In the third installment of “Bipolar Planet,” Gabi Coatsworth recalls visiting her son in a mental institution.
Cedarcrest. It sounded so restful. I pictured it, in the green area west of Hartford, as a place where my son Jason would be able to regroup. Lord knows, he needed the sleep. He’d been awake for seventy-two hours until the staff at Hartford Hospital shot him with enough sedatives to fell an ox, and he crashed into unconsciousness.
Jason had just been diagnosed as manic (and therefore bipolar), which explained why he had been talking non-stop and fizzing with unnatural energy since I’d tracked him down earlier that day. My own adrenaline levels had risen with each hour that passed, until now, when I knew someone would take care of him. He was being forcibly committed to a mental hospital where he could pose no “threat to himself or to others.”
“There’s no point in you waiting around. He’s going to be asleep for quite a while,” explained the social worker at Hartford Hospital. “We’ll transfer him to Cedarcrest—our mental health facility—sometime later today, when we have an ambulance free.”
“When will they let me see him?” I asked her.
“You’ll have to call the hospital. They may want to keep him in isolation for a few days to get him stabilized, but you should call them tomorrow.”
I felt a guilty wave of relief wash over me. Thank God, I’d be off the hook for a bit. It wasn’t good that Jason was locked up in a loony bin, but at least he was safe. I’d have time to organize things at home, make dinner, help our two younger boys with homework, and talk to my husband Jay about what we should do next.
When Jason came out in a few days, we’d have his living arrangements sorted out and get him a new start. I drove home, feeling more optimistic than I had since Jason had first started acting weird. Was that only a week ago?
Cedarcrest brought me down to earth—fast—when I called the next day to find out how he was doing. The operator wouldn’t tell me anything. “You need permission from the patient,” she said.
“So he is a patient here?” I asked.
“I can’t confirm that.” she said. I racked my brain.
“If, hypothetically, you had a newly admitted bipolar patient,” I suggested carefully, “which ward would he be on?”
Apparently, the operator felt able to tell me this, so I asked her to put me through. When I reached the desk, I asked if a patient called Jason could please phone his mother.
“We can’t confirm that,” they said. I hung up, frustrated and close to tears.
But someone did give Jason the message, because he called two days later. He sounded as though he was deep underwater.
“Get me out of here, Mom,” he slurred.
“Of course, darling,” I lied, willing myself to smile so that he wouldn’t hear the duplicity in my voice. “But you’ll have to give permission for me to talk to the nurses, or I can’t do anything. Can you get one of them to come to the phone?”
The nurse told me that I would be able to see Jason in a few days if he behaved himself. Behaved himself? What did they mean? He wasn’t violent, just a little crazy.
“Your son has a few problems,” he explained. “First, he’s in the midst of a manic episode. And of course, he’s suffering withdrawal symptoms from a number of drugs.”
I seemed to be having trouble breathing. Manic and a drug addict? I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. “So, when can I see him?”
“Why don’t you call in a few days time?”
I called every day. Three days later, they told me I could visit. Jason phoned me when he found out.
“You’re coming to take me home, right?” He sounded better.
“Not today, darling,” I said. “I’m just visiting today. But soon.”
I waited for him to explode. But all he said was, “So, can you bring me a six pack of Coke, some shoes, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a change of clothes. And maybe some Cadbury’s chocolate?”
I understood his asking for chocolate. He’d loved Cadbury’s ever since he’d been little. But shoes?
“Yeah. They’ve given me some socks. I might have some shoes at your house.”
“Okay,” I said, already planning a visit to the mall, to buy him clothes.
I drove through the gates the following day, and my heart sank as I surveyed the daunting red brick façade ahead of me. It looked like a factory, only less welcoming. In a kind of cage to one side, some unkempt people were hanging out, smoking cigarettes. Did they keep the patients caged up? Pushing the thought aside, I headed for the front door, clutching my plastic bag of gifts.
At the front desk, they made me fill out a form and show my ID before giving me directions to the ward. I felt completely alone as I heard only my footsteps echoing in the silent and deserted corridors. I passed doors with small, wired glass windows and big locks. I reached Jason’s ward and rang the bell, my heart beginning to pound. I wondered what lay ahead.
The intercom next to me buzzed: “Yes?”
“I’m Jason’s mom,” I said, and they buzzed again to let me through.
“I’ll take that,” said the nurse, lifting the plastic bag from my hand before I had a chance to protest. She tipped the contents out on the desk.
“Contraband,” she said, picking up the six bottles of Coke.
“Contraband,” she said again, looking critically at the leather belt threaded through a pair of chinos.
“Contraband,” she repeated, lifting up the pair of shoes.
She looked up and saw my expression of bewilderment. “Bottles are weapons, the belt,” (she passed a finger across her throat in a meaningful way) “and laces—same thing.” She swept them all back into the bag. “I’ll give these back when you leave.”
Her voice softened as she saw my expression. “He’s allowed sweat pants, Adidas slip-ons, and cans of Coke. You’ll get the hang of it,” she said.
I don’t want to get the hang of it—I wanted to scream. I want it all to be like it was before. But I knew that wasn’t possible. Jason had to stay here if he had any chance of being cured.
“Shall we go and find him?” The nurse interrupted my thoughts. I nodded, dumbly.
She walked me along to his room. “He’s still in isolation,” she said, “but he’s almost ready to join the rest of the patients.”
She opened the door and I stepped into the room. I was expecting to see my son, but I saw Rasputin sitting on the bed, clutching a sheet around his waist, his long hair matted and unkempt, his eyes glazed as he turned his head to look at me. I blinked away the tears welling in my eyes.
“Hi Mom,” he said. “Are we going home now?”
“Not quite yet,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “But, soon.”
It would be three torturous months before they let him leave.