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Christmas in the psych ward

Chris P.

Christmas 1993 was the season of skeletons.

I was 11 years old and had just been hospitalized for anorexia. I lived in Hawaii, and I was the first anorexic boy the doctors there had ever seen. They didn’t know how to treat me. My family had recently moved to a military base on Oahu. I left my old friends. I made new ones. Then the new friends (also from military families) moved away. At the same time, my parents’ marriage was unraveling. The house echoed with shouts behind closed doors. I felt more alone than I ever had in my life. I couldn’t affect anything in my world … except what I ate. So I stopped eating. I hid food under tables and tossed my lunch into the trash. I grew pale, bone-thin, and felt tired all the time. But at least I was in control of something. My mom knew something was wrong but she didn’t know what. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, she took me to a doctor. The moment he saw my protruding ribs and low heart rate, he admitted me to the hospital. They kept me in intensive care for three weeks to get my weight up, then transferred me to a psychiatric facility for another four months. I wasn’t allowed to leave the compound—except on Christmas day. For 23 years, I buried this part of myself. I thought of it as that “dark time.” Something that happened to a different person. But lately, I’ve been studying meditation, learning to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Some memories of that time are crystal clear. Others are hazy. So a few weeks ago, I began reaching out to the people who were there.

First, I called my mom. “What was it like,” I asked, “to have a kid in the hospital for that long?” “Well, your dad was away on deployment at the time,” she said. “It was hard for me to do everything alone ... visiting you in the hospital, while taking care of your sister and brother. They were so little, they didn’t understand what was happening. Your Aunt Bev came from Minnesota to help out, but it was still tough.” I had never considered about how hard that must have been for her. For so long, I thought of my illness as something that happened to me, and me alone. How many other people were affected?

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"I thought of this as a period long past. Have I really not changed?"

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Kahi Mohala Behavioral Health Hospital was a sprawling compound with green lawns and red, pyramid-shaped wards. Each ward had small dorms, a common area, and a “quiet room,” a lockable cell with a heavy steel door and one small window. I was placed in the children’s ward with other troubled youngsters. There was Tyler, a boy with manic energy who liked to punch walls. Nicole, a 6-year-old who had suffered some kind of sexual abuse. Kamu, a deaf boy who loved to climb up into the ceiling rafters and howl like a monkey. And there was me—the kid who wouldn’t eat. My days were filled with talk therapy, support group activities, and of course, healthy meals. On Christmas Eve, all the kids were allowed to go home for an overnight visit—except me. “Why didn’t they let me?” I asked my mom. “They were afraid you’d hurt yourself. Or hide food, maybe. I guess they didn’t trust you, or us, to take care of you.” She paused as if transported back to another time. Then she continued. “I just thought, ‘Just let me get through this. Let me make this Christmas as normal as I can.’” I spent Christmas Eve in the ward alone. I couldn’t sleep. I’m not sure if it was childlike excitement about the presents I might get or just the weirdness of the situation. I read books. I counted sheep. It was the first night in my life I remember not sleeping. I wandered around the empty ward, picking at tinsel on the nurse’s desk. Christmas morning, my mom got up early. She told Bev, “If the little ones wake up, just give them breakfast and keep them entertained till we get back. Don’t let them open any presents.” Then she drove to the hospital to pick me up. I remember the roads being deserted, and despite the tropical climate, it felt cold.

I remember going back to the hospital. After all, the presents were opened and breakfast plates cleared away, I hugged Bev and my siblings and got back in Mom’s minivan for the ride across town. When I arrived in the ward, I cleared off a shelf to display my favorite gift: a Jack Skellington doll in a black cardboard coffin. This caused a lot of concern among the staff, who weren’t thrilled to see a skeleton in the room of an anorexic patient. But they let me keep it. I think they understood that for whatever weird reason, I needed it. Near the end of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, Jack’s sleigh is blasted out of the sky by missiles. He lands in a graveyard, alone and broken. (Literally—his jaw falls off.) There, Jack begins to realize his mistake: to fix his own unhappiness, he tried to take control of something and it backfired. He ended up hurting those around him: Santa Claus, his ragdoll admirer Sally,  not to mention all the kids who got shrunken heads for Christmas. Jack realizes that it’s not all about him. For two decades, I’ve avoided thinking about this period. Maybe I was afraid that if I looked at it head on, I’d discover that the sick, messed up kid is still part of me today. But time and meditation gave me the courage to shine a flashlight into the dark corners of my memory. And that led me to ask, for the first time, how my illness affected others. That helped me better understand Mom, Bev, and hopefully soon, Dad. Like Jack in the graveyard, this has been a lesson in empathy. I’m still sorting through all of it, and I don’t feel qualified to offer any real advice. But I know this much. Sometimes at Christmas, when families come together, a skeleton comes out of the closet. And when it does, every part of you will want to turn and run. But maybe don’t. That skeleton might have a lot to say.

"Time and meditation gave me the courage to shine a flashlight into the dark corners of my memory."

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At this point, my memories get fuzzy. So I called Bev, who had plenty to say: “You were really into—what’s that movie with the skeletons? ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’ You loved that movie. You had the soundtrack and knew every word. On Christmas morning, you and your siblings reenacted the whole movie as a play, with costumes and choreography and everything.” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” came out while I was in the hospital, and to this day it’s still my favorite movie of all time. It’s an animated film about Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween. At the beginning, Jack is miserable, so he goes in search of something new and discovers Christmas. He loves it so much, he decides to kidnap Santa Claus and take control of the holiday. Jack ends up flying in a coffin-sleigh pulled by skeleton reindeer, delivering ghoulish presents to kids around the world. I loved it—and not just because I was something of a skeleton myself. “You played Jack,” Bev recounted fondly. “You made everyone sit down while you sang every song. I loved it. It was funny and weird and sweet. But you were a little tyrant—you wanted everything to be perfect. And you didn’t really seem to notice I was there at all.” That last bit unnerved me. I thought of this as a period long past. I’m not the same person as that kid who stopped eating. But thinking back on it, there are things about my current self I recognize. An intense desire for control. A streak of perfectionism. More than a little narcissism. Have I really not changed? I was beginning to understand the ripple effect of my illness, but I needed to learn more. So I called my dad. On December 25, 1993, he was on a military base in Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll south of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. “It was a weird Christmas,” he said. “I spent the day watching sea turtles poke their heads out of the ocean, and hanging out in the chapel with other navy guys who were away from their families.” “How did it feel to not be there while all this was going on?” I asked. “I think … I think Mom thought I was the bad guy.” “What do you mean?” “There’s more to that than we can discuss on the phone. We should probably talk about this in person. How about we grab a beer together? Might be therapeutic for me, too.” I never talked to my dad about this time before. Never even thought to. But now I have a date to listen to his side of the story. This is new. This is something that anxious, emaciated 1993 Chris would not have done.

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