I guess it was silly of me to think I’d be safe from sexism in the nut house. Beyond the fact that there’s an long history of institutional sexism in mental health facilities themselves, there’s a simple reason why I should’ve known better: men would be there. Men don’t stop participating in sexism or perpetuating microaggressions just because you’re all sick.
The most overt example was the man who told me how beautiful and sexy I was every chance he got. Who waited until we were alone in the group room to tell me how much he “liked me” and that he was single and I was far away from my partner so, you know, if I need a hug or even a kiss that could happen. Gross as his aggressive come-ons were, he was the easiest to deal with. His explicitness made it easy to report him to the techs. I felt his wide eyes moving over me even though he stopped speaking to me. I watched him move on to a patient who was more receptive to his grossness. I listened to him in group sessions rage against the mother of his child for refusing to take him back. I was relieved that he’d stopped talking to me.
There were other men who were more difficult to deal with. Their bullshit existed on a more subterranean level that can often be difficult to make others see or believe.
One man, a white guy who rapped about “the man” (“the man” being a conspiracy theorist’s idea of the government), took my joking that bigfoot wasn’t real as a cue to talk at me about it for an hour. An hour. About bigfoot. As I stared straight ahead, giving no acknowledgements or signs of interest, he talked at length about (extremely shoddy, easily debunked) science that proved bigfoot was real. All the reasons why the government covered it up. All about his bigfoot website, which he encouraged me to visit so I could learn “the truth.” In general, I’m exhausted with men who think they have something to teach me (and assume that I want or need to be taught in the first place). And here I sat next to a man who wore a shit-eating grin while implying that I’m some kind of rube for not believing in bigfoot. I only took my eyes away from the craft I was working on long enough to say, “I bet you watch Ancient Aliens.”
And I swear to you, this man said yes, excitedly, and proceeded to tell me more now that the subject of aliens had come up.
Other men had infuriating tendencies to insert themselves in conversations they shouldn’t be in. I never got emotional in any of the group therapy sessions until the day before I left. Another girl had come to The Meadows a few days before, and we clicked: we were both students at Penn State, had similar histories and symptoms. In our last group together we had an intense conversation specifically about the pressures young women feel and how difficult it is to deal with. While this incredibly cathartic, intimate moment was happening, several of the men in the group felt it appropriate to throw out their defensive opinions.
“I don’t even like skinny girls!” “Yeah, same, I like women who eat, haha.”
I was furious. How dare they choose this moment, a clearly painful bonding moment between women, to shove their “not all men” bullshit at us. I turned towards them, eyeliner running down my face.
“It doesn’t matter what you like. The pressures still exist for us and telling us that you like something else is just a different kind of pressure.”
The worst one, the one I hated more than all the rest, is only named Mr. Toxic in my journal. (If I try, I can remember his name but I choose not to.) Imagine Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: an interloper, an instigator, someone who thinks he has all the answers. Now imagine him as a real person in a real hospital where real people are trying to get better.
Mr. Toxic was a con man. He was at the hospital to avoid jailtime, which is not uncommon and also not something that is inherently bad. But he made it quite clear at every chance that he didn’t want to be there and thought it was all a waste of time. Not just for himself but for the rest of us as well. In-session, he talked endlessly about how he didn’t need medication or therapy because all you need is a “higher power.” He tossed out bullshit truisms and always sat with a smug smile on his face, uninterested in anyone else’s discussions. Out of sessions, he glorified his past drug use and made general commotion around the hospital. He shit-talked all the therapists (who were, admittedly, a mixed-bag; we had 10-12 groups sessions a day so our group leaders varied from very skilled therapists to newbie techs) and sneered at the idea of medication for treating mental illness.
Essentially he was every anti-med, anti-therapy, “it’s all in your head” shit stain who’s ever told you to just get out of bed and change your perspective as if you’ve never fucking tried that before.
Unfortunately, he was also a strong enough personality that many of the other patients were drawn to him. When you’re mentally ill, sometimes you want to believe that the doctors are all quacks, that you don’t need your meds, and that you really can just power through it without help. Even if you know from your own experiences that it’s not true. Which is why I hated him so much–he indulged every maladaptive habit the patients had and validated our harmful thoughts.
I tried, for the sake of relaxation, to abstain from calling him out. But in or out of the hospital I can’t change my nature. And my nature is calling pompous, arrogant men on their bullshit. He spent a lot of time rolling his eyes when I pushed back against the idea of a higher power being necessary or something that can fix you. Same with my insistence that some people actually fucking do need their medication. But it all really came to a head the day he was set to finally leave.
He’d been saying loudly for days that if they didn’t release him soon he’d do something drastic so I was pleased they were discharging him. In one of our midday groups, one of the younger guys who rarely talked was actually opening up about his addiction problems and how he wanted to get better.
I spent most of my time at the long table in the group room drawing, crafting or journaling. (Only in the group room were we allowed pens and pencils; there are large sections of my journal written in marker because that’s all I could have in my room.) For certain therapists I would join the group circle but most of them were content to leave us at the table, and that’s where I wanted to be anyway. So that’s where I sat, drawing, when I heard Mr. Toxic say to this kid, “You’re not done yet. You’re too young; you gotta leave here and live more before you’re done.”
I fucking lost it. For nearly a week I’d listened to this asshole put on fake godly bullshit in groups while constantly belittling our attempts to get better and simultaneously encouraging our worst behaviors.
“I cannot believe you’re telling him that he’s not done. He’s trying to get clean and you’re encouraging him to leave here and go right back to doing the same things. You don’t get to do that. That’s disgusting.”
And he lost it too. I guess he was tired of it after a week of me calling him out.
“You don’t know shit about anything! You don’t know anything about him or me or about life!”
And because I’m spiteful, I laughed and asked, “If you know so much, if you have all the answers then what the hell are you doing in here with the rest of us?”
At that point, the therapist broke us up. Mr. Toxic left a few hours later and I never saw him again.
I resent all these men. I resent them for invading the already limited physical and mental space I had there. I resent being sexually harassed in a place where I was supposed to be safe. I resent being expected to feign interest in their bullshit or tolerate their entitlement or allow them to damage other patients. I resent them for trivializing my illness and my recovery. I resent being reminded, even in a place of rest and comfort, that I can never be safe from this kind of bullshit.