WHEN THE COPS came to my doorstep they said, “You have been invited to a dance.” They said it was a mandatory attendance kind of dance. It was the end of summer and still hot. I wore a t-shirt and a short skirt. When I got out a week later it was fall and I shivered in my thin clothes.
The Quiet Room is pretty much the only place in The Bin where you can get any peace. It was all the way down the hall, as far from the rec room as you could get, next to the nurses’ station with its bank of monitors. I remember it being roughly eight by ten, with a window in the door and a larger one in the wall, like the ones we used in the advertising world to observe focus groups. The camera in this case focused on only one person.
Not everyone gets to go to the Quiet Room. Your visits there are predicated on the idea that you are sedated and watched closely. That is what made the rumor and then the fact of the death in the Quiet Room so shocking.
Usually it is not your desire to be quiet that gets you sent to the Quiet Room. A little persuasion is called for, and the goal is to transport someone who does not want to be transported and who has displayed enough bad judgment or lack of wherewithal to arrive at The Bin in the first place. The orderlies spring, fully formed, from nowhere and pounce like white Siberian Tigers on a wounded wildebeest and with inexorable institutional instinct cull you from the herd.
In my case, I resisted the idea of the Quiet Room rather strongly—which is strange, since I always thought A Room of One’s Own to be essential to a well-appointed bookshelf. I had just arrived at The Bin and they had taken away my bag. Inside my bag was my notebook. I needed my notebook. I needed to write things down, things that were happening to me. I had imagined being there and now I was—how could I squander the details? I saw my bag on the shelf, just sitting there, doing nothing. I was sitting on a bench, waiting to be checked in, also doing nothing. I reached for my bag, and then they got me.
Even after I was physically persuaded to go to the Quiet Room, I refused to take their drugs, and even when they said they would inject me anyway, so I might as well give in, I said, “Go ahead.”
I had competing ideas of what it meant to be put in The Bin. I naturally feared a lobotomy, the brain disconnected and wandering directionless and dazed, drowning in some syrupy wallow in my head.
For the most part, however, I envisioned a more solitary experience. Part of me yearned for escape from an untenable marriage and deteriorating home life. It would be quiet, I thought, and I wouldn’t have to do dishes or worry about all those adult responsibilities. I had romantic perceptions stemming from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which are inhabited by an array of hermetic moor dwellers and loquacious obsessives. I had thought of madness as an opportunity to stop brushing my hair or paying bills, a chance to roam about the fens singing ballads. I did not recall Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell mentioning Tai Chi. Were Michelangelo and Nietzsche forced to rank their moods? Ezra Pound produced manuscripts and entertained luminaries; I hardly had time to read snippets from the book of Lao Tzu my sister bought in the hospital gift shop.
But being a bad ass in the psych ward is a tactical error. After the physical persuasion and the forced injection, I realized the only thing I wanted was to get out of The Bin. I asked my roommate what I had to do, and she said, “Go to all the activities and participate.” So that’s what I did.
The disruption came during the MOOD to NUMBER translation at the End of the Day Group. Just as we launched into a fruitful discussion of how to not pose a danger to oneself or others, they clustered us in the recreation room because something had happened in the Quiet Room.
Technically everything that befalls you in The Bin involves being corralled into a group of some variety. In the dining room, eating from plastic trays, with those little cartons of milk like in elementary school, we sat in cliques of old hands and new arrivals. In the activity room, where we glued pompoms and Popsicle sticks together—no Exacto knives, no encaustic or welding, no inhalants of any kind—or in the music room, where we percussed, we were always in Group. Tai Chi was a gaggle of torpid cranes hampered by the lack of belts and shoelaces. Even gatherings that were informative, like those on “Meds,” “Re-Entry,” and “Coping,” were really a form of Group. But then there was the real Group, the twice-a-day Group where we sat in a circle and talked about our feelings. It was more orchestrated than the kind of Group I had known voluntarily. In the twenty years of Freudian-influenced Group that I attended religiously, I was never called upon to rank my mood on a scale of one to ten. Perhaps Freud was less interested in numbers.
Word filtered down the Escher-esque corridors: the dead person was a woman. A few people said they knew her from other visits. She was nice, they said. She had brown hair and was talkative. Around my age, they said. She sat in this circle before. Many times.
The staff was distracted. Doctors came up from the emergency room, through the door that is always locked. Eventually there was a gurney with a sheet on it in the hallway. Doctors and nurses coming and going.
It was not someone from our current Group, we learned. We had accounted for our entire cohort. All of us, our delicate routine sent manically awry, grouped again, but not in a circle. Instead, we drifted. Some veered off to find quiet, some gathered to pore over the scant details we had. Life in The Bin is so predictable that any disruption causes great reverberations through the community. And this was a death, a matter of life and death. We talked and paced, most of us. Some people just continued to watch television, but they were mostly psychotics and their social skills were minimal on their best day.
There was a woman in our Group who claimed to always be a “ten” on the happiness spectrum. I wondered what it would be like to float so high that you could be your happiest while sitting in a circle of people whose hold on things was tenuous at best. There was a guy who we thought was tough because he came in all cut up, with two black eyes. It turned out he had tried to hang himself in the garage and hit his head on the lawnmower when his wife cut him down. There was the twenty-year-old who had already been a hooker, and the fifty-year-old who had been a madam. Perhaps they worked something out.
There is always a tension between the demands of Group and a person’s private demons. The exhortations of the demons are countered by handouts and videos and order, order, order. You earn your ticket to The Bin through a varied menu of options: biology, divorce, disaster, bankruptcy, estrangement, mourning, eviction, addiction, abuse, bad luck, or repeated run-ins with the bureaucracy. You could probably do everything right for your entire life and still end up in The Bin, because the list is open-ended and subject to interpretation, but I think the primary route is all of the “stressors” dropping down and accumulating in one’s head, coupled with some essential bad decisions. This gives the demons a voice. Group in turn replies to the wildness with a plodding insistence worthy of a certain kind of TV detective. Group is predictable, dense and safe.
The Bin gets a lot of repeat traffic, which is both good and bad. It is good because it means there are always some people around to give you advice on filling out your menu order or giving you an extra carton of orange juice or a container of pudding if you are in the mood. It’s bad because when you leave, you always wonder if you will return.
I kept in touch with a few of the people I became close to during that week. We always brought up the death in the Quiet Room. We shared a week and a sense of going off the rails together. After a while you stop wanting to talk about meds and diagnoses, about the way bad things can happen. But when you are in there, these are your people. You share DSM identifications and the various side effects of those drugs with names in cipher: Lexapro, Lithium, Geodon, Seroquel, Abilify, Prozac. It is a litany heavy on Xs and the rhythm of soothing vowels. Mantras.
The Group dissolves over time. You almost cannot help but lose touch with people when your link is forged in such a way. They go back and you don’t. You go back and they don’t. The gap widens unless you keep going back, and you do not want to go back just for the sake of continuity.
I liked the staff in The Bin. There were no Nurse Ratcheds; rather, they were kind and reassuring. I had my prescriptions and I had been becalmed. I had a breakdown but was not broken, and as I waited for my discharge papers, sitting in the same chair as when the notebook called to me, the people I had come to know passed by. I was sitting just around the bend from the Quiet Room. My favorite nurse came to me. He had known the woman who died. I remembered his sadness the day after the death. I wondered how many times she had sat in this chair awaiting discharge and how many times she had returned.
We hugged goodbye.
“I hope I never see you again,” he said.