On the psychiatric unit, we weren't allowed to smoke. It was considered a fire hazard. I didn't care if the place burned to blackened cinders, with everyone including me in it, I was not going to give up my need to smoke - certainly not for a hospital so contemptible to me. My husband smuggled in packs of Smokin' Joes almost every day. I'd go into the bathroom and close the door, turn the shower handle as far as it would go, and the scathing hot water would fill the small room with steam. The vapor and smoke intermingled, and I'd exhale up towards the vent. The staff was usually able to smell the stale tobacco anyway, and they discovered many of my hiding places for the forbidden stash. They also managed to confiscate cigarettes from my husband on many occasions.
However, I continued to disobey the hospital's prohibitions. Some of the nurses gave up trying to make me stop. One said, after smelling smoke in my room, "Make sure you keep your door closed for a while before you come out." There were other nurses, such as Karen, who would not succumb to my bold insubordination. She caught me in the act once, in the bathroom with a burning Smokin' Joe in hand, and grabbed me roughly by the arm, scolded me, and forced me to flush the vile object down the toilet. The ensuing nicotine craving made me irritable and crazy.
The other patients harassed me all day and all evening for smokes. Their talk posed a considerable risk to me: of staff overhearing and searches conducted, and the subsequent loss of my stash. My possession of these goods was top secret, and this incessant hounding bordered on the obvious. I often became angry with these people. But one man paid me twenty dollars for only four. I asked a nurse why I was constantly being badgered for cigarettes, and she blurted out, "Because you got 'em!" Everybody knew.
I finally did find a hiding place that was virtually foolproof. I'd put the pack of cigarettes, lighter, and matches, at the bottom of the garbage pail, underneath the liner bag. If the staff ever found them, I'd say I had disposed of them, since I no longer wanted to break their f*****g rules. Only the morning cleaning woman knew where they were hidden. She was tickled by it, and didn’t divulge this amusing concealment of contraband to anyone. She asked me daily, "Is it okay for me to clean out the garbage now?" And I'd go into my room, temporarily remove the hidden cache, and tell her, "Yes, go ahead." She'd laugh.
I furthered my hostile defiance by writing profanity and obscenities all over the walls in my room. I was reprimanded many times for this, and the afternoon cleaning man had no choice but to wash the walls every day. I liked to express my negative feelings towards certain staff members, though my graffiti was rarely read by anyone. No one cared about the content, only my bad behavior.
When I left the place, I brought with me everything I could fit into my suitcase and garbage bags: pillow cases, bed sheets, the blanket from my bed, magazines, markers, pens and pencils, paper, envelopes, two pairs of hospital pajamas, numerous gowns, clothes and black sneakers (those were given to me), a couple boxes of tampons and an opened package of sanitary pads, half a dozen towels and washcloths, four bottles of baby shampoo, soap, three small tubes of toothpaste, and twenty to thirty pairs of hospital socks.
I felt no remorse. This mental hospital was one of the worst two in the city, and they owed me. They had stolen my favorite boots, my digital camera, some nicotine gum, a set of keys, not to mention my pride, dignity, and self-respect - I'd been told what to do - ordered around like a kindergartner - ridiculed - surprisingly by the psychiatrist in charge more than anyone else. Furthermore, I'd been incarcerated in an unstimulating, repugnant environment for an unbearable duration, awaiting that coveted discharge from a doctor who had no such agenda, and much like the other patients, I felt like putting my head through the wall.
I was not as strong as I was seventeen years past, in the old days when I was subjected to a series of involuntary hospitalizations. It was a tremendous effort to tolerate - to survive - the day-to-day emptiness and horrors of living in such a place. Human beings were confined to rooms and strapped down to beds, with open doors for all to see. I felt utterly broken. Patients walked back and forth, from end to end, down the long center hallway, for lack of anything else to do. Life on the locked unit transformed people from good-natured citizens to irate pricks and raggy bitches.
There was one incident I'll never, in all my life, forget: a massive, solid woman, a nurse’s aide named Bernice, in the midst of a loud altercation between her and me, almost choked me to death or unconsciousness. It was many days before anyone believed me or took me seriously. I had related the story numerous times to patients and staff alike, at group meetings, at mealtimes, but even the doctor in charge of the zone ignored me. Almost a week later, I received a surprise visit from the supervisor of nursing, who listened to my account of the incident, asked questions, and made out a report, and immediately removed Bernice from the floor. My detailed report was corroborated by a fearful patient named Jill, who was the only person other than staff members who had witnessed the event.
During this infamous shouting match, Bernice grabbed me, so suddenly that I could never have expected it, and tightened her strong fat arm around my throat, while forcing me to the floor on my back. I could not breathe. In another ten seconds I would have lost consciousness. Fortunately for me, she loosened her grip around my neck just in time for me to suck air back into my lungs. Following this tyrannical attack, three staff members, Bernice included, proceeded to force me to my room, and give me a shot in the rear end, in the roughest, most humiliating way it had ever been done to me. That's what hurt my pride the most. It was months later, after the loathesome Bernice was gone, that I realized I could have sued the hospital. I considered this a very sad, lost opportunity to obtain any sort of justice.
I later learned that Bernice was not fired. A candid social worker told me that the County Hospital has such a powerful union that it's next to impossible to separate anyone from his or her job. If Bernice had outright murdered me, it would nevertheless be difficult to have her permanently removed from her position at the hospital. And she was a lowly nurses aide.
After finally obtaining my freedom, It was months and months before I could begin to recover from the traumatic ordeal of the past six weeks in this insane, modern dungeon, with little to do, and no way to pass the time. There were only dull walls and small, dingy orange and lime-green lockers dotting the long, narrow hallway. I was continually coaxed, pushed, and threatened, to induce me to walk away from the nurses station, the only place where anything of interest ever occurred. It was quite obvious who had the power on the unit - and lots of it. Also, the medications dispensed were the wrong ones, and the hated Zyprexa made me gain weight. I wasn't given the proper meds until the close of the fourth week, which delayed my discharge.
Eck-Meck - I hope you lose every nickel, dime, and penny of your funding. The only way you support yourself is by doing unnecessary shit to people. You haven't come close to satisfying your debt to me. And I will continue to rob you of all that I can, as often as I can, and for the rest of my life - until you've paid off what you owe me, in full (which would be impossible). Incidentally, during an outpatient visit last month, I stole a large stack of magazines from you, and put them in my recycling box, and set it out at the curb on garbage day. However, my pride, dignity, freedom, self-confidence - are priceless. You'll suffer a gazillion losses before I receive my fair share of compensations, Eck-Meck. Actually, you'll be paying until you close down. And may the devil save Bernice should I run into her on neutral territory, or better yet, in my own zone of the battlefield. Too many missed opportunities for suing you, Eck-Meck. I regret those failures deeply. Do what's right, free all the psychiatric patients from your cruelties. Bastille Day is as good a time as any. Or sometime, someone honorable (and one plane) will take it into his/her own hands and shatter the conctrete walls that confine us to your Institutional Hell.