Five West

I am # 5 W 0 2 5 - Bed 1 and I am bipolar.

From the window of my room in the Jersey City Medical Center, I can see the Jersey Avenue stop on the light rail, as well as the Liberty Science Center, both of which I have nonchalantly passed—or traveled—on my daily commute.

That was then. This is now.

I got here by swallowing several hundred pills: very strong anti-depressants, narcotics, mood stabilizers, sleeping pills, anti-psychotics.

I downed the pills with orange juice, falling asleep in my bed, and stewing in my own juice for 24 hours where my girlfriend found me unconscious and covered in my own nauseating bodily fluids.

Who the hell knows what day it is? It might be Saturday. The only reason I care is that I am getting out Monday. Who knows what time it is? I took a nap after breakfast and morning meds. I’m so bored and bereft of any humanity, our room is watched on a monitor, I’m wearing a gown without a back, I have to stand in line waiting for medication I don’t want, and I’ve broken out in a rash from the soap provided. Places like this enforce rather than treat insanity, I think.

A small steel serving tray bolted to the bathroom wall above the sink serves as our mirror, my distorted face and body reflects in the tarnished metal like a funhouse image. I can’t do my hair properly, even with the product I am allowed to have. My usual funky, spiky style eludes me. I’m embarrassed by my flat hair. Even on this locked ward.

I shuffle along the hallway in my loose sneakers like a mental patient (they take away shoe laces so you can’t hang yourself). I ask for a pencil and paper. And, because I am white, well-educated and well-spoken, am granted a pen. But, I must rip out paper from my notebook—the metal spiral might turn into a weapon.

I choose a vegetarian menu, thinking it will be better than the gross so-called meat they serve. We all eat on command and trade food like schoolchildren. Corlette—a man trapped in a woman’s body, he tells everyone—which scares the crap out of most patients, takes any and all uneaten food; I cop all the unwanted coffee; my roommate Liana complains at every meal, “This isn’t what I ordered,” like she’s at a fancy French restaurant.

Liana jabbers all day about her court case. It turns out she’s been “cheeking” her meds and one day a bunch of brutes burst into our room, hold her down, and inject her with a shot of Haldol.

Liana is yammering on. She’s the real thing. A paranoid schizophrenic, I am sure. A total conspiracy theorist. She believes the IRS stole her property and money. She’s been working on a legal case against the government agency for 15 years. And it’s finally coming to fruition; she will see the judge next week. And while the judge will actually decide if she is to be committed to an institution for the long-term, Liana believes she is getting her day in court, to be vindicated and the IRS convicted of grievous crimes against her.

GED or JD, mental illness knows no boundaries. There’s Carl, the Vietnam vet who just got his papers giving him his fate. One he won’t reveal to anyone. Glendora is a professional exorcist, the fire and brimstone “mother” of the band of boys and men here who congregate in the common room watching religious programming all day long. She preaches eternal damnation on a locked ward full of mental cases for Christ sake. They all love Bush, “cuz he a Christian man.” “I offered to braid her hair, I thought it might just make her look better,” Liana bellows. “But no, she only trusts her hair to almighty God.”

I was in the ICU for two days before I woke up. The doctors weren’t even sure I would wake up—or in what condition. My friends and family were told I might have brain damage. They kept vigil until I awoke, groggy and confused, belligerent, but with all my faculties.

I couldn’t avoid the loony bin this time. I’m a repeat offender. Three attempted suicides. Off I was shipped to the psychiatric ward by a middle-aged Italian male psychiatrist who couldn’t look me in the eye and an energetic young white, redheaded female social worker who “just wanted to help.”

My parents flew in from Wisconsin and visited me every day between the odd configuration of visiting hours the nuthouse allowed. Their emotional pleas for me to accompany them home to the Midwest to rest and recuperate just irritated me. “I will not regress,” I told them with much irony. I was trapped in a locked ward and wanted to go home. My home. New York City.

But the real irony was that at 42-years-old, my parents finally started acting like parents. They wanted to take care of me, something they didn’t do well when I was young. Or even up to the day I swallowed several hundred pills. As much as I hated to admit it, my parents had finally stepped up to the plate.

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