I search through the kitchen, scrounging for something edible for lunch, when the girl who stared at me in group, the under eye circles one, creeps up behind me and asks, “So what are you here for?”
I am startled by her sudden appearance and taken aback by her bluntness. She notices and quickly adds, “If you want to talk about it.”
I put on a tight-lipped smile and respond, “I don’t mind at all. I am here for depression and anxiety. What are you here for?”
“Bipolar disorder.” She’s actually crazy, I mentally note. Bipolar is a real life, medicated for life, institutionalized for life disorder. I pity her.
“What’s your name?” She stares at me with these big, beautiful brown eyes that I didn’t notice until now, because, you know, the under eye circles threw me off.
Staring Girl’s BIF—best institution friend—wears bright leggings and carries around a droopy, rainbow-colored bag at all times. We know when she is on the move because she shuffles her slippers up and down the halls, pacing with stress. We find it quite endearing.
We. I’ve started subconsciously grouping myself with everyone else. I think, ponder, contemplate, and realize that I don’t mind it.
Shuffler tries to convince me to do the yoga meditation thing.
Like most of the practices taught at the institution, I shamelessly do not believe in yoga or meditation. My thoughts race too much for either to have a calming effect on me. And that’s the point: to be silent, to be calm, right? Just doesn’t work for me.
And honestly, I really don’t think smart people meditate.
The more time I spend with Staring Girl, the less intimidated by her I become. She is smart and driven, and I appreciate that, because I am too, and I like having someone who understands me, who is the same type of crazy as me, even if her crazy is still more crazy than mine.
We drown our sorrows with over-exaggerated laughter and late nights of games and gossip, as if we’re in a college dorm, just now moving in and meeting our hall mates. We pull the other patients into our shenanigans, and, suddenly, we are a family. Just like that. I don’t see it coming; I certainly didn’t plan for it to happen. But here we are, and for the first time in months, maybe years, I feel calm. Comfortable. Accepted. Enough.
Eventually my roommate appears out of the deep depths of her slumber. I know she’s been crying, but she’s plastered an almost-convincing grin on her swollen, pink face. She clearly enjoys taking care of others. She makes her way around the room, just checking in with everyone, as if nothing’s wrong, as if she didn’t sleep the past few days away, as if her soul didn’t break and she didn’t end up here.
The therapists convince me to attempt meditation for the first time. I have a panic attack. Only 30-seconds into the silence, and I’ve already ruined it. My eyes jerk open, and I hold myself tight in my chair, legs curled up, arm hairs standing on edge, heart racing out of my chest.
The therapist says it will get easier.
They say everything will get easier.
A doctor, who also happens to be a patient, and I sit on opposite couches. We think of absolutely nothing to talk about. He’s 55; I’m 19. He’s accomplished so much in his life: gotten through medical school, started his own practice, helped alcoholics cross over into recovery, retired early. I am ditching my university finals in favor of crazy prison. But then again, he’s ditching his golden age in favor of crazy prison. We do have that in common.
Patient Doctor and I hope we will be called into group soon, to avoid the awkward silence, but the therapist must be running late, so we continue avoiding each other’s gaze and pretending that we don’t exist.
I suppose he doesn’t want to be rude any longer; he’s the adult here, so he breaks the silence.
“So, um, what are you in school for?”
“I want to be a doctor.” I give him my closed lipped smile. Oh right, we have that in common too. If I ever graduate. If I ever get out of here.
“Oh really?” He closed-lipped smiles back. “Do you know what kind?”
“I love working with kids with special needs, so I think some sort of rehabilitation. But I also work with kids with medical illnesses, like cancer and kidney failure, so maybe I will specialize in something like that. I know I want to do long term care, so I really get to know my patients.”
He tells me about his life from college to today. What amazes me is how similar his story sounds to mine, or what I expect mine will be, if I don’t get my brain completely un-fucked.
He was accepted into a reputable medical school, and he worked his ass off, staying up all night most nights to study, wanting to not just be good, but be the best. And he was unhappy. But he just had to make it through school, and then everything would fall into place. And he earned the residency of his dreams, and he learned so much more, and felt he had finally found his niche. And he was unhappy. And he had quite the successful career, by anyone’s standards. And he was unhappy. And he retired early. And he is perhaps the unhappiest he has ever been. He feels he’s finished what he was brought on Earth to do, and now there is no more.
I perhaps resonate with that last part the most.
He assures me that I will be fine; this will not happen to me; he didn’t get help; he didn’t take his illness seriously enough. I’m “ahead of the game.” But I’m convinced I will end up exactly like him, and how bad is that really? Successful, high achieving, with more than a comfortable life.
What are the luxuries of life really worth, when your mind lives in the slums, under a makeshift house of cardboard and sticks, with frostbite consuming your appendages, one by one, in the freezing month of December?
Patients come and go under the voluntary leave policy, but the new guys sense our strong companionship and quickly join in. It fascinates me to watch each patient undergo the same transition I did. Silence for the first day—perhaps a few tears, perhaps a waterfall—and despite the veterans’ attempts at conversation, the words exchanged with the newbies are limited and highly generalizable.
“I’m just depressed.”
“I want to leave.”
“I don’t want to take my meds.”
“Nothing can make my life better.”
Somehow the first night of sleep brings about a new sense of hope, an electrified charge, a sudden stabilization. We soon know everything about everyone. Openness by one opens the door to openness by all.
Except for the things I don’t want to talk about.
We joke around, calling ourselves the “Suicide Squad” after the movie that just came out. The therapists do not find this title nearly as amusing as we do. We are just trying our hardest to forget all of the hopeless reasons we are here. To keep the laughter, the joy, the hope alive, for just one more second. Today I feel on top of the world. So many friends, so much encouragement, just so many and so much, what a future I have in store. I talk loudly and often, without actually saying much, and I’m thankful I just needed a few days here to save me.
A new issue arises: I don’t want to ever leave. I can’t. Outside of these walls, past the locked doors, lies the life I escaped from, and I can’t go back. I want the protection of solidarity, of hiding from everyone who doesn’t understand, forever.