the packing list

I know from experience how to pack a bag for a suicidal hospital stay so I keep a packed bag (no straps, strings, belts) and leave it in my car “just in case” because my therapist may decide I’m not safe and need to check in to the psych ward (again) where there will be laundry facilities so I’ll only need to pack enough clothes for two or three days since doing laundry will be somewhat therapeutic

so I pack
two or three t-shirts, comfortable
sweat pants or leggings, can double as jammies with a t-shirt
no cords
no belts
no strings
slip-on shoes, no shoelaces
hairbrush and/or comb
blank journal, not wire-bound
several pens
warm sweater or hoody, no strings
phone and charger, will be kept at the front desk
travel-size toiletries, they’ll have shampoo but no conditioner
a soft blanket, for wrapping up in when the anxiety kicks in or my roommate starts screaming at 3am and the sleeping meds aren’t working and they won’t give out more
a stuffed toy or soft pillow, for hugging while crying myself to sleep

my therapist asks, “What do you mean that you’re packed for the hospital? How do you pack ahead for a psych hospital stay?”
I will show him this list


the patients seemed to grow more somber
as the night loomed darker and the
nurses wandered from room to
room doling out pills and patience
and warnings and reminding everyone
that bedtime was in an hour so we
needed to start winding down whatever
we were doing which reminded all of us
of our mothers fathers grandparents
older siblings preparing our younger
selves for bedtime as we discovered
that a psychiatric hospital stay is very
much like a return to childhood where
doors can be locked and toys taken
from grasping hands and snacks available
but only if you behave yourself and
other people cook for you and you have
to make your bed before school begins
and classes are required and arts and crafts
frustrate everyone until later when they
realize it was something to do that got
their minds off ending their lives because even
boring activities can be a distraction from
the abyss and you’re glad another day’s over
and you can curl up in bed with your pillow
and blanket and hopefully sleep soundly
rather than waking up screaming like the
night before when your sleeping self had a
glimpse of reality and the abyss the void
the monster loomed once more

snapshots of the ward

fig. 1

I thought the hallways would be cold and sterile. Unpadded tile floors. Echoing with footsteps and wheeled meal carts. Tile would make it easier to clean. Instead, the halls were warm and quiet. Dark carpet (to hide stains?) and the soft shuffle shuffle shuffle of patients doing their laps of the ward in their non-skid hospital slipper socks.

fig. 2

The front desk holds the list of unwelcome visitors. I find myself thankful I made my list. The person I least want to see shows up as a visitor. Why? To gloat over my breakdown? To shame me? To apologize? To make up? I’ll never know. But even just the thought of seeing them sent me into a panic attack and a need for meds.

fig. 3

The lunchroom is the hub of patient life. Coffee. Snacks. Puzzles. Every jigsaw puzzle is missing at least one piece. It’s almost a form of torture. Do they do it on purpose to test our ability to handle stress? My puzzle partner has OCD and the end of the puzzle sends her to her room shaking. This can’t be therapeutic. But there it is.

fig. 4

Occupational therapy is called arts-and-crafts or “going to camp” by the patients. We’re going to decorate light switch covers. The man next to me starts to cry quietly. “Are you okay?” I whisper. He wipes his eyes and whispers back, “I’m homeless. Where am I going to put a light switch cover?” I feel a sniffle of my own coming on and give him a quick sideways hug. The therapist says loudly, “No touching the other patients!” Oops. In trouble for being compassionate. Everyone looks at us like we’d been making out in art class.