Our Therapists Will Tell Us to Call It an Inpatient Facility by Max Hunt
With a striking economy of language, Max Hunt portrays eight days in a psychiatric unit in his creative nonfiction flash “Our Therapists Will Tell Us to Call It an Inpatient Facility.” This unit is depressingly banal with its recycled Easter coloring sheets (in January, no less), movie reruns, and recurring “Mystery Puddles” in the cafeteria. In the treatment rooms, residents explain to “furrow-browed doctors” why they are in the hospital. Hunt uses the first-person-plural point of view to highlight experiences the inpatients have in common. As he writes in his author’s note: “The sense of unity among patients—the shared loneliness, pain, grief, joy—was so intense that I struggled to maintain a sense of my own individuality during my stay.”
With the first-person-plural, Hunt invites readers into his experience, an experience with which they may be unfamiliar. The National Institute of Mental Health recently estimated that one in five people in the US live with a mental disorder. When Hunt uses “we,” he suggests not just the inpatients but his readers as well, some of whom might wake up tomorrow in a psych ward where access to smoke breaks, laundry, and working air-conditioning is not guaranteed, where “dignity is a privilege, not a right.” In her article on the rise of first-person-plural narration, TaraShea Nesbit notes that the first-person-plural is often used to “give voice to the previously overlooked.” Hunt celebrates the overlooked and marginalized, those subjected to the stigma of mental illness, addiction, and disability.
Despite the dehumanizing conditions, the inpatients in the essay help each other, giving lessons in dominoes and complimenting hairstyles and doodles. They agree: “We’re not crazy, they’re crazy.” On the final day, it’s karaoke night. People sway to the music like they’ve “just invented God.” Five minutes and forty-eight seconds of Adele break through the bleakness. In those moments, the inpatients collectively leave their hopelessness behind—a powerful, fitting ending to a powerful flash essay. —CRAFT
None of the puzzles here have all their pieces. The coloring sheets say HAPPY EASTER or HE IS RISEN—it’s January—in that swoopy bubble font usually exclusive to Sunday school worksheets. The staff never remembers to set out new coloring sheets, so we drag our broken, label-less crayons between the scribblings of previous patients.
The group leader doesn’t come to work. We watch Spider-Man 2 again.
We wear the same soggy yellow-turned-brown grippy socks for days in a row and accidentally walk through the same Mystery Puddles in the cafeteria. We sit alone in front of five furrow-browed doctors and explain for the fourth time today why we drink vodka before work/wade naked into rivers at midnight/get into fistfights outside Piggly Wiggly/bite ourselves/draft suicide notes.
While we’re waiting for the group leader to get back from her lunch break, one of us—a man in his sixties who arrived three days ago and has yet to remove his frayed beanie—starts humming off-tune. He pauses, looks around, and asks, “You guys know that song? That—” Humming again. “Can’t remember the gotdamn title. My grandbaby sang it to me a couple years ago, but she don’t talk to me anymore. Been stuck in my head for weeks.”
We shrug, shake our heads. Sorry, we tell him. We don’t know it.
“Ah, well…s’okay,” he says. “Worth a shot.”
It’ll come to you, we say.
He pushes his beanie up where it’s slipped down over his eyebrows. Bushy, wiry things, like two collections of crimped butterfly legs.
“Reckon it will,” the man says, and he keeps humming.
We shuffle out of our rooms at 5 a.m.—squinting against the artificial light, muttering slurred good mornings to each other—and line up against the wall so nurses can stick thermometers in our mouths. As this happens, we let our eyes wander to the ladybug voyaging across the vast beige expanse of the wall opposite us.
Does she have a particular glossy leaf on a particular Mississippi magnolia tree she’d very much like to get back to? Or did she hatch in a closet on the underside of a decommissioned hospital chair? Maybe she grew up believing the flickering light bulb above the nurses station was a shooting star.
Smoke breaks are a privilege, not a right. Laundry is a privilege, not a right. Getting working AC units in our rooms is a privilege, not a right. Watching Doc Ock take Aunt May hostage during an attempted bank robbery for the third time is a privilege, not a right.
Line up for meds. Line up for a temperature check. Line up to have our blood pressure taken and blood drawn. Line up for a turn on the one landline in the hospital so we can ask our friends or mothers or uncles if they’d be willing to pick us up at the end of the week, please—we can reimburse them for the two-hour drive—and no, they won’t have to see any of the (other) crazies.
Dignity is a privilege, not a right.
There’s not much else to do, so we teach each other how to play dominoes. We compliment each other’s mohawks and buzzcuts and box braids. We give each other double-thumbs-up for the doodles we make on the chalkboard. Someone announces, “We’re not crazy, they’re crazy.” We hum agreement. We don’t ask who “they” are.
We tear off bits of our MY GOALS FOR THE FUTURE worksheets to write our DJ names and Twitter handles and book recommendations in crayon. We give the scraps of paper to the patients who leave the hospital before we do—ticket stubs to commemorate the stay. Something we’ll likely lose and then rediscover two years from now in the pockets of our sweaters or under the floor mats of our Buicks.
Karaoke night. A tech hooks up his phone, and we usurp the stale hospital air to outsing the cheap, echoey speaker. The gray-haired among us sway side to side in the plastic chairs, eyes closing and hands lifting toward the low ceiling, like we’ve just invented God.
“That’s it,” says the man with the butterfly-leg eyebrows. He points up, putting his other hand atop his beanie like he’s trying to keep a strong wind from snatching it away. “Gotdamn. That’s the one.”
Believe us. If our nurses had approached during the five minutes and forty-eight seconds of Adele’s “One and Only” with their scuffed plastic folders and their daily “Are you feeling hopeless?”—we all would’ve said no.
MAX HUNT (he/him) is a queer and neurodivergent writer living in Oxford, Mississippi. His fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in One Teen Story, Polyphony Lit, Otherwise Engaged, Outcast Magazine, BreakBread Magazine, Mistake House, and The Blue Route. In his free time, Max likes to draw, play guitar, and collect unusual items that range from a Renaissance lute to rocks that look like barbecued chicken. Max attends the University of Mississippi as an undergraduate. Find Max on Twitter @hyperfixeaten.
Featured image by John Salzarulo courtesy of Unsplash