Envy and good fish just outside the padded cell

I ate my first seafood Newburg during my stay at a mental hospital. Not all of us knew where we were.

By Douglas Lang
Published April 9, 2002 11:00PM (EDT)

I never had seafood Newburg -- had never even heard of it -- until I was 21 years old and had just gotten off-unit dining privileges at Hampstead Hospital. It was a year of firsts -- my first nervous breakdown, my first psychiatric hospitalization and my first time having seafood Newburg. The hospital wasn't exactly a gothic asylum; the food was so sophisticated that some patients couldn't even pronounce the names. Before I got off-unit privileges, they would give us a list of entrees to choose from, and trays would be brought into the locked unit lounge. One night I heard a couple of women reading from the list, debating what the upcoming meal was. "Spinach kw-, kwich. What the hell is kwich?"

I got my off-unit dining privileges after a week in the locked unit. Most of that time was spent pacing, lying on my bed or sitting in the common area, breathing everyone else's cigarette smoke. I also cultivated signs that I was not a danger to myself. I had to convince them, after all, that I could be trusted to leave the unit -- and I was dying to take a walk outside by myself. I had to earn privileges. It was a matter of trust, they told me. "We need to know that you'll be safe, that you're trying to actively manage your illness."

So I talked optimistically about the future. I talked about wanting to go back to college soon, maybe someday get a job teaching. I expressed no regrets about taking medication for the rest of my life, and indeed said I was grateful such drugs existed. And every night, per the unit rules, I cheerfully surrendered my belt and shoelaces, with which I might hang myself, and my wristwatch, with which I could scrape open a vein after breaking the crystal.

When the staff did periodic "checks" at night -- sneaking into the room, shining a flashlight around corners, into bureau drawers and under the bed, looking for sharp objects or stockpiled pills -- I resisted the temptation to make wisecracks, or find a knife and hide it where they couldn't find it, to prove I was smarter than them. And I spent more time in the lounge than I wanted to, so that I wouldn't seem to be withdrawn. The meds helped me accomplish all of this; not only did the pills actually work, but their side effects made me too tired to be agitated or subversive. As far as I could tell, I was being very good, very cooperative, very normal. I was hoping phrases like "adjusting well" and "positive outlook" were being scribbled in my records.

While I was cultivating these signs of normalcy, I got to know one of the other patients. Darla was 18 years old, and told me soon after we'd met that she was a coke addict. She was thin, with wavy hair, and strikingly attractive. "I want to be a model," she said. Every morning her face was covered in a kind of dried white lotion -- something for her skin, I assumed. It struck me as odd that she would still be concerned about her skin when she wasn't really an aspiring model anymore, but just a coke fiend locked up with a bunch of psychos.

Lincoln Unit, where Darla and I were, along with maybe 10 others, was one of several units in the hospital. It consisted of a "lounge," a nurse's station and the patient rooms. The lounge had two couches, some chairs and a small table set up in an arc around a television set in the corner. Across the room was the nurse's station. Next to that was the quiet room, which -- much to the annoyance of the staff -- I referred to as the '80s equivalent of a padded cell. Down the hall were the double rooms.

Most of the time about a half-dozen patients were sitting in the lounge, smoking and watching television. A couple of the patients seemed like lifers; they sat and rocked back and forth, muttering things I couldn't make out. And there was a kid named Jim, about 15 years old, who was always scaring the hell out of Darla and me. He wore a winter hat and mittens, never spoke to anyone and periodically screamed and threw things around the unit. "Male staff to Lincoln! Male staff to Lincoln!" a nurse would yell over the intercom. It was scary, because he was big, he was insane and the place was locked so there wasn't far to run.

I grew friendly with Darla, mostly because I liked to listen to people, and she liked to talk. And she seemed so relaxed and at ease with everyone. She was always smiling, and she was the first person, besides the staff, to speak to me. She told me stories about this creepy guy she'd been dating, her modeling dreams and her coke party nights. I didn't say much about myself, except that I'd been at college. I didn't say why I was in the hospital, because it would've taken too much to explain; my "condition" couldn't be summed up as succinctly, as understandably or as coolly as something like "coke addict." And instead of crime movie and rock 'n' roll connotations, I had Norman Bates, John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman.

Darla and I sometimes played Monopoly or card games, once in a while inviting one or two other patients to join in. But we never finished a game because we were all so distractible. Somebody would start cracking jokes, or bawling for no apparent reason, or I'd have to get up and walk around because the meds made me so restless. Or someone would have to have their daily chat with their assigned "counselor."

While nurses gave out the meds, these other staff members -- the counselors -- had meetings with us and ran groups. Most of them weren't even psychologists or social workers, but just people with B.A.s in psych. I had trouble taking my counselor seriously, because he reminded me of the dumb psych majors in my dorm at college, the ones I'd seen getting drunk in the hallways just days before I was admitted. They were always analyzing people with silly Freudian terms like "superego" and "subconscious," as if the terms were as scientific and inaccessible as calculus formulas. Now a slightly older version of one of these idiots was helping decide whether I got off-unit privileges. And I had to hide my contempt so he would see me as genial and enthusiastic about managing my illness. I told Darla that the dumbest people in college were the psych majors. Anyone could get a B.A. in psych. "It's like basket weaving," I told her. "It's not a science. It's hardly even a subject. It's just easy and fun."

During one of our Monopoly games, Jim had one of his wild and scary tantrums. He screamed, pounded his fists on a table, then kicked an aluminum trash pail, sending it flying across the lounge. It finally made an echoing crash against the far wall, only five feet from us, then rattled and bounced around some chairs.

"Oh my God, oh my God!" said Darla, in a screamed whisper, while hunched over, her head in her hands. Even after the nurses made the frantic call for "male staff!" and Jim was put into the quiet room, we were both still scared, and my hands wouldn't stop shaking. I never felt so trapped. This was a new kind of fear, being near a mental patient going berserk. After all, who knows -- who can imagine, even -- what a mental patient is capable of?

I didn't try to play board games much after that. It was easier to just sit and watch television amid the clouds of cigarette smoke. To the nurses, I was still being social -- because I wasn't in my room -- but I didn't have to try to concentrate. Music videos were the easiest thing to watch, but the staff limited them to only a couple hours a day. I guess they figured MTV was not conducive to psychiatric recovery.

Although we didn't play games anymore, Darla and I still talked often; somehow the flying trash pail incident -- having that common, terrifying experience -- gave us a kind of weird, mental hospital bond. We made nervous jokes about watching for signs that Jim was about to "crack," and made fun of some of the staff and other patients. It helped the time pass more quickly.

Finally, after a week spent watching television, chatting with Darla, being terrified of Jim and handing over my shoelaces, belt and wristwatch every night, I was given partial off-unit privileges. This meant I could have dinner in the hospital dining room, which was about 20 yards down the hall from the two locked doors of Lincoln Unit. I went with Darla and some of the other somewhat normal types from the unit: a couple of suicidal housewives in their 30s, and a manic-depressive schoolteacher in his 40s who'd run around the unit naked when he was first admitted. The other people in the unit were the scary ones, like Jim, and the lifers who sat and rocked in chairs while talking to themselves. They never left the unit at all.

The dining room was nothing like I'd expected. I'd known Hampstead was an expensive private hospital, but I didn't expect to see a small fancy restaurant so close to the smoke-filled asylum. The Hampstead Cafe -- as I soon called it -- was a beautifully carpeted room, with fancy wooden tables and chairs, nice china, sparking silverware and restaurant-style cloth napkins! Although meals were served buffet style, in every other way it was like a fancy restaurant -- a distinguished, delectable, psychiatric dining experience. The evening's meal? Seafood Newburg.

I was confused as I pushed around the clumps of fish and shrimp in the orange cheese goo; I'd never had anything quite like that on my plate. I was sitting at a table with Darla and the others from our unit. Twenty yards away, for all we knew, Jim might be kicking an appliance across the unit -- scaring the hell out of trembling Monopoly players -- while several others rocked in their chairs talking to themselves.

Darla looked startled when I said the place didn't look like a mental hospital.

"This isn't a mental hospital!" she said. The rest of us glanced at each other awkwardly, then looked back at Darla.

"It's not," she said. "Why would you say that?" She laughed nervously.

"What did you think this place was?" I asked, finally ending our awkward silence.

"They said it was like a detox place, you know, to get clean."

Once again, the rest of us looked at each other quizzically. How could she not know?

"Well, it's also a mental hospital," I said. "Actually, it's really more like a mental hospital that also takes addicts."

Darla looked around at the rest of us, seeming to just now realize that she wasn't sitting with fellow addicts -- otherwise normal people, maybe even Hollywood stars, who'd just gotten out of control with blow or heroin or booze. Her beautiful, perpetual smile began to fade.

She turned to me and said, haltingly, "So, you mean you're ... like ..."

I was embarrassed to admit it, but I had to be honest. Having braved the flying trash pail incident together, I owed her that. "I'm not a drug addict," I said, sheepishly. "Sorry."

Darla seemed to wilt. It must've been a frightening realization.

I suddenly understood why, from her first day, she had seemed so at ease and comfortable in the unit. She might as well have been with her own kind, just at a different point in time. All the stuff going on in the unit, the yelling, kicking, rocking back and forth while muttering, crying for no reason, laughing hysterically at nothing -- this could all just be hardcore, decades-long users going crazy from withdrawal. And she'd had off-unit privileges since her second day in the hospital. Coming to this lovely dining room three times a day for almost a week -- how could she possibly think she was in a mental hospital?

I kept pushing the clumps of fish and shrimp around the orange cheese goo, while the others at the table -- the suicidal housewives and the manic-depressive schoolteacher -- one by one haltingly confessed to Darla that they weren't addicts.

In a strange way, like Darla, I didn't feel like I was in a mental hospital. At that moment the whole thing seemed unreal. The Newburg, I'm sure, was the best in town -- surely the best of New Hampshire's private mental hospitals. And as I sat there in Hampstead Cafe, with that cloth napkin on my lap and the shiny silver fork in my hand, while seeing the look on Darla's face -- as she saw me for the first time, saw all of us -- I hoped I'd never have to deny being a drug addict again.

Douglas Lang

Douglas Lang lives in Salem, Mass.

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