On Sitting Still

I was sitting in the dayroom when the phone started to ring.

It was only my second day at the hospital, and there was a rule—you couldn’t leave the ward 2West for 72 hours after admission. They called this being “on-unit.” Being on-unit was lonely. Everyone else got to go downstairs for occupational therapy. Everyone else got to go outside for recreational therapy. I, instead, had to sit for hours, alone, except for one nurse who watched me.

We were not allowed to have access to the outside world. No cell phones, laptops, Internet. We had a telephone—a payphone. The payphone wasn’t free, and we weren’t able to call collect. I learned to know the number by heart. That phone was one of my only connections to reality.

The pay phone lived in a small alcove in the entry hall, right in front of the nurse’s station. The nurse’s station was a glass box in the middle of the hallway. The nurses were able to watch, and to hear, every phone conversation.

I didn’t know the protocol, so when I heard that payphone ring for the first time, I was unsure what to do.

The phone rang.

No one picked it up.

The phone kept ringing.

Whoever was on the other end kept calling.

I rose to answer.

“No, sit down,” the nurse said.

The phone rang again.

Wasn’t anyone going to answer?

Those first couple of days, that first week, I wasn’t allowed to move. Any movement was seen as exercise, a deliberate loss of calories, a deliberate loss of weight, a deliberate loss of what we could no longer lose.

“Kelley, feet on the ground.”

Some of the nurses took pleasure in being strict. Some watched me intently, waiting for me to fidget, waiting for the opportunity to yell. It was the newer nurses who did that—wanting to prove they knew the rules, that they could do their jobs. They needed something, anything, to do to help with the boredom.

I was bored, too.

“Kelley—watch your feet.”

I couldn’t tap my feet to music.

“Your back should be against the chair.”

The first 72 hours of being on-unit taught me how to sit still. In those hours, I grew to be even more conscious of my body. I grew to become paranoid at the smallest involuntary flinch. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I wanted to be the perfect patient. I wanted to escape my prison.

Blair arrived a day after I did; our time of being on-unit overlapped by 30-some hours. I was glad to have company in that lonely dayroom.

Blair had a round, chubby face that was offset by her angular body. She, like me, wore layers of clothing. Her clothes dripped off of her; her black pants always slipping, her black sweatshirt baggy and gaping. Blair always wore black. Blair had black hair and blue eyes. Blair was not pretty, but none of us really were. She was angry and weird, not like many of the other girls. I, who also felt like an outsider, clung to her…

We watched cartoons together in silence. We weren’t allowed to watch anything “PG-13.”  Even though Blair and I would both be legal adults by year’s end, we were still considered children on 2West.

On my third day of on-unit, the phone rang again. Both Blair and I instinctively moved to go answer it. I caught myself, but Blair stood up.

“Blair, sit down.” A nurse yelled.

She lowered.

Another ring, and Blair sprang up again.


Again, she lowered, and again, the phone rang.

She got up.

“Blair, are you expecting a phone call?” asked the nurse.


“Then, please, stay seated.”

The phone stopped ringing. The moment it started again, so did Blair.

“Blair—for the last time sit down.”

She lowered and rose once more.

“Okay, dayroom privileges have been suspended until after dinner. Blair, come here, you’re going to sit in your room.”

I was again alone in the dayroom.

I had learned to sit still.