Wasn’t Sweet Sixteen a little young to be visiting the inside of a mental institution?
But today she wasn’t visiting. They had checked her in. Why would they do this with her? Because they didn’t know what else TO DO with her. The Doctor swore there were no more options. Doesn’t matter that she had never spent even one week at a summer sleepover camp. Doesn’t matter that total strangers terrified her. Doesn’t matter that the roommate they assigned her was an openly hostile lady of 62 who strung her bras across bed posts and window sills like strands of Christmas tinsel.
This was where a troubled teenager was sent in 1980. If they suffered long-term deep depression, culminating in a suicide attempt.
Nurse #1 – – Apparently she locked herself in the bathroom and tried to swallow Liquid Plummer.
Nurse #2 – – You mean like Drano?
Nurse #1 – – No I mean exactly Liquid Plummer.
Nurse #2 – – Nobody tries. They either do or they don’t.
Nurse #1 – – Exactly.
Nurse #2 – – I’ve heard of a lot better cries for help than that. But it got the father’s attention, I suppose.
She had watched a lot of movies so she was certain any moment she would see Jack Nicholson or Nurse Ratched ambling down the hallway. But instead there were just regularly dressed people milling aimlessly about. Kind of like the anxious folks who look at their watches at subway or train stations. Only these people weren’t going anywhere. Physically.
There were no special wards separating adolescent from adult patients back then. Crazy was Crazy and age wasn’t a barrier or reason for seclusion. So she got to see it all. The unkempt forty something blonde who oozed sex like melted cheese in an overstuffed quesadilla, making humping motions against the nurse’s station until two orderlies escorted her away as she drawled, “C’mon Sailors, I’ll take ya both on right here, right now.”
The dark-haired, ethnic faced girl of twenty, slumped against the drinking fountain, hugging her knees tightly while holding her breath, eyelids clamped shut as she whispered her mantra, “You don’t see me. You don’t see me. You don’t see me.”
A prematurely graying man, (handsome like a movie star) raced around the bright orange (was that considered a soothing color back then?) corridor, chiming the ABC song until he got his face within two inches of Ethnic Girl’s large nose and blurted, “Peek-a-boo, I DO see you!”
Some days Group Therapy could take hours. There was no cooperation from patients like these. When you didn’t want to be somewhere, why should you go along with the program? But she sat and listened anyhow. And finally it dawned on her. Everyone else seemed to have a reason. Something that justified why they were the way that they were.
Several teary-eyed females with molested pasts, slowly recounting excruciating details. One word every ten minutes – – yes, the talking and the memories came that s-l-o-w-l-y. Or maybe it was the abuse that did?
“It.” (Look at clock) “Was.” (Bury mouth in jacket hood) “My.” (Find the ceiling extra fascinating) “Father.” Stare straight ahead, daring anyone sitting in the group circle to meet your gaze.
Other tales of woe.
Schizophrenia ran in the family.
My Aunt was a prostitute and brought strange men into my bed.
My brother tortured my poodle in front of me.
My father was an alcoholic who raped my grandmother.
We were poor so I worked in a factory where they beat us if we went too slow.
I said goodnight to my mother. She said, “No, it’s goodbye.” And it was.
And on and on. And that’s when she knew. No matter what was wrong with them, something worse was wrong with her. Because she had no reason. No excuse. No justification. No scapegoat. She had a two parent, functioning family. No drinking, no drugs, steady employment, good morals, nice house, lots of friends, religion. How could she blame it on happiness?
There was just something wrong inside her brain. It would get dark in there. For days on end. And noisy with chatter. So she would go outside of herself. Watching vigilantly. She could count her throat swallows, the chest inhales/exhales, heart thumps, eye blinks. All her reflexes could be perceived as someone else’s. Her head felt better in close quarters and so she stayed inside her closet. Dissociative Behavior, they called it.
And that’s when everyone decided to agree. Medication! Medication had to be the answer. They didn’t even mention the question. They skipped right to the solution. Every single night. She had to swallow two tablets and three capsules in front of the nurses, then open her mouth wide for inspection afterward. And she hated that one ugly male nurse who would swipe under her tongue with his foul-smelling fingers.
There were all sorts of Therapies.
In Art Therapy, they told her to paint or sketch. Her hands froze. “C’mon Honey, draw what hurts you.” She drew a World Globe.
In Dance Therapy, they told her to hop and jump and prance. Her feet froze. “C’mon Honey, move to the music.” She rocked ever so slightly to the metronome inside her head.
In Life Skills Therapy, they took her on outings. They taught her how to ride a public bus. How to go into a library and check out a book. How to grow vegetables in a garden. How to sit on a beach and enjoy the sunshine. “C’mon Honey, it’s time to go outdoors and live quickly.” But she went inside her head. To die slowly.
Until someone else died suddenly. The only other 16-year-old in the place. They had become friends. Sort of. She was an anorexic named Mitzi. 66 pounds. The medical staff was very thorough inside those walls. Searching your bags when you came back from a field trip, confiscating even fingernail clippers or compact mirrors. But not quite thorough enough. They forgot about dusk. When the sun went off and the lights came on. Nobody would notice one missing bulb from a lamp in the sitting room area. And nobody did. Until they found it smashed and red-stained, between the sheets where it had sliced open a pair of very young wrists.
Nurse #1– – She woulda been gone in a few weeks, anyhow. She was starving herself to nothing.
Nurse #2 – – Because she felt nothing. She was numb. Our little Mitzi girl.
But our little Mitzi girl knew that cutting herself would be the first time she would feel something. And I knew exactly what that something was. She could have whispered it to me, too. But she didn’t have to. It was freedom.
Shortly after that, I stopped thinking of myself as “she.” I was me. Again. And I began to get much better, much faster. Not quite fast enough, though. The medical insurance ran out before the Doctors felt I was completely ready to go home. But some Head Administrator made a lot of noise, stating that I had the right tools now. To cope.
I got to sit in on a long matter-of-fact meeting and we all nodded our heads discreetly at the end. A helpful nurse leaned into my ear to whisper, “You’d best put this whole thing behind you. Never speak of it again. Never.” (But nobody mentioned writing.)
That night the kitchen help baked me a German Chocolate Goodbye cake. I hate the nuts in that kind of frosting. And my father avoided German cars, and German beer because he was a holocaust child. But I ate a piece for Mitzi since she dreamed of any kind of cake.
It had been 3.5 months and now I could talk about my feelings, paint, draw, dance, ride a bus, grow a carrot, check out a library book, enjoy the beach. And most of all, I could feel.
And what I felt most of all was. . .
Sweet Sixteen was definitely too young to visit the inside of a mental institution.