Inside Eitanim psychiatric hospital

A mother’s candid firsthand account of her bipolar daughter’s stay – and her own battle to cope

THE WRITER with daughter Rose. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE WRITER with daughter Rose.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
My daughter has stepped behind closed doors and I’m locked inside the waiting room at Eitanim Psychiatric Hospital, a two-story, yellow concrete and bar-windowed boxy campus reserved for women with serious mental disorders. 

The next bus leaves in 10 minutes and it’s at least a six-minute walk up to the hospital bus stop. 

I don’t like to rush. I have enough stress and tsuris and the last thing I really need right now is to have my own meltdown in this airtight waiting room without a bathroom, a water fountain, or any way to get out the door of my own volition. I ring the buzzer again.
Nobody comes to let me out. Another minute passes. I look down at my watch. If I don’t make it out of here right now it will be another two hours before the next bus back to Jerusalem rattles by.

Still nobody answers my persistent buzz. 

I think to myself: “Doesn’t anybody work in this place? I demand to see the manager!” 

I push down on that buzzer and this time I don’t let up until a women with thick forearms arrives, scowling at me as she pulls out of her pocket a thick ring heavy with keys. “I have eight women to attend to. Wait your turn,” she barks. 

I sigh. I surrender. 
I have absolutely no choice but let this hospital take over. It’s tough to know when to complain and when to take a deep breath and let the system care for my loved one in the worst of times. 

The staff at this mental hospital have to be physically strong. They have to be able to bodily remove and tame aggressive patients. They have to be able to hold down a patient to inject them in the rear with a needle if they refuse to take their medications. 

And for this my daughter cries bitterly. She knows it’s humiliating. The injection frightens her. But I explained as best I could after that first visit that if she complies with taking her medication she won’t have that injection, she won’t be locked up in the quiet room for a time out, and most importantly, she’ll feel better. She’ll get well.

While I quell Rose’s fears, I have to soothe my own. Fear is always the worst part of mental hospitalization for me. Will the staff be kind and caring? Will the doctor pay enough attention to notice my daughter’s heart is in as much confusion as her mind? 

Each visit I’ve got to be strong enough to embrace my daughter in whatever condition I find her. 
I’ve just been searched at the front gate, the chocolate bars my daughter requested me to bring pass with flying colors. The glass vial containing relaxing lavender oil does not. 

The Eitanim hospital compound comprises separate facilities for men and women – the acute emergency patients in closed wards, the long-term residents allowed to wander freely through well-kept gardens. To all appearances, this place looks as close to paradise as a parent could hope for. The purple bougainvillea are calm and the residents sit on park benches that radiate warmth.

But as I walk briskly along dirt paths in the scorching sun, I start to get anxious over my daughter’s state. Will she still be accusing me of killing her father? Will she tell me again with absolute certainty that Prince William is working the day shift in her locked ward?Or will I come all this way to sit with her in the small waiting room only to have her grab my cell phone out of my hands so she can watch Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber in their latest YouTube masterpieces without even acknowledging my existence?

Nobody said it would be easy to have a mentally ill daughter. Nobody promised my sweet, beautiful Rose a life like others her age. My friends’ daughters are mostly at college now. Or in the IDF. Or working jobs. They’re dating and starting to marry. And it’s hard to not feel sorry for my daughter that the divinely ordained script that my child and I were handed is a story that has unfolded in and out of mental institutions for nearly one third of a precious young life. 

My daughter asks, Why did this happen to her? I explain the genetics: my grandmother’s sister had bipolar disorder. Her father’s cousin has spent her entire life locked up in a mental institution for reasons that never came with a diagnostic name. It’s not about why but how can you handle it? How can you cope with it? 

You try to not feel sorry for yourself, but the tears flow anyway. I tell my daughter when she is lucid to listen – that she is a brilliant, creative being. I remind her of the bipolar geniuses that suffered through their lives to leave the world a better place: cherished painter Vincent Van Gogh and haute couture fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, England’s preeminent home-schooled writer Virginia Woolf. Rose adds to the list her music idol Demi Lovato.
In the beginning, friends rallied to my support, offering to drive me to Eitanim. The “A Team,” as I’ll call them – Valerie, Lesley, Francine, Neriah, RuthEsther, Yehudit and dear Raizi, who drove me in a raging downpour – made the long ride out of Jerusalem and back not only feasible, but allowed me to see Rose every few days. The staff told me that coming so often wasn’t necessary, but I knew in my heart that I had to see my treasure. 

I wish that the hospital understood how enormous this is to a single mother alone in Israel. I found comfort in that waiting room, a saner version of the United Nations, where Arabs and Jews rub elbows, naturally leading to exchanging sympathetic smiles, sharing snacks, and then that magical moment when we begin to talk because we share an understanding that mental illness maintains no monopoly over any religion or sect. In fact, these dastardly illnesses unite us. 

These healing moments are good for everyone.

Eitanim perhaps has had a bad rap, and for good reason. In 2013, in a well-publicized trial, two Eitanim doctors and two nurses were tried, sentenced, and made headline news for abusing vulnerable autistic residents with humiliating practices they defended on grounds of behavior modification. 

The headline “Jail and fines for abusive staff at Eitanim Hospital” blasted across Israeli media. The strong preyed on the weak, but I have no choice but to believe that Eitanim Hospital has mended its ways and knows that if they are not held accountable for their actions in this world, they most certainly will be in the next.

Though I had my own fears and nightmares about how much this institution may have changed over the years, or how much it had not changed, I was relieved that a system of checks and balances now exists to make staff far more accountable than ever before. Each patient is assigned a social worker to deal with the patient and her family. She has a phone number and an email address and is fairly available if I want to check up on what is being done to help my daughter. You want to know that someone’s on top of these things, and oftentimes the doctor just isn’t available to speak.

But Rose’s social worker also let me know the hospital didn’t appreciate the visitations by the “A Team,” even if friends came with me one by one. So suddenly, a dear friend was told at the front gate to go wait in the parking lot in her car in the broiling sun. After this, I just didn’t have the heart to ask the A Team to perform the mitzva of visiting the sick. 

So I resort to taxis, heading back to Jerusalem, a winding road of rolling green hills that I would describe as magnificent under any other conditions. Sometimes I spend the drive crying, because the situation just wasn’t changing fast enough. 

Rose’s doctor wants to try electric shock therapy but by Israeli law, it can’t be administered without the consent of the patient. At this meeting, Dr P. sits with us. Rose holds the pen in her hand but that’s as far as she gets. She patently refuses to sign.
Eitanim Hospital, a satellite of Kfar Shaul and the Jerusalem Mental Health Center, is reserved for treating acute emergency cases, and remains accountable to a psychiatric committee, which meets monthly to decide the fate of each patient – whether they are allowed to stay or can be released home in a reasonably healthy condition. 

This I found quite surprising after having spent years in Japan, where one famous mental hospital in Tokyo is known for keeping patients under lock and key season after season, with a peculiar list of hurdles each patient must pass before they are allowed to go home: First walk to the courtyard, then to the end of the hospital gate, then walk down to the river path, and on it goes like a game of Chutes and Ladders, a mental setback bringing you back to square one. I was intensely relieved to know that Eitanim doesn’t play such games.

Instead, each month that Rose was at Eitanim I was requested to appear before “the committee.” This is a psychiatric committee comprised of professionals from inside and outside the Eitanim Hospital community, who regularly check up on patients to review their condition, assess their progress, and decide if they are healthy enough to be discharged. 

I actually was looking forward to meeting this committee. It could have been a good thing, except that the first time I had waited three hours beyond my scheduled appointment time and had injured my foot falling off a curb. The toll of stress on a body can be so surreal that I had gotten into the habit of looking at my life as if it were someone else going through this ordeal and I was just the bystander. The throbbing pain got to me, so the bystander told me I had better get medical treatment.

The second failed attempt at appearing before the committee, I waited more than three hours until thirst and the need for a bathroom in the locked waiting room at Rose’s dormitory left me so distraught, the bystander took over and told me it was time to go home. So they met on their own and decided my daughter’s fate without me. 

When I told my daughter’s doctor about the committee-meeting fiascoes and how hard it was on parents to be kept waiting for hours as if they didn’t have jobs and other children and responsibilities to attend to, she herself apologized on the hospital’s behalf. 
I had grown fond of Dr. P. She was young and fresh-faced, dressed casually in a sleeveless tops and pants, if dressed for an outing to the First Station to eat an ice-cream cone. 

Yet, she was also a knowledgeable and confident psychiatrist, available for phone calls and almost weekly meetings, where we would sit on the picnic bench outside the women’s ward, housing up to 30 other patients. Almost weekly we would meet to talk about her condition and what it meant to my daughter’s long-term prognosis.

“One hundred percent she will get better!” the doctor promised me during one of these meetings. 

How could she be so sure that a patient who remained stubbornly psychotic for more than two months would be able to unlearn a storyline about her life that had more to do with Hollywood than real life? Really? 

As I try to piece together the severity of my daughter’s illness, and being alone in Israel without her father, my pride in being an olah hadasha sinks in with a stubborn resilience. 

I don’t have any regrets. This episode could have happened back home six time zones away, as it has many times before. So this time it happened in Israel, where recovery takes place inside a closed ward teeming with screams and tears, laughter and yelling, the extremes of human behavior where I am called to bare witness. 

I’d taken my daughter far from Japan, her country of origin, because I believed Israel would give her hope for a better life, more caring hands and hearts. 

She loves to draw fashion illustrations. At Eitanim she changed outfits five times a day for herself and dressed the other patients as well to look funky and zany. And when she is scared, she curls up like a cat and sleeps at the bottom of a new friend’s bed.

When her mind is in chaos, she has got to keep moving. That was one of the signs of the illness. My daughter just couldn’t keep still.

Friends keep my spirits up, assuring me what I know in my heart but still struggle to accept – that mental illness may be hard, but it’s not a death sentence.

For 40 days I would walk down the steps from my house, cross at the traffic light by the Sultan’s Pool, then trek up the slopes and steps to the gates of the Old City on a prayer pilgrimage to the Kotel that I’ve heard God would surely hear. I pray with all my heart at the Western Wall. 

As darkness was setting in on the final day, on my way out by the Zion Gate, I tripped over a boulder. One should never text message and walk through the Old City in the best of times, but to my bizarre luck an ambulance was parked just steps away. The medic leaped to my aid to examine my skinned knees. 

OK, so God has his own way of answering my prayers. 

Only surface lacerations. When you’ve got a mentally ill child, you start to see the world not as you would want it to be, but the only sane thing is to see it as it is – unrolling according to a plan of its own, which may not be to my liking. I want instant results! But what I got instead was a cuff around the arm and minutes later a firm message from the ambulance medic to take care of my blood pressure, too. I took it as both a stern message and a blessing.

Often the very thing that parents of a sick child will forgo first is their own health. You think that getting yourself over to the mental hospital, through thick or thin, is the daily priority, but when that ambulance medic told me my blood pressure was 165 over 110 it was enough to ask myself, what good am I to my daughter if I go kaput?

You feel guilty because you’re healthy. Why should I be having fun? How dare I? But that’s what friends are for. To take up their invitations for a Shabbat meal or to see a concert, a movie, or just dance.

I learned to put my guilt aside, joined the YMCA Sports Center and started swimming. I found a chi gong program on YouTube that I practice every day to keep limber and to remember to breathe deep. I treated myself to a massage. I took my small dog for ambitious early evening walks to pick up the good vibes at the First Station and even dance along with the crowd, my poodle moving in step, too. 
In early August, things were still not well with my daughter. She had been in Eitanim Hospital two months by that time. Back in the spring, what seemed like an eternity ago, when she had been well and had traveled alone six time zones away to the land she loves and longs to return to, I had booked a retreat in an 18th century thatch-roofed cottage in England, where my mother’s side of the family are from. 

I was ready to cancel the trip but Dr. P. told me to go. 

So I went. I relaxed. For a week in storybook Wiltshire I left my troubles behind and strolled with red tattooed sheep. My blood pressure came down and I came back to Eitanim to find my daughter much improved. I don’t know if it was mere coincidence that being away had anything to do with her recovery. She was mad that I hadn’t taken her with me to England, but this too was a good sign that she was even able to imagine being well enough to talk about traveling!

Her medication had been changed three times. This one just needed time to do its work on stabilizing a restless mind. 
And then, for the first time all summer, Dr. P. gave us the OK to go outdoors together for some fresh air. Eitanim is filled with grassy courtyards with flowering trees – what could actually be called a lovely oasis for recovery. We heard soft music coming from a gazebo, where a young man with innocent blue eyes and a lovely voice played a rainbow-painted acoustic guitar. We had crossed some invisible divide, a path into the lush green courtyard of the men’s section of Eitanim. 

“I’m a telepathic monster… One mistake I turn into a gangster,” he sings. What? I burst out laughing, my daughter too, as we began clapping along to the song of judgment that he was going to sing before the rest of society gets to him. The boy, Yasha, has caught my daughter’s eye. I don’t know if it was mother’s intuition, but I think I saw a few sparks fly.

Days later, after spending nearly 10 weeks at Eitanim, my daughter’s discharge finally came. By the hospital door, when I came to pick Rose up, I noticed the rainbow-painted acoustic guitar even before I saw him. Here he was, a boy teaching his rap lyrics to an Arab father he’d never met before on the picnic bench outside the women’s ward.

Who knows where a friendship made in Eitanim could take souls who have suffered as others can only imagine? I tell my daughter, as we drove away from those lonely green hills, that love can happen in even the most unimaginable of places. 
The author of the article, an intuitive artist who writes, made aliyah from Tokyo, where she lived for 30 years. She is at work on a memoir about her life in a deeply embracing Japanese family