. I realize what I have done and begin to panic. My breathing tears at my chest and I begin to cry for what feels like the ninth time today. I can’t stop thinking of him taking the pen to someone’s throat. Maybe his own. I can see red ink blots spilling down his throat. They are real to me, dancing and blooming as vile flowers. There is blood on my shirt. I forgot about my thumb. I bite into it more and can feel the red patch of dermis rip as I chew flesh.
The lady returns with a huff. She sees my distress. This is obviously normal for her.
“It seems bad at first, but you will get used to it. Everyone is shocked when they first come in, completely normal.”
It’s not. I have already made another gigantic mistake in a long series of life crippling turns of idiocy. I am a sniffling mess.
“That guy. With the beard.” I stutter as I speak.
“William? Yeah he won’t hurt you.” She smiles. This is the nicest she has been to me. She is going to hate me in approximately three seconds.
I gather my courage. “He…he took my pen. The one…”
I didn’t finish. She acts without thinking, calls to two men not in the cliche white, but blue scrubs. They walk, not run. Their steps are strong and quick with purpose. There is no panic. Only purpose. I envy the distinction between panic and purpose. I have forgotten it.
There is no fight. There are no screams. She returns with the pen. She sits down in her chair and returns to my paperwork. “That boy. I swear to God.”
I am crying. I cannot breathe.
“Oh, oh God you didn’t do anything wrong David. It’s okay. I shouldn’t have left. It’s okay. William is fine. He wouldn’t be walking around if he wasn’t. Oh I’m sorry. That was the last thing you needed right now wasn’t it?” She laughs. A tech nearby laughs. He is a black male: tall, athletic, a smile almost bigger than my father’s. His face is the friendliest I have seen in months. His voice is deep but soft and quiet.
“Did William tell you about the Harpies? Or the Centaurs?”
I have stopped weeping. A sense of normalcy settles on my psyche. “The cyclops,” I say with a small tremor in my hands.
He laughs again. “Oh yeah, that cyclops is a real mother fucker.