All the names and some of the identifying characteristics of patients have been changed. None of the officials or experts interviewed and quoted in this article were aware that I had been in a psychiatric ward as a reporter.

(Brooklyn NY July 1998)


round 3 A.M., hair uncombed, face unshaven, wearing a few layers of shabby jackets and shirts, I get off the subway outside Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn. I walk into the lobby and tell the hospital police that I’m looking for psychiatric help. An officer is amused, thinking I was brought to the hospital by the NYPD. “They just dropped you off, huh?” she says. She escorts me to the emergency room.

I go up to the counter playing my part: Brooklyn-Queens itinerant from one of those neighborhoods that used to be nice, high school education, straddling the street and minimum wage, sleeping on the floors and couches of acquaintances.

“I need psychiatric help. I called up here earlier, and they told me I could come down here and get some help,” I say. A worker takes my blood pressure and sticks a thermometer in my mouth. Another asks what my problem is. I say I’m really depressed, thinking about killing myself. A few minutes later someone with a clipboard asks me the same question. Everyone is blank faced. There’s no feedback, no reaction.

“I need to see somebody, I’m really depressed, I’m thinking about killing myself,” I say. More wordless transcribing. In a short while a young man in surgical scrubs appears, and I’m told to follow him.

In silence, I follow his back through a series of corridors, locked doors slamming behind me until we arrive outside the psychiatric emergency room. He leaves me in a small foyer with a police officer.

A nurse comes out into the foyer. She asks me what the problem is. I tell her I’m depressed, I need some help, I don’t want to go on living like this, I’m thinking about killing myself.

“You use cocaine, huh? Smoke some crack tonight, huh?” She frames it as a statement, not a question. I say no, I don’t use drugs, I’m just worn out by life, overwhelmed by poverty and stress, sick of going on. Several more times she conspiratorially asks me about the heroin or crack I’ve used. I say no repeatedly. She tells me to pull up my sleeves and looks for track marks.

She sits me down and asks about my life and circumstances, and I try to answer but she’s only half listening, alternately bored and amused, looking around, interrupting. Midway through the conversation, she cuts into one of my answers and tells me to hand over my shoelaces and belt. She puts them in a manila envelope. No explanation as to what’s happening. She makes me empty my pockets and confiscates my pen, my cigarettes and my jackets. She asks if I’ve been here before. I say no. A few minutes later she asks again, as though she doesn’t believe that either.

We go behind another locked door and enter the psych ER. Inside, a square Plexiglas-enclosed nurses’ station is surrounded on three sides by narrow corridors, off of which are several patient rooms and offices. The nurse tells me to lie down on a gurney in the hall and says the doctor will see me. She locks herself in the nurses’ station and starts gossiping loudly about food and parties with another nurse while I lie there, staring at the ceiling.

Patients moan in bed, restlessly pace the corridors, constantly knock on the nurses’ station window to ask for water, tea, milk, slices of bread, any kind of contact. The nurses tell them to just go to sleep. After a while, I get up and go into the day room, a small area with a television mounted high above, a series of plastic seats along the walls--one or two ripped off their moorings--a pay phone, what look like food stains on the walls and floor, and an overflowing garbage bag.

A clerk comes out of the station and tells me that, according to New York State law, once I come into the psych ER, I can’t leave unless I’m seen and discharged by a psychiatrist. A young black man, Todd, who’s been walking in and out of his room, comes into the day room and sits down. He says he was brought here in handcuffs and tied down to a bed and has been held in the ER for four days. “I need to get the fuck out of here,” he says. “I’m going crazy.”

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