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An Easy Guide to Passing Time

content warning: institutionalization, talk of PTSD/trauma

A police officer monitors you while you wait in the emergency room. You aren’t allowed a phone, but there isn’t any service down here anyway. You call the nurse for saltines and club crackers. The officer scrolls on his phone. You have control of the television but do not realize this is something you take for granted. The wait is only five hours before you hear your name. Nurses move you to a wheelchair and take you upstairs.

 

You sit on your hospital bed. You pace. You sing to yourself while lying on the floor. You wave your hand over the light sensor and count how long it takes for the sensor to forget you’re there. You measure minutes by how many times the light turns off. You draw a city on paper and pretend you are exploring it with your imaginary friends. You wait to be called to dinner. It only takes ten waves of the light sensor.

 

You sit in the activity room. Its purposes are unlimited. You have done art therapy, solo therapy, meetings with your social worker, and now, family therapy. The dread that fills you is immeasurable. You are supposed to feel safer in this sterile environment. You are supposed to feel hopeful. You are supposed to feel better. You wait for your family to show up in 3,000 racing heartbeats.

 

You have sat in countless waiting rooms before, but never alone. The air conditioning fills the quiet, making you glad you wore a sweater before climbing into the ambulance. You fill out paperwork, the questions the same as every place before. A mother and her child enter. It’s past midnight. She carries a gallon ziplock bag full of pill bottles. She fills out her son’s paperwork and recites the acronyms of his diagnoses to the person at the front desk. The son stares at you. He's probably nine. You try not to stare back. You only wait forty more blinks before your name is called.

 

You sit in the police car. The drive is long, the farms sprawling. “You’re quiet,” The officer remarks. I’m just hungry, you say. They buy you Subway. “You’re still quiet.” I don’t know what you want from me, is what you’d say if they weren’t cops. You stare out the window and search for interesting landmarks. There are old farmhouses, new farmhouses, fields, highway signs. The drive is only three, silent hours.

 

You sit in an emergency room. You fill out paperwork.

 

You sit in a waiting room. You fill out paperwork.

 

You sit in a police car. You sit at home. You return to the emergency room to wait. You fill out paperwork.

 

You sit in a waiting room like all the waiting rooms before and you wait, wait, wait. You take an interest in the arms of a clock. You’re glad that this one isn’t broken. It must be a good sign if this place keeps their waiting room clocks alive. You nod your head to each tick of its arms. You fill out paperwork while rhythmically tapping your pen. It only takes eight hundred ticks before a nurse begins the process of signing you in.

 

You sit in your room. You are told to wait until you are called for. You wait for your toiletries so you can take a shower. You wait for your laundry so you can change your clothes. You wait for your name to be called so you can take your medication. You wait for breakfast. You wait for lunch. You wait for dinner. Every fifteen minutes, someone walks by your doorway to check if you're breathing. You wait for something interesting to happen. You wish for a radio. You mouth the lyrics of your favorite songs to yourself. You wish for anything other than the dark ceiling that you stare at. Footsteps appear at your doorway as a check is completed. It only takes four more checks before you fall asleep.

 

You sit in your room. You write with a golf pencil until it's a nub. You decorate a calendar with stickers that don’t have enough adhesive. You don’t let yourself think about the things you want. You don’t let yourself imagine what you’ll do once you get out. You read books. You reread books. You memorize patterns in the walls. You discover new patterns in the disgusting carpeting. You learn every crevice, every crack, every stain. You wait two months.

 

The days ooze over each other and you can't detangle the strands of the present from the past. You need a brush. You need a watch. You ask for the time at thirty-minute intervals. The poison seeps in. The residue of time calcifies. You call yourself a ghost. For all intents and purposes, you are dead. You are not in school, in a house, in society. The outside world continues on without you. You have no contact with anyone. You exist in between, where the clocks are stopped and the air is stale. You wait four months.

 

The noises make you jump. You tense every time someone leaves the room, in anticipation of the door slamming. You prepare for a fight when a plate is dropped. You stand to the side as the fight is dealt with, the crash of the plate still ringing in your ears. You are told not to look. You are told not to speak. Your eyes are not yours, and neither is your tongue. The only control you have left is your thoughts, and you cannot let yourself think or you will lose all hope. You wait five months.

 

You have waited before. You have counted seconds, you have counted words on a page, you have counted letters. You feel your skin drying out. Your hair becomes brittle. Your lips are always chapped. It has been a long time since you’ve seen trees. You kick gravel in the courtyard and watch the ants trapped in there with you. You wait because you have no choice. You listen to the misery of your fellow confinees. You keep yourself outside of your own body to save yourself from it. Your peers all have PTSD. The staff that watches over you doesn’t believe this. They speak with apathetic boredom. They don’t know what it means to be bored. They don’t know what it’s like to wait. You wait five months and two weeks.

 

You remember someone you met at one of the previous hospitals. “I’d rather be in prison,” he’d droll. “At least they know how long their sentences will be.” Someone would add that they could watch television whenever they wanted in prison. You don’t think you should have to choose between two types of incarceration. You want to go back in time and tell him that he has no clue. His sentence in that hospital was less than two weeks. You want him to know that you’re losing your mind. You can’t lose it. You have to wait. You have to keep it together. But you need to know the time. What time is it? You ask over and over. You reach for the phone you don’t have, for the watch you’re not allowed. You need a clock. You need to see when the night becomes morning, when your ghost is reborn. You are stuck in the confines of a prison of time. People receive their discharge dates. People have parents. No foster home wants you. Your family is hundreds of miles away and you don’t want them. The family nearby doesn’t want you either. This stay is infinite. This stay will never end. The staff ask you why you’re there. Is this some kind of joke? You ask if there is anywhere else you can stay. You ask what time it is.

 

Your body is cold. Your nerves are shot. Your eyes dart from wall to wall, in search of danger. In search of a clock. You keep your back to the wall as you sign paperwork. Your family has finally come in search of you. It only took six months. It feels like it has been millennia.

 

You’re driven home. It only takes four hours. It feels like none. The springtime air tastes like pure spring water. Waffle House tastes like a Michelin-star restaurant. After months of silence, you can’t stop the words from falling out of your mouth. You finally allow yourself to hate it there. You finally allow yourself to be angry at how the staff treated you and your peers. That awful, awful place. You laugh with your cousins until you cry, and the tears don't feel like they can stop.

 

You weren’t allowed to have mirrors. You finally see your face, your hair, how much of you has changed over the course of half a year. You hardly recognize yourself. You don’t know who you are anymore. You scramble. You panic. You’re not sure how to interact with outsiders. There aren’t rules taped to the walls. You long for the claustrophobic walls of the residential treatment center. You need ways to count the seconds. You need a way to measure your existence. You search for new ways to pass the time.

 

What you don’t realize is that time is no longer a vat of molasses. The world seeps in, permeating your clothes and building up in your pores. The days fly off the calendar. You blink, and the day is over. You yawn, and a week has passed. You no longer have time to memorize patterns or to imagine endless possible scenarios. You check the clock on your phone every chance you get. You begin to learn what seconds mean. You start to wrap your head around a minute. You still need time to embrace the hour. Time is no longer a privilege. You don’t know how long it will take to accept this. You grip your pocket-sized clock close to your heart.

 

Six months after your release, you are in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

 

Beside you, someone squirms. They complain to their companion about feeling restless. You hear this comment and struggle not to audibly scoff. This wait is nothing. You have a phone in your pocket. You have your music and access to the office’s free wifi. You don't have to count the lines on your hand, or inspect the fascinating details of your arm's hair follicles. You know you will walk out of this office well within an hour. You know what an hour means, and when it will come and go. You want to tell them they have no idea how bad it can get. You wish they knew. Then again, you're glad they don't.

 

You don't know how long you wait, because your name is called before you have time to think about it.

As this is a personal essay, the author would prefer to remain anonymous. This was written in the second person as a way to open up a personal experience to you, the audience. This also helps the author feel less alone. Thank you for experiencing this together.

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