With Level One privileges at the psychiatric hospital I am involuntarily checked into, the patient is allowed off the ward for breakfast. But because my first half-day is spent hiding in my room’s dresser, sobbing, no one knows that I am not a danger to myself or others, and so I spend the first breakfast sans any level, stowed away near the nurse’s station. I choose Raisin Bran from a selection of preschool-sized boxes. I eat it under supervision with a plastic spoon. I also have apple juice, which comes in a plastic container with a foil top and a straw. There are patients who have been here longer, are well-behaved, and yet also eat breakfast on the ward. On the doors of their rooms hang signs indicating that they receive electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, and thus cannot eat before their morning treatments.
The nurse who checks my vitals the next morning informs me that I’ve been elevated to Level One status. I see this as a good sign. I sit by the television for a while with some of the other patients, almost all of whom are groggy from side effects and uncommunicative. The exception is a woman in a wheelchair who hones in on me as a newcomer, and wants to let me know what life on the ward is like. “They’re trying to poison me,” she says confidentially. “Don’t let them give you any meds.”
Eventually patients begin to hang around the ward exit, as though it’s a gate at the airport and we’re all eager to nab overhead bin space. A handful of nurses eventually follow, laughing amongst themselves and teasing one another: “You say that to me again, I dare you.” “Yeah, I’ll say that to you again.” One nurse uses her keycard to scan us out of the ward—the double doors swing slowly open—and we go in batches of two down the elevator, which requires another key card, to the cafeteria. The room is a smaller version of the school cafeterias I’ve known all my life, with a line for hot food and a few circular tables. The other patients are muttering and jostling and silent and jittery in this foreign space.
We don’t serve ourselves. Instead, we tell the servers what we want. I ask for eggs and home fries. I can tell right away that the scoop of yellow on my plate is reconstituted. My stomach flips at the sight, but I’m also hungry. I’ve barely eaten in weeks.
It’s hard to know where to sit. I have a sense of which patients to avoid and which will let me be, but I also see a few sitting with the nurses, who attract me with their normalcy. I take a risk and sit at an empty table, where I attend to the food in front of me; I use my spork to sample the eggs first, which are nearly tasteless, and lack the near-sulfurous attributes that make them disgusting to those who hate eggs—but their tastelessness is its own challenge, and I almost choke on the first bite before abandoning the rest. The home fries are warm and coat my tongue with grease. I eat them all. I finish my plastic container of apple juice and look around: the glass door and windows show the bright blue sky pressing against the building; the nurses are eating and chatting as if we could be anywhere.
In a short story that I write years later, a suicidal young man named Thomas tells his sister that he’ll never allow himself to be hospitalized again. “I’d rather die than eat eggs out of a box,” he says. After this ten-day stay, I am hospitalized two more times over the next decade, always involuntarily. On the outside, I frequently eat eggs, real eggs, cooked any way I want them. I always keep a carton of eggs in my refrigerator, which I plunder on weekday mornings for a bowl of fried eggs, over easy, with tamari; sometimes I scramble them slowly with milk, cheddar cheese, and salt until they’re barely cooked through, and then I sit at my desk and eat my quarry with a metal spoon while I scroll through my Twitter feed. In my mouth their yolks are liquid and golden, or scrambled soft in a fluffy pile—a testament to the wooden sign in my kitchen that reads, “Everyone loves a good egg.” Breakfast, like freedom, feels like a gift.