Roommate Alone


I awake in the night, screaming. Crouse Hospital, every day for two months, has sent me a singular message: I am not fit for human contact. I am a poison that has to be contained. I am not allowed to have a roommate. I am not permitted normal contact with my fellow beings.

Every day, they say that I am a poison that has to be contained. And then they sent a fucking moron of a psychiatrist to evaluate me. It is my fault, they say. They say that it is all my fault. And what did I do wrong?

I exercised my right to speak freely and that pissed off some nursing-type person. Sometime last spring in my first hospitalization at Crouse, I said or wrote something that somebody didn’t like. The person never told me what it was.

I have no idea what I said or wrote that was “wrong.” That happens all the time. Does any human being get through any entire day without saying something that annoys somebody? But in the real world, you just walk away. Let it go, pass it by, leave the scene and move on.

A hospital is not the real world. It is, primarily, a bunch of women and you know how women can behave in bunches. And in the rigid hierarchy of a hospital? Where everybody has a certain amount of power, and no more?

Every moment of every day for two months, this hospital has sent the singular message: I am not fit for human contact. What do you expect me to do? I BELIEVE IT. Now, they are throwing it back in my face. Now, because I am angry and I yell, a stupid fucking moron SOCIAL WORKER, for God’s sake, points to me and says, well, SHE wouldn’t put me in a room with someone else—not the way I behave!

She never knew me way back when. She never knew me. The system has destroyed me, and now she blames me. I went from two week’s wrongful imprisonment on inpatient psychiatry, followed by three weeks home alone in bed, then five weeks in Crouse Hospital. Five weeks. Five weeks of anonymous strangers. Females in uniforms, not one of them my intellectual peer.

And somewhere in that hospitalization, I pissed off some unknown person who wrote something about me that I have never been allowed to see. And what she wrote resulted in me being forever banned from contact with regular folk. Henceforth, I only would be allowed to have contact with hospital staff.

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month—nothing but hospital staff. In the normal course of events, if I hadn’t been banned, I would have had eleven different roommates by now. Eleven different women. New people with new ideas, different wants and habits, ever-changing groups of visitors.

Before they banned me, I had a roommate who was admitted on Friday with some apparent cardiac problem. She and I discovered that we were born the exact same day. We discovered a lot of other things. For starters, we discovered that we liked each other. We had good roommate manners, which consisted of respecting each other’s needs.

When either of us needed privacy then we closed the curtain between us but the curtain was increasingly open. We knew each other’s business and handled it appropriately. In hospital, you have no secrets from your roommate. Forget HIPAA—you know each other’s every fart, burp and giggle.

One day she started laughing. She couldn’t stop. I asked her what was so funny. She told me and I started laughing, too. We sat there in our beds, giggling uncontrollably for quite some time. Other than that, we talked. We had many of the same medical problems: heart, kidneys, respiratory, diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia—a bunch of stuff—but we had them in different proportions.

Stuff that was really bad in me was only mild in her and vice versa. So we sat and talked, and the conversation slowly slid into one-sidedness where she talked and I listened. It was no problem for me. She needed to tell her story and I was free to listen. It was a life review. She talked about her husband, the good things and bad things about their marriage.

What woman, given a weekend with nothing else to do, couldn’t talk nonstop for a couple hours about her marriage? She talked about her kids and her sisters, her parents, her job when she had worked, and what her life was like after she got too sick to work. She talked about how sick she was and how much she ready to go. There was nothing but pain left. It was terribly burdensome to her to have to lug around this broken body and try to make do.

Periodically, in that weekend we spent together, she went into crisis. Nurses would come, the curtain would be drawn, and I would listen as machines were brought in, drugs were administered, and staff puzzled over how best to help her. She thought maybe she was having anxiety attacks. I am an old woman, been through a lot, including lots of time spent on inpatient psychiatry. I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit like you can’t imagine and I didn’t think it was anxiety.

Come Monday morning, the cardiologist came in, said they were going to do a heart catheterization. “Will that be tomorrow?” she asked. “You’re next on the table,” the doctor said, and behind the curtain, I nodded in silent agreement. Yeah, you better get this woman in there—she’s in trouble.

The staff pulled out all the plugs that connected her to the hospital’s electrical system, unlocked the wheels of her bed, and prepared to roll her out. I wished her the best; we said we’d see each other soon. She went out and didn’t come back. Dead.

Stunned, I was left alone. I reflected on every word she had spoken as she told me her story. Without knowing it, she had been doing a life review, wrapping up her story, getting ready to go. And I was there for her. She got to say all the stuff she needed to say because I’m a nice, kind person, and I listened.

In the end, I was able to assure her friends and family that she was ready to go on. She wanted it to be over and had no regrets about dying.

And nowhere did any nurse write down that I was a good roommate, that I was an asset, that I provided comfort to a dying woman. However, at some other time, some other woman wrote that I caused trouble and therefore I should be kept alone.

And thus it continues forevermore. This is an institution. What is done cannot be undone.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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