BY JAMES MCMANUS
We were cheated out of life and death. We could have neither the comfort of stability nor the solace of death—though many of us had tried. I heard more than one story of stomachs being pumped to know that overdoses were not always a reliable means to kill oneself. I never tried for that reason: I feared failure.
But I planned meticulously; I drafted my suicide notes. The last note I ever wrote was a poem of sorts. "Dying is an art, like everything else" and like Plath, I did it well. We existed in limbo—somewhere between reality and the illusion of rehabilitation. Without any access to the news or popular culture, reality became a thing that only concerned those who lived beyond the confines of the hospital. We lived in our heads, in an SSRI induced haze. I don’t know of any hospital success stories. I know of only suffering, relapse, and death.
They give out little tokens when you are discharged now, as if one would want to recall the experience. Maybe it would have helped me remember, because as it stands, my memory of my stay is fuzzy at best. I never received one of those coins when I was discharged nearly four years ago. I have my own souvenirs: a diagnosis of PTSD, a distrust of all mental health professionals, and an absence of hope.
I was sitting in 8th period physics class when there was a knock at the door. Mrs. F, a short but severe woman with dark, curly hair walked to the door and then stepped outside. I remember the click click clicking of her heels against the tile floor. She returned a moment later and fixed her eyes on me. Click click click. She stood next to me and bent down.
"Bring your stuff, you’re not coming back."
I was escorted by my high school’s social worker up to her office where she sat me down next to my weeping mother and told me a bed was waiting for me at an adolescent mental hospital forty-five minutes away. What prompted this? I had a bad habit of sending letters to family friends and teachers Letters in which I nonchalantly expressed my desire—and plan—to kill myself. I didn’t have any sense of consequence; it never occurred to me that people would be so vehemently against my death-wish.
The very next day I made the trip up to the hospital. It looked aesthetically as if it were trying to compensate for the death that inhabited the place: freshly cut grass, abundant flora, newly remodeled buildings. From the inside, the outdoors looked grey and dead; the early October air quietly executed the remainder of any plant life within a day, and upon closer look the recently remodeled buildings sported cracks and peeling paint. I don’t remember walking through the front doors. My first memory is of handing over my belongings to a nurse.
RELATED: My Hospital Stay for Self-Harm
"You’ll get your stuff back later," one nurse told me. I said nothing. Time passed. The papers that confined me to the hospital were signed by my helpless parents. Two faceless nurses brought me to a room no bigger than a closet. A fisher price toy piano sat on a shelf and was the only object in the room: a detail I’ve been told that does not make much sense. I wondered what the function of the room had once been. The fluorescent lights burned my eyes. I was told to strip.
"We need to make sure you’re not hiding any drugs or weapons," they told me, "and we need to document any cuts, bruises, and scars." I undressed slowly for them as they counted the scars on my wrists, shoulder, and thighs with the tip of their pens. My clothes sat in a pile on the floor, my underwear at my knees. Two middle aged nurses were the first people to see me naked—something I’d remember only in the instance I lost my virginity to an OKCupid hookup my freshman year of college.
I laid on the bed that would be mine for the next eight days and watched as my crying parents were escorted out of the room. It wasn’t white or sterile like a real hospital. It was much worse. The walls were coated in a peeling layer of green pastel paint that made me sick to my stomach—a feeling that worsened the longer I stayed in there.
Moments later, my belongings were returned to me. My contacts were taken because I couldn’t prove that the saline solution inside the case was truly such, but a copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath remained in my possession. I laughed because I had only brought it to see if it would be confiscated. I was confident that the only literature the attendants had studied was the DSM while I had memorized "Lady Lazarus" two years prior.
"Room checks," said an underpaid nurse. His face escapes me now too, but his voice was soft and sweet. He introduced himself briefly before asking my favorite question, "Why are you here?"
"I’m sad," I said, and averted his gaze until he walked away. In another 15 minutes, he would be back.
I was sad as a child. There’s a home movie of me laying on the floor, my face buried in the carpet of my babysitters living room. "I can’t smile," a three year old me said. Fourteen years later, I was a little more than sad: depressed, suicidal, an absolute wreck with self-destructive tendencies.
Every morning at 7 a.m., I was abruptly woken up out of my medicated sleep by two nurses who yelled "vitals!" before barging in. They wheeled a blood pressure machine into the room and asked me my name, birthdate, and what meds I would be taking. These were not questions I was ready to handle at 7 in the morning.
I found that I would forget my name more often than what medicines I was taking. It’s hard to forget the names: Lexapro, Trazodone, Seroquel, Pristiq, Ambien, Topomax, Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Celexa, Abilify. After the first few days, I would wake up before the nurses arrived at my door. I could hear the metal clanging of the blood pressure machine as it made its way down the hallway. In my first month out of the hospital, I woke up in a cold sweat every morning, expecting hear these sounds.
I woke up that first morning to another body in the bed across from mine. My roommate had arrived via ambulance sometime that night. We skipped formalities and swapped stories.
"It was a momentary lapse of judgment," she said of her suicide attempt. She woke up one morning, swallowed a bottle of pills, stumbled through the streets, and ended up in the hospital being force-fed charcoal to induce vomiting. Hers is not my story to tell, though.
I dragged my heavy body out of bed, dressed, and made my way to the small kitchen. At the table, a large and quiet man named Teddy sat and watched the patients come and go. My weak stomach made eating in the mornings difficult. But Teddy sat and watched us diligently, recording who ate. I made myself a bagel, so as not to be suspected of having an eating disorder—I wouldn’t develop one until the months after my discharge.
Breakfast was the only meal the patients ate inside of the facility, unless a patient had an eating disorder or were on dining hall restriction. Every day at noon and five, we were escorted to the dining hall. The food was on par with what you might find at an old folks home: mushy and tasteless, and if you wanted to throw out your garbage you had to ask, "Can I clear?"
The social climate was what you would expect from about fifteen mentally ill teenage girls. Conversation was required to stay light and any discussion about mental health or our treatment plans was strongly discouraged. Too much laughter was also frowned upon by the bitter and exhausted attendants who watched over us. I witnessed more than one girl get put on dining hall restriction for laughing too loudly or too much. In our brief moments of joy, we were condemned as being uncontrollable.
Not wanting to draw any attention to myself, I stayed quiet during meals. One night, however, the attendants were discussing what movie should be played that weekend. I recommended The Breakfast Club.
"Oh yeah, you’d be the basket case, right?" the attendant said, referring to Ally Sheedy’s character who goes to detention because she has nothing better to do. I wanted to argue and say that I’d actually be John Bender, but I knew he was right.
A nurse called me for meds every night at eight. I remember walking down the long hallway, turning right at the nurse’s station, and continuing on until I reached the medicine counter. The nights ended the same as they began, with a white paper cup full of pills, and stale water. The Seroquel the nurses gave me put me to sleep within a half hour and made me groggy during the day.
At one of my therapy sessions, I fell asleep on the couch because the medicated urge to sleep was so strong and not yet out of my system. I was allowed to return to my room instead of returning to a group therapy session. I remember walking toward my room and noticing how the entire hallway looked differently in the early morning light. I passed the doors of patients who were on bed rest, their bodies weak from lithium side effects and felt immediately lucky to be on such a mild dose of my anti-psychotic medication. The hospital psychiatrist seemed to only prescribe two medications: Seroquel for the depressed, and lithium for those with bi-polar disorder.
The hospital required patients to have 45 minutes of "outdoor" every day that consisted of us being escorted like schoolchildren onto a concrete playground with a basketball hoop and a swing set. I remember mindlessly dribbling a basketball until a patient with a broken leg struck an attendant with his crutch.
A "code red" was called and we were escorted back inside, the violent patient was to be given a sedative affectionately known as "booty juice." The late fall air carried a certain heaviness that permeated even once we were back indoors. We were all dead, despite our corporeal form. Our bodies were heavy and our heads were sore from the medications that oftentimes went unregulated. Even the attendants’ eyes were glazed over with indifference.
I don’t remember walking out of the hospital and sometimes I’m convinced that I’m still there. In the weeks following my discharge I began having nightmares and flashbacks. For a while, I would see the faces of my fellow patients on other people. I stopped sleeping. Exhaustion gave me auditory hallucinations: a dozen people speaking in my head all at once.
My therapist did not recommend a decent night’s sleep—no, she asked, "Don’t you want to get better?" Followed by a "nothing bad happened to you in there. Stop acting like the victim." I was not physically abused while under the care of the so-called mental health professionals. But do not doubt that what I’ve experienced is trauma.
What else can you call being forced to strip in front of strangers, force-fed medication, and being insulted by staff? It is not quite the experiences that I remember that incite the most fear in me. Nothing shocked me after a while, not even the girl who tried drowning herself in the toilet. It’s the ones that I cannot recall—the ones that heavy doses of medication have erased, ones that only appear to me in the glimmer of a flashback.
I am alive by society’s standards, cured by those of my parents. Consider me dead. More often than not, I cannot be engaged. I am locked away in my mausoleum of a body, forced to rot from the inside until the outside finally catches up with me. Most mornings I wake up melancholy and heavy. The leafless October trees, my row of prescription bottles, a face that bears resemblance to a fellow patient will all trigger the same thought: this feels like the hospital.
James McManus is a non-binary trans man with bipolar II, BPD, and CTPSD.