The Other Side of the Glass

They’re called observers. They sit on the other side of the glass in rolling chairs and glance at you every few minutes. Sometimes, if you move too much, they’ll glance at you to double-check. They’re there to keep you safe. They are paid to sit and initial every 15 minutes or so when they don’t catch you doing anything. 

They walk you to and from the bathroom and don’t let you close the door all the way, even if it doesn’t lock. They take away trays of food as soon as you are done with them so you don’t get any ideas, even though there’s only so much you can do with a plastic fork and spoon. They take away your shoes and socks. They give you these blue paper-like scrubs and suffocation-resistant pillows, though I’m not sure what the difference is. 

They’re nice though. They tell jokes to each other to pass the time, because they’re not supposed to engage in conversations with you outside of your care needs. One flies over my head, something about tacos and Nutella, but I think there are pieces that I am missing, a puzzle without a corner. One complimented my hoodie, but that was as much as I could get out of them without really trying. 

I’m in a hallway with card-gated exit doors and only 4 patient rooms, each lined with a window to the hallway and nothing else, equipped with a camera. There is one bathroom, tucked in the center of the 4 rooms, at the bend of the hallway. There are buttons on the sink and the water spits out at an angle. There’s no obvious faucet and the water doesn’t actually get that hot. It’s barely lukewarm. 

I don’t remember their names. I start out in the hallway, on a gurney, curled up under a blanket. A blanket that I took from home because I didn’t know how long I would be trapped here, how long they would force me to stay. I know it would be longer than I wanted. There was another woman in the room I would eventually sit in. I try not to listen in, but there is only so much silence in this area of the emergency room. I watch as the woman keeps asking to go to the bathroom repeatedly, back and forth, back and forth. She asks the observer to hold her hand for each trip, though I’m not sure why. She keeps trying to reach out for the mask across his face. He won’t let her take it off of him, but she keeps trying each time she is returned to the glass door with the hang-proof handles. I continue to watch as an ambulance arrives and she is brought to McLean, a detail I probably shouldn’t have heard, but can’t forget now. 

There’s a girl on the gurney next to me, she’s waiting for a room too. She has a huge backpack with her that she curls around on the gurney as she gets more and more tired. The same can be said, I heard too much. She’s my age and tried to swallow a bunch of pills an hour ago. She’s dizzy and nauseous and they’re giving her charcoal to help prevent further damage. She seems nice, but I won’t say anything. We’ll spend the next hour or so glancing at each other, but without a word to say. 

I didn’t catch her name. I never catch any of their names. They’re whispered between doctors, nurses, and HIPAA. I shouldn’t hear any of it, but I hear them, I hear another woman ask for an extra blanket, but she already has her four and they can’t give her anymore. She’s in one of the rooms I can’t see. She’s blond though when she comes to the door. She’s afraid of someone stealing her stuff, and the security guard with the key to the lockers isn’t able to quell her anxieties. She threatens to hurt him if her stuff is stolen from her while she’s locked in her room. Her observer sits on a rolling chair at the end of the two gurneys, switching back and forth between two rooms to do his job. 

At the end of the hall, in one of the rooms, there’s a man who refuses to sit down and keeps trying to go on walks. His observer, the one shared with the blonde woman afraid of theft, is almost jumping through hoops to keep him inside. The man has nice tattoos, but his eyes are lost and empty and the lights aren’t on in his room. He doesn’t seem to understand what the observer is saying to him much, but he returns to the room easily enough each time he opens the door. 

The observer, my observer, at the opposite end of the hall to the man who goes on walks, knows my name. He’s responsible for me, and he watched as they drew my blood and took my vitals when I got here. I don’t know his name, as it’s never told to me, and they don’t have name tags. My blood pressure is high, but I can’t be surprised. I’m nervous as hell and scared. I want to go home. I want to go home, but I can’t. I can’t leave this place without permission. If I try, they’ll drag me back here. If I fight too much, they could sedate me for a few hours.

I’m brought into the room of the woman who grabs masks and holds hands. It feels different on this side of the glass. More like a zoo animal than a visitor. There’s a gurney and a chair, a table and a vent up on the ceiling. It’s whirring above me. There’s a tv behind a plate of plastic tucked in the corner of the room, but it’s off and I don’t have it in me to ask how to turn it on, if it even turns on.

I eat the dinner of the woman before me, offered to me by my observer since it’s there and she’s not. I read her name on the slip, her birthday and “safety tray” printed under the instructions. It’s stir fry, with rice. There’s a fork and a spoon, but no knife. I take the pieces I want and push away the broccoli that I can’t stomach. I eat the singular grape in the fruit cup, buried under pieces of melon and read any of the words I can find on the back of the milk and the foil lid of the juice. The observer glances at me while I struggle with the juice because I can’t seem to stab through the foil with the flimsy straw I’ve been given, moving too much that he can’t help but check to see what I’m doing. The woman, the blond on her way to McLean, has good taste, food wise at least. 

I awkwardly ask for a cup of salt, because I got one of my wisdom teeth removed a few weeks before and my gums are still healing. He gives me something lukewarm, because he can’t get me anything hotter than what’s in my hands, but it’s warm enough to keep my nerves from firing and seizing at the cold. He takes my tray too, just as he takes the cup when I am done spitting. 

It gets later and later and even though there’s no windows to the outside world here, it feels like the place gets darker and darker. The air around is warm and makes me sweat if I move too much, the exact temperature where you are cold if you’re still and hot if you move. It’s long after dinner and my phone is on nine percent. I’ve been trying to write for hours, a story of a story, a plot without characters, without meaning. It’s nonsense, but it’s something to do with my hands. I keep adjusting and adjusting and I can’t sleep. The fan is loud above my head and with the door closed, I can’t hear the observers talking amongst themselves. It’s unnerving, how the chatter of observers is lost behind the glass, how I watch their lips move but the sound doesn’t carry. Maybe it would, if the fan was silent, but it’s not.

Across the hall, behind my old gurney, the window to the emergency room offers a view into the world I knew before today. I know the other side of that glass, where the nurses chat amongst themselves, the doctors disappear for hours between visits. The view is different back here, you’re so far removed from that space, that existence. The room is nearly silent except for my breathing and the fan. There’s a weird shutter behind me, as if this was once one large room that had been split into 2 with a sheet of metal. There’s a gap in the bottom, tilted and uneven, but I’m too afraid to look under it, in fear that the observer will think I am trying to escape. My mind is searching for anything and everything, because I can’t focus on the book I brought or the words I wrote on my phone, and they took the tray of food with the little printed slip.

The psychiatrist shows and I try to explain why I shouldn’t be here. She’s nice and friendly and I wonder why she took so long.  I’ve been here for 5 hours by now, though it’s not the longest time I’ve ever spent in the emergency room. I think 12 hours is the longest, but I wasn’t the one in the bed for that, I was watching my mother drown in her lungs so many years ago, wondering if this would be our last visit to the hospital for her health scares. It wasn’t, but I think of her every time I’m here. 

It feels like she’s listening to me though, which is more than what can be said for my psychiatrist outside this place. She writes notes on her little yellow notepad in her pretty and even handwriting, about me, my mom, my family. She writes about my diagnoses and my medications. She writes about why I’m here, everything is a clue, a sign, an aspect she needs to investigate to see if it’s safe for me to leave. I’m as honest as I can be, because this place is dull and draining and I can’t see how being here is supposed to help me in any way. I’m honest because even though I want to leave, I want to do it in the right way. She almost never looks away from me, which I should be used to by now. The observer still glances in from time to time, I suppose to keep me in check, as if I’ve been problematic the whole time I’ve been here, when I’ve barely stepped off the gurney.

She wants to call my mom, my family, and my psychiatrist. She doesn’t seem to understand why I’ve been forced here either. In a way, we both know, but the words go unsaid between us. I should’ve been here 3 days ago, and my psychiatrist was slow.

She clears the hold on me, and I’m told I get to go home. The police officer opens my locker and brings my clothes back. I close the curtains and change, even if the camera is right there and staring at me, because I’m feeling gutted and empty, and I want to go home. I don’t care anymore. I want out. I want the eyes on my skin to disappear and let me rest. The observers scan me out of the locked area after I’m dressed. The girl from before on the gurney next to me is in her own room as I walk out, but she’s asleep. She looked like she needed the rest anyway, and I doubt she’ll get to leave as I will. I was forced here by someone who doesn’t know me, forced to sit with people who don’t know me, but have total control over my future for the few hours I was locked in there with them. 

There’s a metal bench outside the ER and the sky is dark around the moon. My family has long since headed home and I get to sit in the cold air and look around the dark parking lot and breathe as I wait. The air is clearer and it’s quiet and it feels like heaven, like the freedom that I’m supposed to always have.  My silence and peace shatters, when the nurse that had been taking care of me for the night comes running out, calling to me as the psychiatrist comes up behind her. I have to go back inside, but they won’t explain what’s going on as they guide me inside. Panic is in my chest and my phone is ringing, but it’s not my family, it’s my regular psychiatrist and it clicks. All sense of relief is gone, being led to a family waiting room, where I imagine many people find out their loved ones have died. The white walls are too bright, and my phone is still dying in my grasp. The room feels small and claustrophobic. There aren’t windows here either and I miss the cold and the dark. 

My psychiatrist wants me to stay because her information is old and she’s arguing with everyone. The hospital’s psychiatrist, the one who evaluated and cleared me, is accused of not doing her job but she stands her ground. I curl up in an ugly green chair that looks like it’s from the bloodwork lab, staring at the doctor in front of me, silenced by the argument and the small room. I stare at the empty mini fridge tucked into the corner.  It doesn’t feel like this is my life because the reigns have been taken from me. Inside these walls, beneath this roof, there is a feeling to the air, where everything and nothing is real, and I am drowning in it.

The sonder, the realization that the people around you are living as complex and vivid of a life as you are, is different here, because our lives are different. We are the people who don’t fit into society, where we are the weird ones, the delusional ones, the confused. I will never know what happened to any of those people around me, as they will never know what happened to me. It’s strong and palpable and I never want to experience that feeling again, because it’s foreboding and dangerous, waiting for the shoe to drop, for you or your neighbor to lose their minds and individuality. 

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