By Kat Freydl
I was 15 when I almost died, and that isn't the cheeky hyperbole I wish it was. My eyeliner was still jagged and uneven, my lipstick stoplight red and feathered around the edges. I had never kissed or gone on a date; I hadn't graduated, applied to college, or taken drivers’ ed. I was still claiming to be a Bible-believing Christian and, perhaps most laughably now, heterosexual. I was 15 and ready to die, because I had already seen enough of the world to know that existing as a mentally ill person is a radical act, and I didn't have the energy to be a radical anymore.
America has a health care problem, and that is not a shocking statement. Mental health care, however, suffers from societal stigma, which in turn means that the availability of mental health care facilities is limited and knowledge of where to acquire resources is even more so. It is not private information that prisons, homeless shelters, and emergency rooms--all places responsible for the care of a large number of individuals--struggle with providing mentally ill people with proper or even adequate care, partially due to the fact that this kind of care has notoriously low reimbursements. In facilities that struggle with providing for physical needs, mental health is seldom made a priority, and many people fall through the cracks until some widespread tragedy; a mass shooting or a public display of violence, thrusts mental illness into the limelight again. When this happens, mentally ill individuals are often portrayed as volatile, menaces to society or charity cases. This is simply not the truth.
I wish I could write this with the luxury of objectivity. Unfortunately, I digress: it was a chilly night in April when I almost died. I wasn’t trying to die, which no one seemed to understand. I just wanted to sleep. So I took my fluoxetine and my bupropion and mixed them in the same pill bottle so that they would be easier to stomach, and then I tossed the whole business back with a few gulps of Diet Coke. I pulled the sleeves of my sweater over my trembling fists and then got into bed, craning my neck so that I could still see the stars, thinking, pretentiously, that it was about time that I joined them.
I reached out to touch the cool glass, then rolled over and went to sleep. The portrait of a man with three hands that I got at a vintage store some time before looked on in disappointment.
I don’t really remember waking up in the hospital, just being there, maybe like how the first animal felt when it crawled out of a puddle of evolutionary slop, a rotating battalion of nurses at my bedside at all times. I was in a hospital gown, the kind that is inexplicably assless, and they put me in fuzzy grey hospital socks. I wasn’t wearing anything underneath the gown. Someone undressed me.
I felt shame.
There was a tube in my nose. It sort of burned when I moved my head. Every once in awhile, a woman with cat-eye glasses and scrubs with smiley faces on them poured a clear liquid down the tube, and whatever it was left my stomach in knots. I couldn’t taste it, which I suppose was a small blessing, but it still felt like I needed to swallow. They told me that it was called Go Lightly, and the hope was that at some point I would excrete clear liquid. That it would make me pure, purge the mood stabilizers from my system.
I swallowed down the Go Lightly like I was supposed to, but I kept my guts firmly inside through willpower alone. This, at least, I could control. I didn’t want to be “pure.” Not that way.
Simon and Lydia, two good friends from school, came to visit, their faces a mixture of pity and fascination. The bespectacled nurse took the tube out of my nose—it hurt when she did, like sandpaper scraping up my throat—but I still had the IVs and the heart monitors and the fuzzy grey socks, hospital sheet stretched tightly across me, like if it wasn’t I’d twist it into a noose. I was sure my hair was matted down and disgusting, and my eyes burned so I knew that they were red and puffy and unimpressive. Lydia immediately leaned forward to hug me, smelling like home, and her hair tickled my face. She gave me a small blue book and a card with smudged orange flowers on it.
“I’m sorry for the lame card,” she said with her lilting Brazilian accent. “I’ve been saving the Renoir one for someone special, though. Take consolation in that.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d been hospitalized, or the first time I’d been suicidal. An abrupt move from North Carolina with my mother to Michigan with my father had left me blissfully free of the religion that had been forced on me for a while, but also free of any sort of parental guidance. My father allowed me to run wild, which for me, a mousy sophomore, meant staying up until all hours watching documentaries online. In January, my father got a call from the school counselor. Some friends of mine had seen scars on my arms and gotten concerned.
My father, a practical man, decided that the reasonable solution was to take me to a friend of his, a woman who had previously been the PA of a pediatric psychiatrist. After five minutes of speaking to me, she diagnosed me as bipolar and prescribed Wellbutrin and Prozac, each at 150 milligrams. The issue with SSRIs is that they can increase suicidal ideation. This is one of many reasons that they aren’t generally prescribed to adolescents, especially after a mere five minutes of conference with an unlicensed psychiatrist. I, at 15, knew these things, or the gist of them—I was taking AP Psych, after all. I knew what I was doing.
In late February, a friend called 911 and police were dispatched to my home. I was expressing suicidal urges, and she was (rightfully) concerned. I still recall the vaguely panicked look on my father’s face as he grabbed my medicine bottles and counted the pills to make sure I hadn’t taken any yet (I hadn’t). The police officers, rotund men in ill-fitting uniforms, relegated me to the stairs, giving me cursory glances and muttering things into their walkie-talkies. An ambulance had pulled up outside. Later, I would find out that Simon was driving up and down the street to make sure I was being taken care of; Mary, the friend who had called in my suicidal ideation, had gotten my address from our other friend, AJ, who had in turn contacted Simon. Where my father was absent, my friends were omnipresent. I owe much to that.
“So what’s the story?” One of the officers asked. I remember his sneering, unshaven face and the way he was smacking his gum. “Did your boyfriend break up with you?”
I think that was the moment that any hope I had of receiving help from authorities curled up at the bottom of my pill jars to never again see the light of day. I didn’t respond, instead giving him a hard look, the sentiment damaged by my involuntary sniveling.
“She didn’t take any,” my father finally reported.
That week, I was committed to a day hospital. I went back to school the following Monday.
I digress: the state of Michigan mandated a lengthier sentence for this more brazen attempt on my own life, a bona fide overdose. My father bought me Panera when it was time to go. I was able to take a shower before I left, put on jeans and a hoodie, but they told me I would have to take them off when I got to the institution, where things like buttons and shoestrings were prohibited. For now, I spooned up broccoli cheese soup in between text messages, making jokes about a jacket that tied in the back because it’s what I was supposed to do.
My last meal would have been spaghetti. My last words to my father would have been good, but I can’t stand the taste of lamb. Thinking of that, I looked down at my sandwich and it turned my stomach.
I was expecting the place to look like a castle, maybe a dusty manor, but it just looked like a prison, an ugly grey building with few windows and no flowers in the flowerbed. I left my cell phone in the cup holder and kept my folded pile of clothing close to my chest. On the top were several pairs of socks, because no shoes were allowed.
“Tell…tell Simon and Lydia they can’t visit me here.” I swallowed hard. “And tell…”
“Everyone knows,” my father said.
See, I was afraid.
I learned the rules pretty quickly. The entire setup was disturbingly like prison, or what I’d heard of prisons. There were the regular rules, the ones made by psychiatrists and the state, but then there were rules made by the patients. For instance, once you claimed a chair, it was yours for the rest of the time you were there. New kids got the armchair with the spring that stuck out of the seat until they wised up and dashed to group before everyone else to claim something better. You made your own bed and you stripped it every morning, but if you were smart you didn’t bother with sheets because they were all disgusting anyway. The shower was bitterly cold in the morning, and you were better off washing your hair in the sink and applying deodorant generously. You were never to eat the eggs that they served, because they paid little attention to expiration dates here. When your parents came on visiting day, you should ask them to buy you snacks from the vending machine and store them in your pants pockets for later. If you got your sharps privileges taken away, pencils made surprisingly okay combs, so it was best to hide them in your fists and sleep with them under your pillow. Aim to get the slot of phone time that comes right after Fedora, because Fedora talked to her boyfriend for 20 minutes and the orderlies resigned themselves to it and it was easier to get away with extra phone time when you were following up an act like that.
Most of all, it was like this: the orderlies were not there to be our friends. They were there to line us up in the hallways for meal times and morning roll call. They were there to make sure that only lactose intolerant kids got soy milk. The psychiatrists had 20, maybe 30 patients at a time. We were there for quickly-perscibed medication, observation, and isolation. There were no windows. I’ve seen movies about 20th-century asylums with better lighting. Group therapy was not for talking. Group therapy was for quiet reading and coloring. Suicidal or homicidal, drug-addicted or otherwise “troubled.” We were all lumped together. Across the corridor, we would catch glimpses of the adult ward in the morning. The only separations made were gender-based. I’m not sure at what point I realized that none of this was designed to help.
They gave me new medicine. It made me tired, and I slept through the night without dreaming. When I glanced in the mirror now and then, my skin was grey and I looked like a ghost. Perhaps melodramatically, I thought that that’s just what being there did to you. I was never superstitious before, but now, I carry the ghosts of that place with me. Maybe that’s the point of places like that one. Maybe they’re supposed to remind you that you’re not as badly off as you could be.
America has a mental health care problem--perhaps that problem doesn’t care about borders. Maybe the world has a mental health care problem. All I know is that a week in a mental health facility gave me nothing but a tranquilizer and nightmares that I will carry with me forever.
It’s been years, and I can look back with the luxury of hindsight and appreciate the people who were kind to me throughout that horrible time in my life. More vividly, however, I remember people like that police officer--people who downplay mental illness or characterize it as something it isn’t.
We aren’t statistics. We aren’t horror movie figures or misguided martyrs. We are people doing the best we can within a system designed to push us through and nothing more.