I didn’t sleep well my first night in the mental crisis center. I had been brought in around midnight in a police car, so I didn’t meet any other patients that first night. The crisis center was called Green Oaks, and it was in Dallas, TX. It was only about fifteen minutes away from my house. I felt like I was in another world.
It was my second time there, and the first time I had been there for less than twenty-four hours. The other patients had all freaked me out. There had been a girl that told me she was going to cut me. Another girl had complained her mom didn’t love her, so that was why she had hit her mom’s car with a baseball bat. I was scared to be stuck with these people again.
When we got up for breakfast the next morning, I was really nervous. I was worried about all these people around me. There were about ten other teenagers, all of us between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. The first girl I met didn’t help my idea that everyone at mental hospitals was weird.
She had short black hair, and was about five and a half feet tall. She was talking to her roommate.
“I’m so upset I’m here. I should be with my husband right now. I hate my parents for taking me away from him and sending me here.”
“You have a husband?” I couldn’t help but ask her in a raised voice. She nodded her head.
“Yeah, he’s great.”
The girl ended up leaving that day, and I never learned her name. I just call her married girl. Her roommate, though, was named Jessica. We became best friends. Well, the best kind of friends you can have in a mental crises center.
Jessica was at the mental crises center for the second time in two weeks, so she was able to make me feel welcomed. She wasn’t intimidating at all. She was about my height, five feet and two inches, and had brown, curly hair. Her face was covered in freckles and she had a giant smile. It was weird how much we probably smiled in the mental hospital; it was more than any of us had smiled in a long time. Jessica was very athletic, and loved whenever we went outside, which was only once a day. We would play volleyball without a net, or some other terrible game, but she always made it fun by making it competitive in a stupid way.
Being in the mental hospital with Jessica had kind of been fun. It feels weird to say that, but it’s true. We relaxed, did puzzles, and watched the show Intervention (a few kids were on drugs). They let us hang out and talk when we had free time. I loved it. I had been so depressed and anxious before I came, that I had been suicidal. I don’t remember laughing for months before being there, but I remember laughing constantly with Jessica. I don’t even remember why, sometimes there wasn’t even a reason.
I remember being practically doubled over in pain from the laughter. Jessica had said something stupid, a joke of some kind, that wouldn’t have even made me blink in the outside world. But now, I found it hilarious.
“Katie, why are you laughing?” she asked me. She was beginning to giggle herself. “My joke sucked.”
I barely managed to gasp out “I don’t know.” Tears streamed from my eyes and my face was turning red. It was like once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. I had forgotten what it was like to laugh. I’ll always remember how great it felt, but for some reason I don’t remember the joke. I think I was just happy. The people around me understood me. We knew how each other felt.
Everyone around me started to laugh. None of us knew why.
Group therapy was very personal at Green Oaks. We had to explain why we were there. The full story in perfect detail. It was hard to do, especially because I had always tried to hide my problems from people. I had been the perfect student with the best grades at my school. I had never shown any sign of behavioral problems. All my problems happened at home, so it was easy to hide it from the outside world. Jessica was so honest, though, so it made it easier for me.
“Jessica, will you explain why you’re here to the group,” the doctor running group therapy asked. We sat in a small room. The white walls were bare, and with five kids each sitting in a different kind of chair.
Jessica nodded. She looked up, as if she was looking everyone in the eye at once, as she said, “I tried to commit suicide again. I was here a week ago, for the same thing, and after that I went to my friend’s house. I had a fight with my friend and I tried to swallow a bunch of pills. She found me before I could, and I was sent here. I’m just sick of all of this. I just hate life.”
“Why do you hate life?” The doctor asked. She was looking at Jessica in a truly caring way. I could tell she actually cared about us.
“It’s because of my stepfather. He…he does things to me. My mom doesn’t believe me.” Everyone’s eyes popped open. Jessica was looking at the ground now. Her hands turned into fists as she started to wipe away her tears.
The doctor looked alarmed, but then she calmly said, “Jessica, I’m going to need to talk to you after group.” She paused for a second to let her eyes roam over the room. “So, Katie,” she turned to face me. Her eyes now focused on my scared face. “Why are you here?”
I thought of how brave Jessica had just been. For the first time, I knew I could tell the doctor and the other kids why I was there. I was embarrassed to tell them, because I think it might be the most stupid fight I have ever had. “I was going to dinner with my family: my mom, dad, and middle sister. The youngest one was at a friend’s house. As we started to walk to the restaurant, my mom started to bother me because my bra strap is showing. I hate when she does that. It was like something snapped. I started yelling and screaming, and we all had to drive home without dinner. I never calmed down. I screamed how I hated my family. My sister was so scared of me. I screamed that I wanted to kill myself, and I grabbed a large knife from the kitchen. My dad wrestled it from me as my mom called 911. Suddenly, I calmed down. I didn’t want to be taken here by the police, but they took me here even though I was calm. I don’t know what came over me.”
I had felt like I couldn’t control the anger inside of me. I didn’t know where the anger came from. My parents were great. I realized that my problems were nothing compared to the kids around me. After group, Jessica had to talk to a doctor and explain her home situation. It was decided she was going to move to Michigan to be with her grandparents, because her dad was somewhere in Canada and she had not talked to him in over two years. My family, though, was great. They were all there for me, but for some reason I treated them terribly.
The doctors at Green Oaks decided that Jessica and I both needed more treatment. We were both moved to a residential treatment center so we could have longtime care. We were so excited when we found out that we would be going to the same place. The treatment center was called Meridell and was just outside Austin. I would be about three hours away from my family. We wouldn’t be alone. We would have someone that understood us, and could help us in our treatment. Jessica and I were both very depressed, but I always felt better when I talked to her. She could make me laugh at almost anything.
We were disappointed to find out that we would be put in separate parts of the residential treatment center. We were separated because we had different initial problems. I was put in Jewels, an area full of people with chemical problems in their brain. My depression and anxiety could not be explained by my circumstances. I had an amazing family that loved me, and I knew it. Sometimes, though, I would just explode with anger, or my stress would make me freeze in place. The patients that surrounded me couldn’t control how they acted. I soon realized, though, I had much more control than these girls did. People were acting out every five minutes. One minute everyone would be quiet, the next some girl was screaming at another and no one knew why. I actually became one of the prize patients by just being quiet and sitting there.
Jessica was placed in Bunkhouse, where people had behavioral problems that were not explained by a chemical imbalance in the brain, so people didn’t fight as often or as randomly. The place was quieter and calmer most of the time. People had more control, but every once in a while these girls would act out too. It usually just showed up in a different way, and was often a much bigger deal. It included purposely lying to get away with things and talking badly about others. The nurses took it more seriously because the girls here had planned it all out. It wasn’t by accident, like at my previous area. Jessica was here, like many others, because her troubles came from a bad home.
After I was at Jewels for a few days, the treatment center decided to do an activity with both the girls from Bunkhouse and Jewels. The first time was when our two areas met up to do line dancing. (I now have a permanent hatred for line dancing, though I already thought it was stupid before.) Our area came over to Bunkhouse, and I remember running in looking for Jessica. It was only our second day, but I missed her. I saw her sitting in a chair, so I went to sit next to her.
I started talking to her. It felt great. I hated my area. She explained hers wasn’t so bad. As we were talking, and not joining in the dancing, a nurse noticed us. She came over to us.
“What do you two think y’all are doing? You aren’t allowed to talk to each other; you’re from different areas. That’s the rules. You should know that.”
Actually, neither of us did know that. We explained that to the nurse. She angrily shook her head and made us go to separate sides of the room. I had thought I would at least get to see Jessica when our areas met up. I could, but we weren’t even allowed to talk.
The residential facility wanted me to have more of a challenge, because they believed that would be the only way I would improve. They thought I would do better at a place where people didn’t fight over everything, like the hour long fight over who stole whose crochet hook.
A staff member helped me carry my things to the Bunkhouse cabin. I think the cabin was supposed to make the place look like camp, but it really just felt odd and out of place. It was a log cabin, but the rest of mental treatment center was regular buildings made of brick and concrete. As I walked to the front door, I saw Jessica through the window. She was doing some worksheets at a table. I waved frantically at her. She smiled and waved back.
As soon as I got into Bunkhouse, I started to talk to Jessica. “Hey, how are you?”
“Don’t talk to her,” one of the nurses said. “She’s on level one. She can’t talk right now. Sam will show you around.”
They introduced me to a girl of average height with short, blonde hair. She held herself up with pride, which was odd for a place like this. Everyone was always so depressed, it was weird to see someone in control of themselves. As soon as Sam started showing me around, I asked her what level one was.
“It’s a punishment. Everyone starts on level two, and if you get in trouble you are put on level one. You are not allowed to talk to others and you have to sit around doing worksheets.”
“What did Jessica do?”
Sam looked at me, puzzled that I knew the girls name. “How do you know her?”
“We were at the same mental hospital.”
“Oh,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t know what she did this time. Sorry.”
All I did was nod. Jessica was doing a lot worse than I was.
My first night at Bunkhouse, Jessica’s scream echoed throughout the building. It startled me and Sam, who was introducing me to everyone in Bunkhouse. All the girls had been getting ready for bed, but they all stopped what they were doing. I froze in my chair, but Sam quickly took charge and rushed all of the girls into a side room. I followed. This was a weird way to start my first night in a different part of the residential treatment center. Of course, I wondered if this was normal.
We crowded into the side room. Everyone was squished together. It was just us patients, a group of teenage girls, no nurses or caretakers. It felt strange. We were always being watched. The only time we had to ourselves was when we went to the restroom. The girls with eating disorders didn’t even have that, because they had to sing the alphabet so the nurses knew they weren’t barfing. We weren’t even allowed to touch one another. This squeezing of our bodies was the only human contact I had had in days.
A green couch was against the wall opposite the door. Three girls had sat there as soon as they entered. A fourth girl tried to also sit down, but she decided against it when the tall girl covered with tattoos glared at her. A short, wide table was in the middle of the room, taking up most of the standing space. In the corner was a fish tank, with one beta fish. Just like us, it was alone.
Outside of the room, Jessica kept screaming. Inside, Sam tried to calm the girls who had gone off the deep end. She had been at Bunkhouse the longest, for over four months. She was a Level 4, which meant she had a lot of privileges and the staff looked at her as one of the leaders of Bunkhouse. I couldn’t believe how in control Sam was, and I wondered why she was still even at Bunkhouse. I never learned much about Sam. She was only there for another two weeks, and she always seemed more comparable to a staff member. It was the way she helped everyone, including me when I was new. She would ask how people were doing, but was never one to really say how her own day was going.
“It’s just Jessica,” Sam said as she calmed down another girl who was crying. She sighed with frustration, as if she was a mom annoyed with her daughter for acting out again.
I stood against a wall, shivering. The girls seemed to be upset about being stuck in here, but I didn’t care about that. I was just wondering what was going on with Jessica. I needed to get out of there.
The three girls on the couch were very calm. The tall one with tattoos talked to a chubby girl that had just one tattoo on her arm. I took a peek at the chubby girl’s arm, and was surprised at what the tattoo was. It was the girl’s face with a knife struck through the top, and blood was gushing everywhere. I inched back to the wall.
I felt as if I was in that room forever, but it was probably just fifteen minutes. A room of crying and screaming girls, and the only calm girls were the ones that had gruesome tattoos. Then, suddenly, a nurse opened the door. Light burst into the room, which I just noticed had been very dark the whole time. We all went out at a crawling pace, looking both ways before we exited, as if something was about to jump us.
The first thing I noticed was that Jessica was screaming at another nurse in the solitary room. “It’s all your fault,” she screeched at the top of her lungs. “Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?”
This person screaming was not the Jessica I knew. The one that always had a smile on her freckly face. The only person who had been able to make me laugh so truly, so purely in years. I wanted to help her, but we were told to ignore the screaming and to get ready for bed. I don’t even think it’s possible to ignore screaming.
I stood in the common room, which was in the middle of the building. The girls started brushing their teeth in the bathroom, right next to the solitary room. I couldn’t get ready. I was barely able to move myself to a chair to sit down.
As the girls got ready, I found out what happened to Jessica. When the nurse had gone to check on her during her shower time, she had found Jessica trying to hang herself by her belt. The nurses were now yelling at her, saying that she was doing it all to get attention. Jessica screamed back at them, and I could sometimes hear loud thumps, which were her hitting the mattress. I stayed in the chair, in total shock.
Looking out from the solitary room, a nurse finally noticed me when I couldn’t hold in my tears anymore. I started to cry in bursting sobs, wet tears streaming down my face, snot pouring out my nose. The nurse came over and said, “It’s okay, dear. She’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. I know it is your first day here, but don’t worry, this doesn’t usually happen. Just get ready for bed. Go brush your teeth.”
The nurse, though, didn’t know that I knew Jessica, and that I cared about her well-being. I explained, through my snot and tears, my connection to her, and this made the nurse nervous, as she seemed to realize that this wasn’t just a random girl to me. She thought I had been scared because the girl had scared me, but now she saw that we had a history. I stayed in the chair, as I couldn’t get myself up to go brush my teeth at the moment. The nurse walked over to the solitary room, and motioned to one of the caretakers. A caretaker came out, and the nurse pointed at me and seemed to be explaining the situation to her.
Jessica then came out of the solitary room. I hadn’t even realized she had stopped screaming a few minutes before. Her face was bright red, and her fury was obvious. She went into her room, which she shared with three other girls, and grabbed her mattress off her bed. She dragged it into the common room, until she was a few feet in front of me. She would be sleeping here for a few nights, because she now had to be constantly watched by the staff.
A nurse called Jessica aside, and through their staring I could tell they were talking about me. Jessica came over and sat in the chair beside me. She looked at me and said, “I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m okay. Please promise me not to worry. It’s going to be okay.”
I could only nod my head. I wanted to tell her we could talk about anything she wanted. I wanted to tell her not to kill herself, to tell her she had so much to live for, that she was an amazing person and people cared about her. I cared about her, and I had only spent a week with her. I couldn’t though, because the words caught in my throat. I would have hugged her, but I knew I wasn’t allowed. All I could do was nod my head and wipe the snot onto the sleeve of my t-shirt, as I watched my friend walk away.
Jessica went to lie down on her mattress. She was in a lot of trouble. I saw how much pain she was in, and I hated that I couldn’t talk to her.
I sat there until I was told to get ready for bed. I finally brushed my teeth, and went to my room, but I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop reliving the horrible night. It also didn’t help that the nurses did a fifteen minute check, where they would shine a flashlight in our faces to see if we were asleep. They would look at me as if I was the most annoying thing whenever my eyes would pop open, when the bright light shined into them. They would ask why I wasn’t asleep yet. I wanted to scream at them it was because they were shining a fucking flashlight in my eye at one in the morning. Instead, I just closed my eyes again and tried in vain to fall asleep. Knowing that in fifteen minutes a bright light would be shined into my eyes once more, to separate me from my thoughts of Jessica’s attempted suicide for only a moment.
I wasn’t allowed to talk to Jessica for over two weeks. She stayed on Level 1. She was made to sit at a table near the front of the cabin. She repeatedly did these worksheets about mental health that were supposed to help her. After a week, she had done all of them.
“I’ve done this one before,” she said to the nurse on duty.
I was sitting on the couch about ten feet away. We were having our mandatory quiet time after school. We were supposed to be writing in our journals about our feelings. I didn’t feel like writing, so I doodled. I drew pictures of hourglasses, the sand falling slowly. Jessica’s voice caught my attention, and I tried to listen without being noticed.
“Well, if you would start acting better, you wouldn’t have to do any more worksheets,” the nurse said. “We’ve run out. Just do it again.”
Jessica sighed and went back to her table. I continued to draw hourglasses until group therapy started.
Dr. Amy came in about five minutes later. She made all of us sit in a circle. Except for Jessica. Jessica was supposed to stay at her table. I didn’t know how she was going to get better if one of her punishments was not being allowed to participate in group therapy. We were supposed to tell our problems to the group and ask for help. The other troubled teens would then give you advice. These people were not the kind of people you would ask for advice.
Sam always volunteered to tell a problem. It made her look good in front of the doctor, just like giving her advice would make the other patients looked good. Meridell loved participation.
Sam told the group, “I’m worried about leaving here next week. I don’t know what I’m going to say to my friends.”
The girls just sat. Then someone raised their hand, and Dr. Amy called on them. “Sam, just tell them the truth.”
Someone else offered up that Sam could lie. Others said she could downplay it. I don’t think these mixed signals helped Sam.
“Thank you. This has helped so much.” Sam said.
I heard a snicker. I looked over at Jessica, she was giggling at Sam’s response. I smiled in Jessica’s direction, but she didn’t notice.
The nurse on duty suddenly said, “Katie, are you talking to Jessica.”
“Well she is laughing at something,” the nurse said. I guess she didn’t see how Sam should not have found any of that helpful.
“I just looked at her for a moment. I promise.”
Jessica chimed in, “I didn’t even know she looked at me, really.”
“Jessica, you are not allowed to talk. Katie, you are not supposed to look at people on Level 1, you know that,” the nurse said. I actually did not know that. I knew I couldn’t talk to Jessica, but I wasn’t allowed to look at her. Was I supposed to think she was not there? “You’re on Level 1.”
“What, no, please.”
Dr. Amy was silent. I started to cry. I grabbed a worksheet from the nurses’ desk and sat at one of the tables near the front of the cabin.
My parents came two hours later. They had come all the way from Dallas to visit me in Austin. They came every week. My parents visited more than anyone else, even the girl whose parents only lived fifteen minutes away. One girl had been here three months, and she had only seen her dad once. I knew I was lucky. The nurse let me go visit with them in the cafeteria for a few hours, but said I would be on Level 1 when I got back.
The main nurse, though, was back when I returned. He found out why I was in trouble, and took me off Level 1. He said I should have been warned. I never got in trouble again at Bunkhouse. I bet I am one of the few kids to come out of that place with only two hours on Level 1.
I don’t remember it being awkward when Jessica got off Level 1. We were suddenly friends again, as if nothing had happened. We never discussed her trying to commit suicide, though it was often on my mind. I wanted to ask her why, and I wanted to tell her it would be okay, but I was never able to. We mostly just joked around and talked about random subjects like Guitar Hero and our favorite movies. It was what we needed at the time. We didn’t need to be reminded of why we were there; we were both each other’s way of not thinking about the present.
Jessica always had a way of making me laugh, even though it wasn’t always on purpose. The first time I got to have an overnight away from Meridell was with my dad. I was telling Jessica why we had chosen that specific night.
“It’s Rosh Hashanah,” I told her. “It’s the Jewish new year. So I’ll be going to temple, but I’ll also get to spend time with my dad. My mom and sisters can’t make it, but they will be going to temple back in Dallas.”
“You have your own New Year,” Jessica asked.
“Yeah, we’re on a different calendar. It’s a lunar cycle.”
“That’s cool,” she said. “Like how our regular new year is on the Fourth of July.”
I looked at her. She had to be kidding, but she didn’t seem to be. Suddenly, I burst out laughing and I couldn’t stop. I was barely able to say, “Fourth of July is Independence Day, the New Year is on January 1st.”
She hit her hand against her head, “Oh, yeah, it is. I must have gotten confused.”
I fell on the floor, still laughing uncontrollably.
I left really quickly compared to most kids. I only stayed at Meridell for two months. It felt like a long time, but people were really impressed with how well I improved so rapidly. They said I was better with people. I was on new meds, which were helping a lot. I got out right before my birthday, and I was really happy about it. I was sad to be leaving Jessica though.
Bunkhouse had this ritual when a person left. They went around to all the other patients and gave each one a handshake while they said goodbye. It was the only time you ever touched anyone, as touching others was not allowed.
I saved Jessica for last. I was leaving at lunchtime, so I went around the cafeteria saying goodbye to everyone. When I got to Jessica, I started to tear up.
“I’m going to miss you,” I told her.
I looked at the nurses, they weren’t paying attention.
“Can I give you a hug,” I asked.
I grabbed her in my arms, the girl that had helped me get through the hardest time in my life. I didn’t know what else to say, but I think breaking the rules said a lot.
As I let go, she said, “Do you promise to write?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Bye, Jessica. I’ll miss you.”
I walked away. I was going home with my whole family that had come to pick me up. I didn’t know if I would ever see Jessica again.
I never did write her. I feel terrible about it, but I didn’t know what to say. I friended her on Facebook. When she got out, a month later, we chatted once for about five minutes, but we didn’t have much to say to each other. I asked her how Michigan was, and she said her grandparents were really nice. I sometimes see her status updates. She’s one of those people that loves to tell the world everything. She says when she is having a great day, but she also writes when she is depressed. Whenever she writes she is depressed, I want to message her. I want to make sure she is okay, but I don’t. I don’t know what to say. It’s been over four years, and I wonder if she ever remembers our friendship like I do. I wonder if she thinks I betrayed her. I’m even more scared to think that maybe I didn’t mean anything to her at all.
Katie Ray is a junior at Eckerd College. She is majoring in creative writing and minoring in literature. Katie is on the editorial board of the Eckerd Review, Eckerd’s literary magazine. Katie has studied under Elie Wiesel. She is an avid scuba diver, and through Eckerd spent time at the Bimini Sharklab, where she swam with sharks. When not at Eckerd, Katie lives in Dallas, TX with her parents and two sisters.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I originally wrote this piece to help myself when I couldn’t stop thinking back at my time in the mental treatment center. I found that as I was working on this piece, it was very therapeutic to go back over that time.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I received was from Elie Wiesel who told me to keep writing. I did follow that advice, because I am still writing.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: 1) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, by making a young, dyslexic child love reading
2) Elie Wiesel’s Night, which taught me the power of nonfiction
3)Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, for showing me I was not the only one that saw humor at a stay in the mental hospital
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I like to work in my room by myself. I need it to be very quiet. I work at my desk, which I’ll admit is quite messy.