There’s no casual way to talk about psych wards. It’s a pity, because the only interesting things that ever happen to me are in the midst of some form of psychiatric breakdown. I don’t mean to imply that mental illness and suffering are particularly interesting or profound, but if you live on the constant brink of disaster, then most of the events in your life worth talking about will involve said-disaster. I’ve learned to lie about the context of any given situation because while swapping stories I’ve never been able to slip in, “Oh man, this one time, when I was trying to kill myself…” without pausing to explain that, “Oh, yeah, I was hospitalized a few times in high school, I was just going through a lot, I’m fine now—well no definitely not fine, but better, or if not better then at least different, like a good different, seriously it doesn’t matter—anyway this story about playing dodgeball in a psych ward is hilarious, I swear.” Similar to couples who tell people that they met at a bar when they really met through a Craigslist personals ad, I’ve been known to tell people that things took place at camp, or at school, or on vacation, or some other benign setting. Unfortunately, when I don’t say that they took place in a psych ward, some of my greatest moments turn into the most boring anecdotes of all time, so I never get to tell them. For example: the summer of 2013, when I was 17 years old, I made chocolate chip cookies.
If you’ve never been to an acute adolescent psychiatric unit, here’s the rundown: the average stay is about a week, everything is the color beige, and it sucks. This ward wasn’t a bad place, but to make sure you didn’t hurt yourself or anyone else, you were rendered pretty much powerless. And we were teenagers. Traumatized, mentally ill, suicidal teenagers, but teenagers nonetheless. Aching for some semblance of control in our lives. Stuck in (beige) bedrooms that had video cameras and crisp white blankets over crisp white sheets over rubber mattresses, until we got woken up at 7 a.m. to walk down the (beige) hallway in our (beige) hospital socks to take showers that alternated randomly between scalding and glacial. The scent of ammonia was almost as overwhelming as our sense of defeat.
After talking to doctors and checking in with nurses and filling out worksheets and making collages—psych wards love collages—there were hours, and hours, and hours, of nothing. Sometimes I’d feel like I was losing myself. You’d get a little itchy, looking for something to do. So you’d keep to yourself or sleep or get into fights over nothing, maybe carve something into your bedroom wall with a dull pencil—or just read what’s already been carved, like, “Pete was here” or “this is hell” or “I am the spaceman.”
I would brush my teeth 11 times a day out of sheer boredom. I’d look for little mysteries. Who was the spaceman? Do the people who designed hospital-issue socks know what a human foot looks like? If the “muffin of the day” is always blueberry, why doesn’t the menu just say “blueberry muffin?” And if I put “grilled cheese x3” when I fill out the order form, will they really bring me three sandwiches? The answer to that last question, by the way, was yes. Sometimes you’d only get two, and they’d never give you four, but on a good day, those three velveeta nightmares were all yours, bay-bee.
The question that haunted me most was why the unit had a kitchen. This pristine, fully-functioning kitchen with a fridge and sink and dishwasher and oven, completely unused save for the mini cartons of milk on the top shelf of the fridge and the little bags of cheddar popcorn in one of the cupboards. What was the point of a dishwasher when all of our meals were delivered from the cafeteria on paper plates? We weren’t even allowed to use plastic butter knives, but an oven was perfectly safe? Even more curious is what was taped directly above the oven: a laminated recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
I asked the veteran RN about it. He was a thousand year old crab who thought he was hot shit because he had worked at the Oregon State Hospital in 1975 when they filmed One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and was in the background of a scene for about five seconds. He said the oven was off limits, and that the recipe had been there for a while. “Someone must have taped it there,” he told me. “If you want a cookie, order one off the damn menu.”
It’s important to understand two fundamental flaws in my personality: I never shut up and I don’t let things go. “Someone must have taped it there” was not an acceptable answer to, “Why did someone tape that there?” Some past visionary had gone to the trouble of not only finding that recipe, but laminating it. They had had every intention of making those cookies, but they never could. The oven was untouched. Their dream remained unrealized. Didn’t he see how tragic that was? I knew it was my destiny to fulfill that dream. I had to make those cookies. I had to take it to the group.
All the patients and staff met as a group three times a day. In the morning we’d go around the circle saying why we had been hospitalized, internally calculating who won the coveted title of “Most Fucked Up Teen U.S.A.” Then we’d answer whatever the question of the day was, like “Where do you want to travel?” or “What’s your least favorite Tom Cruise movie?” We’d pose any questions or concerns we had, and then break to go make a collage or learn coping skills or gaze longingly out the window. So at the first meeting of the day, I raised my hand and asked why the cookie recipe was there. No one knew. Second meeting of the day, I raised my hand and asked if the recipe being there meant we were allowed to make cookies. No, we were not. Last meeting of the day, I raised my hand and said I wanted to make cookies. I was told this was the time to share feelings, not make requests. Sorry, sorry. I shared that I felt like making cookies. Repeat the next day. Then the next.
V, which is not the first letter of her real name, was admitted shortly after I began my crusade. She rolled up the sleeves of her scrubs all punk rock, and I instantly decided that she was the coolest girl I had ever seen. I needed to get her on my team—which was honestly pretty easy. It’s not like there was anything else to do.
Once I had V, we were unstoppable. It became a kind of game, trying to see how many times a day we could harangue the staff. “You know, many consider baking to be therapeutic,” V might say during art therapy as she made a collage out of pastries ripped from an issue of “Martha Stewart Living.” One at a time, the rest of the teens joined in. When the question of the day was, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” a kid exclaimed theatrically, “Well I’ve always been a fan of CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE DOUGH ice cream.” We became a united front. We couldn’t escape the ward, or instantly make ourselves well, but dammit we were going to make those cookies. I was there for ten days. It turned out to be plenty of time to ignite, fight, and win a revolution.
We won over the nursing and medical students first. Then the cool RN who’d occasionally bring us McDonald’s and was always talking about how the new ward in Oregon City was gonna have a Wii. After that I don’t know who did what and how it went down, but after a week of campaigning, we got the green light. They were going to let us make them. Now all we needed was literally everything else.
Milk was in the fridge, and salt was easy because we only needed a few packets. V and I convened during rec time to strategize. And do math. It required way too much math. Testing our plan, we got everyone to write “Butter x3” on their breakfast menus, assuming each pat of butter was about a teaspoon. The next morning we had amassed 24 pats of butter, or a half cup. Perfect. Sugar was slightly more complicated, because the recipe required so much of it. If you ordered tea, you had the option to order sugar with it, but they would never send up more than two packets at a time. We needed ¾ cup of both granulated and brown sugar, which is about 32 packets each. 64 packets divided by 8 scheming patients divided by 3 opportunities a day… It took us a day and a half to gather all of them. Milk? Done. Salt? Done. Butter? Done. Sugar? Done. We had to enlist the help of the staff for the rest of the ingredients, which for the most part were “casually borrowed” from the hospital kitchen. An egg here, a scoop of flour there. Someone (McDonald’s Guy?) brought the sheet pan. Cookie day was upon us.
As I assembled our ingredients in neat little piles, V laid out plastic spoons, paper bowls, and a few dixie cups. Initially, we all took great care unwrapping the butter from the foil and using the spoons to gently stir everything, but soon it was just the two of us, pouring liquids from bowl-to-bowl, squishing the butter between our fingers, mixing it all with our hands and dropping the deformed blobs on the pan.
The cookies tasted horrible. Neither of us actually knew how to bake, our math was a little off, we forgot some of the ingredients, and they had all of these greasy spots in them from clumps of butter that hadn’t been mixed well enough. I don’t think anyone cared. I don’t even think they noticed. For the rest of the day, the ward didn’t smell like ammonia. That whole week we had a purpose. We had something worth fighting for, something to get excited about. We felt like normal teenagers fighting the system. Those cookies may have been bad, but we ate every single one of them and they tasted like victory.
Three years later, I was riding the MAX into town from Hillsboro and realized I was sitting directly across from V. I hadn’t seen her since I was discharged so for a while we kept accidentally making eye contact while trying to place where we knew each other from. I think it hit us at the same time. She gave a little wave, and I smiled at her, and we didn’t say much of anything over the next 30 minutes. We just sat there, sometimes catching each other’s eye and giggling like we shared a secret. We both got off at Pioneer Square. We stood there silently for a bit, hugged, and walked off in our separate directions.
That evening, alone in my apartment, safe and grown up and not-quite-fine but better, I made chocolate chip cookies.
They still tasted terrible—I can’t bake for shit. I ate them anyway.
This article originally appeared in the print edition of our June 2018, issue.