It’s 4 am and I haven’t slept in 3 days. As I pace the hallway of the first floor of my house I start to tell myself it might be getting to that time, that ever dreadful time, that I start considering going to the hospital. It’s a brutal reality of having Bipolar I disorder: mania driven by insomnia that always ends up with a shot in the butt and a week in a psych ward telling myself this will be the last time I come here. It never is.
For over 7 years now, going back to 2010, I’ve been admitted to the hospital all of them. There has never been a year where I haven’t gone. It’s now November 2016, and I the last time I went was February of 2015; I thought for sure this would be the year that I broke the curse.
By 4:30 am I’m sitting in the ER of St. Charles Hospital in Oregon, Ohio, circling a table in a small room waiting for the shot in the butt to take its effects. By 5 I’m out. And so it begins.
I wake up on the 3rd floor of the new psych unit that was built sometime between my last stay here and now. It’s not bad. The open floor, where patients eat lunch and watch TV and play cards is a big room, spacious and far from the claustrophobia-inducing smallness that was the old psych unit. A nurses station is at the front of the room, a wide counter separating from the professionals from the delusional, or addicts in my case. I’ve been placed in the chemical dependency unit, not because I’m addicted to heroin but because the rest of the units were full. I’m an anomaly in a room full of anomalies.
At first a wave of relief hits me. I’ve finally slept, and now the realization sinks in that I’m going to be stuck here for a week. For many people, a stay in a psych ward is a mark of shame, one that has to be denied or covered up to friends and coworkers curious where they’ve been for a week. Not for me. This is just a way of life. I’ve been on medications since my first diagnosis, and I’ve gone thru all the cocktail mixes and dosages. I’ve had enough. I haven’t taken any meds in 7 months. I refuse to take them here.
Surprisingly, this doesn’t anger my nurse. She shrugs and says okay. And I am left to use the remaining time to my leisure.
I generally like to pace while I’m here. I have trouble sitting down, even more relaxing and watching TV. Doctors call this anxiety, tho I never refer to it as that. I just don’t like to waste time rotting my brain as Judge Judy bitches someone out. But this stay is different. The first day goes quick. I sleep most of it, only waking up for meals and snacks. I pace for a couple of minutes around the main room, but drift in and out consciousness for most of the time.
It’s not until day 2 that I realize something is different. I’m relaxed and serene, not conscious of time or the outside world. I pace a little more in the morning, but after I go back to my room I question why I am here. A voice tells me this is my right: I fought for Medicare and the ability to get on disability, this is my right to use my healthcare to pay for help. I might as well call my stay here a vacation–enjoy the food and time to relax. And with that message, my anxiety is gone, the cloud that fills my head cleared, and the pressure of knowing my stay here will be for a while relieved. No drug has ever done that for me. Not even Seroquel. Only spiritualness that many who read this may scoff at. But there’s no denying that that simple message from a voice I call God has in an instant altered the course of my stay.
For the rest of my time here my butt stays firmly in a chair where I play rummy with two other men, both who I won’t name, but who are here for suicide attempts. One is an 18 year kid who is a senior in high school, another a 36 year old gay man who has problems with his weight. I tell them I’m bisexual, although now wondering if I should call myself pansexual, and the jokes start from there. These are men I am comfortable around, and thru this week they become my therapists, offering their own insights and fuckups. We form a bond and share our own desires in romance and love, although the kid is by far the more inexperienced of us. He’s a virgin and a Jehovah’s Witness, not sure if he is even straight and yet adamant that he will marry a woman. The gay man tries to convince him dick is the better choice. I’m not convinced of the argument nor the purpose of trying to impress this young man, but the kid doesn’t seem perturbed. A friendship is formed.
This might sound rather boring for anyone looking to read some juicy shit about a stay in a psych ward, but that’s just the reality of the beast. The hospital is a safe space where we have no access to internet or even pens or metal silverware. Food is delivered on trays with plastic knives and forks, a fridge in the open room is stocked with milk and juice but light on actual snacks our only source of nutritional comfort. There’s group meetings throughout the day, most I skip and yet a few I find rewarding. The rest of the time is either spent napping or playing cards. We don’t even see therapists.
And yet I find these places a little revolting. Every time I stay here I feel anger rise in me at an injustice that few seem to share. Why are we denied a right to even communicate to the outside world? Why am I told to watch TV but not allowed the comfort of checking my email or looking at my bank account? And why am I always told it’s not my right to refuse meds? That this shit helps you, even tho in my heart and in my head I know I’ve never gained an ounce of relief in that snake oil. Remember, 30 stays in 7 years, 6 of which were spent taking the meds. I speak for only myself, and yet what I say must at least be shared by a few others. The meds don’t work.
But one thing sticks out in my mind recollecting this week in the hospital, and that is the exercise bike that sits in the open room next to the tables inconspicuously. That machine was never there in the old psych ward. And I’ve never seen an exercise machine in any of the other hospitals I’ve stayed in, which included psych wards in Philadelphia and New York City. And that to me speaks volumes.
No one actually uses the bike, except for me of course. My first 3 days I spend a half hour each riding the damn thing, blowing off steam and burning some calories. It’s no secret that every time I stay here I put on a few pounds, and after I get out of here this week I will put on at 7, but damn if that bike isn’t liberating. It’s almost as if St. Charles has read my own thoughts and prayers: give us the ability to exercise.
I’m not sure how successful the hospital will deem their experiment with the bike. After my 3rd day out 7 I stopped using it, not because I didn’t want to but because I was so darn relaxed. I literally spent a week sitting on my butt playing rummy and shooting the shit with a queer and a kid, talking about getting fingered in the ass by girlfriends and joking about the sizes of our dicks. I feel like a fag with the mouth of a sailor, finally free to talk about my own gayness with two people who genuinely seemed to care about me. I felt free.
And so after a week of sleeping and getting fat off genuinely good but junky hospital food I’m told I can leave, reminded that taking meds do work, and scheduled for an appointment with my doctor in the outside world. It’s rather silly if you think about it. I’m not told I’m cured, just relaxed enough to go back out into the wild. No one ever gets cured, and from my own conversations with patients, most end up back in the psych unit at one point or another in their lives. Not everyone has been there as many times as I have, and yet most have a least paced those halls or sat on their couches watching Judge Judy at least a handful of times. Again, I ask, what are meds doing for them? That is a question their own hearts must answer. As for mine, I remain resolved in my own refusal to take them. But damn if that exercise bike doesn’t stay lodged in my memory, and now it’s been 2 days out, and I start to wonder: Maybe there is hope for me. The fact that a hospital recognized my own problem with them, that they force us to get fat and lazy, has been at least recognized. I’m now wondering how I’m going to burn off these 7 pounds I’ve gained from the hospital, and regretting not pumping out a couple of more sessions on that bike. Damn if it wouldn’t have felt empowering to maintain or even lose some pounds while I was drinking milk and juice and enjoying veggie burgers from the cafeteria. But there’s always next year, and I trust that bike will still be there. And that is enough to give me hope.