This institution looks nothing like the movies. It’s set up like a little home, comfy cozy, except everything is confined to one huge room, so they can watch us. There’s a receptionist desk, where the lady who checked me in now sits. She switches between scrolling on her computer and scanning us crazies.
Straight past the desk is a faux living room, with couches and chairs and tables and rugs and coloring books strewn about. Past the living room is a small kitchen, and get this: we’re allowed to check out knives at the front desk! Bread knives and cheese knives and steak knives and butcher knives, oh my! So they think I’m crazy enough to be placed behind locked doors indefinitely, but not too crazy to be denied sharp objects? This seems a little contradictory. Maybe part of receptionist job training involves seeing how fast they can run to the kitchen if one of us crazies starts slicing up something other than food.
My roommate spends most of the morning in bed, facing towards the wall and, more importantly, away from me.
“Time for group,” a therapist chirps down the hallway. I’m sitting alone in a corner and take my sweet time getting up. Nothingness is my persona here: talk to no one, listen to no one, avoid my exams, get fixed, go home. I don’t have time for friends; there is nothing these crazies can give me anyways. I don’t want to be one of them. I am not one of them. I’m “just going through a tough time.” That’s what everyone says to me. “Just a tough time.”
My new patient-mates look surprisingly normal, though I’m not sure what normal is anymore. They’re mostly blue collar, mostly Caucasian, mostly in their pajamas. They’re mostly forlorn, but, despite our current housing situation, decently normal. I question one guy who sports a faded green Mohawk, but I’ve seen much, much stranger things before.
No, no. I chastise myself. They can’t be normal. As long as I continue thinking they’re crazies, I won’t become one.
I am in a black sweater, black leggings, and black boots, which pretty much describes my current mentality.
I stare at them. I squirm in my seat as I feel them staring back at me. I’m the new kid on the block, the most interesting thing that’s happened to this place, at least today. What’s wrong with her, they all think. Why is she here? I am an outsider. I’d like to keep it that way.
We file into the “group room,” heads down, carrying an eerie silence. We are a depressing group. I guess that’s the point.
One girl walks in late, and she inspects me the longest, the hardest, the most intensely, and I can’t help it, I find myself inspecting her back. She can’t be much older than me, but her under eye circles age her otherwise flawless face. She wears three-day-old makeup and a permanent frown. I want to know what happened to her, probably as much as she wants to know what happened to me.
My first group therapy session ever. I confidently dismissed the idea of group therapy until now. I know that no one has the same problems as me, and I definitely don’t want to be clumped together and suffocated along with other freaks.
But here I am, because I have no other option.
This first, uh, teacher isn’t exactly soothing my mind either. He is boring: thin, mid-height, gray haired, your classic forty something, probably-going-through-a-mid-life-crisis year old. But don’t worry; he’s still got the obnoxiously optimistic thing going on. I reminisce on my days with Cookie Cutter, when I was only sort-of crazy and not lock-her-up-and-throw-away-the-key crazy.
“Hello! What’s your name?” No one answers. I absentmindedly turn my head towards the center of the room and realize he is looking at me with the dumbest grin I’ve ever seen.
“Oh. I’m, um, Cat.”
“Well hello Cat. Are you from around here?”
“No. I mean…I go to school here. But I’m from Arkansas.”
“No kidding. Me too!” No. No way. We already have something in common. That means the conversation is supposed to keep going. He overeagerly waits for me to respond, one, two, three, but I don’t feel like talking anymore. So he gives up and turns his goofy smile towards a whiteboard on the wall.
“Today we are going to start exploring Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. This therapy takes a long time to perfect, much longer than the weeks we have together, but once you leave, we offer a free DBT group every week, open to the public.” And he drawls on and on, with his indistinguishable and easily ignorable baritone voice, about this psychological voodoo. I feel my eyelids flutter up and down. I lean back in my chair and scowl, impatiently waiting for class to end. I thought I was dropping out of school, not enrolling in CRAZY 101.
The therapist opens the floor up for conversation.
And the wild rumpus starts.
I am startled awake. The crazies do speak after all! And not only do they speak, but they tell their innermost secrets, their deepest demons, with ease, as if conversing with an acquaintance over morning coffee and donuts. Group therapy converts from a psychology lesson into a compilation of every crime show ever. Abuse, assault, incest, robbery, murder, jail time, custody battles, foster homes. I’ve never heard a person talk about food stamps before now. I didn’t know real people live in trailer homes. I try not to react to their stories, some of which are utterly horrifying, but I don’t fool anyone. I am ashamed of showing my ignorance.
Even our therapist has issues. He admits to his alcohol dependency and explains that, no matter how many years he has remained sober; each day still tests him.
I didn’t expect that.
Before hearing his story, I assumed there were two types of alcoholics: the ones who can stop drinking, and the ones who can’t. I thought that once you left the liquor stores and attended a decent number of AA meetings, you’d be done. Finished. Fixed. On the other side. Not a problem. Never again.
Our therapist refutes my assumptions. He says that any alcoholic can stop drinking, but every alcoholic will most likely live with cravings for the rest of his life. Not so black and white after all.
He begins his final speech for the morning. “The public largely views alcoholism and drug addictions as severe lapses of judgment or character, but not as disorders. However we now know that dependency affects and changes your brain like a mental illness does. Drugs—whether alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, antidepressants, or lithium—affect neurotransmitters and thus change the signaling of your brain. And just like with alcohol or illegal drugs, suddenly stopping your psychiatric medication leads to similar withdrawal symptoms.
“A recent medical breakthrough changed the way we understand alcoholism. Drug addiction is now often seen as a dual diagnosis. This means that dependency forms due to the existence of another underlying mental illness. Treatment of alcoholism is largely unsuccessful without first uncovering the depression or schizophrenia or PTSD or bipolar or other disorder the dependent person may have. Recovery is a multi-step process, with medications, therapy, AA meetings, and support all working together to decrease relapse and keep addicts accountable.”
People around the room nod their understanding. I will later find out that most of the patients, and a decent number of the therapists, struggle with dependency. The number one thing I hear out of the addicts’ mouths is “don’t take the first drink.” Or swallow or snort or smoke. I worry most about the benzo addictions. Sleeping pills. Like my Oleptro. And before that, my Ativan. And before that, whatever I could find in my medicine cabinet: Melatonin, Benadryl, Nyquil, Unisom. Anything. I don’t sleep without meds. My pills send me crashing into blackness before my body has time to protest. I understand the addiction to sleep. I resonate with it. I just get it. I stay alive for the prospect of disappearing every night, under drugs that make insomnia, dreaming, nightmares impossible. Nonexistence. Nothingness.
A therapist reminds everyone that there is a Narcotics Anonymous meeting tonight, and suggests that even people without an addiction come. Perhaps we will learn something.
I like learning.
The alcoholism lesson intrigued me, and I want to learn more. I’m curious as hell, and I figure, and I hope, that I will never have the opportunity, or need, to attend another meeting.
I listen politely as everyone says their names and admits that they, too, are addicts, except now it is my turn, and what the hell do I say? Should I lie? What if they sense my bluff? Will they feel uncomfortable with me here? Will they think I’m judging them? I don’t have time to think. They are waiting for my response. Just spit something out:
“My name is Cat, and I am not an addict.”
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
A hush falls over the crowd. I look around, hoping someone will welcome me, say it’s okay, but no, no one does. After approximately one million years, the person to my right speaks, relieving me of my misery.
I listen to everyone’s story and watch grown men cry and am enamored by the fact that these are normal people, too.
So if the crazy people aren’t institutionalized, where do they go?
Maybe I am the craziest one, and everyone is afraid of me. Maybe they feel the coldness of my heart and know that I am the future killer, the psychotic disaster, the lunatic, and that the nurses will one day pray for my obliteration. Maybe everyone knows this, except for me. I just don’t realize it yet.
At the end of the meeting, I get an NA bookmark, a participation trophy; let the crowds roar, thank you, thank you.
The NA leader hugs me and tells me that she’s happy I came. I thank her profusely. She lifts the weight of embarrassment off of my shoulders, just like that, and she doesn’t even know it. I just wanted to fit in with the crazies. Just for tonight.