Kahi Mohala Behavioral Health Center is the gold standard of psychiatric hospitals in Hawai’i. Near the coastal town of Ewa Beach, Kahi, as it is known in psychiatric circles, is a beautiful piece of real estate. The facility features a ropes course, swimming pool, various buildings to house separate patient populations and one of the lowest patients to staff ratios in the state. Because of a family history of depression, a bad break up, the death of my parents, and a life I did not want to live anymore, Kahi was my prison for three days.
I arrived via ambulance in the middle of the night. Strapped to a gurney, I was wheeled through the grounds to an L-shaped one story brick building. The first two guards I met unlocked the glass doors, helped me off the gurney and asked me to sit while my paperwork was processed. Everything about what was happening seemed unbelievable. By order of some emergency room psychiatrist whose name I cannot remember, I was no longer allowed the freedom of an average American adult. I was nothing more than a child, an infant really, who was confined to rooms and buildings where I could be fed, clothed and watched. I felt as exposed and scared as if I had been stripped naked in the middle of the food court of a local mall.
And then I did have to actually strip in front of the night nurses as my clothes were taken away. I was given green hospital scrubs to wear instead. Next, they took my purse, my cigarettes, my cell phone, and my key ring. How many times had I run around my house, already late for work, looking for those damn keys? And now they were just gone – placed into a clear plastic “BELONGINGS BAG” with my last name written neatly across the middle. I was loosing everything.
My mind had clearly been lost. Somewhere between dropping out of college to return home to watch my second mother die and the aftermath that created the total annihilation of my family, I ceased being me. And, after three years of mornings where the intensity of disappointment in waking was matched only by the hope of dying in my sleep, I landed in this prison on this night and lost my freedom.
The next morning, I met my fellow inmates. Tyler, a developmentally disabled adult, was mostly sweet and entertaining, except to Kate, another developmentally disabled adult, who liked to sing. Tyler liked to throw things at Kate which is surprisingly hard to do in a psychiatric facility where almost everything is bolted to the floors and walls or strapped to the nurses’ desk with retractable cords. Tyler managed to find things to throw, though. Magazines, pens, pencils, plastic utensils and once a tape dispenser went flying through the air whenever Kate and Tyler were together in the common room. My roommate, Samantha, was bipolar and prone to manic episodes where she would use oil pastels to write messages to the voices in her head on the floor of our room. We would talk to each other as fellow inmates, not in explicit terms of our illnesses or what got us there, but with an almost secret understanding between captives. Like when the Asian girl, Angela, said to me, “You look normal, just sad, right?” She understood me.
Talking to the doctor, the warden the guy who stood between me and freedom, was different. I told him I wanted to leave. I told him why I had to escape. I told him I didn’t belong here. I told him about school, and work, and my triathlon training. I told him about the fish I didn’t actually have that needed to be fed. I told him I had friends to support me. I told him I would read Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Thanh and donate all my Sylvia Plath books to the library. I told him lies and what I thought would get me a ticket out those locked doors.
He asked me if I was disappointed that the toxic mix of painkillers and vodka had not worked to end my life. I cried silently and defeated. He wrote me a prescription for nicotine gum and Ativan and told me we would talk again the next day. My first attempt at escape had failed.
I worked on new ways to get out. I participated in group therapy, art therapy, occupational therapy, and talk therapy. I pet the therapy dogs. I created a vision board. I made my bed every day. I took a shower every day. I ate all my meals. I smiled at the nurses. I swallowed my medicine. I rested my soul. I started to feel better.
On the third day, I talked to my warden again. I told him I wanted to go home. He asked me if I would be able to keep myself safe, and I knew that I would. He promised to work on it and I worried my release would not come. I took a magazine and started to tear out pages. I formed each page into a letter and taped the letters to the wall over my bed until it read, “I WANT TO GO HOME”.
Two hours later, the psychiatrist came to my room with a social worker named Anna. She would organize my re-entry into the world. Insurance companies were called, after care appointments set and my belongings returned. I was going to be free.
As I started to leave, a nurse stopped me. “You get to keep your pillow,” she said. I took the pillow from her and turned to leave. I had my clothes, my cigarettes, my cell phone, my keys, my new pillow and the will to keep on living. I was free.