Every once in awhile, usually in the shower or while grooming cats, I find myself thinking about random people I’ve been in treatment with over the years. In 20 years, I’ve been inpatient 3 times. Once was for rehab, the other 2 for mental health, although I found myself on the dual diagnosis units for all my visits. I wrote about that once.
During my last visit, a little over three years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman named NaNa. She was not a pleasure. At about 22, with expensively colored hair & top of the line cosmetics, she played tough, bad ass. She & her cronies sat in the back of every mandatory unit meeting or group function. Sometimes laughing, bickering. Sometimes causing such a disturbance she had to be forcibly removed by staff.
NaNa’s legal name was Pauline or Melissa or Michele. At least that’s what it said in the bracket outside of her room, which was next to mine. I kept my distance from her at every opportunity. There was something about her that frightened me, even when she’d been sedated to the point of wearing the same pair of hospital scrub pants for three consecutive days.
She had a tic. She clapped. In the middle of an AA meeting, she’d sit towards the back of the room, cause a ruckus, and clap twice. The clapping was a precursor of being removed – she’d get so angry afterwards, even though the rest of us mostly ignored her, maybe out of a similar level of discomfort.
At morning “goals group”, we gave our moods on a 1-10 scale, our goals for the day (family meeting, seeing about discharge/halfway house/jail/etc, not puking up one’s guts) and whether or not we could “contract for safety” (i.e. not gonna harm yourself or others, right? RIGHT?) When it was NaNa’s turn, she sighed dramatically & mumbled something about being nice to everyone today. Apparently, her therapist/social worker/shrink gave her the challenge of complimenting each patient TO said patient. Everybody. Every single last one of us.
She got to me in the afternoon, outside on smoke break. I sat at one of the metal table-bench combos that were affixed to the concrete in our enclosed courtyard. I had been writing & smoking furiously and when she approached me, I was annoyed.
“Can I have a smoke?”
I pulled one from the pack & handed it to her. I learned years ago to never just hand a pack over. I held out my cigarette so she could light hers from mine, saving her the walk back to the tech/lighter nazi at the door.
“What’s the deal with your hair?” she inquired. I had dreadlocks at the time, long & snaking down my back. Most of the time, I wore them up. It was summer & and they were hot, and quite the conversation starter when you’re locked up with 30 other people.
“Well, I’ve always thought they were beautiful, so I thought I’d grow them”, I explained.
“Huh.” she muttered.
She spun on the bench away from me, her “8 shades of butterscotch” hair cutting through the space. She stood up, crushed her barely smoked cigarette & yawned.
“You’d look better without them” she advised as she stomped away.
And then I realized that was my compliment from NaNa. I laughed and resumed my time allotted smoking & writing session.
I always wondered what happened to her. The day I was discharged, she went to court, only to be sent back because she “acted out”. The last time I saw her, she was pouting in borrowed clothes, knees up at her chest. Her hair & makeup were amazing, but you could tell The Crazy bubbling at the surface. She’s probably in the system somewhere. Correctional, psychiatric. Either/or.
When you’re on a unit or in a hospital, you learn more intimate details about people in three days than you may know about a friend you’ve had for twenty years. These people have stuck in my head for various reasons. Like the young artist at first hospital who huffed paint. Or the two women I shared a room with during my second “stay”. Women with husbands, kids, careers. I was only 19, their lives & challenges were unfamiliar.
Maybe I felt sorry for NaNa, despite how she frightened me. Maybe I wanted to hug her. Maybe I was so fucking glad I wasn’t her.