An Excerpt from My Memoir
As my mother and I sat in traffic on the Santa Monica freeway, I stared at the people in their cars making another daily commute to work, people who were not on their way to be admitted to a psych hospital. I made up stories about who they were and imagined what it’d be like to be them, those normal people living normal lives. I wondered if I could ever have a normal life. If I would have a life at all.
I looked over at my mom. Her short wavy hair was dyed a box-shade of red, a hint of gray inching out from her scalp. She wore a comfy sweater with pastel stripes and fabric flowers. I couldn’t read her expression. She seemed to be extra focused on her driving. At least she had something to distract her.
When a batch of commercials began, my mom turned down the boring smooth jazz station we’d been listening to.
“How are you doing?” she asked, glancing at me for a moment before looking back at the road.
“Okay,” I said.
“I just want you to know that I love you. I know all of this is scary, and I’m scared too…”
I waited for her to say something reassuring, as she so often did during times like these. But she trailed off and, a few minutes later, turned the radio back up again. I guess neither of us could see the other side on that two-hour drive to the adolescent ward of UCLA’s psychiatric hospital where I’d be locked up so I wouldn’t be able to kill myself.
A week earlier, my mother had taken me to see my psychiatrist, Dr. Lassiter. I’d been seeing him for about a year. He had a comfortable second floor office in a converted Victorian a short drive from our home in South Pasadena. Several large picture windows looked out past the roof to the tops of tall oak trees and distant palms.
“What do you want to do?” Dr. Lassiter asked me.
“I can’t go back to school,” I said. “I can’t deal with that place anymore.”
Dr. Lassiter’s eyes lingered on the band-aids all over my arms.
“You’ve been cutting a lot,” he said.
“Does it make you feel better?”
“No,” I said. “But I can’t stop.”
“There’s a lot of things you can’t do, aren’t there?”
He smiled a little to remind me that he wasn’t being a jerk. The ends of his thick mustache curled upwards in a funny way, making it hard for me not to smile myself. Dr. Lassiter was the first psychiatrist I had ever actually liked. He could be sarcastic and dry, but I knew he was honest and good-natured underneath. I didn’t feel like he was just trying to drug me up like the others (but that did remind me of the dreary days at Legacy alcohol rehab). He seemed to care about me and didn’t treat me like a child.
Dr. Lassiter glanced at my chart and said, “I’m not sure hospitalization is necessary as long as you go back to school. Is that really not something you can do? Do you really want to be in a psych hospital again?”
I’d been admitted to the Las Encinas Psychiatric Hospital in Pasadena in 2002, one year earlier. They required me to stay in the hospital for a few days before I was allowed to attend their outpatient day program. I hadn’t actually needed to be inpatient there. This was the real deal. But the thought of going back to Alverno, the all-girls high school where I’d spent the past nine months, was unbearable. No one there liked me. People whispered when I walked by and gave me quick, cold responses when I tried talking to them. I’d taken to eating lunch on the ground in front of my locker so I didn’t have to go into the cafeteria and risk being seen sitting all alone. All of that on top of the crushing depression I felt was too much for me to deal with.
“Yes,” I said. “I want to be in the hospital.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Look at me.” I waved my bandaged arms in the air. “I’m scared. This is scary. I’m afraid I’ll do something even worse than this.”
“You’re worried you’ll try to kill yourself?”
“Yes. I almost did last night. I sat on my bed with a razor over my wrist trying to make myself press down. I couldn’t do it, but I wanted to. I still might.”
“Then I’ll have to admit you,” he said. “If you tell me you’re honestly considering it, I’ll have no choice. Is that what you’re saying?”
My stomach sank. I had to make the decision now. We both understood that if I said yes, there would be no going back. But I already knew what I needed to do.
“Yes. That’s what I’m saying,” I told him.
I didn’t feel like I had a choice, not really. My world had narrowed down into a pinhole. All I could see was the sharp circle of my pain, and everything else fell into the dark, silhouetted corners. My body yearned to take action against itself. I was angry about being so weak, and angry that no one understood what I was going through, including myself.
The only reason I could come up with not to kill myself was the idea of a future when I wouldn’t be 15 years old, when I wouldn’t have depression and feel anxious all the time, when I would actually have friends and someone who loved me. I thought I’d finally found that two years ago, before we moved from our home in Maryland all the way to California. Nothing had been right since then. I was tired of being a ghost, haunting the halls of whatever school I happened to be in that year, whatever new place I’d gone to in the hopes of finding somewhere I could belong. There was a chance I’d come out of this someday, but that day seemed so far away, so unreachable, so improbable.
I knew they would poke and prod at me and tweak my meds. But the hospital was the only place I wouldn’t be able to hurt myself, and the only place where people might actually understand me.
Dr. Lassiter wrote something in my chart and sighed. “I know you didn’t like Las Encinas, but the only other hospital around here is Resnick at UCLA. I don’t have any privileges there, so I wouldn’t be able to oversee your treatment. I can try to get you a bed and hope you don’t end up with a moronic intern fucking up your meds.”
I smiled for the first time in the session.
“There you go,” he said. “You can smile. That’s something you can do. Remember that.”
I wonder now what Dr. Lassiter saw when he looked at me during those sessions, that chubby teen girl hopelessly slouched against a sofa through the eyes of a wealthy doctor who had photographs of himself in Hawaii with his beautiful Filipino wife framed on his desk. Did he see a whiny, pathetic girl who cried and hurt herself to be rebellious and get attention? Or did he see a troubled teenager covered in cuts and scars, desperate for someone to help her? That was how I saw myself when I looked in the mirror, at the circles under my eyes, at my greasy, unwashed hair, at the pink and red gashes on my skin.
Everyone else seemed to see someone weak, someone who couldn’t get over herself and just be happy, someone who had a good life she was taking for granted. Sometimes I saw that girl too, but I didn’t think that’s who I really was. It was the chemicals in my brain knocking me off balance. It was the years of stigma and labels and diagnoses. It was the medications I was taking, the ones that were supposed to make me feel better and so often only made everything worse. This wasn’t who I really was, but I couldn’t be anyone else.
After driving past the trendy shops and chain restaurants of Westwood Boulevard, my mother and I finally arrived at the UCLA Medical Plaza. Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital was housed in an ugly orange brick building in the middle of the complex. It had a strange, out of place look amongst the newer, taller structures made of metal and glass. All the windows in the building had bars over them.
We entered the lobby through sliding glass doors. A receptionist handed my mom and me a mountain of paperwork to fill out. Eventually, a nurse led us into a smaller waiting room just off of the reception area. She had an oval face covered in make-up and wore bright green scrubs on a curvy form. The polish on her fingernails matched the color of the scrubs.
“My name is Teresa,” she said to me. “I’m one of the nurses for the ward where you’ll be staying.”
She searched my belongings, setting everything out onto a card table in the middle of the room. This was my second stay in a psych hospital, so I knew the drill. The hospital wouldn’t allow me to bring in spiral notebooks, pens, or anything sharp, and I didn’t try to sneak anything in. I didn’t want to get yelled at. Besides, I understood that the point of going to the hospital was to keep myself safe.
I’d packed a non-spiral journal along with my Discman and a zippered case holding a few of my favorite CDs. Hopefully they’d give me a pen or pencil when I got there. Journaling was one of the only things that kept me sane and helped me get through the hopeless moments. It made me feel like someday these experiences would matter because I would write about them and share them with the world.
“You can’t have CD players while you’re on restriction,” Teresa said, holding the Discman and headphones in her hands.
“I need my music,” I said. “The other hospital let me keep it.”
“Your mom can bring it back when you’re off restriction.”
“When will that be?”
“Usually in a few days,” she said.
They were stricter about belongings and rules when you were first admitted. It didn’t seem fair. The thought of being without my music was too much. Tears slid down my cheeks as Teresa handed the CD player and CDs to my mom. She put them in her purse, and then wrapped her arms around me in a hug.
“You’ll get it back soon,” she said.
My head pressed against the warmth of her shoulder, my arms around her thin frame, I said, “It’s not just that.”
“I know,” she said.
I pulled away. I was too wrapped up in my own world of unhappiness to process or understand what my mother must have been going through. I couldn’t see her pain. If I had seen it then, its heavy weight would have pulled me under completely. As it was, I was barely keeping my head above water, barely keeping myself from drowning.