on space

Everyday life is stressful, and a lucky few can cope by indulging in drugs and alcohol, turning to prostitution, or committing crimes. Some know how to meditate, some love to exercise. Some have the money to buy a new wardrobe or go on vacation to an exotic beach, or someplace like Vegas, which can be a win/win situation, because it’s a vacation as well as the perfect place to indulge in drugs, alcohol and prostitution. But if you’re me, and have no concept of how to deal with stress, you may end up on an extended stay at McClean’s Hospital in Belmont…

"Honey?" I awoke to someone shaking me. As my eyes adjusted and I looked around the room, I temporarily forgot where I was. It wasn’t until I sat up and felt the cramp in my neck due to falling asleep on a very uncomfortable couch that everything came back to me…

The three hours I’d spent in an empty, locked white room in one of those flimsy hospital nightgowns that hospitals have an endless supply of…

The two hours I’d spent after that – in the same white room and in the same nightgown, but now angry and embarrassed because a nurse felt I needed a babysitter after she saw me scratching the skin off my arms with my fingernails…

The seven mortifying minutes I’d spent strapped to a stretcher in order to be wheeled through Charles Mass General Hospital to the ambulance that would take me to McClean’s. The looks on people’s faces as they stared at the crazy girl in restraints are still incredibly vivid in my mind. I see those looks every time I look in a mirror…

And then the fours hours I’d spent in the "reception room" at the psychiatric hospital, as I waited for them to find me a bed…

…I walked up to the nurse at the desk. "Um, can I have a cigarette?"

She looked up and smiled. "Sure, honey, hold on." She picked up the phone, dialed an extension and asked for someone named Paul. After she hung up, she pointed to a chair across the hall. "Why don’t you sit right there. Paul will be right down to take you."

To take me? I had no idea what was going on, so I had no other choice than to sit down and wait. I wished I knew what time it was, but I hadn’t worn my watch. Or maybe I did, but MGH had taken anything they felt I could use to harm myself and put it in a bag and who knew where anything was now. But a watch? What was I going to do with a watch – time myself to death? I heard footsteps and jingling keys. A regular-looking middle-aged man was walking towards me. When I looked at him he smiled. He looked like someone’s dad – someone who went to his kid’s little league games and barbequed on the weekends.

"Hey, there, "he said. "Need a smoke?"


He motioned for me to follow him. At the door of the waiting room, he pulled out a bouquet of keys, chose one, and unlocked the door. We walked down a short hall to another door, which a different key unlocked. Another hall, another door, another key. Suddenly, a doorway flew open and a woman came running out into the hallway. She froze when she saw us.

"Hi, Gina." Paul walked over to her. She didn’t even see him – she was staring at me. "Gina, why don’t you go back to your room…" Gina didn’t respond. She just kept looking at me. "Gina," Paul’s voice was a little sterner, "You have to go to bed." Gina didn’t flinch. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks, and her pajamas were wrinkled and missing a button or two. Her skin was yellow and her eyes looked sunken into two black hollows in her skull. She licked her lips in such a way that made me fear she wanted to eat my brain. "Gina…"

Finally, Gina looked at Paul, who smiled, and shuffled back to her room.

Holy shit. Where the hell was I?

Paul led me down the rest of the hallway to a door that, for once, didn’t need a key to be opened.

"Here ya go," he sang, opening the door for me, like we were on a date and he was practicing chivalry.

"I don’t have my cigarettes."

Paul reached into his shirt pocket and handed me a half-empty pack of Marlboro Lights.

"I don’t have a lighter."

Paul, being quite the magician, produced a lighter and lit the end of my cigarette. "Let me know when you’re done," he said. "I’ll be right here to walk you back."

I nodded, took a drag, and walked into a tiny screened-in porch. There were three people already there, but I didn’t really care at the moment. All I wanted to focus on was how the nicotine felt as it shot into my bloodstream and headed for my brain. Within seconds, I felt my head lighten and expand like a helium-filled balloon, and wished that I didn’t smoke so often, so I could get that feeling every time I did.


 The voice startled me out of my nicotine high. A Hispanic kid who was sitting at the makeshift table was staring at me and smiling. I smiled back, more out of fear than the desire to be friendly.

"You suicidal?"

Wow. How about a "hi, I’m jimmy, nice to meet you?" Or even a "could you get out of my way – you’re blocking my hallucination." Why get so personal so quickly? I looked at him while I tried to figure out what to respond. His eyes were wide but didn’t seem to focus on anything. They just kind of rolled around in his head – it reminded me of those plastic googly-eyes we used to glue on things in second grade.

 "Um… yeah, I guess."

"Yeah, me too." He pointed to the girl sitting next to him. "That’s Lisa." Lisa gave me a look that made me want to cower in a corner and scream for my mom.

Lesson One: Don’t fuck with Lisa.

In a matter of a single cigarette, I learned that this was Tony’s third stay at McClean’s – the only reason they’d let him out the last time was because he had to go to jail – something about a lot of drugs and getting hit on the head and someone trying to stab him and him stabbing the other guy back, eyes rolling and rolling… I looked over at the other guy sitting at the table. He was reading a Michael Creighton book. He looked up when he felt me staring at him, and said, "I have no idea why I’m here…"

…I groggily sat up. "We have a room for you," the nurse was saying. "Are you ready?"

I nodded and wrapped the blanket that was given to me around my shoulders. Over the river and through the woods to Proctor II, where I would be living for the next indeterminable amount of time… When I woke up the next morning, I had no idea what to do first. I knew I wanted to take a shower, but I had no idea how to go about doing that here. I put on my clothes from the day before – that was another thing – what do I do about clothes? At least I had come to McClean’s wearing something comfortable – that I hadn’t tried to kill myself at the Prom or something. I walked out of my bedroom and into the hall. It looked like a dormitory, and on every door was a piece of bright colored construction paper with the names of the people who occupied the room. I was reminded of grade school Open House where the teachers put their names on their classroom doors so the parents wouldn’t get lost. How thoughtful… I turned and looked at my own door. My name was already there next to Marsha’s. Marsha hadn’t been in her bed when I woke up. I prayed I wasn’t living with a Gina or a Lisa…

A woman came around the corner, and when she saw me standing there looking like a little girl afraid to cross the street, she smiled.

"Hi there! How are you?" What was this, a cult? Everyone fucking smiling and accommodating me the best they can to make sure I never want to leave. "This is the Happiest Place on Earth! Why don’t you join us in a Mass Overdose?"

"I want to take a shower," I said. Her nametag said "Cheryl."

"Well, we have morning meeting in five minutes," Cheryl smiled. Was she auditioning for a toothpaste commercial or what? 

"So what does that mean – that I can’t take a fucking shower?" I was feeling awfully ballsy. I didn’t even speak to my mother like that. Normally I avoided confrontation altogether, but I wanted to see how much this woman could smile.

"You can shower after, honey." I wanted the drugs she was on. I wasn’t happy with this response, but I accepted it. And I quickly learned to accept a lot more than that during my stay in the loony bin…

Forced Bedtimes

 We’ve already determined that I don’t sleep well. But my habitual response to lying awake in the darkness was to get up and find something to do. Not so at McClean’s. I was expected to just lie in bed and wait for sleep to arrive. In some cases, it didn’t get there until 5 in the morning, so I’d finally drift off, only to be awoken for morning meeting at 9am. So I’d go through morning meeting, my shower, having my "vitals" taken, pill line-up and consumption, and around 3pm I’d desperately need a nap. During the day I could sleep whenever I wanted, and because there wasn't much else to do, I would. So I’d sleep until whenever – dinner wasn’t mandatory, only for the anorexics, but then 11pm would roll around and we’d all have to go to bed, which meant, for me, that I’d be lying awake in the dark all over again. To make matters worse, I discovered that Marsha was one of the anorexics – a severe case – and this meant she required a check-in every fifteen minutes to make sure she was still breathing. Marsha must have weighed about 70 pounds and was always either walking around wrapped in a blanket because she was so cold or sitting in the kitchen being forced to eat carrot sticks. Yet for every moment she wasn’t swallowing carrots, she’d be pedaling on the exercise bike in the hallway, and no one ever told her to stop. I found this to be rather irritating. But not as irritating as the Breathing Check-Ins, because had I miraculously been able to drift off to sleep, every fifteen minutes I’d be woken up by a flood of light and need to start all over again. Nighttime was the most dreaded part of my days.

Body Hair

I was not allowed to shave my legs or my armpits unless under the supervision of a hospital employee. I had an issue with this. So I accepted being a hairy beast. I completely understood the reasoning behind not giving a razor to a person with suicidal or self-abusive tendencies, but I was highly amused at how far the nurses went in maintaining everyone’s security. The kitchen, for example, contained only plastic silverware, and, even more comical, no knives. Therefore, meals involved food items that didn’t need to be cut up, such as sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and Jell-O.

Twenty-Four Hour Babysitting

This was a given, seeing as how that’s why I was there in the first place. But I was eventually given Level 2 Privileges, which meant that I could go out and smoke a cigarette without being handcuffed to a hospital employee. I did, however, need to be with another person who had Level 2+ privileges. I wasn’t allowed to be alone. Finding another smoker was usually pretty easy – finding a smoker with a minimum level 2 privilege was a bit more challenging. But once I found a buddy, we had to write our names on a chalkboard, along with where we were going, which time we left and how long we intended to be. Then we were assigned a book with one single match in it, which meant chain-smoking was inevitable, and then we had to go to the door, ring a bell, and wait to be let out. I felt like my mother’s dog. Level 3 granted a bit more leniency. On level 3 I could leave the hospital grounds, but only if accompanied by an adult who was not a McClean’s resident, and only for up to four hours. My friend James picked me up one day and took me to Harvard Square for lunch. The most bizarre part of this experience, was that after having been under a constant watchful eye for two weeks, being "on the outside" left me with an odd sense of fear and freedom. Like I was doing something entirely wrong. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be released from prison after ten years or even 6 months. Had I had a more rebellious nature, I would have bought a razor at CVS and shaved my legs in a Pizzeria Uno’s bathroom, but James was given strict instructions as to what I was and was not allowed to do. I didn’t want to get him in trouble. But he ended up getting reprimanded anyway, because I had bought a whole bunch of art supplies at CVS. I had no idea I wasn’t allowed to have a pencil sharpener, so when we returned and the nurse went through my purchases, she took out the pencil sharpener and gently scolded James, who hung his head in more embarrassment than mine. At that point I realized I had an excuse for screwing up, because I was now certifiably crazy, but I still felt bad for getting James in trouble. However, the next time he came to see me, he smuggled in a pencil sharpener and two lighters. He wasn’t one to give in to authority. James was cool. I’d ask him to bring me a book, he’d bring three. If I asked for a pack of Marlboro Lights, he’d buy ten. And even though McClean’s was way out of the way for him to visit, he came every other day. Even if I was asleep, he’d sit in my room and read a book until I woke up, and then just drive me around on the outside. I’ve since lost contact with him, and once I make enough cash, I’m using 1-800-USSEARCH to find him and thank him. Its unfortunate how you don’t realize how much you value someone until they’re gone, and then you wish with all your might that you’d told then how wonderful they were when you had the chance.

Nothing Went in your Mouth Unless it was Written on a Piece of Paper

My Zoloft was on my chart, so was my Ativan. Even Benedryl once they realized I wasn’t sleeping. Yet after one of my trips with James, I returned feeling incredibly carsick. Afraid I might puke, I asked the nurse for some Pepto Bismol – I drank that stuff by the gallon when I was little – I was at the point where even the sight of it could cure me 100%. I was only allowed to have it after I cried, because Pepto Bismol wasn’t on my chart. They should have denied me coffee. I’d probably be much better off today.


 Penny was sin a room down the hall. And Penny was fucking scary. She had a constant scowl on her face, wore gothic eye makeup, had a mouth like a truck-driver, and gave everyone such an attitude that people went out of their way to stay clear of her. On more than one occasion, I witnessed girls walk out of her room, see Penny coming down the hall, and retreat back into their rooms until she was out of sight. No matter how badly they needed to eat or not eat (in Marsha’s case) or pee or throw up – it could wait until Penny was gone. I called her the Ricki Lake Girl – not to her face, of course – because she reminded me of every guest who had ever been on Ricki’s show – rude, loud, no concept of correct grammar or what was proper or improper behavior. Yeah. Penny was a frightening fucking bitch. But she took a very strong liking to me. So I was "safe." It was like being a babysitter or a barber for the head of a major crime family. Once you were "in," you were "in." And people respected you because you could stand next to Big Scary Mafia Guy and not get your throat slit. That was Penny. I think our friendship began when she was finally given Level 2 privileges (again) and she asked me if I wanted to go smoke with her. I said yes only out of fear of what might happen if I said no. But having a cigarette with Penny that day made me sadly realize how quickly I tend to judge people. She was a regular person with issues that she didn’t know how to deal with.  Exactly like myself. And even though we didn’t become best buddies on that first day smoking together, it definitely lessened my fear of her. Not a lot, but some. I don’t know how long she had been at McClean’s but long enough for the lithium she was taking to make her gain 40 pounds.

One day, she came into my room with a whole pile of her clothes. "Here," she said, tossing them on my bed. "I’m too fat for these now, but they’ll probably fit you." So out of fear and respect, I wore 80’s style acid-washed jeans and tweety-bird tank tops for the next few days. Then she started giggling one day after I told her how I felt like a dog waiting to be let outside. And after that, every time we were at the door, instead of ringing the bell, she’d scratch on it and howl. Penny was the person who would find ways around every rule. Every time we went out to smoke she’d tell me that if I ever needed a Klonopin or a Valium to just ask her, then she’d pat her huge boob and I heard the rattle of the small container of pills she kept hidden in her bra. And she talked a lot about Ralph. Ralph was a massive dumpy-looking kid who came to visit her nearly every day. One of those huge guys who could only fit into XXL beer t-shirts and cut-off sweatpants and black high-top sneakers with no socks. He was a really nice kid – kinda dumb – but once he realized I was "in" with Penny, he brought me smokes every time he came to visit. He knew the other girls by name, would sit and chit-chat with the nurses for hours. If a friend of mine called to say they were coming to visit but needed directions, Ralph would get on the phone with no hesitation and give more detailed directions than the people at the front desk who were hired to give directions.

Ralph was in love with Penny. And penny would talk about how she just wanted him to leave her alone, yet every time he showed up, the two of them would disappear in her room for an hour and the next time Penny and I smoked, she’s have huge Ralph-Hickys all over her neck, and she’d say, "I just don’t like him." But I think she did. In fact, I think she loved him right back, but was afraid if it, because when you’re crazy, you don’t allow yourself to be happy, so you think the things that make you happy are just a joke, so you force yourself to hate them. Your instinct is to Run Away or Become Evil. I Run Away: "No one can love me and therefore hurt me if I’m not around." Penny Became Evil: No one can love me and therefore hurt me if I make them hate me first." It’s twisted. And it’s sad. And it’s learned without realizing you’re learning it. And habits are so difficult to break.

The day I left was the strangest day of all. The hospital called me a cab, and I gathered up my pills and lists of doctors and appointment and the small amount of items I had accumulated (I got back all my sharp thing and lighters) and I sat quietly in the back seat. When the driver pulled up in front of my apartment, I signed the piece of paper that said to bill my insurance company for the ride, and the driver said "good luck…" …and drove off. I climbed the three flights of stairs to my apartment, opened the door myself without having to ring a bell or have someone show up with a key, walked in and sat down on my couch. It was about 3pm, and it was raining, and I felt utterly and completely lost. And alone. My living room looked huge. I can’t explain it – it was as if someone came in while I was gone and stretched out the walls and raised the ceiling. There was so much extra space. Too much, almost. Finally, I got off the couch, and the first thing I did was take a shower and shave the forest that had become my legs. And using a razor felt Wrong. I half expected someone to come in and yell at me and take away my Level 3 privileges. But it didn’t happen. I got dressed, wrote a note to my roommate telling him I was home, and then went outside. I figured I should stop by work and let them know I was okay. For all I knew, the last thing they heard was that I wanted to kill myself, and then I disappeared. Walking down Boylston, I felt like everyone was looking at me like I was emitting some aura that screamed, "Look out! I’m fucking crazy!" But no one was. I couldn’t get over all the Space. I walked into Dick’s Last Resort, and everyone hugged me and said how glad they were to see me and how happy they were that I was okay, and as I looked around, I thought they had removed some tables or something, because there was so much extra room. But it was just Space. And it was making me feel incredibly and unbelievably small…

I wonder where Penny ended up. I wonder if she’s back at McClean’s, or if she’s out and living an okay-non-Ricki-lake Life, and if she felt the Space when she got out, and if it made her feel small, too… Because I, for one, didn’t like that feeling all that much…

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