Chapter Twenty-Three: On the Locked Unit, Locked in Myself

Written Winter 2012

As we made our way out of Boston and to the psychiatric hospital on the hill, I watched the ‘normal’ world— the world beyond the Plexiglas rear window of the ambulance I was strapped into— drift past me into the distance, left safely behind in a symbiotic environment of health, balance, and happiness, while I was being carted off to a locked psych ward like a cancerous lesion on an otherwise healthy body that had been sliced off and moved to a sterile Petri dish.

I watched listlessly as runners ran and couples walked dogs along the Charles River, thinking that I’d most likely never go for a run again and that I’d surely never be one half of a couple.  I focused intently on the route the ambulance driver was taking in an attempt to control the situation and feel like maybe I could have some agency over myself.  Yup, looks like he’s taking the Eliot Bridge, not the JFK Bridge.  He probably saved himself some time there; that intersection with Memorial Drive and JFK is a brutal one for traffic.  Focusing on this also helped distract me from the snoring EMT sitting strapped in a seat next to me who produced sounds I’d imagine might come from a dying cow.  I figured that maybe he’d worked long hours the day before, the poor guy, and he was just exhausted.  I couldn’t help but wonder if it was really more that I wasn’t worth his time to stay awake for.

I took in the familiar landmarks as they passed one by one and the miles between the ambulance and our final destination slowly decreased.  Out the back window, I saw the cemetery on my right float past and disappear into the distance, left eternally in its historic place.  The supermarket on my left, the furrier on the corner, and, some miles later, the Starbucks, the bakery, the fire station, Dunkin Donuts, the bus stop, another supermarket, and finally, the gas station.  I knew what patiently awaited me after this.  As I lay there on my stretcher, covered by blankets and strapped in tight, listening to the snoring pulse of the bus, I gazed at the familiar steep hill now shooting up out of the earth on my left, silent and ominous.

The hospital’s old abandoned brick gatehouse, protected by rusty wrought iron gates, sat at the base of the hill.  I remembered walking through those gates countless times during my early college years with a now-foreign sense of energized hope for my future, thick woods bordering the steep, windy road that wound me up the hill from the back of the gatehouse and towards the yellow-orange stone Administration Building sitting atop the rolling, well-groomed fields beyond.  Solitary in its welcome to hospital newcomers when I first arrived in early 2002, the gatehouse was now neighbored by espresso-brown and rust-red colored private condominiums— who would ever want to live on the outskirts of a psychiatric hospital? I found myself wondering— and as we coasted along the bottom of the hill, around the corner, and up its side to the main entrance of the hospital, I felt an eerie sense that I was coming home.

The ambulance chugged its way up the main road and towards the brick building at the center of campus, where it slowed to a halt and the EMT next to me snorted himself awake, quickly unstrapped his seatbelt, and opened the back doors of the ambulance without saying a word.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was pretending I wasn’t there because he was disgusted by me and by what I’d done to bring myself here.  Fresh air and light streamed in on me as I lay still, imprisoned in my body and in my life, spiritless and numb to my surroundings.  If I could have moved, I wouldn’t have even cared to.  My stretcher was unlocked from the side of the bus and pulled out, the click of its legs locking into place reminding me that indeed, yes, I was about to be wheeled inside to my fate.  This was not a nightmare.  This was not some afterlife.  This was my living, breathing reality, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

With one EMT at the front of my stretcher and another at the back, I was wheeled over cobblestones to the glass doors of the Evaluation Center.  I don’t remember clearly what belongings I had with me, where my parents were, or what happened next.  All I know is that I ended up that evening on the locked acute psychiatric unit upstairs.  I remember struggling to walk to the room they’d assigned me at the end of one of the halls, my hands frantically reaching for the walls, and soon thereafter being put in a wheelchair because I couldn’t stand upright or take a step without falling over due to a case of the spins that left me with no internal equilibrium.  My head ached, I was numb from my elbows to my fingertips and from my knees to my toes, and the rest of my body pulsated with dull pain.  I couldn’t think straight or talk clearly, words sputtering forcefully when I opened my mouth, and my thoughts were going a mile a minute.  My heart pounded, I was sweating profusely, and Pam, the petite but fiery nurse helping me, determined with a furrowed brow that the Boston hospital, my insurance plan, or whoever it was who had been in charge of making my medical decisions should not have discharged me from the medical unit, as I was still in acute withdrawal.

“Well, you’re here now, and the least we can do is move you closer to the nurses’ station and to a room with a hospital bed,” she told me, and I was wheeled back down the hall and to a new room, my bed freshly made with thin, starchy sheets, a stack of dry, scratchy towels resting on top.  A walker was put next to my bed in case I needed the bathroom, a cup of ginger ale and some saltines put on my bedside table, and I was told to get some rest.

My foolproof plan to end my life with 90mg of klonopin, 900mg of Lexapro, and 6,000mg of Lamictal was now wreaking havoc on my stubbornly living body, and all I could do was lie there and let it happen.  I was still in the early stages of cold-turkey withdrawal from not just the overdose but also seven years’ worth of daily psychiatric medications— other than a minimal dosage of lorazepam during my time at the hospital, I’d been abruptly taken off of everything else due to the internal organ damage it was said I’d sustained.

Given just a milligram of Ativan at bedtime that first evening, I knew I was in for an utterly sleepless night.  Although I didn’t believe in Hell, I was convinced I’d found the living version of it.  I lay on the bed, not sure if I needed five blankets or none at all, and adjusted the control until the backrest was up and my knees were bent high enough for the spins to subside ever so slightly.  The thought of a sip of water, let alone a cup of ginger ale and a few saltines, made my stomach heave.  All I could do next was batten down my hatches for what I knew would be a night of horrible internal storms.