I stopped by the third floor of the hospital building today, ostensibly to drop off some errant mail that had been misplaced at my yoga studio space. But honestly, I’d seen mail before and not moved a muscle to return it. The hospital is spitting distance from our community building. The third floor houses the inpatient behavioral services unit.
Things have been touchy in our small rural county ever since the hospital announced it was planning to shut down its inpatient services. We don’t have much here, really. And now this was insult to injury, especially with reports of people regularly being turned away while the hospital claimed its services were being “underutilized.”
I don’t know what I expected, but the doors of the elevator opened into a box-like entry. On one side were lockers with tiny round key entries. The wall on the left was papered with a few posters, mostly telling me what I could and could not bring onto the floor. Lots of warnings. The lockers also had a typed note telling me what to do. Homemade food and flowers were in. Coat hangers and shoelaces maybe not.
It took me a while to realize that the doors in front of me, and one wall to the side, were covered in reflective glass. One way. I saw myself, standing awkwardly holding the errant mail wrapped in a rubber band. I looked around.
“Ring bell for front desk.”
I pressed the small round white bell next to the door. A tinny buzz sounded far off behind the doors.
“Visiting hours, Monday through Friday, 12:30 – 1:30 pm.”
And more hours I could and could not see my friend, parent, lover, sister, brother or grandparent on Floor 3.
I waited. I scanned the walls again. In the upper right corner of the entry box — no more than four steps from elevator door to entry door — there was a tiny camera. I moved closer to the door, thinking maybe I was out of frame. I wanted to be seen. On the left wall was a small mounted radio-like box. It was plastic with perforations for speakers, labeled RadioShack (HA! Telling me exactly how old it was), and instructions above. Press TALK to signal you want to speak. Wait. Press TALK to speak. Release to listen. I tried. Nothing.
No answer to my bell. No answer to my TALK.
I stood there, looking at myself in the mirrored doors. Forty two years old, wearing tight yoga leggings in purples and pinks and whites and icy blue. A jaunty white mesh cut-out on each fleshy calf. Running shoes. A long-sleeved t-shirt bought on our ski trip to Utah. I scanned the lockers, the signs, the NOT ALLOWED items, the strict hours and rules and instructions on how to TALK.
I felt my stomach drop. Tears pricked hot behind my eyes.
This was a goddamn jail, a prison. And my brother had spent many days and nights locked inside a hell like this.
On the wall opposite the lockers, there was a larger newer looking poster. Its message was along these lines: Have a complaint about these mental health services? Contact us. Sincerely, the NY State Office of Mental Health.
Why would anyone want to use these services? Even in my darkest hour, I would fight tooth and nail to be placed into a place like this. Treated like a criminal. Would it fucking hurt to have a nice, peaceful, pleasant entryway to this floor? Would it be okay to just have a person I could SEE and TALK to, instead of a mirrored wall and a speaker?
I know you go into inpatient services to stay safe. I understand that security is part of the deal. I know we have to prevent access to lethal means if someone is suicidal. Or if they are a danger to others.
But what about flowers and color and kindness and humanity? Do mentally ill people not need this? Deserve this?
All I can say is that it made me cry. And I’m not a psychiatrist with experience on psych wards but I’ve been in one. I was a teenager. I saw my brother flop inside without shoelaces. I saw him slump to mandated group sessions. And I saw the haunted young girls with eating disorders staring with mortal fear at their plates in the cafeteria.
I was a haunted girl with an eating disorder too.
I took the elevator back down to the ground floor and told the sweet, white haired volunteer at the front desk that no one had answered.
“That place is a prison,” I said, looking down at my shoes, still shaking a little.
“Have you ever been up there?”
“Oh yes, but if I stay too long, that space between the door and elevator makes me feel trapped!” she said.
I nodded. I handed her the mail. I got into my car and drove away.
Giddy, because I could.