No mother expects to find herself sitting in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital, digging the drawstring out of her child’s new pajama pants so they’ll pass a safety inspection. Then all of a sudden there you are, or at least, here I am, tearing at Jordan’s plaid pajamas with my teeth.
It’s the evening of his second day at Fremont Psychiatric Hospital, perched on the northeastern end of Silicon Valley, an hour from our Santa Cruz condo. Jay and Max will make the trip with me tomorrow night, but for this first visit, I’ve come alone.
Getting onto the locked ward is no simple task. There are guards, heavy doors and no less than three places where you have to show identification. I huddle with five other parents in the elevator until we are dumped out onto the third floor in front of the Adolescent Ward’s nurse’s station.
As the charge nurse checks and records each of the items I’ve brought, Jordan comes bouncing up to the final barrier that separates us. Still in his camo pants, but wearing an unfamiliar t-shirt emblazoned with Bob Marley’s face, he taps her fingertips on the sturdy mesh gate and singsongs, “Open, open, open.”
I want to laugh.
I am going to cry.
We don’t belong here. He’s surly, but he’s not sick. He’s experimenting with drugs, but he’s not crazy. He’s got an ugly temper and is intent on being as rebellious as possible, but some boys are just like that, right?
The adolescent wing doesn’t rate its own visiting room. Instead, families gather in the long hallway, flanked on either side by patient rooms. There are too few chairs by half, and those without collect in tight bunches on the floor along the wall.
As I come through the gate, Jory trips into me for a quick hug and then grabs the clothes in my hands. “What’dja bring me?” He’s in a surprisingly cheerful mood for someone on a 72-hour suicide watch. I don’t know what I expected, but not this. “Come on, I’ll show you my room.”
I follow him down the hall, passing a crying mother and daughter in plastic chairs, a family of five playing “Go Fish” in a circle on the floor, a father and son leaning against the wall, staring at their feet, and a whispering group of girls who pretend not to be watching us as we go past. We approach a burly nurse standing casually with a paperback novel in his hand. Jordan jerks his chin up in acknowledgment.
“What’s up?” the nurse asks.
“I’m gonna show my mom my room, k?”
He raises an eyebrow but also works to suppress a smile—another authority figure who doesn’t trust my child but still finds him disarming. It feels like that awkward Parents’ Day at summer camp: The kids and staff share an odd intimacy, while the parents, identifiable by the mix of exhaustion and wide-eyed terror on our faces, are merely day-tripping into their curious little world.
“And I gotta put these away,” Jory adds, holding forth the stack of clothes.
The nurse nods and returns to his book as we move on.
“That’s Tyrone.” Jordan lowers his voice to a whisper. “He’s the guy they call when someone’s gonna get the Booty Juice.”
“Booty Juice?” I ask.
He ducks into one of the rooms, and I follow. It’s larger than I expected, and uncomfortably tidy with a pair of twin beds, two desks, a large divided closet and a small bathroom.
“When somebody goes psycho, Tyrone’ll hold ‘em down while another nurse gives ‘em a shot in the butt. It chills ‘em out.” Having dropped his clothes onto one of the chairs, he demonstrates the shot to his butt-cheek and then falls, splayed out, onto the bed.
“No way,” I say.
“Yes way. The prophet next door got the Booty Juice this morning just before group.”
“There’s a prophet next door?”
“Nah, he’s really just psychotic.”
He sits up and starts digging through the clothes, snatching up his favorite Guayabera shirt and the Vans I swiped from Max to bypass the shoelace restriction. He slips the Vans on over his hospital booties.
“My roommate, Alan, loaned me this shirt.” He plucks at Bob Marley’s dreads. “He’s got tics. You know what those are?”
“Yeah, but without the cursing. Mostly he just clears his throat and winks a lot.”
“He’s in here for that?”
“Alan freaked out after drinking too much cough syrup, so his parents had him locked up. He’s cool. But mostly I hang out with the suicidal lesbians.”
I watch him slip into his favorite Cuban gangster shirt and swagger back out into the corridor to flirt with the darkly pretty girls gathered near the pay-phone. He’s been a gossipy child for as long as I can remember and has always gravitated towards groups of giggling girls, so this is no great surprise.
“Scarface wore these, you know,” I hear him inform them in a sly, knowing way as he flicks the collar and shrugs his shoulder.
I spot two recently abandoned chairs and make a beeline for them. A minute later, Jordan breaks off from the girls and joins me.
He flips his chair around and straddles it with his arms over the back and his chin nestled into the spot where they cross. “The doctor thinks I might be bipolar.”
“I’ve heard that’s popular.”
He smirks and then looks away.
I lean in with my elbows on my knees. “I’m sorry.”
We sit in silence and listen to the Go Fish family for a while.
“I didn’t know you might be sick,” I say. “I just kinda thought you were being an ass.”
“That’s okay. So did I.”
We talk in hushed tones for the rest of the hour. He asks me to tell his teacher, Sarge, that he isn’t just ditching and to find out from the doctor when he can come home. As we chat, I notice that his left eye is twitching—not constantly, but every now and then. I find it unsettling.
“What’s up with your eye?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is there an eyelash or something in it?” I reach over to poke at him, but he pulls back and brushes my hand away.
“It’s fine.” He leans in close. “You see that girl behind me, the hot chick with the long braids?”
I glance over his shoulder and nod.
“She’s schizophrenic and super cool. She gets the best meds.”
Despite all his bravado, when Tyrone announces that visiting hours are over, I see Jordan’s chin quiver for just a second. Then comes the stab of realization that I have to get up and walk out of here without him, that I cannot just march to the gate with my child in tow and demand that they let us leave. How helpless it feels to hug him and walk out the door, down two floors in an elevator stuffed with weeping strangers, and out into the cold darkness of night.
I cry most of the way home. Later that night, I read up on the medications they’ve prescribed for him to see if any of them would account for a muscle spasm or eye twitch. Nothing does, but the twitch remains, popping up every once in a while over the next year. Finally, when it seems to be gone forever, I casually mention it, and he lets out a great laugh.
“That? It’s just something I picked up from my roommate back at Fremont. It’s a great distraction for grown-ups who’re just yammering on and on. You should try it some time.”
And just so you know, every once in a while, I do.
(Twitch is an excerpt from Jules Vilmur’s upcoming memoir “The Complicated Geography of Alice” due out in Dec 2014.)