I Felt Safer in a Psychiatric Hospital During the Pandemic
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
“Heading to work?” my Uber driver probed. His accent felt heavier through the unbreathable fabric mask.
“Sure,” I answered, aware of the daring combination of my Mt. Sinai hospital destination and the collective paranoia sweeping the city. As a twenty-seven-year-old bipolar woman, I had made this trip before. I felt too ashamed to tell him that the Emergency Department was only a border crossing on my way to the psychiatric inpatient unit. The border I truly wanted to cross as a young Canadian living in New York was the one into Montreal to quarantine with my supportive parents. But we had waited too long, so that was no longer an option.
Since moving to the East Village two years ago, struggling with major depression and a new bipolar diagnosis, I had already attempted to take my life twice. Just before the spring of 2020, my negative thought patterns began to spread faster than the rapidly growing virus. Instead of chasing my racing thoughts to the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge, I opened my Uber app and instinctively set my destination to Mt. Sinai uptown.
Once there, I experienced a never-ending triage; seven hours in the psych ER melted like the clocks in a Salvador Dali painting. While the artist painted deserts, I shivered on a cold, unforgiving waiting room chair beside an equally cold tuna fish sandwich. The soggy cardboard box wilted by my bare feet. No shoelaces allowed. Had I made a mistake? Should I tell them I changed my mind? That I wasn’t actually suicidal? How could I take back the infected cigarette burns on my left forearm? The nine concentric circles were tiny alien invaders here to destroy the world. But the world was already in the midst of destruction.
“Jennifer Greenberg,” the security guard announced, interrupting my spiraling. He awaited my reply, despite being the only patient in the room save the older man in beige rubber gripped socks asleep in the corner. “They’re after us! They’ve unleashed the virus! The killers are coming for me and you!” Plagued by psychosis, the older man screamed incessantly until eventually passing out. I sympathized with his loosened grasp on reality; I had recently soared through those nebulous clouds after going off my own meds.
At first, it had felt like I’d consumed a twelve-pack of Red Bull, and could accomplish anything. Until suspicion sunk in and I convinced myself that masked strangers were whispering about me. Worse, they could hear my every thought. In this altered state, I came to the conclusion that I had, in fact, died back in November when I chased that bottle of Tylenol and antidepressants with a bottle of gin. I reasoned that I was trapped in purgatory and the only way out was to frantically search the East Village for cryptic messages; traffic signs, cars, graffiti, even garbage cans held clues to my escape.
“Even though I love our chats, it’s unethical for me to keep seeing you if you don’t take your meds,” my psychiatrist warned over a Zoom session earlier that week prior to my Uber ride to the hospital.
He knew I could be mendacious about my medication hygiene. Nonetheless, he was shell-shocked by my ability to talk my way out of being involuntarily committed when a doctor friend urged me to visit CityMD to clean out some infected self-induced cigarette burns. I had been trying to feel something human at the time—to ground myself during a manic episode. This happened four days before Ubering to the ER. Concerned with my current state, the CityMD doctor called my psychiatrist who insisted I be taken in, ordering two policemen and EMTs to the room. I somehow walked out unscathed.
“I can’t do anything more for you. You should seriously consider the hospital, Jenny,” his stern tone reminded me of the conversation we had just before I walked myself to the hospital last autumn.
I left CityMD that evening shaken and immediately went home to pack a haphazard overnight bag, “just in case” I needed to go in. I would monitor my situation day-by-day while seeking temporary refuge at my cousin’s neighboring apartment at night, all the while staying hyper aware of the signs: strange songs repeating themselves, people whispering my name, insomnia, believing everything had deeper meaning, feeling constantly surveyed, and most concerning, suicidal ideation with intent.
A few weeks before this, as Coronavirus first reared its ugly head, I thrived in the face of generalized anxiety, which proved to be more contagious than the virus itself. I desperately grasped onto any excuse to leave my cramped shoebox of a flat and keep sane: walking a drunk friend home after eight, checking in on my empty coworking space for writers (nabbing an unread New York Times and a roll of two-ply on my way out), cracking a beer on the mezzanine, even developing an out-of-character pack-a-day smoking habit.
At first, I could not pinpoint exactly why I was able to maintain such equanimity, especially when the world around me was ultimately crumbling. Then, I had an epiphany one morning while reaching for the last squares of Charmin Ultra-Soft I kept stashed away from my male roommates. The pandemic paranoia many were experiencing for the first time in their lives was the exact kind of fear I’d experienced countless times during previous episodes. Equipped to handle the insanity the virus threw my way, I played the ultimate empath and confidant. Loved ones relied on me, the designated insane one, to help keep their sanity intact. I talked friends who had lost their jobs off of metaphorical bridges, while forgetting about my own affinity for the Brooklyn Bridge.
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I was on my game, but tiring. Unwilling to sub out, I needed to stay strong. I knew, with bipolar disorder, that was a tricky play. My solution was to ease off the mood stabilizers in the hopes I’d unleash an arsenal of euphoric twenty-four-hour super powers. Suddenly, the East Village license plates started sending me encrypted messages; I was convinced people were whispering about me behind my back; I felt the obligation to censor my every thought. Finally, a few days of flu-like symptoms sidetracked my strict routine—an essential element for ignoring self-deprecation and combating bipolar depression. It was the closing of my local gym that tipped me over the edge. Whether up, down, right or wrong, regimented running at Blink Fitness kicked off my morning momentum without fail and kept it flowing throughout the day.
The next morning, I ran in the rain, exhilarated. It was a mild euphoria I knew all too well. The one after that, I jogged. By day three, I never made it out the door. I felt my arch nemesis “Dr. Depression” orchestrating his master takedown. I ignored the Slack channels my colleagues set up to stay connected. I smoked, drank, and ate myself into oblivion, trading in the casual “wake & bake” for a psychedelic “bloom & shroom.” From past experience, I knew that suicidal ideation with an action plan was my number one sign that I was no longer safe in society. I had found every which way to escape reality until the only escape left was the Brooklyn Bridge. Scared to walk that far in the face of COVID-19, I checked myself into my home away from home instead.
Two men in navy jackets wheeled me underground to the building across the way: the fifth-floor psychiatric unit. Welcome to “Mad 5!” The double-paneled doors’ familiar bold lettering held great irony. It reminded me that this time around, I wasn’t just entering a madhouse. I was coming from one.
The Mt. Sinai asylum was the safest impromptu staycation I’d ever scheduled. The rigid rules of the institution had been altered in order to adhere to safety precautions. There was no more hanging around the TV room on top of each other like in “Girl Interrupted” (we had to maintain a six-foot distance) or poker games like in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (it was dangerous to share cards). All group activities were cancelled, puzzles and board games were confiscated, the gym and dining area were prohibited, visiting hours were nonexistent…I was confined to my room without a view—the true, blue psych ward experience with nothing to occupy myself but my deepest thoughts.
Yet, there was something oddly relieving about entering the unit and feeling the weight of the crazed world lift off my shoulders. The narrow hallways felt unusually wide. There was space to pace and read and write and breathe (while socially distancing, of course). Plus, I clearly needed a break from social media, and social media needed a break from me.
My pacing gradually slowed, my paranoia faded, things began to make sense again (as much sense as they could during this absurd pandemic). Suicidal ideation slid off the table and under the rug once I replaced my red wine quarantine regiment with a cocktail of antipsychotics. Medication was encouraged—but never enforced—by the nursing staff, a reminder that this was no vacation. I had to do the heavy lifting, even inpatient. A few days into catching up on weeks of missed sleep, I started to thrive at Madison 5 on a flawless drill-sergeant schedule: 5:45 wake-up, 6:00 laps around the hallway, 6:45 CNN, 7:00 abs, then a strict reading, walking and writing regiment until bedtime after Jeopardy.
“You sound like Mamma Minnie,” my father joked over the unit’s single landline.
A fitting exclamation since I had not only inherited my grandmother’s early bird routine, but her bipolarity as well.
Eventually, despite my apprehension to leave my little safety bubble, the on-unit team decided I was stable enough to return to the real world, where the circumstances were more dire than when I had left two weeks prior. I enforced a break from endless CNN loops and the stacks on stacks of statistics offered on the ward, but my impulses and symptoms that brought me to the psychiatric unit were ever rampant. Although so much was out of my control, I knew that with the proper medication and sleep hygiene, I could try to focus on those things within my power: challenging my racing thoughts to the Brooklyn Bridge and back, giving up smoking and afternoon aperitifs, leaning into Zoom therapy sessions and intensive outpatient programs from which I once shied.
Despite my greatest efforts, as a neurodivergent, I’m still struggling to exist in the grips of this pandemic. I may have dealt with chaos in the past, but that doesn’t mean I’m totally equipped to take on the world’s problems in the present. I am, however, familiar with them. I know what it’s like to deal with the fear lurking behind every busy street corner. I can already feel impending despondency creeping back in daily and all I want to do is retreat to my quiet inpatient life. Only, I now understand that no matter how long I spend in medical quarantine, the confining world will be waiting to welcome me with open arms upon discharge.