This piece is a spin off from the Poetry Revisited series I’ve been doing. This is an old memoir I wrote not long after getting out of a psychiatric institution. I do not still hold the same views of mental illness expressed in this piece but I find it an interesting account of a period of psychosis and time in the hospital.
Darkness within darkness, a shadow hidden within shadows. Moving. The dark form of a man appeared in my rearview mirror. Fear shot through my body; I could barely move. There was no one who could help. I was alone with this nightmare and all I could do was keep driving.
So much blood. It looked like he was dying. Spurting red poured from his throat, coating my hands. My demon loomed, taunting me, blood covered blade in his hand.
Petrified sobs tore from my chest as I tried to wipe the blood away, but I couldn’t stop the bleeding.
“What’s wrong?” Concern was laced through my boyfriend’s voice.
I stuttered, unable to form the words that would convey the horror before my eyes.
Before I could respond, a horrifying voice ripped through my mind. “I will kill him. I will kill everyone you care about. And I will always be here.”
“He’s sitting in the corner. Watching me.” My voice was calm, normal.
“He’s here?” The doctor’s voice was full of concern. Apparently it’s not normal to remain calm and collected while hallucinating a stalker.
“Of course he’s here. He’s always here.”
“Sabrina, have you done any drugs?”
“No. I never have.” Though I spoke the truth, I knew she didn’t believe me.
“We’ll still need to run some tests, but, remember, he’s not real.” She said this as if it was a life preserver thrown to someone slipping beneath the water, as if it actually provided hope.
“I know. That doesn’t make him any less terrifying.” After all, he was still looming. Always looming.
Ambulances are not nearly as interesting as I once believed. Straps held me to the stretcher that faced backwards. A familiar landscape flowed past at an unfamiliar angle. The EMT was nice despite the wary looks he gave me. I was crazy after all. The strange girl who thought a man was following her threatening everything she loved.
“What are you in for?” A girl in baggy sweat pants and a skin tight tank top with more scars than skin on her arms cut through my internal dialogue.
“Oh, um, I’m here for med management because I see things.” My voice shook from nerves, worried that even in the nut house, I was still too crazy.
“So, what? Are you schizo or something?” Fears confirmed. Her face was more guarded now, assessing just how far gone I was.
“No. Bipolar. Hallucinations are just one of my symptoms.” So basically, not only did my imagination get out of hand, but mood did as well. Fun.
“Cool. I’m bipolar too.” Only in the psych ward is that considered cool. She gestured to her arm. “You can probably guess what I’m in for.”
I nodded. Speech was difficult. Too much effort.
My new acquaintance began gesturing around the table. “Ellen over there doesn’t eat. Kara claims something different every day, both about what’s wrong with her and her preference in sexes. Today it’s girls and she supposedly has an ex who killed herself. Libby’s here for anger management and she’s kind of a bitch. Unfortunately, you can’t fix that with meds. I’m not really sure about the rest of them. I only got here yesterday.”
“Oh,” was all I responded with. This would certainly be interesting. My unseen stalker lurked behind me, his laugh bringing fear to the depths of my soul.
I headed straight to a seat in the very back of the classroom, one where I could press my back against the safety of the wall. I needed to be able to see everything, keep my personal specter from hiding behind me. The tutor began speaking; rambling about subjects I had covered years ago. I was the oldest one; the group ranged in age from thirteen to seventeen. I didn’t listen, to her or the man muttering in my ear. The stream of threats was unending. I gripped at the desk, my skin, anything to stay calm enough. I couldn’t let my fear show, after all, even here, seeing things was still abnormal. “…kill you. I’ll slit your throat. I’ll hunt him down and kill him. I’ll kill your family. I’ll destroy everyth…” The muttering continued as I waited for the endless hour to pass so I could escape and down the pills to supposedly make this end.
“Call the popo, ho.” One of my roommates jumped around the room, swinging her arm over her head. “Call the popo, ho.”
My other roommate checked beneath her mattress for the hidden notes and blades, both of which were contraband.
I sat on my bed, attempting to ignore the stares of the man who refused to leave me alone. Giving up, I began pleading with him through my thoughts. “Please, just leave me alone. What do you even want? Why are you here?”
“To kill him and torment you.” My whimpers caught the attention of my roommates.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” Kara looked away from her treasures to eye me with wary concern.
I nodded mutely, too terrified to speak.
“Where is he? I’ll kick him in the balls!” Even in through my fear, I had to laugh at the fierce determination in her voice and the pure insanity of taking on someone else’s hallucination. I gestured to where he was standing.
Kara jumped off her bed and dashed to where I indicated. Her foot lashed out, striking my tormentor right in his crotch. For the first time, he turned and disappeared.
I jumped, laughing, from my bed and hugged Kara. We quickly let go, because hugs were also on the list of forbidden things along with pencils, pens, plastic utensils, privacy, and any form of physical contact.
For the first time in two weeks, the only people around actually existed.
The sound of shoes squeaking down the hall woke me up. The door, already partially open because patients couldn’t be in a room with a closed door, opened further as the night nurse peaked his head in to make sure we were all still alive and out of trouble. He waved when he noticed I was awake then continued on his rounds. He would return in fifteen for the next round.
As I rolled over to go back to sleep, I noticed my stalker staring at me from my bedside. I knew he’d be back. He was never going to leave.
“We’re going to go around the circle and everyone will tell us a goal they have for the day related to getting better.” My mind scrambled to think of something that will be considered an acceptable goal for the day. “Sabrina, do you want to start?”
Of course I didn’t. “Sure. Um, my goal for today is to find positive coping skills.” Positive coping skills was a phrase constantly being thrown around by the counselors and nurses. It refers to techniques used to help avert anger or anxiety such as reading, listening to music, talking to someone, or any other healthy method someone finds useful.
“Good. During tonight’s group you can tell us what coping skills you’ve come up with.” Great, I actually needed to have to think of some. I listened to the other’s goals, gathering fodder for future goals since I’d be expected to have a different goal each day. After everyone had gone, the counselor opened up discussion to any issues people have been having that they want to discuss.
Kids began sharing stories about their lives. Most talked about how much they hated their parents and how horrible it was for them at home. They shared about how terrible their parents were and all the horrible things that had happened. The more I heard, the more I realized that I didn’t fit in. I got along with my parents. I did well in school. I liked my life. Other than seeing and hearing some things that weren’t real and having some shitty mood swings, my life was good. I really didn’t belong.
Spiders. There were spiders everywhere. They crawled all over my skin. I felt them. I saw them. I scratched and rubbed, but try as I might, I couldn’t make them go away.
“Are you ok?” Kara eyed me warily. I was acting crazier than usual, rubbing at things that weren’t there.
“No. There are spiders all over.” I knew I sounded ridiculous.
“Sabrina, there aren’t any spiders. It’s all in your head.” Her voice was heavy with concern and apprehension.
“I know.” I couldn’t stop rubbing. I needed to get rid of them. My skin was turning red, beginning to bleed where I had scratched too much. “Make them go away.” I pleaded to no one in particular.
“You should go talk to the nurse. Maybe she can help.” At her suggestion, I nearly ran from the room, desperate for anything that would stop my greatest fear from crawling all over me, tormenting me.
The nurse’s face was full of surprise when she sees me. “You should be in bed.”
“There are spiders. Crawling all over my skin. Please make them go away.” I could tell how pathetic my voice sounded, hear the desperation.
“Breathe. Calm down. There are no spiders. You’re safe.” The nurse was so kind. I felt safer with her there. “Let me grab a cold cloth.” She disappeared into the nurse’s office for a moment, reappearing with a cold, damp cloth. “Here. Hold it in your hands. The cold will help ground you, bring you back to reality.”
As I gripped the frigid cloth between my hands the sensation of crawling spiders faded. I no longer saw the horrid creatures swarming my arms. As the hallucination faded I relaxed. I hadn’t realized how tense I was or that I had been hyperventilating.
“Thank you. That helped a lot.”
“You’re welcome. This is a positive coping skill you can remember that will help you get rid of your hallucinations.” Finally, I had a way to fight back.
Screams echoed down the hallway. Libby and Kara were spewing insults at each other.
“I’m glad your girlfriend killed herself!” Libby spat at Kara. For a moment silence fell, then Kara let out a scream of rage as she launched herself at Libby, clawing and punching.
“Doctor Brown to the juvenile wing,” rang over the intercom, the code for all available staff members to report to said location. Every adult on the unit rushed to tear the girls apart. Kara was still kicking and punching as one of the male nurses pulled her off Libby and held her in the air.
As Kara was removed from our unit and taken to the adult unit, I began hyperventilating. All the stress in the past few weeks had built up and this was the final straw. My eyes filled with tears as I moved toward the quiet room. The quiet room was rather ironically named since more often than not the people using it were screaming or kicking the walls. It was a small room with nothing in it. The door did not have handles on the inside so that once a patient was inside they had to be let out by a staff member. It was used for patients who were out of control.
I walked in and closed the door. As I slid down the wall, the tears broke free and I began to sob. After exhausting my tears, I chose to stay and simply think.
I had thought of myself as crazy for a long time. After all, I was a bipolar who hallucinated. I was staying in the mental hospital for the second time in a year. Could I really be sane? Well, maybe. Maybe despite all those things I wasn’t that crazy. Maybe I didn’t have to define myself by my condition. It’s a disease, an infection in my mind. But it could be treated even if it couldn’t be cured. I can get better. I didn’t have to end up a high school dropout. I didn’t have to tear apart my arm with a razor blade. I could take my meds so that I remained well. I could get better and move on. I resolved that I would, no matter what it took.