A brief caution.

If the number 37 means something to you, you may wish to stop reading here.

If a discussion of institutionalization may be triggering, you may wish to stop reading.

This is a requiem in two parts, a remembrance of loss.

Station 37 is the Secure Juvenile Mental Health Unit at a hospital in Minneapolis. It’s not the worst, nor is it the best. It’s probably fairly nice as institutions go, but you’ll see that this is damning with faint praise.

She crumpled into the floor, as six men wrestled her on to her back. Securing her hands, they began to drag her off to a secluded room.

We stood around the counter, watching the scene just down the hall over the closed circuit monitors.

This was a code twenty-two.

When a patient became too unruly, a code was first called for all staff in the unit to assist, then another might be called to summon assistance from the adult unit next door, and finally hospital security. We knew the numbers, and from the first call we knew this was going to be a bad one. One girl had been in isolation down the hall, and she had been in several incidents already. She was young, maybe 12, and looked disoriented. It might have been her condition, the drugs, or both. But she was a “bad” patient, and we only caught glimpses of her as staff cornered her as we went by. Some screaming had started this off, and the loudspeaker informed us that it was about to get worse. With no staff at the counter, there was all sorts of mischief to get into. Keys were in the drawer, there was pop in the fridge, and rumor had it that confiscated drugs might be in the backroom.

We stood at the counter, some on tiptoes to watch the unfolding scene. I helped Jill up to sit on the counter, since she was too short to see over. In a mix of fascination and horror, we watched this young girl get tackled and shoved into the “Quiet Room.” She started to bang her head on the rubberized walls. Shit. I willed for her to stop under my breath. Don’t make them come back in…just let it go.

She kept going. They came back in, throwing her to the ground again. She nearly made a run for it, only to get clotheslined by the incoming security guards. They rolled her up in one of the rubber mats and waited for her to tire.

Staff started to come back towards the main room, and shooed us away from the counter.

In my junior year of high school, I went from a farewell lunch intended to celebrate my work at Sen. Wellstone’s congressional office to a “voluntary” admit at a hospital in south Minneapolis. Concerned that my symptoms had gotten much worse with the introduction of medication, my doctors decided they needed to step things up.

Things were just beginning.

Within the next year, I had collected an assortment of hospitalizations, police contacts, ambulances called, and my eyes were opening to a unknown and profoundly scary world. I dipped in and out, backed by parents as yet unconvinced that their lives would be better off without me. But when I went back, there were always familiar faces.

And I kept going back. As my medications changed over and over, my symptoms kept getting worse. Moody became nearly catatonic, agitated became hostile, irritable became self-destructive and I began to cut. Angry lines crossed my wrists, laterally, in a show of frustration. I only learned later that I’d been doing it all wrong, and that I would need to cut the long way if I wanted out.

Sadly, I was pretty well off by the standards of the ward. I had insurance coverage, most did not. I came from an intact home, most did not. I’d yet to seriously attempt suicide. Most had multiple previous attempts. We all made friends as best we could. We listened to the radio, including some of the good stations you can’t pick up near my house. And we bitched. We aimed at every injury, whether it could be fixed or not. We talked about how the miniature despot of the day shift, dubbed Col. Mustard, had a bad habit of looking down the girl’s shirts. We meditated upon the likelihood of getting out if a complaint was filed against the inattentive psychiatrist. We fretted about Green Acres, and the brochures that some of us had for “a stable, long-term setting for psychiatric care.” We asked around, and did not know of anyone coming back from Green Acres. We talked about going home, and if we even wanted to. There were problems there, for sure. One girl’s stepdad beat her. Another feared sexual assault. Relatives might take you in, maybe not. But there were friends at home, and you got out of this place. The kids who were outpatient were always hit up for news and favors. A candy bar purchased, a pack of cigarettes smuggled.

Most of all, we waited. Whatever happened next was off in the distance somewhere, and there was a lot of dead time. I stayed up late, looking out the narrow windows, hoping that maybe someone would look up from the bus stop. In all my time there, no-one ever did. My CD player blaring into my headphones, I stayed up to read and write, throwing stuff down on to paper as fast as I could. I thought I could actually get my demons out that way. Guess I still do.

And then, in the midst of the boredom, something would happen. We would go to the main desk, forget to actually do anything we’d plotted about, and watch. Oddly transfixed by the scene of one of our new friends being tossed to the ground, and forced into restrained seclusion, often drugged up beyond consciousness, we just stood there.

I looked down to help Jill up on to the counter again. She wasn’t by my feet, waiting like she usually did. About kindergarten age, she was a sweet child, intelligent and extremely sensitive. She also had a temper, and was capable of frighteningly violent rages. She was all of 60 pounds, but there were five of them standing over her, trying to hold her. The needle slid in, and we didn’t see her again until morning. She was groggy, and didn’t talk much. I never did find out what had set her off. Staff claimed she had gotten caught cheating at a game, but I hardly believe them. She liked cartoons, talking to the big kids, and playtime in the gym. We’d take turns pushing her around on the scooters until the staff told us that we were going too fast. Jill looked up and begged for another run.

For her age, she was remarkably good at figuring people out. We talked for a long time about why the staff treated us like they did, how teachers so often didn’t understand, and how it was good to have friends who knew something about being a little crazy. She worried that her parents just didn’t love her anymore. I think it was a mistake that the older kids told her about Green Acres.

I watched as they threw her into the floor. I walked back to my room as staff sent us away. I looked out on to the corner of 27th and Chicago, nearly deserted in the night. I opened my notebook, and began to write.

“I wonder if anyone even knows we’re here.”

To be continued.

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