I am that girl: a discussion of mental hospitals and suicide

Contrary to what stigma dictated as my fate as “mental patient,” I was only truly suicidal three times in my life that got anywhere, or, rather that got me into very bad pickles, though I spoke of it on occasion.

“Offing” yourself. You only have one chance to do that. It’s not like marriage, which, depending on your surrounding culture, you may be able to reverse and repeat. Or you could say life isn’t renewable like the game of Monopoly. Was the drag of life all about passing Go and doing the same thing all over again?

Or is it? I heard early on about the “revolving door” of mental hospitals. Why were so many of us repeat offenders in those places? I can tell you. For so many, all we wanted was love.

Yes, love. Love and understanding. I had no awareness that back a couple of decades ago, this was my true aim. Funny, looking back and remembering my 20’s and 30s, I see a lot of young people doing just what I did.

I’d tell my doctor I felt suicidal. He’d put me in “just as a precaution” or whatever. I’d get in there and say I felt better and wanted to leave. Eventually, they let me out. So someone caught onto this and started thinking that Julie “liked” the hospital and “felt bad” when she wasn’t there. This sure wasn’t the greatest, most mature image I’d made for myself. Hardly. Once, my mother drove me to said hospital, saying, “Have fun!” The sad thing was, she wasn’t being sarcastic.

I realized I’d been terribly misunderstood. After hearing the questions they were asking me, it was like they thought I had this “angst,” that I couldn’t stand living with myself anymore. I felt ashamed. I felt like they were treating me as if I were far more childish than I really was. That I was playing games.

None of it was true. For decades, I had what might be thought of as a rare eating disorder. I’d put myself in the hospital whenever I couldn’t manage it. They trivialized what I was going through, not even realizing how serious my eating problems were. Since they assumed, back then, that eating trouble was trivial, and there was no “eating disorders treatment” out there, I had no other options. This, to me, was simply my way of survival in my fake world.

Because I was an alien in this world, I had to make up stuff. I can compare it to being in a new country where you don’t know the language. You get to a cash register and the cashier asks you something which sounds like complete word salad. You say “si” or “no” depending on what your wild guess tells you the question might be.

I’d state that I had certain symptoms, such as mania or psychosis, but truly, I didn’t suffer from any bipolar or thought problems, even though I’d go along with the game. I’d say these issues were “out of control” or “in control” when in fact, in secret, I was speaking of my eating. How could I say it otherwise? Whenever I tried to, the staff would poke fun of me.

I’d come back and come back. Always the same staff, some smiling, some mean fuckers. Some had worked there for years and years. It was nostalgic and all my friends were there.

I suppose there would be times you could tell the staff were on guard. Like watching us extremely closely. After all, if anything “happened” to any of us, they figured it was on them. You got to be able to read their jumpiness, and that grave, serious look, and you knew something had happened. We’d ask ourselves if it was “bad.” Often, just a few shrugs. Some nurse would come and railroad us all to bed.

There were times the staff couldn’t contain themselves. I know it’s hard working in those places. They got pressure from their boss and pressure from each and every patient, never mind the nagging visitors that try to get you to break confidentiality and bend rules, “just this one time, please?”

I suppose it felt good for staff to get home at night. Or in the morning. To turn it all off. I heard that those greener staff that had trouble turning it off tended to not last long at such a job.

I’ve seen staff cry. Sheer frustration. Usually it had to do with inconsisitency. One boss says one thing, one says another, policy says another, and your own conscience says, “Wait, this ain’t right.” I think some staff wanted to tear their hair out. Or just quit.

I guess the times that I was truly suicidal, that’s how it felt. Like I was so, so frustrated I was gonna tear my whole self to bits. I felt cornered, like I had no choices anymore…except to off myself. Implode. Once was 1984, once in 1997, and the third in 2012. In both 1984 and 2012, the drug Imipramine was involved. There was also an abusive therapist both times. In 1997, I was suffering the long-term consequences of shock treatments, and I was told I was “faking” how I felt. I felt persecuted by these “staff.” They seemed flippant and uncaring.

I remember feeling it, like a calling, a distant bass drum. Always reminding me. I had it planned for a long time.

I will tell you more about the three times, but I know what you might think. Folks assume, “Once suicidal, always suicidal.” Um, really? So you were once a Girl Scout, once you were on the cheerleading squad, once you tried golf but weren’t good at it so gave up. I wouldn’t call you a golfer, Girl Scout, or cheerleader unless you cheered for me.

All I wanted was love, and so many of us did, and deep inside us, we’d believe the promises that there really was love in those places. What they provided sure looked tempting, did it not? Though, to me, it seemed like sacrifice of sorts. You give up your real life, gain a fake one. They made the fake one bearable. Sort of. You put up with this lesser life, lower standard, everything cheap, your life now on a lower level than where you could be, or ever wanted. The longer you stay, the further away you are from that girl you used to be. Who was she? Where would she be now if all these bad things had not occurred?

I’d leave those hospitals with a deep sense of disappointment. I think this is why when kids get discharged, they fall into terrible depressions. The doctors assumed it was “they need the hospital,” or “more care, more services,” but truly, what we often felt was disappointment that there just isn’t love in that big sterile house on the hill. You gotta find it someplace real.

I’d end up back in. I could never get anyone to listen. There was so much unlistening happening that after decades of being totally misheard, they wouldn’t even let me finish a sentence anymore.

I showed up one day at an ER and was told, “You know the routine.” I felt like smacking the dude that said that. So I was now a “regular,” was I? Is this all I am worth?

At some point, I knew it was fake. They didn’t really love me. Hardly. I couldn’t stay, I couldn’t go. Trapped. I needed them too much. I couldn’t get away it, nowhere to hide anymore.

One day, I got the message:

Run. Run. Run. Run and live. No, not the still small voice of God. That was the voice of that girl inside that had gone missing for so many years.

I cheer you on. Run away. Be you. Bust loose, gal.

I remembered people that literally walked out. Walked into the elevator posing as a young resident. Or ran away from an ER. I have no clue what the staff nor other patients thought of the escapees. If you got caught, you were watched very closely afterward to make sure you didn’t try to leave again.

When I was young, I recall a teen who escaped, a boy. I remember his diagnosis, or what they said his crime was. He didn’t want to live with his mom and dad. Runaway, naughty kid. A kid I’d grown to love. For the brief time I knew him, I thought of him as the was the rebel kid I never had a chance to be.

One day, he said to me, “Don’t cry, or they will be mean.” He whispered this to me. Then he was gone. Escaped, they said. When he was caught, he got sent to the state hospital. Straight there.

Some kids, their spirits were crushed by the hospitals. I wondered how on earth those patients could go on after what was done to them by the multitude of programs and drugs and groups. They were belittled, made ashamed, beaten down, tortured, insulted, shoved around like cattle. These were ones that ended in suicide. They couldn’t deal with what had been done to them.

She really did it, huh? The hushed whispers at night. Yeah, died a few days ago.

You didn’t know what to think. A kid had escaped the torture of those places, the haughty doctors, the endless grind of medications. But…she’s gone, too. Or is she free? You ask why. It can haunt an entire community.

I myself did run away, or, rather, decided I didn’t want that fake world anymore. But I’m not dead. I read about people who had said “No more” to mental health care. Was it possible to walk away from it all? Could this really be done? One person wrote that now that she had left, she had a wonderful life, surrounded by friends and family, and she saw in color whereas before, she saw only in black and white. She said her mental problems were solved by leaving the fake world of “care.”

I told myself that surely, this would be terrific. I was jealous and wanted it for myself, too. I wanted friends and family and an instant writing job at an antipsychiatry magazine just waiting to make me famous.

It didn’t happen that way for me, nor for most I know who walk or run away. I waited for those promises to come true. I waited for that color vision and smiling friends surrounding me with so much admiration and love. I waited for that greater, more real love than I could ever find at any hospital. No, it didn’t come true.

I got defriended as soon as folks found out. Called “paranoid” and “dangerous.” The accusations didn’t stop. The roar rose to a frenzy, just how dangerous I was. Now that I’d refused care, I was considered “off meds,” armed, and about to kill someone, or myself. But none of that was true.

Over 30 years have passed since I walked into the halls of Mental Health Care. What’s left? Me. Yep, me. A girl and her dog. And her secret eating disorder. She’s bold and brave as ever.

I stand here today that girl. That very same girl. And I’m very proud of myself.

Yes, it’s been a slow process trying to rebuild who I am, or should be. Often at a standstill. What’s the girl supposed to do with herself? She’s talented and smart, but exhausted from the wreckage that happened over the years.

A few years ago, I decided to purchase a houseplant. I took care of that plant, or tried to. I forgot to water it for a few days. I woke up one morning and found it dead.

I felt ashamed, so deeply ashamed that when I took the houseplant out to the trash bin, I did so in secret, in the night, so that no one would know the terrible thing I had done to it.

I crawled back into bed.

So many nights and for so many years, I thought of how much I longed to escape the tyranny of forced care, to escape the threats of “sectioning,” and the neverending police and ambulance sirens that had become the sound of my life.

I really did get away. I live in South America now. Tonight, I’ll hold onto my dog. I am that girl, at last. I am right here. I will crawl into a different bed. Tonight, and every night, the sounds of the rocky and crooked streets of South America come to pure silence. I cherish that blessed standstill.

Feedback and comments welcome!