Based on my own experience with inpatient mental health, this excerpt from my second serial-killer novel, The Carlin Trend, is my take on investigative journalism:

5150 by John Ambrose-Hemmingway

Friday night, six o’clock. I grab my shoulder bag and make my way from the darkness of the parking lot into the blinding, fluorescent lights of the lobby. I have quite the weekend planned.
Susan was in a place like this. Actually, she was in this place. She came here a few times before she finally went through with it. Each time she came home, she was worse than before. I watched her, over the better part of a decade, turn from a vibrant, healthy young woman to a shell of a person, barely able to feed herself or get out of bed.
This weekend, I’ll be walking a mile in her shoes.
I sign the papers for the desk nurse, admitting myself for emergency suicide intervention. A seventy-two-hour hold. I give them the same symptoms Susan did, telling them I am depressed and am thinking about hurting myself. I’ll add more from Susan’s journals when I talk to the doctors.
An orderly slams open the security door and beckons me inside. He takes my bag and, without bothering to look in it, shoves it into a locked closet with dozens of other suitcases, backpacks and plastic bags.
Past the second set of security doors, a nurse stands behind a counter, watching patients pace the halls and talk to themselves. She takes me to a small closet where she takes my blood pressure and other vitals. The equipment reads twenty-two respirations per minute. That is definitely wrong. I count my breath at about eight or ten per minute.
She forces me to strip naked with the door open and gives me some paper scrubs, about six sizes too large, and brown hospital socks. Once she has shoved my clothes into the closet with my bag, she escorts me to the room at the end of the hall, tells me which of the three beds is mine and closes the door, leaving me inside, in the dark. I flip the switch and the overhead fluorescents come on like a thousand suns. I decide to sit in the dark. There are blinds on the window, but they can’t be opened.
After several hours of sitting in the dark, a nurse comes to ask me, in a condescending tone, if I was planning to take my meds tonight. I don’t typically take medication, so I’m not sure what they’re planning to give me. I trek my way down the corridor and am given a paper cup with Ativan and my choice of either cran-apple or orange juice. She makes a note on her clipboard when I reject the juice in favor of water.
Before heading back to bed, we all have to line up, shoulder-to-shoulder in the hallway to have our vitals checked. When it’s my turn, the nurse asks the identical questions she asked when I came in:
“Why are you here?”
“I was thinking about hurting myself.”
“Do you feel that way now?”
“No.”
Susan told me to always, always say no to this question, unless you want to be tied up, injected and kept for a few more days. Ironically, she said, you should never, under any circumstances, mention suicide in a mental health facility.
“Are you hearing voices?”
“No. I’m not schitzo. I’m feeling depressed and have headaches.”
And she sends me back to my room for the night. The other two beds are now occupied. One roommate is fast asleep, the other is sitting bolt-upright on his bed, staring at the dark wall.

The next morning, I line up with the forty-or-so others in my ward and we march, single-file, to the cafeteria.
The nurse takes careful notes regarding what patients do, or don’t, elect to take from the counter. The food is bland, burned and mostly-unidentifiable as real food. The lone lunch-lady won’t allow additional portions of anything, but passes out dozens of packets of sugar, syrup or ketchup to each patient. I’m not a nutritionist, but I can’t see how one egg, one piece of bread and some runny oatmeal, drowned in processed sugar, qualifies as a balanced meal.
After breakfast, we are allowed thirty minutes to clean ourselves. The three of us manage to all shower in the allotted time. Fortunately, all of my roommates seem nice enough. After we clean ourselves, the nurses come around to take our soap, toothbrushes and mouthwash. They’ve made it clear that this will be our only opportunity to use any sanitary items until this time tomorrow.
Before lunch, we have required exercise time. Once again, we line up, way too close to each other, and are marched down the hall to the ‘gym’. I attempt to use the exercise bikes, but the pedals just spin freely. They’re electric bikes, but the cords have all been cut. I grab a basketball from the rack and attempt to shoot it into the one hoop, against a far wall. It sticks between the rim and backboard, too flat to bounce. The other patients spin their wheels and dribble their flat balls. The atmosphere of the room makes me feel like if I don’t pretend, I’ll be punished.
They drive us like cattle back to our ward, only to immediately turn around and take us back to the cafeteria. Lunch is more of the same. One dry chicken breast, one piece of bread, one iceberg wedge and all the ketchup, ranch and sugar packets one can carry.
The daily calendar on the wall in my ward says there is a ‘group’ at three. Otherwise, no other activities are scheduled for today. Some patients choose to pace the halls or sleep, but most hang out in the common room, watching network TV and coloring with crayons. Seems like these are my only choices. I settle on Judge Judy and take a seat as far away from the loudest of the bunch as I can.
After seventy-three minutes of trash TV and staring at the clock, a nurse calls me into the closet to have my vitals checked again. She asks me the same questions as before. This time, I elaborate on the headaches and add some detail about having difficulty balancing while walking, like Susan had toward the end. The nurse removes the blood-pressure cuff and tells me to send in the next patient from the hall.
‘Group’ therapy consisted of an hour of the most manic or delusional patients monopolizing the room by arguing with the indifferent social worker, or each other. Any hope for any sharing or healing went out the door in the first thirty seconds and the counsellor had no interest in reigning it in, dryly asking, “And how does that make you feel?”, no matter what delirious rant the patient would be on.
I won’t bore you with the details of dinner. Suffice it to say, every meal consisted of us lining up and being paraded down the halls to choke down what may as well have been cardboard, kitty litter and charcoal.
It’s been twenty-four hours. I still haven’t seen a doctor. The most medical attention I’ve received is having my blood pressure checked. The most psychiatric care I’ve received was that Ativan.
I restlessly watch more network TV until the appropriately decided bedtime, which I determine is after they offer me my ‘medication’.
This place is starting to get to me. The sheer neglect of the staff combined with no way to exercise our minds and bodies, it’s no wonder Susan always came home worse than she left. If it weren’t for the pills, I don’t think I could sleep here.
The next morning, after another round of questioning from the nurse and another unpalatable breakfast, I finally meet with a psychiatrist. She asks me the identical questions as the nurse. This time I elaborate even further on the headaches, not sure what notes the nurses have left in my file, if any. I tell her I have severe headaches, memory loss, vision and balance problems. Any individual with no medical training might suspect I had a stroke, the way I was describing the symptoms. All this so-called professional had to say before sending me back into the care of Judge Judy was, “It’s probably just depression. You can talk about it in group.”
This time, when we go to the gym, I only spend a couple of minutes pretending to exercise on their broken equipment before playing with a giant Jenga set with another patient. I’ve tried to avoid interacting with other patients since I’ve been here, unsure why they are here and what might set them off. The nurses are watching and judging, so I make polite conversation with the girl as we play. She must be heavily medicated, not much of what she says makes sense. I can understand the words, just not the way she’s putting them together.
For the rest of my stay, it’s more of the same. The same questions from the nurses, with their same indifference to my care. I have an identical appointment with the ‘doctor’ on Monday. After choking down my last terrible meal, they give me my personal belongings and send me out the door. They don’t ask if I have a ride home. All they provide me is a paper with the phone number and address for the county health department, so I can “continue my care.”
Susan tried to get help from the county. Before she died, she called every number she could find, from adult protective services to the sheriff. Nobody would help her. She said, at one point, that APS told her the fact she’s able to call herself must mean she’s able to care for herself.
I spent just one weekend of my life being treated the way Susan had been treated her entire life. For one weekend, I didn’t matter. I was less than a person. I didn’t know how to help her. In my ignorance, I just kept encouraging her to go through the same torment. She hated doctors and hospitals, but all I could do was keep telling her to “get help”. It’s not all I could do, but it was all I did. I don’t know if I could have been the person to help her or not, but I know now that there was no help, no healing, happening in the places we kept sending her.




 

5150 by John Ambrose-Hemmingway from The Carlin Trend. Also featured in You Don’t Look Artistic.

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