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Part Seven: Why Did You Decide to Move to Argentina?

August 7, 2010

No Use by Kate Sedgwick

Did they shoot me up? The nurse says they did. I don’t remember, but I come to and there’s Chad next to the bed. His eye are kind, electric and inquisitive, his thin body full of energy, his clothes slightly rumpled, stubble on his face.

“These motherfuckers. I’ve been chained up here all night. I know my rights. I’m not fucking going upstairs.”

“All right, sisterpants.”

I scream out a song repeatedly to the tune of nanny-nanny-boo-boo. My voice is hoarse and gravelly.

I’m not another empty head in your fucking hospital bed.

I’m not another empty head in your fucking hospital bed.

I’m not another empty head in your fucking hospital bed.

I’m not another empty head in your fucking hospital bed.

Chad laughs, halfheartedly tells to get me to stop it. Maybe I don’t make sense to him, but if that’s the case, he doesn’t let on. He laughs at my jokes, can see through what’s become of me to the person beneath and I know it.

We talk. I drowse and come to and scream some more, mumbling commentary to Chad in between rants and shouted eruptions.

Regis and Kathy or Kelly is on. “I fucking hate this shit. What’s wrong with these people? Does anybody fucking watch this shit?”

I don’t remember getting to the State Hospital, but I know how it went. Strapped to a gurney, facing the back windows of the ambulance through suburban greenery and released into intake like a wild animal. I sit and sit and wait and wait in a room I’m trapped inside with mauve-pinstriped wallpaper. A prisoner is walked in in manacles and ankle cuffs in bright prison orange and watched by a cop while he sits calmly on a naugahyde, straight-backed chair.

I’m called back to a windowless room, weighed, my blood pressure and temperature taken and sent back out to the waiting room. I’m called back into a shrink’s office and questioned about medication, diagnosis, abuse history, drugs and alcohol, sexual practices and history and sent back out to the waiting room. He is bookish, white, and wild hair rallies around his bald spot. He seems interested and interesting and I find myself hoping he will be my doctor. I never see him again.

Image from Heal Thyself by Kate Sedgwick, click for more

Image from Heal Thyself by Kate Sedgwick, click for more

Finally, a band is put on my arm, a green one that indicates I have the fewest amount of privileges. A slip of paper is inside it under a window of clear plastic, my full name dot-matrix printed along with my age and a social security number I will scribble out as soon as I get the chance. Over weeks I will be expected to exhibit appropriate behaviors and be compliant enough to work my way up to a yellow, then red, then blue band. I know this because I’ve been here before, not because anyone tells me. The green band means I’m not approved to leave the ward, will not be going to the cafeteria or group sessions until I’m cleared for yellow. This will happen after a doctor looks at my chart and speaks to me for five minutes one day.

I am led to through a maze of cinderblock hallways with inspirational sayings and flowers painted at chest level all the way through to Ward H.

Ward H is long and T shaped with the nurses’ station and glassed-in lounge where we eat at the crux of the T and the patients’ rooms along its arms. I’m left in the lounge. There’s no bed for me yet.

In the State Hospital, we wear regular clothes. We are allowed out onto a patio where all the bushes have been hacked down after a couple inmates were discovered fucking behind them. There is a steel box on the wall with a car-style cigarette lighter anchored by a thick wire that dangles by its side. There are brown, rubber-coated, circular, metal mesh tables and benches bolted to the concrete. We are allowed out at regular intervals to smoke, only under supervision, a new rule brought on by — we are told — a recent escape or escape attempt over the tall, wooden fence on another ward.

I talk to a social worker. She calls me to a waiting area close to the exit of the ward and gives me a folder with information about my rights. There’s nothing to see in it. Generic language that isn’t reflected in my treatment. I don’t bother reading it. I know I have no rights and reading what they are said to be is only infuriating. The coercion to take medicine I don’t want to take, my inability to leave the ward, the generic talking-tos that I will be subjected to, being told I have to believe in god by an irate nurse’s aide who shows videos in a substance abuse class: none of these things are addressed in the patient bill of rights.

The social worker shows me the list of group activities available. She is friendly. She is not afraid to look me in the eye, to listen to me.

It’s several days before I see the doctor, a blond man whose presence sends a ripple of excitement through the nurses. His reputation is for being a great doctor. He is tall, flabby and affectless, and looks like something that walked out of a John Updike novel, and after speaking to him, I am convinced it is his looks and stature that have so impressed the gaggle of nurses who tell me I’m lucky to have him for my doctor. Well, at least he’s a fluent English speaker.

The food makes me gassy and within a day, I will be exuding a regular cloud of shitty smelling, voluminous farts that will get worse as time goes on. The smell sticks to my pants and underwear, helping me feel more repellant and contemptible than I already do.

My roommate looks like she’s from India, but I don’t know. In a more lucid moment she tells me she’s from France and speaks French and three other languages. She says this in a butchered English with some sort of heavy accent sans any sort of Frenchness. She makes a sound, “Shhooooo, shoooooo, shoooooooooo,” instead of speaking most of the time.

She alternately shuffles frenetically around the room, moving her hands as if for shadow puppetry, and stares blankly into space. “Shooo, shoooo, shhhhoooooo. Sh sh sh sh shoooooo,” she says, loudly, then whispers ruefully. She moves like a child on the verge of a tantrum, flings her body into a prone position and then bounces back up to her feet.

Shower

Image by Kate Sedgwick from Heal Thyself

She refuses to sleep on the bed, favoring the floor. She leaves water all over the bathroom, pees on the seat and doesn’t flush the toilet. I stop trying to talk to her because she doesn’t respond.

Though I’m on heavy tranquilizers, sleeping through the night is not possible. I’m on suicide watch. Someone comes into the room every 15 minutes after lights out. Whoever it is flicks the light on to make sure I’m breathing and not bleeding to death and then loudly closes the door. The nurses have loud discussions behind the nearby desk, screaming with laughter. The night crew doesn’t know us, is only there when we’re asleep and doesn’t give a shit. Sometimes I yell, “Party in the nurses’ station!” loudly enough for them to hear me. That might shut them up for five minutes or go completely ignored. Aside from all that, my roommate’s snoring rivals an outboard motor in volume. I’m on enough drugs to tranquilize a pony and I can’t get any rest.

We are woken up for the final time before it’s light. A nurse takes our vitals in the windowless day room. Usually it’s done by a dark skinned woman with a gentle affect that calls us baby and doesn’t waste time.

Behind the wall of glass in the lounge, the light goes from black to cobalt to grey. Our eyes all look dead. Some of us drool or fall asleep there sitting up. There is little talking. We’re drugged and puffy, groggy and depressed. The ones with cafeteria privileges line up by the door down the hall. The rest of us are given trays with cereal, bananas, cold eggs, cold french toast or whatever’s on offer that day.

The mornings are a clusterfuck around the decaf. Bowls of sugar packets are emptied time and again as patients make the most of the opportunity to take in something sweet and warm. The tables are left sticky with sugary dribbles, scattered granules, and empty packets, and then wiped clean. Then we are let outside to smoke.

We line up for medication. I learn quickly that to stand there for half an hour is for suckers. I wait in the lounge in the early morning light, watch for the line to dwindle and get my pills at the last minute. I am given a styrofoam cup of water each time and then open my mouth and stick out my tongue to prove I’ve swallowed them, but within days, I feel that I’m clearly being overmedicated and jam those pills between my cheek and gum with my tongue and bite slivers off them later in my dark room, hiding the remainder in a cigarette cellophane wrapped in scraps of paper.

Then we have the morning meeting. We are told that if we have questions, comments or complaints or would like to see the doctor, this is the time to ask. I ask to have a physical at least 10 times before I’m given the opportunity. Patients complain sometimes, but will generally be silenced or rebutted by the East End mom type who runs the meetings in a shrill, nasal tone. It’s obvious she thinks she’s doing us a favor by working here. I imagine her husband out-earns her 30 times. Her sympathy is the kind I can imagine her waxing poetic about in church as she talks about “those poor people” she works with, a commodity in the holier-than-thou, false-modesty one-upmanship of the right wing christian. She will lecture us about dehydration or nutrition, smiling smugly, or she will open the floor up to one of the junior social workers who will present on some equally useless, oversimplified topic formulated for an audience with sub-normal IQs, drugged into submission.

The food is fattening and doled out in large portions. On the ward, patients with dietary restrictions barter for food they’ve been denied. A sullen, old, white lady grabs paper salt packets off people’s trays when the orderly isn’t watching and then goes back to apparently catatonic sulking. Instant potatoes, canned vegetables, salisbury steak in a mush of congealed powdered gravy brought to a mushy consistency by adding water, white bread, sugar free drink mix at four times its ideal strength, decaf that tastes like pencil shavings.

Every day is the same, especially when you can’t get off the ward. Wake up 20 times a night. Wake up in the morning. Vitals in the day room. Decaf in the lounge. Medication time. Breakfast time. Cigarette time. Morning meeting. Lunch time. Cigarette time. TV time. Dinner time. Medication time. Snack time. TV time, if you can stay awake. Bed time.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 8:25 am

    This is the first piece of writing I’ve read all day that has managed to hold my attention. Amazing stuff. Can’t help but chuckle at “Party in the nurses’ station!”

  2. Sarah Loving permalink
    August 14, 2010 6:59 pm

    This is riveting. Painful to read.

    “…wild hair rallies around his bald spot.” Marvelous and hilarious turn of a phrase.

  3. nathan permalink
    August 15, 2010 5:22 pm

    Kate,

    I’ve recently stumbled upon this blog, and am now up-to-date with your ‘Why did you decide to move to Argentina?’ series. Usually, I’d be inclined to read secretly and say nothing. But I’m going to make an exception.

    This is superb writing. Not a word wasted. I don’t want to say it’s ‘enjoyable’ for the obvious reasons – but it certainly is compelling.

    Anyway, that’s it.

    I’ll skulk back to anonymity, and poking a lol cats.

    Nathan

    • August 16, 2010 9:19 pm

      Thanks so much, Nathan. That’s a great compliment, and I don’t know what else to say! I can haz comwimint!

  4. August 26, 2010 4:29 pm

    Kate, have you ever done any “investigative journalism” type writing on the mental health system in the U.S.? Sounds like something that needs to be picked apart, destroyed, and built anew.

    • August 28, 2010 1:40 am

      That’s a really intriguing idea, Hal. There are so many problems, from drug R&D to promotion and development. I just heard a podcast about how social anxiety disorder was pretty much invented as a disorder to promote Paxil. The whole system is so fucked, I wouldn’t know where to start, but it’s definitely got to start happening more. A dissection and evisceration (IMO).

  5. Coleman permalink
    October 27, 2010 12:08 am

    Your description is uncannily familiar. Was this hospital in Provo, UT?

    • October 29, 2010 9:05 am

      Nope. Louisville, KY. But I’m sure there are common threads to these experiences beyond the scenery.

  6. November 13, 2010 8:38 pm

    Hi Kate, I met a Louisville author at a dinner gathering last night at Ramsey’s and told her of your writing-how impressive it was. I sent her your link today. Your “voice” is refreshingly honest, your words rich and vivid. I just thought I should tell you myself. I stumbled on your writing several months back and felt proud to know you and have gone to art school with you. I love to write myself. It’s probably 2-3 years away, but my first book will be a compilation of short stories. I might be contacting you down the road seeking your feedback and criticism, who knows? Anyway, I just wanted to be sure I communicated to you how I am in awe of your writing. Keep up the good work!

    Peace,

    Forest Boone

    • November 17, 2010 12:12 am

      Damn, Forest! Good to hear from you. I still remember your piece Midnight on the Orient Express and I was always impressed by your work, work ethic and your honesty, so I do take this as high praise. Definitely stay in touch. I’m trying to write more fiction lately and it’s slow going for the time being, so connections with other writers who want to workshop would be very helpful for me, too. Thanks,

      K

  7. thomas clay jr permalink
    November 22, 2010 12:49 am

    I somehow got here through my sister’s myspace. I was there that night in louisville with Hunter et all. Emily Dickinson said that when she has read something that exploded her mind, it was poetry. I felt that way when I first read her poems. I did not stop reading them until I had read them all and a full 2/3rds are excellent on a mere aesthetic scale. She kept exploding my mind over and again and more than any other, I love her the most. I just read your entire blog and felt the same way as when I first read Emily. I think it would be quite something to know you Kate. You are wonderful on many levels.
    thomas

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