A very personal semi-autobiographical piece about my time in a mental ward and my struggles with bipolar disorder. I think it’s very important to share mental health stories and end stigma. Names changed for privacy.
The bathroom lights buzzed. He spoke in flickering words:
God’s love is a burning thing.
The ward was cracked linoleum, antiseptic stench, peeling paint on cinderblock walls. I arrived in the dead of the night, strapped to a gurney with sedatives pumped through my loop-de-loop veins.
The nurses had shot me up with two drugs. The first made me see people’s sins, with forked tongues and brimstone eyes. The second turned the hospital into a comedy show, complete with a laugh track, like I was the Lucille Ball of the fucknuts.
I shared a room with a woman from the streets who pissed with the door wide open, her hospital gown stained with urine. She gaped her broken-tooth smile and went on about how her man had dumped her in the gutter for dead. All I could do was sit on my thin bed and reel as the drugs wore off.
I started picking at my skin, waiting for dawn, when the orderlies would wake us up and lead us to breakfast like lemmings off a cliff. My flesh flaked in bits because winter around here is dry as fuck. By the time the sun rose, my knuckles were bleeding. The holes on my hands were stigmata.
I thought of them growing, growling, like the cuts on the girl with cheesecloth-bandaged wounds, three red slashes on her left wrist, two on her right. She picked at the scabby crusts and they fell into her cornflakes. She ate her cereal dried blood and all.
I turned my spoon through oatmeal as my feet froze. We weren’t allowed to have shoes because of some bullshit about laces being dangerous – just these oversized socks that they handed out like Halloween candy. Sad? Have a sock. The Gestapo’s after you? Have a sock. Stuff your delusions with socks and choke the bastards dead.
The girl next to me had on two pairs. She was rail-thin, Middle Eastern, with fuzz over her legs.
She asked me what I was in for, and I told her about the beast in the walls. How I’d had to burn my room to kill him. Only when the flames started licking the paint, the beast wasn’t in the wood, he was in my head. My mom caught me throwing buckets of water onto the fire, trying to put it out.
What the hell, mom had said. Maggie, you dumb fuck. Like shit did I raise you to set fire to your room.
Mom extinguished the fire and then slapped me, hard – I still had a bruise-blossom, ripe as a plum. She dragged me to the living room crying, not again, not again, then called dad. Dad cursed at me through the phone. My parents were always helpful.
I felt hollow, like a banana peel, one of those rotting ones you see on the sidewalk, with bits of gum on its spots. I went to the bathroom and put my hands under burning water until my skin itched, itched with the beast inside. I tried to get him out. But he leapt into the lights, and the lights spoke with his voice – See what pain you cause, Maggie? You’re better off dead.
Mom caught me trying to throw myself out the window. She hauled me screaming to the van and drove to the emergency room. So that’s why I’m here. Because there’s a scaly, black beast inside me: shit like me attracts shit like him.
The girl nodded, compassion in her eyes. We were in the waiting room, inside the walled-off smoking section. She lit up and took a drag. I coughed, unused to smoke. The homeless woman I roomed with begged for a cig, and my acquaintance obliged.
My name’s Noor, the Middle Eastern girl said, and I’ve been here two months. I was depressed, and my dad didn’t want to deal with me – he’s an ambassador, see? Real busy – so he shipped me off here. He visits on the weekends and brings McDonald’s, so it’s not too bad, and I’ve got books to pass the time. I see a lot of people come and go. I don’t think you’ll be here long.
Noor reached into her purse and pulled out a beaten paperback. She smiled like a rose in a winter garden and handed it to me. Keep this, she said. It will help.
What is it?
The Secret Life of Bees.
I imagined bee’s hidden lives. Their flower dances. Honey stored in darkness.
Can I have another smoke? my roommate said.
Noor handed her one.
Group session started. We sat in a circle, overmedicated zombies, and talked about our feelings, but mostly, our lack of them. The bipolar kid with facial tics from too much Lithium said he’d had a good week. The slit wrist girl said nothing, just licked the blood from her wounds. The schizophrenic talked about how reptilians, whatever they were, were pulling the strings. I asked if he meant guitar strings or shoelaces, or the strings you pick loose from elastic, and he said shut up, that the reptilians were real, and we were all their pawns.
I said screw that, people are people, and you can’t blame their fuckups on mind control. The guidance counselor told me to be quiet so I zipped it.
When it was my turn, I talked about the beast. His eyes like glaciers. His hair like a rope set to strangle. I told everyone how he came to me in dreams, then if I was unlucky, when I was awake. He said he was death and holy fire, and that he wanted me, wanted me badly, so badly he’d rather I take my life to be with him than live a moment more. I didn’t realize I was shaking until Noor put her hand on my shoulder.
I haven’t slept in three days, I said. The doctors say it’s mania, that my mind’s racing, but even if I could sleep, I wouldn’t, because I know he’ll be there, waiting.
What would you say to the beast if he were here now? the counselor said in her honey voice, trying to be soothing, but coming off like Splenda – so sweet it was sickening.
He’s here in my shadow, I said. He follows me everywhere, even if I can’t see him. He’s sleeping now, but if he were awake, I would ask him why. Why me.
Why what? the counselor repeated.
Why do you make my life hell.
I met with my psychiatrist next. He upped my Depakote dosage and put me on something new – Abilify – to stabilize my mood. I’m sorry this happened, Maggie, he kept saying. I’m sure you’ll feel better soon.
That afternoon was art. They always gave us activities on the ward, to keep us busy or something. Can’t have the loonies running around trying to attack the nurses. I sat next to a man that looked like a skinhead, complete with neck tattoos. He painted these gorgeous cherry blossoms in some kind of Japanese style.
Those are beautiful, I said, in the middle of gluing a button onto a mask.
The skinhead smiled. Thanks. I learned it from my master at the monastery.
He nodded. I’m Buddhist, he explained. I teach meditation at the gym. I don’t look peaceful now – I’m just getting off crack – but when I’m stable, I cultivate serenity. Build an inner temple of the mind, like my master says.
His smile was dreamlike. I’m becoming a monk after I get out of here. Hey, you should meditate with me. A whole group of us does it – Noor too.
I’d like that.
I tried to read The Secret Life of Bees later. I couldn’t get past the third page. My mind was racing, racing, like a gerbil in a wheel, going nowhere, trying to keep its shadow at bay.
I brushed my teeth for thirty minutes after dinner, staring into the mirror, looking at my pores. I thought of college, how there was no way in hell I was returning. Not like this, swollen from antipsychotics, a walking ghost.
I remembered how I’d woken my freshman roommate with my night terrors, screaming bloody murder like a broken alarm. She’d taken to sleeping in the kitchen for a week, then reported me to the hall supervisor.
I’d had to talk with the counseling center because they thought I was disturbed. I was, I just didn’t tell them. I didn’t want college to be a repeat of high school – depression, mania, depression, mania, like a roller coaster ride you didn’t pay for, with no way off but to jump.
My college sent you to the hospital if you were suicidal, and students would vanish, never to return. At least, that’s what the seniors said. So I never got help, and it built up to this, this crescendo of too little sleep and too many delusions. Waking dreams of my beast, lulling me off cliffs with sweet words.
I joined the Buddhist and Noor for meditation. We were on mats by the radiator below the window, at the end of the hall. All the windows were barred. How fitting. Still, I tried to relax, and an olive-skinned woman read aloud from an Orthodox Bible. Her voice was soothing, like water on rocks.
Noor did yoga and stretched her body like a cat. She called it moving meditation and said it was good for grounding. What’s grounding, I said, and she said it was being in tune with the earth. I liked the sound of that, so I tried it, but all I got was an almost-twisted ankle, no inner nirvana for me.
My homeless roommate – Judy, she told me over the toilet – pissed for a really long time, a dopey smile on her face, like it was the best thing in the world. I didn’t have many achievements, but at least my greatest accomplishment wasn’t urinating for a solid hour. I swear she peed forever. Then it was lights out and Trazodone dreams.
I was in a library with rusty cages. The beast was perusing the stacks, too tall, flipping through his books with talons. There were chains on my feet.
He turned to an illuminated page. Let me show you something.
Darling, a little drawing won’t hurt you.
I tried to look away, but he was by my side like a lightning strike, offering me the vellum page. It was made of the same material as the Nazi’s human skin lampshades. On the page was the two of us, except I was dead, a corpse in a wedding gown, and the beast was kissing me.
Death doesn’t hurt. It’s like making love.
That’s fucked up. Leave me alone.
The beast laughed. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. I take what belongs to me.
The days stretched out like molasses. Meds in the morning, meds at night, double check twice to make sure you swallowed. We passed the hours in group therapy and activities like sports in a dingy basketball court, or this weird class where you had to dance sitting in a chair. I hated that goddamn class.
The beast wove in and out of my mind, possessing me, possessing the walls, and I swam in and out of lucidity. Sometimes I believed in him, sometimes I didn’t. My parents visited on the weekend, angry as ever, blaming me for an illness I couldn’t control. They brought a cold ham sandwich that tasted like tar. I wanted to leave the ward, but I didn’t want to go home, not with them, back to my charred room.
I never did read The Secret Life of Bees. I liked the title more than anything, liked to imagine what it was about. Pollination? Long summer days? Insect wings under the stars?
I made a mask with a honeycomb pattern in art class. The Buddhist painted a cherry tree for me and I taped it by my bed. Judy used it for toilet paper when we ran out. I got so pissed that I reported her, but the orderlies just shrugged – what can we do? You’re all crazy.
I told Noor not to give Judy anymore cigarettes.
The weeks stretched into a month, and the Buddhist left, set free like a petal on the wind. He might crash, but hell, at least he had a chance. Me, I was stuck in the branches, staring up at the sun.
We’re worried about you, my parents said, on the fifth weekend they visited.
I didn’t say anything.
Damn it, what’s wrong with you? You nearly burned our house down, and you still haven’t apologized.
I’m sorry. I suck. I know that.
We’re taking the repairs out of your college fund. We’re not paying for school anymore. You’re on your own, kiddo.
Don’t call me that, Dad.
Well you’re not an adult, running around, talking about demons, torching everything in sight.
I bit my lip. I didn’t mean to, mom. I’m trying to find inner peace. I’m meditating, you know. I think it’s working. I haven’t dreamed of him in a week.
There’s no monster, Maggie.
Yes there is.
They left without saying goodbye.
The beast came back with a vengeance. He locked me in a cage and force-fed me his gore. It tasted like stale chocolate. You’re my flesh now. Blood doesn’t let blood go.
I told my therapist about the dream and her eyes grew wide as plates.
It was just a nightmare, Maggie. You’re mind is sick, like it has the flu. The medicine will make it better. It will make the dreams go away.
They’re not dreams, they’re real. If they weren’t real, the medicine would work, but it hasn’t, and the nightmares haven’t gone anywhere.
Your medication just needs fine-tuning. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I’m not an ancient empire and medicine can’t be tuned like a car.
Maggie, be patient. Things will turn out, you’ll see.
All I saw were bees. Bees behind my eyes, glazed in pollen, buzzing away like cellos. The beast stung me with them that night, raising welts in the shape of a heart. I expected their stingers to be lodged in my throat come morning.
My parents stopped coming. Noor’s dad hadn’t visited in a month. She gave a weak smile and said it would be okay. That our parents were keeping us here to recover, only until we were stable.
Stable? What a joke. We were fading every day, into the cinderblock walls, reaching nirvana – nothing.
The hospital finally let me go because there was nothing else they could do. My insurance said I’d reached the maximum stay limit, and my parents said their pockets weren’t lined with gold. Mom and dad picked me up that afternoon, faces strained, like they were trying to take a dump but couldn’t.
You should be better now.
You’re a goddamn pain. How much money we gotta spend on you?
I’m sorry, dad, I’m sorry.
Born broken, kiddo. You were born broken.
We got home and mom fixed spaghetti. Dad tinkered away in the garage on his new project, some kind of kit to make a boat. The constant banging of his hammer dug into my brain. I poked at a meatball and stared, stared at the impaled food, feeling like Vlad Tepes’ victim on a pike.
Dad stomped upstairs and gave me a look that would freeze a desert. You haven’t touched your food. Just played with it. You don’t appreciate a damn thing we do.
I’m just not hungry.
Dad closed the distance between us and breathed down my neck. Your mom slaves day in and out in the kitchen to feed you, cleans up your crap, and I work my ass off to pay your medical bills. The least you could do is say thank you.
Dad sighed. Stop bawling, kiddo. You’re too old to manipulate us. We’ve given you a good life, sent you to a great college, but you’re not going back. You can’t handle it. You have a week to find a new place. To get a job. Mom and I decided that last night. We love you, but we have to let you go. Maybe the real world will set you straight.
I dropped my fork.
You’re kicking me out?
Mom entered the room. There were grimy tears in her eyes. Shit, Maggie, we can’t deal with this anymore. It’s tearing us apart. You can visit, of course, but you can’t live here. We’re too old to deal with you acting out all the time. Too tired.
I rose from the empty table. There was a black hole in my stomach. Fine. I’ll go. Just give me a few days to figure something out.
The night dragged on. I didn’t speak to my parents again. My room had been painted over in a deceptively cheery pink, and my sheets smelled like that stuff mom put in the laundry, some kind of lavender scent. I collapsed into bed and fell asleep.
The beast was waiting for me, wings spread, glass of wine in hand.
Tonight, Maggie. You have nothing left to lose.
Go to hell, you freak.
I’m already in it, love.
I knocked his wine glass to the floor. The Merlot spread like blood on the ground.
You’ve taken everything from me.
Only to give you freedom. All it takes is a knife to the heart. Your mother’s sleeping pills. A little fall from the roof.
I don’t want to die.
Then why am I here? Here where I’ve always been. You crave death.
No. I love bees. How they dance across flowers. How they move. I love trees in bloom – their petals – the ones that smell like spring. I love being able to finally wear shoelaces, and I love freedom. Places without barred windows. Hell is just another prison, just another mental ward, and you won’t take my life away from me.
And then, all that was, was not. Merlot, on my wrists. Washing down the drain like prayers.
The demon was swallowed by light, and I was in a meadow, with blue china skies above. Bees waltzed at my ankles, and a tree shed flowers like snow.
I knew I was broken, but to be broken was a beautiful thing, an immaculate imperfection that was holy. My fears gave way to a promise, a promise insects buzzed at my feet.
Things will be okay, okay.
I saw God’s fire and laughed.