(Content warning: this post discusses details of my psychiatric hospitalization. If that’s triggering for you, you may want to skip this one, and know that I’m sending you all my love).
This week I walked with a friend and her four-month-old. It’s surreal to watch my friends with babies now and to realize that my daughter is no longer considered one.
The term “baby” is ambiguous enough that you can still use it when your kid just turned one. But Bailey recently hit the 18 month mark, which makes her a definitive toddler.
She’s matured a lot. In a previous post I said she had no time for books, but just a few months later she can’t get enough of reading.
Every night is a negotiation: she wants to read one more book, or the same book one more time. I don’t mind because it means she finally sits still long enough for me to cuddle her. It’s time I cherish. And every night, when it’s finally time to give up on the stories and the cuddles, I scoop her into my arms and sing the same song.
“Bailey Beluga, in the deep blue sea
Swim so wild and you swim so free.”
I first started singing it to her when she was in the womb. I quickly realized how convenient it was to have chosen a name that sounded like “baby,” as I could plug it into virtually any song. But I liked this one best.
“Heavens above and the sea below
And a little white whale on the go.
Bailey Beluga, oh, Bailey Beluga…”
After she was born, we started singing it to her every night before bed.
I never thought much about the lyrics. There didn’t seem to be much to think about. But the first time I sang it to her after returning home from my stay in the psych ward, the words stung my heart as they left my mouth.
“Is the water warm?
Is your mama home with you, so happy?”
For most families, this is a rhetorical question.
Of course a mom would be home with her newborn.
Of course they would be happy.
I thought about who had been singing to her while I was gone- whether and how they answered the question for her. I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that Bailey wouldn’t remember us being apart. But in some ways that was even worse.
Especially since I couldn’t remember many of the hours I spent away from her either.
Where had that time disappeared to?
When the ambulance first arrived, I thought it was a prank sent by Anna Kendrick. As much as I loved her and was grateful for our newfound friendship, I found it tiresome- I wasn’t really in the mood for jokes.
In my mind, I’d had a long hard day of shooting my reality TV show. I’d been fighting with my mom and Matt a lot- they didn’t understand how much pressure was on us celebrities, or how tiring it was to be constantly “on” for the camera. I longed for a lost sense of normalcy and wished I could go back to a time before I’d become famous.
So I tried to tell the paramedics and police that I wasn’t in the mood for their games.
They reiterated that it wasn’t a prank, that I needed to come with them, but I knew the truth.
I heard later that they were extremely patient with me for a long time as I tried to evade them. But eventually I decided that I would cooperate. The faster I let the hidden camera crew get the reaction shots they wanted, I figured, the sooner I could be back in bed.
I was impressed with how realistic the fake background that moved past the ambulance windows was. It looked so real. But I knew it was all pretend. We were on a soundstage. I knew how these things worked now. I’d be able to get out of here in a few minutes, find that I’d been in my driveway the whole time, and head back up to my bedroom.
It wasn’t until we went up the ramp onto the highway that I started to sense that we were actually driving. I panicked slightly- they were more committed to this prank than I thought. “How long is this going to take?” I asked myself, trying to calculate how far we’d traveled. But I’d been shit at math lately, even worse than usual.
We pulled up to the ambulance bay, and my panic increased. “No, no, this is a mistake, I’m not a real patient!” I tried to tell the people around me, but no one would listen.
The rest of the night was a blur- a fever dream, filled with puzzles and riddles that I needed to solve in order to break the magic spell and be allowed back home.
My memories exist in flashes.
The confusion of all of the actors playing doctors and nurses as I tried every door on set, searching for a way out.
The hopeless eyes of an extra as I pulled back the private curtain that he was hiding behind.
The stickiness of a dirty restroom floor on my bare feet.
The panic of being restrained- the straps digging into my wrists, my ankles.
The pain of crying out for my baby.
The desperate voice of someone I was sure I knew dressed up as a nurse, using her mask as a disguise, saying that she couldn’t stand this anymore and needed her shift to end.
The oozy nothingness of the sedatives finally working their magic.
I don’t remember actually getting to the psych ward. My memories begin midstream, like I picked up the book of someone else’s life and started reading from a random point on a random page.
I wish I could say that I spent every waking minute of my time in the hospital trying to get back to my baby.
But I got distracted.
I was so manic, so delusional, that I thought that it was my responsibility to save everyone in the hospital- to take personal responsibility for their well-being.
The rooms in the ward were laid out in a rectangle shape. On an hourly basis I would walk laps around the rectangle, looking into rooms, sometimes walking right in, to make sure everyone was ok. I called this “doing my rounds.”
On phone calls with Matt the staff generously described my actions as “intrusive.”
I feel badly, now, for intruding on people’s lives when they were already at a low point, but I know that we were all doing the best we could.
Trying to get well in a place surrounded by other people in crisis was a bit of a crabs-in-a-bucket scenario.
At one point, I insisted that a group of us had developed a summer-camp-style bond of friendship and should stay in the ward happily forever.
Of course, for every person I pulled down into the bucket, there was someone else grabbing my leg.
There was the woman who told me that our COVID tests were lobotomies. I know that she believed what she was saying and was trying to protect me, but it didn’t help my own paranoia.
There were the people who told me that my medications weren’t going to work. I know that they were speaking from their own experiences of frustration and disillusionment, but it meant that I went more than a day without taking any of the meds that I so desperately needed.
Rumors flew around the ward about how you were allowed to sign yourself out at any time if you asked the right nurse. I wrote frantically worded letters to the hospital, insisting that “I, Dr. Stephanie, being of sound mind and body, wished to return home.”
I read these letters out loud at full volume in the middle of the common area, like a decree. I assumed that the head of the hospital could hear me through the hidden cameras in the walls and would let me go.
None of this helped my case.
Of course, as with most things, COVID only made it worse. While there were the minimum number of required nurses and counselors on hand at the hospital, all of my interactions with my doctors, and many of my social workers, took place through Zoom.
You can imagine how confusing it was for a patient experiencing psychosis to be inside a hospital getting treated by doctors that only talked to you through the internet.
It was comical in its own dark way.
Eventually, as I started to get better, my delusions faded and my desperation to get home grew stronger.
The first day after my new medications started working, I sat in one chair in the common area and cried for what felt like the whole day.
I felt confused by the people telling me that I seemed to be doing better, when I felt so much worse than I had before. I expressed this frustration to my roommate.
“I know it hurts,” she said, “But at least you seem more like yourself.”
“How do you know what my real self is like? You just met me,” I thought.
But it wasn’t her first rodeo. She was there for severe depression, and had been in other wards, with other people like me. She knew what psychosis was- could recognize the difference between manic and normal behavior.
In my next telehealth appointment, when the panel of doctors and social workers asked me how I was doing, I said that I was feeling better and worse at the same time. They seemed pleased with that answer, and asked me what I was working on in my group sessions.
I was able to find clarity, suddenly, in a way that had escaped me since Bailey had been born.
“I think,” I told them, “That I need to stop worrying about other people and getting distracted by them. I think I need to focus on making myself better so that I can go home to my family.”
I could tell it was the right answer.
Finally, after so many days and so many meds, I had found the ruby slippers that would send me home.
Sure enough, when I talked to Matt later he sounded incredulous, but happy. They were going to discharge me the next day.
I was overjoyed, but cautious. I’d seen this with other people.
One woman got all dressed and excited, only to find out that she had misunderstood what they’d said about her timeline and she wouldn’t be leaving yet. The image of her collapsing at the front desk, crying tears of disappointment into her corduroy jacket was seared into my brain.
Another had sat and waited for hours for her boyfriend to come get her, only to find out that he’d broken up with her and she needed to find a new ride home.
So I held my breath the entire time I waited for Matt to pick me up. Clutching my belongings in a paper bag: the hastily printed pictures of Bailey crumpled on the edges from showing them to so many people.
But I was one of the lucky ones. He arrived right on time, so happy and relieved to see me.
I felt that same relief, but also guilt. Despite the fact that I was being released after only five days- much sooner than anyone thought and much sooner than I would have been discharged if not for COVID- I couldn’t help but fixate on the ways I’d let my distractions delay my own departure.
On the five precious nights of “Bailey Beluga” I hadn’t sung.
And if I was being honest with myself, there were many nights before the hospital when I’d been too distracted to sing to her. Her mama had been home, so happy. Too happy. And focused on a false world of her own creation.
As the months wore on and the question, “Is your mama home?” became blessedly rhetorical, I was newly haunted by the phrase “with you, so happy.”
Everyone focuses on the initial joy of Dorothy returning to Kansas, but no one talks about how hard it is to go back to black and white after discovering that technicolor exists.
My depression was deep, and I longed to swim out of it so I could truly and joyfully focus on the precious little whale in my arms.
It took time.
But now when I sing to her, I am no longer reminded of my shortcomings. Instead, I am reminded of the ways in which being home and being happy are two things I should never take for granted.
And I can move on to the next verse.
Thanks for reading,