Janet’s white hair frizzes untidily; her face is lined with wrinkles that frame eyes scared and confused. “Where am I?”
“You’re in a hospital,” the other woman tells her soothingly.
“I want to go home!”
“You can’t go home right now,” says the other woman. She can’t go home either; both are currently patients on a locked unit of a psychiatric hospital. For them, for now, this hallway of bedrooms and one dayroom, with locked doors on either end, is the whole world. “You need to stay. You’ve been here for three days.”
Still calm, soothing: “Yes. We’re drawing. Do you want to join us?” She guides Janet to the table in the dayroom, where the staff have provided coloring books and colored markers for the patients on this adult unit.
Janet sits at the table, picks up a marker, and inspects it as if it is a strange artifact. “Is this the pen you use?”
Over the last three days, Janet has earned the resentment of both patients and staff. Patients don’t like her because when the payphone in the hall (that connection to loved ones and support outside these walls) rings, she answers it and then hangs up if it isn’t for her. Staff do the bare minimum of their duty towards her, frustrated by having to tell her every five minutes where she is and why they’ve put her purse in a locked cupboard. They’ve put signs up all over the walls: “JANET’S ROOM –>” but it doesn’t help.
Only that one woman never loses her temper with Janet. Surely she has her own story of why she’s here—terrifying voices and beliefs she isn’t sure she can trust to be real? crippling suicidal depression? memories of unspeakable trauma? No one knows what her story is; she doesn’t share.
But whatever her personal agonies, she never lets them tinge the kindness with which she treats Janet. Every morning, when Janet wakes up terrified in a strange bed, this fellow patient tells her where she is, and how to use her plastic fork to eat her lukewarm breakfast. When Janet cries that she misses her husband, the other woman tells her about his visit the day before.
“Did I kiss him?” Janet asks.
“You sure did!”
And Janet’s face lights up with joy.