I recently published my memoir Adventures with Postpartum Depression. The ebook and paperback are now available on Amazon – woot woot! I’m sharing several chapters right here on the blog. In this chapter, I describe one of the four days I spent at a hospital’s psychiatric unit.
“Is that an oxygen tank?”
“No. It’s a breast pump.”
“What’s that for?”
It was a little after six in the morning.
“It’s for pumping my milk.”
I did not have the heart to ask Edna to be quiet again, so I fielded all of her questions while pumping. The interrogation made me feel even more naked and vulnerable than I already was.
I returned the pump to the nurses’ station and lingered, hoping for some conversation. The nurses ignored me. Breakfast was over an hour away. I would have to find a way to pass the time.
Then I remembered the room with the piano and vending machines. A pre-breakfast soda sounded delightful. Clearly caffeine had not been the cause of my insomnia.
I walked toward the big door at the end of the hallway. This felt almost normal, like I was back in college, walking to the soda machine in the dormitory basement for a study break.
I reached the door and leaned against the big metal bar across the middle. I pushed. The door did not open. I pushed again, with all my might. The door did not budge. It was almost as if it were locked . . .
I jumped back several steps. Mother of God. I had unintentionally been trying to escape the mental ward.
I twirled around and darted into the common room. The hall monitor had not been watching.
I collapsed on a chair and took a few deep breaths. Yesterday, I had not realized the full extent of what it meant to admit myself for psychiatric care at the hospital. Since it was voluntary, I assumed it was a bit like checking into a spa for a chance to rest and recover my health. I would be able to leave whenever I was ready. Reality, though, was a little different. My surroundings made me even more anxious than I had been at home, and I was not free to go whenever I liked.
I was a prisoner.
* * *
In the common room, Silver Hair was bogarting the television. I riffled through a stack of celebrity gossip magazines that were at least six months old. Despairing of having anything to do, I went back to my room to relax before breakfast.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Edna. I’m here because if I stay at my nursing home any longer, I’ll die, I tell you, I’ll die.”
What I would have done for a book.
When I reached my Edna limit (which did not take long), I went back to the hallway. A dozen patients were awake and milling around the corridor outside the common room, waiting for breakfast. A few sat on the benches where Nathan and I had sat last night, waiting for my admission to be finalized. Most were standing, tapping their feet and jiggling away nervous energy.
Against the wall in the hallway, there was a small desk—nothing fancy, just an elevated platform for a desktop computer—and an office chair. A nurse sat there. The main nurse’s station was about twenty feet away, so the nurses took turns manning this outpost to monitor the patients. In addition to the nurse at the desk, another orderly and nurse stood amongst the patients, like police officers making their presence known at a protest.
A month ago, on Father’s Day, my parents, brother, and sister-in-law had visited our house. Their presence had felt like a barbarian invasion. I had retreated to my breastfeeding throne and cowered with Pippa in my arms. So my nerves were not exactly ready to mingle with a bunch of strangers waiting for breakfast in the mental ward. I stopped about eight feet away from the crowd and leaned against the wall.
“You need to go wait with everyone outside the common room.” A nurse frowned as if I were the unruliest patient in the ward. I shuffled down the hallway. This did not seem like the time or place for civil disobedience.
“It’s so hot in here. Turn on the air conditioner!”
“It’s not hot, Gertrude.” The nurse at the small desk did not even look up from the chart in her lap.
“It’s hot! Too hot! Turn on the air conditioner!”
Another nurse sighed. “Gertrude, take off your sweatshirt.”
“I’m not wearing a sweatshirt.”
Gertrude was a five-foot-tall waif in her forties with long brown hair that looked like it had been styled by a hurricane. The sweatshirt in question was at least five sizes too large for her emaciated body, and to be clear: she was most definitely wearing it.
By now, the hallway was packed with patients and nurses. The patients wore comfortable clothes they had brought from home.
Albert was wearing a kimono-style hospital gown. In theory, the gown covered all his important bits and pieces, but only if it was properly adjusted and carefully tied in place. There was no margin for error. Albert had casually put on his hospital gown like a bathrobe over pajamas—except he was not wearing pajamas.
Or any other article of clothing.
He slouched belligerently on a chair while muttering Albertish. The gown’s top half flapped open so that everyone could see his hairy chest. The bottom half covered his private parts—barely. If Albert shifted his position or breathed too deeply, that gown was going to flap open and expose things that no woman with postpartum depression should ever have to see.
At first, I stayed in the hallway outside the common room but directed my gaze away from Albert. Then Albert shifted positions and my instinct to NOT SEE ALBERT’S PENIS overrode my desire to obey the nurses. I retreated down the hallway.
Two young nurses, male and female, argued about who should handle the situation. (By “situation,” I mean “Albert’s dick.”)
The male nurse said, “C’mon, it’s your turn to deal with Albert.”
The female nurse rebutted, “This situation requires a man’s touch. You tell him to cover up.”
It did not seem like an ideal time for debate club. A man was indecently exposing himself. Could someone at least throw a towel over that shit?
After several minutes, the male nurse reluctantly sidled up to Albert and told him to fix his gown.
The male nurse said, “Albert, fix your gown.”
“No. Kabble noble.”
“No! Finkle va boom NO!”
“Albert, I’m going to have to take you to solitary again.”
“No, va boom, NO.”
“Albert, stand up now. To your room!”
Albert grunted and huffed as the nurse made him stand and walk back to his room. I kept my eyes averted until I heard a door slam shut.
The slamming door should have made me feel safe, but I was not going to feel safe so long as I was a patient in the B Ward.
* * *
By the time breakfast arrived, I was woozy with hunger. In the past eighteen hours, I had eaten only a handful of cashews. A nurse shoved a tray at me and told me to eat in the common room.
There was an empty armchair next to a small table. It was the perfect place to eat my bowl of sludge and flip through a magazine, but I worried the nurses were observing my every move. If I ate alone, I might be classified as an unsociable loner.
Would that go in my chart?
Did I have a chart?
Would the psychiatrist make me stay in the B Ward forever if I ate breakfast alone?
Was I overthinking everything?
Did the psychiatrist know I was overthinking everything?
I joined my fellow patients at the communal table.
Did I belong here?
I looked at my bare arms. Was I actually wearing a sweatshirt? HOLY FUCK WAS I WEARING A SWEATSHIRT?
I was a patient in the B Ward; the patients in the B Ward had some serious psychiatric issues; ipso facto I must have some serious psychiatric issues. After all, if I was delusional and hallucinating, I wouldn’t know that I was delusional and hallucinating.
What was happening to me?
* * *
My psychiatrist arrived halfway through breakfast.
“Just leave your tray and follow me.” He walked down the hallway and gestured me into a conference room.
I sat down and started to ask a question, but he held up his hand. “Hang on, hang on, hang on.” He thumped down into his chair and yawned dramatically, not bothering to cover his mouth. He sighed noisily, flipped through the folders in his hand, and yawned again. He started to read my chart. I thought about my half-eaten breakfast and hoped none of the patients were having their way with it.
After several minutes, my psychiatrist leaned back in his chair. “So, how did you sleep?”
“Okay. I slept about four hours, woke up, and then slept for another two.”
“Can I be transferred to the A Ward?”
The psychiatrist studied me for a long moment. “Why? The beds here are the same as in the A Ward.”
That was not my understanding. The friendly nurse in the emergency room had assured me that in the A Ward, I would have a private bedroom and a little more freedom. It would make this voluntary admission feel a lot more voluntary.
I stuttered, “I have a roommate and I’d rather have my own room and I feel like I don’t belong here. It’s tough. I don’t know how to interact with the patients.”
The psychiatrist glanced at his watch. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just that . . . some of the people here . . .”
“What?” The psychiatrist yawned again.
“I think some of the patients are schizophrenic.”
“So? Just talk to them like you would anyone else.”
By the time the psychiatrist left, my pulse was pounding. How could he think that sharing a room with a stranger was the same thing as having a private room? Did he think I belonged here? With Albert and Gertrude and Edna? Was I losing my mind?
I went back to the common room to finish my breakfast, but an orderly had already thrown my meal away. Now I would be scared and hungry.
It was as if the psychiatrist and nurses wanted to exacerbate my illness.
* * *
“Is there a way that I can call home to check in with my family? I didn’t see a phone in my room.”
“No phones in patient rooms, but here, you can make calls with this.” The nurse handed me a cell phone so large and old, a clown could use it as a circus prop. I walked a few steps away and called my parents’ house.
“It’s me!” My body shivered with joy. I had never been so happy to hear the sound of my dad’s voice.
“How are you?”
“Much better. I slept last night. Not a ton but I did sleep.”
After a while, he passed the phone to Nathan.
“Hey, babe, how are you?”
“Good!” I said. “Well, you know, as good as I can be. How’s Pippa?”
“She’s good. She misses you but she’s drinking formula just fine. I’m going to take a shower and head over there to visit you this morning.”
For the first time since my admission to the B Ward, I felt like an actual human being and not just a problem that needed to be ignored.
* * *
Late morning, a petite man with glasses stopped me in the hallway. “Are you Courtney? I’m Howard, your social worker.”
Apparently everyone in the B Ward was assigned a social worker.
“Sorry it took me so long to catch up with you,” he said. “Why don’t we go talk in your room?”
Edna was in bed but vacated the room at Howard’s request. I sat on my bed. Howard dragged a chair closer and sat a few feet away from me, one leg crossed over the other.
“So Courtney, how are you doing?” The social worker seemed genuinely interested in my answer.
“Okay.” (Translation: I miss my baby; I’m afraid my husband hates me; I’m such an inconvenience to everyone; I hate pumping in front of Edna; I’m bored; I’m scared.)
“So you are here for postpartum depression?”
“We had a patient here with postpartum depression but she was discharged yesterday. That’s such a shame. It would have been great for you to meet her.”
I sat up taller. “I’m glad she was discharged. I’d be worried if there were a ton of long-term patients here with postpartum depression.”
At the end of our meeting, Howard leaned a little closer. “You know you don’t belong here, right? The patients here have much more serious issues than you.”
I nearly wept from relief.
* * *
“There’s going to be a social activity in the common room in a few minutes.”
From the nurse’s tone of voice, I deduced that healthy, improving patients attended group activities. Crazy patients stayed in their rooms.
I walked as quickly as possible to the common room.
When I got there, I sat down at the main table with a handful of patients. Silver Hair and Gertrude were both in attendance. Albert and Edna were not.
We played a trivia game. A social worker asked, “What’s the name of a state that starts with the letter I?”
Gertrude said, “Omaha!”
Silver Hair slapped the table. “Gertrude! Don’t be such a dumb ass! Omaha doesn’t start with the letter I. Iowa and Illinois.”
I silently listened, not mentioning Indiana or Idaho. No one likes a show-off.
The social worker asked us to name a president.
Gertrude said, “Thomas Edison!”
I suppressed a chuckle. I felt a twinge of guilt from the gods of political correctness, but shoved it away. I was a patient here. That meant I could laugh inside my head at Gertrude’s responses to the trivia questions.
If only I weren’t so alone. Laughter is so much more cathartic when it’s shared with another person.
* * *
Nathan arrived with a bag of clean clothes, snacks, toiletries, and books—my husband, my hero, he brought books. A nurse immediately confiscated the bag, including the books, and told me she would inspect it later.
I scanned the B Ward for a place to sit. The common room was crowded with patients, and Edna was lying pathetically in bed. I was not going to ask her to leave the room, not when I had a visitor and she seemed to be all alone. Nathan and I wandered down the hallway.
Albert wandered after us.
While Albert watched, Nathan showed me recent photos of Pippa on his phone. “She’s been crying a lot, but she’s eating. And she slept fine last night. How are you?”
“Ready for the A Ward.”
“How’s your roommate? Do you feel safe?”
“Oh yes, totally safe. She wouldn’t try to hurt me. Though if she did, I could take her.”
Down the hall, a patient started shouting loudly for water.
“That’s Gertrude . . .” I told Nathan about my morning but could not relax. It was all too awkward, standing in the hallway of the psychiatric wing with Albert lurking a few feet away.
I knew I was broken and needed to be in the hospital to get better, but at the same time, I felt guilty about needing hospitalization. Everyone was being inconvenienced by my weakness: Nathan, living with his in-laws and missing work to visit his wife in the psych ward; my parents, rearranging their lives to watch Pippa; and even my psychiatrist, who had to wake up early to check my status.
I felt tense around Nathan, as if anything I said might be the last straw. Anything might make him decide I was not worth all this drama, and he would leave me and take Pippa with him.
I wanted desperately to feel like Nathan-and-Courtney, so in sync that a single word could make us laugh until our faces hurt. But we were not: I was Courtney, a patient in the psychiatric wing, and he was Nathan, the husband of a woman destroyed by postpartum depression.
Standing there in the hallway of the B Ward, I felt as if our marriage was over. Our vows had included “in sickness and in health,” but surely there was an exception for this. I thought I had found my soul mate. The odds had been against us: a boy from rural Nebraska and a girl from Los Angeles. We had been in sync for six years now, which was six years more than most people got. There was no way we could ever get back to the magic of those six years, but at least we had had them.
Then Albert tried to escape.