The first time I was admitted into the psychiatric ward of a hospital, I was 24 years old. It was a Wednesday. I had to wake up early. The air was cold and there was some light drizzle when I finally had finished packing and left the apartment at 7:30 am. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before but this had also somehow not created any urgency in me to get packing or even plan packing my things.
When I arrived, I soon realized that I had forgotten my shower gel and shampoo. I borrowed some from my roommate, an elder gentleman who had seen the reunification of Germany destroy his life’s work and who had suffered greatly from this loss. After showering I made my way down the station hallway adorned with photographs of New York, as is the case with so many hallways and walls in hospitals and doctor’s offices, in health care offices, in banks and in audit companies. The hallway seemed longer than it had when I first arrived. I waited for 3 minutes until the elevator finally decided to stop at my floor and then, full of remorse for not having taken the stairs, I tried to find what little space there still was and hit the ground floor button.
When I left the elevator, I felt invigorated by the liveliness, by the fact that people were wearing raincoats and scarfs, all indications that they were free to roam outside. I went into the little hospital épicerie and bought some very overpriced shower gel and shampoo. There were also newspapers there, and drinks and chocolate. I was not in the mood. With my newly acquired hygienic articles, I made my way up to the seventh floor again. Barely arrived, a doctor beckoned me to come to his office to draw some blood. I entered a room smaller than my bedroom in which the blood of 4 people was already being drawn. There was barely any room for me to sit or any time for me to faint. This worked like clockwork. The neon tubes on the walls, the little carts with food, the way the doctors turned right to get needles, turned left to stock samples, swiped the chairs, gave out band aids. It was all part of a machine. Everything was fluid. Our beds had wheels and so did my thoughts, for those times that their wings had been clipped.
In this constant flow of automated motion, the only object refusing to take part in this dance of parts was the waiting chair in front of the doctor’s office. This chair would become a focal point for me over the next weeks. A fixed point in an otherwise ever faster revolving world.
I often made myself tea in the kitchen we shared with those that were bipolar and more than once had to awkwardly pretend that I had not just caught someone from that station in the act of stealing something from our station’s fridge. These people seemed to be hungry all the time, often coming into our dining room to see whether there was still a bun or a yoghurt they could take and store in their nightstands.
So I made my tea and with a full cup I would stand in the hallway, the room too dull, the neighbor too quiet, and I would look at the chair. Try to imprint an image of the wooden rests’ grain on my mind and feel the texture of the cloth. The chair’s legs were polished every morning by polish cleaning personnel. I liked that.
I often wondered which image of myself was more wrong, that warped in the chair’s chrome legs’ reflection, or the opinion which I had of myself.
The weird thing about being in a psychiatric ward is that there is a lot of personnel and everybody knows your name, even if you have never introduced yourself to them. It makes you feel oddly famous, or, depending on your mood, infamous. “Mr de Jong, can you fill this form out please?” “Mr de Jong, I need your signature here.” As though I am giving out autographs at a book signing. While it is initially strange, I can’t say there is not at least a little pleasure in it. Sure, maybe I would inconvenience these people less if I weren’t sick, but they are genuinely interested in how you are feeling and that is nice for a change.
And then you’re in an MRI scanner, then you’re having an electrocardiogram. Somebody tells you to relax in the same manner you already hated to be told to relax in kindergarten, you eat, you look out of the window, you wait in front of one office or another, you go get your medicine, you try to read a couple of pages, then you eat again. And I can see everybody’s thoughts bouncing off the walls: “Am I sick enough to be here?”, “Do I belong here?”, “Surely I am the least sick person here.”
You wake up, drenched in sweat, it’s only three a.m. You remember the pamphlet they gave you on sleep hygiene: never look what time it is. You’re angry at yourself for having broken a rule supposed to help you. You start feeling guilty for a whole lot of other reasons, mainly for being here and perhaps taking this spot away from somebody who really needs it. You finally fall back to sleep. You’re woken up. It’s 7 a.m. You immediately fall back to sleep. It’s 9 a.m. You have missed breakfast. Feeling groggy, you stumble out onto the hallway, are greeted by three different people in such a cheerful way that you just wish you were in Iceland, in winter, when it’s dark. You get your medication. You go to the morning group session. Always the same questions:
-How did you sleep?
-How is your mood?
-Did you hear my first answer?
You check into your e-mail account. Out there, the real world seems to be going on despite you being in here. It slightly annoys you that you seem to be so disposable, but you’re also happy that not being there doesn’t seem to be as devastating as you had always thought. You couldn’t save the world when you took part in it, the world is just as fucked when you’re not anymore. Sad, but reassuring.
Click. Click. Click. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr… Fridges, lights, cellphones vibrating. Everything so loud. The lights so bright your eyes hurt. Again the question:
-How are you feeling?
-Give me fucking time to think about it!
Annoyed. Bored. Irritated. Tired. So tired. Sleep during the day. Like it. Then tell yourself you messed up your chance of actually falling asleep at night again. Chastise yourself for this and that. Hate yourself. Hate everything. Help a stranger find his way. Be thoughtful. Then feel your own scorn at how little thoughtful you are. But also that you say yes too quickly. You want to be more egotistical. No, you don’t. You write a couple of lines. Bad prose. You walk down the brightly lit corridor to get your last medicine for the night. Defeated, you return to your bedroom. Your roommate is, like always, lying quietly on his bed. The light switch gets turned off and the brain decides it’s time to go into overdrive. If only you hadn’t slept in the afternoon.