Visiting Hours: anatomy of a visit to the Mental Health Unit

The first difference you notice is that you take a left off the elevator where everyone else takes a right. You walk through a set of double doors into a long hallway where you always walk alone. It is cold and the hall is wide. The walls are white and bare, in stark contrast to the other hospital hallways, painted a muted, compassionate shade of beige and decorated with strategically placed art and various memorials to rich benefactors. No, this hall is the kind of bright white you feel like you could drown in.

Then you turn a corner, and another, until you reach a set of locked doors with a phone outside. When you call the number they ask who you are here to see. Then they buzz you in and instruct you to lock all of your belongings into the tiny lockers outside the next set of locked double doors marked “high elopement risk.” Back when I used to work in group homes, we called people “runners” if they posed a flight risk. Now the words have become more euphemistic as if people are whisking themselves away to grander places.

Finally, someone arrives to usher you in. They unlock the set of doors and you walk in, immediately trying to acclimate to the next set of surroundings. The space in this area is filled with tension and electricity. You search for your loved one amidst the sea of people wearing beige scrubs. Some sit down and stare vacantly at the television. Others cluster in groups, passing time. A few sit in corners frantically scribbling in notebooks. Everyone here could be someone you just passed in the hallway on your way to this space. You wouldn’t necessarily guess just by glancing that anyone here belongs in the Mental Health Unit (that’s another change – it’s not “the Psych Ward” anymore).

But then your eyes settle on your loved one. She is shifting in her seat, eyes darting; she mutters to herself, occasionally yelling out. She hits the sides of her head and takes her glasses on and off. Suddenly she sees you. You ache for a sign of recognition – even anger – depending on the moment, she might break down crying and reach for you. Many times though, she looks at you through the slit of half-closed eyes and turns, walking away yelling to everyone and no one. All you can do is follow her, trying hard not to look threatening or menacing. You open your heart as much as you can, directing love, believing – knowing – that somewhere deep inside, she can feel it though nothing on the outside suggests that. Maybe you do this more for you than for her.

She hasn’t slept now for more than a week. You wonder how this is even possible. All those meds, all kinds, all forms. All those times you’ve begged her to take each of them, having to live with yourself and that decision if they don’t work.

Last week you could get her to take a shower. You scrubbed her hair like you used to when you were kids – sisters – taking a bath together. Absentmindedly, you sculpted the soap into a mohawk on top of her head as you massaged. She laughed. This week though, you can’t get close. You ask if you can hug her and mostly she flinches when you do so. Tonight you quietly sit on the edge of the bed for hours, watching seconds tick by on the digital clock as she yells to people and creatures unseen, batting at her head and punching the walls. She curses people from the past – some you know have hurt her, and others – like Bob Saget – make you wish someone else was there to hear the absurdity.

And then your time is up. You tell her you love her and that you’ll be back. You are acutely aware that you are one of the only constants in her life. You hope these visits don’t backfire, causing her to resent you later if/when she comes out of this. She hardly notices you leaving.

You ask someone to let you out. It feels odd to just walk away empty-handed from someone who is usually so warm and who typically needs you so much. At the end of one visit you fold up a piece of paper with her strange writing all over it and stuff it in your pocket just to have a piece of this experience with you when you walk out.

Then you unlock the locker with your items, put your jacket back on and your purse on your arm like its a costume that legitimizes you for this world. They buzz the next door and you’re in the white hallway again only this time you’re grateful for the quiet. You’re conscious of your breathing and the fact that you know you should feel something but you aren’t sure what.

And then you’re outside, in the parking lot and then in your car, driving down the street, passing others in their cars who are just returning from the post office and the bank and dropping their kids off at daycare. And it occurs to you how strange it is that the world keeps going on even when your sister is in the middle of this devastating illness.

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