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A Short Story of How Adolescent Mental Illness is Treated in Our Society
I despise solid colors.
Primary greens, flat pinks, empty blues, blank whites.
I feel lost in them, having nothing by which to ground myself amidst the swirl of darkness within my own mind.
I seek the relief of sleep in this cold hospital bed, staring at the sterilized white of the walls. There is no essence of life, nor hope, within the silent hell that is the hospital. The meaninglessness is strangulating, choking.
A girl’s voice pierces the stillness. Barely audible at first, it is a heavenly sound of purity and redemption....even hope. No, perhaps it is not exactly hope, but a defiant battle cry of vibrant color and life against the white silence; a fleeting musical light that grows steadily stronger in its fight with the darkness, A glimpse of beauty in a wasteland; evidence of a heart that still beats.
Writing, too, is a sign of struggle, a defense that battles the existential nothingness of this place; this life. A continuous game of push-and-shove with the lethargy of hopelessness.
From this derives my reason for writing; I need something tangible to cling to, some meaning and purpose -- however slight -- to wield against the white darkness...lest it consume me entirely.
As Offred wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale, I need to hope, to know, that I am not alone -- that some reader, perhaps one battling the same demons as me, will hear my cry.
Involuntary admittance to Riverdale Psychiatric Hospital, Adolescent Unit.
Those words burn into my mind, labeling me. The shame is too much to survive. Just as this story is too difficult to tell.
Yet I must write, or the silent words will choke me.
It seems that the best way to begin is by recounting the same experience that I’ve recited countless times, to a seemingly endless army of white-smocked nurses and doctors.
I was cutting again, the dark red dripping down my wrists -- a feeling of cold numbness filling my body; my soul. I concentrate on the main veins, ripping the dull razor across my skin. It is difficult to stop, but I eventually do. Walk to the sink, rise the red off the gleam of steel. I will buy sharper blades tomorrow.
Glancing at the lacerations that now adorn my wrists like grotesque ruby bracelets, I know where the blood is taking me -- down the all too familiar spiral leading directly to another suicide attempt that may or may not be successful. In the past, I failed. This time, I may likely attain eternal oblivion (whatever that entails).
I want to live. This is the thought that flashes, unprecedented, through my mind. It pierces the numbness with a fleeting image of my mother’s face, vivacious and smiling as it used to be, before schizophrenia took her from me. In that instant, I feel a spark of meaning, a little nudge that urges to to stop, to end the spiral. Is it God, breaking His silence at last? Is it the memory of my mother, or merely some primitive instinct of preservation?
Now, as I sit here….staring at this blank hospital wall...remembering, I can only arrive at this answer: I don’t know what prompted me to do it, yet I recall pocketing the razor and grabbing my phone.
Dialing, praying for no answer.
God, however, must have had other plans.
I broke down, began crying. “Tyla, I’m so sorry….”
The rest is a blur. Tyla, kneeling by my bed, looking at my wrists, making calls, reassuring me, praising my “strength in doing the right thing by seeking help” (her words, not mine), listening to the constant flow of apologies and anxieties that spilled forth from my mouth. The ride from the hospital, the infinite wait for a psychiatric evaluation, the prognosis -- “danger to self” -- my panic attack when they handed me the paperwork for transfer to a psychiatric hospital. Then more waiting. The goodbye; Tyla’s unreadable face, my anxiety when she hugged me. The back of the ambulance; the silver cross that I held on to for dear life -- if life is dear.
They took the pendant from me when I entered the new hospital. With it, they yanked the foundation from under my feet; I was left drifting in life, lost, my centre gone. No gravity, nothing to tether me to the heavens or the ground. Lost in an unknown world.
A white-smocked nurse sat across from me, asking questions and taking notes on a clipboard. “Who are your parents?” His gray face looked bored, irritated.
“My guardian is Tyla….” I began to respond, then stopped. She might not be my guardian anymore. What foster family wants a psycho like me?
“Have you ever been abused? If so, what form of abuse?” The insensitive nurse just would not shut up.
I began to answer, then found myself falling apart again. My life has been filled with abuse.
The tears poured down my face, shamefully neverending.
The nurse handed me a box of tissues and gave me a few minutes to collect myself before continuing with his infernal interrogation.
The next day -- my first full day in Riverdale Psychiatric hospital -- passed in a dark cloud of lethargy. I stayed in bed as much as possible, trying to escape from the knowledge of my predicament into oblivion; seeking peace through sleep. My refusal of food eventually caused me to faint in the morning group therapy session. Then I was back in bed.
The monotony was briefly interrupted by the arrival of a psychiatrist, who led me to a cramped white room framed by oversize portraits of animals -- in which he promptly proceeded to lob questions at me from across the plastic table at which we sat. As I answered and watched Dr. Koinsky (for that was his name) scribble notes on his clipboard, I could not help worrying that one of the massive elephants would break loose and fall on my head, crushing me. And no, I’m not schizophrenic.
I have, according to Koinsky, another form of insanity. Removing his horn-rimmed spectacles from his balding head and glancing up from his clipboard, he pronounced his judgement with an air of nonchalance: “You have Major Depression, Panic Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”
I felt as if that stupid elephant really had made a landing pad of my head; Koinsky’s words ripped my world apart at the seams.
“WHAT? Does that mean I’ll have to stay here?”
“I’m placing you on a fourteen-day hold, on the grounds that you are a danger to yourself. That does not necessarily mean that will have to stay here for that entire period, but the hold gives us enough time to stabilize you on medication.”
The white walls began to close in on me. With wobbly legs, I stood, ran down the hall, buried myself in the plain blue of my bed. The bed, not my bed. I will not assign any degree of permanence to this white hell.
The nurses came to talk to me, but I tried to shut them out, remaining in bed as the hours passed. Sleeping away the time.
It was not merely the “major depression” that weighed my limbs with lethargy; it was my hopelessness. I was a living corpse without purpose or meaning. How can a psychology major find herself in a psychiatric facility -- as a patient, not a doctor? It is an ironic twist of fate; the dark humor that is my life.
What does one do, when denied the very essence of human dignity, all hope, and even the freedom to choose an escape in death?
She goes on.
“You are greater than this.”
I lifted my tearstained face (it seemed that I had not stopped crying since I was admitted to the hospital) from the folds of the green hospital gown to meet the kind gaze of my social worker.
“God has plans for you.” Her eyes were warm and understanding.
“I have no purpose. I’ve utterly failed. It’s ironic to think that a psychiatric patient could ever be a clinical psychologist. Just imagine!” My lips twisted in a bitter, sardonic smile.
“This,” she gestured to the whiteness of the room and the placid color of my gown, “does not define you. You almost reached your breaking point, suicide, but you will fight the odds to get back up. All this -- your major depression, your anxiety and panic disorder -- just adds to your story, to the book you will one day write: a book of hope.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
She smiled, shook her head. “Here’s a comparison that might convince you. I see you -- and many of my other patients to be something like cockroaches.” She saw my expression and quickly added, “Not for the reasons that you may think. I compare you to a cockroach because of how resilient those creatures are. They can survive the detonation of a nuclear bomb; a cockroach will keep crawling, even if it has been stepped on and crushed; if all its legs but one are broken, a cockroach will keep going -- regardless of the degradation they receive and endure.”
She looked at me with those kind eyes. “As unseemly as the comparison sounds, that is who you are, Gisèle. You, and all those in your situation. You are survivors; extraordinarily strong and resilient, practically unbreakable. You keep going -- no matter what.”
After my social worker had left, I wandered down the long, white hall, lost again -- this time, in my thoughts. Somewhere, a girl was singing; her voice floating, angelic, through the tomb-like silence. I eventually found myself in the doorway to the hospital common room (otherwise called the “Dayroom”). At one of the tables, a boy was painting -- pencils, paints, and other instruments that might be used for nefarious purposes (read:: self-harm) were banned from the patient rooms, so many of the patients came to the Dayroom to engage in artistic pursuits. Swirls of dark blues, purples, and blacks formed a universe of shimmering color on his canvas...indescribable depths of human pain shone through the paint with such light and beauty that to describe the emotion would surpass all language.
A nurse looked at me askance, so I walked back to the room identified as mine. The sterilized walls followed me, blank canvases begging for life; color from the brush of a misfit -- the art of a social exile.
The heavy white door whined in protest as I opened it; a discordant note sweetly interrupted by soft singing. My roommate, Daneska, was sprawled on the rumpled blue and white of her bed, writing a song.
“Hey.” She waved a contraband purple marker at me. I noted the smudges of purple on her hands, reaching to the scars of cuts that just peeked out from under her jacket sleeve, the layer of short hair that fell over her shining eyes.
The heavenly music that I had heard earlier drifted past me into the room, twinning with Daneska’s pure singing to create a haze of musical gold, pushing against the cold nothingness of the room.
Elsewhere in the hospital, laughter pealed like a bell. Not psychotic laughter, but a true sound of human joy.
It was echoed by sobbing from another part of the facility.
We are all outcasts, I reflected. Rejected by society, because of a label that mental illness has placed on us. We are a group of teens called emo, overdramatic, bipolar, OCD, schizo, and psycho -- yet we are also a community of poets, authors, singers, songwriters, and, above all, artists. In fact, the title “artist” defines us better than any other term. The very struggles that society finds unacceptable -- our depression, anxiety, anger issues, and personality disorders -- are the human imperfections that allow us to embrace our individual identities, our creativity; our laughter and our tears; our uniqueness.
As you can see, being imprisoned within a hospital like this -- trapped within a fog of medication and listening to the howling of my own mental demons -- gives one plenty of time to think.
I am broken, more so than I have ever been. Life has crushed me. At age seventeen, on the cusp of my future, I am a homeless orphan. My brain has destroyed my mind. And yet, I must allow the white silence to consume me; I will speak through paper, writing down my reminiscences. I -- along with the millions of teens categorized under “mental illness” and that phrase, LGBTQ+ -- will pierce the darkness with words until we break free.
As we weave our stories of strength, writing our books of hope, we will save ourselves.