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This is the story of how a young girl’s life (almost) ended at sixteen.
The girl had potential. She had grown up a part of a loving family in a middle-class household. She had performed above average in school since kindergarten and had many friends. Well, she did up until the day she walked into the hospital. It was February 7th, 2012.
They called it CAIP: Canadian Adolescent In-patient Psychiatric. Through permanently locked doors, dark hallways opened up. Lights flickered while the doors on the inside swung and swung and swung. Those would not even close, let alone lock. The ward was clearly designed so that the patients were easy to get to in case anyone tried to hurt themselves. The nurses routinely lead her to her room, which was entirely white on white on white, with the odd touch of grey. Bland, yet the walls screamed.
“Let me out,” one patient had written on the wall.
“F*** this,” wrote another. She understood the feeling of being trapped.
Most patients were not here willingly like she was, but the girl wanted to get better. She wanted more than anything for her own mind and body to feel like home; safe, like an old friend or family. She wanted to get out of the house and to smile just once, genuinely. But her mind constantly attacked her self-esteem, which made her feel as if she was her own worst enemy. She had volunteered to stay in a loony bin after reaching her breaking point – she had stayed in bed for weeks in silence. An undeniable truth had haunted her night and day. She was not happy and that is why she was there; to escape her demons and – though this seemed out of reach - to get rid of them for good.
It took her a few days to learn all the names of the other patients. There was Nick, who spoke of his rich parents and his Porsche convertible back at home. She suspected that he was a compulsive liar. She spoke with Kaylee as well, who had a boyfriend in jail, and Hallee, who had gone to her school. They had even been friends in grade eight, which made it even stranger that they were both in hospital – depressed - at the exact same time. She met several other patients, all with their own secrets and personal tragedy.
Every morning, a nurse awoke her with her daily medication and a series of questions.
“On a scale of one to ten, how is your mood this morning?”
“Do you have any thoughts of suicide?”
“What are three good things that happened yesterday?”
“How can you improve your mood today?” Every morning, it was the same.
Every day was the same as well. The patient schedule consisted of group sessions twice a day, free time scattered here and there and what they called “individual work time”. In group, she was forced to attend and asked to share her deepest feelings and thoughts. This taught her nothing as she would never open up to strangers. “Individual work time” was a waste of time too. The nurses gave each patient a series of bullshit handouts to read and questions to answer. Learning why other people hurt themselves did nothing for her. How was that supposed to make her stop?
They were the lab rats of the nurses’ scholarly psychology experiments. During the day, the nurses observed their interactions and made notes. At bedtime, they were isolated and forced into cages. They were not supposed to wander the halls – they would scare the patients that were admitted in the night.
The other kids taught her secrets of the suicidal – how to cut deeper, how to tear through your muscle, how to f*** up your life. Most of them showed her their forearms, covered in raw flesh and scars with stitches from multiple emergency room visits. They were things she should never have known. She was not like them, yet she belonged there, trapped until progress was made.
The food was awful and similar to prison food. It was tasteless, cheap, and full of preservatives. She could tell that the blueberry muffins had just been microwaved, as they felt dry and somewhat rubbery as she chewed. The only good thing about living in hospital was that there was limitless chocolate milk for all the patients, which they considered a treat.
Every night she sat on the windowsill, with curtains closed, using a safety pin as an instrument to compose a symphony of incarnadine designs on her rice paper wrists. It was calming, artful. It brought her emotional suffering outward and it became a physical trait. That way everyone would know and try to help her. But of course, nobody knew how to help, as much as they wanted to. So she continued to etch her suffering onto her pale, translucent skin, only halting when the footsteps of agelast nurses drew near the swinging door of her room. To her, it was a prison cell.
The sole time she rested was induced by three violet tablets in a small paper cup. She adored that they made her see stars. After taking them, she fell into a peaceful slumber, with images of a better life illuminating the underside of her eyelids until morning. Then the nightmare awoke her again.
One evening, on February 13th to be exact, the other patients decided to take a smoke break out in the courtyard during free time. Even though she did not smoke, she decided to join them rather than sit in the lounge watching awful reality television.
Apparently patients had tried to climb the wall of the courtyard to escape.
“Don’t do it,” they warned her.
“On the other side of the wall,” they told her, “is the courtyard for the adult crazies.”
She and the other patients waited for a nurse to unlock the door and then excitedly walked out into the crisp February air. The courtyard on their side of the psychiatric wards was small, no bigger than her bedroom at home. Scattered on the cobblestone were various children’s toys – basketballs, pogo sticks and baseball gloves.
As the other patients lit up, she began shooting hoops. The others joined in, the exhaust from their cigarettes floating up into the night sky. They whooped and hollered as they played, momentarily forgetting what they were and where they were residing.
For a while, they stopped wasting their youth on their troubles and shrunk into the children they had once been. Soft snow began falling and she looked up, catching several flakes on a moist tongue. She let them melt while gazing up into the starry snowfall. It felt absolutely euphoric. The flurry melted once it landed on the ground, leaving no trace of ever having fallen. Yet the ground was now renewed, touched by nature’s frozen tears.
Something had changed. As she turned to watch the other patients, tossing a pigskin from one to another, she felt better. A fleeting moment of hope passed. She kept this feeling close, locking it away deep inside of her.
Then they were all reminded of what had brought them into the ward. Pain, grief, chemical imbalance in their brains. With eyes shining down to the frozen ground, the patients wandered back inside, throwing their coats onto their desks and lying down on their vinyl bedspreads, dazed from the cold. But unlike any other night for the past two years, she did not close her curtains that night and the safety pin never left the dresser drawer.