I’m no Stephen King. No Joan Didion. No Grisham, no Patterson, no Sue Monk Kidd. I could go on. But I am a writer. Twenty-four hours ago, I questioned that and more. What’s it all for? What have I accomplished? When depression surges, everything else is suppressed. No connections, no talent, no hope. So I was admitted to the hospital again, my rogue experiment of going off meds a colossal failure. I was warehoused in ABSU, a catchy moniker stenciled along the bottom hem of the curtains that separated me from a groggy Elizabeth who kept calling out for a cigarette. This was the Acute Behavioral Stabilization Unit. Not so catchy when real words fill out the letters.
While I’d walked into the hospital of my own accord with a letter hastily typed by my psychiatrist, my fitness was immediately in question, mental and apparently physical, too. After an ER psychiatrist talked to me for five minutes in some arterial wing of the ER, she passed me off to a nurse who introduced herself and whose name I instantly lost in my mental fog. She said something about moving me, but then vanished. When she reappeared, she had two security guards in tow. No names this time. No smiles either. They flanked me as the nurse pushed me in the requisite wheelchair to my new home away from home. (I’d have preferred Airbnb.) We made for quite the parade entry. What did they think a listless middle-ager with his swanky new Keith Haring backpack would do? Ah, but hospital procedure forbids discretion.
The first bed was mine. But for starters I had to strip naked and put on a backless cream hospital gown and similarly colored saggy surgical pants while one guard watched. As an extremely private man with severe body image issues, I unsuccessfully fought the urge to cry. Why couldn’t I be acutely depressed in my own clothes? Take the belt, if you must. Along with my clothes, I had to surrender my backpack and all its contents, which I’d mustered up the wherewithal to pack between my psychiatric session and my walk to the hospital. Clothes gone, snacks gone, and, worst of all, laptop and notebook gone. This would be no writing retreat. Any wisp of will I still had flamed out.
Night passed. Slowly. Maddeningly. The problem with the Acute Behavioral Stabilization Unit was that it was patently unsuitable for actual stabilization of patients with fragile mental health. The room served as a passage on a human highway with nurses, security guards, housekeeping staff, and plain-clothed employees streaming through, presumably using it as a shortcut passageway between the ER and everything else.
The shuffling of feet and loud conversations were one thing, but the doors were worse. How hard would it be to replace the heavy clang of the entrance and exit doors with something soft? Like those kitchen drawers and cabinets that brake at the last moment and silently shut. A wondrous innovation. If they can bring sanity to household kitchens, surely they can proximate it in a holding pin for mental patients.
As if the human traffic and the door clangs weren’t enough, there was also the active intercom. It sounded frequently but unpredictably, like an unsettling arrhythmia, beckoning housekeeping and security hither and yon, and announcing Code Whites and Code Blues in the ER and in various trauma units and hospital wings. The calls did not ease as the night dragged on. And, of course, Elizabeth continued her campaign for a smoke. Unfortunately, she never timed her calls for a nurse to when one was actually present on the unit.
Between occasional naps, I listened to a man in a separately locked room scream.
“I am not suicidal!”
“Let me out!”
“I just want my phone. Why can’t you give me my phone?”
If he’d ever been taught the magic word, he opted for a few other choice words and phrases instead. Attention-getting, but not phone-getting. The yells devolved into wall pounding and guttural elephant trumpeting before he’d quiet down to rest up for the next round.
Come morning, I spotted a few magazines and leafed through a 2010 National Geographic, a reading challenge since my glasses were in my confiscated backpack. As I flipped pages, I kept wondering how many sick people had handled the magazine. Didn’t people check into hospitals with one thing—gallstones or, say, acute depression—and end up with flesh-eating ailments that required limb amputations? I had nothing on which to Google the likelihood of losing my arms so I squinted harder and focused on the magazine, vowing to wash up as soon as I was done. Flesh-eating risk or not, it’s always a good habit. I learned that tree-kangaroos exist and wondered if I looked as stunned at present as the marsupial whose image had been snapped by an infrared bead-triggered camera. Probably a toss-up.
I began to create back stories for the hospital personnel who went back and forth along the ABSU Highway. Who were these people when they weren’t wandering to and fro? What did they have for breakfast? What was their indulgence after going home at the end of a shift? Cool Ranch Doritos? “Game of Thrones”? How do they get the cellphone withdrawal screamer out of their head?
As the hours crawled, I yearned for my stories to replace their stories. Earlier I spotted two hole-punched, perfectly white blank sheets of paper behind Oprah’s magazine (a current issue!) on the rather barren magazine rack screwed into a center post. I filed that sighting away in my head along with the mental health advocacy number stapled on a wall. Maybe I’d stick around long enough for these things to matter.
Twelve hours rolled into sixteen. I refused lunch just as I’d done breakfast. I watched ABSU fill. Some arrived with larger security teams. Did I have reason to be concerned after the guards left? It’s strange when a survival instinct kicks in after being suicidal. I needed something familiar, something satisfying. I yearned to write. I sprang from my bed again and confiscated both the Oprah magazine and the paper, setting them on the rolling table beside my bed where the lunch tray and a cup of apple juice remained untouched. I resolved to ask Janet or Manuel, the on-duty ABSU nurses, for a pen or a pencil the next time they emerged. And I had a Plan B. If such implements were deemed possible weapons, I’d beg for a crayon. Even a hard-to-read yellow one. But, alas, the nurses were AWOL. Perhaps it was all hands on deck for the latest intercom announcement regarding a Code White. Anxiety rose as I worried about what kind of trauma each code meant. Who was in crisis? To cope, I told myself that Code White was a patient’s unquenched thirst for a tall glass of milk. Nonsensical, for sure but, hey, I was in a mental health unit.
What’s the code color for a growing desire to write?
On a bathroom excursion, I spied Janet behind the windowed mission control overlooking ABSU, but she was readjusting a rubber band in her hair. Important stuff. I turned away fearing I’d seen too much. Surely they don’t let ABSU patients near rubber bands. I didn’t want her to worry about what I might do to tear such contraband away from her. I waited ten minutes before reappearing at the window. Our eyes met, and I pantomimed my request for a pen or pencil, scribbling at the air with my pinched thumb and index finger. She nodded, and feeling like my chance to write was mere moments away, I retreated to my cot, almost a skip in my step. With literally nothing else to do, I placed the two sheets of paper on top of O magazine and rehearsed in my mind all the things I’d jot down as soon as I was duly equipped—medical questions and concerns on one sheet, a New York Times Modern Love submission on the other. I watched Janet emerge to give Elizabeth a nicotine patch. To the casual observer, that might legitimately be a more basic need so I practiced patience. But then Janet walked right past my bed and buzzed out the ABSU entrance. In that moment, all anticipation stripped away, I was too rattled to speculate on her story and where she’d gone. I curled up, fetal, and gripped the top of the bedsheet as the clang of the doors taunted me.
For the next half hour, I listened to the goings-on of the unit. I heard Janet’s voice once more. One patient needed a blood sample, and another had to place a pill under his tongue, no questions asked. At last, Janet stopped by, looking quizzical. “What was it you were trying to say you wanted?” It’s true, I’m rusty at charades.
“A pen or pencil.” So desperate, I too neglected to say the magic word. Still, I had the sense to leave out crayon. If denied, I could save that as a bargaining chip. Janet nodded again, but I remained uncertain as she walked away. I’d seen that nod before.
In a few minutes, Janet returned, presenting me with a stubby orange pencil, the kind you’re given to keep track of your score at miniature golf. It might as well have been Excalibur or a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory. I rushed to write down my medical thoughts first, just in case a doctor came sooner than later. Misplaced optimism as it turned out. But it cleared my mind, released a stream of obsessive thoughts that had been spinning in place. I slipped that paper behind the still clean second sheet. And there, in the middle of chaos—the human traffic, the angry-but-not-suicidal fist-pounder, the rattle-and-slam doors, the urgent calls for security—I found my place and my peace. A writer. Any place, anytime.