By Alan Hanson
Illustrations by Alexander Glandien
This is a story about my depression, and my eventual “visit” to the psych ward. It is mine alone. I speak for no other persons with mental illness or any others who’ve had to experience the semi-polite incarceration of the psychologically injured. Respectful omissions and name-changes have been made.
During the close of August, I finally let my disease take its most violent stranglehold: I decided to kill myself.
I’d just spent a summer instigating, enduring, and thusly regretting the hardest breakup I’ve ever experienced, while simultaneously hitting the peak of my depression. This — the breakup — also spurred a rapid and stressful move, as we were sharing a happy home in Harlem when I yanked the rug from beneath us. What happened? Well, I had reached a point in which I felt I was doing more damage than good. It was nothing she was doing. It was the forest of personal gremlins becoming restless in my gut. A lesson I didn’t have the energy to teach to the prying EMT in the ambulance, asking, “Did you do it ’cause a girl? Ya lose your job or somethin’?”
On a Saturday in the midst of a bender, the vague, nearly cartoonish idea of suicide elbowed its way into the actionable part of my brain. I was completely removed from work and quickly realizing that post-breakup I had few real friendships here in this steel city I’d left the lazy palms of California for. I spent most nights guzzling beer-and-shot specials alone, abusing painkillers and good advice.
I woke that day hungover and plummeting. I stumbled into a bar on the Lower East Side to clap Jägers with the locals. This black licorice and Budweiser is the cure, I burped out to two ruddy Irish grandpas and a woman like the future ghost of Joan Didion, all of whom were just as shitfaced. I felt an evil creeping in as I wandered back to Brooklyn. I’d like to tell you everything I felt, but I don’t remember much. I was day-drunk and wading through black, feeling futureless as fuck, and I remember thinking: Those who love you the most are the ones you treat the worst. My existence was not only worthless, but was actively degrading the lives of the most beautiful people I knew. It was fact. And on my nightstand, used for splitting OxyContin, a razor.
But earlier, drunk and committed to the plan, I’d left a voicemail for a coworker warning her some of my weekend assignments probably wouldn’t be coming in. Maybe I wanted an out, maybe I knew she’d take action. She read my wavering voice correctly, contacted my ex, who contacted a mutual friend, who then sped in an Uber to my apartment, knocking on my door just as I realized I’d get more tears than blood out of my body that day. And that was it. That was the attempt. Sweaty, meaningless, and dull.
People often classify the opt-out strategy as weakness, a coward’s exit. But it’s the failing that feels cowardly. I can tell you first-wrist, when the blade is flush with your skin and you can’t muster the required pressure to finish the job, it sure doesn’t feel courageous.
The next day my ex had returned to the city and wanted to talk. She wanted to know what was going on with me. She also wanted to know whom I was fucking. A stressful conversation. There we were in the middle of a painful breakup, wherein she had many reasons to be angry with me, and I had to go and do this, dousing her right to express her full range of emotion. This put the breakup on hold, in a way. After barebacking an anxiety attack so gnarly that I fainted like a ’20s ingenue, she convinced me to get a psychiatric evaluation. Despite our current turmoil, she held my hand the entire drive to Mount Sinai. I’ve never appreciated anything more.
After four slow hours spent in the detox quarters, they decided that I was no longer a danger to myself. And because my attempt was so futile, so half-assed, they discharged me. I think they needed space for the more serious botch-jobs. To be completely honest, however, I’d done an Oscar-worthy performance of playing healthy.
Earlier, the plan had been to steal away to her family’s home in Connecticut for the night. Even given our breakup, this was the retreat I craved. I wanted nothing more than to creep into New Canaan, grab a beer from the garage fridge, see her family (regardless of their current disdain for me), don my hand-me-down UConn sweatpants, hole away in the TV room, and wrap myself in that magnificent blue comforter on the couch. That’s where I wanted to be. Broken, but in the palm of her and her home.
But instead of New Canaan: Just before my release—and unbeknownst to me—the doctor spoke with my ex, who, intelligently, did not agree I was fit for discharge. He informed her that if she called an ambulance later that they’d have to admit me against my will. Afterward, she organized a small support group to accompany me to dinner, to surround me with familiar faces. Or so I thought. Isn’t that how it always happens, though? The sneak-attack-couched-in-care so clichéd it’s absurd I didn’t see it coming.
As we plotted our next move after Joe’s Pizza, an intervention for my safety bloomed. My panic attack rising, swaying in my sweltering apartment, the three of them echoed sentiments of worry, of this Incident not weighing heavily enough for me, of me getting the help I truly needed, the help they couldn’t provide themselves.
I protested, tear-streaked face and hummingbird chest, as my ex told me what the Sinai doctor told her, which was that if they chose to do so, my admission to the psych ward would be mandatory. And if I said no, they’d call. I had no choice. Down in my gut, hiding from my friends, hiding from the doctors, was the immense fear that I’d have to admit to myself I needed help, badly. This was a hard decision to make! they told me. Fuck you, I thought, the fuck do you know about hard right now. So in marched four EMTs and two cops, and out into the night I went, feeling dismantled and betrayed, attempting to astral project myself into that house in New Canaan as the ambulance rolled quietly into South Brooklyn.
I wanted to tell the EMT who asked if I’d done it ’cause a girl that depression doesn’t feel like sadness.
The first night was blurry, shrieking fear. Passed through emergency on a gurney, then surrendered all possessions and clothing for a gown, retold my pathetic story to a chorus of nurses and physicians, and was transported to the suicide-watch room. They took my blood and surveyed my medical history, this time in front of my ex. I fixed my stare to a light. I’d burst into a choppy sob if I looked left and saw her soft, red face quivering in the glow of fear, as she curtly filled in my omissions in my drug history. Then they put me in the viewable room with two hospital beds, the first one taken by a wildly drunk man, and she left. Sleep was impossible thanks to the continuous conversation of the technicians just outside the room and then, later, Oksana.
A Ukrainian woman suffering from hallucinations lacquered over by her abusive husband’s obvious gaslighting, Oksana was confused and frightened. Matters were made worse when the brain-dead tech struck up conversation regarding the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which she perceived as him trying to make her sound unintelligent, discredited, less-than. As the situation tapered I finally nodded off, only to be awoken by Oksana slamming her skull into my glass door. Over. And over. It took three people to restrain her. I felt compelled to watch, my spine jumping electric with every cranial crack to the observation window.
The next morning I swapped my gown for a blue uniform seemingly made of light paper towels and matching hospital socks. When a bed finally opened I was moved to the frigid fifth floor to join my brethren in the psych ward. They pushed me in a gliding wheelchair, fucking terrified and thousand-yard staring, into my new home. The second we breached the main corridor a leering, pasty man with the watercolored stains of faded prison tattoos covering his skin shouted, “Fuckin’ new guy!” He was giggling, resembling Dahl’s BFG, left arm in a sling that said in Sharpie, “PETEY-BOY, BROOKLYN.” “Here comes the fuckin’ new guy! New guy! New guy!” he screeched. I told myself to keep it together. Keep it together you wimpy fuck, you want to get out of here don’t you? If you lose it you could be here forever. Right?
Stone-faced and dodging any eye contact with other patients, I filled out admission paperwork and got a vague, brief rundown of how things worked from the tech on duty. They showed me my room assignment and issued me a blanket, a toothbrush, and two towels. “What’s next?” I asked. I was told to wait; eventually my assigned psychiatrist would come by to meet me. Eventually. Keep it to-fucking-gether, Alan.
I shuffled into my room and pushed myself deep into the bed, where the levee broke. Suffocative sobs, the damp embers of whimpers combusting into full bawl, until it went dark and I was sore from the shaking. This is not where I belong, I thought.
Then there was nothing to do but wait.
To say living on the ward is stressful is to put it weightlessly. My roommate is named Rodney, and he is about my father’s age, with severe sleep apnea. I learn he sleeps 20 hours a day. His locomotive snores keep me from any silence, in sleep or thought, and basically exile me from our room until the day he is discharged and asks me, “When I go out there, I should hide my money right? People will kill you for money, right?”
The technicians are angry babysitters who walk in on you every 15 minutes, during rounds (the one time you’re not allowed to bother them). The other patients span a wide spectrum of mental illnesses, from silent depressives to paranoid schizophrenics having full-blown hallucinations. It is blindingly bright always, and there is nothing to do for most of the day but stress over your outlandish situation, and somehow, someone is constantly screaming, day and night. A self-fulfilling paranoia sets in: Am I acting “crazy”? Does my time-killing pacing reflect my need to be here? Does this blanket I wrap around my shoulders for warmth paint me as unstable? When they give me my medication, what aren’t they telling me about it? I refused any sedatives or benzos for fear of being too clouded to properly communicate to my psych that I surely did not belong here, trapped and building a temple to anxiety.
All of this on top of: What does my family think? Who, if anyone, is wondering why I’m missing? How much work will I miss and how will this affect my career? Will I be treated differently once I’m released? (Yes.)
And: O blessed holy fuck, am I going to be okay? Am I really?
As the initial shock of my new environment waned, the first thing I noticed was that death is not an escape plan. The entire floor is suicide proof, with asphyxiation being the number one threat. Things I learned that, without proper safeguarding, you could hang yourself from: doorknobs, bed frames, chairs, sink pipes, toilet bowls, handicap railing, and showerheads. The towels are miniature (even though the fitted sheet would have done the job, better even). There is zero plastic on the ward, all trash-bags are paper, and if you need to write something down you can check out a Magic Marker.
The daily routine is this (with slight variation):
0730: Breakfast (Egglike Products and Various Mush)
1000: Community Meeting (Airing of Grievances)
1030: Activity (Drawing/Percussion Circle/Repeat)
1130: Lunch (Food and Arguments)
1200: Group Therapy (Rudimentary Tips for Living)
1300: Activity (Listening to an iPod)
1500: Group II (Substance Abuse, Arguing)
1630: Dinner (Learn to Love Salt)
(Long unstructured period of questioning your sanity)
2145: Medication/Snack (The Battle of Turkey and PB&J)
2200: “Sleep” (Nightmares, Wailing Rehearsal)
Due to dietary restrictions and a streamlined assault against allergies, no spices are used in the “food.” Every meal is either tasteless, or covered in salt. With some real food I could get some sleep in this place, I think.
Aside from meals and medication, the rest of the schedule is completely optional. They encourage attendance to expedite your exit, or so they tell you, but they never check the sign-in sheets. They just want you to distract yourself from this brightly lit acid trip. Just ask the patients who’ve been here for three months — none of it really matters. The psychs truly want to help but they’re spread snowflake thin—insane caseloads and long hours— while the techs go through the motions, burned-out and tired, seeing every iteration of you before, bodies passing through the halls like forgotten clouds.
So you kill time. Any way you can. They don’t tell you when you’re going to leave and they don’t tell you when your next meeting with the psychiatrist is (the magical wizard who holds your fate in his hands). I’d pace, blanket-clad, up and down the two long halls sometimes hours at a time. When I wasn’t doing the psychotic shuffle, I’d sit in the hall and pull out my beard hairs or attempt to read one of the few books left in the activity room. Even fiction, however, was difficult to tolerate in this stark reality. Garrison Keillor is kissing his cousin and eating apple pie while our Jamaican Nurse Ratchet is shouting “Calm down, retards!” Somehow the latter feels more American, Gary, so take your Main Street postcard-family and shove it up your wholesome asshole.
But cuss-mouth Petey Boy shows me the ropes, how to get extra blankets, which foods won’t ruin you, lets me in on the secret that all of the coffee is decaffeinated. There are some patients who realize it’s easier to be kind. Not Cathy, who hurls her cup at me in the Community Meeting, later decorating our hall with shit and piss, but others make it softer. My closest friends on the ward coincidentally share versions of my name. Allen (Caucasian, severe anxiety, suicide attempt, razor) and Alain (Dominican, drug addiction, bipolarity) became my meal-mates, my friendly faces during pace marathons. Three mentally ill Alans! How wild! It’s a relief to have someone asking you how you’re doing and knowing they’re not cataloging it away in your file, not using it to judge your return to society.
Everyone on the ward is in pain. There’s Alpine, with his ceaseless mumbling and constantly stroked Afro, who dances instead of paces. Ichiro likes to take other people’s clothes and wear them without underwear (a practice so riling that once Jerome, in his 60s, angrily returned the favor in protest). One day, before the trio of Alans formed, I had lunch at a table for three. It was me, Shirlaine, and Shirlaine’s active hallucination sitting in the third chair. She talked to both of us, I did my best to fill in for the silent partner. But you eventually stop noticing these things unless they’re violent; they begin to feel normal even. Maybe it’s the cleansing wave of empathy, curling through the sterile, haunted hallways.
Kyle couldn’t have been over the age of 22. He was broad, thick, a hayseed linebacker with a buzz cut and boyish glasses. His neck was trunk sized, and perhaps that’s what saved him. Kyle didn’t say a single word the entire time we were both there, he’d just methodically pace the halls like a sentry, barely moving his arms, dead eyes and a blank face, the only color in his entire demeanor was the horrific maroon collar the rope had left around his neck. The bruise in crystal Technicolor, so detailed you could make out what kind of rope he used, the braiding etched into his skin.
One of the few nights I semi-slept was after taking my first trazodone. I fumbled my snack, slurred a call from my father (“Keep your head up!”), and landed facedown at the bottom of an Aztec temple, frantically stuffing my belongings in a suitcase that kept erupting and failing to climb its sunburnt and blood-drenched steps. Then, at the base of the temple, I’m on my hospital bed. And Kyle is there, standing over me, showing me his neck, silent. He walks around for a bit, me frozen, and comes back to show me once more. I don’t know what to say, Kyle. I don’t know why you are showing me this. Then beeping, shouting, writhing, I’m awake and two men are resuscitating my roommate. I would have the Kyle dream for weeks to come.
The goal here is to eventually fall into a routine, which I do. I play bongos in music therapy. In art therapy, I draw a comic book about how I got here (Mr. Bad Weekend! Only two issues! Very rare!). I try to go to every group, try to help the other patients when it becomes too much, try to belong. After a handful of consultations from my assigned psychiatrist, and a Further Action Plan for life on the “outside,” I am discharged.
And just like that, it’s over. Suddenly, cracking and tree-felled, I’m standing on Lutheran’s driveway in the clothes I came in wearing, as if it had never happened. As if I’m normal. As if I don’t notice how many ways to kill myself exist out here.
My ex meets me outside the hospital and we take a cab back to my neighborhood. We eat quietly in a Mexican restaurant. I show her my comics, my Gratitude List. She studies me cautiously, the shock of it all beginning to soften, but cautiously. I might do anything. The seriousness of that time seems to fade, leaving us to get back into the awful circus of tragedy that is ending a relationship. My sister arrives the next day. She is cautious, too.
I couldn’t work on my depression or anxiety in there. Too many outrageous factors bumping into me every minute of the day. It’s an exercise in getting healthy enough to leave, not healthy enough to be — learning the system, acclimating to the system, then subverting it. I just wanted to go home. But I didn’t come out fixed, I came out in a cast. It’s valuable to know you’re not crazy, you’re just sick, and sickness can be battled. I still walk with lead feet thinking how wonderful it’d be to no longer exist, just buckling under the weight of being, still having that obscene fantasy where hundreds of angry, smiling bullets fall from my ceiling as I lie in bed, bled white, not fucked, not quite.
But maybe I won’t feel that way in the future. And a future’s an important thing to have, too.