"Sixteen-year-olds who write brilliant, original books are rare as war heroes—and usually also battle-scarred. Anna Michener's war was neglect, abuse, and unjust incarceration in mental hospitals. Out of that house of fire emerges a soaring young spirit and a powerful new voice. Welcome her."—Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Hole in the World
"This memoir doesn't boast the perspective of hindsight; it's a teen's raw, in-your-face chronicle of events almost as they were happening. As such, it's unforgettable.…Michener's story gives voice to the thousands of children and adolescents trapped in 'the system,' biding their time until their 18th birthdays. A candid and unstinting tell-all."—Kirkus Reviews
An excerpt from
When the elevator door opened again, the first thing I saw was a bare wall across from me. On the right was a large blue metal door. The sight of it, the strange feeling that it gave me, made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
To my left was a long hall that stretched an equal distance in both directions from where I was standing. In the middle of this hall was a counter not unlike the drive-through counter at a bank. Dr. Burns led me silently to this counter and spoke a few words to a woman behind it.
Then he left me.
The woman came out and led me down the left side of the hall to the very end. I never got a good look at her. I guess I didn't really care at that point. I was on the verge of collapse from the terror I was holding inside me with my arms.
At the end of the hall was a door with a rectangular, wire-embedded window in it. The woman unlocked this door and ushered me in, saying, "This is your room."
Then she was gone.
I stood silently. My heart thumped against my throat and I was trembling all over.
The room contained a cheap desk and chair set, a locked wardrobe, and a metal bedframe with the flimsiest mattress I had ever seen. The walls were thick and bare except for a picture called At Harbor's Edge, which was bolted to the wall and covered in Plexiglas, and a small rectangular window right under the ceiling in back. The curtains were a revolting mix of Halloween colors, and the thin excuse for a carpet was just brown.
I continued to stand numbly just inside this uninviting room until I was so shaky and light-headed that I couldn't stand anymore. Then I went timidly to the metal bed and sat down.
I realized that I was shaking not only from emotion, but from the temperature as well. It was spring outside, and warm, but in that room it was freezing cold. I certainly hadn't expected that, and as I sat there in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, goosebumps spread across my bare flesh, and my teeth rattled.
After a long debate with myself as to whether I should, I stood on the bed to study the window above me. All that could be seen out of it was a building to the left, a building to the right, the roof of a building below, and a little piece of unreachable blue sky sandwiched in between. I discovered that I could not open the window because it had not been built to open. I almost cried, because it had been the only way I could think of to obtain a little warmth. Also, I saw that the window was made of thick Plexiglas instead of glass. What kind of a person did they think I was to put me in a room with a "window" that could not be opened or broken?
As I sank back down on the bed, I wished more than anything else in the world that I had brought something, anything, familiar and comforting with me. I had been left in that place with nothing but the clothes I was wearing.
I didn't even have a watch, but I knew it had been at least an hour. Wasn't anything more going to happen? I could take anything but nothing! Had I been forgotten?
I got up and peered cautiously out the door, which I had never bothered to close. Maybe I was not supposed to close the door here, as I was not supposed to close the door at home.
All there was was that hall. No one, no sign of anyone, not even a sound. I went back to the bed and sat with my arms wrapped tightly around my knees. I was baffled. Except for my three-hour escape, I had been watched continuously for I wasn't sure how long, because I was supposedly crazy. If this was a place for crazy people, why was no one watching me?
Then it occurred to me that perhaps a place like this had more sophisticated techniques for monitoring "crazy" people than just sitting around them all the time. Maybe this room was bugged, or had a hidden camera. Maybe they had even secretly hooked me up to a machine that could read my mind, like that kid in Flight of the Navigator!
I eyed my surroundings with feverish terror, my heart beating even more rapidly. Somehow the idea of being monitored by hidden machines was more humiliating and horrible than having a person sit and stare at me (not that that was a joy either).
It was at least another hour before I heard voices in the hall, the first I had heard since the woman had said, "This is your room." I froze, trying to distinguish what the voices were saying. I wanted to look out into the hall and see who they belonged to, but I was afraid to leave the room where I had been put, or even poke my head out again. Soon the voices were gone, and I sat even more frightened that I had either been forgotten or was being monitored in a way that would never allow human contact again.
It was about half an hour before I heard the voices again. And this time they seemed just a little nearer.
I was straining my ears when all of a sudden a girl appeared in my open doorway. She was just an average-looking girl in a T-shirt and jeans with medium-length brown hair. She stopped and looked a little startled at the sight of me.
I had been perched on the edge of the bed, locked in the same tense position, for over an hour, shaking in spasms of cold and terror. My eyes must have been as round and frightened as a wild rabbit's.
And the girl said, "Hi, I'm Sandy. Are you new here?"
Sandy was a bit on the chubby side and rather plain, but pleasant-looking. I was so desperately relieved to see another human being that I couldn't think of a response.
"You look real scared," she noted. "Is this your first place? Don't worry though. This place sucks but you'll get used to it." She paused, cocked her head to study me, and continued knowingly, "You're kinda small, and pretty. I used to have long hair like yours."
I still couldn't say anything. My throat was dry and my mind numb with shock. I just kept staring at her as if I'd never seen a person before.
It didn't seem to bother her that she was having a one-sided conversation because she just went right along, "Don't be scared, some staff's you gotta watch out for but most are real nice and they'll take you outside and stuff…Oh! Just remember…"
Sandy stepped closer to me, into the room, and lowered her voice to tell me a secret,
"Never tell them you wanna kill yourself because you'd get in deep shit then, let me tell you…"
I jumped as a male voice shouted down the hall, and then I heard footsteps coming toward us.
"Why are you in another patient's room and what was that word I just heard you say? You know the rules! Go to Time Out! Now!"
Sandy muttered and went away. A few seconds later the man was in my doorway. He barked at me just as angrily as he had at Sandy, "My name is Biff. I am a staff member. Follow me."
I followed him, silently, nervously, trembling. He had a big pot belly that hung over his belt and black hair and steel-blue eyes that held no emotion. He led me down the hall to a room labeled "Dining Room."
Inside there was a cafeteria-like bar and four small tables. I was given a tray and motioned to sit at one of those tables, all empty at the time. Biff sat across from me and glared at me.
Of course I could not eat a bite. I simply sat stunned in my chair, unable to even cry. After a terribly uncomfortable silence, I ventured to whisper, "I don't like it here." It was the first thing I had said since I had come to the ward, hours and hours ago. My throat was raw and my voice sounded strange in the empty, quiet room. I stared up at Biff, waiting for an explanation or an acknowledgment of some mistake.
And do you know what he said? He looked me straight in the eye and told me, "Well, you should have been good and you wouldn't be here."
There was nothing I could say to that. I just stared at this person who had met me all of five minutes ago and could say such a thing. At last he told me to put my tray away and said something about how "stubborn little kids don't get away with refusing to eat around here." Then Biff called to a woman down the hall to get me some "stuff."
The woman led me to a very large closet in the hall and handed me two sheets and a thin pillow with a pillowcase. She asked if I had anything with me. I said no, and she handed me a small jar of lotion, Kleenex, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, and two hospital gowns, explaining that I could put one on backwards to cover my rear.
I was rather horrified at the prospect of sleeping in hospital gowns, and I asked why I couldn't sleep in my clothes. The woman gave me a disgusted look and said that it was against the rules for patients to sleep in their clothes.
She said it was also against the rules for patients to walk around barefoot, and she handed me some fuzzy blue socks. I was told to come back in the morning and get a towel and washcloth and soap for a shower. Then I went back to the room that had been assigned to me.
I hadn't liked the way that woman said "patients."
Sandy walked by my door and said, "Good night, new girl," and that made me feel a little better. She seemed quite nice.
I got ready for bed in a tiny room with a toilet and sink situated between my room and the room next to mine. I folded my clothes so that no one could see my underwear and put them on the chair. I made up the metal bed, turned out the lights, and crawled between the sheets.
I lay freezing cold in the dark, on that strange and terribly uncomfortable bed, and I still could not cry. The light in the hall was left on all night, and it streamed through the wire-embedded window in my door.
I thought of my bear and my doll sitting at home on my bed where I had left them. I thought of my bed. It was warm, with flowered sheets and a quilt and a comforter. As I shivered under those thin, sterile-smelling hospital nightgowns and one thin, sterile-smelling sheet, I ached for my familiar and cozy bedclothes and companions.
I then thought of my Opie, my guinea pig. I could not think of a time when I had not said good night to him. Would anyone feed him? Did he miss me? Oh, how I missed him! The smell of his pine chips and clean fur-even his ceaseless chattering and rattling his cage in the night-seemed ever so dear to me then. I tried to close my eyes and imagine him in the room with me. But it didn't work. The odor of cleaning fluid and stuffiness was too strong, and the silence all around was too loud.
My stomach gurgled for lack of food, and my chest ached for lack of more important things. My muscles, especially my jaw muscles, were hurting from being tensed against the day's events and the cold. I pulled my icy fists against my body. It was little comfort that my family also sat at home and I was the hell away from them. I wanted something to hold onto, anything.
I thought of what Biff had said: "You should have been good. And you wouldn't be here."
Then being here has nothing to do with being crazy. It has to do with being bad!
Unless, of course, being crazy is bad.
But I am neither one, am I? AM I? What is wrong with me if I am crazy? What did I do if I am bad?
I grabbed my pillow and began to sob at last, to release only a small portion of the terror and pain and frustration that was too deep to purge myself of completely in a lifetime. Tears and mucus soaked my pillowcase, so I turned the pillow over and soaked the other side.
I was so exhausted that I thought I might be able to sleep for a while. But then I heard my door opening, and saw a light dancing on the wall in front of me. I rolled over to see what was happening.
Someone was standing in my doorway in the middle of the night with a flashlight! The person called stiffly, "Tiffany? You need-to sleep-with your door-open-so we can check-on you-at night-do you understand, Tiffany?"
I blinked at the form in the doorway, not understanding why it would talk to me that way and wondering how I was supposed to answer. It didn't care about an answer anyway; it just backed away.
How does this strange person know my name? What other information went along with it? And how can I get any sleep with the door open and all this light in the room? At least when I didn't even have a door, it was dark in the hall.
I rolled over and put my flat pillow over my eyes. I couldn't cry anymore with the door open, knowing that someone might see or hear me. A person came with a flashlight every two hours and looked in at me for some reason, I didn't know what. I did, however, manage a few hours of troubled sleep that night. I had been so deprived of it that I don't think anything could have kept me from it.
I was awakened for the final time at seven in the morning by a very fat woman wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard. She burst into my room and flicked all my lights on.
"Good morning, Tiffy. You're going to get up now."
She had the biggest, fakest smile that I had ever seen in my life. I could not tell whether her eyebrows were completely drawn in or just plucked really thin. They nearly blended with her hairline.
I was horrified and embarrassed to be facing a fully dressed stranger in nothing but two hospital gowns, the shape of my naked and shivering body quite visible beneath. I groped desperately for the sheet as my sleep-encrusted eyes attempted to regain their vision in the sudden light.
She was the second person to use my name without asking me what it was first!
Where do these people get it? I can make a wild guess-they ask my parents. Just the way one asks the name of a dog from its master because dogs can't speak for themselves.
The fat woman gave me no time to orient myself before she gathered her coat in her hands and plopped herself down on the end of my bed. I was humiliated to think of how messy my hair must be and how I needed to brush my teeth.
"How are you this morning?" she wanted to know.
I wanted to push this obscene woman away with all my might and shout, "HOW IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM? HOW IN THE HELL WOULD YOU BE?"
Instead, I offered as civilly as I could through chattering teeth, "Well, I'm freezing cold."