Playing the game – A trip to the children’s psych ward (Part 1)

Before I ever ran away in a sheet my mother had me sent to the children’s mental ward at Mercy Hospital in Johnstown, PA. It was on the thirteenth floor, and overlooked the rusty Susquehanna River.  I was not the recipient of any electro-convulsive therapies, or even any drugs. They simply kept me there for a thirty day evaluation period, at the end of which, it was declared, by some nameless authority that there was nothing wrong with me, and I was sent home, angry at my mother. She should have realized this would happen. Surely she didn’t really believe that there was something mentally wrong with me.

It had begun over a fight over yogurt in the afternoon hours. One of us had eaten the last of it and the other was pissed off. I don’t remember who was on what side, only that we fought like teenage sisters. My mom was in her early 30’s and I was 13. I’m 35 now, and I sure as hell would not want to be dealing with a thirteen year old girl! I’d do the same as my mom and kick her ass.

Later, or maybe a few days later, my mom let me go to the mall with my friends Todd, Jason, and Denise. It was the first time she let me go out with friends who drove. Of course, we did not make it to the mall. We didn’t do anything that much more interesting anyway. Four teenagers on a simple, uneventful joy ride, except of course that we were all experiencing FREEDOM for the first time,  then, back to my place where Todd sat down next to my mom on the couch, and putting his hand on her knee, asked her if she was my sister. My mom laughed. Silly boy! We all had a good laugh.  Since it had gone well, I was allowed to go another time with the same friends on very much the same joyride, and returned home, this time being dropped off in the driveway.

When I entered the living room I greeted my mother. She was lying on the couch watching TV. I’m not sure how it came up, but my mom asked me if I had been drinking. I hadn’t,  and told her so. She asked me again. Here, I had already told her I wasn’t, yet she was asking again. I became defensive. An argument ensued and I, miffed, walked out the door. 

About a half mile walk, and I arrived at the mall, and having nowhere to go, decided to call my grandmother from a payphone to see if she would pick me up. Before I reached the phone, my mother pulled up in her brand new Chevy Cavalier purchased for her by her new boyfriend (who is her husband today, over 20 years later.

“Get in the car!”

“No! I’m calling Grandma and I’m going to stay with her”

My mother threatened with all sorts of punishment. I refused to budge. She screeched out of the parking lot and went home.

Later, at my grandmother’s house, I spoke to my mom on the phone. She told me that she was going to have me sent to the children’s hospital to be evaluated. And so she did.

So, this was 1990 or so and I guess antidepressants and anti-psychotics were not yet prescribed to children with as much ease as they are today, because I never had any of that. I did see some kids get put down with a hypodermic needle to the ass, but that never happened to me.I had spoken to my father, a largely absent alcoholic, once early on in my stay. He told me this: “Kid, play the game. You gotta play the game.” I’m sure he didn’t think I was listening. Even I didn’t think I was listening, but I must have been, because I knew what he meant without completely understanding, as though his words were some sort of code that only my subconscious mind understood.

I met Kevin, who was a teacher volunteering time there at the Children’s Psych ward of Mercy Hospital. I’d always had the worst time understanding algebra!! To the point of philosophical debate with my math teachers.  Suddenly, algebra was easy the way Kevin explained it, and I would ask him to give me more problems to solve to kill the time. I felt good about myself. He also taught me how to draw a bit, and gave me a drawing of a young girl in a field with a unicorn. It was pretty. I wish I still had it today.

Sometimes, in the evenings, we would play Gin Rummy, sans Gin of course, and I noticed that I could see everyone’s hands in the reflection of the plastic light cover on the ceiling, so I learned to cheat at a game that didn’t matter. And play the game that did.

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