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For Halloween This Year, I Was An Actual Mental Patient
November 6, 2017
This Halloween, I inadvertently decided to raise the "scare factor" by at least an order of magnitude -- not by visiting some "terrifying" roadside attraction or "haunted" mental hospital, but by becoming an actual mental patient (or as is more apt, an inmate) at a very real mental hospital -- in fact, at a legendarily awful New Jersey insane asylum.
Perhaps I should start somewhere near the beginning as I relay the concatenation of events that led me to this traumatic Halloween surprise:
For almost two full decades now, severe depression and a slightly-more-tolerable anxiety have been powerful ever-present and evolving forces in my life. Without getting into lurid details, I have made several attempts on my own life and have engaged in self-harming activities that have varied greatly in severity, ranging from behaviors that could be characterized as merely suicidal ideation, to parasuicidal actions in which the intent was not even fully known to me, to grim undertakings that would cause one's jaw to drop in astonishment as to how it is that I am still roaming the earth.
The first of the more serious of these acts (which total to at least a half dozen) was when I was about 21, and the rest have taken place over the intervening years, with an uptick in occurrences about six to eight years ago.
Approximately six months ago, my life underwent some major changes, and I immediately began to experience a greater flood of suicidal thoughts and some horrifying impromptu near-attempts on my own life. One of the latter happened while I was stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge, and was struck instantly by the thought, "Hey, there's absolutely nothing preventing me from getting out of this car right now and launching myself over that railing." No sooner did this thought occur that I noticed the muscles in my arms and legs tense up in what was the embryonic stage of flinging open the car door and making a break straight for the edge. It felt as though the motor neurons in my entire body began to fire, having received their marching orders from this diabolical thought.
Thankfully, some pre-frontal cortex activity must have kicked in and stopped me cold in my tracks. But it didn't stop me from obsessively considering and reconsidering this decision. While stuck in standstill traffic each morning, I would research morbid facts about the bridge: "Every 3.5 days, someone attempts a suicide off the George Washington Bridge; the fall to the water from the bridge is approximately 213 feet; there is approximately a 98% lethality rate from such a fall, and even if one survives his impact injuries, the tides and whirlpool currents under the bridge will almost certainly render him deceased," and on and on and on.
Shortly after that point, I decided to go back to a therapist who had helped me through a particularly difficult time in my life, and then began seeing a psychiatrist to give medication a try (which took some convincing for me, as I've tended not to put much stock in antidepressants ever since an episode I had a long time ago in which they rendered my condition worse). Around mid-summer, I began taking Lexapro, which seemed to work surprisingly well at first, but eventually caused me lethargy to the point that I was having trouble functioning and being productive.
My doctor and I decided that next I would try Wellbutrin, which again seemed to work wonders for the first month or so. But shortly thereafter, it felt like it began to function more like something analogous to a neurodegenerative disease than a therapeutic drug. I began to act strangely, and extraordinarily out of character. Starting a little more than a week ago, I suddenly became stricken with fits of nearly-perfectly irrational rage. And I felt more disconnected from the world than ever. Over that weekend, I resolved to take a leisurely walk in the brisk autumn breeze. But I quickly realized that there was really nothing perceptibly "leisurely" about this walk. As I noticed the beautiful array of colors of the autumn leaves, I felt nothing. As I felt the leaves crunch under my feet, a sensation that is usually transcendent for me, I again felt nothing. Well, not precisely nothing. I felt shock about my lack of feeling, and I felt anger. Anger over nothing. This was not the kind of situation in which someone in particular angered me and I was stewing over it. This moment was more akin to anoesis, a state of being in which no thoughts are present, only pure sensation or emotion. And in this instance, that emotion was anger; pure bile.
In some strange way, I channeled this emotion into something slightly constructive. As I took a rest on the steps of my town's high school, I began to notice what looked like three younger teenagers bullying a smaller kid. They fully came to my attention when I heard one yell, "Kill yourself, you fucking normie!" Appalled at the thought of just having witnessed 4chan manifest itself into the real world and into my own neighborhood, I shot up on my feet. They were approximately a hundred yards away from me. Then I saw a flurry of virtually dangerless, yet enraging-to-witness, pubescent punches being thrown. Without hesitation, I began to hasten toward the direction of the melee. I was a man on a mission. As the teens saw me approaching with the stolid determination of the Terminator, they all began to speedily disperse. Now, let me make it clear -- I had no intention of harming any of these bullies, only to make them stop immediately and come to the aid of the victim.
As that situation had ended, I re-evaluated my behavior. Was it just? I mostly believed so. Was there some sort of honor to it? Perhaps. But I still couldn't really account for any full righteousness of my actions. On the one hand, I was motivated by a sense of justice and compassion for a fellow human being in need; but on the other hand, it was my own anger that had really propelled me to enter the imbroglio in the way I did. It still doesn't feel totally right. I think there were better ways I could've handled it.
As I returned home from my now-ruined leisure walk, the anger was even stronger than ever. So I read up on my antidepressant du jour, Wellbutrin, and found that one of its most frequent side effects is agitation. I resolved to wean down immediately, and cut my dosage in half for the rest of weekend -- perhaps it was not the smartest move to make such a medical decision on my own, but I doubted I would be able to reach my psychiatrist over the weekend, and I was desperate to make this anger stop. I was becoming someone I'm not. I was becoming a monster.
But by Sunday evening, the hostility I was feeling had still not subsided. And so in an act of sheer rage, but strangely, to alleviate that same rage, I took a bottle of prescribed Valium to my lips and sucked down approximately twenty pills. Don't get me wrong, there was certainly an element of self-harm to this endeavor, but given what know of my own benzodiazepine tolerance, I was sure to a moral certainty that this amount was nowhere near sufficient to kill me.
When I awoke the next day (Monday), I knew that I was in trouble and that I needed help. I no longer felt that deep anger, but more a sadness and a fear that I would inevitably make an attempt on my life sometime soon.
So I called out and sought the help I thought I needed.
Initially, I believed Hackensack Hospital would be a good choice for me (and in hindsight, it probably would have been). But after reading a near-ceaseless litany of terrible reviews of their Emergency Room, I resolved (for the first time in my life) to call a suicide prevention hotline.
The woman on the other end of the phone sounded almost unhealthily emotionally detached, but did seem well-intentioned nonetheless, and gave me the names of some places I could try.
One of these names was the rather innocuous-sounding "Care Plus NJ at New Bridge Medical Center" in Paramus, NJ. I had never heard of it, and Paramus is only a few towns from me, so I thought, "Why not give it a try? At this point, I'll try almost anything." Besides, it was recommended by a suicide prevention specialist.
My girlfriend and I arrived at Care Plus at about 3:30 PM. It had a slightly foreboding presence as we entered and I sheepishly told a woman behind what appeared to be thick, bulletproof glass that "I think I should see a doctor because I'm a high suicide risk." She rolled her eyes, and sent me to another part of the ER.
Then, at the second bulletproof-looking window, I again, even more sheepishly declared myself a "suicide risk". And again, I was met by the annoyed face of a woman who sent me to yet another part of the ER.
"Ok, this seems an inauspicious event so far, but let me not be too hasty in judgment," I thought.
I asked my girlfriend if she could please do the talking next time, as it was murdering something inside me to have to repeatedly declare myself a suicide risk to seemingly uncaring people.
At last, we made our way to the final bulletproof window, where an ever-so-slightly more compassionate woman said she needed to hear from my own mouth this now twice-repeated heartbreaking sentence in order for her to get me the care I needed. Reluctantly, I uttered the phrase like an over-rehearsed actor just going through the motions.
She invited us both into the psychiatric ER, a place that defies language for me, and can probably only be best described as surreal. I was hooked up to an IV which flushed my system of any lingering medications, and was met by a sweet-seeming African-American man whom everyone referred to as Babs.
Babs administered me an EKG, all while a soon-to-be mental patient stood up, fought with the police and security around him, and screamed obscenities toward the "big-titted bitch behind the desk" whom he implored in as polite a tone as one can imagine "to suck [his] fucking dick."
Needless to say, my EKG result came out with a reading of tachychardia (rapid heartbeat).
I thought, "I know this all seems a little overwhelming and scary, but this is a psychiatric emergency room, after all. There are bound to be a few violent psychotics, but the staff seems to be doing the right thing by making sure this man is fully secured."
I then spoke to a psychiatrist -- a young, tall, attractive and ostensibly empathetic woman -- whose questions I answered as honestly as possible. "History of depression?" Yes. "Suicide attempts?" Yes. "Abused during childhood?" Never -- unless one counts being subjected to New Kids on the Block videos a form of abuse. "Were you trying to die when you took the Valium last night?" No. I wanted the anger to subside, but of course, I also knew there was some self-harm at work.
She explained the procedure, which was as follows: She would prescribe me some different medications (which I had decided I would try, though I was fairly nonplussed about them), I would be admitted on a voluntary basis, and would be discharged within 48 hours of whenever I decided to leave (which was also iterated plainly on one of the many papers I signed).
I began to sign the admission papers, and was almost finished when my girlfriend received a text from my mother telling her not to have me sign anything. I quickly called my mother to see what the matter was.
She was sobbing (not normal for her) and difficult to get composed. In one sentence, it all came together. "You're at Bergen Pines!" she frantically blurted out.
I nearly fell out of my ER bed.
I will assume that many readers have no idea of the significance of my mother's sentence. Bergen Pines County Hospital was a legendary institution to all North Jerseyans for decades. There's likely a similar place in just about every corner of the world. Known by many for its intense violence, it was a place that parents would reference in order to scare their misbehaving children with jokey warnings to "quit acting up or you're getting shipped to Bergen Pines!"
Countless times growing up, I heard some iteration of the following: "Whatever happened to so-and-so?"
"Oh man, they locked him up in Bergen Pines for a full year and nobody ever heard from him again!"
It was a place of horrifying legend. And here I was, in the belly of this beast, already privy to its violence and to the deafening indifference of some its staff to the suffering of its patients.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
It was 1:30 AM by the time the hospital secured a bed for me. My mother had come by and did her very best to persuade the psychiatrist who had seen me earlier (whose name I never caught), as well a seemingly kind, though (in my view) unconscionably dishonest social worker named Stephanie, to discharge me either to my personal psychiatrist, to my family, or to have me transported to Hackensack Hospital.
My mother's Herculean efforts were to very little avail. They decided that they would not let me out of their care, and that it could take days of waiting in the ER in order to get a transport to Hackensack Hospital. There was also what I perceived at the time to be a very thinly-veiled threat from the psychiatrist: Because she would not let me leave and because having me take up space in the ER for a full day was not a viable option in her opinion, if I did not comply by voluntarily staying in their facility, she would be forced to commit me to an involuntary unit. In other words, if I didn't voluntarily admit myself, I'd be stuck in a ward filled to the brim with utterly deranged violent lunatics like the classy gentleman mentioned above, many of whom were purportedly criminals and Bergen County Jail inmates being sent against their will to the psych ward.
Stephanie, the social worker, came over to assuage any of our fears, speaking mostly to my mother, as at that point they thought it prudent to sedate me on both Ativan and Trazadone. Just to paraphrase some of Stephanie's comments: This is not the Bergen Pines of the past...He will be placed in the best unit, B1, and will receive the care of the very best social workers and doctors I've ever worked with (a notion that she emphasized time and again with a type of facial contortion one might make after taking a bite of some sort of inconceivably delectable dish, and each facial squinch was invariably followed by a double thumbs up)....There is so much security on this floor...Almost all of the people on this unit are experiencing very similar symptomology as your son -- they're almost all non-psychotic people who are just going through a rough time with with depression and anxiety...He will meet many people just like him, with whom he can bond and form friendships...He will be invited to group therapy sessions, and a mindfulness meditation workshop will also be available...He will meet one on one with doctors and social workers who will work hand in hand with him to help him find the best treatment possible...(Addressing me now) You will get to hang onto all of your belongings except your phone and wallet, which we've already stored in a locker for you...There is a payphone on the unit that you don't need money to use, and you can call home whenever you're not in a therapy session or group activity...It's 12:15 AM now, and they'll be ready to get you to a bed within ten to twenty minutes so you can get some sleep after this rough day...I promise you, I've worked in Unit B1 for months, and I've never seen anything even close to a violent incident...and on and on and on.
She tossed out placation after placation -- a sales pitch that rivaled the best a used car salesman has ever conjured.
Now, I can't attest to the veracity of all of her statements, but I can say with absolute certitude that a great many are complete falsehoods, I suspect many others are also untrue, and I further surmise that nearly all of the above were deliberate bald-faced lies (it seems utterly inconceivable that she could have possibly told so many untruths without knowing it).
But finally, the Mexican standoff ended, and I acquiesced.
A wheelchair came around for me a little before 2:00 AM.
It was brought over by a large Hispanic woman with thick, wavy hair. All she said to me was, "You!" and pointed to the wheelchair.
All of my belongings were placed in transparent plastic bags and dumped rather unceremoniously into my lap.
The large Hispanic woman was then met by a fairly jovial and quite amiable African-American security guard, and we were off.
I saw my mom's stoic face and waving hand both grow smaller as we traveled down the long hallway, and then disappear altogether as we rounded a corner.
The first thing the African-American security guard said to the large Hispanic woman who was wheeling me briskly through the labyrinthine set of corridors was, "Oh, great. Unit B1." To which she responded sarcastically, "I bet you love going there." He then joked, "If somebody tries to escape, I'm so tired tonight I might even just let them!"
I laughed and joked along very nervously, all the while thinking, "Wait, I thought I was going to the 'best' unit? The security guard doesn't want to go there? He's expecting patients to try and escape?"
They rolled me into the unit at approximately 2:00 AM, by my estimate. I was greeted as though an extraterrestrial.
The first thing I noticed was an Asian man who was referred to as "Toshi" (the names of any patients will be changed in this account). Toshi was staring absently with what veterans of war refer to as the thousand yard stare. His mouth hung wide open as he tried desperately to understand whatever instructions the staff was giving him at that moment. Of course I am no mental health professional, but even I could see that Toshi was clearly psychotic. He had a minimal relationship with reality (at best) in that moment. After being excoriated multiple times, Toshi dejectedly sauntered away, not to be seen again by the likes of me until the light of day.
After Toshi was dealt with, the jovial security guard and the large Hispanic woman exited, and I was now dealing with the Unit B1 night crew, who had me join them behind a very large circular desk that was enclosed with thick, double-plated glass from one end to the other. The crew of four consisted of two rather unfriendly-looking dark-skinned men with what sounded like Caribbean accents of some sort -- one tall and broad, the other short and rounder-shouldered; a disconcertingly apathetic short-haired Jamaican-sounding woman; and a nurse who seemed like a godsend at that moment. She was a younger black woman who also sounded Jamaican, and while everyone else just stared at me as though the mother ship had just landed, she immediately showed me kindness in the form of simple conversation -- chatter about work, and life, and stress, and how tough depression can be.
I was beginning to feel at ease, when suddenly the two Caribbean-sounding men told me to stand up, and escorted me into a room that was viscerally terrifying even upon first glance. The bed was filthy, covered near the the headboard with what I hoped was just dirt or mud.
The two men began barking orders at me, but in an erratic and turbid manner. "Turn around," one would say, and almost simultaneously the other would spew something half-nonsensical like, "Hands out by the walls." The broader of the two then asked if I had any tattoos, and told me to remove my hospital gown top. He inspected me me closely (ostensibly, to check if I had any nearly-microscopic gang tattoos, I deduced).
The men then had me turn and face away from them, and gave me a grand finale of needlessly and insanely chaotic instructions. They were clearly looking for any weaponry I may have stowed away on my person. One voice would say, "Shake your pants around with your with your hands." And the other, "No, pull them." (An instruction that didn't make an iota of sense to me.) Then louder, "Pull them!" I tried my best to comply with this piffle by pulling on each section of my pants to show my keepers that there was nothing in them. "No, pull on them down!" exclaimed the same irritated voice. I tugged at the waist of my pants and boxers, but this still didn't suffice.
The two voices became an angry unintelligible roar. So I just threw down my pants and boxers, figuring, "What the hell more do you want from me? What is there left for you to fucking see?"
But this only further frustrated my keepers, who at least finally managed to communicate a coherent thought, though not easily nor expeditiously, "No! Boxers up. Pants, all the way down."
Finally, these two mental health professionals into whose care I was entrusted were satiated. They both left the room without another word for me. I tried to follow, but the door was locked.
So I stoically put my hospital gown back on, and took the opportunity to inspect the room. The filth, as one would suspect, was not merely confined to the bed. It was all over the room, as was a message scrawled on the wall that read, "Suck my dick doc! [sic]"
A long while passed, and I started thinking, "Ok, it's been quite some time and they haven't come back. This may just be my room for the night. I suppose I can deal with this. At least I'm alone and I'm not rooming with any raving lunatics. It's just dirty. I can deal with dirty. Let me see if there's a toilet anywhere in here. Nope. Man, I have to piss. What am I gonna do if there's no bathroom in here and this is my room? I guess I could just piss in a corner or something. But that will only enrage these two already-livid men. Fuck man, what am I gonna do?"
And then I took note of what I deemed the most atrocious part of the room -- a very eerie, long window with no blinds or curtains. A window that during night hours seemed to only serve as a mirror. In that window, I stared at my reflection and hardly recognized what I saw. I was disheveled, pallid, alone, in a hospital gown, a beaten man -- broken.
It was at that moment I knew that I was in jail.
Sooner or later, my keepers came and snatched me from the room. The "short guard," as I'll call him from now on, had my bag of belongings on the floor, and began rifling through them as though a cop on a raid. All of my clothes and personal belongings were strewn about the ground in a pointlessly haphazard way. I was handed a few pairs of boxers, one pair of sweatpants, and two long sleeve button-down shirts. The rest of my things, which Stephanie in the ER guaranteed would be ok to keep with me? All taken away.
The apathetic short-haired Jamaican woman very reluctantly allowed me to keep my books that I had brought with me, but made sure to take away the water and grape juice that she had just told me I should drink in order to raise my low blood pressure. I became somewhat accustomed over my time in the ward to expect no promise kept and no reasonable set of premises seen out to their logical conclusion.
I was then shown to my room.
The short guard rapidly walked well ahead of me down a dark hallway, impatiently waited for me to catch up, tossed open the door to my room, 130B, and without a single word flicked on the light switch, revealing in the burning bright fluorescence a terribly startled long-haired young white man who was just moments ago fast asleep. That was the only glimpse I got of my roommate that night, as the young man flipped himself onto his belly and threw his blanket over his head with such impressive speed he reminded me of a cockroach caught in a kitchen light.
I found these two actions particularly unnerving -- both the initial affront by the short guard in the form of flipping on the lights without any sort of polite warning or quick apology to the young man, and the reaction of the young man, who uttered not even a groan of protest. To me, it seemed, in the ward they wanted your full obedience, and not a single word of dissent would be tolerated.
Also perturbing was the thought that this young man could possibly be reserving his wrath for me once the lights went back out. I had absolutely no idea who this man was or why he was in this room. He could've been a retributive madman for all I knew at that moment.
So I stood for a few seconds, examining the few belongings I did have left. Some boxers, a few shirts, a tiny blanket barely big enough to fit over my body, a bed sheet, and a pillowcase. No pillow. Just a pillowcase. I also had no toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, or any toiletries whatsoever. They had all been confiscated.
I shoved a part of my hospital gown into the pillowcase and resolved to pile upon myself whatever items of clothing I had left to use as a makeshift blanket (or "useless blanket supplement", if you will). The room was freezing.
I found the bathroom behind a curtain. It was so filthy, it made the room in which the guards strip searched me look like a five star hotel. But I finally got to take that piss.
Right now, imagine a hospital room. What does it look like? Does it, like most, have a privacy screen or some divider so that each patient has a bit of his or her own space? Does it, like most, have a small light for each roommate, so that one can see at night without disturbing the other? Just run the gamut of what a hospital room looks like in your head.
Now erase that image entirely, and instead envision a jail cell. Whatever image you have of the jail cell is far closer to the rooms in the ward than that of the hospital room. This was the architecture of a jail cell, only larger. Plain and simple.
After my piss, I made haste to turn off the light switch before invoking the ire of my roommate.
I felt my way toward my bed, and when I finally found it, I threw my exhausted body down on it hard. To what should not have been my surprise at this point, my bed hit back twice as hard. The mattress felt like it was made of Kevlar.
I listened closely for any moves my roommate made toward my direction, but there was really no need for listening closely, as any movement whatsoever on these rock-hard beds filled the room with a thunderous roar. After a few groggy and uncomfortable hours, I finally concluded that if my roommate was a retributive lunatic, I probably would've found that out by now, and resolved to finally drift off.
Morning at the Ward
Morning at the ward came much more swiftly than I could've imagined. By my estimate, it was only about a half hour or so into my slumber that a female staff member came in and said that more of my blood was needed for the doctors. "Right now?" I asked, dazed and annoyed. It was still pitch dark; the middle of the night. She politely responded that they needed it early for when the doctors arrived, and that I could go right back to sleep. The fact that she treated me like a decent human being meant enough to me to get me out of bed.
So I cautiously moved out of the "comforts" of my room and into the light of the the ward.
I didn't quite know what to expect, but aside from a cursory glance around at possible immediate threats, I really paid no heed to the goings-on around me. I was exhausted and half-delirious and just wanted to go back to bed.
While I waited for the middle-aged German-sounding phlebotomist to draw my blood, I sat bedraggled at the table in the "recreation room" (which I put now in scare quotes because the recreation room really consisted only of a table -- there were a few dominoes and a game of Trivial Pursuit scattered about, but that was about it for "recreation"). I think this was around the time that full delirium kicked in. The German phlebotomist stuck me hard with that needle. And quite frankly, at that point, I wanted it. I wanted that pain, if only to know this was all still really happening.
He filled two vials as a wide-eyed psychotic woman looked on in half-awareness. And as the German went for a third vial, I suddenly tuned into the fact that Elvis Duran and His Unlistenable Morning Shit-Show was on the radio. He and a bunch of his schlocky DJ cohorts were talking about Halloween costumes and dumb Halloween pranks and other unlistenable morning radio crap -- and at that moment the full surrealism and absurdist nature of my predicament filled me with an unexplainable sense of humor and relaxed imperturbability. This was Halloween! My favorite holiday! And here I was in the rec room of a loony bin having my blood drawn while a drooling psychotic stared on unblinkingly. It was suddenly all hysterical to me.
As the German was still pilfering my blood, I picked up one of the Trivial Pursuit cards from the table and said in a deep tone that was both casual and playful, "Ok yeah, you got my blood and a needle stuck in me. But tell me this: 'What sports star asked for his salary to be $23 million because he wore the number 23 on his jersey?'"
The German, who I knew was more than fluent enough in the English language to understand me, just nodded, "Ha ha. Yes, yes."
I responded with, "Oh, come on, man. This is a layup of a question! Hint hint."
"Ha ha. Yes, yes."
"Dude, come on! It's Michael Jordan! Number 23!"
"Ha ha. Yes, yes."
And then the stinging pain of that needle coming out.
It was all just a sudden reminder that I was in the ward. In the ward, I am a mental patient. Anything I do that is silly or unexpectedly humorous in any way is attributed to the fact that I am crazy. In the ward, no matter the actual state of my lucidity, I am just another lunatic.
My momentary glimpse of humor and equanimity lie smashed underfoot of this man's condescension.
I returned to my room, feeling completely beaten once again.
A Rude Awakening
A very short time had passed when a woman named Dr. Naima entered my room. (I've changed her last name in this account, not to protect the "innocent", but to avoid any potential legal hassles. Though I am quite confident that if a libel suit were filed against me I would most certainly not lose, it's still something I deem worthy of avoidance.)
Dr. Naima had assembled before me a group of what I assume were nurses or some sort of trainees that she brought along (I can only presume that they were taken along for the ride to see precisely how a psychiatric evaluation and treatment plan should not be executed). Even just the sudden realization that a room full of people has been gathering and staring at you while you've been asleep is a jarring and somewhat violating feeling, and certainly no way to begin a therapy session. Dr. Naima launched right in, bombarding me with the same battery of questions that were asked of me by the ER psychiatrist. Only Dr. Naima had, in under ten minutes of observing a completely exhausted version me, contradicted the ER psychiatrist and decided on an entirely new course of prescription treatment -- one that I found downright odious. (But wait -- didn't Stephanie from the ER say that I would be able to work hand in hand with a doctor to come up with a treatment plan? Well, I suppose that went out the window along with so many of her other promises. There was nothing hand in hand about this encounter. This was more like the word of the Almighty dictating to me precisely Her will.)
As Dr. Naima started out of the room, I snapped myself fully awake, remembering the clause in my admission paperwork that stated I was guaranteed to be discharged within 48 hours from the time I declared that I wished to leave. I informed Dr. Naima that I wished to leave, and asked how long the discharge process would take. She told me that she had no intention of letting me leave within 48 hours, and I would likely be here in the ward until at least Friday -- a full four days from that point. Yet another untruth unveiled.
I waited for the doctor and her staff to leave, and made a beeline for the payphone to call home. I tried a number of times to dial out, but was told I needed money to use it. (But wait -- didn't Stephanie from the ER say that there is a payphone on the unit that I wouldn't need money to use, and that I would be able call home whenever I'm not in a therapy session or group activity?) In a matter of seconds, yet another untruth unveiled.
So I asked a woman behind the long circular desk if I could please make a phone call from the desk phone. This was now about 8:30 AM, and I had only checked into the ward at 2:00 AM. But I knew already that I desperately needed to get out. I was told I was allowed one phone call (which sounded to me an awful lot like jail). I called my mother and left her a voicemail as quietly as I could, saying, "Please get me out of here. Whatever you have to do. This is not a hospital. It's a prison. Please call whoever you can. Get a lawyer. Please. Whatever you have to do. This place has already done me so much more harm."
After leaving the voicemail for my mother, I felt slightly more hopeful, but I was anything but optimistic.
Just then, I was abruptly jolted out of my own thoughts by a shrill woman's voice loudly yelling "Breakfast! Breakfast!" and motioning toward a door at the end of a corridor.
I trudged along with my fellow patients into the cafeteria, a small room with four long foldable plastic tables and some barely edible food. Now, I'm no expert in the culinary arts, but I'm fairly certain that breakfast sausage patties are not supposed to be bright pink.
This breakfast was really my first chance to get to become acquainted with my fellow patients.
(From now on, I will no longer use the word "patients" to describe my locked up comrades. If I believed this to be a legitimate hospital, I would happily call them "patients". But this place far more resembled a prison than a hospital, so from now on I will refer to the "patients" with the much more suitable term, "inmates".)
My fellow inmates were interesting people, to say the least.
But I hardly saw a single one of them whose outward demeanor even slightly resembled my own, as had been assured me by Stephanie in the ER. I say the following in the most respectful manner, because I am not wont to disparage the mentally ill (especially being that I am quite their kin): but virtually every one of these people would be very conspicuously "off" in the outside world. For the most part, these were people whose derangement would be exceptionally noticeable right from the outset of a single encounter.
I came up with nicknames for some, and others I just observed from a distance.
There were the psychotics: These included Toshi, who was almost comical with his incessant screaming and complaints and protests about things that were not actually happening. Bear in mind I said almost. It was only comical in a dark way, but I did find myself chuckling each time he would find a new mantra-like grievance that he would scream over and over, ad nauseum. One of Toshi's more classic moments was when he sprinted full steam down the halls screeching repeatedly, "You never give me lunch! You never give me lunch!", which would be completely unfunny if his complaint was at all true (it just wasn't), or if he hadn't run so ineptly that with an inadvertent moment of Chaplin-esque comedic timing he wound up laying himself out with some kind of spastic slide/fall combination that was utterly indescribable. Again, bear in mind I said almost comical. I don't actually find it funny when a mentally ill person screams his head off and slams himself to the ground. But at the time, I found myself nervously chuckling as the staff helped him to his feet. It was one of many "laugh to keep from crying" moments.
The other psychotics were interesting, in that some were very easy to discern and others quite difficult to spot. Some would just stare into space, mouths agape, somnambulists who clearly had little to no idea what was going on around them, apparently preoccupied with more important happenings in some other world. These were the easy ones to spot. (Again, I'm no mental health professional, but from where I was seated at the time, it seemed pretty uncontroversial to think that this person staring into the middle distance and drooling before me is either psychotic or unbelievably sedated, and I wasn't exactly about to tap him on the shoulder and make a formal inquiry.)
There was one incident in which I discovered that someone who seemed to be mostly "all there" was likely schizophrenic and having a psychotic break. Each time I saw him, he was dressed in a shirt that I initially misread as identifying him as a war veteran. But then I realized it was an Applebee's shirt that read, "Applebee's: Proud to serve our veterans who serve us."
I was in the rec room, quietly reading a book on moral philosophy. Applebee (as I nicknamed him) and the woman who stared at me while I was having my blood drawn were sitting silently at the other end of the table. Suddenly a dance song came on the radio, and Applebee began to make emphatically loud orgasmic groans over it, followed by minutes of intermittent maniacal laughter, all while staring fixedly at a singular spot on the white wall across from him. Later, he nearly attacked someone for brushing against him on the lunch line.
Another pretty damn frightening moment with a psychotic occurred with a tall, very built black man who, as I passed by, was muttering, "Better watch ya fuckin back, yo. Watch ya fuckin back, mothafucka." Needless to say, I watched him continually through my periphery as I made my way down the hall. But something told me that he wasn't actually speaking to me. He seemed to be speaking to a voice in his head. It was just a gut instinct on my part. The next time I saw him, as I was silently preparing for some kind of insane altercation to erupt, he just very politely moved out of my way so I could get to the medication area. I don't know that I have ever been so glad to be right about someone in all my life.
Then there were the talkative inmates: The talkative women seemed ok. There were only two of them, and they seemed the most plausible people to befriend in the ward.
However, the talkative men struck me as the most dangerous of the bunch. They had snake written all over them. They were the kind of guys who were so overly-talkative that you can see them angling on you, using their superficial charm as a means to mesmerize. They eyed you up and down as they spoke to you, to see what you seemed to agree with, and what you didn't, just looking for a weakness. I quickly learned to remain expressionless as they spoke, and merely nod my head.
A few of the talkative inmates were a part of a subgroup I labelled "the singers". There were two singers in the ward. One was a middle-aged balding white guy who incessantly sang old classics from the 50s. And while in the TV room, he would always repeat the joke he just heard on Friends and follow it with a bit of "Oh, Donna".
The other singer was clearly a very dangerous and unhinged human being. He arrived a little later in my stay, and I just so happened to be lucky enough to be his across-the-hall neighbor. He was a young white kid who would continually rap a ceaseless stream of complete nonsense, and then repeat the same lines ad infinitum. He would even make up his own words, like a demented Dr. Seuss. In my opinion, his two greatest hits were "My voice elevates above this deadery dead hall/My voice elevates above this deadery dead male balls" and "Pick a pickle, pickle picked/Pick a pickle/In the pot/Hot/With the rice/Tight/Tighten up ma stomach/So it's nice". And he had many, many other gems.
Then there were the older guys: These were the people I felt especially bad for. They generally didn't cause any trouble, but would sometimes receive it from the younger men. The youngsters were none too bright to mess with these guys, though, because despite their age, they looked as though they still had quite a bit of gas left in the tank and were not men to be trifled with. Just as I was getting ready to end my stay in the ward, one of the older guys told a staffer that our new friendly neighborhood pickle-rapping wordsmith had put his hands on him in a threatening way, and he gave us all the warning that if it happened again, he was "going to knock this little kid the fuck out". (Except he used far more expletives.)
In the hour or so preceding my exit from the ward, the vibe had very palpably changed. Violence was in the air, and by the looks on their faces, the staffers seemed to know it. I felt like I got out just in time before the powder keg was ready to explode.
How I Got Out
This might be the most disturbing passage of all in this little tale of mine. Here's how I got out: my family had the finances and the willpower to get me out. We are by no means wealthy, but unlike so many of the other poor souls stuck in the ward, we have enough to afford a decent lawyer. And between the very real threat of a lawsuit and the fact that my family lobbied tirelessly to get me out of that hellhole, Care Plus NJ at New Bridge Medical Center agreed to discharge me. I was at that godawful place for 48 nightmarish hours of my life, but if not for my family sticking in my corner, I have almost no doubt in the world that I would've been there for a full week at the very least.
I'm not educated enough on the topic of in-patient mental health care in this country to offer any words of wisdom on how to pragmatically fix this system. I'm not even educated enough to speak knowledgeably on how endemic the problems I faced at Care Plus NJ at New Bridge Medical Center are -- specifically, such problems as the notion that one can be be coerced to admit himself under what are clearly false pretenses, treated without the slightest modicum of dignity by staff members, can be kept long after one is legally mandated to be discharged, forced to watch his or her own back because security guards are nowhere to be found, etc. But I would be willing to bet that Care Plus NJ at New Bridge Medical Center is not the only institution in the country, or even in the state of New Jersey, to be guilty of such infractions.
As far as the math goes, it all appears to add up to little more than a disgusting scam to me.
The advice I am equipped to give, however, is the following: If someone suggests that you check yourself into Care Plus NJ at New Bridge Medical Center (also sometimes known as Bergen Regional Medical Center), bear in mind that it is Bergen Pines, and it is not a place I would ever recommend to anyone who has the means to seek treatment elsewhere. What happened to me is unethical, almost certainly quite illegal, and is a trauma that I won't soon shake.
But I also don't want to advise anyone to not seek the care they may need. So if you absolutely have to admit yourself to Care Plus NJ at New Bridge Medical Center (or again, Bergen Regional Medical Center, or Bergen Pines), the best advice I might be able to offer is to try and stay in Unit B1, where I was housed. Because from what I was told, the other units seemed truly unbearable. (Unless that was just another untruth launched my way.)
Oh, and if you're gonna go, I guess you should go on Halloween. It's a shitload scarier than the scariest haunted house you'll ever find, and it will be a Halloween you will never forget, try as you might.