I woke up alone in a room with a huge window overlooking the East River. The container ships glided slowly down the waterway. I was still groggy, but the silence in the hall signaled the ward had yet to come to life. Each morning I checked to see if my world had returned to normal but that morning, my mind was still too thickly padded to tell.
I lay on one of two twin cots – no roommate yet but there was sure to be someone soon. I reveled in the solitude as long as I could.
On the far facing wall were two plywood shelves separated by a large desk. I unwrapped the blankets and pushed myself out of bed, feeling lightheaded for a moment as I stood. I made my way over to the shelf, finding two towels folded neatly, a washcloth, my black leggings and blue t-shirt. On top of my clothes lay a pair of dark green slipper socks with sticky white treading on the bottom.
I slowly dressed, feeling a weak relief like I had just emerged from a long bout of the flu, the fever finally burned off.
Still cloaked in the hangover from the pills, in those early morning hours, I didn’t think about the day before, I didn’t think about what lay ahead. It didn’t last long. The rhythmic squeak of the nurses’ shoes making their rounds through the tiled halls and the clatter of the breakfast trays being wheeled in announced the start of the new day.
What have I done? What have I done? The words rang on a loop through my mind.
That first day in the hospital, my husband Patrick came to visit. In the afternoon, a student string quartet played. Patrick and I sat on folding chairs, leaning heavily into one another, the music opening up a raw ache inside us both. He wore a threadbare black shirt. Outside, the weather had become warm. It was fully spring.
The day passed in a thick blur. When I went to sleep that night, the other twin bed in my room had been empty but when I awoke, I saw a figure humped beneath the white cotton blankets. I was nervous. Unlike at Mount Sinai, it didn’t appear the 72-hour holds were an option at 11 North – most people stayed for at least a week, usually longer. This strange lump under the covers and I would be sharing a living space for a while.
After about ten minutes, the lump rose, stretching her arms into a large V above her head, letting out a satisfied yawn. A short crop of dark hair shot up in all different directions. She yawned again and lay back down.
“Hey,” she said. Her cheek pressed against the thin paper pillow. Her voice was scratchy and warm, like she had been submerged inside a heavy nap.
She said her name. Alex. That she’d taken a bottle of Klonopin. That it hadn’t done shit. That it was better that way because she hadn’t really wanted to die – she had only wanted a break. To disappear for a little while.
I understood. The pills hadn’t done shit for me either. And of course I didn’t want to die – I had a five week old daughter at home. Nora. When I told Alex her name, it felt round and golden in my mouth. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be reborn as a mother whose thoughts hadn’t grown grotesque, deformed. A mother who could take care of her baby.
Alex was young, mid-twenties. She wore her hair shaved on one side, the other side flopped over her left eye, like a 90s skater. She seemed to have an endless supply of sweatpants she wore with one leg pulled up, revealing tube socks, soccer sandals. She put on three sports bras every morning.
I was still miserable, but I liked Alex. She made me feel safe and I followed her around the ward until she was released, ten days later.
On Monday morning, the mood on the ward snapped out of the drowsy, dreamlike state of the weekend. I hadn’t noticed, but there were speakers on the wall behind each bed and 7 AM sharp, a man’s voice boomed a cheerful wake-up call. His announcement that “all patients should please report to the lobby for a vitals check” made him sound like he was the director of a demented summer camp.
When I woke that third morning on the ward, I no longer thought about how I wanted to disappear. Every day, instead, I was greeted by the crushing nausea of guilt. I missed Nora. I tried to remember how she felt – her skin, her weight - but it was hard; I gave up easily.
Each day began the same: I woke, got my vitals checked, showered, dressed and then ran to the phones to call Patrick. I sobbed into the receiver that I was sorry.
At breakfast, I sat at a table with Alex and a few of the other young patients. I wasn’t the only one drawn to Alex. I couldn’t help feeling like I had been accepted into the cool crowd by the most popular girl in school. Alex, made sure everyone moved over so that I would be sitting next to her at the table.
The social stratification on a psych ward is intense. At 11 North, the atmosphere was as gossipy, dramatic and cliquish as a high school TV show. Alliances were formed, adversaries were made, and romances ran hot and heavy, despite a rule forbidding touch.
Alex caught the eye of the ward’s Queen Bee, Maddy, who had been living on 11 North for three months after a suicide attempt left her missing a let, wheelchair bound. She was twenty-three.
Maddy was eighty pounds, unwashed hair, hollowed out eyes, but somehow sexy. She didn’t give a shit, and that made people want her more. Maddy’s witchy good looks, gallows humor and mercurial moods made her the charismatic leader of the young patients on the ward. She and Alex shared an ill-fated romance, arms around one another’s shoulders on movie nights and kisses stolen during the brief moments when the guards weren’t looking in the ‘chill out’ room.
I knew I belonged more with the older patients, the adults who spent their days quietly playing Scrabble or coloring Mandalas, the hollowed-out eyes focusing blankly on the tessellations. But I only felt like being around Alex, so I tagged along with her crowd. They didn’t seem to mind. It was like I wasn’t even there. They liked to brag. Who had the highest dose of anti-psychotic medication? Who had gone the furthest off the rails during a manic episode? And they loved to boast about their suicide attempts. Whose was the most gruesome? With her brutal story of jumping off a ten-story building and tearing her leg on the sharp tip of a fence post, leaving it hanging on by just a tendon, Maddy always won.
The only people at the hospital who I told about my own suicide attempt were the doctors and Alex. It was nothing to brag about, not gruesome, or glamorous. I was just a scared, sad mother who had almost left her husband and baby behind. It seemed too shameful to let anyone know the truth.
Mornings on the ward were the hardest – waking up knowing you had to make it through another day, counting the hours, the minutes, the seconds until you could take your paper cup of meds and escape into a black and dreamless sleep.
Alex would stay up late, playing Crazy Eights or watching movies. She was having the time of her life and would frequently remark that ‘coming here was the best decision she’d ever made’ and that she was ‘learning so much from everyone’.
Each time I ran to be first in line to receive my meds at 9 PM, Alex would whine, “Stay and hang out with us! Don’t be such an old lady!” But I would shake my head. “I can’t,” I would say, “I’m too tired.” Alex would flap her hand at me, shooing me away. “Ahh, get outta here ya old granny,” she would say, smiling, and then turn around to join the friends who were waiting for her.
Every morning, when the wake-up call boomed through the speaker behind my headboard, I shot out of bed, always the first in line for vitals checks so that I could immediately run to the phones. I was always weepy, even as I was dialing, the numbers on the phone blurry and slippery beneath my unsteady fingers. By the time Patrick picked up, I was heaving jagged sobs.
Alex would pass by and wag a finger at me.
“No tears, boo,” she would say, tilting her head towards the nurses’ station. “They’re never gonna let you out if they think you’re still depressed. You’ve gotta stop crying so you can be home with that beautiful baby of yours.”
I was unable to pull myself together, though. Stopping the tears that poured all the guilt and frustration and exhaustion and fear and longing out of me seemed to be an impossible feat.
Alex, giving up on her verbal warnings, would stand in front of me while I broke down into the phone, day after day, ostensibly blocking the nurses’ view of me with her hips.
Alex’s last day was a Tuesday. On Mondays, there’s a ‘house meeting’ where all the patients, doctors and social workers gather in a large circle and the patients who are scheduled to depart the following day have the opportunity to give a farewell speech.
Alex spoke like she was a young ingenue who had just been awarded a Golden Globe for best supporting actress, thanking the doctors and nurses and social workers by name and becoming tearful when she reflected on how far she had come, how much she had learned, the friends she had made. As she spoke, I noticed Maddy looking down, trying not to be caught crying. Over the weekend, I had seen them watching the earnest string quartet, arms draped over one another’s shoulders.
It was an ill-fated romance. To me, to Maddy, to the other patients on the ward, Alex’s future was looking bright. But Maddy’s future was an abyss. She had been on the ward for three months and there was no news on if and when she would be getting out.
Alex left me a note on my night table. She wrote that she knew that it had been a short period of time, but she already loved me. She left me her phone number, her email address, her Facebook page.
I kept the note until the day I was discharged, and then I threw it in the garbage, along with the toiletry case, the slipper socks, the leggings and blue t-shirt I had worn nearly every day. I wanted none of it, no reminders. If I threw everything out, I could start anew.
I’ve forgotten the names of most people I encountered during the years I was sick. The people from the hospital wards, the emergency rooms, the outpatient groups. Pain blurs your memories. But there were some people who demonstrated small kindnesses, who radiated empathy, who let me know they could still see me. Their names, I remember. Alex. I think of her all the time.
Alex once told me she worked as a barista at a coffee shop. I knew exactly where it was, on the corner of a busy intersection in Astoria, not even half a mile from our apartment. One Sunday, when Nora was two and I was better, much better, I asked Patrick if we could walk over and try find her, to show her we had made it. At the coffee shop, though, the manager said he had never heard of an Alex. She must have left a long time before.
I type her name into my phone and search for her, but all I know is ‘Alex’ and ‘Astoria’. Of course, it leads me nowhere, but still, I do it often, even all these years later. I want to find her, to thank her, to ask her if I look different now that I am well.