Almost exactly five years ago, as a senior in college, I spent the night in the psych emergency room. Then, a week later, I spent another night in the same ER. The first time, I had naively expected that my new psychiatrist would react to hearing that I had been having detailed fantasies about killing myself by giving me more Zoloft. Turns out, his legal responsibility, since he was not 100% sure that I will not hurt myself if left to my own devices, I would not hurt myself, was to put me in the ER. My plan for that night was to go to a spring fling dance as a first date with a cute boy. Thankfully, my friends managed to convince him that I was sick and without cell reception in the hospital (true) so that I could tell him on my own time what had actually happened.
This was not some small college town emergency room. I went to Barnard College. My psychiatrist, then doing a fellowship of some sort at the affiliated Columbia University, was seeing me for free through some magical program, and his office was in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. That emergency room is a busy New York City ER with a separate place for psych patients that requires a security guard escort to open two locked doors before anyone can get in or out. Protocol required that this security guard walk with me from my psychiatrist’s office to the ER, I suppose because a fair number of patients have made a run for it or taken out their rage on their doctor. And rage is exactly what I felt. I expressed this by crying a lot, not hitting anyone, but I see why this protocol exists. I could not believe that I had no choice. I was not crazy. I just needed more meds. Clearly.
In a sense, I was right–compared to my roommate in the psych ER (aka HELL), I was 100% sane. Still known among the friends who visited me as The Cat Lady, this woman keened (there is no other word for it) unless she was yelling about her husband having killed her cat by not paying for kitty chemotherapy and threatening to kill this husband to avenge that cat. Why were we both in the same room? Because in New York City, if the police are called to a scene and someone is clearly lacking important mental faculties, they have to take them to the emergency room. Picture this: the palest, most scared college girl you have ever seen in the middle of a crowded and small psychiatric emergency room that is mostly occupied by unstable people, often homeless, that the police have brought in after being called about someone who is either out of control or unconscious.
I had nothing; not even my clothes. The nurses on duty when I got there would not even give me my psych meds. I started to go through withdrawal before a doctor finally got around to getting someone to give me the damn Klonopin. I got a migraine and the best they could do was Motrin, even though I had a prescription for Imitrex (hardly a controlled substance). It took me four tries before someone would give me Motrin; I would imagine that they are used to people lying about being in pain in stupid attempts to get pain killers. My own mother had to call repeatedly before anyone even told me she had called, let alone put me on the phone with her. She was smart enough to keep calling until she got me on the phone, though, because I certainly was not going to be able to call Arizona.
Finally, though, a nurse saved me. She looked me straight in the eyes and said “You are not the kind of patient I usually see in here, and you are a smart, polite, sweet girl. So I am going to tell you this: if you want to get out of here, you had better stop crying all the time. You’ve got to convince them that you are going to be ok, and right now, you do not look ok.” So I dried my eyes, took a deep breath, spoke calmly to the doctors and promptly slept through almost all of my remaining time the ER.
The story of how I got out and how I ended up back in again is long and convoluted, but I did go in the second time by choice–I had realized that I needed real, professional help as an inpatient, and the only way to cut through the bureaucratic red tape was to get to the “good floor” via the same ER. I thought I could handle it. I was traumatized all over again. That second night was spent in a room with two other patients. I can’t even write about this without crying.
Somehow, they had given my clothes to a friend, who had taken them back to my dorm–clear communication was not exactly possible. I showed up on “5 South” to participate in the inpatient program that would turn my entire life around wearing a two hospital gowns and dirty socks. I hadn’t even been allowed to wear my bra in the ER, so I felt pretty freaking uncomfortable in this psych ward where longer-term patients had on real clothing. I had to get special permission to wait in “my” room until my friend could bring my clothes. I wasn’t even allowed to see him or hug him. I never through it was possible to feel so grateful to see a hoodie and a pair of jeans.
After that day, things got better. I made the decision to care for myself and my self-esteem. I actually left school alone and spent time alone with whatever shreds of an identity I could find outside that Smart Girl persona. I will never forget the staff who helped me save myself, particularly the nurse responsible for checking in with me, one-on-one. His name was Michael. I ran into him once, and he hardly recognized me. But I got to thank him. I am forever grateful for the ten or so days I spent on “5 South” and, at the same time, I would not wish the hours I endured in the ER on anyone.
Unfortunately, when I think of hospitals, I think of that ER stay. Trauma teaches us to fear and stay the f*** away from whatever traumatized us. Every subsequent ER trip, I have refused to go until a friend could go with me (thanks, guys!) and one of my favorite things about being with Nathan is that he always stayed with me for the whole trip. (I used to get quite a few bladder infections. I tripled my water intake. That doesn’t happen anymore.) I am terrified that I am going to be locked away, stripped of everything I own and have no access to anyone, not even a doctor (it takes forever for a doctor to see you in the psych ER, worse than the regular ER because they know you’re stuck there for up to 72 hours).
I wanted a home birth for quite a few reasons, but mostly, it was so that I would not have to face this fear. I do not want to check into any hospital, ever, because no matter how many times a billion people repeat that I will have rights in there, I am not convinced. What if I go in and cannot leave? What if they take my baby away? What if they know, somehow, that I will no know what to do with a baby of my own? These are my nightmares. This is why I will have a doula with me in that room. There has got to be someone designated to back Nathan up in dealing with my fear, should it rise up after we check in. I may need Nathan, the doula and the midwife all telling me to breath. I may need narcotics to calm me down. But I will have a beautiful birth, and it will change me. My beautiful birth will teach me that I am powerful and strong. I will set up a birth plan with powerful and strong midwives to ensure that my rights are never taken from me.
My stay in the psych ER taught me the necessary lesson that I was much sicker than I had been willing to believe; my stay in the maternity ward will teach me that I have healed myself more than I ever thought I could.