This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

It was all my fault when the police took me into custody. My family doctor could not get hold of me after I left our appointment, and fearing the worst, she called 911. I was driving home after having had lunch with a friend when my phone rang. It was my son.

"Hi Mom." his voice was hesitant.

"Hi Nate, what's up." I replied cheerfully.

"The police are here. They want to talk to you." 

I could tell he was scared. He was only 13 and shouldn't have had to deal with this alone. Before I could reply to reassure him everything was going to be OK - because that is what a mother is supposed to do - a police officer came on the phone.  

"Mrs Smith, this is Officer Nichols of the Halton Regional Police. Where are you right now?"

I was angry they had used my son to get hold of me. "I'm in my car." I snapped.

"Where are you? We'll come and pick you up."

I had to get home to see my son. "I'm almost there."

"How long will it take you?" The officer asked directly.

"Ten minutes." I replied.

"OK. We'll wait."

I live at the end of a cul-de-sac. When I finally turned onto my street, I saw two police cruisers parked in front of my house. I was the worst mother ever. I got out of the car and ran to hug my son. His eyes were full of tears. I told him everything would be OK, even though I had no idea how this would turn out. 

The police then stepped in and separated me from my son. "Dr. Tucker is concerned for your safety and asked us to come by."

"I'm fine. There's no need for this." I hoped to talk myself out of the situation but quickly realized the wheels were already in motion, and it wouldn't end until I was in the hospital.

"Dr. Tucker thinks there is."

"What about my son? Can I call my husband?"

"Quickly." The officer started to get impatient.

I called in a panic, "Honey, it's me. The police are here. Please come home right away."

"What? Where?" My husband was shocked and confused. 

"The hospital." I was in tears.

"OK, we'll figure this out." His voice calmed me down. "I'll be home as quick as I can." 

"I'm sorry." I apologized. "It's all my fault. I shouldn't have said what I said." 

"Hang in there." He tried to bolster my confidence. "I'll see you as soon as I can."

"Thank you." I then turned to Nate. "OK. Dad will be home really soon. Everything is going to be alright." I tried to convince myself as much as him. I then called my neighbour over. She was an older woman who lived alone. She was always very friendly. 

"Barbara, could you watch Nate until Jack gets home? I…." I looked at the officers and their police cars and didn't know how to explain it to her. 

She smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, I'll take care of him. Come on Nate let's have some milk and cookies."

Her kindness, the need for her kindness, was devastating. I started to sob.      

By then, the police had had enough of my delays. The larger officer took hold of my upper arm and guided me to his cruiser. 

"Lean up against the car. Spread your arms and legs. Don't try anything, or you'll regret it." His voice was intimidating. 

This warning terrified me. I get sweaty over a late library book. The officer put on blue surgical gloves and proceeded to frisk me from top to bottom. As "luck" would have it, my neighbours were all arriving home with their children after school. Everyone saw, and I was mortified. The police officer locked me in the back seat of his cruiser, which was basically a small metal cage. As we drove away, I hid my face in shame as everyone looked through the window.

When we arrived at the hospital, we waited in the ER hallway until a bed became available. By triage standards, mental health is a low priority. Also, it didn't help that only one psychiatrist was on call. The ER nurse was kind, but it quickly became clear I had lost my freedom. She took away my clothes and issued me an ill-fitting hospital gown which slowed my every move. All my belongings, like my cell phone, purse and Fitbit, were bagged and labelled. Once I had a bed in ER, the police left, and a security guard was posted outside my room to ensure I remained safe and didn't get away. The first guard they posted was older, and I joked to myself I could have probably outrun him even though the hospital gown hobbled me. But when his shift was over, he was replaced by a decidedly more athletic guard. I was trapped.

I waited and waited, and after about 6 hours, a psychiatrist finally arrived and assessed my condition. He promptly prescribed new medications and announced that I would be admitted into the psychiatric ward, or "One West", as they called it, for a minimum of 72 hours. All hope collapsed. Three days! All my fault! Why was I so stupid? Why did I tell Dr Tucker I had suicidal thoughts? I should have known this was going to happen. I bowed my head and wept. 

After another 3-hour wait, the guard and a hospital porter escorted me from the ER to One West. Security here was serious. There was a camera at the door and an intercom to get buzzed in. Once inside, the reinforced steel door closed with an ominous thunk, and then an additional bolt engaged and reechoed down the One West corridor. It all felt permanent without any chance of escape. I'd never felt so lost and empty. 

Once the One West nurse signed for my custody, he took me into a small conference room where the sanity questions began, "Do you hear any voices other than mine?" 


"Do you have any suicidal thoughts?" 

"Yes." I didn't elaborate. This whole process had doubled them.  

 "Do you want to harm yourself?" 

"Yes." Didn't I just say I was suicidal? 

 "Do you feel safe?" 

I paused at this question. I wasn't sure what would happen next in One West, so I replied truthfully, "No. 

I gave all the wrong answers but one. The nurse asked the rote questions without any compassion. It was a routine he had followed many times before. It was already very late when the nurse finally showed me to my bed. My new roommate said "Hello." in the dark, then immediately handed me a set of earplugs. She explained, "You're going to need them." I thanked her and quickly learned that the other woman in our tiny room snored like a bear.

After a sleepless night, I woke up to what seemed like chaos. I was overwhelmed by a noisy crowd of patients gathering for breakfast. In One West, there was no food service in your room. You have to eat at specific mealtimes along with everyone else. Luckily (or unluckily), my room was close to the dining hall. I stood there bewildered until a nurse told me to find a tray with my name. Those who had been inside for a while picked up their meals and moved together with their friends. The rest of us sat wherever our trays lay and ate in silence.

At that first breakfast, I discovered there was a patient hierarchy. Not everyone wore an ill-fitting hospital gown, and so I asked a middle-aged man with a dad's bod and receding hairline, "Why are some people in their clothes?" I hated the hospital gown.

"If you make your bed, clear your dinner tray and behave safely, you'll soon get your clothes back." He replied, "And after another couple of days, you can get 15-minute breaks off the unit, but only if you correctly answered the nurses' and pdocs' questions."



"Thank you", I replied. I was determined right there and then to jump through their hoops as fast as I could. 

"By the way, my name is Max." He announced in a friendly tone. I'm unsure what I expected in a mental unit, but he was decidedly ordinary. He wore a brown sweater and blue jeans.

"Hi Max, I'm Teresa."

After breakfast, I wandered the length of One West. It was basically "L" shaped with the solid steel door at one end and a lounge at the other. The lounge had some board games, a TV and DVD player and a piano. The piano seemed out of place, but as I approached that first morning, I heard dissonant sounds that slowly melted into the first comforting notes of Rachmaninoff.

I was drawn into the room by the delicate melody. At the piano was a young woman in her late teens. She was like a brittle autumn leaf held precariously in hand. Her fingers were so delicate; her long hazelnut hair hid her face. It turned out that we shared the same room. (She was not the one who snored.)  

I complimented her, "You play beautifully."

"Thanks, but I only know the beginning." She replied, still looking down at the piano keys.

"That's OK. I could listen to that over and over." My confidence started to grow. "My name is Teresa."

"Hi Teresa, I'm Sam."

"Thanks for the ear plugs last night. I definitely needed them." 

She smiled a wonderful smile that lit up her entire face. "You're welcome." Then just as quickly, it disappeared.

"How long have you been here?" I asked.

"Just a day."

"So you're new like me." 

She nodded. 

"Do you want to walk with me and see if we can learn more about getting out of this place?" I asked.

"Sure. Thank you."

"For what?" I asked.

"Being kind. I feel so guilty. All the worry I've caused. All the attention I've demanded. I don't deserve it."

"I know exactly how you feel." I replied.

Then we heard Shady yelling. Shady was a thin Newfie who always dressed in camo and wore dark sunglasses. "Fucking bananas", he shouted in disgust, "What kind of snack are fucking bananas! All we ever get is the leftovers from the rest hospital, and all we get are spotty bananas" Shady didn't care about the rapidly rising total in his swear jar. He gladly paid to express his displeasure, just as quickly though he clamped down on himself and eyed the cameras mounted in the ceiling. He lowered his voice. "We're always under constant surveillance. Look at your wrist ban; you're tagged and barcoded "to keep us safe". He used his fingers to make quotation marks. "They do bed checks every hour too. Oh shit!" Shady panicked. 

Sam instinctively stood closer to me. 

"I don't want them to Code White me. Please don't code white me"' We both looked at him blankly, and he explained his fear, "The fuzz. The blue jackets. They swarm you while the doctor gives you an injection, then drag you back to solitary. Not again." Terror filled his eyes then they narrowed. "Trust me, though, if you ever do get coded, punch back; you'll never win, but you get the satisfaction of putting up a fight. Don't ever scratch or bite. They hate that shit. They figure we're all diseased, so any break in their skin - and shit, don't spit either. They hate our guts."

Sam's eyes were as wide as saucers, so I took her hand in mine to reassure her that we were together, that I would be there for her.

We learned the most about rules and expectations from Margret. She was an overly friendly grandma who fussed and tidied from when she woke up until she took her bedtime meds. She had been in the unit for seven weeks and had seen it all. Both she and Shady sat with us that first dinner and happily dispensed their wisdom. 

"Whoa!" Shady pounced on Sam as she started eating. "Slow down there. You got fucking hours to kill in here. Don't eat so fast." 

Sam cringed at his aggression. Margaret frowned, then scolded Shady, "Trevor! Mind your language. That's another loonie in your swear jar." 

Shady pinched his face, ready to swear in protest, but instead squeezed out an apology. "Sorry."

"Margaret then asked me. "Are you going to eat your bun?"  

"No." I replied, "Do you want it?"

"No, but so much food is wasted here, I collect what isn't eaten and stock the pantry over there for later."

"She's brilliant!" Shady interjected, his mouth dripping shepherd's pie. Better than fucking bananas!"



"Does anyone want a bun?" Margaret then offered my surplus to the 12 other patients in the dining mess. This was the bell at the stock exchange, and everyone began bartering their extras. Suddenly the room was alive as a community. Anything that wasn't traded, Margaret squirrelled away in the pantry. Sam and I just watched in fascination. After dinner, Margaret told us to clear our trays and slide our chairs under the table. She rolled her eyes furtively towards the camera pod in the ceiling. "If you want to get out." She whispered.

That night my husband brought my son for a visit. I was so relieved to see them. Nate ran to hug me, and I began apologizing right away. "I'm so sorry about all this, that I'm not home, that you had to come here."

My husband joined our embrace in a big family bear hug. "It's OK Tess." He said. "We can manage, can't we Nate?" He winked at my son.

Nate smiled and immediately revealed his secret, "We ate ice cream before dinner!"

"What? Before dinner?" I feigned outrage, and we all laughed. As soon as silence fell, the guilt returned.

My husband recognized my demeanour and sought to reassure me, "Tess, don't worry. Everything's fine. I told your parents, and they can help out with Nate before and after school. You don't need to worry about us. Take the time for yourself. 

"That's right mom." Nate added. "Hospitals are where people get better."

It was the first time I considered my situation not a "me" problem but rather a health one.

After they left, Sam asked, "Was that your family?"

"Yes." I answered. "I wish I hadn't traumatized them."

"They didn't look traumatized to me. They seemed quite happy that you're safe. I can tell you are a great mom."

Her words bolstered my confidence. And that night, I returned the favour. I could hear Sam weeping softly, half asleep, scared and alone in this strange place; I whispered to her from my pillow, "Listen, I know you're very sad right now and very afraid - I am too - but please... just listen. Together we can figure this out. We'll take it slow, you and I, one day at a time." I was talking as much to myself as I was to her. She didn't reply, but her breathing deepened. I was happy I could help.

And then it hit me that all the people here were entirely normal. They had lives and memories and families. Our symptoms were all different, but our disease was the same: the thoughts that weren't our own. The nurses and pdocs saw us as patients, but we knew better. We saw each other, exchanged names and shared our recoveries. We weren't guilty of anything. We were survivors. 

September 30, 2022 19:20

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