From the movies, I expected the inmates of One South, the Phelps psychiatric ward, to be florid psychotics writhing in strait-jackets, but this was Westchester and they were more genteel. The twenty or so patients mostly had well-mannered complaints like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and OCD.
"Screaming Father," drawn in the psych ward, 2013
Also based on the movies, I expected the staff to be harsh or violent, but they weren’t. They were just patronizing, as if they were dealing with children. I guess we seemed like children to them, too ill-equipped to cope with what life had dealt us—in my case, the suicide of a child—but with the promise of growing up someday and leaving.
There were a lot of rules I kept bumping into—how to floss, how to do laundry, when razors were distributed for shaving, when to go to group therapy. Most of the day I was on my own, but my liberty had limits. I could wear street clothes but couldn’t wear a belt because I might hang myself with it. I couldn’t keep my cell phone and had to use pay phones instead. I could walk up and down the length of the hall as much as I liked, but no farther—at one end was a locked window and at the other locked doors. Each floor tile in the hall looked about one foot square, and I counted 130 of them from end to end, so I estimated the length of the hall as 130 feet. I used that measure to figure out that if I walked twenty laps up and down the hall, I had walked about a mile. I walked many miles at One South.
A big common area called the day room was used for meals, group therapy, art therapy, and a lot of television viewing. The TV was on all day except for group times, mostly playing TBS sitcoms and Law and Order type shows. I guess crazy people like that stuff. I had wondered who the audience was.
I spent much of the first few days in my monastic bedroom, which I shared with a roommate, finishing writing The Kids from Queens. I killed off Meg, writing a tense scene in which Joe was in her dorm room with her on her last night, begging her not to jump. Because fiction is wish fulfillment, Joe got to say things I wished I had said. But because fiction is also truth, she jumped anyway.
My psychiatrists at One South diagnosed me as severely depressed. They recommended electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT or shock treatment. I had never tried it but I was desperate, so I agreed to it. For each round of ECT, a beefy male nurse wheeled me on a stretcher into an elevator and into the ECT suite. For some reason, the ECT suite had a flag theme. A sign over the door said “Protected by angels” framed by American flags, and as I lay in the curtained area where I was wheeled I could see an American flag on a desk. I suppose having my head zapped with electricity was supposed to feel patriotic. Nurses placed electrodes on my head and chest, then Dr. Bain, a mustached psychiatrist with a tie, made final adjustments and strapped some kind of headdress into place. The anesthesiologist lowered a gas mask over my mouth and nose, I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew I was being wheeled out, with the ECT all over. They had shocked me while I slept; I had no memory of it.
Other efforts were made to me. In art therapy, I rediscovered the sketching ability I used to exhibit in my youth, making drawings of a screaming father and a Boschian hell. In group therapy, the nurses tried to cheer us up, though this was often with absurdities like, “Name one positive thing that happened today.” The chaplain, an Episcopalian priest named Reverend Patty, tried to give me spiritual comfort. Hearing of my difficulties with God as the murderer of my child, she advised me to view God not as creator and ordainer of the universe but as a friend who always stays with me. I tried, but the truth was I had enough friends. If God wasn’t creator and ordainer, I had no use for him. I preferred him to be evil and omnipotent than weak and nice.
Still, I kept going to church. Every Sunday there was a Catholic service using a companion missal, a shortened form of the Mass without the first and second readings or the consecration but with the Gospel and communion. It was over in fifteen minutes. If every Catholic service was like that, I wouldn’t have problems with sitting still during them.
Most of the patients in One South were women, and one thing that cheered me up was picking out the prettiest ones. My favorite was Marcia, a brunette who liked to wear green and had depression, anxiety, and OCD. She had an animated way of speaking, often editing her remarks in midstream, and a face like Joan of Arc, or how I imagined Joan of Arc to look. Connie was cute, Italian, and wore her bleached-blonde hair up in a little ball on top of her head. She favored thick mascara and had a flat, dizzy way of speaking and an impish smile. Kristen had been a waitress and still called people “hon.” She often wore black leggings with shorts and had a boyfriend who made out with her in the hall during visiting hours.
Melinda visited me every night and we had good conversations, better than the ones we had at home. She brought me the books I requested—Moby Dick, the Bible, The Princess Bride, Hamlet, Dune.
I had a moment of insight when I saw clearly that staying alive was the most important thing. It was more important than keeping the job I hated. If I stayed at the job and it drove me to suicide, what had I gained? Likewise, staying alive was more important than staying with Melinda. I wasn’t thinking of leaving her, but I could see myself getting to that point someday, and in that case it would be better that I leave her than that I die. I was still grieving for Martha, but better that I jettison even my grief for her than that I die for it. I had to stay alive because I must not repeat Martha’s mistake of suicide. Survival was paramount.
Despite this momentary insight, I was bored, hungry, sick with a cold, and depressed. I was tired of living in this asylum, this loony bin. I seemed to be getting more depressed as the ECT treatments wore on. I wasn’t suicidal, but that was because so little in the place lent itself to suicide. The mind needs real possibilities to contemplate suicide. There were no right angles; all edges were curved so you couldn’t use them as knives. Even the screws on the window locks were designed so you couldn’t escape by opening them with a penny (I tried).
By Easter, March 31, I had had five blasts of ECT. They were planning to release me soon, but then Dr. Bain asked me about my mood on a scale of 1 to 10. I said 3. That was much too low, he said. He needed to keep me longer to give me more shocks and make them more intense. Until then, he had been giving me unilateral treatment, on one side of my head, but he had to progress to bilateral treatment, on both sides. That should be more effective. The drawback was that it would leave me more disoriented, with more short-term memory loss. Even so, I agreed to it.
On April Fool’s Day, I got my first bilateral shock. I woke up extremely disoriented. I didn’t know the name or location of the hospital. I even had trouble remembering that I’d had a daughter and that she had died. I stared at a drawing I’d made of her until I faced the truth. It was like having her die all over again.
This made me more depressed, not less. Suicidal thoughts returned. I figured out a way to kill myself at One South, involving a bedsheet made into a noose, a door handle, and a chair. But I feared that if the plan failed they would keep me longer, and I was already eager to get out.
Every day that I had bilateral ECT felt miserable because of having to rediscover that Martha had lived and died. I started writing notes to myself the night before ECT, to remind myself of the pertinent facts about Martha when I woke up. So that the notes wouldn’t be so grim, I wrote them in a way that emphasized what I loved about Martha. In one of them, I wrote:
YOU ARE GEORGE OCHOA. YOUR DAUGHTER, MARTHA COREY-OCHOA, COMMITTED SUICIDE AT AGE 18 IN 2O12. YOU ARE THE LUCKIEST MAN ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH TO HAVE BEEN HER FATHER.
In writing the notes, I was rewriting the story of Martha. Instead of dwelling on my loss, I dwelt on how wonderful she had been, how lucky I had been to have ever known her. I realized that if it were possible for the ECT to scrub out my memory of Martha permanently, I wouldn’t permit it. I would rather remember her and feel sad than not remember her at all.
Even though I wanted to keep the memory of Martha, I wondered if someday I could let go of her as an object of fixation, the way I had let go of Mary Ann and other women I had loved passionately. I wondered if someday I could stop living for her and learn to live instead for myself.
I wasn’t at that point yet, but I was making progress. The staff noticed that I was more relaxed, expressing more emotion, smiling more. Depression has a way of deadening the face. Reverend Patty said that it seemed I had made a decision to live, not to follow Martha into suicide. I suppose that was true. It was also true that I would have said anything to get them to release me.
My memory was shot from the ECT. I had trouble distinguishing memories from dreams from fantasies from movies. I didn’t know if I could go back to work, or if I could survive at all in the outside world, which was filled with opportunities for self-destruction. Still, I wanted to try. I wanted to be free again. I got the idea of adopting a child, raising him or her as a replacement for Martha.
On Friday, April 19, after five weeks in One South and a total of fourteen ECTs, I was discharged. My mood was now 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, good enough for me to leave. At one o’clock in the afternoon, Melinda picked me up and brought me home.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.