I had my own room on my second trip to an inpatient mental health facility. This was convenient, as I had decided to hang myself that night.
After my first stint in the hospital, six months prior, I had returned to high school with a fury. In the final three months of my junior year I had made up all seven midterms; sat for two AP exams, the ACT, the SAT; and passed all my finals. Fuck if I was going to let Crazy keep me in Miami. Stacking up Honors and AP credits, lettering in five sports, going to Student Council meetings and drama club rehearsals and youth symphony practices, I was so goddamned determined to look amazing enough that some brilliant college would swoon and swoop me out of this nutty confusing life and nestle me into a peaceful steady higher-education-to-workplace experience.
I had been released with a cocktail of medications—Depakote, Risperdal, and Paxil. I had already experienced side effects of the medication. My thumb twitched, unprovoked for minutes at a time. I drank a gallon of water a day and would still feel thirsty. I lost a sense of where my body was in space and consequently gathered a colorful collection of bruises from knocking into tables and doorjambs. I ground my teeth incessantly and developed a penchant for sliding my jaw in and out of place.
The doctors said that it wasn’t possible for me to have side effects yet—that, according to studies, it would take at least a year. In response, I would grind my teeth, take a chug of water, and stare at the floor. I didn’t want to live like this. This was a new kind of lack of control. In addition to my emotions and thoughts slip-sliding all over the place, now my body was losing its fine-tuned functioning. The meds confused my body—a monkey wrench in a system that was struggling to right itself, to survive its efforts of rebalance. I didn’t want to live under the careful eye of those who would gaslight my reality so blatantly under the guise of care. But the doctors could only inform me based on what research had told them—not what I was telling them. These meds help, they said. I had to stay on my meds, they said. This was the only way that didn’t involve electric shock or physical isolation, they said. It was somehow better this way. But it didn’t feel any better—just terrible in a different, more terrifying way.
A few things were clear: I was something mysterious and out of control. Being on meds made everyone else feel more stable and safe—like something was being done. My actual choice was to either comply with medication or be forced onto it. My way out was to hang through another year and cross my fingers that college acceptance would come through. The more I thought about it I began to realize that college, while being a lot more liberating, would also be a lot more personal responsibility. While I wasn’t so scared of death or myself, I wasn’t sure that I could keep up with the degree of ongoing effort required to keep going.
Tonight I took my night meds from a male nurse and swallowed them without discussion. I said goodnight to him, crossed the common area to my room and closed the door behind me. I surveyed the scene, plotting, then turned left into the bathroom. I had no razors or lighters or shoelaces or needles. The mirror was shatter-proof plastic, as were the sealed double-paned windows. There was nothing on the ceiling but prefabricated acoustic tiles. But there was a bathtub and around it a generic, plastic shower curtain. There it is, I thought. I gathered the curtain in my hands, its matte gold color a stark contrast to its slick coolness. I began to twist, and twist, the curtain grew tighter and thinner. I stood up on the edge of the bathtub. I looped this new rope around my throat, then double-knotted it around the curtain rod. I was standing nice and tall: this was good. This meant that the foot-and-a-half-tall fiberglass edge I would step away from would never again find my feet. This meant that the curtain rod was at just the right height. I was excited. This was actually going to end. I was sure I had developed enough will power over the last year to follow through this time. I took a deep breath in, let the expansion give a good stretch to my ribs, then dropped the air from my lungs. I felt weightless, clear. I stepped off the edge.
When my toe brushed the floor of the bathroom it was enough for my panicked, reptilian mind to give the wordless command to my right lower limb: push up. In pushing up my right big toe gave me a half-inch of inspiration. One half inch of cold wind ripping through my compressed trachea. I could breathe, just barely, and in that half-inch of breath I was reminded that I liked breathing—I wanted to keep breathing. I flailed for a little bit, not breathing, trying to keep my feet tucked up underneath me. Just hang there, I told myself, getting hot with adrenaline, fighting the panic. But my toes kept finding the bathroom floor. They kept pushing up. My body was fighting me. My feet eventually found the edge of the bathtub again. Shaking, I let my body follow my feet to their perch.
I returned my weight to my soles. It had almost worked. It would’ve worked had my body not fought me. I stood on the edge of the bathtub, again, as if the last ten seconds had just run themselves in reverse. My hands barely belonged to me as I struggled with the knot in the curtain. It took a full minute for me to untie it. All the while I wanted to fall into the noose again and again. I wanted to fall for all the damage and grief and confusion I would need to haul through my life as a result of choosing this life. I also did not want to fall again, so while I tugged at the knot I cried out all the heat from my body. The wanting and the not wanting, all at once. Gratitude and anger and defeat, all at once.
The knot finally loosened. I unwrapped the curtain from my neck. I stepped down onto the cool linoleum floor. The sensation of solid ground beneath my feet made me acutely aware of something now solid inside of me: a desire to continue my life, to continue the struggle. That newfound desire sent a scream of panic through my brain. Continuing meant back to school and sports and tests, to competition and college essays and this pressure to figure out how to live meaningfully in a world intent on my obedience and cooperation. The noise in my head escalated. My hands flew to my temples, clutched my hair, and pulled outward. This newfound will to live was fresh and tenuous, a hatchling sprawled on the sidewalk. Frantic, I knew needed help. Whatever that was. I needed to be away from myself for a little bit.
I let go of my hair, wiped my face and walked out of my room to the nurses’ station. It had only been twenty minutes since I had left them. I approached the desk and stared at the nurses as they shuffled papers and talked to important invisible voices on the phone. After a moment, I spoke up.
“Hey,” I said quietly. A young nurse glanced up at me.
“One moment.” She continued chewing her gum. Her eyes darted about the desktop below the counter. I waited. She scanned one piece of paper, lifted another, scanned it, and laid them both on top of a larger stack of papers. She picked the whole thing up and tapped them on the desk.
“Okay, what can we help you with?” she asked politely, looking at my face.
“I just tried to hang myself in my room. I don’t feel safe.”
Her gaze remained steady, non-reactionary. Then she turned and talked to another nurse behind the counter for a long time. I waited. She turned back to me.
“Do you want to sleep in the observation room?” she asked, motioning to the room at the far end of the desk. The heavy metal door was propped open. Inside, it was all white with a stripped, hard bed and a restraint board against the wall.
“Do I have to sleep in the restraints?” I asked.
“Oh, no. Just on the bed.”
I was disappointed; the restraints looked enticing. They looked like something I could fight if I so desired, and trust with my strongest self.
“Sure,” I said.
Uncertain, I turned and walked towards the open door. The nurse followed me from the other side of the desk, stuffing a plastic-covered pillow into a stiff white cotton pillowcase.
I stepped into the stark brightness. The fluorescent light buzzed from the ceiling. The volume made me flinch.
“Can I turn off the lights?” I asked.
“Nope. No light switch,” said the nurse, plopping the pillow onto the bed. My insides curdled. I wondered if it was too late to renegotiate, to take all this back, and just go sleep in my own quiet, dark room.
“The door stays open,” the nurse said as she left the room. I sat down on the bed. It was essentially a plywood box, wrapped in vinyl with perhaps a thin layer of acrylic batting in between. In another place, it could have been an altar. In yet another place, a coffin. My mind began considering how this vinyl was being held onto the plywood, secretly wishing for staples that could be dug out with a fingernail.
The evening dose of Risperdal was kicking in. Stop it, I thought. My eyes wandered over to investigate the plastic restraint board secured against the far wall. The thick grey cuffs hung like open palms, still and waiting. I sighed, and turned away. I lay down on the vinyl-covered plywood and looked out into the common area and the nurses’ desk. My anxious fingers traced the stapled seams of the vinyl as the heaviness of the tranquilizer set in. My left arm dropped from the table, a numb unresponsive appendage. I sighed. By sitting up slightly and synchronizing a shoulder shimmy I hoisted the arm back onto the bed. I was falling, falling away from my body, a hand being removed from the puppet. I wanted to roll onto my back; initiating even the subtlest movement, however, had become an insurmountable task. My will, my presence, my want to live, my drive to die—all flew off, gently, into the medicated fog underneath the harsh buzz of artificial light.