where the writers are
Lessons learned in the mental hospital

The first time I was in the hospital there was a woman on my unit, Louise, who was stepping back down into the community from a large Connecticut state hospital. When I first arrived I was in shock, and just wanted to figure out how the place worked and what I needed to do. I found Louise a little frightening.

Louise seemed more “ill” than nearly anyone else on our unit, and she made me nervous. I don’t know what her diagnosis was, I never asked anyone else why they were there. I was busy getting my own testing done to be diagnosed. I wondered, and assumed maybe she was schizophrenic, but who knows?

We were in a small state hospital, and it wasn’t nice. I could only imagine what her experience had been like at Connecticut Valley Hospital, but it clearly wasn’t good. She didn’t think she was really going to be discharged; she was terrified she’d be sent back instead of moving into a halfway house.

Her life scared the shit out of me. Everyone’s life on that unit scared me. I walked around like I was in some sort of bad dream because nothing seemed real. How could I possibly be in a locked psychiatric unit? It was all mind-blowing to someone who was 21 years old. I was the youngest one there.

Since I’d been there, Louise had never gone outside with us on our 4 times per day outing to the small, walled in yard where we smoked cigarettes. They’d bring down a box and we’d get our pack of cigarettes out and take two. Sometimes we’d switch with each other if we were in the mood for something else. I switched for Lucky Strikes a few times. She got a couple cigarettes from this guy John, smiling nervously.

Up on the unit, Louise followed me into my room. She was laughing, and was excited.  She told me she finally got to smoke because she gave John a blow job in her bathroom. I became emotional. I was angry and sad and I couldn’t possibly imagine wanting a cigarette that much. I asked her, what the fuck? Why didn’t you ask me for cigarettes?

She looked at me, her excitement gone. You’d give me cigarettes? She asked me. For nothing? I wanted to yell at her. I didn’t understand. It was a life I had no clue about. I nodded and said of course I’d give her cigarettes. A couple packs. She started to cry. A nurse came in and told her to get out of my room (we weren’t supposed to be in each other’s rooms). We walked out into the hall and I went to the nurses’ station and asked them to give Louise a couple packs of my smokes. My Mom visited me all the time. I’d be able to get more.

Louise kept things interesting. All the women shared one shower on our side of the unit, which really sucked. It was locked and we had to get permission to take a shower, and then wait so someone could stand outside and make sure everything was okay. Some people actually had to be watched while they were in there, but luckily I wasn’t on that status.

So I was surprised when Louise grabbed me and took me into the shower room. Why wasn’t it locked? She pulled the soap dispenser off of the wall and showed me where she’d hidden a set of stolen keys. A nurse had put them down, turned her head, and Louise had snagged them.

I slapped my forehead. I laughed. I asked how she was going to take the keys, somehow get to the door without anyone noticing her, and fumble around until she found the right key. She found a key and shoved it in my face and said she’d been watching. This was the key.

Not wanting to have anything to do with the stolen keys I backed out of the room and told her to just put them back on the desk. Or toss them on the floor by the desk and leave. I tried to reason with her, but ended up walking away. She got caught at the door, fumbling with the lock before they pulled her back and dragged her down the hallway.

Just a couple days before my discharge, by which time I felt like a professional patient, I had the privilege of being outside of the hospital in the neighborhood with another patient for 30 minutes at a time. It was a huge deal to have that freedom. I’d go out to the corner store with my roommate, Dana.

After being out, Dana and I came up on the elevator, and just as we reached the unit door someone was coming out. It was a hospital administrator. She let us in, and as we were walking in, Louise bolted past us. We let the door slam behind us, and the administrator locked it from the other side.

Dana and I looked out the small window and Louise had gotten on the elevator. The administrator was still out there. Dana said we had to tell them she left, but we didn’t have to hurry. I had no clue what the administrator was doing. She was stunned. We walked down the hallway onto the unit slowly, made our way to the nurses’ station, and let them know Louise ran.

There was a state trooper stationed at the only entrance to the building. She wasn’t going to get out. The staff were pissed that we took our sweet time to tell them, but whatever. Louise called us snitches later. It wasn’t our fault that she got caught.

Such are the things that make the mental hospital way more interesting than the regular hospital. There’s always something going on, some patient doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Like my other roommate and her boyfriend having sex in our tiny bathroom. I marveled at how much a person could get away with while under such close scrutiny.

Later I learned that the scrutiny was an illusion. People see what they want to see. And apparently, no one wants to see patients screwing each other in bathrooms.