Giving Up the Sharps
by Summer Sanderson


I always thought that psychiatric hospitals were places where everyone wore bathrobes over hospital gowns, shuffling around in fuzzy slippers or socks with rubber grips, and everyone would either hide their pills under their tongue or find ways to buy or bribe more pills from the patients who hid the pills under their tongues. I should have checked myself into a psychiatric hospital several years before I ever went to one, but I was afraid that I would end up locked away in a psych-ward, wearing a bathrobe, not swallowing pills, with a couple of roommates who believed that they were Jesus and Napoleon. I also pictured myself in my robe, eating applesauce, staring out a window while someone really "not well" sat beside me, eating crayons and trying to talk to the squirrels outside. Fortunately I had a good psychologist, Nicole, and a good friend who was a psychology student, Angela, who both told me that the scary places like that which I had imagined were mostly state institutions and not private hospitals. Nicole had interned in a local psychiatric hospital, so when the time came, that's the one I chose.

I was nervous when Michael helped me check into Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital. As he and I waited, I became more nervous when I overheard the nurses deciding which unit to place me in.

"She needs to go into Adult Three," one nurse said.

"Adult Three is full."

"She doesn't really belong in Adult One or Adult Two," another nurse said, "but we'll have to put her in one of them until a bed opens up in Adult Three."

I gripped my bag and stuffed bear. Which unit did Nicole say I shouldn't agree to go into? And what exactly did they mean by 'until a bed opens up'?

I had no makeup on. My face was pale, and my eyes and nose were beet red. My hair was a disaster. I hadn't showered in two days. I also should admit that I was twenty three years old and carrying my teddy bear with me.

"Summer Marshall?" a nurse called out.

I picked up my bag and my bear went with her.

We walked outside to cut through a pretty courtyard. There were benches under trees, lots of flowers, and tightly manicured shrubs. A tall iron fence surrounded the courtyard. There were several different locked gates.

"What is Adult Two, exactly?" I asked.

The nurse glanced back at me and smiled. "It's the Dual Diagnosis unit. It's for people with chemical dependence or alcoholism who often suffer from psychiatric disorders as well." She looked at me with compassion and pity.

The unit wasn't noisy, but it was buzzing with a strange energy. I checked in at the mini-reception area and looked around. The patients were active and agitated. They were talking, walking around, fidgeting, and arguing over what they would watch on television that night. I realized that most of these people were in detox, and they were agitated and nervous with withdrawals.

"Go with this lady for your physical," she said.

I followed the woman into a tiny room that was completely closed off. As I walked through the doorway, I noticed a sign on the door that read "Quiet Room." There was a lock on the outside of the door and a single bed in the closet-like room.

"I'm going to take your temperature and blood pressure. I also need to know if you have any self-inflicted wounds or suicide attempts of any kind."

"No suicide attempts," I said. "That's why I'm here I guess. You know, so that there aren't any."

She looked me in the face with an emotionless expression. "Any cuts?"

If I had ever had to explain to a "normal" person why I had cuts on my arms, I would have felt like an idiot. In this situation, however, I felt like an idiot because the cuts were so minor. I had no doubt that I would encounter people with bandaged wrists or suture scars, and here I was with regular band-aids on my arms.

"Just these." I kept my arms in my lap, but turned them wrist side up. I pushed up the sleeves of my sweater that looked like a big robe. I had worn it for months, even when it was hot, to hide cuts on my arms.

"Pull the bandages back so I can see them."

She held a chart with a generic human silhouette. She drew little marks across both of the wrists.

I knew several other people with mental disorders who cut themselves. The process serves a different purpose for everyone. Some girls with eating disorders cut themselves because they hated their bodies and saw their physical being as a major source of their problems. Others with eating disorders or those who had been sexually assaulted seemed to use cutting as a way to prove that they had at least some control over their bodies. They may not be able to control thoughts, eating, or someone else abusing them, but they still owned the rights to their bodies, and they seemed to try to prove it or claim it with their own marks.

I had my reasons as well, however irrational. Sometimes the emotional pain was so bad that having a tangible wound made it seem more rational, so I felt less crazy. Other times I used cutting as a way to calm down because I hate the sight of blood, and if I am bleeding, I have to lie down and relax so as not to faint or barf. The marks that I uncovered for the nurse would be best explained by a line from the song "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls: "You bleed just to know you're alive." Even so, I was a little embarrassed that I had bled only enough to get the concept of being alive.

"All right, you can go," The nurse said and went back to not looking me in the face.

I went back to the mini-reception area. The lady there asked me to give her my hair dryer.

"I can't have a hair dryer?" I asked.

"You'll get it back after it's been checked out."

"Checked out?"

"Yes. They have to disassemble it to make sure it's safe."

"Will it still work when they put it back together?"

The lady smiled and let out a "Ha!" and put the hair dryer behind her. I wasn't sure if that meant she thought I was joking or if it meant that I would be sticking my head under the hand dryers in the bathroom for the duration of my stay--should I gain the motivation to shower.

"I'll need your toothbrush, toothpaste, makeup, and any other cosmetics," she said.

"I can't have my toothbrush?" I felt a little uneasy. I may not have showered, and I may have looked like Hell, but I was still in the grips of my obsessive compulsive disorder. I brushed my teeth five times a day, flossing at least once, and using a wooden pick and mini-brush at least once a day.

"There are scheduled times when you can check out your sharps so you can get your toothbrush." She noticed I was still staring at her. "When you're on S.P., that's Suicide Prevention, you can't keep the sharps in your room. You also won't leave the unit for meals while on S.P. They'll bring some trays in. But no sharps."

When I had first arrived at the hospital and the first set of nurses asked me if I had seriously considered suicide, if I had a suicide plan in place, and if I had still considered death an option if left alone, I should have lied. I didn't care about going to the cafeteria to roll frozen peas around on my plate. I could do the same thing at the tables in the unit. I ate hardly anything those days anyway. But I did want my toothbrush. Besides, I could starve myself to death faster than I could kill myself with a toothbrush.

# # #

The next morning a nurse awakened me at 6:00 AM for a blood sample. I had slept like I was under anesthesia. I didn't have dreams, I didn't wake up during the night, and I felt like I was still in that sleep when she woke me up. This was a good thing for the nurse. Had I not sunken into this state, I may have responded with "What kind of sadistic bitch wakes someone up at 6:00 in the morning with a needle?"

Michael came by that evening and brought a present from a lady he worked with. He had to take it home, however. It contained too many sharps for me to have.

"I'm sorry," Michael said, "I had to tell James, Lisa, and Gina what was going on, so I could take off of work." Michael was a chef, and had to tell his boss, boss's wife (the ultimate boss), and his stand-in for part of the evening what was going on with me.

"That's okay. I'm not worried about it being a secret or anything," I said. I meant it, too. I didn't care who knew and I wasn't worried about the shame attached to mental illness.

"It turns out that all of them are either on medication like you, or they have been in therapy, or they have someone close to them that had to go to the hospital, also." Michael said this in a sort-of surprised, cheery, tone. That information made me feel better.

# # #

Before bedtime, a new patient was admitted. I couldn't see much of her other than she had blonde hair and she was shaking. I felt sorry for her because she looked so desperate. She had a black eye, and both of her pleading eyes followed everyone that passed by. Her eyes caught me and I couldn't ignore the stare.

"Can I get you something?" I asked. As I moved in closer, I saw that she had bruises all over her arms and legs, and she was missing large patches of hair. "Oh my God--are you alright?" I realized after I spoke that I sounded inappropriately shocked for someone in a rehab unit.

"Yeah, I tripped and fell onto the dresser," she said.

Unless the dresser came to life and beat the holy Hell out of her, she was making up bad lies to cover for someone who was going to spend the next few weeks missing her as a punching bag. She didn't seem to care that her answer didn't cover why her hair was ripped out.

"Can I get you something?" I asked again. "Can you have juice or anything?"

"They won't let me have anything." She shook violently. "I told them that I needed something, that I hurt from my accident, but they don't care."

"Oh." I began to understand. There was nothing I or anyone else could offer to her unless it was a pill or something in a syringe.

"I told them I ain't lying. I told that nurse that I really needed something for the pain, but she don't care." She gazed at me.

"I hope you feel better." I walked away. That was stupid. I just told a shivering junkie with bruises, missing hair, and a black eye, "I hope you feel better."

I went to my room and went back to bed in my sweater robe.

# # #

The next morning, I wasn't sure yet if I was going to get out of bed, but a nurse brought the news that I was going to a different unit. I packed my bag and got my pillow and bear. I cinched up my sweater robe and followed the nurse out of Adult Two.

We entered Adult Three. It was empty except for one girl sitting on a couch.

"Summer, good luck to you. I hope everything works out for you." The nurse smiled at me.

I put my stuff in my new room and came back out to the community area. I sat at the other end of the couch from the girl. One of the nurses in my new home told me that everyone else had gone to lunch, so I figured the lone girl was on 'S.P.' as well.

"Hi," I said. The girl didn't answer. She caught me looking at her.

"I can't hear." She responded with the high-pitched voice of a deaf person. "I can read lips sometimes, but usually I have to sign."

I nodded in acknowledgement.

The nurse directed us to our lunches. I sat across from her. I remembered some finger spelling so I thought I would try to introduce myself. I caught her attention.

"S-u-m-m-e-r," I spelled out with my hand, then pointed to myself.

"Heather," she said and pointed to herself. She smiled at me and then turned her attention back to her lunch.

I was introduced to the part of the group that hadn't gone back into their rooms after lunch and refused to come out again, like I had done the day before. Some of the patients finally made eye contact and said 'hi.' I figured these were the bi-polar patients. The other patients had tear-stained faces, dirty hair, and a waxy dead look. At first I felt self conscious, and I felt like the others didn't like me or didn't want a new member in the unit. As I observed them, I realized that they were experiencing their 'major depressive disorder episodes.' They were locked in their own brains, just like I was.

One of the more animated of the bi-polar patients knew sign language, and began to carry out a conversation with Heather. Heather spoke in her high pitched voice as she signed, eager to have someone to talk to.

# # #

That evening my brother, Lance, called me. He was worried, of course, just like a big brother would be. As we were talking he became alarmed.

"What's going on there?" He sounded so distressed.

"Nothing's going on." I wasn't sure what he was talking about.

"It sounds like somebody is yelling, or crying really loud or something. What's happening in there?"

I didn't know what he was talking about. No one was screaming, yelling, or crying. Lots of people were crying, but not audibly, and not out in the community area where the phone was. Then I heard Heather speaking to her friend.

"There it is again," Lance said.

"Oh, that's Heather." I began to giggle. I hadn't giggled in a while. "She's deaf. She doesn't realize how loud she is."

"That makes me feel better, I thought somebody was freaking out over there or something," Lance said.

I realized that Lance was envisioning what I had envisioned before I came to the hospital. He was going to come visit with my parents for the family day at the hospital in three days. He told me that my sister-in-law wanted to send a present with him, but to say it was from Perri, my niece, who was a toddler at the time.

"It's a PEZ dispenser." Lance said, matter-of-factly. "I told her that you wouldn't be worried about PEZ dispensers right now. I mean--you're in a mental hospital. You don't care about PEZ dispensers when you're in a mental hospital." He was definitely having the same visions of a mental hospital that I had.

I began to laugh. "I would really like the PEZ dispenser, but I don't think I would be able to keep it. We can't have sharps in here."

"I told her she can give it to you later. Now's not the time."

We continued our conversation. It was nice to talk with him. I told him about the little cuts on my wrists, told him how minor they were, and asked if he could tell Mom and Dad about them before they got there. He was concerned, of course, but he never made me feel bad or guilty.

# # #

Over the next few days, I began to miss the energy of Adult Two. I figured Adult Three would have been perfect for me when I got there. Just about everyone was like me. But even after getting to know the other patients in Adult Three, it felt lifeless.

One lady, Dawn, had been in there for months. She rarely came out of her room. The rumor was that her daughter had been killed in some tragic way, and she had been in Green Oaks since her daughter's death.

Anne, another lady in Adult Three, was also a depression patient. However, the reason she was depressed was because of brain surgery for epilepsy. The surgery put an end to the seizures, but the seizures were doing something to her brain chemistry. Without the seizures she suffered from a chemical imbalance which caused her more than one hospitalization. She hadn't yet decided whether the seizures or the depression were harder on her.

I had definitely been miserable with my depression and felt tortured by it. I had tried to cope with it for years but couldn't beat it. Even though I had experienced my own suffering, as the days went on and my meds took effect, I realized that things could be much, much worse.

# # #

I went off of S.P. by family day, and I got to keep my sharps in my room. I even took a shower and washed my hair for family day. I did get my hairdryer back. It had 'Inspected' and 'Green Oaks' stickers all over it.

# # #

A couple of days later, I was ready to leave Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital. I wasn't quite to my old self, but I was growing restless and frustrated in the lifeless unit. Six days before, I would have gladly curled up in a corner and shriveled away. I wasn't ready for the world and day-to-day life, but I needed some life. The doctor, whom I had seen a total of two times for about fifteen minutes each time, decided to release me, as long as I came back for out-patient therapy.

My friend Angela came to pick me up from the hospital. She was going to spend the afternoon with me until my parents arrived that evening to stay a while with me. Michael was at work, so he planned to come by the next day.

I loaded my bag, teddy bear, hair dryer, and sweater robe into Angela's SUV.

"So," Angela said, "You're free. What do you want to do first?" She smiled at me.

"Maybe a hair cut." I pulled down the passenger side mirror and took a closer look. I had been showering the last couple of days, but not taking care of my skin or hair. Someone was going to have to cut the tangles out, and it would take sharps to deal with the tangles.

We just went to the first "Fantastic Sam's" we could find. No one was there except for a large but beautiful black woman.

"Come in," she said. "We're open. What do you ladies need?"

I touched my hair, and became a little embarrassed to ask anyone to do anything with it.

"I need a haircut," I said. I looked at Angela. She smiled her sweet smile.

"That's no problem. Come to the chair."

"It's pretty matted. You may have to detangle it."

"That's no problem."

She washed and conditioned my hair. Then she got a comb--a very sharp comb--out and began fighting my tangles.

"Your hair is tangled. What have you been doing?" she asked. She was surprisingly gentle for how bad it was.

I looked at Angela. She was waiting for my answer also. I looked at the red and black checkered floor. It was so different from the dull, neutral colors in the hospital. I saw the sharps catching the light in the mirror: scissors, combs.

"I was in the hospital for about a week," I said.

"Oh, did you have a baby?" the lady asked.

I giggled.

"No, no baby. Just the hospital."

"You don't look like you had a baby or anything, but girl, that's what my hair looked like after I had been in the hospital having my first baby. I had to have it all cut off." She continued her story about her babies and her hair, and for me, after being in Adult Three, listening to her was like breathing clean air for the first time in a week.

I was a little afraid of getting back into life. I had spent four days without being allowed even a toothbrush, and here I sat, in the world, with a friend and a stranger, in a place full of dozens of shiny sharps. Giving up the sharps in the hospital meant more than just safety. It meant that I didn't have control, that I wasn't safe from myself, and that I was closed off from the world. I had never noticed PEZ and hair cuts like I did during that week in the hospital and of my release.

I didn't know if I was "cured" by Green Oaks, but I knew I was closer to cured because of my family's support and Perri's PEZ, and Angela's care and the best hair cut I've ever experienced. I was hospitalized for my use of sharps, but as I sat in the shiny red stylist's chair, I realized the irony of how I would be healed by the everyday use of sharps. I had felt dead far longer than I had been in the hospital. But now, I had sharps, I had clean hair, I had PEZ and all of the little sharp things that had made up my life.


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