I turned onto a shady, well-manicured driveway that, for all intents and purposes, looked harmless enough. Maple trees lined both sides of the street, and a parade of Canadian geese marched across the road to a wide duck pond with a flamboyant fountain. There were blooming crepe myrtles and rose-of-sharons, and as I grew closer to my destination, neatly trimmed gardens with neatly trimmed bushes.
I stopped to let the geese pass. They looked at me; one hissed. I honked my horn and moved around them.
At the end of the road sat a collection of grayish buildings and a number of signs directing me to the appropriate parking lot. "Welcome to Ten Creeks Hospital," said one of them. "Please enjoy your stay." I parked in the visitor's lot. Surely I wouldn't be staying.
I was shaking when I got out of my car. I had spent the morning getting high. One foot in front of the other, flip-flop noises, hot sidewalk. Mulberry and magnolia trees, freshly shaved grass. A bench and pan for smokers. A set of glass doors, locked. I pressed a buzzer and a receptionist let me in.
The hospital reeked of sanitary living. The carpet was cheap, the wall decorations placid. Fake plants that stood in the corners of every room hadn't been dusted in what looked to be years. Furniture had been removed of anything harmful--wires, strings, even comfort. Plastic, instead, made the couches easier to clean. They looked menacing, and when I sat down to fill out paperwork, the cushions crinkled noisily.
Thirty minutes later, a woman came to speak to me. She was pleasant-looking, a cardigan hanging over her shoulders, a kindly face. There had been no shoe-strings on any of the nurses that had passed through, and this lady was no different; she wore Mary Janes. I noticed very slender ankles.
"What brings you to Ten Creeks?" she asked gently.
After our session, she refused to let me leave.
I was admitted into Ten Creeks in the next two hours, given a tray of flaccid food, and sent into the adult ward with nothing but the clothes on my back. I was placed in a chair by the nurse's station. I answered questions while a male nurse took my vitals. I repeated myself more often than not. I relinquished my belt, my knitting, my valuables.
I was set loose after a brief tour of the psych ward.
I had a roommate, and a schedule. There were two day rooms, one with a piano, the other with a loud television which several patients had crowded around. I tried not to look at them; had not, in fact, made eye contact with anyone since arriving.
For lack of anything better to do, I wandered into the break room for a cup of coffee. I never drank coffee. Inside was a plump, bespectacled woman and a tall man with dark curls who couldn't seem to keep his eyes open. They asked me my name, what I was in for.
"Chelsea," I said. "I'm bipolar."
"Welcome to the club," said the woman. "I'm Susan. I'm an alcoholic." This, she said as if it were a mantra. She smiled at me. She smelled faintly of tobacco. Oh thank god, they let you smoke. "You come with me, now," said Susan. "I'll show you where your next class is."
I sat with the patients of my unit while a Black woman with skin like night attempted to conduct us into singing. I sat on my hands until someone passed me a coloring sheet and some markers. I looked up at her--Susan, smiling. "Color with me," she said. "I can't sing worth shit."
I colored. I barely spoke. The smell of hospital was overpowering, and I was terrified.
After our singing lesson, we sat for a chemical dependency class. It dragged on and on; I had never been to one before, and was not used to the amount of god involved. I tried not to cry when it was my turn to admit my shortcomings.
Hours later we waited for a nurse to take us downstairs for dinner. I had met the rest of the patients by that point, and my terror had subsided in favor of curiosity--I'd never met so many people trying to sort their lives out, and in one collective support group. It was fascinating. I met a man who smiled often and laughed loudly, whose son had died at a young age. I met a woman who loved ponies and took a plastic one with her everywhere. I met a heroin addict, just eighteen. I met an old man trying to stay sober "just for today".
Susan brought me with her when it was time to smoke. I felt like a puppy. When I cried, she held me. "I'm in adult day care," I sobbed. "I don't even know why I'm here."
"We're all here for a reason, baby," she said, and that was all.