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How to Eat Well in the Psych Ward

One may assume that following the incredibly romanticized trope of psych wards in popular films, patients are too assuaged with the pain of self-hatred or insane medicinal cocktails to care about eating. False.
April 24, 2015, 5:30pm

What they don't tell you in the goddamn admitting office is that you won't sleep your first night, or your last, and that the sum of days wedged between it will begin to seep into one another until they collectively become a turgid hunk of days into night into day again.

This is sundered only by mealtimes, of which there are three. They are spaced incredibly close, and are completely unaccommodating to the insomniac, the manic, the psychotic, the orally fixated, addicts, the depressed. All of which were being housed at M——— Hospital's psych ward, myself included. We're directed by the staff to shuffle in at 8 AM, 12 PM, and 5 PM, though the time of service often depended on the whim of the worker serving. (The fourth day I'm there, the food attendant does not serve us until his basketball team scores.)

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The food is shit. One may assume that following the incredibly romanticized trope of psych wards in popular films, patients are too assuaged with the pain of self-hatred or insane medicinal cocktails to care about eating.

False.

Meals are the only thing that break up the monotony of the day, a time when all 19 of us shuffle in and sit at a long wooden table to eat. Consumption is consuming: It requires use of smell and taste; calls for the body's compunction to digest; the cyclic nature of tasting, chewing, swallowing; the salivary glands lubing up its digestive compatriots, and the subsequent contraction of muscle to push matter down. The cutlery is plastic, as are the plates, as is the consistency and flavor profile of everything on the menu.

Some folks cry into their food while others parse it into microscopic bites to create the illusion of consumption. Mostly, I stare at mine until I can't, then eat saltines until I feel full. After two days of this, following the first actual night of sleep I have there, I wake up and become fixated on pie. I decide to skip group therapy and go to the dining room instead.

They keep some food out all of the time. A basket of rotting bananas and bruised apples, occasionally with the odd orange, sits next to the microwave. Adjacent to it, there is a cardboard box filled with packets of graham crackers, wrapped in twos. There's also a cabinet stocked with condiments, which include tartar sauce, maple syrup, peanut butter, ketchup, mayo, jelly, and mustard.

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In the fridge here, patients can store food brought in from outside (if they are cleared for it), or leftovers. It also contains regular milk, soymilk, creamer, butter, orange juice, and prune juice, plus extras of whatever meal was served last. At that point, it happens to be congealed eggs accompanied by a slice of graying deli meat.

Because I grew up on food stamps, having stretched dollars to their thinnest in the past, this kitchen almost feels like an advantage. I decide to make a pudding pie. Here's how.

Crush up 14 packets of graham crackers. (At the time I'm making this, I am also convinced that my hands are rotting. I cannot clench my fists or crush them with my own fingers, so I place the packets underneath a paper plate and hit it repeatedly with a book.)

Place the crushed graham crackers in a styrofoam plate or bowl—whatever is available. Empty eight to ten packets of butter atop the crushed graham crackers. Then, pour two pods of maple syrup over it. If you wish, add sugar to this mess. I did not add sugar—the maple syrup did the trick. Microwave for one minute. (If you are on microwave restriction, then ask for hot water and use a tiny bit to melt the butter.)

Be careful to continually check on the styrofoam plate in case of melting, and remove it from the microwave when done. At this point, the mixture will look liquidy. Use a spoon to mix it together. This will create a crust. Use said spoon to press this crust onto the styrofoam plate. Create an even layer.

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Then, procure some of the pudding leftover from lunch—it doesn't matter what flavor. Spoon the pudding (or yogurt, or ice cream if you are very lucky) atop the crust. Again, make an even layer and do not overfill it, as this plate will inevitably get jostled in the fridge and may spill over. Grab two bananas from the fruit bowl and cut the bruises out of them. Slice the bananas at whatever your desired thickness is, and top the pudding with them.

psych-ward-pudding-pie

My creation: psych ward pudding pie.

Freeze this plate for an hour or two, after which the pie is ready to serve.

While waiting for this pie to meld together into a singular unit of food, I find myself involved in a good ole' crazy house hockey game. M, a fellow inpatient, holds out a circular styrofoam block to us with both hands, clenching it tightly to keep her tremble from losing grip. It's a styrofoam bowl, with a hardened English muffin placed inside as far as it could go. There's some tape around the rim of the styrofoam bowl and the perimeter of the muffin. Carefully, she transfers the "puck" from the grip of both hands to just one. Raising her free hand, she knocks on the surface of our puck. It's hard as a rock. "Left it in the freezer for a couple hours," she smiles, and reaches for the stick of deodorant on the table next to her. "Sharpen your skates."

She raises her socked foot and rolls it on. Ensuring a thick enough layer, she does the same with the other foot, and passes it down along the line. There are six of us, and by the time it gets to me, at the tail end, there are sock crumbles dotting the deodorant's surface. Greased up, we break up into teams of three.

Charging towards the center, we all become instantly animated as we simultaneously go for the puck, though mostly it's a mess of limbs and people experiencing some tinges of jubilation, excitement. P. scores. We begin to cheer. Laughter ring outs, and it sounds strange in this place. After three points, the staff take away our puck and threaten to call security. It doesn't really matter.

Afterwards, we gather around the table in the dining room and slice up the pie. It's good—rich, sweet, and made with care. We talk about the "hockey" game and plan another. Our cheeks are still flushed. The sound of plastic scraping against plastic, the hypnagogic whirr of the heater and sad bleat of cable access television—they all seem intentional.

In that particular moment, one could conceivably believe that we are all there by choice.