Life in a Psych Hospital: Going from Green to Brown to Black

What we see when we don’t let ourselves turn around.

Cornfields look different before daybreak.

This is something you learn when you work at a locked, inpatient psychiatric hospital — that sits across the parking lot from a cornfield, that is. If you work at one that doesn’t, well, don’t worry — you’ll learn other things.

I worked there for five years. When I started I was thirty and, on my last day, I was ninety-four. And the cornfield that teased and mocked (“I’m MOCKING YOU, GABRIEL!” a particularly unpleasant patient would seethe in my face, from two inches away, just in case I was unsure about the sincerity of his Heil Hitler gestures) from across the way, like a flaxen-haired siren whose breasts heaved gently on the surface of the ocean, swayed and bent and beckoned and whispered my name in the twinkling, swirling, bluish breeze.

Iiiiiiii’m mooooccccking yooooooou, Gaaabbbrrieeeeel….

When you looked out the block-glass windows on the first floor — The Unit as we called it — the cornfield looked like Dali-esque and wrong. Like something that had known pain and had been wrestled to the ground amidst the chaos of keys and clipboards, flexed shoulders and taut veins. Corrupted and molested. Maligned and rejected. Even the staff members’ cars looked drunk through the warped glass. The warped behavior — of staff and of patient — what was documented and what was conveniently forgotten, lost to time.

“If you didn’t document it then it didn’t happen,” our betters told us repeatedly in red ink and in paper-trail notes. This admonition to be precise in our notetaking was also a tacit reminder to forget to write down what should remain forgotten.

I have documented the cornfield across the way, in stories and in photographs and on film. Because it happened. Because it happened to you, and it happened to me. I have walked in, silently, until it surrounded me, swallowed me whole, touched my skin and hair and I have mumbled prayers inside and fed you snow falling silently down into your mouth and I have run through those hallways with keys bouncing on my belt and I have thrown the clipboard down as the bell rang out and I have hurt and been hurt and you are there in the cornfield watching silently, bearing witness to the deformity and the corruption that inevitably takes place within cinderblock walls where the majesty of the cornfield has no chance.

On the day they took my photograph to put on my ID badge that read “GABRIEL N.” I looked as if I had seen a ghost. But, really, I had seen absolutely nothing yet. Knew absolutely nothing yet. I did not know that I was about to lose my virginity again and again and again and that I would bear witness to suffering and unite in unbreakable bonds of friendship and love with people I otherwise had very little in common with. I did not know that voices and faces and moments and sounds would permeate my consciousness in a thousand ways, dozens of times a day. I did not know that I would have to re-enter therapy, weekly, just to stay employed and alive. I did not know that, a year into my employment there, I would learn that I was going to have twins, and that I would, within a few short months of their being born, start to lose my effectiveness on The Unit as a group facilitator, that I would become listless, inattentive, unambitious, apathetic, and sometimes cruel.

Institutionalized, I believe, is the word most commonly used for what happens. My best friend, who was also a colleague of mine at the time, called it “going from green to brown to black.”

Maybe that happened to the cornfield, too. Maybe it looked green on my first day of work — beautiful and warm and kind. And I would park my car in front of it and I would sit on the hood and eat my lunch looking out at its endless swaying carpet and the comfort of the sky above, turning my back to whatever was going on behind me for 55 precious minutes. After a while, though, I found that I couldn’t look at it anymore. I would roar in at 5:15am — for my shift that started at 7:00am — and throw my car in some spot somewhere and just push myself into the building, almost resentfully shoving my key in the lock and throwing the door open, turning my back to it but making sure to listen to it slam with force.


Assisted patient to the floor.

Applied four-point restraints to patient.

Applied defensive maneuvers to patient.

If you didn’t document it, then it didn’t happen.

The cornfield happened, and it silently demanded to be documented, to be noticed, to be put down. To be restrained in some way. It was too beautiful, too fiercely loud and incongruous. What am I doing here, it asked, as my face asked when my photograph was taken on September 13, 2005.

Does the cornfield smile when I take its picture, or whisper its name? Am I getting this documentation right? Will the insurance companies grant me one more covered day after reading this? Will I be given my belongings in a brown paper bag with a bus token while “I’M MOCKING YOU, GABRIEL” booms in my ear as a door slams somewhere?

I want to believe that there was mysterious beauty somewhere in between those swaying bending stalks, that they led to something that was eternal, leaving something in their wake, my wake, your wake, other than just chalk or fire.

Maybe there is a part of me that is angry at them for not telling me that, after signing all those papers and forms and getting my picture taken and meeting the cornfield and going downstairs that nothing would ever be the same again — nothing — not lunch or keys or pens or clipboards or shoes, not family or friends, or driving a car or growing older, losing or loving, or maybe I’m more mad at myself for not being on-the-ball enough to have figured that out for myself.

Show, don’t tell. And I got shown.

I got shown a cornfield in the dark, and I am still looking for the way out.

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