By JEANNIE VANASCO
Anita and I met five years ago as roommates at a hospital just outside of New York City. According to the brochure in our patient intake folders, the hospital’s scenic grounds boasted rolling lawns, open meadows, forests and a gazebo.
But why would we care about the landscaping? The brochure reminded me of a commercial I had seen for Hulu while watching Hulu. We didn’t need an advertisement for the hospital. We were locked inside.
I was 28, stuck in yet another manic episode in yet another psychiatric ward. Anita was 24, experiencing her first manic episode. A lack of sleep had left her with purple crescents under her eyes. We sat on our uncomfortable twin beds and shared stories that would make new roommates in most situations uncomfortable.
Anita told me that in the ambulance she had suspected she was being driven to a secret location where a team of progressive political operatives would prime her for a presidential campaign. “I knew the recent election was over,” she said. “This was for a future campaign.”
She looked down while confiding all this, so I offered my own embarrassing story: “Once I was crossing the street and hallucinated that my eyes had fallen out. I held up traffic while I patted the ground, searching for my eyes.”
And that was our introduction, because in a psych ward, friendships are reverse-engineered; you start with the deep stuff and get to the shallow stuff later.
Anita worked in finance. I was in graduate school for poetry. Our first day together, we shared a blanket on the couch in the common room, called ourselves feral shelter cats (“It’s a metaphor,” we assured the nurses), applied mental health criteria to saints and celebrities, and laughed until we forgot why we were laughing.
“Did you two come in together?” a patient asked.
“We just met,” I said.
The patient turned up the television to drown out our laughter.
Anita said, “I asked them if they put us together because I’m supposed to learn from you.”
I laughed harder. “What did they say?”
More than four years later, Anita and I are still friends. And at the risk of sounding sentimental, she has learned from me, and I from her. When it feels as if entire universes exist between the real world and me, I call Anita, because I know she has felt that way, too. But at the hospital, the staff discouraged us from getting too close.
“No touching!” the nurse scolded after seeing Anita lean her shoulder against mine. Anita had thought it would relax me, and it did until the nurse yelled. Another nurse discouraged patients from sharing phone numbers and email addresses.
“It’s not like anyone stays in touch anyway,” another patient said. For a year, this patient had worked on the ward. Now she was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy.
“Anita and I will keep in touch,” I said.
“No, you won’t,” the staffer-turned-patient said. “No one ever does.”
I almost believed her. This was my sixth hospitalization, and I hadn’t yet sustained a friendship with a former patient. Several times I had tried. The first week would start strong, but then the chemistry would fizzle just as my brain chemistry seemed to fizzle.
Medicated, I missed mania. I idealized mania, focusing only on its good qualities: self-confidence, unbridled enthusiasm, quick thinking. Medicated, I felt dull. I would only disappoint. But this friendship felt too important to lose.
I warned Anita of the potential setbacks: “Even when we forget words or feel groggy and boring, we still have to talk.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We will.”
A week later, the doctors released her from the hospital. It felt like a breakup that neither person wanted.
“I’ll call,” she promised.
The next few days, I thought about our time together: using black crayons as eyeliner after the nurses confiscated our makeup, cracking jokes that even the doctors laughed at and making “Wish you were here (instead of me)” cards during art therapy.
I was watching a manic patient scrub the already clean woodwork when another patient interrupted: “Hey, Anita’s here for you, but they’re taking her away.”
I bolted around the corner for the doors. Nurses were leading her out.
“Anita!” I shouted.
“Jeannie!” She stretched out her arm as if she were a melodramatic actor in a soap opera, but the serious look in her eyes told me she wasn’t acting. The nurses hurried her along. “Jeannie! They won’t let me see you!”
After the doors locked behind her, I felt alone and listless.
Minutes later I received a call from her on the patient phone. She explained the hospital’s rule against former patients visiting current patients.
“Let me know when you get out,” she said.
In the weeks after I left the hospital, my vocabulary shrank as my medication dosage increased. Anita and I took turns calling each other.
“I don’t even know how to describe this feeling,” I told her.
“I know,” she said. “It’s not even a feeling.”
We struggled to be ambassadors of optimism. “Things will get better,” we took turns saying, even though we doubted it for ourselves. We discussed side effects of medication and our attempts to hide our bipolar diagnosis from acquaintances and even some friends. We also bonded over our mutual hatred of group therapy.
Our doctors and health insurance companies had basically demanded that we attend partial hospitalization programs. Think: full-time group therapy, ranging from dance therapy to anger management. Reluctantly, I took a leave of absence from my poetry program and she took a leave of absence from her job.
In the evenings, she and I talked about how silly much of it seemed. I raged against dance therapy, while Anita believed she was secretly being given academic tests during her sessions, which felt unfair, as her medication fogged her thinking. Soon enough, she returned to inpatient, and this time she hated it.
“It wasn’t the same without you there,” she said afterward.
A few months later I would return, too, because my medications had stopped working. It didn’t matter that my psychiatrist had increased my antipsychotic dosage. A meteor, an asteroid and a cat toy were signs from the universe, and I’d gained 20 pounds.
But this time I couldn’t tolerate the other patients: the actor who complained about high-fructose corn syrup in the ketchup (“Get over it!” I finally shouted), the stockbroker who snapped at the nicest nurse, the musician with Asperger’s.
I asked the nicest nurse if she could overrule the hospital policy about former patients visiting.
“It wouldn’t be good for treatment,” she said.
“Anita’s or mine?” I asked.
When my new roommate arrived, she apologized for her depressed mood. She had been a patient when Anita and I were roommates. Last time, this patient felt suicidal; this time, she had stabbed herself in the chest. She lifted her shirt to show me her scars.
“I’m afraid I won’t be as much fun as Anita,” she said. “Or much fun at all.”
“No, no,” I told her. “This place isn’t supposed to be fun.”
And then it hit me: Maybe that’s why the rule exists.
Anita and I used to lie to our friends that we met at some event in grad school. Now we tell them the truth: “We were roommates in the psych ward.” Then we laugh. “No, really,” we say, because things have gotten better.
Neither of us has been hospitalized for years. In this time, we have earned multiple graduate degrees. (Graduate school can be an excellent place for someone with a mental illness to hide out.) She secured a job that I don’t fully understand, something about pharmaceutical investments. I’m a creative writing professor.
None of this came easily. We credit doctors, therapists, friends, family, the Affordable Care Act and, of course, each other. I still slip into mania and depression. Depression feels like a room with no exits. Mania, I won’t lie, feels great — at least that’s how I remember it. Last week, I contemplated tapering off my meds, or lowering them.
“That’s a terrible idea,” Anita told me.
Mania rarely lasts for longer than a month, she reminded me. It usually dips into a mixed or depressed state. If depression is a room with no exits, a mixed state is a room with no exits and an anxious crowd.
I explained that I wasn’t getting any writing done. Maybe one manic month, I told her, would be worth it for my writing.
“Didn’t you just finish a book?” she asked.
“That doesn’t count,” I said.
“Because I’m not writing now.”
“Could you take a break?” she asked.
“That sounds miserable.”
“Then can you try writing something short?”
“I could try,” I said, not even thinking I would write about us.
“See what happens if you try.”