As I walked in to the room where the Morning Meeting takes place, I found that most of the chairs were already taken by the other patients. The chairs were arranged against the walls and everyone was facing each other. I didn’t know where to sit so I stood in the middle of the room awkwardly for a moment. I quickly try to assess who looks the least odd and “dirty” to me. I identify a nice looking girl who appears to be in her early thirties and attired in Gap-like clothes. The seat next her is empty but so is the seat next to that one, so there’s a risk that a weirdo will come sit next to me after I take the seat next to her. As I can’t linger much longer without appearing like I’m ritualizing, I chance it and take the seat next to the Gap girl. I’m about to offer a quick “Hi” to her when suddenly a young woman with a clipboard in her hand started speaking.
“Good morning everyone,” she let out enthusiastically.
The responses from the patients are much less enthusiastic.
“Well, it looks like everyone is here which is good because in about 8 seconds it will be 8am and the door is closing. Ok, so we have a new patient joining us today. Ben, would you like to introduce yourself?”
It takes me a few moments to grasp that she’s talking to me. I look around and see everyone is staring at me. Some are smiling, some aren’t. All the staring eyes give everyone in the room some semblance of cohesion but that’s where the physical solidarity ends. There are about twenty-five people in the room of varying ages, shapes, and colors. I search the room for the owner of the question. I find her. She is still smiling. I reflexively smile back. I sit up. I speak.
“Hi everyone. I’m Ben. I arrived here yesterday. I’m from Los Angeles,” and then I nod to signal I’m done with my introduction.
“Hiiii Bennnn,” most of the room responds in unison.
“Thanks Ben and welcome,” the counselor offers. “We’re happy you made it here. You will learn everyone’s names soon enough, so we won’t introduce everyone just now. I’m sure there are a lot of other things you’re still getting used to anyway, so we won’t bombard you with names yet. Ok, does anyone want to review today’s schedule for me?”
As she took her stare off of me and glanced around the room for a volunteer, I noticed that my hands were clenched into fists. I slowly opened my fingers and laid my hands flat, palms down on top of my thighs. A portly woman who looked to be in her fifties, eagerly raised her hand. The woman wore sweat-pants, a short-sleeved cotton shirt with some logo on it (it’s the kind of shirt one receives for free at an event like a job fair or when signing up as a new customer at a bank). Peaking out from the blue bandana that covered the top of head were two braided pigtails. The most horrifying part was her footwear. Pink flip-flops with a large fuzzy pink puffball atop the straps, which only brought more attention to her extremely non-pedicured big toes. I looked at her face. Oddly, she immediately struck me as resembling a jovial cartoonish bullfrog. Overall her look was that of an unkempt bohemian Baby Jane with very poor eating habits. There were many aspects to her that didn’t coalesce or seem quite right so I hoped I wouldn’t ever have to sit next to her.
The counselor acknowledged her almost reluctantly.
“Uh, ok Karen. Thank you. Here you are Karen.” Karen the happy bullfrog takes the day’s agenda.
“Ok. Eight a.m. to nine a.m. is our morning meeting, in which we are presently attt. At nine forty-five a.m. we read the schedullllle. Which actually is what I’m reading currentlyyyyy.”
Karen over annunciated the last word of every sentence and then paused excessively long after it, as if to give the last word a certain emphasis signaling conclusion of the sentence. As if without her emphasizing the last word in each sentence, we, the listening audience wouldn’t have been able to discern sentence breaks and would have inferred everything she read as one giant run-on sentence. This effect gave Karen’s reading a very unique cadence. I hated it. I was also already almost certain I hated her. She continued reading in her in unique, insultingly patronizing cadence.
“Then we have a fifteen-minute break (brea-KUH). Then 9:15am to 10am we have our smaller group meetings (meeting-ZUH). To see which group meeting you are in (iNNN), see the chart that’s on the kitchen door or the window of the counselor’s station (stay-shuNNNN). Then 10am to 12pm or noon (noo-NUH), whichever you prefer to refer to it as (AAAZZZZ), uh we have morning ERPs which are our Exposure and Response Prevention exercises (ek-sur-siz-EZZZZZ). Ok, then from 12:15pm or quarter of noon, whatever you prefer, we have ERP evaluation (A-val-U-a- shuNNNN). Then at 1pm we have lunch (lun-CHHH). To see who is on clean-up duty you can check the sheet on the kitchen door or also on the window of the counselor’s station (stay-shuNNNN).”
I looked at Counselor Emily. She was smiling with clenched teeth. As I looked around the room, I could see everyone else also appeared to be in some state of annoyance. Apparently Karen’s slow and detailed schedule readings weren’t very popular. Karen continued to read the daily schedule for another long fifteen minutes or so. I could see many people had tuned her out. I too lost track of what she was articulately driveling on about. I decided definitively right then that I didn’t much like Karen.
After Karen completed reading the daily schedule at last, she handed it back to Counselor Emily.
“Great. Thanks. Karen,” said Counselor Emily with a forced smile. “Ok. Now I will read special appointments. Let’s see. Ben, you have a ten a.m. medical appointment at the clinic. It’s just a routine exam we need to do at the start of your treatment, so don’t be nervous about it.”
“Ok, thanks,” I said, feeling anxious. The sound of a foreign clinic didn’t please me much.
At the end of the Morning Meeting, I walked up to Counselor Emily to ask about my appointment at the clinic. Emily handed me a sheet of paper that contained all the information I needed for my appointment. My appointment was scheduled for ten a.m. so I had nineteen minutes to get there. The clinic is located in another building outside of the OCDI. Counselor Emily said to me that I could get to the clinic via the underground tunnels. I had heard about these tunnels. When McLean Hospital was first built, an underground tunnel system connecting all of its buildings was engineered so that staff and patients wouldn’t have to brave the extreme external cold of New England winters when walking from one building to another. Emily explained to me where I could enter the underground tunnels and how to navigate to the clinic. I thanked her, but as I took the sheet of paper, I gave her a subtly questioning look. The look conveyed, “why are you sending me into unknown underground passageways?” but she wasn’t fazed. She received my glance expectantly and didn’t flinch. Her instruction for me to brave the tunnels was intentional.
After failing my first showdown, I headed to where she indicated I could find an entrance to the tunnels from North Belknap, the location of the OCDI.
The stairway leading me down to the tunnels was rather pleasant. It was a spiraling stairwell with an ornately carved wooden banister. In fact the entire room containing the stairwell that lead to the tunnel system was aesthetically pleasing. The room appeared to have been a library of some sort back in the day. Along the walls were glass-paneled cabinets filled with books of medicine and psychology. There was a large wooden table in the center which, judging by the leather upholstered chairs around it, was used for meetings, or perhaps quiet reading. In any case, I decided I would have to re-visit this room later to fully appreciate its sense of history and grandeur. At the moment I needed to get to the clinic.
I descended the stairwell admiring the deep patina of the wooden banister and at the bottom, came to a linoleum lined area that’s flooded with florescent light. It was a stark contrast to the above-ground level from which I had just come. This now resembled a clinic. I saw a gun-grey metal door and headed toward it. I pulled the steel doorknob and walked into a seemingly elaborate labyrinth. However, unlike the medieval catacombs of Europe, this tunnel labyrinth would have no appeal to any tourist. These tunnels may have been last updated in the 1960’s or 70’s and have deteriorated ever since. The plumbing system for the entire hospital was exposed here. The ceilings of the tunnels were rough, unpainted cement covered with what appeared to be miniature asbestos stalagmites. The walls were an off-white that emanated a sickly hue due to the florescent lights. Rather than feeling sterile, as one would expect in a hospital, these tunnels reeked of illicit experimentation and the stench of mental anguish being “handled” by desensitized nurses. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins and brain signals were on rapid fire. But I kept on. My jaw hurt as a consequence of not yielding to the physiological warnings shrieking within my body. My teeth were locked, clamped with precarious determination to advance within the bowels.
As I walked along the tunnel, I passed several locked rooms with “DO NOT ENTER” or “RESTRICTED AREA” signs on the doors that once led to the oddities contained inside. Most of these doors had a small glass pane that emitted light from inside but afforded no view. The glass was wavy and contained criss-crossed metal wiring that prevented any clear visibility to the sadness that once took place within. Many of these rooms were relics of the early days of the hospital when electro-shock therapy and cold water-shock therapy were common procedures used in treatment. I imagined the rooms had been re-purposed for today’s needs; research labs without human subjects, as they were in the past. Indeed one of the rooms had a newer sign that read “Animal Testing” above it and the room adjacent to it had one that read “Animal Feed.”
As I walked further into this labyrinth, I had to make frequent navigation choices. The narrow off-shoot tunnel on my left versus the curved one to my right. The modernized, refurbished tunnel straight ahead or the older one bearing walls with vast water stains to the left of my periphery? I made my choices of which paths to take based on the signs meant to direct me, and tried to suppress the OCD triggers that rifled off when the area I entered was stained with discoloration and sick. I took the path I was instructed to take through the labyrinth from the placards with arrows and not from the screaming OCD whispers in my head. They weren’t used to my defying them and let my body know the consequences of ignoring the signals of potential danger. My head was heavy and my step unsteady. I was perspiring and couldn’t find useful oxygen without effort. After a while of pushing through the haze that was contained within my skull, I started to submit to the idea that I was following the signs on the walls and overhangs and not the ones in my being. This acquiescence yielded an odd limpness both in mind and body. It was as if my ignoring the incessant synapsis and chemical secretions firing off in increasingly rapid succession caused an eventual surge overload that shut down the system. I liked it better this way; the numbness over extreme awareness. I was left alone by the voices but felt abandoned.
Navigating this draconian tunnel system yielded on odd, lonely sensation. I was underground the “Cookoo’s Nest.” But at least down here I had the signs to guide me. That gave me a sense of immediate solace. It was easier down here. I just followed the signs and lost sense of time. Eventually I arrived at two double-doors with a sign above them that read “Clinic.” A plain, simple sign designation that bellied both its purpose and very complicated manifestation. I raised my right hand toward one of the doorknobs. I held it there for a few seconds and I was suddenly aware that I was pausing too long. I pulled the doorknob and a subtle sound of suction being released came from the movement of opening the door.
I walked into the brightly lit underground facility much resembling a typical doctor’s office. The main difference was that this clinic was underground. Oh and that it was at a mental facility. For some reason the idea of what kind of place it was, a mental hospital, still hadn’t fully sunk in. I wondered if the reality of my being there as a patient ever would.
The receptionist in the clinic took my appointment slip and asked me to write my name on the sign-in sheet attached to a clipboard. So far the routine was familiar and like any other doctor appointment I had had. A relief. The wait was brief and I was called in by a friendly looking woman. I was escorted into a room and asked to take a seat on the patient bed. My senses were now on high alert. Clinics are huge triggers. They are where sick people come. They’re where people are informed they have an illness. Clinics are where people get tested for diseases. Some of those people have been informed that they are infected with HIV. HIV, the fear of it, has ruined my life. Having an OCD about HIV had brought me to a clinic in a mental hospital. I hoped I wouldn’t have to take a blood test. If I did, would the clinician wear gloves? She was supposed to use them as they are a preventative measure for guarding against contamination. I also hoped she had no visible cuts on her hands or arms. I wanted to leave. I would have to throw all the clothes I was wearing at that moment into the laundry. Clinics are contaminated.
The Clinician came in and greetings were exchanged. She took my blood pressure. Thankfully she did so over my sleeve, so the sleeve is a layer of barrier between my skin and the blood pressure arm band. After all, this blood pressure instrument has been used on other people. She asks me some questions as she takes my blood pressure.
“Everything looks good,” states the clinician.
She’s not taking a blood sample. In one sense I’m relieved as I won’t be punctured by a syringe administered by a stranger. However, I’m also projecting ahead (as I always do) and bothered by the idea of getting a blood test after my time here at McLean hospital. What if that blood test reveals something detrimental? How will I know if I contracted the detrimental disease through my exposure exercises here at McLean? I leave the clinic with this thought and it continues through the rest of my day. Playing itself over and over again in my head, like a broken record. The thought grows weaker as the day progresses, but not without having worn me down mentally.
After the clinic I return to the OCDI. The patients there are engaged in E.R.P.s (Exposure and Responsive Prevention exercises). I’m not sure what I need to be doing now, so I walk over to the counselor’s station. I wait behind the door-counter until counselor Emily walks over to me.
“Hey Ben,” she said.
“Hi Emily,” I said as cheerily as I could without exposing my fraud. “I just came from the clinic and wasn’t sure where I now needed to be, so….”
“Hmm, let me see here,” she said as she opened a black binder that was on the counter. She flipped through until she reached today’s date.
“Ok yeah,” she said, “you are now to meet with your BT, Jared.”
“My BT?” I ask.
“Your Behavioral Therapist,” she clarifies.
“Oh, that’s right. My behavior certainly does need some therapy! Which you already know…since I’m here.”
She just looked at me and nodded a smile.