338: A Memoir
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338 was the number assigned to me, and to others who were there before and after me. I’ve never met another 338, but maybe this story will finally reach one. I hope they’re okay, whoever they are.
And if you’ve ever been there, no matter your number, I hope you’re okay now too.
338: A Memoir
by Andrea Afra
Chapter 2: Consequences
Chapter 3: The Prize
Chapter 4: AWOL
Chapter 5: Slip ‘n Slide
Chapter 6: April Showers
Chapter 7: Jimbo
Chapter 8: 338
Chapter 9: Take a Chair
Chapter 10: They Said There Would be Horses
Chapter 11: Hallelujah, She’s Healed
Chapter 12: On the Outs
Chapter 1: Salute
“Salute! Salute! Salute! Fire…BOOM on yo black ass!”
Leonard’s strange cadence call was one of the few phrases he carried in his verbal arsenal. The other patients all laughed as the last word left his mouth. He blinked a few times and a slow smile stretched his lips revealing strong white teeth, but his eyes stayed on the blank wall across the room. Then his jaw relaxed and he was gone again.
It was evening free time, my third Saturday on the adolescent unit at the Harris County Psychiatric Center. Most of the patients were sitting in the common area under an old wall-mounted television that spouted a clamorous stream of tabloid talk shows. The common area’s boundary was squared off by four rows of five blue chairs. Each row was welded together by a bar at its base, a security feature built on the notion that it was harder to hurl five chairs at someone than a single chair. While ignoring the bleeped out altercations of the Jerry Springer reruns, we passed many hours sitting on the rough gray carpet dealing cards and trading stories like normal kids away at summer camp.
I was playing a card game with three other kids and Leonard was in a chair behind me. He might as well have been on the moon, but we knew the one word that could bring him back and it was my turn to call him. We were on our second round of Karma, and I was either about to lay down my last card and win, or pick up the discard pile and surely lose. When my next turn came, the top card’s number matched the one in my hand.
I slapped it down with a victory shout. “Salute!”
We turned to watch the ghost of a smile dawn on Leonard’s lips. Though his eyes stayed fixed on the wall, they were shining and alert while we waited for his bellowing refrain.
“Salute! Salute! Salute! Fire…BOOM on yo white ass!”
Our laughter held a note of relief. If a black kid gave the first ‘salute,’ it was ‘boom on yo black ass,’ and if the caller was white, ‘boom on yo white ass.’ A month before I arrived, he added ‘white’ to his repertoire, but before then it was just booms on everyone’s black ass.
Throughout the day, a random ‘salute’ rang out from somewhere on the unit without any schedule or method guiding the frequency. It was up to the individual to decide when the time was right and it took some kids weeks to find the confidence to give the call. Some never did.
Ernesto was the same height as me but his hands were larger than those of most full grown men so we made him shuffle the deck. He didn’t mind because he was good at it. The night before, we had finally extracted his promise to set off the call for his first time if I went before him. He scooped up the cards and began straightening them in one hand, but stopped and put them on the ground, mumbling something about needing to use the restroom as he walked off.
Just as he rounded the corner out of sight, we were jolted by a bark like a mad Rottweiler. “Salute!” Ernesto had made good on his word, and Leonard delivered a prompt report.
“Salute! Salute! Salute! Fire…BOOM on yo brown ass!”
Our laughter blocked out the noise of the television for longer than the staff would have preferred, but we didn’t care. Even Leonard joined in, slapping Ernesto’s high five when he hurried back to rejoin the circle. As we quieted down, a small, knowing grin settled on our lips. We saw the flare Leonard sent up from his side of the horizon. He would be okay. From then on, though someone else would have to hold his cards and play for him, we dealt Leonard into the games.
Out of all of the other kids at HCPC, only Rodney was worse off than Leonard. Both were black, tall, and good-looking 16-year old boys. They both could walk on their own, but Rodney had to be bathed and fed by a staff member in the handicap bathroom outside of his room which housed the only bathtub on the unit. When Leonard grew angry or frustrated to the point of physical aggression, the male staff members encouraged him to swing at them because he was doing something other than the nothing he always did. Yet, Rodney never got upset. Nothing stirred in his impassive face the few times I saw him. He dwelt in a permanent catatonic state and seldom left his room. When he did, it was to shuffle from his bed to stand in the doorway, often naked, either fully or from the waist down. Undressing was the one thing I knew he could manage on his own besides walking. Everyone guessed he had always been that way, however, in Leonard’s case, the story of why he’d been committed sounded like urban legend.
He met a friend by their school one hot summer day to sell them a hit of acid. While tearing off a square, a cop drove by. Leonard panicked. He shoved the sheet of acid deep into his sock and took off running. The cop turned around and started chasing him. He jumped a fence into his neighborhood, and cutting through backyards to stay off the streets, finally made it home—but it was too late. The sweat-soaked paper had slipped to the bottom of his sock where it clung to the skin of his bare foot. He lost the cop, then he lost himself. Nearly two years later, we took the racial nuances he proudly displayed in reply to another’s ‘salute’ as a sign he was returning from his drawn out trip.
The only other time Leonard spoke was when we all took turns saying a goal at the end of our daily group session in the common area. His voice flat as a dial tone, he’d say, “My goal for the day is to stay away from drugs.” Everyone knew his goal by their second day on the unit, and no one expected it to change. Everyone also had at least one prescription for antidepressants or mood stabilizers by their second day. We joked about how our nurse was the biggest drug dealer in town, just not the kind Leonard was talking about.
Someone already familiar with Leonard’s story would tell it to the newcomers on the unit, so I can only repeat the way it was told to me. Only Leonard knows the truth.
Chapter 2: Consequences
I arrived at HCPC on a Thursday night. After my mother signed the intake papers and left for home, a plump uniformed woman patted me down and confiscated the shoelaces from my faded green knock-off Converse. She handed a manila folder to a bullnecked male guard, then turned to me and said, “Go with him. And don’t give him no trouble.”
I followed him down several corridors, all lined with yard after yard of industrial gray carpet and fluorescent bulbs overhead that seemed to waver just before we passed under them. My laceless shoes kept falling off so I carried them, grateful I wore socks that day. We came to a locked set of doors every hundred steps or so where the guard brandished a retractable keyring at his hip with showy dexterity each time. The doors only led to more hallways and after several turns, I lost track of the entrance. As we neared a fourth set of doors, I heard the distinctive reggae intro to Cops playing from the other side. The guard wagged his eyebrows to say this was my stop and opened the door. I slipped my shoes back on and followed my escort over to the staff desk.
He handed me the folder, and panting a little, said, “Give this to whoever comes out first.”
Then he left.
I waited at the counter, staring down at the empty eyelets of my shoes. I knew other people were in the room though I wasn’t ready to look around just yet. The last five hours had started with a fight and ended with me standing before a desk in a psychiatric ward. I needed a moment to process the blur of events while also thinking I should do my best to act perfectly normal, especially in a place like this. The television was a safe place for my eyes. It was a rerun. Six officers were trying to subdue a naked, muscular man on the floor of a barber shop, but he shook them off like small children.
A commercial came on and I finally looked around. Only one other person was in the common area—a girl with ruby brown hair, reading a paperback. She looked my age or a little older, and something like an elaborate nose ring dangled from her nostrils. Her eyes caught mine and she waved, motioning me to come nearer so I hugged the folder to my chest and shuffled over. She laid the book on her lap, a copy of Flowers in the Attic. I nodded my approval and introduced myself, holding out my hand. Her palm was the kind of cold that leaves your own hand feeling damp when they let go. She said her name was Holly, and up close I saw the contraption wasn’t a nose ring.
“I thought that was a really wild piercing.”
Her laugh was light and sweet, but she seemed to reserve the movement of her lips which looked chapped and sore.
With a light flick to the tubes, she smiled. “I can see why you’d think that. It’s actually a feeding tube. It goes up my nose and all the way down into my belly.” She traced a line from her neck down to her stomach.
I didn’t have to ask before she answered my unspoken question.
“I tried to hang myself. I did hang myself, but my dad found me in time. He cut me down and did CPR.” She paused for a second and took a deep breath. “The rope crushed my esophagus so I can’t swallow food. This,” she lifted the tubes a little and let them drop, “is how I eat now.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat down next to her. I noticed she winced as she swallowed. “Does it hurt?”
“Well, it doesn’t feel good. And it really didn’t feel good when they put it in. See this?” she said, pointing to a small green clamp an inch below her nostrils. “It’s there so I can’t pull the tubes out.” She winced and shook her head. “But I wouldn’t, even if I could.”
A toilet flushed from a room beyond the desk and a pudgy, middle-aged orderly emerged from a small office, rubbing her eyes and smearing her mascara. I walked over and handed her the folder. A series of creases on her face betrayed that she had recently woken from a nap. Without any other greeting, she grabbed her keys from a drawer, adjusted a flesh-toned bra strap that had slipped down her shoulder, and told me to follow her to the Observation room for my strip search. I looked back at Holly, whose wry smile tried to say it only hurts for a second.
I followed the woman down a hallway and past a laundry room that filled the unit with the odor of hot lint. I saw the passage ended at another set of doors and later learned they opened onto the adult unit, which was rumored to hold over two hundred beds. We stopped halfway down the hall and stood before one of two heavy steel doors, each inset with a large concave dome of thick clear plastic that allowed the staff to see every inch of the jaundice-hued interior. The woman unlocked the door on the right and told me to step inside. She commanded me to pull down my pants and underwear and squat, then lift up my shirt and training bra. I disconnected something within to submit to her orders without falling apart.
Afterwards, I followed her back through the common area to a sparsely furnished bedroom. It had two single beds, each with a single built-in drawer underneath, and a desk built into the wall. “That one’s yours,” she pointed to the empty bed, and walking back to the desk, called out, “You’ve got about twenty minutes until lights out.”
The lights in the room were on but the other bed was already occupied by a large snoring mound topped with a bush of curly black hair, all covered in a thin brown blanket. I didn’t have anything with me to unpack. My mom said she would be bringing me clothes the next day, but I didn’t know if I would see her. I tried to look out the window by pressing my face against the rough black metal screen. I couldn’t see anything. The only decoration in the room was left by a former patient who had written a poem on the wall above my bed. An outline of faint blue ballpoint ink was still visible under a coat of off-white paint:
I cannot see the rising sun, that sun no longer shines,
I cannot hold tomorrow, for tomorrow isn’t mine.
My mind had nowhere to settle. So much had happened in the last few hours, and I didn’t want to go to sleep on that bed, to lay my head on that thin, limp pillow, to feel that scratchy felt blanket against my skin. I desperately wanted a book, anything to take me away, if only for long enough for my mother to realize I didn’t belong there and let me come home.
I walked back out to the common area where Holly was still sitting and asked if she had any books I could borrow for the night. With a quick raise of an eyebrow, she got up and went to the bedroom next to mine and soon returned with a stack of five novels.
“Take them all,” she pushed them into my arms. “There’s plenty of light in the rooms since we have to keep the doors open. Just pretend like you’re asleep when the staff does the room-checks.” There were two Christopher Pikes, another by V.C. Andrews, and two more by Ann Rice. I didn’t mention I’d already read them all except for one by Rice. I would gladly read them again and again. I wanted to hug her, but I was afraid I would hurt her somehow.
We talked until lights out. She told me Deanna was the snoring girl in my room. The boys stayed in the first four rooms on the left, and the girls took the other four on the right. The floor plan allowed the staff a full view of the entire unit from the vantage of their desk. A locked door near the girls’ rooms opened to a small high-walled courtyard the sun couldn’t reach. “They never let us out there anyways,” said Holly. “Well, sometimes the new staff will if can convince them we’re supposed to be allowed outside everyday.” I soon learned there wasn’t much to do on the unit, and little to look forward to each day besides food and sleep. At ten o’clock, the orderly called lights out from behind the desk and we walked back to our rooms. Knowing Holly was just two doors down was my only comfort that night.
The following Thursday, Holly had the feeding device removed. Her throat was still irritated from the intrusion and eating was a painful task. She told me she could taste blood every time she swallowed. We were already sitting at one of the two round cafeteria tables placed outside our bedrooms, coloring with dried out markers on the back of a scrap of paper, when our meal trays were wheeled in on a cart for lunch. I was glad to trade her my chocolate milk for her apple since it would have hurt just to watch her try to eat anything solid.
Snack time was always about three hours after lunch. When Holly got two vanilla ice cream cups to help soothe her throat, she winked and passed me one under the table. I slipped it up my sleeve and ran off to my room to eat it behind the opened door while watching for staff through the gap between the hinges. When I finished it, I returned the empty cup to her. We weren’t allowed to share and our meals were being monitored, “Since the Persian girl checked in for anorexia,” Holly had explained my second day on the unit. They thought we might cover up for her by eating her food.
The Persian girl’s name was Marissa and she never asked us to help her hide anything. She wore loose black sweatsuits to dull the sharp angles of her shoulders and hips, but her wrists were still visible and seemed too frail to support the weight of her hands. On hearing our gentle praise when she relayed her weight gain for the week, her sallow complexion flushed with a hint of pink. She was a talented artist and I’d sit at the cafeteria table next to her and watch her work on charcoal drawings. She let me flip through the sketchbooks she’d brought along. Gaunt, tortured faces with hollowed cheeks filled the pages, sunken eyes lost in the shadows of their sockets. Yet as her bones fleshed out over the course of her stay, so had the souls in her drawings, with each new countenance becoming fuller and brighter than the last.
After dinner that night, Holly and I wanted to play Bullshit, but we needed two more people to make the card game any fun. Marissa was in a visit with her parents and we could hear Deanna snoring from our room. She got a bit worked up during this particular game, so we let her rest. She was a big, raucous Mexican girl with little wireframe glasses. She had slapped me on the back with a devastating cackle when I admitted to her that I would be terrified of meeting her ‘on the outs,’ as the free-world was referred to on the unit. Ernesto had just walked out of his room and we called him over to our spot on the floor. He headed towards us, but then stopped mid-step as if an unheard voice had ordered him not to go any further. I walked over to him and asked him if he wanted to play with us.
His normally friendly eyes were black and distant, and they wouldn’t meet mine. “Get away from me,” he muttered.
“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked, a bit upset at his gruffness. I tried to get him to look at me but he kept his head down and gripped his crossed arms in front of him, as if to pin them in place. Only then did I notice his knuckles were bloodied and torn from punching the walls and window screen in his room.
He squeezed his eyes closed and moaned, “I’m seeing skulls.” He shook his head, grappling to extract himself from the visions.
Turning away, he trudged down the hall as if walking against a heavy gale, and disappeared into the Observation room on the right. A pale, overweight male staffer followed after to frisk him and soon reemerged, bolting the door behind him.
I returned to sit in our circle in the common area and shuffled the cards, more sure than ever that I didn’t belong there. I hadn’t tried to hang myself. I didn’t have an eating disorder. I didn’t see skulls. While I liked my new friends, the schizophrenics and the severely depressed, my problems were not anywhere near as bad as theirs. I just wanted to go home.
“What’s up with Ernesto?” Holly asked, when a roar of primal anguish came thundering from Observation, causing us both to jump.
“Let’s just play Speed.”
Chapter 3: The Prize
The dimly lit waiting room had a mushroom-white leather couch and shag carpet like matted gray moss. While my mother filled out a clipboard full of forms, I knelt on the floor to sift through a green storage bin full of cheap toys—sliding number puzzles, whistles, pencil toppers. I spotted a pink and white Snoopy keychain and knew I had to have it, but I hadn’t been told it was okay to pick something out yet. I buried it at the bottom of the chest in case someone else had a chance to choose a prize before I did. We were the only ones in the office, so I wasn’t too worried.
We were there because five-year old me had told my mother that my cousin had put his tongue in my mouth while we were in the back of my paternal grandparents’ van on a road trip to Arkansas. I didn’t tell my dad, his parents, or anyone else. I don’t even remember telling my mom, nor do I recall mentioning the other things he had done before that, but whatever I told her was alarming enough for her to pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with a child psychologist.
I was only in kindergarten but I was fully aware of why I was there. They were going to try to figure out just how much I knew about things I was too young to know. When the doctor took me into her office and showed me a stack of illustrated cards depicting black and white vignettes of various scenarios, she asked me what I thought was happening in the pictures. I played dumb. She turned over a card with a scene of a woman soaking in a clawfoot bathtub filled with bubbles, and a little boy standing in the doorway of the bathroom watching her. I knew the wrong answer would’ve been something like, “It’s a boy spying on a naked lady.” Instead I said, “It’s a boy talking to his mother.”
It felt like a good, innocent answer, though I was uncertain the doctor bought it. When the session ended, I went back out to the waiting room and excavated the Snoopy keychain, but I really didn’t want it anymore. I didn’t want any reminder of that place, even a new toy, but I took it and pretended to cherish it. In the days to come, whenever I saw it in my bedroom, I wanted nothing more than to throw it away, but I didn’t out of fear of my mom noticing it was missing and then asking me why I didn’t want it anymore. My lack of innocence would be discovered. I made a point to keep it on a shelf in my room for a while, as if it were a treasure that held no reason for being unwanted. After a year, I buried it again to hide it away, yet this time at the bottom of my own toy box where it stayed for a couple more years. When I was pretty sure my mother had forgotten about it, and I was old enough for her to agree I had outgrown it, I dug it up for the last time and wrapped it up in a piece of newspaper before shoving it deep into the kitchen trash can. Lastly, I scattered old food scraps over the prize to deter anyone from further inspection.
I grew up worrying others would know I knew too much too soon. I was also rather upset I wasn’t allowed to mature at the pace of my classmates. I felt older than my years and wanted to do things older kids were doing. I wasn’t allowed, but I did it anyways if I thought it would be worth the consequences. My rebellion began with leaving the house with a bare face only to put on lipstick at school, and escalated to sneaking out of my house and fleeing the suburbs to score some pot and watch a band play in town.
“You will always get caught,” my mom would tell me. I always got caught.
In addition to my problems, my mother was struggling with her own, including addiction. I wasn’t as aware of it then because she was nothing less than a superhero to me, impervious to whatever life, or I, dealt her. She’d married at 17 and had me soon after at 18, divorced my alcoholic abusive father by 21, became a private investigator, and married my stepfather at 25. She had big boobs, bigger hair, and her laugh filled a room to its seams. Between me and my mom, we had enough friction to burn the house down, but our love was safe. We screamed and cussed when we fought. She tore up my room and read my journals looking for proof of me doing drugs and/or boys. I punched and kicked holes in my walls, and she made me learn how to repair them with sheetrock kits, newspaper and paint.
I was thirteen when I ran away after a fight, and not having anywhere to go, and knowing my mom would come after me, I fled to the dam behind our neighborhood and hid in a large drainpipe overhanging a small creek. Someone must have seen me disappear down the slope and pointed me out, because she found me within half an hour, told me to go get in the minivan, and drove me to the county psychiatric ward. I hadn’t expected that as a consequence, or else I might have reconsidered my decision. After I had been checked in and it was time for her to leave, she had tears in her eyes as we said goodbye. I did too, and I hoped she saw mine in her dreams each night until I was back home.
The unit staff that held the fancy title of Psychiatric Technicians were really low-paid, mostly unqualified county employees that only needed a high school diploma to work there. They were disenchanted babysitters counting the minutes until their shifts ended. I can’t recall having a therapist at HCPC. When my mother came back to bring my clothes, we’d met with the resident psychiatrist in charge of writing prescriptions to get her to approve my new meds, but besides daily group and an occasional drug awareness class where they played us videos of long-haired teenage boys high on PCP, I don’t remember any one-on-one sessions with a counselor. I remember the other kids. I was only there for thirty days, but it doesn’t take long to make friends in a place like that. There’s always an opportunity for a devil’s bond between any group of people stuck in a situation like ours, an alliance against those who hold the keys to our freedom. In our case it was the unit’s staff versus a bunch of bored, locked up teens with a rainbow of mental issues.
We were assigned certain days to wash our clothes and halfway through my third week, it was my turn once more, so I asked a staff member to unlock the laundry room after dinner that evening. I started the load and went to turn off the lights and close the door, when I saw a set of keys dangling from the knob. Several shining keys, including one to a car, hung from a Lexus keyring. Without much thought, my hand darted out and after a quick twist, they were in my pocket. I locked the door from the inside and shut it behind me, my heart thudding at full throttle. I had to pass the staff desk in the middle of the unit, so I glued my eyes to the television and kept walking towards my room without increasing my pace until I was safe inside. I took out the keys and gave them a little jingle. Deanna was laying on her bed and flipped over.
“What the fuck was that?” she said, then gasped. “Holy shit, girl, what are those for?” Her voice was low and raspy at first, but took on shrill overtones when she was excited, as she was becoming then. She was known for her volume and I employed every gesture known to mean ‘please be quiet.’
“A staffer left them in the door of the laundry room. I don’t know why I took them.” I shook my head and shoved them back in my pocket.
She nodded towards the courtyard door. “Go see if you can open that one.”
I had nothing to lose so I shrugged and walked over to the door. Deanna kept watch while I tried two and three keys with no luck, but the fourth turned and suddenly the door was sucked open by the outside air. Thankfully, I hadn’t let go of the knob, and quickly pulled it shut. I locked it and tried not to run to the bathroom. I could hear my heartbeat over the television.
The girls shared a long vanity with four sinks. The toilets were to the left, the showers to the right. I headed left and entered a stall with the intention of flushing the keys, going so far as to wrap them up in a wad of toilet paper, but then I stopped. I didn’t want to be the reason the staffer was stranded, and if she was a mom, she’d be unable to get her kids to school. I kept the keys wrapped up and left the restroom with an idea of where to ditch them. There was a game cabinet near the door I had just unlocked. I could slip them in one of the board game boxes. It would take some time, but they would eventually be found, hopefully by shift change so the staffer could drive home. I didn’t want to have to confess because of my conscience, but again, I had more to gain in the brief thrill of the moment than to lose. The county only covered inpatients for thirty days without a court order, so a little mischief couldn’t extend my stay. I would worry about other consequences when they were closing in on me.
The game cabinet was supposed to be locked, but we knew how to open it by pushing on the keyhole with our thumb and turning it clockwise. I had the door open in no time and slipped the keys in the first box on the shelf, which happened to be a game called ‘Guess Who.’ I locked it again with my thumb and sped back to my room without looking to see if any staff had been watching, where I threw myself facedown on the bed. Deanna was about to burst, but managed to contain her expletives to a wheezing whisper. I tried reading a book, but my mind wouldn’t stay on the pages.
Nearly an hour passed before all of the lights in the unit flashed on and off, signaling us to come out to sit in the common area. The television was off. A male staffer announced in a loud voice that the unit was officially on lockdown. No one would leave for any reason, which was typical of a normal day there, so it wasn’t the punishment they hoped for.
Next, they marched us off to the Observation rooms to be frisked, two-by-two. Leonard sat to my left and he stood up to take his turn, but the staff told him to sit back down. I felt guilty for putting everyone else through a body search, but no one showed any discontent. In fact, it was the most excitement we had seen since Ernesto sent himself to Observation.
The search continued. The staff had a new idea and passed around little slips of paper and pencils and told us to write down where we thought the keys might be. We didn’t have to include our name and no one would get in trouble. While a box was passed around to collect the slips, a staffer stood on an empty chair, and started trying to lift the ceiling tiles. He gave up after he knocked three tiles out of place and couldn’t get them to settle correctly again. I wrote a big question mark on my slip of paper and glanced at a couple other entries and laughed. One read, “Probably up the butt of a KKK member.” The staff were still searching our rooms when the dinner carts were wheeled in. We were told to eat in our seats and not to speak, but we talked with our eyes, and it wasn’t long before everyone knew the keys were tucked away in the game cabinet and I was the suspect, but no one gave me up.
Another hour passed before a staff member walked over to the game cabinet. When she pulled out her key and went through the motions of unlocking its door, we couldn’t hold back our laughter. The keys were finally recovered, and without any fanfare other than the television being turned back on, the lockdown was over.
Leonard laughed with us, then placed a rough hand on my knee, which of course sent everyone into hysterics. I looked at him and shook my head while patting his hand, but he slid his palm a little higher up my thigh with a sly smile. The unit exploded with clapping and howls of laughter. I lifted his hand and put it on his own knee before I stood up and faced him. Leaning forward, I kissed his forehead, and said, “You are going to be just fine, Mister.”
Chapter 4: AWOL
My time at HCPC didn’t help much. I was sent home with a prescription I was bad about remembering to take. I felt no different when I skipped a dose, then stopped taking it all together. I’m now convinced I never needed antidepressants to begin with, but over the next few years, I would call four more psychiatric facilities home, and they all doled out a new colorful pill when I’d arrive.
Nothing changed at home. I was still too much trouble for my mother and stepfather who were already dealing with plenty of other stressors. When our fights got really bad, my only instinct was to get out. So I’d bail. I’d rarely be gone overnight because I didn’t have anywhere to stay. I’d just walk around our neighborhood until I was exhausted and try to slip back inside, but the alarm and dogs always gave me away. When I pulled this again after a family fight early in my eighth grade year, my stepdad had a new job with better insurance. Until then, we had used public services to help find counselors. A therapist on our new plan suggested a private inpatient program, and it was quickly approved by everyone but myself. This would be my first foray into the world of corporate mental healthcare.
I was removed from school and spent October through January at a private psychiatric hospital in west Houston called Spring Shadows Glen. Longtime Houston residents might even remember its name or TV commercials. Its wooden gazebos and paths lined with greenery would have been nice to stroll about if we were ever allowed. It had the customary Quiet Rooms, and a nurses’ station fortified by shatterproof glass. I only recall being locked in the Quiet Room once while there, but the reason has long been forgotten. I do remember there was a bare plastic twin-sized mattress for punching, and that someone had left a safety pin on the floor in the corner and I picked it up.
A memory flashed through my mind of standing in front of a mirror with my friend Mary at her house, holding ice cubes to our earlobes. My ears were already pierced once but that day I added a second hole to both with a safety pin. Using my thumb to support the back of my lobe and pull it taught, I pressed the tip deeper into my skin until I felt the point grow sharper and sharper against my thumb. The sensation of pain was dulled by the thrill of the outcome, and with a small pop, the needle broke through. I pierced the other ear and inserted two studs into the new holes. Mary chickened out and began eating the unmelted ice.
This is what I was thinking about on the Quiet Room floor as I pressed the open safety pin through a thin layer of skin on my left forearm. It was smaller than the one I’d used to pierce my ears, and it hurt more, but not much, so I continued until I could close the pin. There’s a satisfaction that comes with being able to control how much something hurts us, particularly when we’re subjects to pain from sources within and far beyond our reach. I had no intention of getting caught and labeled as a ‘cutter,’ so I pulled the pin free and hid it inside a hole in the mattress before they came to let me out.
I’m pretty sure my parents were unaware of the scandal that was unfolding behind the scenes at the Glen at the same time I was there. I only found this out recently while researching for this story, but there was an air of something sketchy behind the fairly pleasant facade of the Glen which all makes sense now. The year before I arrived, its dissociative disorders unit had been under investigation by the state for reasons that are so outrageous, it makes one feel crazy just trying to recount.
Several patients and nurses had recently reported the team who staffed this special unit for using heavy pharmaceutical and physical restraints, along with suggestive therapy and hypnosis, to implant their clients with false memories of satanic cult involvement. They manipulated their patients into believing they had hundreds of personalities resulting from ritual abuse as cult members and victims, and they had been programmed to physically and sexually abuse their own children, murder their husbands, and practice cannibalism and human sacrifice. They convinced the patients who were mothers they were really breeders for the cult, and their children and spouses needed to be admitted as long-term patients to protect them from being kidnapped or killed by cult leaders. They also convinced the patients’ insurance companies to pay out millions of dollars for the continued brainwashing of entire families based on nothing but their word.
A 1995 PBS Frontline documentary called ‘The Search for Satan’ covered the scandal after several patients filed claims against the doctors involved and settled out of court under confidential terms. Some of the patients were sent to Houston by a similar ring of psychologists and psychiatrists in Chicago, others were shipped from Houston to Chicago. All of the doctors were known for propagandizing the surge in satanic cults as a major factor behind patients developing a multiple personality disorder, and declared themselves experts in the field. Dr. Jack Leggett, a psychologist and insurance claims reviewer who questioned the reasons why this group of doctors had such a high amount of MPD and cult-related claims for such a small section of the population, said he was accused of being a cult member for challenging them.
Dr. Judith Peterson, psychologist and clinical director of the dissociative disorders unit at Spring Shadows Glen, would settle at least five cases filed by her former patients out of court. A mother herself, she had no qualms about writing the Child Protective Services and reporting her clients for abusing their children in order to get them committed. It took several years, but in 1997, Peterson and company were indicted by the government for conspiracy and fraud when they “arranged to utilize the unit for dissociative disorder patients at the hospital for the purpose of conducting a fraudulent insurance payment scheme.” The case ended in a mistrial due to juror contamination.
A few months after I left Spring Shadows, two of our nurses, Joyce Carolyn Stevens and Rose Marie Turford, jumped a half-million dollar bond after being arrested as part of a female duo who were luring men through dating services and robbing them at gunpoint. Their story earned a 1995 spot on Unsolved Mysteries and A Current Affair.
Despite its notoriety, Spring Shadows Glen was one of the nicest, cleanest facilities with a decent cafeteria. The day after I arrived, I was introduced to a new antidepressant that did nothing but give me dry mouth. I remember thinking it looked like a slice of a red crayon and have since confirmed it was Wellbutrin, the same drug which was marketed to psychiatrists as being a whopping 10% more effective than a placebo. Three times a day, we’d fill a small paper cup at the water fountain and present ourselves to the nurse where she waited behind the secure kiosk. She passed an even smaller cup with our meds through the slot and watched as we opened our mouths wide and lifted our tongues to prove we’d really swallowed the pills.
The most important lesson I learned during my stay at the Glen came from another patient, a freckled teen boy a few years older than me. His family checked him in to help detox from a cocaine addiction, and every time I saw him for the first two weeks after he arrived, he looked like shit—sweaty, pale, weak. He spent most of his time running for a toilet. The first time I saw him, I was reading in the common area when he walked out of the restroom. I asked him if he was okay.
Panting and holding onto the door frame, he wiped the sweat from his brow and shook his head.
“Don’t ever fucking do cocaine,” he advised me with a broken whisper.
I nodded and said okay, but he had already dashed back into the bathroom.
The days at Spring Shadows Glen were structured much the same as at HCPC, where one day was identical to the days before and after. We played a lot of card games and looked forward to meals in the cafeteria more than anything else. My time there is rather vague on details—whether from the monotony or the meds, or maybe both, I’m not certain. I turned fourteen in Spring Shadows Glen and I can’t recall a single memory of that birthday.
I was released at the 90 day mark, and after sixteen weeks of isolation from the rest of the world, I wanted to go watch a band. My mom disagreed, so my dumbass snuck out again to see a show at Fitzgerald’s, an old live music venue near downtown. At that point, consequences and I were old acquaintances, and I took what I wanted and paid the price of being sent back to the Glen the next day.
There they told me I was getting transferred to another facility and would be held until the paperwork was finalized. Hearing this, I had my first anxiety attack and tried to call out for my mother, but the sound I made was more like a wounded seal. I don’t remember much other than not being able to talk or breathe. I have memories of feeling the carpet scratching against my cheek, or maybe it was my lower back, and I was terrified of being sent to the Quiet Room in that state. Instead, a nurse gave me the smallest pill I’d ever held and a cup of water. I swallowed it without protest and sat in the chair she pointed at in the common area. I think the television was on. Everything about my time in those places is so hazy but this was different. It was my first time being tranquilized and it worked very quickly.
From the corner of the room, I stared out at one spot, maybe the exit, maybe just a piece of lint on the floor. It didn’t matter and nothing else did either. I was numb. None of the worries I had a moment before broke the surface of stillness I felt. A slow thought took form about how such a tiny little pill could have such a powerful effect.
Chapter 5: Slip n’ Slide
A couple of days later, my parents delivered me to my next stop, a place in north Houston nearly an hour’s drive from home called Champions Residential Treatment Center. I don’t know if they were aware that less than two years had passed since the 1992 hearing on psychiatric mental hospitals, where House Representative Paula Schrouder had said:
“Our investigation has found that thousands of adolescents, children, and adults have been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment they didn’t need; that hospitals hire bounty hunters to kidnap patients with mental health insurance; that patients are kept against their will until their insurance benefits run out; that psychiatrists are being pressured by the hospitals to increase profit; that hospitals “infiltrate” schools by paying kickbacks to school counselors who deliver students; that bonuses are paid to hospital employees, including psychiatrists, for keeping the hospital beds filled; and that military dependents are being targeted for their generous mental health benefits. I could go on, but you get the picture.”
The same year the Spring Shadows Glen team was indicted on criminal charges, Champion’s parent company was raided by the Feds. The FBI served searched warrants to dozens of the healthcare giant’s hospitals and affiliated doctors to find evidence of Medicare billing fraud, and were rewarded with multiple golden tickets when they discovered expense reports brazenly stamped with a warning that the documents were not to be disclose to Medicare auditors. Oops.
Rick Scott started Columbia out of Texas with one partner, two hospitals, and a quarter million dollars. In less than a decade of mergers and buyouts of competition, including non-profits, the company grew to a $20 billion national corporation. Scott was ‘ejected’ during the fraud investigation, and thus, never charged with a crime, while the company pled guilty to 14 felonies and paid nearly $2 billion in criminal and civil fines. Columbia/HCA changed its name back to HCA, then to Healthcare Corporation of America, while Rick Scott went on to become the mother fucking Governor of Florida state. Both entities went on to serve each other profitably. On May 5th, 2015, the very same day Scott announced the formation of a new hospital commission and his battle for $2 billion in local and federal funds for hospitals, HCA rewarded him with a $100,000 political contribution.
Champions was one of hundreds of underfunded subsidiaries of Columbia/HCA. It closed down about ten years after my time there and has since reopened as a church, and then a nursing home before being listed as a foreclosure. Champions wasn’t nearly as nice or strict as Spring Shadows Glen. The property was barely held together by a layer of paint. The staff were underpaid and either ignorant or apathetic to what all took place behind their backs, and we liked it that way.
“I’ve got six bottles. What do you have?”
“Five baby lotions and we can use my conditioner. That will work, right?”
Our barefoot wheeling and dealing took place in the bathroom hallway that connected our two rooms. It was a Friday night and with the shift change that evening would come a bit of freedom. The weekend overnight staff on duty were usually younger and more interested in chatting on the phone or watching TV than dealing with a bunch of crazy teenage girls. They always seemed so normal when we peeked out of our rooms at night to watch them file their nails and eat fast food behind the desk. They were an extension to the outs, where life had perceptible motion. They always brought their own food as no meals were served during their shift and there was no food on the unit. That night when a new worker showed up carrying her headphones and a sack from Burger King, we knew it would be the perfect chance to break a few rules. As soon as we saw her settle down in the chair and reach for the remote, we went to work.
Yvonne came running back to the bathroom, giving us the all clear.
“Okay! Where we at?” She was a big Hispanic girl and reminded me of Deanna with her voluminous curls and voice. She liked to pretend to threaten me by grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me, only to laugh and squeeze me in a bear hug.
“Twelve lotions and some conditioner,” I said, disappointed with our inventory. “Wait. Someone go ask Sheila if she’ll give us some of that junk she uses in her hair. That should work too, huh? Tell her it’s for a worthy cause.” Yvonne took off to go find her and they both returned with their arms full of bottles and jars. Sheila had her hair wrapped in a bandana and was barefoot.
“What the hell are y’all bitches up to?” she said, and at the row of bottles on the vanity. “Did someone jack the amenities cart or what? And why’d this bish tell me to take off my flip flops? Better be good—this place is nasty.”
I laughed and took the jar of hair cholesterol she held out to me, thanking her. “You’ll see. Oh shit, I forgot! Katie, can we use your CD player?” I asked my roommate. I had a Walkman but her player had a radio and speakers.
“It’s ready. What do you want to hear?”
I told her to grab a mix CD out of my album but to wait to play it, “Just in case they make us turn it off before we even get started.”
The bathroom’s one long counter had two sinks and a tempered glass mirror. A door with no lock led to the toilet and shower. When both sinks were finally full of different products, we all agreed a couple more participants wouldn’t hurt.
“We need to tell Rhonda,” Sheila said of her roommate. “I took some of her lotion and she’ll trip if she ain’t in on whatever this is too. I’ll see if she’s out of the shower.”
While she was gone, we started getting the mattresses ready by stripping them of their sheets and stacking two on top of each other just outside both doorways to the bathroom. They were thin, floppy, and coated in a beige plastic material that would be easy to clean afterwards. Sheila returned with Rhonda and even more bottles that she added to the rest.
“Hell yeah, that makes eighteen!” Yvonne clapped her hands and grabbed Sheila’s jar. “We ready?”
We were ready. We each grabbed a few bottles and split up to stand at both thresholds to the bathroom.
Sheila set her bundle of bottles on the ground and opened one. “Y’all mind telling me what the hell we’re doing now?”
Yvonne gave a vulgar laugh while unscrewing the jar Sheila donated, then scooped out a big glob and threw it on the bathroom floor. “We’re going surfing.”
Sheila squealed, which was out of character for a girl who tried so hard to appear hard. “Hoe, that’s my hair shit!” she said, but she reached in and flung another handful to the ground and rubbed it around with her toes. We started taking the lids off of everything then began pouring and squirting the entire collection all over the tiled floor, coating the ground in slippery creams that filled the room with the scent of green apple conditioner and Shea butter.
“Katie, go check on homegirl,” Yvonne cocked her head towards the main room where the staffer kept watch. We all gathered in my room and waited for Katie to come back. A moment later she ran back in the door with a big smile with another girl, Gislaine. “It’s all good. She’s reading a magazine with headphones on.”
Sheila was looking out the window when she gave a little shout.
“Look at those fools! What the hell are they doing now?”
We all ran to the window and looked out across the green space to the boys’ unit and saw a bunch of them were waving and jumping around in a room, trying to catch our attention. They were holding up a sign but we couldn’t read it from that far away. We laughed and waved and got back to business.
“Let’s do this!” Yvonne’s loud shout made us all cringe and she slapped her hand over her mouth to smother a laugh. “Sorry,” she whispered. “Who’s going first?”
Gislaine volunteered, but she was anorexic and we were afraid she’d break one of her bones if she fell. Yvonne gently teased her, “First get some fat on your ass, then we’ll see. You can DJ.” Gasoline laughed and sat by the CD player.
“I’ll go.” Rhonda said in a thick East Texas accent, with a noticeable chip in her left front tooth. She was a jock and during a co-ed game of tag football the day before, she chipped her tooth on another girl’s forehead. There was a rumor on the unit that she had slept with the janitor, a older black man shorter than her, and he’d bring her little presents like candy and CDs. She just made an “I’ll never tell” face when someone brought it up.
Yvonne nodded. “Her shits already busted up. Let her.” No one argued.
“Music, please,” I called to Gislaine. The whiney intro to a Violent Femmes song began. We all sang along, “Day…after day. I will walk, and I will play.” Rhonda moved to the back of the room and pawed the ground with her foot like a bull, waiting for the song to pick up pace. When the bass and drums kicked in, she took of across the room, bolted past us and up onto the mattresses, and with a deft hop, she landed in the slick mess of the bathroom floor. Her feet slapped the ground with a hilarious smack and she slid the whole length of the hallway before hitting a dry spot that stopped her too fast and fell face down onto the mattresses on the other side. It looked like it hurt and she laid there a moment while we waited in silence. A few seconds later, she started pounding the mattress with her fists before jumping up and looking back at us with an exhilarated look in her eyes.
“That was so much fucking fun!”
We cheered and sang on while I walked carefully down the hall and smeared everything around better. “Who’s up?”
Katie went next, then Sheila and I. When it was my turn, I was determined to make it the whole way across without falling down, but it didn’t happen and it didn’t matter. We took turns until the floor had dried up, thanks in part to Yvonne who decided to try to slide across on her belly. We played the song on repeat and sang at the top of our lungs:
“Day after day, I get angry and I will say
That the day is in my sight
When I’ll take a bow and say goodnight.”
We were having a blast taking turns surfing when Katie startled us with a small scream. We followed her eyes and saw the boys had found a way to pop out the large plexiglass window and were lowering it down to the ground outside. Then they were pouring out of the empty frame and ran about frolicking in the lawn under the full moon, like wild ponies escaped from a stable.
We laughed and danced with them through our window until they were caught and rounded up. The girls’ on duty staff never knew what we were up to and we all went to bed that night tired, happy, and thoroughly moisturized.
Chapter 6: April Showers
I woke up the next morning and turned on the shower. Katie was still asleep. I got in after waiting a few minutes for the water to warm up and started washing my hair. I had loaned all of my conditioner to the previous night’s antics, so I just shampooed with body wash instead. I was rinsing the soap out when the thin plastic curtain billowed around me and stuck to my legs because someone had opened the bathroom door.
I called out, “I’m in here!”
“It’s time to get out,” said a woman’s voice I didn’t know. I looked out from behind the curtain and saw an older nurse standing there. I’d never seen her before.
“But I just got in! I still have shampoo in my hair,” I protested.
Suddenly, six hands reached in and grabbed at me. I slid to the ground and pulled the flimsy shower curtain down with me. Two female staffers assisted the nurse as she stepped back and said, “Grab her.”
I fought to free myself but they won and carried me out. I had no idea why they were doing this. Wrapped in nothing but the curtain, they deposited me in the Quiet Room and locked the door behind them. Half an hour passed. My head was throbbing and I needed to use the bathroom. I banged on the door and said I needed to pee. The nurse that ordered the staff to extract me from the shower came over to the little window in the door.
“I need out,” I pleaded. “I need to use the restroom. I need clothes. I didn’t do anything wrong. Please, let me out!”
She didn’t reply. Her eyes were black and small behind horn-rimmed frames. Her permed gray hair was styled in an old lady mullet. Pursing her lips in a sour smile, she just walked away.
I sat with my head against the door, banging with my fist for another ten minutes before I heard the click of the lock. I stood up and moved to the center of the room. The door opened and a staffer put a mauve bedpan on the floor with a roll of toilet paper in it, along with a pile of clothes—a sweater, some shorts, and someone’s bra that was three sizes too large. No panties. I put on the shorts and sweater but couldn’t bring myself to use the bedpan. The walls of the room were covered in a thin layer of bubble gum pink padded paint. I could see a clock through the safety glass window in the door. I had been locked in the Quiet Room for three hours when I heard a familiar voice outside the door saying, “If it wasn’t her, then why is she still in there?”
I looked up to see a face so sweet and welcome that twenty years haven’t faded the memory. Linda. A staffer of Nigerian decent, she had hundreds of black braids and kind eyes, and I enjoyed sitting with her outside and listening to her melodic accent.
“Linda, please let me out.” I begged through the door. “I didn’t do anything! Please. Call my mom! This lady is crazy!”
She looked helpless but glanced to her right and gave a quick nod before vanishing from my view. The clock showed four hours had passed. My head felt like it was trying to contain the blood of three men instead of a hundred pound fourteen-year-old-girl. I was starving. I tried to sleep but the light was so bright shutting my eyes did no good.
A while later, from somewhere far away, I thought I heard my mom. It was my mom, and she was yelling. Moments later, Linda opened the Quiet Room door and led me to a room off the common area that was always locked. Inside, my mother and stepdad were sitting on a brown tweed couch. Then I was in my mother’s arms and nothing else mattered.
“That nurse is out of her damn mind!” she said. “Linda called us and told us what was going on. When we showed up, the nurse told us to come wait in here, but she tried to lock us in when she left the room!”
I had heard my mom yelling for Nurse Forrester to let them out.
Linda explained the reason the nurse had given her for locking me in the Quiet Room.
“She said she heard a shower running for two hours and followed the sound to your daughter’s room.”
Yvonne had a penchant for shower naps. She would sit under the water and settle into the corner for a warm, relaxing snooze. She’d woken up early that morning just so she could go back to sleep under the faucet. The nurse heard Yvonne’s shower and thought it was me and had me thrown into isolation. After they went back to my room and shut off the water, they could still hear a shower running down the hall and traced it to Yvonne’s room. Eventually, my parents left and I went back to my room to change into clothes that fit. Linda said she also called my therapist who was on her way up to see me, instead of waiting for our session the following day. A few hours later, a patient ombudsman came to take a report directly from me, and I never saw the nurse again, but she’d still had time to do more damage before the end of her shift.
Linda brought a tray of food to my room since I’d missed breakfast and lunch. I hugged her, thanking her for her help. As she was walking out, we heard a whimper from the hallway. Gislaine was slumped against the wall, slapping her head and crying, “Stupid! Fucking stupid!”
Linda grabbed her hands and held them firmly in her own. “Gislaine. Gislaine. Look at me. Look at my eyes.” Linda’s voice was low and infinitely calm, her accent like a lullaby. Gislaine’s feeble body jerked with her sobs, but she didn’t try to pull away.
Gislaine never acted like this. She was a quiet, bookish girl with braces and brown hair. Her neat bangs now stuck to her face with tears. I gently pushed them back and asked, “What happened? What’s wrong? Talk to us.”
It took a moment before she could speak. “The—that nurse said—she said my parents left me here because they didn’t want to put up with a problem for a child. She said I brought this place on myself for being so vain.” She broke off and wept on Linda’s shoulder. Nurse Forrester. I would remember her name and her face and never forget how helpless she made us feel.
I watched Linda lead Gislaine back to her room to run her a shower, when I heard my name being paged over the tinny PA system. Dr. Ginsberg was waiting up front for our session. One of the staffers that helped drag me to the Quiet Room pressed the button to unlock the door so I could leave the unit, but not before she smiled and told me she was sorry. I said it was okay, but I didn’t smile back.
Champions was much less secure than the first two facilities and I was allowed to walk to the front to meet my therapist without an escort. We all knew about the unlocked door in the unit’s water heater closet that led to the field outside and flapped softly when the wind picked up. There was no security fence around the property, so it would’ve been easy to make a run for it if someone really wanted to, but Champions was a good distance from the city and it would be hard to find a taxi, or even hitch a ride from so far out of town. Even though a few of the girls would sneak out and run around the field or knock on a boy’s window, only once did someone actually arrange transportation with her boyfriend, but she made him bring her back after taking her to Sonic for burgers and cherry-limeades.
Our unit was one of two old gray clapboard buildings tucked into the back of the property. I followed the sidewalk past the field and the covered basketball court where we played volleyball under its rusted orange roof. The bulk of the maintenance of the property was focused towards the entrance where visitors were permitted. The cafeteria was on the right past the court, and a bit further up, amid a small landscaped garden, was a sitting area and goldfish pond. It was my favorite place to meet with Dr. Ginsberg. She wasn’t waiting on the bench, so I headed to the conference room in the main building where she was already seated with her notebook and pen out on the table.
She smiled when I walked over and put my arms around her shoulders. She smelled like Finesse shampoo and I couldn’t help but think she looked so much like Mrs. Garrett from Diff’rent Strokes, with her auburn up-do and trusting eyes. That day, I was concerned more for her than myself, as our last meeting had been incredibly sad. At the start of the session, she told me she had found her husband dead two days before. Suicide with a gun. She had held herself together and said if she seemed upset or started crying during our session, she didn’t want me to think I’d done anything wrong. Though some might balk at a therapist disclosing such troubling personal information to a teenage client, her decision to treat me as an equal by sharing her devastating story made me trust her even more.
She asked how I was doing in a way that wasn’t just a casual inquiry.
“Pissed. But I got to see my parents, so that was nice.” I pulled a chair from under the table to sit down and found a big, fluffy stuffed bunny with huge paws already occupied the seat.
I gasped and picked it up. “For me?” I hugged it tight and rubbed my face on its soft white fur.
Dr. Ginsberg was enjoying my reaction and nodded, smiling. “For you. And this too.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a necklace. It was a two-inch quartz crystal suspended on a tan leather string. I held it up to the light, revealing the rainbows beneath its surface. I thanked her with a hug and put it on, then sat down with the bunny on my lap.
We went on to play a few games that were really psychological tests. I excelled at a memory game in which she read a series of numbers aloud that I repeated back. Each time she would add a number and I’d recall the sequence while she compared it to what she’d written down. I made it to twenty-seven digits before faltering. Both of us were impressed. I had more trouble with the Stroop test until I learned to divide my attention correctly. She gave me a white card with three columns listing the names of colors, yet each word was a different color. The word ‘green’ would be printed in red and so on. We laughed as my mouth said one thing while my eyes and brain were recording another. Near the end of our session, she pulled a small cardboard box from her briefcase and opened it. Inside was a black device with a digital display screen and a cord. She took out the machine and plugged the cord into its side.
“I think you’re going to like this,” she said. “Hold out your hand for me.”
I obeyed and she wrapped two velcro loops around my index and middle finger and turned on the machine. It made a few beeps but I didn’t feel anything happening.
“What is it for?” I asked.
She pushed a couple of buttons under the display. A large number eight appeared on the screen. Then it changed to eight point five then eight again before dropping to a seven. She slid the device over to me.
“It’s a biofeedback machine. It monitors your heart rate and blood flow. Do me a favor and just close your eyes and think about what happened in the shower this morning.”
I did what she asked and she said, “Now look.”
The number had shot up to a ten. “Okay? Now take a few deeps breaths and hug that big dumb rabbit.”
I obeyed and a moment later, the number was down to a five. She smiled. “Good girl. You’re going to take this with you and use it a few times a day to monitor how your thoughts are affecting your body. When you get upset or stressed, the numbers go up, as you just saw. Once you’re aware this is happening, try to bring them back down again. Focusing on taking slow breaths helps rein in your runaway thoughts. I want you to really pay attention to how your feelings affect your physical body and try to control them.”
We ended our meeting with another hug and she walked me back to the unit. She didn’t bring up her husband, but I squeezed her extra hard that day and thanked her for the gifts. “I love them. I really, really love them.”
“I’m very glad.” She turned and I watched her solitary form amble slowly down the sidewalk and around the corner. My heart went after her in my thoughts. I imagined being in the business of helping others with psychological problems and losing your spouse to their mental distress made her feel helpless and doubtful of her abilities as a counselor. I didn’t want her to feel like that because she was so good to me—I know she cared from her heart. I don’t know how my mother found her, but Dr. Ginsberg’s lessons still empower me twenty years later.
While she was only one of a team that decided my treatment plan at Champions, she wasn’t the one who pushed the trial of antidepressants, or scheduled the botched EEG test for the following Monday that required I be deprived of twenty-four hours of sleep before it could be administered. I made it twenty-three hours and fell asleep on my escort’s shoulder in the van on the way to the clinic. They took me back and allowed me to sleep in my bed for a few hours then made me sit in the common area under observation where one of the staff member’s would poke me or shout if I started to nod off. I was definitely sleep deprived by the time the van dropped me off at the clinic Tuesday morning. My escort had to shake me back to awareness a few times in the waiting room. One moment I was laughing hysterically, the next I was crying, pleading incoherently to be allowed to close my eyes. When I was told to lay down on the padded table, I fell asleep before the nurse finished attaching the electrodes to my head. My eyes shut and refused to open again.
Then I was waking up in my own bed back on the unit. Katie was sitting in her bed reading with the radio on so low I wasn’t sure I’d correctly heard what the station host had just said. When I sat up, she apologized and moved to turn the radio off, but I shook my head, “No, wait. Turn it up. Did he really just say…?” We both jumped up and ran to the shared dresser she kept the radio on.
“Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitar player for Nirvana, was found dead this morning at his home by an electrician. It has been reported that he died from a shotgun wound to the head and that a suicide note was found inside the house. He was twenty-seven years old.”
“Fuck!” There was nothing left to say. “Fuck.” I wasn’t only sad one of my favorite musicians died. I was upset with him for giving up, for taking such a final way out of this world. Singing along with him helped a generation of younger fans release their frustration, but his own music wasn’t enough to get him through the hard times. His heroin problem was blamed for pushing him over the edge, and on his death, I promised myself I’d never fuck with that poison or its kin.
Chapter 7: Jimbo
I finished my eighth grade year at Champions and was released at the start of summer under orders to keep seeing my therapist and attend sobriety meetings. I had yet to receive a diagnosis, and I never knew the results of my brain stress test at Champions. I had admitted to smoking pot a few times the summer before I’d been sent to Spring Shadows Glen. I still hated the taste of alcohol enough to avoid it. Didn’t matter. My new recreational outlet became finding sobriety groups for kids my age, and there were plenty to choose from. I attended adult AA sessions as well.
My mother also found herself meetings to attend. We had gotten along well for a month or so before I asked if I could go to a show with some kids from the group I met with at a church mess hall Friday nights. Her lips thinned and whitened when she asked which band was playing and I said ‘Deadhorse.’ The venue was a beer garden, but we’d been there together for a German festival so she wasn’t too worked up about the location. I could tell she was trying to be cool when she said she would drop me off and walk me in so she could look around, then be back to pick me up at midnight.
The night of the show, she followed through on her word and for the first time since I’d snuck out the year before, I was standing in a crowd of people about to see a band play. The night was clear and the moon was brighter than any other light around. I pulled a pack of smokes from my purse and lit one. I had no plans to try to get a drink, though I was tempted to tap the shoulder of the person smoking a joint in front of me and ask for a hit, but I didn’t. I knew it wasn’t cool to smoke with teenagers, and it wouldn’t be cool to ask.
A hand rested on my shoulder. It was Tommy, a boy from group who had told me he’d be at the show if I wanted come check it out. There were no other friends showing up, and I’d been too embarrassed to tell my mom he had invited me. He was nice and we held hands for a song even though it was a thrash metal band. His hair was long on top and shaved on the sides, and he’d dyed it a mahogany red. Later I found out it was a mohawk. When it was time for me to meet my mom, he kissed my cheek and asked if he could call me. My mind went to my mother and I said I would call him instead.
It wasn’t long before my mom and I had another falling out and I ran away again, this time to Tommy’s house. Our mothers talked and for some reason mine agreed to let me stay at his place for a while. His mother and father were kind to me, and a lot of kids were always in and out of the house. He had a sister five years younger than us and she was a really cool kid. His house was in Montrose, a part of Houston than was once a beacon to the city’s gays, punks, weirdos, and artists. He and his friends were into ska and often dressed the part—white shirts, black Doc Marten steel toe boots, bowler hats, suspenders—the works. His house was always bustling with kids from the area and we’d sit in his room and write on the walls while listening to everything from old Beastie Boys to Cake.
I touched up his mohawk with clippers and let him shave the underside of my hair. At the time, it was long, thick, and curly, so it felt light and amazing to feel the breeze halfway up my scalp. I only hesitated a moment to feel the thick curl at the nape of my neck— ‘Granny’s little curl,’ as my beloved great-grandmother had always called. The next moment, it was in my hand.
I admired his older female punk friends with their tough attitudes and vibrant Manic Panic dyed hair. They were nice and drove us to shows in their beaters and took us to Taco Bell afterwards. Our rag-tag group faced the daily challenge of trying to buy beer or cigarettes or pot, but the homeless guys that hung out under an apartment carport by King Cole’s liquor store were always happy to help in exchange for a piece of the pie. I don’t think Pony Boy was twenty-one yet because he never went into the store for us. He just sat there on the curb, reading a different paperback novel each time we saw him. A Quarter Price bookstore across the street kept him stocked. Either Jimbo or Raul, whose ages were also hard to pinpoint because of how life on the streets had aged them, would take our money and fill our order for a few bucks or a forty ounce, whichever they needed the most at the time. One day we asked Raul to get us a twenty-dollar sack of weed and handed him the money. He took out his wallet and opened it up to reveal a thick slab of cash. We were really impressed.
“Raul, you’re no bum. You’re rich dude!”
He laughed and said something incoherent in a heavily slurred accent. He was drunk.
We hung out at the garage apartment of a skinny, long-haired guy named Don who was always shirtless. Raul scored the pot from some other guy they called Pickle and met us at Don’s place because he let us use his bong. He’d play old records while Jimbo would reinvent the lyrics so they became as X-rated as possible.
“Don’t you step on my fuckin’ blue suede shoes, you can do anything, but lay off my got-damn blue suede shoes, bitch!” He shuffled his feet around in a little dance from his spot on the couch and have us laughing too hard to breathe.
I get it. There I was, a fourteen-year-old girl, staying with her new fifteen-year-old boyfriend, hanging out with punks several years older than me at night, and buying pot and kicking it with bums during the day. It wasn’t a good place for me to be. I think a combination of luck, healthy fears, and personal limits kept me safe. My mother knew where Tommy lived. Her office used to be in a beautiful two-story home less than a mile from his house, so she knew the area well and I was always on the lookout for a forest green Aerostar minivan with a blonde-maned driver at the wheel.
She never showed up, but one day when we were at Tommy’s friend’s house, their older brother found out my age and how I’d left home, and he called the cops. He told us they were on the way and we took off, but not soon enough. I got picked up and taken to juvenile jail for the weekend. My parents were out of town for their anniversary and had no intentions of ending their trip early, and I was glad because I was ashamed and didn’t want to have to see them. I just wanted to be sent away again so I didn’t have to look them in the eyes and see their disappointment.
My parents arrived Monday morning to pick me up and load me into the minivan. I left my hair down to cover up where I had shaved it off, but my mother noticed right away. My mom had entered full private eye mode. She either convinced a cop to loan her a pair of handcuffs or brought her own, and after shackling my wrist to my stepfather’s in the backseat of the van, she got behind the wheel and sped down the freeway with the hazards flashing the whole time. I was being delivered to a place called Cypress Creek Hospital in north Houston.
Cypress Creek had a snack room that was always stocked with good stuff like full size prepackaged muffins, popcorn, yogurt, cereal, milk, and a microwave. We each had a private bedroom and bathroom, and everyone got to leave the unit to go to the cafeteria, which served really decent meals. I was on my way to lunch a few days after arriving when one of the doctor’s stopped me and pulled me aside to talk. Dr. Schneider was tall with a full dark beard and a long white doctor’s coat. He looked very official.
“We got the results back from your drug test. It came back positive for methadone.”
I didn’t know what methadone was and asked.
“It’s basically synthetic heroin.”
There was no way. I immediately denied any knowledge of what it was or why it was showing up on the test, insisting I never took methadone or anything else crazy like that. I stand by those words today and will forever. I demanded they let me take the test again, but it never happened. The doctor speculated and convinced my mother I’d probably smoked some pot laced with methadone. Years later, it’s not hard to see the importance in retesting when methadone appears on a drug test’s results, but even twenty years ago, a psychologist should have been well aware to request a more sensitive test if a patient insists they didn’t use a drug that is showing in their system. Numerous over-the-counter and prescribed drugs are frequent triggers of false positives for methadone, including most antihistamines, Ibuprofen, and antidepressants, all things I had recently ingested.
In the next meeting with my mom, the test results were revealed, sealing my fate despite my pleas to be retested. Dr. Schneider handed her a brochure and played a video on an old TV in his office. It opened with a scenic view of two horses running in a field against a beautiful mountain backdrop. Every frame was filled with shots of natural surroundings until the screen faded out and back in again, revealing the front entrance of a large brown brick complex called Provo Canyon School in Orem, Utah. It was the first of three locations the doctor pitched. The other locations were in Texas and Arkansas, but the horses sold me on Utah even though it was further away. The video presentation made it look like working with horses was an integral part of the therapy, along with skiing, hiking, mountain climbing, and all kinds of other nature adventures. A few months in the mountains didn’t sound like such a terrible thing.
Chapter 8: 338
I was only at Cypress Creek Hospital for a few weeks before I was sent home to pack and wait for all of the forms and files to be readied for my stay at Provo Canyon School. In order for me to leave the state, my mother had to contact my father and get his permission since he still had visitation rights, though they went unredeemed. I remember standing in our living room while she sat on the couch with the phone pressed to her ear. She wasn’t talking to my dad anymore, but to his mother, and she was livid.
“How dare you accuse her of lying? She was so young she didn’t even know it was wrong!” Then she slammed the phone down several times before letting it go. I knew she was talking about what my cousin did to me. I learned I was no longer welcome to visit that side of my family and didn’t want to after that. My father never rose to defend me because his parents sheltered him and paid his bills.
A package arrived from Utah containing a green army duffel bag emblazoned with the number ‘338’ on its side in permanent black marker, along with instructions on what types of items were allowed. Tennis shoes with no laces. Bras with no underwire. No razors—only electric shavers. Pens would be provided. No mirrors, perfume, belts, radios, or headphones were permitted.
The time passed too quickly before the departure date arrived. My mother flew with me to Utah, but first we had a long enough layover in Denver to get on a bus and see the city before catching the connecting flight. We sat close to each other on the bus, laughing and talking like we were on the mother-daughter vacation we never had.
We had to say our goodbyes at the airport in Salt Lake City, where a man and a woman with clip-on name tags, walkie-talkies, and forced smiles greeted us at the top of the ramp at the arrival gate. They introduced themselves as Bill and Laurie, my escorts for the forty-mile ride back to Orem where Provo Canyon School was located. Bill had pockmarked cheeks and an overgrown mustache. Laurie had small eyeglasses and a dark brown bob. I had at least five inches on her, but she had well over a hundred pounds on me. I kissed my mom and she said she would write and call very soon. We left her waiting alone at the airport for her flight home.
The escorts walked me to a white passenger van out in the parking lot and I was surprised how warm the night was, and that it was humid like home. I sat in the first row of the back seat and looked out the window. While the man put my bag in the very back, Laurie hoisted herself into the front passenger seat. She was still trying to get in by the time he had come around to the driver’s side. I guessed Bill would do the chasing if a kid ever ran from them. I stared out the into the hot, overcast night, straining to see the mountains in the distance without success. My escorts didn’t talk to me and I didn’t mind. Less than an hour later, we turned off the highway into the parking lot of a building that looked a lot like HCPC from the front.
Bill let me out of the van after he unloaded my bag and led me to the entrance. I heard a click as someone at the front desk unlocked the door with a button behind the counter. Inside, the lobby was plushly carpeted and the wicker furnishings looked strangely similar to my grandmother’s living room. I stood there a moment looking at the generic art on the wall while we waited on Laurie to catch up. The receptionist pushed another button that unlocked a heavy wooden door and I followed the escorts down a hallway to a small room on the right where Bill set my bag against the wall and left. Laurie stayed and called for a nurse on her radio to come take my vitals. A few minutes passed before a woman in a pink collared shirt and frosted blonde perm came in and took my temperature and blood pressure. She told me to take off my shoes and step on a scale. I watched Laurie pull on a pair of plastic gloves and put my shoes against the wall behind her, out of my reach.
Next came the task of taking inventory of my belongings and confiscating anything that was against the rules. Laurie told me everything would be catalogued against an intake property list to assure I didn’t steal or get stolen from. The nurse, who doubled as an extra staff-hand, held a clipboard with a thin stack of papers already in place.
She handed Laurie a black permanent marker and asked her, “Number?”
“Three-three-eight. Ready?” The nurse wrote it at the top of the form and nodded.
Laurie pulled the first item and laughed. It was the rabbit from Dr. Ginsberg, and it took up a quarter of the space in the bag. I had to smile too—it was like a surprise magic trick.
“One large stuffed rabbit,” she told the nurse. “Where’s the tag?” she mumbled to herself, turning it around to look, but I had cut it off. When she grabbed its foot and held the marker over the light pink paw pad, I put my hand on her arm and said, “Wait!”
She recoiled and snapped, “Do not put your hands on me.”
I stammered an apology and begged her not to write on its foot.
“There’s nowhere else for it. Everything has to be numbered. But fine. If you don’t want us to write on it, then we will have to lock it up in storage.”
There was no guarantee I would ever see it again if I let it out of my sight, so I said to go ahead, but to please make it small. She rolled her eyes and wrote in the same thumbnail-sized numbers she would use to label everything else. A wooden keepsake box from my stepdad’s parents got the same treatment. I suggested using a piece of tape to write on instead, but she ignored me. Thankfully, she wrote on the bottom of the box. No item went unnumbered. Every sock, bra, and pair of underwear was tagged with ‘338’ and transferred to a clear plastic garbage bag on the ground. She searched all of my pants’ pockets, and shook out the paperbacks. Shampoo and other toiletries were opened and sniffed before being accounted for by the nurse. Laurie did her best to fit her hand inside the extra shoes I’d packed and resorted to turning them upside down and shaking them out.
Once the duffel bag was emptied, she pointed at me and said, “Now for you.”
She handed me some of my socks and underwear, and walked over to a closet that shelved several stacks of sweatshirts and matching pants.
“Small?” She called out over her shoulder. I nodded.
She took out a two-piece sweatsuit in bright fuchsia. I was instructed to change in front of them and put the clothes I had on in a mesh laundry bag already bearing my number. My belongings stayed behind as they walked me down another long hallway. The doors to all of the units were always locked and all of the staff members had keys and a two-way radio on their hip. Laurie unlocked the door, but before opening it, she said, “This is the Investment unit. Follow the program or you’ll wind up here.”
She pushed the door open and pointed down the hallway. “Go all the way to that glass door. Staff will let you in. Go on, I’m watching from here.”
As I turned and started walking away, she pulled out her radio.
“Laurie to Orientation.”
“New arrival heading your way. 338.”
“10-4. I see her.”
The Investment unit’s lights were already dimmed for bedtime, but it was still bright enough to read by. To my right, a large open space I guessed to be the common area held a few tables and chairs, and a desk with a phone for the staff in the corner. A girl was sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor next to the desk. I heard the overnight watch quietly say, “Hold on,” as I passed, then, “Okay, go on,” as she continued her late night call.
I glanced back over my left shoulder and a saw a recess in the wall that hid two Observation cells, along with what looked like the edge of a gurney parked in the corner. It was padded in brown leather and had some type of white netting tossed over it.
“Keep moving,” Laurie ordered.
I did. The doors to the bedrooms lining the hall were wide open, but I kept my eyes forward. When I reached the glass door, a woman with a tight blond ponytail opened it and locked it behind me.
“You’re in that room. Bottom bunk.” She gestured to the first of three darkened bedrooms as she took her place behind the desk again. Inside, there was a single bed and one set of bunk beds.
“When do I get my things back? I’ll need my toothbrush and contacts case, at least.”
She picked up a magazine and leaned back in her chair. “Probably tomorrow. You’ll be fine for a night.”
Her tone wasn’t meant to be reassuring or challenging, and I said nothing more as she propped up her white tennis shoes on the desk and began to read. My room was only a few steps away and I knew any occupants would be awake and waiting when I slid into the empty bed and laid down. The thought of my mother and not knowing how long it would be until I saw her again, or how long I would have to stay there, forced hot tears from my eyes that slid into my ears. Wiping my face, I rolled over to the right and made immediate eye contact with the girl in the single bed just a yard away. The connection was so sudden for us both, it was all we could do not to laugh. She wiggled her fingers and mouthed the word ‘hello’ and I did the same. Smiling now, I rolled onto my back and looked over to her again. In my softest whisper, I said, “Goodnight.”
I must have fallen asleep because the sound of loud static and muffled voices jerked me awake. It was still dark.
“Dial 9 to Investment. Dial 9 to Investment!”
I snuck out of bed and peered through the glass doors, but all was quiet on the Investment unit. I climbed back into bed and caught the girl’s eye.
“Boys’ campus,” she whispered and fell back to sleep.
When all of the lights came on in the morning, the reality of my location rolled heavily over me even before I opened my eyes, so I kept them closed. But then I remembered the girl from the night before and turned to see if she was awake. She was already up and in the bathroom. She must have heard me roll over because she popped her head out and said in a lovely and familiar southern drawl, “Mornin’!”
I smiled because she was smiling and told her good morning. She looked to be a bit older than me, but it was hard to be sure. It turned out she was from Texas too, the Dallas area. Her head was completely shaved with less than half an inch of dark hair remaining. A minty scent wafted from the bathroom and I jumped out of bed.
“Do you mind if I borrow a little bit of your toothpaste?” I asked. “I don’t have my things yet.” At that moment, she looked to the doorway and my eyes followed to see the staffer watching us.
“No sharing. Ten till seven. Be waiting at your doors,” she ordered.
We both nodded and she walked away.
“Yeah. So, no sharing. Sorry,” said the girl as she grabbed my finger and squeezed a dab of toothpaste onto it and winked.
I smiled again and said, “It’s cool dude. I understand.” She moved over so I could use the sink and I whispered a thank you, then quickly scrubbed my teeth with my makeshift finger-brush and swished with water.
She had already changed out of her pajamas into her own clothes, a plain black t-shirt and gray corduroys. I didn’t have anything else to wear so I sat back down on my bed in my pinks and said, “I’m Andrea.”
“Number 363. I mean, Vanessa.” We laughed. “How about you?”
“I’m 338. So our numbers weren’t given to us in order of arrival? How long have you been here?”
She sat on her bed and pulled on her shoes. I would be wearing socks until my shoes were returned. “What’s today? Friday? I got here last Thursday, so today is my ninth day.” She stood up and did a squat to stretch her pants, “And I’m already gaining weight.”
I laughed and asked, “Is the food that good?”
“The fried stuff is, I guess. And most of it’s fried.”
Our morning routine was the same for every unit. Wake up at a quarter to seven, get dressed, and be in line by seven sharp to walk to the cafeteria for breakfast. There weren’t a lot complaints about the food and some of it was quite good, the scones in particular. Utah scones are a different species altogether. They looked like fried hamburger buns and they tasted more like a beignet or donut. No one stopped us from taking several packs of honey butter on scone days.
As we were lining up for breakfast my first morning at Provo, we heard shouting from down the hallway and at the same time, our staffer’s radio crackled to life.
“Dial 9 to Investment!”
She jumped up and told us to go sit on our beds as she ran out the door, locking it behind her, but we ran back to the door as soon as she was gone to see what was happening. At the end of the hall, there was a struggle on the floor between a girl and three staff members—one was a man with glasses and short curly hair. The others were Laurie and another burly woman I hadn’t seen before. The girl was on the ground, belly down, with her face turned away from us, and the man was kneeling, then laying crossways over her back to restrain her. Our staffer grabbed at one of the kicking feet but only managed to pull off a sock. Two more staff came running through the Investment door and then it was over. The six of them picked her up like a battering ram, the same way I’d been hauled out of the shower, and carried her to Observation and out of sight.
We ran back to our beds and waited for breakfast.
Chapter 9: Take a Chair
After breakfast each day, we filed back to our unit to complete our chores, which were divided between each roommate. Vanessa explained the drill. One week, I’d be on bathroom duty, the next dusting and vacuuming the room, and so on. We were supplied rags and watered-down spray cleaners in various colors, but I always suspected the bottles were filled with nothing but tinted water. On Investment and Orientation, the staff checked our chores, but on the main units, a patient with a higher status was assigned the duty of inspecting our work. Whoever was in charge of approving the job gained a position of power because once we finished our chores, we had to wave them down to come check our work. Depending on how merciful they felt, or how good of friends we were, the half-inch smudge of soap film missed on the shower wall, or the less than perfect hospital corners on our bed sheets, might be overlooked. Otherwise, we’d be given an incomplete mark for that task along with an IP, or an infraction point, which was a bad thing, and I’ll get to why soon.
It took me a week to earn my clothes back and another week to get the rest of my items. Until then, I wore the facility’s gym shorts and t-shirts, or bright yellow and hot pink sweatsuit. Vanessa had loaned me a few books, but she was promoted to the main unit and had to take them with her. Luckily a new girl arrived a week after me and we were instant friends. I spent most of my time with her on Orientation. Sarah had a geeky style, with a short boyish haircut and nerdy glasses that looked great on her. We played hours of card games, mostly War and Slap Jack because they made us laugh and we needed a way to exert our energy since we weren’t allowed outside yet. She taught me how to play a word game called ‘Master of the Snaps.’ It was just a fun party trick that made it seem like the two players were telepathic, but we were banned from playing it because it smacked of witchcraft. We also made up an alphabet with fancy Rune-like symbols that corresponded with the real alphabet, and wrote a bunch of silly letters that were confiscated and labeled as more witchcraft.
Provo Canyon School is located in Mormon central. Most of the staff were Mormon, and a few of the ladies proved it by showing us their garments: a set of white underwear comprised of a tank top and big shorts they wore beneath their day clothes. I didn’t know enough about the religion to see how it influenced the way the staff treated the patients, but I was pretty damn sure they didn’t really think we were practicing witchcraft, or we both would have been slapped with so many IPs we’d never see the sun again. I watched several new girls come and go during my limbo on Orientation, but Sarah and I clicked from the beginning. I was downfallen when she moved up to the next unit the following week. The average stay on Orientation was two weeks. I was kept there for nearly two months with no explanation why.
A month passed before I was allowed to attend school with the other girls. The classrooms were in the same building, and the teachers were all eccentric in their own ways, which I guess they’d have to be to want to teach at a lockdown facility like Provo. The curriculum itself was very simple and I often wished classes were longer, more challenging. With the time I would have spent studying more in a normal school, I was able to devour the small library down the hall.
Provo’s status system was broken down into levels. After Orientation came Pre-Unit, then Unit, Advanced Unit, Achievement, Advanced Achievement, Senior, then finally Advanced Senior, which meant it was almost time for Transition, the period of time between getting approved to go home and actually leaving. There were three units that housed the girls—Investment and Orientation were on one, but the other two were the ‘good’ units, where life could be a lot easier. A patient’s success depended entirely on not incurring infraction points, but there were so many ways to earn them, it was impossible to avoid.
One IP—rhymes with ‘chip’—was also called a Class 1, and accumulating three in a week automatically earned us a Class 2. One Class 2 was equivalent to twenty IPs, which we had to work off on Investment by either standing or sitting for extended periods of time. If we chose to stand, we could work off two points per half-hour, while sitting only earned one. We could work off IPs while doing homework, but there were never enough assignments to fill a full hour. Standing got you out of Investment faster, but it was harder to complete the full hour without messing up and earning even more IPs. Sometimes we had to face the wall while standing which made the half-hour seem twice as long.
We stood for twenty-five minutes with two thirty-second squat breaks, then rested for five minutes before repeating. Hours we would have been able to go outside, or have free time after class, were spent standing in one spot, arms at our sides, eyes straight ahead. No smiling or moving, or anything else the staff could call us out on, or else we’d have to sit down and start over after the next break.
Class 2s sucked. Provo sucked.
Class 3s were worse. Earning three Class 2s in a week equalled a Class 3, which meant you lost your status and had to physically relocate to live on the Investment unit. I was a regular there. I attracted IPs like flies on fruit. I took my medicine like a good girl and never tried to runaway or hurt myself or anyone else. I was only a threat because I didn’t react the way the staff wanted me to—I didn’t break. I was incapable of accepting everything I was told to do or think or feel in accordance to the program.
I was called a manipulator if I asked any questions or challenged an opinion, like during health class, when a female Mormon staff member led a very mild discussion on sex and told us that the vagina had no feelings inside. I had laughed and said, “But that’s not true,” and got sent straight to Investment to stand out a Class 2 for having a ‘negative attitude’ towards authority. I asked to talk to someone about what happened, and Allie, another short haired blonde Mormon lady, seemed like she might actually give me a chance to explain why I thought my punishment was unfair. I had finally made Pre-Unit status and had just settled into my room on one of the main units, and desperately didn’t want to be sent to Investment. I actually got to watch X-Files the night before and really didn’t want to lose that new privilege. Just then, Kathleen, who was both a gym teacher and staff, came in and saw me talking to Allie. She was in her mid-twenties, wiry in form, with skin that had already seen too much sun. Her top row of teeth arched up high like she’d been allowed to suck her thumb too long.
“Is she trying to manipulate you?” she asked Allie.
I looked at my feet and said, “I’m just talking to her.”
“I wasn’t talking to you. Take a chair,” she pointed over her shoulder without meeting my eyes.
She didn’t mean for me to sit down and get comfortable. When staff told us to ‘take a chair,’ we had to stop whatever we were doing, find an empty chair, drag it to a wall, and sit down facing that wall until they decided to come over and give us a chance to admit to fucking up and earning our place in a chair. I looked at Allie for a moment to see if she was going to intervene but she just made a smirking helpless gesture.
At some point in Provo’s history, a rumor arose that the singer from the Dead Kennedy’s had been a patient there and coined a punk song as an ode to the facility. The chorus was the solely known verse, but it was still catchy:
“Dial 9! Take a Chair! Class 2! Fuck You!”
Even if we said all the right things to be allowed off the chair, the end result usually came with a bonus Class 2. After all, we did admit we had done something wrong. It was a classic double-bind situation. In the end, I got two Class 2s that day and knew I’d be living on Investment again within the week. It happened much sooner than that.
As soon as I was released from my chair, I went to stand in the common area. With forty new IPs to work off, I had nearly ten hours on my feet awaiting me before I could go back to my unit. I don’t know how much of my fucking life was wasted just standing and staring at the clock in that room, but I was never alone. It was rare to see fewer than ten other girls standing alongside me with even more sitting in chairs. You could tell who had lost any hope of getting off Investment by who chose to sit instead of stand. We stood arm’s length apart, in two or three rows of four or five girls, depending on how many of us were on Investment that day, and often there were enough of us to need to form five rows. The staff would joke about having a full house those days and how we were missing out on some beautiful weather outside to be there with them instead. The two center rows had to face each other and the other rows lined up behind them. I always tried to be on the side facing the clock so I could see how much time I had left in each half-hour round.
Two hours in and eight IPs lighter, it was time for lunch.
Allie stood up behind the desk. “All right, ladies. If I don’t see perfect line structure today, everyone gets a Class 2.” We walked silently to the wall by the door and formed a single file line, arms down at our sides, eyes on the back of the head in front of us. After watching us for a couple of minutes to give us time to screw up and get caught, she gave up and unlocked the door.
I’d made the choice to be a vegetarian at the age of ten, and at fourteen I was still holding to my plan, though the meatless offerings were slim in the facilities. I grabbed a tray and plasticware and saw I’d be eating peanut butter and jelly again. The server handed me a plate with two slices of white bread, two small single-serving packets of peanut butter, and a jelly. I moved down the line to get a drink, when Kathleen appeared next to me.
“Why are you hiding your knife?” she demanded.
At first I didn’t know she was talking to me and I looked around. “Who, me?”
She glared at me with narrowed eyes. “Yes. You. You hid your knife under your plate.”
I looked down at my tray and tapped the left side of it. The knife was partially under the rim of the plate and slid right out into full view.
“I wasn’t hiding anything. It just slid under the plate a little. See?” I tilted the tray to the left and it slid back under again.
She ignored me and grabbed the flimsy plastic utensil off my tray and shook it at me. “So were you planning on hurting yourself with this or giving it to someone else so they could hurt themselves? Who were you going to give this to?”
I backed away from her, protesting that I would never hurt someone or help anyone self-harm, but she just got louder and gripped my wrist with her free hand.
“You just got a Class 3. Let’s go. Don’t make me call a Dial 9 on you,” she threatened, though something in her eyes said that was exactly was she wanted.
I pleaded with her to believe me while she escorted me back to Investment, still holding my arm. She unlocked one of the Observation rooms and told me to get inside. Before shutting the door behind me, she looked at me with a cold smile and pulled out her radio.
“Kathleen to Unit 2. Yeah, 338 is moving back to Investment. Get her things packed up.”
The window on the door was too high up for me to see out. I sank against the wall, sliding down to the concrete floor and waited. It felt like several hours before Allie let me out and told me to resume standing IPs, but only three hours had passed. The Class 3 added another 150 IPs to my total and the six I worked off before dinner that evening seemed like a dismal drop in a leaky bucket.
Chapter 10: They Said There Would be Horses
For every hour I got to see my therapist at Provo, I often spent no less than twenty more staring at the clock on the wall of Investment. Once a week, Janet would appear at the door of whatever unit I was on and walk me back to her office, and I’d tail behind her happily, just like a dog that was grateful to be let out of his cage for a little while. The program was designed to make us feel as if our therapist was more judge than ally. They decided what was written in our records and if we were ready to go home. It’s hard to trust someone who has that kind of power over your freedom but doesn’t seem to like you very much. I don’t think Janet liked me. She made no effort to connect with me, to make me feel she was on my side. I remember trying to hug her like Dr. Ginsberg, and how she shifted her body sideways to avoid a full embrace. She chose a man’s haircut for her short brown hair and a masculine wardrobe. I never saw her wear makeup or make any kind of feminine gesture, and though I still looked to her for some semblance of maternal affection, she had no desire to form that kind of bond with her patients.
Provo was void of physical and emotional affection. I missed my mother’s warmth and felt disgusted with myself for reaching out to the women who worked there, knowing I would settle for a half-hearted squeeze or pat on the back from people who were paid to break me down, but I couldn’t help it. None of the patients could deny our need for affection, and we spent a lot of time comforting one another when we weren’t being pitted against each other by the staff. We were encouraged to tell on anyone for anything that might make us look better than them, or to avoid guilt-by-association, but I can’t recall any time that I was told on or ratted someone out. I didn’t care about kissing staff-ass enough to throw someone under the bus. Having a common enemy kept the patients aligned with each other in a way that was hard to penetrate. Those who broke this code were either natural born grovelers or girls so desperate for motherly love, they turned in other girls as offerings of their loyalty to a female staff member.
If someone was hurting themselves I would have said something in a heartbeat but thankfully I was never in that situation. I was keeping an eye on Lexi though. She was a cutter. It was apparent from the white scars crossing her pale forearms. The poor girl was a ward of the state and had been in eleven facilities before Provo, just waiting for her next birthday to turn eighteen so they couldn’t lock her up anymore. Her smiles were fragile, but not fleeting, and she was so soft spoken, I’d have to lean in to hear her. She was great to stand off IPs next to because she was always so quiet and there was no risk of us getting in trouble. It was Lexi who had the Dial 9 called on her my first morning at Provo, and who had been sleeping on the mattress by the staff my first night. I can’t recall why she said they Dial 9’d her, just that she had been told to do something and refused. I worried that as she neared the age of adulthood, she’d grow more fearful of being on her own and the pressure would be too much. So I kept an eye on her and made sure she knew I cared about her. It was all I could really do.
There were a lot of girls there who were either wards of the state and had no mothers, nor homes to go back to, so I was just lucky I had someone to call during the weekly therapy sessions. All of our calls home to family were monitored by our therapists and we usually had to put the phone on speaker so they could interrupt us if we made any complaints about Provo, or tried to ‘manipulate’ our parents into letting us go home before the facility approved our discharge. Whether we moved up a level or lost a level was up to a team comprised of our therapist and other staff members. They all got together and decided if we had shown signs of working the program, and if so, did we seem genuine or were we just manipulating the system to progress. At least this is how we were told the decisions were made each month.
I can’t recall if I ever made it past Pre-Unit status. Maybe I made Unit, but if so, it was taken away too quickly to remember. There were only three occasions I left Provo during my stay, and the only time I saw a horse was while on an off-campus visit with my mother and grandmother once they were allowed to come see me, three months after I got there. I flew to California that Christmas for a four-day holiday at my aunt’s. Lastly, I was allowed to go on a field trip when there was still snow on the ground. We went cross-country skiing for a few hours somewhere not far off from Provo. It was crazy looking out the window every day and seeing a huge mountain without ever getting to step foot on it. Other than those outings, and the times we were allowed to call home, or if I’d earned the privilege to watch television or listen to the radio, I had no contact with the outside world.
The only physical evidence I have of my time at Provo are a few photographs and a handful of items still bearing the number 338, including the wooden box. Three of the pictures are from girls who gave them to me to remember them by, but only one picture shows me inside Provo—in the gym to be exact. I’m standing on a low makeshift platform with another girl named Georgette and two younger boys, and there are several red and white balloons floating around us. I don’t recall the reason for the occasion, but maybe it was a Valentine’s Day party.
While the older males were kept on a campus in Provo proper a few miles from our Orem location, the boys who were twelve and under stayed on a unit at our campus because the other was too rough. Muscles and testosterone were dominant factors in the boys’ campus, but there were still a lot of physical incidences on the girls’ campus. Jamila, a tough black girl from Chicago, was at the bottom of a pile of staff members more than anyone I remember. The older boys got in more fights with each other though and Dial 9s were called more frequently on their campus. Once or twice a year, they were bussed over to the girls’ building for activities, but the only males at the ‘dance’ that night were from our campus. Something had happened on the other campus and none of the boys were allowed to leave. Supposedly there was a riot, but there was no way of knowing for sure. I do know that I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to this event if I was on Investment, so I must have been on Unit status, which shows I was doing something right at the time. But since Georgette was there too, and we seemed to always be on Investment together, maybe we had been tossed a bone and allowed to go to the party. I wish I could remember.
When I left Provo, Georgette had given me a Polaroid picture of herself and the one of the four of us in the gym. She helped me through some rough times and one of my few fond memories of Provo is about her. I honestly don’t remember my fifteenth birthday, nor do I remember all the medications I’d been placed on and taken off over the past two years. I still had never been given a diagnosis. Not long before the party photo was taken, they swapped out my prescription for something new, and not long after, I noticed my resting heart rate was higher than normal. I was also back on Most days, we went to the gym to play volleyball or exercise and I began to have trouble keeping up with the class. Kathleen and Mona, another staff member with a similar controlling disposition, led aerobics classes. It was the only time we got to hear music, but it always sucked because it was their own personal mixes. Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb, Ace of Bass, UB40, and that Crystal Waters song, 100% Pure Love, on repeat. Kill me.
Kathleen berated me for having to stop and take breaks. She told me to take a chair but there were no chairs in the gym, so I sat and faced the wall. When I told her to feel my pulse if she didn’t believe me, she ordered me to be sent back to Investment for being manipulative and defiant towards staff. I knew then I would never be able to make it out of Provo through working my way up the levels. The game was rigged and I was screwed.
I tried telling the nurse and my therapist that I thought the new medication was messing with my heart, but no one would listen. Finally, one day when were sitting around playing cards during a rare outdoor break from Investment, the day nurse came by to check our vitals.
When he took my pulse, he joked, “Were you just chasing boys around?”
Jamila slapped her cards on the table. “Do you see any fool ass boys around here to chase, because I sure as hell don’t!” She got away with more trash talk than anyone else and was notorious for freestyle rapping about any of the staff that pissed her off. Jamila was one of those girls you like and fear at the same time.
I told the nurse I’d been sitting there the whole time, that I had been trying to tell the staff my heart had been working overtime for nearly two months since I’d started the other meds. He quickly hid his look of concern and said he would make sure the doctor was aware of the issue before he moved on to the other girls. I saw the lead doctor the next day and my prescription was modified once again, but I stayed on Investment.
The following week in our next session, my therapist told me she had come up with a new plan for me. While pointing to a cardboard box on the ground, she said, “Take a look in the box.” It was about a foot wide by three feet high and opened from the small end. Inside, all I saw were a bunch of different magazines. I didn’t care what they were about if they had something worth reading.
“Cool. For me?”
Her eyebrows went up and a rare little smile appeared on her lips. “Those are the issues you’ve decided to keep holding on to. So you’re going to carry this box around until you decide to start dealing with your issues. When you’ve shown us you’ve made progress, we’ll start removing some magazines. Hopefully it won’t take long for you to empty it out.”
While she taped the box closed with half a roll of duct tape, she said the rules of the box were that I could never be more than arm’s length from it at all times. If I broke this rule, I would get a Class 2.
“What about when I go to the bathroom?”
Janet scowled and said, “You can leave it right outside the door.”
For the first week, all I heard from staff was, “What’s with the box, Ferguson?”
“It represents the issues I’m still holding onto.”
“What’s in it?”
“Let’s have a look.”
“I can’t open it. It’s all taped up. I’m just supposed to keep it next to me all the time.”
I had to carry it under one arm while bringing my tray to the table during meals, so I’d make a second trip to go get my drink. It takes time to get used to being invisibly tied to an object. Once the staff knew all they had to do was catch me an inch too far from the box to slap me with twenty IPs, I became paranoid that it had disappeared and would reach out to feel that it was still next to my desk in class and by my bed at night. I just didn’t want to stand IPs anymore. At that point, the only thing I looked forward to was the time when I could read and sleep.
Sleep, glorious sleep! A third of the day was mercifully forgotten in slumber. Each new day was like waking to a cold, dreary morning when you’d give anything for one glimpse of the sun. My mind would run through the day to find the point that I would find my way back to sleep once again. Wake up. Line up. Eat. Line up. Clean. Line up. Go to classes. Line up. Eat. Line up. Stand. Squat. Stand. Eat. Line up. Stand. Squat. Sleep.
Never let them see you away from the box.
Sleep was my only solace until Georgette was moved into my room on Investment. We had a blast together no matter how bad things sucked. She’d be standing across from me working off IPs and I knew if we made eye contact, I’d be screwed. With the staff sitting just a few feet away, we couldn’t communicate, but she’d do this subtle little side-to-side wobble with her head and I’d see it from the corner of my eye and tried to hide my laughter with a cough. She’d usually start laughing too and sit out so both of us lost credit for the half hour. Totally worth it. That’s my most cherished memory of my time at Provo. I think about Georgette quite often for not having seen or heard from her for more than twenty years.
By the time I was given the box, I’d spent the last seven months trying to prove that I was a good kid to no avail. There were no guidelines on how to climb to higher statuses so we never knew exactly what was expected of us. We knew we’d be punished for undesirable behavior on the spot, but the reward for good behavior wasn’t immediate, so it was hard to figure out what we’d done right. Even when I was given the box, I only knew I had to prove I was dealing with my issues, but I didn’t know what my therapist thought they were or how I could show her I cared to make progress. I just did my best to do exactly what I was told. After a while, they’d cut me enough slack to make me feel I’d made some progress, then jerk it away again. I gave up on ever seeing Achievement status or anything higher than Unit again. There were girls who had called Provo home for three years before I arrived, just waiting out the calendar until they turned eighteen, so I knew it could happen to me too.
Chapter 11: Hallelujah, She’s Healed
I carried the box for three weeks before Janet decided we could take out some magazines. She didn’t go into details about what I had done right to prompt her to lighten my load the next two times I saw her, and I was afraid that if I asked why, she’d revoke my progress for not purposely accomplishing whatever I had done to be rewarded. I still lived on Investment and wore the school’s sweatsuits instead of my own clothes. Everything I’d brought with me, including my rabbit, were shoved in a bag at the back of a storage closet on the unit. I had a couple of books the staff overlooked and a few more from the library.
Then one day in the middle of March, six weeks after I started carrying the box around, Janet showed up on Investment while we were lined up against the wall, waiting to go to the cafeteria. I instinctively put my hand on the box at my side. She stopped in front of me, smiled, and said, “How would you like to move back to Unit 2?”
I said something to the nature of, “That would be great, but why?”
She crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. “Well, your insurance ran out last month. You’re going home in two weeks, so we need to transition you out of the program.”
I looked down at box and gave it a tap with my foot.
“What about that?” I asked.
Her look said the box never really mattered. “You’re done with the box. I’ll take it to the trash.”
“Ooh, Miss Janet, can I have the magazines?” Jamila asked.
Janet ignored her and Allie stared her down. Jamila started to hum, then stopped.
Georgette was in line behind me.
“Can I eat with this unit one more time?”
Janet looked at Allie and you could tell they didn’t want to concede so many things to me at once, but they did.
I sat down for one last meal with the worst of the kids at Provo. They’d runaway, stolen cars, attempted suicide, battled eating disorders, or just didn’t get along with their parents. Somewhere along the way, all of our destinies had brought us together whether we needed to be there or not.
“How they gonna go from making you carry that dumbass box for all that time to sending you home?” Jamila asked. “Soon as she doesn’t have anymore money to pay them. Hallelujah, she’s healed!”
“Keep your voice down,” ordered one of the male staff members standing watch in the corner.
We were all a bit high off the news of my release, but Georgette was unnaturally quiet.
“What’s up, Bitch?” I poked her with my pinky and ate a fry.
“Bitch, you better not forget us is what’s up.”
I promised her I would write but she shook her head. “Not gonna work. They don’t let us get letters from former patients. Run risk.”
Later that night, while I was packing up my room, she gave me the Polaroid portrait and the photo from the party. She’d written on the back of each in a girly, spidery script. We hugged and I went up to my new room.
I spent the last two weeks living on Unit 2. I got to watch X-Files and buy candy from a small commissary that was stored in a closet. They gave me all of my belongings back, including the rabbit. The staff were suddenly cool about small mistakes like leaving the bathroom light on or if the sheet’s hospital corners weren’t quite symmetrical, but their new attitudes only sealed my distrust because they could be logical and lenient if they chose to, and I’d seen enough to know they chose to be assholes instead. I waited for a last session with Janet that would disclose a final diagnosis, or just advice for my future, but that never came.
On March 31st of 1995, I packed my bag and stayed up reading by the hall light as long as I could keep my eyes open. Someone shook me awake at five o’clock in the morning, and moments later, I was standing in the parking lot under the moonless predawn sky with the duffel bag on my shoulder. The mountains still wore a bit of snow and seemed to glow a surreal blue in the distance. I climbed into the back of a van, peered out through the tinted rear windows, and flipped a discreet middle finger at the compound as we drove away.
Chapter 12: On the Outs
“Welcome to Provo Canyon, you little asshole.”
Jello Biafra did not go to Provo nor write any songs about the place. I sent him an email in 2015 to clarify this rumor and his publicist wrote back that he had never heard mention of the song before. However, he had written a spoken word piece called ‘May All Your Dreams be Wonderful’ (No More Cocoons, 1987) that was inspired by a fan who had been sent to Provo for no crime other than being a typical teenage boy. In the piece, this boy is referred to as Junior. In Act II, Jello expounds on the growing prevalence of marketing campaigns that targeted parents of ‘troubled teens’ like Junior in publications that kids aren’t likely to browse through—travel magazines and the types you’d see laying around a doctor’s office, or in the back pocket of an airplane seat. Junior is sent away to ‘a private barbed-wire reform school that’s exempt from prison regulations because it masquerades as an educational concentration camp.’ Jello’s version of Junior’s greeting by staff on arrival helped me solidify the reality that a place like this really existed and I was really there: “Welcome to Provo Canyon, you little asshole.”
I recently found a Provo Canyon School Alumni group on Facebook and it’s the first time since being there that I reconnected with any of the girls I’d lived with for several months. The group consists of former patients who had been admitted as recently as last year and as far back as 1971 when Provo first opened. Few have fond memories of PCS. Others tell of all kinds of horrendous abuse from the staff, the nightmares of being locked up there again that never went away. I remember some of the names and faces, and some of them remember me. It’s a strange yet validating feeling to finally have someone say, “I was there too, and I remember you.” We have a lot in common, including memory loss, probably from the myriad meds trialled on us, and an odd desire to taste a Utah scone one more time.
We didn’t get the help we needed then, but many of us are still here doing our best. We remember the kindest staff members and those who gave us the most trouble and least support. We see their faces when our thoughts return to Provo, but I don’t think Kathleen and Janet, or any other employee from the other places, could have guessed that one day down the road, we would also be able to look them up and see them on Facebook, living out their lives, posting about their days. Maybe they thought we’d forget them as they surely forgot about us.
I think most former patients have a lot of the same questions too. Did we really need all that medication or to be locked up away from our family and friends over and over again? Does the staff regret how they made us feel so helpless when we desperately needed to be held and healed? Do they have any remorse for profiting from the troubled teen industry, for being willing cogs in a machine whose sole purpose was to extract every available dime from our insurance plans? I know my family sent me away not as a punishment, but to get help. Instead, I was punished for not admitting to being a bad kid, for defending myself against the staff and ‘experts’ who profited by holding me back. How would our lives be different today if we had actually received treatment for our problems instead of being bilked by the very people who were supposed to help us? I’m pretty sure we’ve all asked ourselves these questions before. We’re still asking them.
Some of us have sought out new therapists on our own in our adult lives. I did and I really like her. We went over my history together and she confirmed a few things that finally gave me a bit of closure. She said it was routine to start patients on medications as soon as they were admitted to places like Provo and HCPC, and to toy around with the prescriptions to see if one drug worked better than another, if it worked at all. She also said there was nothing wrong with me. My actions and feelings, namely my defensiveness then and now, are mostly valid reactions in accordance with what I experienced. I was trying to prove I’d lost my innocence but not my honor—essentially, that I was still good. I’m not claiming she said I was without faults or problems, only that my reasoning was a sound case of cause and effect, action and reaction, and not selfish or a character flaw. Anyone else would have reacted the same way and it would have been expected.
There was nothing wrong with me.
“Andrea, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
She had to repeat this several times before I stopped shaking my head in denial while a gallon of hot tears blurred my vision. Since my first childhood visit to a psychologist thirty years ago, I’ve felt like something was wrong with me. Wasn’t that why I kept being sent away—for repair-work? Thirty years is a long time for someone to carry anything without it becoming a part of them. Three decades of thinking and being told I was an imperfect specimen had stunted my confidence and self-worth, but there I was being told all of that was untrue by my new therapist. I only wished I’d found her sooner.
Her voice gave a little when she said she saw an incredible sadness in my eyes and she just really wanted to help it go away. I had to pass her some tissues to wipe away her own tears. We killed the box together. It was the first time I’d received any kind of diagnosis, and though it was just a simple all-clear, it felt great driving home that much lighter of heart.
In the twenty years since leaving Utah, life has continued to provide many reasons to grieve. My mother divorced my stepfather when I was 18 and I let him slip away to his new family. I didn’t see him until I was twenty-three, at the memorial for my sweet mom who had died from a heart attack after her drawn out battle with addiction to alcohol and prescription pain killers. We had a few really great years together before she died and not a single day has passed without missing and talking to her in my heart. My great-grandmother had died just the year before, but both were at my wedding and I’m so grateful they’re in the photographs from that rainy but joyous day. My husband’s father passed away the winter before we married, and just six months after his uncle had died. But his mother was there and she’s like another wonderful mother to me since losing mine. I’m grateful for the support and spirit my maternal grandparents helped raise me with—they’re still dancing and traveling, and my grandfather has become an amazing artist since retiring from the oil and gas industry, which is incredible admirable. They never approved of my biological father and didn’t mask their distrust of him from me very well. I understand why now.
My father died from liver failure in 2014. He was never able to function dually as parent and an alcoholic, and I didn’t want his bitterness in my children’s lives, so I’d mourned his passing in a different way while he was still alive. It had been sixteen years since I had last seen him, and seven since we’d spoken on the phone, when he contacted me on Facebook in 2010. I wrote him back with an ultimatum to get clean and to tell his mother I had told the truth about his nephew—the cousin who had abused me because he had also been abused. I found out this cousin died in a car wreck on his 18th birthday while I was in Provo. I still wish I could have told him somehow that I never blamed him for what happened. My father didn’t respond until I wrote him back three months later to see if he’d received my message.
His reply came, in all caps. “I got your letter. I was thinking someone else was telling you how to talk to me. I gave you my phone number. Why can’t you be adult enough to call me so I can hear your voice and know that it is really you and not G. (my mother’s mother) or someone else.”
We had one more brief written exchange in which he denied any previous knowledge of the abuse. Maybe he didn’t want to confess anything in writing. Maybe he’d just drunk away those memories. I never found out.
My younger cousin, his niece, had located me on Facebook not long before my father did. We exchanged messages and she wrote me a very sweet letter confirming that she had spoken up for me to the family a long time ago. She also wrote that my father hadn’t changed, “He’s the same old Ray.” She said she’d had to move her family into our grandmother’s house after a storm flooded her home. My dad had been there too and became so drunk and offensive, her husband had to put him in a choke hold to subdue him.
“He was a nightmare,” she’d written.
This poor girl grew up with that side of the family and has stuck by their side out of loyalty and love. Her mother and my father were both very selfish alcoholics who always took more than they ever gave. I’m so lucky those people weren’t my sole caretakers growing up, that I escaped. I’ve told my little cousin that she’s a much stronger person than me, but I don’t know if she understands what all I mean by that. Yet, she understands the situation better than anyone else because she lived it too. She was the one who wrote me and told me my father was in the hospital ICU. She read him a brief note I’d sent him, but he was unconscious. She understood why I made the decision not to pay him a last visit in the hospital and even comforted me by saying she felt the same about her own father. She accepted my refusal to meet her at his apartment to gather anything I wanted for myself when he finally passed away. Without her support, I’d still be very conflicted about the choices I made, but she knows more than anyone why. I pray life rewards her with the goodness she deserves. If she’s not a saint, then I don’t believe in saints.
In the twenty years since leaving Utah, I’ve learned what it means to be blessed. I married a wonderful man and became a mother of two kind and beautiful sons. We’ve had our share of marital and familial woes, but our love and my patience (and humor) has seen us through. I’m quite content with life now, though I remain unsatisfied in a few personal areas, which isn’t a bad thing at all. I’m learning with age we come to care less about what others think and do, and while I was hesitant to write about all of this because I was still concerned with external opinions, this is my story and my doubt about telling it has reached an all-time low. I’ve wanted to write it since I was fifteen, fresh out of Provo, but I kept waiting for a happier ending to conclude with, or at least a diagnosis.
My present-day therapist has equipped me with a skill set I wish I’d learned well before I’d been sent to the county psych ward, or at least during my stay in one of the next four longterm facilities. The most integral skill is noticing when I’m allowing my thoughts to get away from me and being able to call them back home. Dr. Ginsberg was the first to introduce the lesson with her biofeedback machine, but our time together was too short. We can make an active choice to interrupt the inner dialogue that panders to our worries and serves no other purpose to us than a breeze to a wildfire. It’s a choice we have to make for ourselves if we don’t want to look back one day and see how much of our time here will ever dwell in the dark archives of distrust and despair. To do otherwise is to heap our time, our most precious possession, upon the very problem or people we’re in conflict with. Often, they never even know of our generous allotment of damning thoughts and grievances.
Over time, I’ve become better at recognizing emotional manipulation from others and telling them to cut the bullshit. If someone does something to lose our trust, and we give them another chance to either regain our faith or hurt us again, we’re going to be on guard. They need to respect our hesitation to believe they won’t wrong us once more, but we must respect their need to try again without a sword of distrust at their neck. I guess this falls under ‘forgiveness.’
It’s easier to give someone another chance when they seem sincerely aware and remorseful for how much they’ve hurt us, but for them to admit to wronging us this way, they’re also admitting they’re at fault of being a shitty person to someone who loves them, and you can’t stoop much lower than that. Humans fuck up and cause the most pain to those nearest to their hearts, yet if we’re giving someone another chance, we can’t let that pain sully an otherwise perfect day, even if it still hurts. If we decide that person will never regain our trust, it’s more merciful to both futures to go separate ways. Love blinds us to this option as an outcome, but it’s there, underneath it all. Whether it’s a friend, lover, or family, you can simultaneously love someone but rightfully never want to see them again.
I don’t know if my therapist will ever get her wish of making the sadness she sees in me disappear altogether, and I know this isn’t what she meant. She wants me to find a way to feel everything without it ruling everything else. Some people are built to feel more than others—I know this to be true because of the many ‘feelers’ I’ve met in the past. We’re the ones who get told we care too much, we’re too sensitive, and we take things to heart that weren’t meant to hit so deep. We’re the ones who get put on medication to dull our emotions when others think we’re feeling too damn much. We’re the ones who mourn for a dead bird on the side of the road and who cry every damn time we sing in the shower, even if our voice isn’t that great. So when someone accuses us of ‘feeling too much,’ we’re left wondering if there’s something wrong with us, or if they’re missing a few receptors in the empathy region of their brains or hearts.
There is no denying that our world is filled with reasons to be sad, but we have to learn to master our emotions so we can feel them in a way that doesn’t sink us like sandbags. We have to find this balance, or else we’ll drown. Those who love us may not understand our struggle to keep afloat and insist we return to dry land; they want to protect us, and themselves, from our pain—a noble desire. But I think those who’ve been forced from the shallows to tread in the deep develop a more complex emotional ‘language’ and often feel a barrier between their loved ones who don’t understand this dialect. Some need to willingly return alone to the depths on occasion, lest we drown in the shallows. Our obligation is to assure those who remain on shore that we’re strong enough to safely return to them.
I’ll leave off with a message to my old friends, those troubled teens who I bonded with over misfortunes and misadventures, and anyone else who reads this to the end. I hope you’re okay. I hope life has been sweet at times and that you’ve found solace and strength knowing you’ve made it this far. I hope you don’t need to sleep with your window open anymore to assure yourself you’re still free in your dreams. I hope you found the same comfort in me as I did you, and still do. No friend ‘on the outs’ will ever fully comprehend what we experienced together in our cages, in our troubled youth. I haven’t seen any of you in person since our release and I’ve only exchanged messages with a few of you. I know a reunion would be difficult and incredibly awkward. But I want you to know you were the truest of friends because you made captivity more than tolerable—you made it worth it.
From the bottom of my heart: Salute, you little assholes.