In The Psych Ward

  • Here, I'd like to post another excerpt from my memoir, Left of the Dial, that details my first meeting with the psychiatrist on the ward. In 1987, little was known about recovery outcomes, and I was left alone upon discharge to struggle with the truth about what happened. I'll begin in media res.




    I insert my bamboo legs and arms into jeans and a tee shirt and walk down the hall. I get in line to swallow the curious liquid. It tastes like honey. Why am I drinking it? I willingly drink it down. Can I trust the staff? How long have I been here? The calendar on the wall says "Sept. 30." Is that possible?

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    In the dining hall, I slink into an empty table in the back. I just want to be alone, so after I devour the eggs and sausage, I walk back to the room, where the solitude welcomes me. I slip into the silence, and drift asleep for three more hours.


    When I wake, I stay in bed, flipping through the fashion books. The women in Claude Montana look confident, in those suits with cliff-size shoulder pads. Their power is intoxicating. The glossy magazines are my only escape.


    I want to find out what happened to my brain, and stop it from ever happening again. As if on cue, the blue-eyed doctor appears at the door, saying he wants to see me. His eyes are ice-blink blue. "How's it going? I'm Dr. Portman. I'll be your psychiatrist." He shakes my hand firmly, standing near the bed as I sit up straight.


    "Oh, everything's fine," I say. It's not fine.


    "You are very lucky, Christine. We caught it in time," he says.


    "What? What did you catch in time?" I ask.


    "The schizophrenia. You're fortunate your mother got you help right away."


    Oh my God, I'm doomed. I have schizophrenia. That doesn't sound like it could be a good thing. I've never heard such a long, convoluted word. It has five syllables and how many letters? I need a dictionary. I have to find out the definition.


    "What caused it? How can I stop it from coming back?"


    "Christine, I'm sorry. We don't know the origin. It could be genetic. You will have to keep taking the medication, and even then, there's no cure."


    I remember once Carni told me she read in a magazine that people who alphabetize their record albums had schizophrenia. I thought she just wanted me to believe that somehow it was okay for her record collection to be a mess. I've always had a neat streak.


    "Dr. Portman," I ask, "is it possible that I became sick because I alphabetize my record albums?"


    "Oh, Christine, of course not. Where did you hear that? I'm afraid it isn't that simple. It has to do with the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain."


    The Siouxsie and the Banshees song lyrics to "Christine" come into my head: "She tries not to shatter, kaleidoscope style/Personality changes behind her red smile." Like the haunted Christine, I'm dressed in purple, and now I'm a turtle. I'm the Strawberry Girl with 22 faces.


    Today I wear only my plain face, stripped bare of the kohl, for the first time in a long while I reveal who I am.


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    "Are you hearing voices? Where are you?" he asks.


    "Oh, no, I was just thinking about something," I say.


    "What were you thinking?"


    "I thought schizophrenia meant you had a multiple personality."


    "It doesn't. That's a common misconception," Dr. Portman says.


    I stare away from his blue eyes, down at the linoleum floor.


    "Look, I'm going to tell you the truth. You have to be able to function, that's the main thing: to get up each day and be able to handle the things that come your way."


    Is that all I can expect? He's not sugarcoating anything, is he? I see the reality, yet I'm compelled to ask, "Will I ever be able to go to grad school? I wanted to be a journalist."


    "Oh, I don't know if that's possible. Perhaps you could work in a flower shop. It's a pleasant job. That's what someone in your position could do."


    Doesn't he know that when Mom comes home with sick plants from the nursery, to try to bring them alive, I promptly kill them by watering them too much or forgetting to water them?


    "Please, just rest. You have time to think about what you want to do. Take it easy," he says. "I've assigned you to Group Therapy Two. You can talk in there about all of this. Everyone here is just like you. Try to talk to them, get out of your room. Okay?"


    "I feel tired," I say. "Doped up."


    "That's because you're coming down from the psychotic high. You weren't sleeping for days, so you have to re-set your clock. It's best you stay awake, though, and go to sleep early at night."


    "I'll try," I tell him.


    "Good. I'll see you tomorrow."


    He's going to write down in my chart what he sees: my thoughts and mood, affect and expression. I'll be the face he wants to see.


    Just one more disguise. So I can keep it together for another day. I'm going to smile and pretend everything's all right, because I want to get out of here. Though I'm not so sure things will be better on the outside.





    Over the years, as I slowly got better, I tried to blot the hospital out of my mind. When I began writing the memoir, I contacted Veronica Lane to obtain my medical records, and they were resistant to my attempts. I felt if I could make sense of what happened, I could put it to rest. I never did get the records.

Published On: August 08, 2007