Although the drive to the psychiatric hospital in White Plains, New York, in September 2004 was a mere fifteen minutes from home, the trip felt like a time warp, like I was leaving the orbit of reality in which I’d been living for twenty one years and had entered a new and completely alien universe that felt unnatural, scary, and, most of all, deeply shameful. Before making the left turn at the entrance to the hospital, I looked across the street at the mall I’d spent many hours of my life in, whether it be making a mad dash for the soft pretzels and mustard at New York Pretzel as a young kid, deafening my ear drums with the blaring music of Abercrombie & Fitch as a teenager, or shopping for last-minute Christmas presents while home on winter vacation, and I realized that I no longer belonged there. I was no longer normal, like the rest of the mall-goers who were quietly going about their lives, doing normal things and functioning like healthy human beings. I was now different, a freak, a girl who no longer deserved to be a part of mainstream America, a girl who now had to harbor the massive secret that she was about to be checked into a psych ward.
I felt my guts wrench in pain, panicking for a minute and wondering if maybe this was all a mistake, but realizing that there was no turning back. I was out of options, no longer in a position to safely make choices for myself, and I needed to be told how to effectively live my life. My life– this thing that was no longer entirely mine, but would now be in the hands of doctors and social workers and nurses—what had happened to it? How did it get to this point? If ever it was the right place and the right time to wake up from a nightmare, it was then and there, but I realized that the cold, hard reality of my situation was that I was more awake than I’d ever been.
Hunched down low in my seat, I looked at the security guard in his little booth as we swung into the gates of the hospital and realized that he wasn’t there to keep unwanted people from entering the premises. He was there to make sure that I stayed in. I felt a warm wave of guilt sweep over me, not for anything specific I’d done, but because of who I was. I was crazy. I was a threat to myself, and for all he knew, a threat to others. I drove with my mother up the long, winding road to the top of an open hill upon which the facility sat, silent and powerful in its psychiatric wisdom. I looked at the rolling fields to the left and thought how perfect they’d have been as sledding hills in winter back when I was young and excited and hopeful about my future. I thought about how strange it would have been to sled now, at this place in my life, how unnatural it would have felt to do something carefree and fun. I looked past the fields to the lush trees lining the periphery below and it dawned on me that they were there less for my viewing pleasure and more to keep the institution hidden from the highway below, from normal people making their normal commutes to normal jobs each and every day, who would want nothing to do with the insanity residing on the other side of the trees. I, myself, had driven on that highway countless times before with no idea of what lay on the other side. This place had been here all along, waiting patiently for me, the hours of my days bringing me closer and closer until this very moment, right now, when my time had come to surrender.
I had stopped holding my head high long ago, but upon entering the admissions building of the hospital, my neck retreated even further into my body, my ears now glued to my shoulders, my line of sight plastered to the ground. In a matter of seconds, what had been a lifelong ability to make eye contact vanished. For the next couple of hours, I was questioned, poked, prodded, measured, weighed, observed, and told that I had come to the right place and that they’d take care of me. I felt like a pinball, being bounced around from one room to the next, to the social worker and the nurse and the woman in charge of billing and before I knew it I was checking boxes and signing forms and handed over to a security guard who proceeded to search my bags, remove the string from my hooded sweatshirt and the rope from my bathrobe, and escort me to my new home.
It was as though I was coming in and out of consciousness, my eyes and ears capable only of absorbing the little details of my surroundings in brief spurts—the mahogany office doors lining the hallways, the creaking floor under the worn blue carpet, a sign saying, ‘Locked unit—keep door closed at all times’, the metal clinking of keys—but the bigger picture of what was actually happening just wasn’t registering. All I knew in that moment was that I needed to follow the security guard. I didn’t know anything else—nothing about who I was or what I wanted in life or why things had gone the way they’d gone or how I could ever get well— I just knew that I needed to follow this man, and follow him closely enough so that he didn’t need to worry about me running away. I made sure to stay in his peripheral vision throughout the escorted march, one foot after the other, trudging the road to whatever was awaiting me beyond the locked doors.
My final destination was a locked unit known as ‘The Haven’. The security guard pressed the bell, and a minute or so later, a warm, cheerful woman opened the door. ‘Laura, welcome. We’re all ready for you’. I crossed the threshold, and the door clicked behind me. The realization that I was now locked away from the rest of the world initially set off a small wave of fear, but as I thought about it, I realized that I had nothing to be afraid of. I no longer had to worry about being alone with myself. I no longer had to expend what had grown into an enormous amount of mental and physical energy to get myself up and dressed and out into public and ready to face the world. That world was no longer going to be what I saw, now that the door had locked behind me. The world I saw now, a long, straight hallway leading to a nurses’ station, rooms lining each side, a pleasant blue-green paint on the walls, floral sofas, magazine-covered side tables and corkboards with colorfully written signs decorating the walls of the hall—was all I had to think about. That initial wave of fear dissipated as I felt myself start to fill up with a sensation I hadn’t felt in what seemed like an eternity– comfort. I was going to be OK. They were going to take care of me. The nurse had said it, herself. They were ready for me.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.