My first night in the psych ward, I bunked in a large room with three Hispanic guys—Juan, Miguel, and Jose. Juan appeared normal and friendly. Miguel had a wicked knife scar running down the left side of his face, but he seemed mentally stable and gave me a respectful nod, although I suspected he could be a hard man when crossed. Jose was pleasant, but he was engulfed in sadness—in a desperate suicidal moment, he had attempted to drive a screwdriver through his right eye and into his brain. Fortunately, he lost his nerve, but not before he blinded himself. His right eye was covered by a large white bandage. A few days later, when the nurses took it off, his eye was a bloody mess.
I felt great sympathy for Jose, but my troubled mind soon refocused on my own problems. First, I was in the middle of an anxiety attack that was 9.5 on a scale of 10. Second, I had acute bronchitis and felt like my lungs were clogged with seaweed. My hacking cough had little or no effect at clearing my bronchioles, and I had a legitimate fear of suffocating in my own juices. Still, anxiety was my biggest problem. I felt terrified something horrible was going to happen, but I couldn’t identify the cause of my super-charged worry. Free-floating anxiety, my friend Emily called it, a terror stemming from no particular source. She would know. She drank heavily every evening to keep it at bay. The year was 2008, I was 51, and I wanted to resolve my mental issues in the psych ward so I didn’t have to use alcohol as a crutch for the rest of my life like Emily.
Buddha says we must embrace our suffering. Once when I had a minor panic attack, I meditated and focused solely on my anxiety—it felt like a hurricane gusting through my chest cavity. I realized it was ferocious but couldn’t cause me any actual harm. However, the anxiety I felt now was something else entirely. I had that panicky, sick, adrenaline rush we feel when we’re falling through space, like when a roller coaster drops, and you have an almost unbearable fright shooting up from your stomach and chest. Yes, that’s exactly what it felt like, as if I’d fallen off a cliff and would never experience the relief of impact.
It was bedtime, and my newly assigned psychiatrist, Dr. Goodwell, had me pretty doped up. When I arrived at the hospital, I was on a low dose of an antianxiety medication called Xanax and a low quantity of an antidepressant named Serzone—these were the only psychotropic drugs that Dr. Radcliff, my primary doctor, had felt comfortable prescribing. Dr. Goodwell gave me the option to stay on Xanax, he tripled the amount of Serzone, and he added a new antidepressant called Lexapro. He also put me on a test dose of a drug I’ll call Deprozone, an antidepressant add-on drug that is supposed to provide extra punch to anti-depressants that aren’t fully effective on their own. In addition, I’d taken a sleeping pill.
I’d declined the Xanax because Nurse Amy, the medication nurse, said I was addicted to the stuff, and the withdrawal symptoms included high anxiety and were reportedly worse than those associated with heroin. I figured if I had to withdraw from the drug, I might as well do it in a safe environment. I liked and trusted Nurse Amy—she looked like actress Jennifer Connelly, and she had the same patient, loving, and kind nature displayed by Ms. Connelly in her role as Alicia Nash, John Nash’s wife, in A Beautiful Mind. In a weird twist of fate, my parents grew up with John Nash in Bluefield, West Virginia.
I prayed the pills would knock me out in short order, but when Nurse Jane, a firm but fair brunette, turned out the lights, I felt my frightened consciousness bump softly against the ceiling. I knew if my fear increased, my mind would waft skyward until it was carried into the cosmos, and I’d be lost forever. To prevent this, I organized the events of my day into a logical progression.
I’d woken up that Friday morning in a state of terror that dwarfed the rising anxiety I’d felt since Monday. I’d mentioned this intense worry to Dr. Radcliff on Tuesday, when I visited him for acute bronchitis. He urged me to make an appointment with Rita Collins, my psychologist, and I saw her that Friday, thanks to Elizabeth, my wife of thirteen years, who drove me to her office, since I’d lost the ability to drive.
Rita performed a quick assessment and immediately started phoning psychiatrists to determine if any could see me on an emergency basis. She described me as “an upstanding citizen having a severe panic attack.” In the hour we were there, no one called her back.
“Go straight to Pacific General’s emergency room,” she told Elizabeth.
Once I was admitted, I was seen by Brian, a physician’s assistant I happened to know and like. He gave me an injection to calm me down. My anxiety level dropped from 9.5 to 8.
Shortly afterward, Dr. Goodwell, the head of the psychiatry department, stopped by and talked with me. I don’t remember the conversation, but it concluded with Dr. Goodwell saying, “Allen, I want to admit you. This issue is going to take a few days to fix. This will be the best place for you.”
I assented, relieved I’d finally found someone who could rid me of my anxiety. I had confidence in Dr. Goodwell. He was around sixty and handsome with a shock of white hair and penetrating blue eyes and enough confidence to float the Queen Mary.
Elizabeth had been by my side the entire time. While I felt relief, her eyes told me she had a growing fear her ostensibly normal and stable husband was crazy and might stay that way.
After that, Elizabeth and I reported to the psychiatric ward. A red-headed nurse named Nancy with reassuring laugh lines at the corners of her eyes asked me a long string of questions about my state of mind. When she asked if I was suicidal, I said, “No, but if I had my life to live over again, I wouldn’t do it.” So the good news was I wasn’t suicidal, but the bad news was I wished I’d never been born. Elizabeth was very saddened to hear me say this.
Next, Dr. Goodwell took us into his office for a consult. He asked me a long string of questions I don’t remember. Then he informed us I suffered from anxious depression. I had all the symptoms: persistent sadness or low mood, irritability, angry outbursts, persistent worry, persistent anxiety, inability to focus, and insomnia. While I took this in, I focused on the smells in Dr. Goodwell’s office, as if I’d become an animal dependent on scents for survival. The room smelled like the oak paneling lining his walls and, underneath that, sweat and fear.
After our meeting, when it was time for Elizabeth to leave, she hugged me in tears. “Please get better. I need you.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “I’m in the right place now.”
At dinner, I met my fellow patients. The first person I noticed was a pretty blonde girl in her late teens sitting to my right. Her name was Sam, short for Samantha. At first glance, she looked normal, until I gazed into her eyes; her pupils were like darkly sparkling crushed black diamonds. I correctly surmised she was psychotic, completely disconnected from reality. Sam was clearly dangerous. At the best of times, I’m not great at remembering names, so I created memory tags for each resident. Sam became psychotic Sam.
On Sam’s right, sat Diane, a middle-aged woman resembling an old-fashioned librarian in a blue-gray dress who admitted to hearing voices. Diane the librarian, I told myself.
On Diane’s other side were two black women, Natalie and Wanda. Natalie was tall and attractive in her thirties. She was always cold and stayed wrapped up in a blanket, and she often doubled over in pain from the pancreatitis attacks that had driven her into the psych ward. I didn’t know it then, but pain and severe/prolonged illness can erode one’s personality and push one toward depression and suicide. When Natalie wasn’t in pain, she was quiet, polite, funny, and normal. Natalie Cole, I thought.
Over the coming days, when I saw Natalie in the hallway, often in pain, I would say things to her like, “Hang in there, baby” or “I’m sorry you’re hurting, baby.” I used the word “baby” without any romantic intent. Baby was shorthand we both understood for I care about you, I’m sorry you’re suffering, and I hope you feel better soon. Natalie always smiled at the word, even if her teeth were clenched.
Wanda was short, plump, and mysterious. She wore sunglasses, so no one could tell where she was looking, but her downturned mouth telegraphed great sorrow. She spoke in whispers, the only discernible word, “George.” Later on, I learned George was her late husband, and his recent death had driven her into a deep depression. Wanda is wandering in the dark with sunglasses, I told myself.
Rounding out our group were Juan, Miguel, Jose, and an anorexic high school girl who sat to my left. In my addled language-oriented-word-game-playing-mind, I secretly named her Anna Rexia, but her name was Rose. She had thin, pasty skin and resembled a living skeleton. I surmised she had the least chance of making it out alive. She’s Rose, not Rexia, said the name-memorizing part of my mind. I had no trouble remembering the names of the Hispanic guys, maybe because I met them first.
Just before dinner, we filled out cards that asked us seven different ways if we felt suicidal and planned to kill ourselves. I learned this grim survey was standard before each meal.
Our dinner conversation was sparse. Many of us had cotton mouth from our meds, and chewing took a concentrated effort. Thank God the kitchen had drenched our meatloaf in tasty brown gravy that helped the food slide down our throats.
Suddenly, psychotic Sam shouted at Natalie and Wanda, “Tomorrow, you bitches are giving me money for the pay phone.” Then she fixed me with her creepy eyes. “You, too, Sad Face.”
“We ain’t givin’ you nothin’!” Natalie said. “Get your own damn coin. Besides, ain’t nothin’ here costs money. Ain’t you got no sense?”
Nurse Jane, our meal supervisor, quickly pushed away from the wall where she’d been leaning. “That’s enough,” she said. “First, there’s to be no begging here. Natalie’s right—nothing here costs money—you can use your cell phones during the allotted times, and there aren’t any vending machines. Second, we will address one another civilly.”
Dinner wound down. Nurse Jane estimated how much each of us had eaten and recorded the information. I knew by a glance at her plate that Rose received the lowest score. Then we bussed our dishes.
I used the hallway bathroom before heading to my room. When I emerged, Sam was waiting for me. She pushed me into the wall and pressed her wiry body against mine. As pretty as she was, there was nothing pleasant or seductive about this move; her body was wound tight, like a spring about to explode, and her eyes were particularly scary, now that they stared directly into mine.
“I’ll take your money now, Sad Face,” she said. “Unless you want me to visit you in your sleep with something sharp.” Sam’s breath was foul, like rotting meat, and I guessed she hadn’t brushed her teeth in ages.
By then, I’d figured out the psych ward was like a college dormitory, only we couldn’t lock our doors. I had two quarters in my pocket; I gave them to Sam. She pushed away with a triumphant smirk.
Nurse Amy came around the corner and instantly surmised what had happened. She put her arm around my shoulders and squeezed. I sniffed her: wildflowers. “Don’t mind Sam,” she said. “Just focus on getting better.” Amy’s touch felt wonderful, but my anxiety did not abate.
So, those were the thoughts running through my mind as my meds kicked in and I drifted off to sleep to the faint buzz of my roommates’ snoring. I slept soundly for a few hours, although I was aware of my hacking cough. Then I was wide awake again, terrified as ever. I visited the nurses’ station, where Nurse Amy informed me Dr. Goodwell had left an order for me to take an extra sleeping pill if I needed it. I promptly swallowed the tablet and headed to the kitchen to make chamomile tea, hoping it would give the medication extra zing.
“You’ll be in Room 3 when you go back to bed,” said Amy. “We’re moving your things now. We don’t want you to disturb or infect your roommates with your coughing.”
I was pleased about getting my own room. When you’re mentally ill, you’re deep inside your mind, and you don’t particularly want to be with others—you just want to know help is nearby. During the long wait for admission into the emergency room, I’d hardly said a word to my worried wife, although I’d been greatly comforted by Elizabeth’s presence.
Sam resided in Room 4. I had to walk past it to reach my new digs. Her door was open, her room was dark as a cave, and no sound issued forth, not even the slightest whisper of breath or shift of bedsprings. I imagined her staring out at me, her right thumb caressing something sharp, like the blade of a pair of scissors she’d somehow gleaned from a usually locked drawer.
Thankfully, these thoughts slipped away soon after I climbed into my new bed and fell into a heavy sleep.
I woke up at seven a.m. to several unpleasant discoveries. First, my anxiety was still at 9.5. Second, when I stood up, I could hardly walk—I had to shuffle along leaning against walls. My anxiety spiked to 9.8. I dragged myself down to the nurses’ station, where I asked a kind-looking elderly Asian nurse named Jenny what was going on.
“Your brain’s getting used to the new and increased chemicals,” she said. “There’s not much processing power left for walking. Sorry, you’ll just have to be patient.”
“How patient?” I asked. “When will I be able to walk again?”
“Probably in a few days,” she said with a sympathetic smile.
My fear gathered for a final, upward surge, when I was greatly relieved to see Dr. Radcliff walk through the (locked on our side) door onto the ward. He smiled.
“Hi, Allen,” he said. “Is there somewhere private I can examine you? I want to check your bronchitis.”
“I’ve got a private suite down the hall, only it’s going to take us a while to get there.”
“Why’s that?” he said.
“Can hardly walk.” I showed him. “Got an explanation?”
“Sorry, not my department.”
At the end of his examination, Dr. Radcliff said, “Your bronchitis sounds worse today. The antibiotic should work, but we need to open up your bronchioles. I’m going to prescribe a steroid inhaler, but it might make you jumpy.”
“You’re going to make an extremely anxious psych ward patient jumpy?” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. “You gotta breathe.”
Breakfast was at eight. While we ate mostly in silence, I learned the rest of the day would consist of forty-five-minute group activities separated by fifteen-minute breaks. We weren’t allowed to sleep or brood. As I shuffled toward the group meeting room, a kind-faced, heavyset woman named Sharon in a gray wool suit intercepted me and directed me to a love seat in an alcove I hadn’t noticed. I sniffed her: rose soap.
As we walked, I took in more of my surroundings—the psych ward was clean, upbeat with sky blue paint, and functional, like a college dorm. However a multitude of art projects and displays in bright primary colors sprouted from the walls, reminding me of a nursery school.
“I’m your social worker,” she said after we sat. “Do you mind answering some questions?”
Social Sharon, I thought.
“That’s fine,” I said, thinking the meeting would be a waste of time. What I needed was to talk Dr. Goodwell into giving me a wonder drug that would evaporate my anxiety. Why wasn’t he getting down to business? I planned to ask him that during my afternoon appointment.
Sharon asked a series of penetrating questions. The first one was, “Were you ever sexually or physically abused as a child?”
Suddenly, talking became important.
At the end of our hour together, Sharon said, “So let me recap. You were physically abused as a child, you’ve held a number of high-stress jobs, and you’ve been fired or laid off from several of them due to unfavorable economics or politics. In addition, you had a fifteen-year unhappy marriage that ended in bitter divorce. Your youngest son recently underwent brain surgery. You’ve happily remarried, but your step-daughter, who lives with you, deeply resents you for competing for her mother’s attention, and her hostility has lasted over a decade. In the recession, you lost the lucrative business you’d been running for the last ten years, you lost your house, you’ve been unemployed for the last two years, and you have acute bronchitis.”
“That about sums it up,” I said, perversely impressed by the extensive string of disasters that comprised my life.
“Well,” Sharon said. “There’s no wonder you’re here. This chain of events would’ve caused almost anybody to have a nervous breakdown. Plus, you were probably born with anxious depression, and it’s been really exacerbated by all these traumatic episodes, particularly the abuse by your parents. Tell me, what’s going well in your life?”
“I dearly love my wife and sons, and I’ve just found a new job as a swim instructor, but I’m nervous about it.”
“I have to learn to teach twelve classes, and each class contains twelve skills. It’s a bit overwhelming.”
“I’m sure the school knows it takes new teachers a while to get up to speed,” she said.
After our meeting, I felt considerably unburdened, but my anxiety level remained the same. Then I fell into a vicious hacking cough that reminded me I needed to see the daytime medication nurse for my newly prescribed inhaler. Her name was Nurse Frankie, and she was very pretty, with short auburn hair and doe-like brown eyes with long lashes. She handed me the inhaler with a compassionate expression.
“This will open up your breathing,” she said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t worsen your anxiety.”
I took my prescribed two puffs. Fifteen minutes later, I breathed a little easier, which is surprising, since the steroid bumped my anxiety up to 9.9.
I attended the final two group therapy sessions of the morning. In one, we discussed our mental ailments, and the group sympathized, asked questions, and made suggestions for coping. Something beautiful about a psych ward is how gently the (non-psychotic) patients treat one another. Everyone is mentally hanging by a proverbial thread, and no one wants anyone’s thread to snap. The second session was a brainstorm about how each of us could better communicate with our families, friends, bosses, and colleagues.
When it was time for lunch, I walked next to Diane the librarian, who smelled like lilacs. I realized I’d expected her to carry the scent of ink and dusty books.
“What’s it like to hear voices?” I asked.
She frowned, clearly affronted. “Very disturbing.”
“When my first wife and I divorced,” I said. “I used to hear her calling my name as I fell asleep.” I said this in an attempt to form a connection with Diane. I was hungry to bond with everyone but Sam.
“That’s too bad,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
I suddenly realized Diane had no intention of discussing her condition. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve been horribly rude. I shouldn’t have been so nosey.”
She smiled, and her unexpected warmth traveled all the way into her Pacific Ocean blue eyes. “It’s okay,” she said. “You were just curious. Please don’t feel badly.”
I smiled with relief, and we became friends.
At lunch, I sat next to anorexic Rose. I worried I’d call her Anna, especially since I suffered from foot-in-mouth disease that day. However, we were quiet for the most part. She moved her chicken around on her plate, but she never took a bite. I sniffed her and detected an unpleasant chemical smell. I didn’t know what it was, but I got the impression the hospital made her take a nasty vitamin supplement.
Worn out from my morning, particularly my session with social Sharon, I ate half-heartedly. This made me feel a link to Rose.
“Eating’s hard sometimes,” I said.
“Tell me about it!” Rose said, and we laughed and became amigos.
Speaking of amigos, I’d learned in our morning session that Juan and Miguel were both on the ward for suicidal depression.
After lunch, there was another series of therapy sessions. In one, we had to describe the most peaceful and healing place we knew or could imagine. I couldn’t decide between lying on a beach in Hawaii with Elizabeth or hiking off-trail at Lake Chabot with my three sons when they were boys. I became quite agitated trying to decide.
“It’s okay,” the therapist said. “You obviously value your roles as husband and father. You don’t have to choose.”
Later in the afternoon, I watercolored a butterfly that had been jigsawed out of a thin sheet of wood and glued to a clothespin. After that, I met with Dr. Goodwell.
“My anxiety’s worse than ever,” I told him. “Can you please help me bring it down?”
“This is a gradual process,” he said. “However, you’re tolerating the Deprozone, the antidepression add-on, so I’m going to increase it to a full dose. I love this medication, it really works miracles.”
When he asked me if I was still taking Xanax for anxiety, I said, “No, I’ve stopped. I don’t want to become more addicted, and this is a good place for me to withdraw from it.”
Dr. Goodwell grew very still. “Who said you’re addicted?”
“Well, my psychologist for one,” I said.
“I don’t care about that,” he said. “Who here told you that?”
I didn’t want to betray Amy, my favorite nurse. “I’m not sure, I think several of the nurses mentioned it.”
Dr. Goodwell sat up and puffed out his broad chest, the better to loom. “Listen,” he said. “I must know who told you. There’s no way you’re addicted. Your dosage is too low. I cannot have my staff spreading misinformation to my patients. Please tell me. I promise I’ll gently correct that person. This is part of the education process here.” His eyes bulged in a menacing way, and I sensed I was about to lose him as an ally.
“Nurse Amy,” I said, feeling a spike of guilt that almost matched my anxiety.
“Thank you,” he said. “One last thing, since you’re not comfortable with Xanax, I’m going to put you on a different antianxiety medicine called Klonapin. This is a better choice for you anyway. Now, unless you have further questions, we’re out of time.”
Dr. Goodwell’s office was near the nurses’ station. As I left his office, Nurse Amy came though the ward door to begin her shift.
“Amy, a word?” Dr. Goodwell said.
Apprehension flashed across her face, but she quickly hid it. She tried to read my expression. I hoped I looked as miserable as I felt about ratting her out. She gave me a small, reassuring smile. As soon as she went into Dr. Goodwell’s office, he commenced yelling at her. His angry voice was more than I could bear. I sought out the alcove where I’d met with social Sharon and sat there stiffly until I heard Elizabeth’s voice at the nurses’ station.
I saw her before she saw me. She held a small suitcase, indicating her hope that my stay would be short. When she noticed me taking baby steps and holding onto the wall, her cheerful expression crumbled.
“What’s happened?” she asked in a panicked voice. “Why can’t you walk?”
“I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just my brain getting used to the drugs. I’ll be fine soon. I am so glad to see you.”
She smiled, and most of her brightness returned.
She set down the luggage and used both arms to guide me to my room. She smelled like home. Nurse Amy passed us in the hall. I glanced to see if she was angry with me, but her expression was unreadable. However, she picked up the bag and brought it to my room.
I sprawled on my bed. Elizabeth pulled up a chair and held my hand. She told me about her day at work and her walk with our two golden retrievers. Even though she spoke in normal tones, her usually pleasant, melodic voice drilled into my overly sensitive eardrums. I asked her to please speak more softly, and she did, but her voice remained excruciatingly loud. As she talked, I became extremely fatigued, to the point where I worried I might die in my sleep.
At one point, I gave Elizabeth the red and yellow butterfly I’d made for her, feeling like a young child handing his mother an art project from school. I worried she’d make the same connection and become very sad, but she appeared delighted.
My wife stayed a couple of hours.
After I walked her to the ward door and kissed her goodbye, I turned toward Amy at the nurses’ station.
“You look gray,” she said. “She stayed too long, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Spouses don’t know how to handle this at first,” she said. “They tend to stay too long and wear out the patient. Shall I call her later and suggest she keep her visits more brief?”
“Yes, but please don’t hurt her feelings.”
I began to cry. My anxiety remained agonizingly high, my lungs ached, I could hardly walk, I’d betrayed Nurse Amy, and I realized that as much as I loved Elizabeth, I could only see her in short visits right now.
Amy came out from behind the nurses’ station and hugged me. Definitely wildflowers.
“I’m so sorry I got you into trouble,” I whispered in her ear.
“Not to worry,” she whispered back. “He’s known around here as Dr. Goodyell, and we’re used to it. Please just concentrate on getting better.”
Amy held me for longer than I expected, and her soft, warm touch kept my anxiety level from hitting a terrifying 10.
Dinner was quite eventful.
For one thing, a new patient named Mike sat next to me.
Mike as in microphone, I thought.
“Hey, Buddy!” he said, like we were long-lost friends. The odd thing was I felt he was a good pal I hadn’t seen for decades and dearly missed. Then I realized he reminded me of my best friend from first grade through high school, Van Kruger. Like Van, Mike sported a wild mop of hair, wore tinted glasses and a plaid shirt-jacket, and smelled of cigarette smoke. In my confused and anxious state, I clung to the belief that Mike was an incarnation of Van who’d come to watch over me until I returned to sound mind.
“What’re you in for?” Mike said.
“Anxious depression, how about you?” I said.
“Hearing voices.” Mike smiled with tobacco-stained teeth. “I’m so glad you’re here with me. Have we been in a psych ward together before? I feel like I know you.”
“First-timer,” I said. “But you seem familiar, too.”
Our conversation was interrupted by screaming in the hall. We tried to get up from the dinner table to see what was happening outside the room, but Nurse Jane ordered us all to sit back down.
“At least tell us what’s going on,” Natalie said, wrapping her blanket more tightly around her.
Nurse Jane glanced out into the hall. “It’s Rose,” she said. “She’s refusing to come to dinner.” That was all she said, but from the sounds of the scuffle, it became obvious Rose had thrown herself on the hallway floor and was kicking, scratching, and biting the nurses who tried to move her.
“Shit!” Mike said. “This is going to be a 5150. I hate 5150s.”
“What’s a 5150?” I asked.
“That’s when the police take you away because you’re a danger to yourself or others.”
“Where do they take you?”
“To a mental hospital where they lock you up and throw away the key.”
As soon as Mike said this, we heard the crackle of police radios. For a few minutes, there was a lot of commotion, and we couldn’t tell what was going on. Then only one radio remained, and Nurse Jane was called into the hallway to answer some police questions.
“Damn,” I said to Mike, feeling a strong surge of guilt. “Rose is anorexic. I think I said something to her at lunch that put her off dinner.”
Mike patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Buddy. I’ve seen this before. Sometimes anorexics go berserk if you try to make them eat. Whatever you said had nothing to do with it.”
Just then, psychotic Sam said to Jose, “You’re a moron for blinding yourself. If you’re going to take yourself out, use a gun like a man.”
Jose looked sadder than ever, but his two friends’ faces darkened.
Juan said, “Shut up, bitch!”
“Eat me!” Sam said.
“You’ll be eating a pillow tonight if you don’t shut up,” said Miguel. His scar rippled in an eerie way when he clenched his teeth, and I intuited he could easily suffocate Sam if he were so inclined.
Sam was furious, and she scanned the room, looking for an easier target. She focused on Natalie and Wanda.
“You bitches still owe me money for the pay phone,” Sam said.
“Who you callin’ a bitch, bitch!” said Natalie. “We ain’t payin’ you shit.”
“That’s because you’re a bunch of fucking cheap-ass niggers,” said Sam.
“Whoa!” I cried out, and everyone else in the dining room said something similar.
Natalie was on Sam in a flash. She punched her in the face, hard. Before she could continue, several nurses stormed into the room. They quickly separated the two women.
“I’ll kill you, you crazy bitch!” Sam yelled at Natalie. “You broke my fucking nose!” She touched her face and held up a bloody palm to illustrate her point.
“Natalie,” I’m shocked at your behavior,” said Nurse Jane. “Violence is never a solution.”
“She was extremely provoked,” I said. I couldn’t bring myself to repeat the word Sam had used.
“Yeah, she was extremely provoked,” said several of my dinner companions.
I thought wandering Wanda might say something, but she just shook her head in disgust.
Nurse Jane ordered us back to our rooms, and we went. A few minutes later, police radios echoed in the hallway, and Natalie was 5150’d.
This is like the desaparecidos in Argentina, I thought. One false move, and you disappear.
An hour later, we were allowed to leave our rooms, and I reported to Nurse Amy for my after-dinner medication, which I dutifully swallowed.
“Hopefully, you’ll feel a big drop in anxiety,” she said. “You’re on a full dose now of Deprozone, the antidepressant add-on.”
I slowly wandered the hallways with Mike, my feet still unable to accomplish more than a tiny shuffle. Mike was patient and matched my pace. I was greatly comforted I had Mike/Van as my companion. Van and I had been best friends in Arlington, Virginia from the first day of first grade until we left for separate colleges in the fall of 1975. Neither of us ever moved back, and I hadn’t seen him since. Mike soothed an ache I’d forgotten was there.
For a few peaceful minutes, we gazed out the ward’s only picture window at downtown Castro Valley, California, my home since 1984. With the glimmering lights, the township looked beautiful but strangely distant.
“We’ll be back out there soon,” Mike said.
Before I could reply, I was hit with a tsunami of anxiety that doubled my terror. I started to crumple to the floor, but Mike caught and supported me.
“Take me to the nurses’ station,” I said. “Please hurry.” I felt such a high level of anxiety I imagined my skin splitting apart to release it and me dying in the process.
When Mike got me there, Nurse Amy took one look at my face and directed Mike to assist me into the ward’s darkened quiet room. He carefully helped me lie down on the bed. Amy dismissed Mike with a thank you, then closed the door until only a tiny sliver of golden light shone through. She drew up a chair and took my hand.
“My anxiety’s through the roof,” I said. “I can’t bear it.”
She squeezed my hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “You’re having an adverse reaction to the Deprozone. Twenty-percent of patients who take it have a reaction like yours. I hate the way Dr. Goodwell gives a tiny test dose and then jacks it to maximum.”
“I can hardly bear this—I feel like I could die. How long until my body metabolizes the drug, twenty-four hours?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But the medication will be in your system for seventy-two hours.”
“Oh my God” I said. “Can you give me something to reverse it?”
“There is something, but it will knock you out, and you’ll be bedridden with a catheter.”
“That’s not an option,” I said. About ten years earlier, an anesthesiologist gave me an unusually high dose of painkillers after hiatal hernia repair surgery. I lost my ability to urinate. A nurse had to insert a catheter into my penis on an emergency basis so my bladder wouldn’t burst. The whole process left me in great pain, and I vowed never to allow one to enter my body again.
“How am I going to get through this?” I asked.
Amy gave my hand an extra-firm squeeze. “You’re going to dig deep into your inner resources and bear down,” she said. “I promise you’re going to make it. Now, lie quietly, concentrate on your breathing, and try to feel as peaceful as you can. I’ll come back in a little bit to check on you.”
When Amy returned, I was out of my mind with anxiety. I remember only her soothing voice and cool hand stroking my forehead and hair.
Over the next days, I focused almost solely on holding the anxiety tightly inside me. This was especially hard when I had coughing fits, although my lungs were clearing. The first night in my ultra-terrified state, Sam screamed in her room, and soon after I heard the prolonged squawking of police radios.
When I attended the first group therapy session the following morning, I discovered Mike and Sam had been 5150’d during the night. Diane sat next to me and filled me in. In the wee hours, someone had jammed a pillow over Sam’s face just long enough to scare the bejesus out of her. Mike had been the only one out on the hall, and he received the blame. Juan, Miguel, and Jose never left their room, which was visible from the nurses’ station. Sam, unconvinced Mike was the culprit, tried to put Miguel’s eyes out with the sharp end of a tooth brush. Miguel successfully defended himself, breaking her wrist.
My mind couldn’t handle this surreal murder mystery nonsense, and I felt crushed by Mike’s absence—I’d convinced myself he was a guardian angel sent to see me through my ordeal. I withdrew into myself and spent every moment trying to contain my anxiety. Days passed—all I remember are brief, comforting visits by Elizabeth and kind words from Nurse Amy and Diane the librarian.
When I awoke on the fifth day, my mind was clear and anxiety-free, I could walk again, and I breathed easily.
“Yee-haw!” I shouted.
Diane and Wanda, who had rooms on the same hall, heard me and came running.
“Back to normal?” Diane said.
“Hundred percent,” I said. “All of the good meds finally kicked in, and my body metabolized the Deprozone.”
She gave me a quick hug and ran to find a nurse so the hospital could begin my discharge process.
Wanda smiled and said, “I’m glad you’re well. I haven’t said much to you, but I appreciate you stickin’ up for Natalie.” She removed her sunglasses so I could see the sincerity in her eyes.
“Least I could do,” I said. “She didn’t deserve to be taken away. By the way, how are you doing?”
Wanda shrugged, but her face looked more relaxed than I remembered. “George is gone. I can almost accept that now. I just wanna rest in here a while longer, then I’ll be gettin’ out.”
We chatted for another minute, and then we were called to breakfast.
I was a free man in Elizabeth’s arms before lunch.
Since the events related here, I’ve been of sound mind, and I excelled at my new swim teaching job, which created an additional opportunity for me to coach for one of the best swim teams in America. Having been a passionate swimmer since the age of 5, I landed these jobs at the perfect time in my life for them to significantly contribute to my mental healing.
Also, balancing my brain chemistry did not instantly cure all of my mental woes. I spent about six weeks in out-patient group therapy sessions working through the many traumatic events in my life that drove me into the psych ward, and I continue to see a psychologist monthly and a psychiatrist quarterly. However, I feel very healthy mentally, and I haven’t experienced any psychological emergencies since my original panic attack.
Finally, here’s what Wanda told me in that last minute we spent in my room at the psych ward: “Gotta love the pillows here. Good for puttin’ racist white bitches in their place and great for a peaceful night’s sleep afterward.”
Allen Long’s memoirs have recently appeared in The Copperfield Review, Eunoia Review, Literary Brushstrokes, Milk Sugar, and Scholars & Rogues. Allen is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. He lives with his wife near San Francisco.