How I Sought and Received Inpatient Mental Health Treatment



“Trying to make these notes just about me and my feelings, but this Barb b**ch is working my f***ing nerves! Every damn day she wants to cut up! She’s a bully and an attention whore and super disruptive. And she loves being so damn disruptive!” Journal Entry, August 24, 2018 3:45 P.M.

“Well, that b**ch tried me! And I was ready. When I stepped to her and said “Well come on wit’ it, then”, she wouldn’t even look at me. The nice nurse Gavin* talked me off the ledge, though. But my heart is still racing and I know my blood pressure is off the charts. Let me do this breathing exercise we learned today before I stroke out. That b**ch really ain’t worth it.” Journal Entry, August 24, 2018 4:15 P.M.

Listen. It’s been decades since I’ve encountered an actual, real life bully. Then I chanced upon Barb*, another patient on 4 East. Barb was impossible to miss because of one fact: she was your garden-variety, after-school special, dyed-in-the-wool bully. She picked on and threatened individuals regularly, including staff. However, her best bullying performances occurred at two specific times: during meals and when the phones were open.

We had our meals in a multi-purpose room equipped with heavy, four-seater tables, and heavy chairs that were nearly impossible to move. It took me a while to figure out that the reason the tables and chairs were so heavy was to prevent people from flipping or throwing them.

During meals, we lined up with our Styrofoam trays, cafeteria-style. Each patient was served a Styrofoam plate of food right where we collected our plastic utensils and napkins. Then you stepped down a little further, where there were Styrofoam bowls of fruit or salad, desserts, condiments and covered Styrofoam cups of coffee and Crystal Light. It was a short, uncomplicated system. There weren’t any real choices, and it only took about two minutes to get through the entire line and be seated.

Barb deliberately took a ridiculously long time to get through the line, holding up anyone who had the misfortune of arriving to the dining room after her. She’d hem and haw about which entre she wanted. There was only one choice of entre, let’s say a hamburger. But Barb would take her sweet time choosing which particular hamburger she wanted. She’d do the same thing choosing her cup of coffee, or salad or whatever.

She’d really hold up the line at the condiments, though. She’d quibble over which packet of ketchup to get, often taking a handful for no reason. By this point, the servers tried to hurry her along, as did whichever staff person was covering the dining room. Even the patients would moan “Come on, Barb! You’re taking forever!”

Barb relished the attention she got during her mealtime hijinks. She had this look of gleeful satisfaction on her face while people complained. And the more people complained, the slower she’d go, until finally, the staff person in charge would threaten to make her eat in her room. Then she’d huff to her seat, usually spouting nasty remarks to whomever she encountered on her way.

Barb was also a bully when it came to the phones. On 4 East, patients only had access to three phones: two that made outgoing calls, and one that took incoming calls. Also, we could only use the phones from 6-9 AM, 11:45 AM-1 PM, and from 3:30-10 PM. Given these parameters, there was a strict, ten-minute time limit for all calls. At any given time, there were between 22 and 26 patients on the Unit. With only three phones available, it was imperative for us to keep our calls to that time limit.

Well, Barb mostly ignored the ten minute rule and hogged the phones. Since both our rooms were on either side of one of the phones, she and I often vied for that particular phone at the same time.

It galled me to watch her sit there, thumbing through her scraps of paper with numbers written on them (remember, we had no access to our cell phones, so we had to either memorize numbers or have them written down), pretending to look for the number of her next call. Sometimes, she’d be on the phone for an hour, or until someone complained loudly enough. Usually, she just sat in the chair “pretending”, getting everyone riled up and enjoying the attention.

I saw Barb for the bully she was my first night on the Unit. She irritated me during meals, and watching her hog the phones bugged me. But, as I’d resolved to mind my own business and focus on my own healing, I tried my best to ignore her.

Until she tried me.

Here’s what happened.

The phone that takes incoming calls was all the way at the end of the hall. The normal protocol was that if you were near when it rang, you answered it. Ideally, if you expected a call, you were already nearby. Usually the caller asked for the patient by name.

On this particular day, I just happened to be the only person in the hall when the phone rang. Now I rarely got incoming calls. That phone was usually occupied, so it was just easier for me to make outgoing calls. So when it rang, I knew it wasn’t for me. Still, as a courtesy to my fellow patients, I answered it.

As I answered, I could hear Barb yell, “It’s for me!”, as she made her way down the hall. She walked with a limp, so it took her a while to get there. In the meantime, the caller simply answered my “Hello”, with “Hello”, herself. So, I did the logical thing and asked who she was calling for. That’s just when Barb reached the phone.

“I said it’s for me,” she huffed. I just looked at her and handed her the receiver. Then, as I started to walk away, Barb continued, “I don’t know why you have to be all up in my business, asking who she’s calling for …”

I should have kept walking. I knew it then and I know it now. But I’d had it with Barb and her bullying. So, against my better judgement and my good home training, I responded with “I was just making sure the call was actually for you. Trust me, I’m not interested in getting into your business.”

Then, I added fuel to the fire by saying “Look, Barb. Don’t start none, won’t be none with me, ok?” And I turned to walk away.

When I turned, my back was to Barb and I was facing the nurse, Gavin*, as he headed our way. I think he knew something was about to happen. He was right.

Barb said, “Oh, I’ll start some, finish some, and do everything in between!”

Yes, she said those exact words.

Now, I’m a 53 year old woman with at least 20 years on Barb. In other words, I’m a grown-ass woman who knows better than to let a playground bully get under my skin.

But she did get under skin. I can’t stand bullies.

From the exact moment Barb’s words registered in my brain, everything seemed to move in slow motion. I could see Gavin heading towards me, calling my name.

Ignoring him, I slowly turned around and asked, “What did you say?”


She had the nerve to repeat herself, verbatim, starting with “I said …” and ending with a neck and an eye roll.
Now I faced Barb, with my arms outspread. And before I could censor myself, I said “Well, come on wit’ it, then!”

Thankfully, Gavin stepped between us, led me to my room and calmed me down. He reminded me that such an encounter was completely out of character for me and beneath me.

I also realized it wasn’t very smart because if things had gotten physical between us, I could’ve got into some real trouble. My being Black and older, and Barb being white probably would have worked against me.

So far, my stay on 4 East was voluntary. Had I molly-whopped Barb like I’d wanted to, that “voluntary” status definitely would have changed.

Barb limped, but she was a big girl. I’m a big girl, so when I say she was bigger (fatter and taller) than me, I’m not exaggerating. I’ve never physically fought another woman in my entire life, so I wouldn’t even know what to do. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Barb’s mouth had gotten her in some fights, so she surely had more experience than me, too.

I still would’ve kicked her ass, though.

All joking aside, I didn’t know it at the time, but that brief encounter with Barb the Bully prompted a profound change in me. It just took a minute for it to happen.

*Names of patients and staff have been changed to protect their privacy.