I sat in the holding room with a police officer, impatiently waiting to cross the wall into the psych ward, knowing I had made a mistake. Earlier that day I had flown from California to New York City in pursuit of a new life and maybe some attractive new friends. Packing nothing more than a phone, a charger, my wallet and a pack of smokes, I hadn’t slept in days. Instead I was tweeting to a motley group of sports stars, musicians and supermodels, thinking every message was being read and admired as novel.
And perhaps some were. But on this fall night in New York, all attempts to communicate with swimsuit model Nina Agdal were in vain. Not that I didn’t try. I found a bench and tweeted my life song in beautiful prose, my fast-moving mind weaving the story with ease. As the hours ticked by and still no Nina, bigger problems confronted me, namely how to shut my mind off; I knew another night without sleep wasn’t in the cards. A cabbie took me to an ugly, nondescript building, proclaiming this to be Bellevue – a name meaning nothing then and permanently etched into my memory now.
After a long admittance process I was moved into the ER psych ward, which at that hour was quiet. This place was drearier than hospitals past, and all I wanted was the medication that would help me fall asleep. But first a conversation with the doctor, I was told.
At 2:30 in the morning the doctor leads me into a small room. I smile, thinking she looks friendly enough, a middle-aged white woman with nondescript features. She tells me she’s unhappy that I’m in New York, that a lot of people in NYC depend on financial services for their livelihood and that I had some nerve for coming into the city. Did I hear her correctly? Was she referencing those anonymous emails I sent several weeks back that had coincided with a large dip in the market? Had she read that stupid Twitter feed I unlocked moments earlier? I was too weak to follow until she told me I was so sick as to require permanent institutionalization. My initial fear turned into a smile. Ma’am, I know my way around these hospitals and what I need is a few nights’ rest. Seeming to read my thoughts, she explained that things work differently in New York, a thinly veiled threat I wasn’t sure whether to take seriously.
At long last they gave me the sedative, Ativan, which if available in stores would have saved me all this trouble. I found the least disgusting bed to lie down in. Before sleep overtook me, I heard from a door or perhaps a window a loud banging, like a mob overtaking the hospital.
“Vlado…VLADO YOU MOTHERF****R. Vlado, I didn’t say those things. VLADO!!!!!!”
I had impersonated a few famous people via Twitter for laughs, some of whom live in NYC, but it couldn’t possibly be one of them. Having never experienced auditory hallucinations I wasn’t sure if that was the answer either. My mind in a fog, lying in that cold room with hospital scrubs on, thinking of my conversation with the doctor and that voice screaming at me, I’ve never felt so vulnerable as in that moment.
Barely awake, I could feel myself being jolted back and forth in a wheelchair and someone whispering to me: “You’re going to jump off a roof.” “We’re going to poison you.” Was this a dream, some kind of sordid nightmare? Another hallucination? I woke up on an upper floor of the building and could immediately tell I wasn’t going to like this place. I’ve been to hospitals where the nursing staff had warm, friendly faces and eyes sympathetic to the pain around them. Bellevue wasn’t one of those facilities. Hardened by life or hardened by what they dealt with daily, there would be no pity here.
A psychiatrist introduced himself and wanted to talk. Remembering the threats of the first doctor, I insisted on a social worker being present for the conversation. They listened to my story of wanting to start fresh, how I didn’t know anyone and was hoping for a lucky break. I could only nod my head as they lectured me on how living in New York wasn’t easy. But I was relieved that the doctor seemed honest and reasonable. At dinner time I interacted with the other patients, including an African-American woman named S. S had a grisly story of being pimped out by her mom and a john who almost killed her. I most appreciated her sense of humor despite all she had been through.
After dinner, annoyed with the holier-than-thou attitude of a pair of nurses, I conscientiously became a mental patient, my ensuing behavior governed by this mysterious illness in my head rather than free will. Papa Smurf was the alpha male of the nursing group, and he didn’t appreciate my new friendship with a black woman. He was dressed sharply; I questioned how a nurse in Manhattan could buy such nice clothes. Rather than ignore me, he would goad me into further jabs, reporting on my misbehavior but not realizing he was being spun into my web of insanity. Each barb like a poisonous quiver going through his ears and into the brain, within days Papa Smurf would lose his cool at the mere sight of me. One night me and S were listening to music and Papa Smurf strolled in pretending to make it rain as if at a strip club. So S danced for him while I played the role of a paparazzi, wishing more than anything I had an actual camera to record his banal and embarrassing behavior.
The Black Mamba was my least favorite nurse. She had cold, beady eyes hidden behind glasses and no wrinkles on her face to highlight her humanity. I wondered if her reports had kept anyone permanently locked up. Like with Papa Smurf, I would find ways to get under her skin. My quick-moving mind and confident delivery were like soft cuts inching toward the Black Mamba’s secret; that somewhere in that thick diagnostics book was a definition matching her personality, that what separated her from us was a name tag and a clipboard. I acted out of a deep sense of injustice for my fellow patients, many of whom had been at Bellevue for a long period of time. These two, in my opinion, were part of the problem, so I was determined to leave an indelible mark.
On my third day, we were in a session and I asked the group of instructors a question brewing in my mind. “Don’t you think this place is like a human zoo where we’re the animals? You’re the zookeepers. You stare at us and we stare right back at you.” My comment was met with uncomfortable silence. I suppose I hit a nerve with both the animals and the zookeepers. The latter had most certainly not thought of the hospital in such stark terms. But deny the analogy they could not. We were locked in a tight space, told to bathe, fed at a certain hour, given drugs to behave; the dart gun was all too real.
And the animals that night misbehaved like I have never witnessed in a mental hospital. To quote Zack de la Rocha, a fire in the master’s house was set. Food trays were thrown. Loud bangs on the nursing station window as the bewildered staff tried to ignore the anger and vitriol. One male patient demanded an explanation for why he had developed breasts, a side effect to his medication. Papa Smurf was beside himself with rage as he made his way through the bedlam. Gone was his most precious commodity – power. The Black Mamba refused to cross the yellow line separating staff from patients. Perhaps that was her way of delineating herself from us. And me? I’ve never been so proud of such a display of civil disobedience. These heretofore robots, pumped with power sedatives, still possessed human emotions and had, overnight, found a voice to express their discontent.
The riots would continue for several more nights and the ward became a chaotic jungle. Doctors assembled crisis management units and went room to room in the mornings, trying to get a sense of why the staff was losing control. I wasn’t going to explain that some people were bored while others, those indefinitely detained, had a damn good reason for being angry living in this mental prison. A pack of nuns would lose their religion after a couple weeks of being locked up with no books or magazines, no fresh air, the only real entertainment a TV or radio and of course the ever-present medicine cart to numb the mind. Some of the worst perpetrators of our revolt were long-term chronic patients caught in a vicious cycle: locked up and labeled as mentally ill, put on a drug regimen that caused nasty side effects, cared for by an unsympathetic staff, angry and acting up over their loss of freedom and self – only to be given more drugs, less sympathy and a release date even further into the future, which caused greater anger and resentment. It made me wonder whether the staff was treating an illness or attempting to crush the human spirit.
I noticed this pattern with S and the others, and was determined not to let that happen to me. So I plotted my escape and figured that the way out was to behave like a choir boy and show “recovery.” It helped that Papa Smurf and the Black Mamba stopped showing up to work, presumably because it was their off days. Or perhaps they were aware that their presence exacerbated the tension within the unit. The rest of the staff was mostly fine; I didn’t have any problems with them, and the voluminous reports of my misdeeds disappeared. I had come into the hospital because I hadn’t slept, so I concentrated on getting a good night’s rest and my mind slowed down.
The doctors, impressed by this change in behavior and attributing it to my drug regimen, finally announced my release date. I said goodbye to S, made my way through the maze of corridors for my valuables and tasted fresh air for the first time in a week. Words can’t describe the joy of sunshine on my face and arms. I lit a cigarette, savoring every drag, and with a coy smile asked a passing woman, “Excuse me miss, which way to Nina Agdal?”
Bellevue, it seemed, had no chance of breaking me.
[Editor’s note: due to personal circumstances, the author has chosen to publish under an abbreviated version of his name.]