My 12 year old Kerry Annie spoke in a dull monotone now. Maybe it was the medication that flattened her; or something else entirely…because although that was typical for me, (I’m dysthymic) it wasn’t typical for her.

The yellow room bugged me for lots of obvious reasons, but in part because I thought it unfortunate that one day when these kids got their lives together, they’d have an association with yellow as being a bad color, which of course it isn’t.

All staff were strict rule enforcers. They had to be. It was a tough love thing. ‘Hall monitors’ laughed with children of all ages; but with their ears pricked back too; on alert for shenanigans and wise alecks. Get written up, and you could lose privileges. The job was taken seriously. Violence, tantrums and suicide were serious matters. In the center of the unit was a rounded plexiglass encased area where staff handled phone calls and paperwork and questions. It was as if, when designing the reception area, there was recognized a need to omit sharp corners and to see the children’s rooms from all vantage points.

The office staff stayed in the cramped round reception. They poked in file cabinets and sat at desks. They handed kids clothes from cubbies filled with generic (donated) clothing in case one of the kids needed tube socks or a T-shirt. This circular office area was partitioned off by the plexiglass (or was it glass?) on all sides with a see-through door and a slot to sign papers and speak to someone. I would watch kids with hypervigilant eyes and needy expressions, pacing the perimeter of this circular work station over and over like bored tigers in captivity until they were redirected by staff; who I am compelled to say here, did seem to genuinely like the children.

I had to sign a paper for everything. Sign when checking in for a visit and sign when leaving. Sign the paper to request to add a future new visitor or phone caller to the approved list. Sign to show I’d read the form which detailed my child’s progress and setbacks and therapy outcomes. Sign to agree to go to family therapy appointments and group sessions with other parents. Sign yet other forms, especially formatted for the purpose of logging current start-up medications and more signatures to stop ones that didn’t do the job. Sign in a bag of clothes or special toiletry items, which were inspected- and an hour or so later, approved. Or not. Really, if I could’ve signed her brain and made everything in it okay, I’d have done so.

Upon admission, girls and boys were checked in (this could take hours) and assigned an empty bed in one of the rooms which held according to gender, 2 to 3 kids each. They ranged from 5 to 15 in age. Girls were on one side of the reception; boys down a hall on the other side. They shared group activities together in common areas and often chatted as they shuffled along the hallways together. The assortment of kids was always changing.

“Where’s your roommate with the hostility issues?” I whispered.

“She was released.”

“Really? How long had she been here?”

“I’m not sure…a month maybe. She’ll be back. She says she’s been in here five times. She gave me her email for when I get out.”

My mouth fell open. “Uh, I thought that was not allowed. No personal information and contact info is to be shared… Is that wise?” My voice rose an octave on the word ‘wise’ and the hall monitor glanced our way, sensing shenanigans were afoot.

Not unlike the minnows in Grandma’s brook that used to nibble at the air bubbles caught in my leg hairs when I was a child, new worries now niggled away at the amygdala and lateral septum regions of my brain. But instead of giggling because the minnows tickled, I laughed nervously because the worry nigglers were revealing worst possible scenarios: The girl would email my daughter. They would start meeting in secret and start an alcohol habit. The girl had a brother (no, a boyfriend!) with a driver’s license…He was a heroin dealer of course. My daughter would join them in a wild crime spree to California! This is how the metathinking mind tortures itself with worst case scenarios, as if present situations aren’t torture enough.

I said none of the worries aloud but probably had a look of horror on my face. Hey, when it becomes absolutely commonplace to hear cops knocking on your door any time of day or night because of your daughter, then I’d say the worry was justified.

“Mom,” said my daughter. “Please. Just. Don’t.”

“Well those are the rules. You cannot exchange emails,” I said in my best “single, widowed, mother-voice of authority. “You aren’t allowed to pass notes, are you? Following rules, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons you’re here.” I went over to the formica table with my hands in my pockets, casually scanning it for scraps of paper with the girl’s e-mail scrawled on it.

She tapped her head with an index finger, the fingernail raw, bitten to the quick. “We didn’t write the emails down. Her email is right up here.” Slowly she tapped her purple-fringed cranium.

“Well! Promptly forget what her email is, then!” Again my voice with the rising of the octaves, as if I’d seen a mouse in the corner. Sighs all around. And somehow I’d stepped in it again; because she would be silent and aloof for the remainder of that sanctioned one hour visit.

At any time of day or night, you could expect to see someone being admitted; often shockingly pale with tear-reddened eyes and lying prone on a stretcher- as my daughter was when she first came in. Others could be seen freshly therapied and medicated; shuffling in place waiting for guardians to finish signing release forms. Plastic grocery bags dangled from skinny, often scarred little arms, the bags packed with the few items they’d been checked in with, held under lock and key until their release.