“Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.
“I want to leave,” I pleaded to the head nurse. “Please let me check myself out.”
“I can give you another Xanax or you can go find somewhere to lie down,” she said, her eyes on the computer screen. I hovered. After a few more moments of typing, she hustled me down the unit floor into an open room, handed me a pile of thin sheets she referred to as blankets, and clicked on the television without leaving the remote.
It was November 2018, and I was in the emergency psychiatric unit at a Brooklyn hospital after a night of binge-drinking and uncontrolled wailing on myself. I had a history of cutting, but that had always been methodical, controlled, and secret. This was lawless; I punched my legs and bit any skin I could bring to my mouth. I had never acted so reckless. At a loss, my wife, A, called 911.
In less than ten minutes, four EMTs stormed our small living room to take me to the hospital as I was deemed a danger to myself. I spat and screamed and thrashed as two of them carried me down a flight of stairs and loaded me into the ambulance. On the ride over I sat handcuffed, kicking the gurney in front of me. “Quit kicking,” the EMT yelled. I kicked harder. My wife kept her hand on my knee for the whole ride. At 29, I felt simultaneously like I was 4 years old and 100.
I didn’t know it yet, but what began as the worst night of my life was actually the beginning of something better.
I had spent the past 14 years dabbling in therapy. Since puberty I’d lived with varying degrees of depression and self-hatred due to childhood sexual abuse, which was later compounded by assaults I experienced as a young adult and the shame of hiding my sexuality. Growing up in a conservative southern town, I didn’t want anyone to know I was a lesbian who’d been abused. Being one of two Jews in my high school had been tough enough. I hated myself for hiding just as much as I hated my identities. Pretending all the time was suffocating work, so I managed by binge-drinking, sleeping with guys I loathed, and using box cutters to slice through my skin. Sometimes I took muscle relaxers during the day. But even with this constant internal distress, I presented myself as a chronic overachiever: I had a 3.9 GPA, partook in too many extracurriculars, taught Sunday school, earned advanced degrees, and always volunteered to work extra hours at the special-education school where I worked as a teacher. I thought I had my shit together.
When I arrived at the hospital, a doctor took my vitals and a nurse drew my blood. For the first time, I felt like I had been caught. The mayhem that I worked so hard to keep tucked inside was now being quantified by medical professionals. Everyone could see the crazy on me.
My irritability rose. My fist punched my thigh and my teeth gnawed my shoulder. “I’m so hot,” I yelled, trying to take off my top. Within seconds the nurse shot a tranquilizer into my arm, and just before I lost consciousness, I realized I was far past the point of pretending to be someone well.
I wasn’t well; I was a woman who needed help and had for a long time. Drifting into a sedation, it seemed obvious that accepting support couldn’t be worse than this.
At about 11 p.m., I was awoken and transferred from the ER to the regular psychiatric unit for the remainder of the night.
After the nurse refused to let me check out, I curled up on the metal bench in the empty hospital room she’d taken me to wondering if I could sleep. The hard metal against my back felt identical to the bench I laid on the night during my freshman year of college when I was hauled off to the city’s jail for being drunk and disorderly. The austerity of the room and the isolation were the same too. But everything else was different. I was no longer an 18-year-old closeted coed. I was almost 30 with an established career and loving marriage. I had an entire life to lose. Down the hall a woman let out a blood-curdling scream, and I watched a man with his hands deep inside his pants walk laps around the unit. I didn’t want to see where I would be in another ten years if I kept living the same way. I wanted to learn how to take care of myself. I wanted to find an honest version of getting better. Laying in my wrinkled yellow gown and matching gripper socks, I smelled the alcohol and sweat seeping from my skin and knew I would never feign wellness again. This revelation was an enormous relief.
Just as I glimpsed optimism, a familiar voice startled me. I glanced up at the TV, dumbfounded to see home-chef extraordinaire Ina Garten.
I watched as the Barefoot Contessa stood inside her pristine Hamptons kitchen quartering a pile of limes for Dark Rum Southsides. She advised I use fresh-squeezed lime juice, but of course store-bought would be fine.
My relief melted into embarrassment. I couldn’t have Ina Garten here, in a place so bleak and déclassé; I wasn’t even wearing a bra. Ina finished off the cocktail by stirring it with a long metal spoon. The spoon clanked against the glass in a familiar and, above all, civilized way. The shame of the hospital was brought into full focus as Ina’s friends toasted one another among the hydrangeas and wicker furniture. I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to face that world. I didn’t want to be seen as insane or out of control. I’d been telling myself that once I was out I’d keep getting help, but seeing Ina — and by extension, the outside world — I realized how difficult that was going to be.
At exactly 8 a.m., A returned. I waited to be analyzed, and God willing, released by the doctors. “Are you okay?” my wife asked. Her clothes had changed and her hair looked washed. “No, but I think I’m ready to be better,” I said. She held my hand and kissed my shoulder. I hoped she believed me.
After being released from the hospital I began earnestly treating my mental health. I didn’t drink for eight months and then slowly reestablished a new relationship to alcohol, which worked for me. I started telling my family and close friends when I was feeling depressed or irritable or anxious, which was an enormous leap for someone who had previously always been “great.” I took up a sincere yoga practice. I said things like “I feel overwhelmed” and “I can’t go out tonight because I’m worried I’ll drink too much. Can we take a walk instead?”
During one such walk, my astrologically inclined friend and I strolled across the Williamsburg Bridge. Since I had confided in her about the hospitalization, she had been buying me amethyst crystals, swearing they possessed healing properties. I wasn’t sure about the rocks’ restorative power, but I was moved by her sentiment.
On our walk, she told me that on the night of my hospitalization there had been a blood moon.
“So what?” I asked.
“A blood moon ushers in destruction and rebirth. Now you’re safe and can rebuild your life,” she said in a tone too rosy for me, although her words felt true. My long-held fear of rejection for letting others see the worst parts of me had been proven wrong. Being honest allowed her and others to see me clearly and accept me fully. When I told a few friends and family about my hospitalization, they only wanted to offer support.
In the five years since I was hospitalized, I’ve learned the art of being still — of doing nothing — when I feel triggered or overwhelmed or anxious. Of course, there have been moments when I want to drink an entire six-pack or romanticize about how good it would feel to cut myself one more time, but I don’t. I’ve leaned into the mundane practices of caretaking: therapy, even when I don’t feel like it, saying feelings out loud, breathing, walking, and meeting myself with kindness.
As I trudge toward self-acceptance, I still feel the twinge of shame reflecting on being hospitalized, even though I know I would voluntarily check myself in again. I wouldn’t have the life I have now without that night. I wouldn’t have my marriage and the son my wife and I had together four years ago. I remind myself that there’s nothing embarrassing about being a person who needs help. Clinical psychologist and executive director at the nonprofit Therapy4thePeople Ashley Castro says that talking about it helps. “Patients and families can destigmatize hospitalization by sharing their experiences,” she says. “That brings humanity to psychiatric hospitalization; it bridges the gap between the sterile hospital environment and the outside world.” Whenever I’ve confided my hospitalization to someone there is a moment of obvious sadness from them when they realize what I’d been through. I’ve realized it’s this sadness reflected back to me that I hate facing, although it comes from love. For me, learning to sit with sadness and move through it has been important, and a skill I couldn’t have learned without letting myself connect to others during these sensitive exchanges.
In March, my wife and our son took our annual pilgrimage to Miami. While it always feels reviving to be in the sun, this trip felt particularly needed. In December, I experienced a miscarriage and D&C, which sent me into a familiar dark mental space.
Old intrusive thoughts appeared. They tried to tell me that my retired ways of being, like lying about feeling bad and turning inward, were the fix. But as tempting as some of the thoughts were, I knew now they were myths. They were simply shitty coping mechanisms that had kept me feeling shitty. I didn’t spend one second during my miscarriage acting like I had it all together. Within days I texted and called close friends and family members, even friends who hadn’t known I was pregnant. Letting people in diffused some of the heaviness. I let myself feel grief. I cried in public. I cried with A. I cried in front of my kid, assuring him there was nothing wrong with being sad. I didn’t hide how vulnerable I was, and it helped.
One night in Miami, we had dinner outside at a popular South Beach restaurant. We were watching people buzz by on the boardwalk — women selling cigars, the inevitable shirtless rollerblader — when I noticed the moon hanging low, oversized, and glowing bright red. “A blood moon!” I yelled, grabbing my son’s hand. “Let’s go look!” He cackled as we ran across the main throughway to the beach. I popped him up on a stone wall. “Blood moons are really special,” I said, as we stood studying the sky while I reflected on how I’d evolved since my hospitalization. I viewed every day like a blood moon, an opportunity for destruction and rebirth — now understanding both were necessary. Even though I was feeling a low-grade depression, I was also feeling young and whole. All of it was true, and more important, I knew it wasn’t crystals or magic that got me to this new way of being. It was me who pushed myself to understand that life won’t always feel all good or all bad. It mostly exists in the complex places in between.
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