So Bob and I headed out to St. Dominic’s. This time, I saw what people on the front lines of mental illness have to do to protect the mentally ill and the other patients in the hospital. As soon as the triage nurse entered in the computer that I was there for suicidal thinking, I jumped the line of all the patients there before me. A nurse came out of the back and motioned to me. “Julie Whitehead?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Come on back here to holding,” she said.
I wondered at that term. I told Bob to stay where he was at the desk, that they were already calling me back, and she led me back to a windowless gray-walled room with a box bed anchored in the middle of the area with a thin grey mattress covering it. She asked me to change into a blue uniform made of some indestructible plastic-fabric material and put all my clothes and my purse into a “personal belongings” bag and left me in the room by myself to wait on the doctor.
Finally I was seen by the doctor on call. He asked me a few questions (I don’t remember what exactly) and left me alone again to wait, this time on an intake counselor from the mental ward.
I thought, “You know, if I weren’t really suicidal when I got here, I might be once I got out. This is nerve-wracking.” But intellectually I knew the reasons behind a separate waiting area—to get mentally ill people out of the waiting room into somewhere safe. I remember being given a blanket to wrap up in because the temperature was dropping outside, and I was barefoot and bare under my uniform, which offered very little protection from the cold room.
After I talked to the intake counselor, I heard her talking to the psychiatrist on call on the phone on the other side of the open door. “White female, carries a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Says she’s having suicidal thoughts with no real plan. Multiple admissions but none in the past five years,” I heard her say.
After a while, I was told I would be admitted but they had to wait until they had a person available to come pick me up and take me across the street to where the mental ward was. I was relieved to finally be admitted around 9 p.m. that night. I ate cold roast beef and potatoes from a tray in the ward dining room and surveyed the room out of the corner of my eye. A group of patients was talking about Elvis Presley’s heyday when he was alive in Memphis in the late sixties.
“Elvis was bigger than Micheal Jackson ever was,” one tall guy was saying. I’ll call him Jackie. “He would rent out the movie theater and let people see his movies for free. He gave away Cadillacs to poor people who came up to him on the street. He was BIG.”