My cell phone alarm woke me up at five-thirty a.m. Being in an unfamiliar environment, I wanted to give myself some extra time to make it to the day’s first group session, which starts promptly at 8am. The staff had repeatedly warned me that they shut the door to group exactly at eight a.m. and they make absolutely no exceptions to let anyone in even if they arrive a a second after the door closes. I didn’t want to make a bad first impression by missing my first session in which I’m to officially meet all the other patients. Suddenly I felt a familiar nervousness in my body that I couldn’t quite place.
I knew it wasn’t the same anxiety caused by OCD because I wasn’t in panic mode, so what was it? I realized it was the first day jitters! I hadn’t had that feeling since high school! Again I feel the humbling nature of this place. I’m an adolescent again. Except here I have even more restrictions and guidance to look forward to. Way more. I try to set aside my anxiety temporarily so as to concentrate on what I will need for my shower.
I take my tupperware container that holds my toiletries. I’m wearing my flip-flops to the bathroom with the shower stalls so that I can wear them in the shower. There’s no way I’m letting my bare feet touch the floor of these showers. One’s feet are the first body parts to enter one’s underwear and pants and therefore contaminated feet will contaminate the entire garment.
I approach the nurse’s staff station holding my tupperware container and fresh clothes to change into. I ask a different, very attractive staff attendant in her early twenties if I can have a towel.
“One or two towels?” she asked.
“Two please,” I said.
“Are you timed?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I didn’t even know what she was talking about.
“Let me just take a look at your chart,” she said. “I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“Hi Ben. I’m Amy.”
She grabbed a binder from a shelf that had my name on it. I noticed all the other patients had their own binders as well. There were about twenty of them all lined up next to each other on a shelf in alphabetical order by last name.
Amy flipped through my binder being careful to hold it up towards herself so that I couldn’t glance the contents. (I was surprised by how many pages of information it already contained). When she found the page she was looking for, she scrolled down it with her finger and a furrowed brow.
“Hmm. Well there aren’t any specifications quite yet. Have you met with your B.T.?” asked Amy.
“I don’t think so. What does B.T. stand for?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” Amy said. “It’s your Behavioral Therapist. He will enter in instructions for us after he meets with you today. So you’re fine for now. Take your shower, but remember group starts at eight a.m. sharp.”
“Ok. Thank you Amy.”
“You’re welcome Ben.”
I walked with my two towels, a change of clothes, and a tupperware container that held my toiletries toward the bathroom with the showers. A handsome young male staff member with an athletic build, also in his early twenties was standing outside the bathroom door. (I was starting to think the main criteria for getting hired at this place is the ability to be a successful catalog model). The staffer looked at a stop-watch he was holding and shouted into the bathroom, “How you doing in there Walker?”
From a shower stall inside the bathroom I heard a response in a squeaky clean, chipper, all-American boy’s voice that sounds remarkably like those teenagers from 1950’s TV shows. I assumed it was Walker’s voice.
“I’m doing just fine. Thanks Steve!”
I guess the male attendant is named Steve.
“Alright, well you have one minute left,” Steve yelled.
“Ok, thanks! I’m just about to dry off!” exclaims Walker.
Evidently Walker’s showers were timed. Lord I hoped mine wouldn’t be.
Steve turned his head towards me and then moved out of the way for me to enter the bathroom showers. Upon seeing me for the first time, his face revealed nothing. I had no idea if he had made any appraisal of me whatsoever. I wondered if his ability of not seeming phased by strangers, or rather strange people, is a skill he had honed while working here or if it had always just been intrinsically his nature.
Just as I walk into the bathroom that looked like a gas station restroom with showers, Steve called after me, “Hey Ben?”
“Both of the showers are being used right now, but Walker should be out in less than a minute, so just hang out for a sec, or you can brush your teeth or something in the meantime,” said Steve.
“Oh that’s fine. Thanks Steve,” I said.
Steve and I weren’t ever properly introduced but as I was the only new male patient he didn’t know, he must have guessed I was the new guy they were expecting. I actually felt relieved that he didn’t go through all the formality of a proper meet and greet. I was anxious enough about using an unfamiliar and shockingly outdated shower to clean myself in, that I didn’t need to also have to worry about making good first impressions.
I didn’t want to place anything on the counter with the sinks as it looked like it belonged in an old Howard Johnson’s motel. Since I didn’t want my change of clothes or toiletries to touch any of the surfaces in the bathroom (I had already made a quick appraisal of all surfaces available and my options were all poor), I held onto my bundle and just stood there. Steve just looked at me and smiled. I felt like an idiot. He’s probably thinking, “Why is he uncomfortably holding this huge bundle of towels, clothing and tupperware when there are plenty of surfaces he can lay them down on?” Steve must think I’m such a weirdo just standing there, not attempting to brush my teeth, or ready my soap, or undress. Jesus, I wish Walker would hurry and get the fuck out of the shower!
Then it dawned on me again; I’m a patient in a fucking mental hospital, why am I worrying about the first impression I’m making on this total stranger?! I have already made one – I’m sick in the head and feel compelled to behave abnormally and out of desperation I have checked into a mental institution to get better. After this rather embarrassing revelation, I have another one that gives me some solace. The thing is, I don’t have to worry about making impressions any more. I’m here. They know all about me. They know why I’m here. They already know about the behaviors I have been so desperately trying to hide from the rest of society. There is no need for pretension. For the first time ever in my life, I can be exactly what I am without worrying to death about judgment. In coming to McLean, I have been emancipated from the Social Struggle.
However, I suddenly realized that my social freedom comes at a price. Aside from the obvious factors such as living in a looney bin, I had suddenly lost much of my credibility. Even if I wasn’t behaving sincerely in the outside world, I had a knack for convincing people that I was still normal. That I was just like them. That had been stripped away now. Every normal person here, i.e. the staff knew I’m not like them. They knew exactly how very divergent a path my life had taken from theirs. In helping me, they also want to learn about people like me. They want me to be different from them so they can study me and learn. The question now was how much of myself would I allow myself to reveal to them? I mean I had been practicing for so long at carefully hiding so much of myself in the outside world that I wondered if it would even be possible to not do that here. My thoughts were suddenly interrupted.
“I’m out!” exclaimed Walker, as he stepped out of the shower stall.
He’s everything his voice indicated he would be. He really is a character right out of the 1950s! There he stood before me, this tall, lanky, extremely pale guy wearing a towel and a huge grin. The freckles on his nose and his ruddy cheeks matched the shock of curly red hair atop his head. I think the best way to describe Walker’s looks and personality is to state that he’s the real-life version of Archie from the Archie comics.
“Hi there!” he exclaimed at me.
“Hi, I’m Ben.”
“Ah ha! You’re the new guy we’re getting. I’m Walker!”
“Good to meet you.”
“Yes sir! Well see you in group, Ben!”
After Walker walked away, I opened the swing door that lead to the two shower stalls. In the shower area were two hospital waiting area-like wood chairs with maroon vinyl upholstery. The two individual showers were next to each other and each had a plastic pull curtain for privacy. I was disgusted. How was I supposed to get clean in this?! I laid one of my two towels on the vinyl upholstery of the chair in front of the available shower as a barrier. Then I placed my fresh change of clothes, jeans and a navy t-shirt, on the towel. On my clothes I placed my tupperware with my toiletries. As my soap, lotion, and razor (all things that I would be using on my face) were in the tupperware. I needed the most amount of barriers and space between them and this foreign vinyl upholstery in this ridiculously outdated bathroom with offensive showers.
I take out my razor, a small hand mirror I use for shaving (I like to shave in the shower) and my soap. I unwrap my Dial soap (I always use Dial as it explicitly states “Antibacterial Soap” on the label and the bar itself. Such reassurance is invaluable to a contamination OCD sufferer!) I use the wrapping from my bar of soap to pull the shower curtain closed and to turn the shower on so that my fingers and hands don’t come into direct contact with any part of the foreign shower.
I place the wrapper on the soap holder built into the shower wall as I will need it again to turn the shower off and open the shower curtain with. I wash myself from head to toe with the Dial Antibacterial Soap. I don’t use shampoo on my hair because shampoo isn’t antibacterial. I then use my small hand mirror and razor (which I was holding in my free hand as I washed myself with the soap in my other hand since I didn’t want to the mirror and certainly not the razor touching anything in the shower other than me!)
I place what’s left of my new bar of soap (which is not much) atop the soap wrapper that I stored in the built-in soap holder. I hold the small mirror with my left hand and the razor with my right. I carefully start to shave. I don’t want to shave too aggressively or carelessly as the thought of nicking my face in the foreign shower terrifies me. If I were to see that I cut myself, allowing the possibility of whatever contaminants that surely exist in this disgusting shower environment to get into my bloodstream, I would probably have a full on panic attack.
After successfully completing my showering ritual sans incident, I use the soap wrapper again to turn off the shower faucet and to draw open the shower curtain, all very carefully, again, so that my fingers don’t actually come into contact with any of the shower fixtures. After opening the shower curtain, I notice the floor outside the shower is now a large puddle. Before stepping out of the shower into the puddle, I bend down to discern the depth of the puddle. I’m trying to gauge if my flip-flops have a sufficient amount of height to keep my feet from coming into contact with the dirty floor water. I deem they do and then carefully step out of the shower so as to not create a splash that could spray the floor water onto any part of my exposed skin. I carefully place my razor, mirror, and what’s left of my soap into my tupperware container.
I then remove my underwear from inside my jeans. (Clearly as I don’t want something that will be brushing against my genitalia all day to come into contact with any foreign object such as these hospital towels that are washed en masse and the vinyl upholstery of the chair, my underwear is always tucked inside some protective clothing barrier until ready to be worn). I hold up my boxer shorts and carefully remove one foot from its flip-flop. I’m balancing on one foot while carefully negotiating entering my other foot that’s now in the mid-air into my briefs with as little contact with the inside fabric as possible (certainly around the groin area). This sounds like a precarious task, but again it’s something that extensive practice has made me quite good at.
Pulling my briefs over the other leg on is much easier than the first, so that doesn’t take as long. After that I pull on my jeans. Again as I can’t possibly have any part of my jeans come into contact with this foreign environment, I fold the jean leg that I’m putting on second in half and holding it in one of my hands so that the bottom doesn’t brush against the floor or anything else. I then slip on one leg in the same manner as I did my boxers. Then I take the jean leg that I have to slip my other leg into in my other hand while I carefully balance on one foot and aim my other foot in the air into the opening of the other leg so as to have as little contact with the fabric in the groin area. Writing about it is almost as tiring as performing this ritual! (I later learn while in treatment that this very idea – writing out a ritual or obsessive thought – is used in therapy because it is tiring. in writing out an unwanted thought or unwanted ritual repeatedly, one grows accustomed to or bored with the idea or ritual. In effect diminishing its power and anxiety-invoking ability).
Next I wear my navy t-shirt. I haven’t used any of the towels to dry off with but I have come to learn that one’s body dries in clothes rather quickly. The other benefit of not toweling dry is that if one’s clothes are wrinkled (as mine are from being in a duffle bag or when at home, in a pile in the designated “safe-zone”), the moisture on your body tends to reduce the wrinkles in the clothing. Essentially not toweling makes me a human iron.
Now I have to proceed to my room to fashion my hair into something presentable and apply lotion to my face. As I didn’t remove my contact lenses last night, that’s one task I don’t have to plan out in my new environment. Despite having just taken a shower, I’m beat. Elaborate rituals are physically—and even more mentally—taxing. I just want to head back to bed. However, I have twenty minutes left before my first group session, so I have to jam. I still need to apply lotion to my face, which becomes really dry from the careful cleansing I give it before shaving, and I have to get my meds from the Counselors’ Station. On my way back to my room I dump the used towels into the laundry hamper outside of the bathrooms. I’m holding my bundled up “sleeping costume” in my other arm, but I’m careful my left hand doesn’t touch it or anything else. My left hand is my “safe hand” and can’t come into contact with anything if I’m to use it to apply lotion to my face.
After I enter my room I drop my bundle of clothes onto my bed. Then I remove the lotion from my duffle bag, using my right hand and then pump some into a tissue I’m holding with my left hand. I apply the lotion all over my face with the tissue in my left hand. When done with this task, I place the lotion back into my bag in a protected area amongst my clothes.
I take out one of my clean white undershirts to wipe off any excess lotion that isn’t absorbing fast enough. The reason I use an undershirt instead of another tissue is because some bits of the tissue, which was made wet by the lotion, rubbed off onto my face so that I have specs of tissue debris on my face. Using another tissue to wipe off the tissue from my lotioned-up face would be counter-productive, so I use a undershirt to wipe off the excess and bits of tissue on my face. I know my own clothes are clean so I can use them on my face. I place the undershirt back into my duffle bag after wiping my face. Then I comb my fingers through my hair and take one last look in my prison-cell-for-a-room mirror. I’m ready.
I head back to the Counselor’s Station to get my meds but I’m informed that since I haven’t yet met with my psychiatrist, I don’t yet have any prescribed meds to take and should take whatever I brought with me until I have my meeting with whichever doctor is designated to be my psychiatrist here. I’m about to walk into the kitchen to see if there’s anything I can possibly eat but as I head toward the kitchen, one of the counselors calls after me. She states that there’s not much time so I better head straight to Morning Meeting. I’m reminded again that the door is shut promptly at eight a.m. and no one is let in after the door is closed. So I skip breakfast and head toward the main meeting room.