Holding Cell (2021)
The concrete walls were pale yellow, the door frames pale green. They matched my nails almost perfectly—I had gotten them done three days prior for my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding. As I write this, I am pretty sure that all hospital walls are pale yellow, and it feels a trivial thing to mention—the color of the walls being, ultimately, inconsequential. Except that I spent hours staring into the spaces where paint-filled concrete holes. I am thinking of a large, faded room, with eight or so doors which opened into bedrooms on either side. I remember now: the staff yelled at one boy for trying to enter a room on the girls’ side. He pretended to be confused.
They gave me pale blue pajamas—everything pale here, like the echo of something rather than the thing itself—that didn’t button up enough above my breasts. They felt along the lines of my underwear for weapons, and I understand this to include razor blades, not just knives or guns. They took my hair ties, leaving my greasy blonde strands to hang lifelessly on my shoulders. There were no mirrors; I had to assume I looked like the perfect casting for inpatient extra in a movie: conventionally attractive woman made to appear disheveled enough to represent her decaying sanity. I was a mere actor in the drama of my own ill-health.
I came willingly, being told by the psychiatrist that I just needed to be evaluated. Until suddenly, and out of nowhere, I was trapped. It wasn’t an inpatient program. It was a holding cell.
November 8, 2018—I was twenty years old. A sterile room with a folding chair and a grey table. Nothing to break the monotony of colorlessness but a small window in the door looking out at a pale blue wall. I imagined that was where they took the ones screaming and kicking, where they locked up the crazy people who…well, might slice up their own bodies.
On my phone, desperate for context or community, I looked up “self-harm without trying to kill yourself.” I learned that doctors call it non-suicidal self-injury and abbreviate it to NSSI, which made me feel important and sheltered and clinical, like I might as well have had strep throat.
They assigned a heavy-set man with a light-colored beard in a police uniform to keep an eye on me, to follow me everywhere as if I might lose my sense of control and attack someone (myself) at any moment. He was always looking at me.
They gave me a cup for my urine, and as I entered the bathroom and swung the door shut behind me, I heard it thud instead of click. I looked back—a nurse held the door open. “I’m sorry,” said the nurse. “We can’t let you in there alone.” She came in and averted her eyes as I emptied my bladder.
They held the bathroom door open as they made me change into maroon scrubs three sizes too big, and she ran her fingers along my bra and underwear lines to make sure I didn’t have any weapons on me. Her hands were cold and clammy.
I had gone to Woodhull Hospital for a prolonged panic attack; I couldn’t breathe or feel my fingers for twenty-four hours. Somehow the panic gets worse as I get older, twenty-three now and unable to dominate my hysteria at all anymore. I swallowed pill after pill after (you’re not supposed to take another) pill, to no effect. I paced around the apartment until I felt like I was going to do some serious damage to myself and thought checking into the hospital down the street would be a better alternative.
I assumed they would give me meds to handle it and send me on my way as had been done in New Jersey about a year before.
A Wounded Animal (2018)
I wasn’t high anymore. I never let myself cut while high because I never wanted any reason to think I should stop smoking, never let myself cut while drunk anymore either. Impaired perception. Sometimes I would get high just so I wouldn’t cut. That’s what I had done earlier that day. But I wasn’t high anymore. Instead, I was in the sweet spot of a mixed episode. The depressive desire to hurt myself, the will to stop living was strong, and I could feel it in me that I could really do it. This unforgiving energy. There was a knot of torment right in the center of my chest. But there was also this overwhelming sense of peace and calm overcoming me when I realized I had the power to take my world into my own hands.
In my orange-walled bedroom, I sat at my wooden desk and tried not to think about my mom who passed her desk on to me after replacing it with something smaller, black; I’ve always loved my sprawling desktop. I was prepared with toilet paper and bandages strewn across the desktop. I was watching Grey’s Anatomy. I turned on the show so that I could see bodies being cut open everywhere. A cacophony of carving. Some sort of poetry. I took the razor blade apart; it had been so long since I’d done it that I forgot that pens work better than scissors. The blades fanned out like flower petals.
I remember the third slash of the blade from high school, the first time I went to the hospital for cutting myself. But I don’t remember the act itself from this time. No metal, no bubbles of white, just blood. I wrapped it up, calm in my mindset, hands shaking. I texted my boyfriend that I cut myself and I needed to see him.
I’m sure Jon thought he’d find me anxious about paper cuts on my thigh as I was twice the summer before, not numb about my forearm’s gaping flesh. He met me at Brattle Bookshop, where I was thumbing through the $4 section of atlases and books of paintings.
We walked to the park and sat on a bench. I stared blankly past him at piles of golden leaves, and I couldn’t help but notice how alluring the colors of New England trees are in early November. A brain’s bias towards beauty. Tears clung to my eyelashes, my lips pressed tightly shut as he tried to get something, anything out of me. I didn’t know what we were arguing about, but I knew my heart was thumping at him for not reading my mind, and my cheeks flushed hot at myself for not confessing the whole truth. All I muttered was, It’s bad. It’s really bad, in a voice stale with drama and insecurity. We took the red line to his apartment and I sat on his bed in my black coat and teal hoodie and short-sleeved shirt and wrapped-tight forearm.
He pretended he wasn’t looking when I took my coat off and revealed bloodstains coloring my sweatshirt near the crease of my elbow. He coaxed me slowly to the shower like you would a wounded animal you were only trying to help. I reluctantly shed the sweatshirt and my pants, shirt, bra, underwear, but for a few moments left my arm covered in one of those cheap bandage wraps I bought from CVS at some point.
He got in the shower and waited for me as I unwrapped myself and twisted back up again trying to hide. He took my arm from my side and held it under the water to rinse away clotted blood, and I tried not to wriggle away from the pain of pressure inside flesh. I searched his face for disgust or fear and found steadiness instead.
Back in his bedroom, he doused me with saline and poured Band-Aids onto the bed. I tried to show him how to bandage them closed like I used to in high school, but the Band-Aids were too small and the cuts were too wet and too deep.
“Tell me what to do,” I said.
“We’re going to the hospital.”
I asked them for a book, and they gave me a paperback about making cheese boards. There’s a lot to think about when making a cheese board, from the folding of the meats to the layout of the cheeses to the vegetables you use to complement the palette. It’s apparently quite a calming experience—the word “meditative” was used no less than 12 times.
I sat cross-legged in my bed, leaned up against the wall, the frail sheet (also pale blue) bunched up at the end of the bed. It soothed me to turn the pages. I finished the book in under an hour, went back to the desk and asked for another from the stack I saw behind the counter.
“Sorry, we don’t have any others for you.”
They weren’t permitted to give me hardcover books.
In the chair, the doctor told me to look away, but I stared out of the corners of my eyes, watching myself get sewn up like a tear in my leggings.
When my mom was in med school, she used to practice sutures on raw chicken breast.
The room was small, and I was the only patient in it, surrounded by boyfriend, doctor, nurse, and, of course, police officer. The floors were too-clean white, and the walls closed in.
My boyfriend said something I can’t remember, and I cackled, needle through my arm. I was laughing so hard I didn’t know if I could stop, could feel my cheeks burning red and my eyes welling with tears under the glare of hospital fluorescents. I wanted the doctor, the police officer to know that I was taking this seriously, that I was terrified and collapsing and that if I didn’t laugh I might shatter altogether.
Then, Jon and I were escorted to the room with all the other people wearing maroon scrubs and clutching pillows and staring at their feet. I joined them; it looked like a safe space.
Section 12 Hold
It’s called a section 12 hold in Massachusetts. It differs from state to state, and they never told me what it was called in New York when they held me. They did tell me about it when I checked into the emergency room to get stitches on a self-inflicted wound in my senior year of college in Boston in 2018. They explained that it would be lorded over me as a threat against my instability, though I don’t think they said it as ominously as I heard it.
What Section 12 says is this: “Any physician … who, after examining a person, has reason to believe that failure to hospitalize such person would create a likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental illness may restrain or authorize the restraint of such person and apply for the hospitalization of such person for a 3–day period…”
What I heard was this: Deceive, for if you don’t perform health, they will keep you locked up in here for three days. So, I lied to the psychiatrist in that sterile room at Massachusetts General Hospital, I lied in New Jersey and in Baltimore, in hospitals and in psychiatrists’ appointments and in therapists’ offices:
No, I have no suicidal thoughts. I do not want to harm myself or others.
What I remember (2018)
Not a lot from that night at Massachusetts General Hospital. The things I do remember were either meticulously written down in my journal upon arriving home, or they are details so minuscule that they can’t hurt me anymore: the temperature of a finger, the color of my doctor’s eyes, a scoff in the waiting room.
I remember the cheery voice all the attendants and doctors put on to talk to me, like I could be stabilized with the tone of someone’s voice. There was a woman who was protesting about the long wait time, saying, “If we had a broken arm or leg, this would be a different story. But because we’re in psych…” The nurse gave her a card with a number to call and complain to someone else who wouldn’t listen. The feeling of the chair underneath me, like something that they call “ergonomic” but in reality suits a very specific type of body, a type that is not mine.
A little bit hot such that my palms became damp.
A feeling like I should cry but not being able to.
Not knowing where to look.
What I remember (2021)
I remember that the bed was long enough for me to stretch my thin 5’11” body out long overnight, but still, I barely slept.
There was only one clock in the whole place, behind the front counter where they kept things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cups of water and all of our patient charts. I sat and watched the tick of the second hand.
Everything was bolted to the floor or the wall, nothing mobile.
I remember thinking that the cord attached to the phone we were allowed to use was unusually short.
I tried to meditate, I really did. I closed my eyes and counted my breaths, but I only made it to fifty before the clench inside was too strong to sit still any longer.
Mostly I paced. 36 hours of pacing. Cement walls and haunting shadow.
Once, while I was pacing and wringing my hands, Aaron must have noticed my distress.
“Breathe, just like you showed me. You can do this.”
Aaron Learns to Breathe (2021)
Aaron was about my height, stocky and light-skinned. He was living in Queens with his father, and I was living in Brooklyn with my boyfriend. He was bipolar, too.
“Here,” he said. “Let me show you how to take a deep breath.” He didn’t know that I had been an avid singer, a swimmer, a yogi. That I had learned when I was five years old the proper way to breathe. He sucked in air to fill his chest all the way up. His chest looked like a blow-up pool floatie. “And then you just let it go,” he said. Whoooosh his lungs emptied themselves onto me—his breath didn’t smell great. I laughed.
“You know, you’re actually supposed to breathe into your belly,” I said. His face a question mark. “From your center,” I said. I placed my hand on his belly and encouraged its expansion. He smiled when he got it for the first time. “Now just practice,” I said.
Some People I Still Think About (2018)
The waiting room was full to the brim, some people sleeping, some rocking back and forth, some staring blankly at the floor. It was a semicircle of a room with darker tile on the floor and foggy grey walls. Chairs lined the wall, facing a person nodding off in a chair, there to babysit us all. Long, greasy hair with a buzzed left side. Smiled a lot. They offered me something to drink, but I said no, thank you.
There was a woman in her mid-50s (or maybe just aged with exhaustion) with light hair, thin frame, a face that used to be gentle but now was worn and creased. And then her husband, I assume. He had a calming and steady presence, like he’d done this a million times before. Jon did not have that same calming presence, and I even told him it was okay to leave towards the end to watch a basketball game with a friend who lived nearby.
“I’ll be there when I get out,” I said with a smile more like a grimace.
I wondered about this woman, and I tried not to stare. She looked like someone I could become. In and out of hospitals, dragging along those who loved her by the skin of their teeth. I wondered how long Jon would stay, how many trips for stitches or suicidal thoughts or panic he could take.
There was a man who was taken to a crisis support center within the two hours I waited: his shirt pulled up to his eyes, which darted back and forth as if looking for something.
“Whatchu know about McDonald’s?” he asked no one in particular. “French fries and shit.”
And then, to Jon, “My man! Do that girl!” Something else about the Taliban being after his brother. All this until the nurse walked in, silence, polite nods, lies.
A woman was sleeping. She was curled up in sheets with pillows against the wall. She didn’t wake up the entire time I was there.
Dates and Numbers (2021)
Donald Trump was on television. Aaron saw my distress and came to the rescue.
“Other than being here? I just wish they would put something else on TV.”
Aaron marched right up to the front desk and asked them to change the channel. It was May 4th. I remember this because when the channel was changed, Star Wars was playing for hours on end. May the fourth be with you. It was better than the news, even though I couldn’t hear the dialogue and the network was still on the prequels.
I said something about my boyfriend, and Aaron said something about, “Did you do something he didn’t like? Is that why you’re here?”
He was projecting, his father having dropped him off earlier that day for some “crazy” behavior that I didn’t feel right asking more about.
I gave him my phone number when he asked. We weren’t allowed pens or paper, so we had to get the nurse to write it down. I walked up to the nurse’s station behind him, trying not to display my nerves at doing something that seemed obviously prohibited.
“I need to write down my mother’s phone number,” he said, no trace of insecurity in his voice. “I keep forgetting it.”
I whispered the digits of my phone number into his ear from behind, and he reiterated them to the nurse. She read back the number, and he looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. I nodded slightly. I have no idea how the nurse didn’t notice this exchange. Perhaps she was exhausted with our antics; perhaps she turned a blind eye for us.
He took the piece of paper, folded it up, and stuck it in the front pocket of his own pale blue scrubs. He never texted me.
Aaron’s social worker wasn’t responding to him, no matter how many times he knocked on her door. He paced around the pale, yellow room, asking every person of authority to please let him see his social worker—he needed to talk.
“Aaron!” I called. He turned to me at the sound of his name, practically panting. “Breathe. Remember?” I said, but he had already turned away. He started yelling for his social worker. A nurse threatened him with sedatives. He calmed down for about 45 seconds, then got riled up again. I could see the nurses behind the counter begin to shuffle around, saw one of them go into the room where medications were stored.
Two police officers and two nurses approached Aaron, told him to sit down, and he started coming towards me. We made eye contact, and I tried to tell him silently that I was so sorry, that I wish I could do something, I thought at him.
“Please!” he said. He sat two chairs away from me. They surrounded him, stabbed the upper part of his right arm with a syringe.
Throughout it all, he never stopped saying “please.”
He wasn’t the same after that—he told me things about himself and his son that are not my story to tell. It was almost like love, this thirst for connection. I was the closest thing he could find, he the closest thing I could find, too.
A Clear Suicide Plan (2021)
Leaning up against the wall next to the metal phone, I whispered frantically. I never said anything like that, I pled over the phone to Jon I swear. The phone was on a timer, going to cut out any second. I had to make him understand.
They said you had a clear suicide plan, he said.
Knowing the Right Things to Say (2018)
I sat in the waiting room next to my distressed boyfriend.
“I know what to say to make them let me go,” I said. I don’t think this made him feel better. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha put it so aptly in her book about disability care, “I don’t want anything I can prevent on my permanent record, and I definitely don’t want Danger to Self or Others.”*
The psychiatrist was a mousy man with round glasses and a navy blue fleece Harvard zip-up on. Short, white, bald. He was squirrely-looking (and acting). His voice was gentle, but not comforting. He took me back to that same grey room they put me in first and asked me things that made me wonder why someone had to go to a specialized school to talk to me. Things like “Why did you do it?” and “Do you want to do it again?” and “Are you suicidal?”
“I don’t know” and “No” and “No” even though I did and Yes and Yes.
*Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice; by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, p. 174
Knowing the Right Things to Say (2021)
When they were evaluating me to determine if they needed to hold me for the full 72 hours, they asked me what had changed since I was admitted 24 hours earlier. I stared right into the psychiatrist’s eyes and resisted the urge to say, “Nothing. You trapped me here against my will based on things I did not say.”
Instead, I lied, made something up about coping mechanisms and having the space to calm down. They sent me home before I had a chance to say goodbye to Aaron. They sent me home because I knew the right things to say. I spent the next three days confined to my bed, crying.
A section 12 hold is supposed to be involuntary. Involuntary hospitalization claims that I do not have enough control over my mental or physical bodies to sufficiently survive in the world. It deems me incapable, insane. But if you know the right things to say, if you’re of sound enough mind to lie, you are emancipated instead of restrained. Maybe they should have swaddled you and stored you in the nearest institution.
Let’s talk about the ethics of keeping someone against their will, the moral implications of holding someone hostage. The intricacies of making patients feel like they need to lie, reducing their chance of getting real help, the kind of help that works with them on their terms, taking into account their desires. I have my script just as the doctors have theirs, and I know when to pull out the language of health to avoid being held captive.
I didn’t want to be trapped in this grey cell with metal slats for a bed and doctors who watch me take my meds and won’t let me keep my notebook and pen. These are the images I have of psychiatric wards and mental institutions. They are terror and mistrust. They are bottom-of-the-well, dried up.
Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha says that institutional medical “’care’ has always been conditional, or violent—the invasion of social workers or Child Protective Services or psychiatrists with the power to lock you up.”* I am the actor, and the medical professionals are the audience, my loved ones are the audience; those who know of my Bipolar and Panic disorders watch constantly for signs I might be slipping away. I am not saying that involuntary hospitalization is never necessary. I don’t know the alternative. Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe we are looking for the wrong signs. An ominous prospect: people like me in pain, getting no help at all.
The alternative is captivity.
*Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice; by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, p. 132
Amelia Wright is a graduate of Emerson College and is soon to start Columbia’s MFA program in nonfiction creative writing. She has work appearing in Oyster River Pages, Compressed Journal of Creative Arts, and The Hunger Journal. She grew up in Baltimore City and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently working on a memoir about mental illness and trying to decide if she wants to be a coral reef or a tree when she dies.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021