I sat on the bed in the emergency room, waiting to be taken upstairs to the second floor. The second floor was reserved as the psych ward. I heard a knock on the door before it opened and a guy dressed in burgundy scrubs introduced himself and explained that he would be escorting me to the second floor.
“Are you all ready to go?” he asked me.
“Ready to go to a psych ward? No thanks,” I responded, but I walked alongside him anyway. We walked together quietly down a long hall before approaching an elevator. My escort greeted a security officer who was walking in the opposite direction as us and the ding of the elevator broke the flow of their brief conversation. It was a short ride to the second floor from the ER department. I found it odd that all of the doors you had to access on the second floor could only be opened by putting a passcode in. Great. I felt like I was on my way to jail.
I noticed that my escort to the looney bin was holding some paperwork that he passed off to one of the nurses behind the nurses’ desk. A slim blond woman came from around the opened half circle that was the nurses’ station.
“Hi Karen, welcome. Let’s get you inside and get you comfortable. You’ll be seeing the doctor in just a few minutes.” The nurse sounded awfully happy to be doing her job. It didn’t bother me much because her happiness seemed genuine. I was jealous. I learned that her name was Rebecca. Rebecca showed me where the multi-purpose room was. This was where we could eat, watch TV, and entertain visitors. She showed me the room where group meetings would be held, and there appeared to be a meeting already in session, because she didn’t take me beyond the closed door and from the small window on the door I could see people sitting in a circle. Someone was speaking but only muffled sounds emitting from the door.
We moved the tour on and I was shown the laundry room, the supply closet, the nursing station, and the doctor’s office. The last stop was my room. I was surprised to discover that I wouldn’t be sharing the room with another patient. My room was equipped with one hospital bed, a brown table tray that was possibly used for eating on, one blue recliner, and a small four-drawer dresser. The furnishings were scarce but I guess it wasn’t meant to be cozy. I had my own bathroom; inside was a sink, toilet, and shower. I noticed there wasn’t a tub, so no bubble baths for me. I was given a few of the hospital toiletries, such as shampoo, toothpaste and brush, soap, powder, and mouthwash. Rebecca explained that I could have family members or friends bring me anything I would need. I thought that was funny. I had no intention of telling anyone where I was.
Rebecca walked toward the door and before walking out told me that the doctor would be coming to my room to get me in just a few minutes. Rebecca closed my door as she left. I sat on my new bed and tried to take in the sights of my new room. How long would I be here? I still couldn’t believe that I was in the hospital, locked in a psychiatric ward, and no one knew where I was. Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe I could assume a different identity and start all over. My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Well, I guess the doctor’s ready to see me now, I thought.
The doctor’s office was really small. There was a black desk the doctor sat behind, a white filing cabinet against the wall behind him, and a black office chair that he sat in. I sat on the other side of the desk, with the door to exit the office behind me. I was grateful for that. There were no windows in the office so the only thing that kept me connected to the outside was the door, and it was close by and easily assessable. We sat in an awkward silence for a few minutes. I absentmindedly stuck my right thumb in my mouth and began chewing at my nail, which was already chewed down to basically nothing.
Finally, the doctor spoke. He introduced himself and for the life of me I could not make out his name. The doctor had a thick accent and I didn’t even know where he was from. I just knew that I had to focus entirely on what he was saying in order to understand him. Focusing was not a reliable trait for me, but I had to give it a go. He asked me some of the same questions that I’d been asked in the emergency room. He asked me how long I’d been depressed, if I heard any voices or saw things that other people could not hear and/or see. He asked me how long I’d been suicidal. I answered the questions asked of me as honestly as I could. The doctor then looked at my exposed arms, and instinctively I attempted to hide the self- inflicted marks that lined both arms. I hated to be asked any questions about my self-harm. I didn’t even know how to answer them. How do you tell someone that you began hurting yourself on purpose because it made you feel better? When I said it out loud, I knew how ludicrous it sounded, but it made perfectly good sense in my head. I had fresh cut marks on top of healing ones that were on top of healed ones. I had the word “help” etched on my left wrist and I didn’t even remember doing that one. I knew that after a particularly stressful day, I was so upset I cried myself to sleep, and when I woke up, my wrist was sore and burned. I had dried blood on my pillow and I saw what I had done, but didn’t remember doing it. I was honest when I told the doctor that I was eight years old when I stumbled upon the healing power of self-mutilation.
After the doctor jotted something in the yellow legal pad he had in front of him, he sat back in his chair, crossed his arms, and then told me, “You know, these suicide attempts are just a cry out for attention. You are a teenager and you want someone to feel sorry for you. Isn’t that it?” And before his condescending words completely registered, he followed with, “Besides, you know that only white girls cut themselves. You are just looking for attention.”
I couldn’t believe that I had just had a medical doctor accuse me of seeking attention. Me. The one person who went out of her way to make sure she remained unseen. I was always careful to cut parts of my body that would be hidden by clothing. I didn’t show off my new cuts or even my old ones. I didn’t want anyone to know. It was my own private oasis to help me make it through another day. Sometimes I needed it to help me make it through another hour, another minute even, and this doctor thought it was some big attention-seeking joke. I never heard anything else he said that day. I spent another thirty minutes in the office with him but I stopped listening right then. As I got up to leave, the doctor told me I had to attend a group that was already in session. He told me to walk down to the group room and just have a seat. “I’ll see you soon, Ms. Suffern, cheer up,” he said as he guided me out the door.
I walked down the hall until I reached the room I’d seen when Rebecca had given me a tour earlier in the day. I slowly turned the knob and opened the door. Just as I’d imagined would happen, every eye in that room was now fixed on me and watched me walk from the doorway until I found an empty seat within the circle. I sat quietly and the discussion continued where it had left off.
The therapist facilitating the group had asked the group to give their names and then to state their age and how they saw their futures in the next five years. The next person to speak was four chairs away from me. He said his name was Samuel and that he was forty-seven years old. He said in five years he would be five years sober from alcohol and that he and his son would be back on speaking terms so that he would be able to see his grandchildren. The next person to speak was only three seats away from me. His name was Mark and he said that he was twenty-nine years old. He said in five years he would be just graduating from culinary school and interning at some fancy restaurant in New York City. Just two seats away from me was Marie. Marie was sixty years old and she said in five years she wanted to be retired and living out her golden years in the South with her daughter and son-in-law. They were getting closer to me. Amanda was next. Amanda was and said that in five years she wanted to have gone back to get her high-school diploma so that she could get a job and eventually get her daughter back from child protective services.
The moment I had been dreading from the time I took my seat had arrived. It was my turn to speak. All eyes were once again on me as I sat silently. The facilitator of the group explained the instructions again, I guess in case I didn’t understand the first time. I was reminded that I had to state my name, my age, and where I planned to be five years into the future.
I quietly whispered, “Pass,” hoping that they would skip over me and go to the next person in line.
“I’m sorry, passing is not an option,” the facilitator said, “everyone must answer the question.”
After a few more silent moments, I looked at the facilitator and said, “My name is Karen, I am eighteen years old, and I have no future,” before breaking down into heavy sobs.
After group, I was more than happy to retreat to my room so that I could crawl into bed and never get up again. I was interrupted during my sleep at some point during the night; it couldn’t have been too late because the night sky still had a blueish-black hue to it.
“Medication time,” a brunette nurse announced as she came to me and handed me a medication cup with four pills in various sizes and colors and a small Dixie cup of water.
“What is this?” I asked the nurse.
“The doctor put you on forty milligrams of Prozac, six hundred milligrams of lithium, and two milligrams of risperidone.”
I asked what these medications were for and all the nurse said was to make me feel better. I took the medication cup from the nurse’s hand, and, looking at the medications one last time, I bought the cup to my lips and tilted my head back as I took the medicines in my mouth. I grabbed the cup of water to wash it all down and the nurse asked me to open my mouth and lift my tongue to ensure I had taken it before she turned to leave. She stopped short at my meal tray sitting on my brown tray table. It was the first time I had noticed a tray of food on my table; I had no idea how long it had been sitting there. She removed the brown dome lid to see that the night’s dinner remained untouched. “Not hungry?” she asked me, and after I shook my head no, she removed the tray and left my room.
I fell into a restless sleep for a few hours after taking the medication. I kept having bad dreams of evil things chasing me. I kept running but no matter how far away I got from the bad things, they were always right behind me. I sat straight up in bed, breathing heavily and feeling like I was suffocating. I looked at the wall in front of me and watched as blood ran down the walls. Faces began to materialize in front of my eyes and emerged from the bloodstained walls; they were trying to hurt me. I began to scream. Soon, there were three nurses in my room trying to calm me down. I was inconsolable. Why were they trying to hold me down while these monster faces were coming out of the walls to get me? I continued to scream and began kicking and swinging my arms as the nurses tried to hold me down. Why were they holding me down? I wanted to leave! The last thing I remember was the feel of a needle sticking me in my backside before darkness fell over me.
I don’t know how long I was out. I remember waking up and finding it was now morning. I tried to get up but realized I was being restrained. My feet and hands were literally tied to the bed. I struggled briefly, trying to free myself, when a nurse I hadn’t seen before walked in my room. “Honey, don’t. You’ll hurt yourself,” she said to me.
“Let me out,” I demanded.
“I will, just give me a minute. I need to go let the doctor know you’re awake.”
Fifteen minutes went by before the same nurse returned to my room with the doctor in tow.
“Good morning, Miss Suffern. I’ve heard you had a bad night,” he said. Without waiting for a response from me, he continued, “I don’t know if your hallucination last night was due to the medication or your condition worsening. Either way, to err on the side of caution, we are having you transferred to St. Mark’s hospital. They have a psychiatric wing that is equipped to handle cases as severe as yours.”
“Wait, I’m being transferred?” I asked, just as two men in paramedic uniforms were entering my room with a gurney. Just like that, I was leaving St. Joseph’s to go to St. Mark’s.
I wasn’t sure of what to expect when I made it to St. Mark’s. They had been expecting me, so once the paramedics rolled my gurney to the right wing of the hospital, they passed off the paperwork and once again I was in someone else’s care. I was helped to my feet and placed in a waiting wheelchair. Before standing, I’d thought the wheelchair was overkill, until I realized that the effect of the medicine I’d been given at St. Joseph’s still hadn’t worn off and I was unsteady on my feet. I was wheeled down a short hall and through two locked doors until I was sitting just outside of a closed office door. I assumed that it must be a doctor’s office or a therapist’s office. I was right; it was the doctor’s office. I was wheeled inside and this doctor’s office was much bigger and brighter than the one at St. Joseph’s. I didn’t feel as closed in. My meeting with this doctor didn’t take long; he told me he wanted me to get some rest and he would be checking in with me the following day.
The nurse came back to wheel me into my room. I was surprised to find that I would have a roommate. The bedroom set up here was much different too. The room had dorm-style beds on either side of the room, and each side had a dresser and a small desk and chair. There was one bathroom that we would be sharing. My roommate was sitting on her side of the room on her bed and immediately got up as I entered the room. She walked right up to me and introduced herself as Kathy. The nurse asked Kathy to make sure she made me feel welcome and before walking out of the room, she reminded us that dinner was in an hour.
I will admit, I was kind of worried about having to share living quarters with a stranger. I didn’t even like sharing living space with people I knew. Kathy was wonderful though. She walked me to each one of our daily groups. She sat next to me during all the meal times and she was super friendly. It was almost like she would always pick up cues from me when my anxiety was high and she would help me retreat to my room without anyone noticing that I’d left.
Kathy talked about herself. She was fifty years old and divorced. She had a twenty-two-year-old son, a seventeen-year-old daughter, and a twelve-year-old son. I could tell she loved kids and missed hers terribly. As I watched how confident Kathy was and how easily she made friends with everyone, I wondered why she was even in a place like this. She didn’t seem to belong. Kathy told me she had bipolar disorder and that the reason she was divorced was because she’d spent a lot of money and got her family in a lot of debt and almost lost their home.
I felt bad for Kathy. She was such a nice woman. She certainly made it easier for me to adjust to being in a mental facility. I missed my mom terribly and Kathy unofficially took on the role. It comforted me because I needed my mom, and I guess it comforted her because she missed her own children. Kathy would sit on my bed while I laid my head in her lap and she would stroke my hair until I fell asleep. Most nights I would cry myself to sleep and she would embrace me and just tell me I would be OK. And oddly enough, for the first time in…well, ever, I believed it. I believed that I would be OK.
At this point, I had missed more than a month of school. I didn’t care because I’d tried to drop out, but wasn’t allowed to. My favorite teacher, Mr. McNeal, came to the hospital to visit and bring work for me to do. I enjoyed his visits because I thought he was amazing. I felt horrible for leaving him my suicide note. He never made me feel bad about it and he never mentioned it. He would visit every few days and drop schoolwork for me to complete, and Kathy would help me with it. Despite where I was, I actually felt like a normal person. I liked the feeling.
My period of normalcy proved to be short-lived. I found out that Kathy was being discharged. I was devastated. I had grown to love Kathy and I wanted her to stay with me. The day she was packing up her belongings, I stayed in the room and watched her get her things together. I was anxious and sad and I cried so much. Kathy was such a sweet woman, she would stop what she was doing to comfort me. She told me that I would make a difference in the world one day. She told me that I was beautiful, and kind, and smart, and that I didn’t belong here. She made me promise that I would get better so that I could fulfill my purpose in this world. I didn’t know what Kathy saw, but I knew that what she said about me couldn’t be true.
It had been eight days since Kathy was discharged, and I still hadn’t gotten a new roommate. I didn’t like being alone anymore and even with medication, sleep was getting harder and harder to come by. I was tossing and turning and my anxiety was at an all-time high. I decided one night that I wasn’t going to stay in bed. I got up and opened the door of my room. The hallway was dark, except for the soft blue glow of computers from the nurses’ station a little ways up the hall. I snuck out of my room and made my way to the multi-purpose room. This room was where we had our meals and took part in our different groups. I also knew we had a television in this room and it had cable. I opened the door and closed it softly behind me before maneuvering around the room, careful not to make a sound. I walked to the television and turned it on. I had no idea what stations were on which channel so I flipped the channels until I saw something that piqued my interest. I stopped at a movie that had Janet Jackson in it. I wasn’t sure what movie it was so I sat down at the table to watch it. During the commercial break, I realized that the movie I was watching was Poetic Justice.
I was about twenty minutes into the movie when the door to the multipurpose room opened up behind me. I turned around and saw the guy who worked at night on staff standing in the doorway. I got up to turn the TV off as he walked into the room. “No, no, you don’t have to do that. Sit down, Karen.” I hadn’t realized he knew my name. I mean, I was sure he knew all of our names here, but I didn’t know his. I wasn’t even sure of his job title.
I sat back down and he came and stood behind the empty chair beside me. “Can I sit here?” he asked. I nodded and he sat next to me. We quietly watched the movie together for five minutes before he broke the silence and asked if I wanted a snack from the vending machine.
“We have vending machines?” I had never seen any.
He laughed. “Well, you don’t, but we do. In the staff break room.” Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I told him I would like a snack and he disappeared out of the door. Minutes later he returned with a Honey Bun, a bag of Skittles, and a Sunkist. I felt like I was in heaven. We weren’t allowed to have soda and as I hesitantly reached for the soda, he looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell if you don’t.”
He pushed the sugar-laden items closer to me and took his seat next to me once again. I unwrapped the Honey Bun and within two large bites, it was already half gone.
“You have to promise me you won’t throw any of this up.”
I suddenly felt self-conscious. He knew my secret. Of course he did. He must have read my medical file or something. The second bite of Honey Bun remained chewed in my mouth; it was hard to swallow.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, I just don’t want you to hurt yourself. You’re too pretty for all of that.” With that, he placed his hand on my back and rubbed it.
I swallowed the Honey Bun and took a sip of soda. We watched the movie in silence again. From time to time, out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that he was looking at me. I pretended not to notice. I also pretended not to notice when he suddenly grabbed my right hand and placed it on his crotch. Immediately, I could feel his excitement through the thin blue scrubs that he wore. He had removed his hand from mine and as I attempted to remove my hand from his crotch, he once again placed his hands on top of mine to keep it in place. Using his hand as a guide, he put my hand inside of his pants and his underwear. I felt his bare penis in my hand. I kept my eyes straight ahead on the TV. At this point, I could no longer understand what was happening on the TV; all I wanted to do was run. Every once in a while I was made aware of what was really happening when I would hear him utter a low moan as he used my hand to satisfy himself to completion. Once he was done, he used a paper towel from the art supplies in the room to clean my hand off. After adjusting himself, he kissed me on the top of my head and walked out of the room.
By the time I had the courage to leave the multipurpose room to go back to my bedroom, I was trying to convince myself that what had just happened hadn’t really happened. Why didn’t I stop him? Why did I just let him use me like that? I hated when I did that.
I wish I could say that I reported him and that was the last incident. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t. The next night, he came into my room in the middle of the night and pulled my pajama pants down until my naked butt was exposed. Then he rubbed himself on me, without penetrating me, until he got off. Afterward, he cleaned me off and slid my pajama pants back up and walked out just as quickly and silently as he’d come in.
The following night, when he came in, I pretended to be asleep. I lay on my back and even though my eyes were closed, I could feel him staring at me. I felt him place his hand on my belly and rub it. I lay still, eyes still closed. He continued to rub me and moved up toward my breast, fondling one, and then the other. He moved his hand back down my body until he was inside my pants. “I know you’re not asleep, Karen. I’m not going to rape you, I just want to make you feel good. If you want me to stop, just tell me to stop.”
I kept my eyes closed, but I was able to say, “Please, stop.”
He didn’t stop. He was between my legs now and his fingers were inside of me. “Are you sure? You are saying stop, but your body is saying something else.” I was humiliated because he was right. My mind was in a battle over my body and my body was winning. He seemed to take pleasure in this. “Don’t hold back, just let it out,” he whispered to me. I was scared. I didn’t want to. Everything he was doing to me made me sick and him giving me permission to have an orgasm was more than I could bear. I shut down. My body stopped responding and that was a huge relief to me. Everything that was happening was strangely familiar and I didn’t like it. Anger was replaced with shame and I just lay there until he was done with me. I was tired of this. I hated being there and it was the very next day that I stayed in my room the whole day. I refused to leave. I stopped going to groups, I stopped taking my medications, and I wouldn’t talk to the nurses, the doctor, and any of the therapists. I just wanted to be left alone. Why wouldn’t they just leave me alone? I wanted to stay in my room until I died.
After the fourth day of refusing my medications and refusing to talk to anyone or eat anything, the doctor knocked on my door before opening it all the way and using a doorstop to keep it open. The doctor walked completely inside the room, and following behind was him. I sat up in bed and scooted until I was backed against the wall on my bed with nowhere to go. I just kept saying no, no, no…over and over and crying. Two other men entered the room and they had a gurney. I kept saying no, and at this time I was screaming it. The doctor removed a syringe from his lab coat and turned to him and told him to hold my hands. One of the other two guys, who were paramedics, grabbed my feet while the doctor stuck the syringe in my backside and drugged me. Almost immediately, everything faded to black.
By the time I woke up again, it was in the evening and I was lying in an unfamiliar bed surrounded by unfamiliar furnishings. I could tell I was in a hospital, but I didn’t know where. I decided to get up but soon realized that my ankles and wrists were bound by restraints. I didn’t even fight it this time; I just drifted back to sleep. Sometime in the night, a nursing assistant entered my room to check my vital signs. I asked her where I was. She told me I was at the hospital. I asked what hospital. She said Blackstone. I knew that Blackstone was a state-run mental hospital. I knew that it was about an hour away from St. Mark’s. I also knew that once you were admitted into Blackstone, you never, ever left.
The next morning I woke up and realized I was no longer restrained. At some point I had been freed, so I got out of bed. When I left my room I noticed that there was a sitting area nearly immediately outside of my room and there were both males and females sitting around. Some were talking to other people, and some talked to themselves. Others watched TV and some others even listened to music. There was a guy sitting off in a corner all alone, staring into space. I walked over to him and sat next to him. He had long jet-black hair and his skin was very pale. I looked over at him and noticed his arms lying with his forearms facing up on his lap, exposing his wrists. He had hundreds of little black lines weaving in and out in jagged patterns going vertically down his forearm toward each wrist. It took a second for me to realize that they were stitches. The skin around the stitches was red and angry. I took my right hand and hovered it over his left forearm, less than an inch from touching. The guy didn’t move; I don’t know if it was out of curiosity as to what I was doing or sheer shock of my bold move. I could feel the heat radiating from his wounds. I was in awe. His arms looked like a masterpiece and I longed to be the artist. Instantly, I was envious that he had the guts to do what I only dreamed of doing. I ached to literally open myself up and watch the insides of me flow outward until everything slowly began to disappear.
I looked at my new friend and asked him his name. He looked at me and said, “Danny.”
“Hi Danny, I’m Karen.”
“Hey Karen,” Danny said.
“Can I touch it?” I asked Danny, referring to his sewn-up wrists.
“Sure,” he responded. I was like a kid in a candy store that was just given permission to get a piece of candy, but only being allowed just one. I let my eyes take in the sight to memorize the pattern of the stitches. I wanted to make sure I touched it just right. I gingerly touched each and every stitch. The stitches were stiff.
“They itch all of the time, that feels good though,” Danny said as I ran my fingers up and down his arm.
“How many stitches?” I wanted to know.
“A hundred and ninety-two in all.”
“Wow, a hundred and ninety-two stitches? It looks like a lot more.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the sound of wailing coming from one of the closed doors.
“Wanna play ping-pong?” Danny asked me. I agreed and we got up and made our way to the ping-pong table and played a few games.
Danny and I were close. He told me his story, and I told him a bit of mine. Many people thought we had coupled up, but the truth was, we were more like brother and sister than anything else. We looked after each other, we laughed, we cried, and we liked to sit together and just let silence sit with us.
Danny’s arms healed and he was shipped to a halfway house a month later. I was lucky; I found out that I had made enough progress that the medical team had begun discussing my discharge. I wasn’t going to be institutionalized forever!
I spent three months at Blackstone before arrangements were made for my mom to travel from North Carolina to New Jersey to pick me up. I hadn’t seen my mom in eleven months and I couldn’t wait to see her face.
The day I was discharged, I sat outside and soaked in the warm summer sun. I made small talk with the patient-care tech that had been assigned to me to make sure that I left with my mom. My mom would be here any minute.
Not even ten minutes later, I could make out a figure being allowed access through the locked gate. She was still too far away to make out any features but I knew that it was my mom. Mommy was here! I watched her walk for one minute and decided to run to meet her. It was her! It was my mom. She was really here! I finally caught up to her and wrapped my arms tightly around her in a tight embrace. I couldn’t believe it; five months and three hospitals later, I was finally going home.