I was used to the uniform forest of green scrubs. Short and tall trees of people in the sterile hallways. When they took my clothes away and replaced them with baggy hospital attire, they made me look as crazy as I felt.
This was my second time at St. Vincent’s inpatient psychiatric unit. I knew to strip naked and twirl in front of the vigilant nurse, displaying my scars and my lack of smuggled pills or strings or razor blades. I wasn’t surprised when they locked my bathroom door because I was on suicide watch. I wasn’t shy to ask the bouncy nurses to unlock it every time I needed to pee. I was a veteran.
This time though, I was pissed. Enraged they kept asking the same three inane questions every single shift. Annoyed to be babysat by nurses years younger than me. Furious that my life was out of control. I was angry in a way that I had not let myself be for a long time. It made me bold rather than contentious. I had very little to hide, no dignity to uphold. I was stripped down to my core, and it was liberating.
After two weeks on a closed unit, I began to see life differently. I enjoyed simple things like convincing a pizza man to deliver to the double-locked, double doored, fifth-floor ward. I became uninhibited. I took back tiny pieces of myself that I had lost or buried.
Psych ward introductions are straightforward. You start conversations by saying, “What are you here for?” “How long have you been here?” “How scared are you right now?” You make friends because you sit at the same table for breakfast. Because you both take the same meds. Because you attend art group together.
One evening, five of us squished together around a small, gray and white speckled table on the “quiet” side of the psych-ward. This side was smaller and gave us the illusion of separation. We started playing cards—blackjack? Or it could have been Scrabble. I can’t remember clearly. We huddled around the table, in our matching scrubs and assorted colors of non-slip socks; it felt like a pajama party. Laughing at our sarcastic and silly jokes, comfortable in this unspoken hug of solidarity and understanding. It’s amazing the familiarity you feel with people when you are thrown together in the most vulnerable moments of your lives.
Chuck disappeared to sweet-talk his way into a snack. I imagine he asked for something outside the usual offerings, perhaps cake or a candy bar, because the nurse sent him back with cream cheese and graham crackers, instructing him that, if you put the cream cheese on the crackers, it kind of tastes like cheesecake. We were dubious but curious.
Chuck stirred the tiny, foil-covered packet of cream cheese, and spread it messily across a cracker. He confirmed that this concoction did taste somewhat like cheesecake. Now we were all on it. Kellie mixed in a few sugar packets. Someone had the genius idea to mix peanut-butter into this creation. Pale, brown crumbs and sparkles of granulated sugar littered the table.
Napkin-less, we licked our fingers and grinned. We floated with the joy of mashing together sugar and cream cheese and spreading it on crackers with a spoon—because we weren’t allowed to have knives. We were laughing at ourselves as you only can when your world has crashed down and you find you are still standing. When nothing matters except the exact moment you are in.
We were unaware of the circling of nurses doing rounds: down the hallway, back around us to the nurses’ station. We stopped noticing the periodic loudspeaker announcements of “Code Gray” or “Rapid Response.” We were in a bubble of safety. You couldn’t go any lower, and you couldn’t find more understanding people to be on the bottom with you.
We complained about the same nurses, avoided the same therapists. We talked openly about our wish to die or to drink. Allen said the first thing he planned on doing when he got out was “smoke a joint.” We told each other how we wanted to kill ourselves, which methods we had tried, or what we did instead of jumping off the building. We didn’t think twice about marks on arms, on wrists, on ankles. We understood not coming out of your room for hours, not eating a meal for two days, making bed sheets into nooses and hiding them under towels.
We grinned over the victory of our makeshift cheesecake.
We offered the best and simplest of healing: our presence and unspoken acceptance. If you could make magic like that happen in a place like this, you could find magic in other places too.
Elyse Brouhard lives in Forest Grove, Oregon. She started writing at the age of two, while pretending to take people’s orders for food. She works as a social worker, primarily with homeless adults with mental illnesses. She loves her work and has found a home in the people she assists. Writing is one of her favorite skills to employ for surviving life.