It was an unusually humid spring day in the year of 2015 when I arrived at a New York City mental hospital for about the twenty-fifth time in my life. It was a bumpy ride in the ambulance and the paramedic looked at me with distant sympathy in his eyes as he asked me basic health questions which was a formality I was all too familiar with.
Once I arrived though, the paramedic and his ambulance did not stay longer than it took to fill out a couple of forms in the bustling emergency room. I noticed how easily the paramedics had slipped away, probably already forgetting my face on their way to their next emergency. I felt hot and sticky and it smelled like the food an older gentleman sitting too close to me was eating out of a styrofoam container; balancing it in one hand and maneuvering the fork into his mouth with the other.
I didn’t wait long until a nurse escorted me through the long, brightly lit hallways into a triage room where a few patients were already waiting to be evaluated. A nurse handed me a blue shirt and pants made out of paper and directed me to change into them. They were one size fits all, and stiffly bulged over my body. There were several small, unoccupied rooms which held vinyl chairs that doubled as recliners. I fell into a fully reclined chair and laid on my stomach, the chair fabric sticking to my cheek as I quietly sobbed myself to sleep. The ativan had kicked in.
I was groggy when I arrived at my destination on the fifth floor. The doctors called the unit Snapper 5 and it made me think of the snapper fish which bite at anything it comes in contact with. I wondered if that’s what they were referring to and I felt a bit offended and ashamed to think that when doctors saw me, they didn’t see an individual going through complicated emotions, just one inconspicuous fish like all the others.
There is never peace in the psychiatric units of hospitals. Being that I have been in so many in New York City and Los Angeles, California, I always expected at least one patient to be as overly obnoxious as they are aggressive. I’ve learned that there are never absolutes in life, just a spectrum of bad and worse, and hospitals were no different. Years ago, I witnessed a patient who was completely strapped to a bed, screaming and wailing as if an evil spirit was inside of her. Then in a few hours, she would be sitting at the dining table, mumbling incoherently yet happily to a supervising nurse who smiled and treated this middle-aged woman like an unknowing child. Then there was the roommate who constantly spit on the floor, which was worse to me than the screaming woman and had me begging the staff to change my room.
Fortunately, this was one of those hospital visits that I will easily forget, diluting with the rest of my memories. I don’t want to remember hospitals, because hospitals never bring good memories.
I went to my initial appointment at Snapper 5 sometime during the afternoon. The only clock in the whole unit was in the staff office and I realized that following it too closely made the time go slower. My only goal was to be released from the hospital where they kept patients like criminals, heavily locked behind metal doors as if we were on the same level as Charles Manson; maybe some of us were. The only difference between a psychiatric hospital and a prison was the freedom to roam into the dining and recreational rooms, which actually only gave the illusion of freedom. I still felt desperately trapped, almost claustrophobic behind the thick hospital walls. My only sanctuary a room I shared with a large hispanic woman who snored too loudly and kept me awake at night.
I sat in the quiet office across from a woman who was facing away from me and typing at the computer. She asked me pages of questions about my allergies, family history of health problems, past surgeries, emergency contact – which I gave them my ex-boyfriend’s information since his is the only one I have memorized. Not even my parents have that privilege. Then when they got to the question of whether I have any physical or sexual abuse in the past, I lied and said no. It was none of their business and I didn’t feel like rehashing those memories. It would only reopen a wound that ironically happened in such similar circumstances as this one.
I was hoping to leave in a week, but they kept me longer. They had about 8 books and a TV stuck on a channel I didn’t like. The highlight of my stay was when my roommate smuggled in two cigarettes for me and her. Having not smoked in over a week, it felt good to inhale one and feel that light-headed sensation. After the cigarettes were flushed down the toilet, my roommate very expertly doused herself and me with cheap body spray.
It took two weeks for me to finally be released from the hospital and my newly found freedom felt amazing. To this day, no matter how bad my life gets, I think back to my hospital imprisonments and appreciate the simple ability of going outside in the fresh air and sunlight. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had no place to go. When my ex-boyfriend wasn’t ignoring my calls, every conversation we would have ended with me crying and pleading with him to take me back. He confirmed my worst fears: it’s over. As much as I didn’t agree with ending the relationship, I understood his reasoning. We both knew a while ago that it was going to end, we just didn’t know how or when.
He was old enough to be my father, but it was in spite of or maybe even because of that age difference that we got along so well. We were, as the saying goes, like magnets, opposites attracting to each other. His harsh and aggressive personality that can only come from being born in Israel and growing up in New York City was attractive to me, as I was lacking in what he had plenty of – confidence, experience and knowledge. If he was ever unsure of anything in this world, I wouldn’t know it, because there was never a time when Aaron was vulnerable or not in control of everything in his life, at least, that’s the way I saw him. He was an inch shorter than me, and one could not tell where he was from just by looking at him, but the power in his presence was obvious to everyone. I had basked in the warm glow of his protection and guidance for half of my life, the fact that we were officially over, felt like losing a limb.
Aaron was still so angry from our last fight that he refused to let me come back home. I felt so alone and hurt; shocked that I had not only lost the one that I loved, but also the home I knew for 12 years. So with only one carry on suitcase full of clothes, I took a taxicab to a homeless shelter.