We sit in a circle, but this is nothing like being at a campfire roasting graham crackers. This is the group room at the adult psychiatry unit at University Hospital and rounds are in session. There is a television in the corner, but I doubt anyone ever watches it. There are rips and holes in the blue carpet and I run my hospital socks over its grooves. I am the object of discussion. Helen, my favorite nurse, rubs a Zoloft pen between her hands, refusing to look into my eyes because she knows what she will see: a sallow face with a hospital gown drooping over one shoulder.
The social worker wears a lanyard around her neck with her official hospital identification card. It sways back and forth as she crosses and uncrosses her legs. I’ve been here seven times, but right now, her name evades me. I am so slowed down from my depression. I bring my knees up to my shoulders and exhale. They all look so serious. Dr. Snowfeld sits with his hands clasped together, his New Balance sneakers converging into each other. He is in that stage where he’s unsure of whether or not he wants to grow a goatee. I wouldn’t like him either way.
“Do you realize, Hannah, that you almost died? When you got to the emergency department, you were critically ill and on full code status,” the doctor starts.
“Oh, it wasn’t quite that bad,” I mutter, more to myself than to the hospital staff. They all look so concerned, so compassionate, but I can’t feel their kindness. It fades away into the washed out, dingy walls.
“Hannah, we’ve known you for a long time,” Helen says. She is the type of nurse that knows ice cream tastes better after fifteen seconds in the microwave and doesn’t make me play icebreaker games with the other patients in the dayroom.
“You’ve reached a serious crisis level,” Jennifer, the social worker says, when I finally remember her name. I pick at my cuticles and look into her self-righteous face. I decide that I hate her too.
“Look, you’re just not getting better,” she says. “You spent four days in the Intensive Care Unit after an extremely serious suicide attempt. And before that, you spent seventeen days on this unit.”
I can hear the distribution of lunch trays. I imagine mine, with turkey noodle soup and chicken tenders.
“Hannah, why the hell did you do this? How could you tell us that you were safe to go home when you were very suicidal, indeed?”
“Seventeen days is an awfully long time to be in the hospital, especially in this economy,” Helen adds. “Honey, you’re very sick.”
Dr. Snowfeld runs his hands over his tie, curling it and straightening it. I’m adorned in hospital garb and realize that I look like a mess. I didn’t comb out my hair after my shower and rolled it into a tight pony tail with a rubber band the recreational therapist gave to me. I had to promise that I wouldn’t fling it at the other patients.
“Hannah, medications aren’t fixing your illness. You’ve tried everything. So--”
He pushes his chair near mine. “We’ve gone to the chair of the psychiatry department--”
“Don’t you know what to do with me?” I scream while tugging on my hair. A few strands thread through my fingers and onto the floor where I swish it around with my hospital socks.
“We decided that you need electroconvulsive therapy or ECT. And you need it soon.”
“I’m not opposed,” I gasp. “I just want to feel better,” I whisper. “I don’t want to sit in a cold group room with you.”
And then rounds are over and I shuffle and slide across the tiled floor. There is a pay phone on the wall and I pray that nobody will call me. The nurses hide behind a glassed-in area and I can see Dr. Snowfeld eating some kind of sandwich he must have brought from the cafeteria. I slam my door and curl up in a ball on my bed, sobbing so hard, so fast that I want to pull every hair out of my head. Luckily, I don’t have a roommate, so I can keep this room as dark as I want.
When tomorrow comes, I do my version of eating breakfast with the other patients. This entails two bites of bacon and three sips of cranberry juice without looking anyone in the eye. Helen snags a lemon bar from the cafeteria and I work my way through it, thinking thoughtfully about having my brain shocked in a matter of days.
When the paramedics come, they lead me through the womb of the hospital, through the sterile ER, and watch me struggle to get into their rig. I think it’s terribly awful that they don’t offer to help me.
“It will be about two hours to Scottsdale, Hannah. Road trip!”
I roll my eyes. “You’re a nutcake.”
Before long, I am in a small room with a camera staring me down because they are afraid I might hurt myself. They must watch my every move and keep a psych tech by my side, watching as I sleep. The sheets are crisper than the ones at University Hospital. There are no windows and very little closet space. The nurses took everything away from me, my underwire bra and shoelaces.
In the morning, a tinny voice calls my name. Apparently, they use some kind of speaker to make announcements and call for patients.
“It’s time for your first ECT treatment, Hannah,” my psych tech babysitter says. She has moved to the front desk, controlling who gets in and out of the unit, while another one named Yvette watches me.
I’m disoriented. There is a pool, but nobody swims in it. There is a large cafeteria, but I’m not allowed to eat in it. I am relegated to the ECT suite. This is the focus of my treatment, the only way they can think to make me better.
The ECT suite has a bed and lots of machines. Before I know it, a thermometer is shoved under my tongue and a blood pressure cuff is squeezing my arm. Something smells awfully funny and I want to turn and run away. This isn’t what I signed up for. This can’t be my life.
“I can’t,” I turn to the ECT doctor. “I want out. I can’t do this.”
“Hannah, everyone is scared. Just hang with us.”
The anesthesiologist pricks my arm with lidocaine so the IV won’t hurt.
Something cool floods through my veins and the last thing I see is the twisting and turning of a butterfly mobile. Apparently this is supposed to be peaceful.
I close my eyes tightly.
And then I wake up. The psych tech who watched me yesterday pats the seat of a wheelchair. “Get in,” Alicia says.
And so it goes. I get shocked, choke down swiss cheese sandwiches and accept visitors at night. After five treatments, I move out of the camera room and the hospital staff tells me I’m ready to go. And it’s true.
“You will go to maintenance therapy, Hannah,” the shock doc reminds me.
“Yes, I would never expect nor accept anything less.”