BY SUSAN SPANGENBERG
I’m in yet another city psychiatric hospital. Admissions number forty in my long career of psychiatric hospitalizations. I feel I might really go crazy soon if I don’t find a way to express myself. Watching TV is not the answer. Nor are the paddle ball, the dominoes and the deck with the missing cards.. I watch the scatter-brained reach for the scattered cards until we are paraded from the ‘Day-Room’ into the chow room for slop. Having an activity to release oneself without acting out and prompting a longer stay is vital. The details of why I am here are simple yet complicated, “their fault” and “my fault”. How I am to keep my mind sane whether I am here or on the outside is the bigger picture. I feel as isolated and volatile in here as I do in the real world.
I am denied a pen. There is a “No Sharps” rule. You might hurt yourself or someone else.
I manage to steal a crayon from one of the laughable art therapy groups. Walking along the hallway, I tear away pieces of 8 x10 signs announcing some group or meeting for patients and families that never take place, much like the useless Patients Bill Of Rights under Plexi glass next to the EXIT sign.
On the back of these flyers, I draw some abstract self-portrait or write some phrase to attack my self worth and further degrade my predicament. In my bedroom, after tucking my roommate’s ashy feet into bed, I begin writing what turns out to be the dialogue my roommate calls out to God. It helps me deal with the noise and sadness for both of us. “Please God, please don’t let me go back to crack.”
In her dialogue, my Roomie slips in a prayer of ending her life of prostitution. She can no longer disappoint her classy well-educated loving mother, that faithfully comes everyday to visit. Perhaps she doesn’t want to disappoint me either, with a gracious, “Thank you, Susie, I’ll never forget you.”
My heart breaks for Roomie. Will she make it? Will I make it? How many faces in the last twenty years in and out of these places have I seen, shared a laugh with, tears, a tiff, a common fear, a medicated drool and a curled up nap in a ‘Day-Room’ chair?
Lucky for me, they keep the bedrooms open on this ward.
Once Roomie’s chilly feet are snug under the stale-smelling frayed white cotton institutional bedding, I write. I nod in acknowledgment as Roomie looks up and asks, “Doing one of dem crazy drawings on your pillow case again?” Then she yawns and rolls over, just uncovering a big furry toe. Deep down, I know I will never keep in touch with her if I get out. It would be too heartbreaking to see her possibly go back to drugs. While I am in here, she is my friend. When the young teenage boys call her fat and ugly, I jump on them like a rampaging ape. The light occasionally wakes the rooming lioness, so I opt to find some quiet time in my old enemy, “The Seclusion Room.”
I enter, surprised that it is open. I brush my hands aimlessly against the walls to feel present in my body. Blue-grey rubber padding squeaks and creases as I step inside.
Here, I write my parents arguments that are always constant in my head, combined with the chill of flashbacks. I recall with anxiety being dragged here, stripped, injected and humiliated. Now, walking in here of my own volition, I curiously feel the power of breath and conquering my environment. I feel this new found freedom and rebelliousness even more when an Aide finds me missing, sprawled on this beaten down mat, scrawling paragraphs of green and red crayon on pieces of paper.
I’m being told to leave. With bowed head and a silent smile, I know this moment has changed me somehow. This is the first time I am being thrown out of Seclusion instead of being locked in and abandoned.
I get out of the hospital and register at HB Studio, where I used to study acting. I find a solo play-writing class, where I debut my psych hospital writing. With the help of a competent new private therapist to whom I bare my soul, I continue to write my story in the form of a multi-character solo play for the next five years. I perform it for charity off-Broadway and most notably as a salaried employee at The Downtown Urban Theater Festival in Soho, NYC. I tell my story in the form of a documentary film, ‘RELEASED,’ premiering at The American Psychological Film Festival and Conference in Toronto Canada and screening at The Cape Town Recovery Film Festival in South Africa. Now, as I wait to attend my latest upcoming screening of my film this October at The Reel Recovery Film Festival, I have a sense of trepidation yet triumph. I know I will slip out of the back of the pitch-black auditorium, uncomfortable with seeing my film on screen and it’s revealing content. However I am proud of my journey, recalling the countless writers I’ve sat in workshops with who hinted at a trauma they were not ready or able to express.
I also recall the starry eyed psychologist that threw me out of an art program for changing my mind on being in someone else’s mentally ill documentary film on my once art program, the treatment team that exclaimed, “You are an enigma,” the member of my family that said “You won’t amount to anything,” the journalist that asked me “Were you raped once or more than once?”, I am empowered to know I do not have to answer any of these questions or comments in private nor in public.
I choose to tell my story in both settings. Telling my story is essential to my recovery.
My analyst and I share a laugh now when he jokes, “Remember when you first started therapy and you were a lunatic?”
I open the doors to psych hospitals and Seclusion Rooms and views that others have of me, whether right or wrong.
As I sit and work on my current project, my memoir, I am ‘Committed’ to being free. Healing is a solitary journey. The world isn’t waiting on you. The world doesn’t care. There will always be filmmakers, writers, actors and medical model clones waiting to hit a home run on representing you, securing a job, talking about you and winning awards as they discuss the latest trend at round-table forums with the cliche quote, “We need to talk about mental illness.”
That will do them a lot of good. What good will it do you? You are waiting on yourself.
When will you take your life back and tell your own story?
Susan Spangenberg is an artist living in New York. Photography by Nicole Almeida.