Editor’s Note: This piece contains mentions of mental illness, suicide, and sexual violence.
Getting wheeled up to the psych ward is like that beginning sequence in a concert documentary where you follow the star through the bowels of the arena to the stage, but sad. A nurse moved me from one drab, tiled hallway to the next as we made our way up to 3 East. With each leg, I let a little more go. Bye resistance. Bye dignity. Bye working so fucking hard to keep myself from going back to the hospital. Going into treatment felt like coming out of some sort of prolonged lobotomy. The blankness I felt by the time we came to the double doors left me smiling.
During my first ten-day-long institutionalization, I probably smiled a total of 15 times. The first thing I did at the hospital was to sob in front of twenty other fuckups and their therapists. As I hyperventilated my way through my introduction, I looked around the circle at their colorful, plastic chairs, then out the window at the world I’d so abruptly been barred from. My goal from day one was to get out. Staying would mean admitting that I had failed to take control of my narrative.
I don’t remember when it started, but at some point I started narrating my own life to myself in my head like an autobiography. Whether or not I counted an experience of mine as pathetic depended largely on whether or not I could fashion it into dryly humorous prose. I could almost hear the amorphous sound of my voice reading this non-existent prose several years later at a hip bookstore meet and greet, like someone yelling garbled words in a dream. It was my own neverending, sinister free credit on Audible.
The part about OCD was already written for me when I got to it. I was five. I paused the Dora the Explorer three times to go wash my hands, and I knew I was doomed. Walking back into the living room the third time was like walking into uncanny valley. The swirly designs on the rug started to look computerized. My parents looked at me like I was a criminal. There is no way to tell when the inception of “things changing” was, but I know that after that day I was at the mercy of my bizarre, repetitive thoughts and the host of remedies that my parents employed to erase them. Every time I refrained from snipping invisible ribbons in the air, I got a gold star sticker on my OCD chart. Every time I couldn’t control horrible visions of stabbing my family in the middle of the night, I got a stern talking to. My OCD story ended in the same quietly destructive way it had started. My parents told me I couldn’t see my therapist anymore because she wanted to give me drugs, and I was crushed. She had wanted to hear about how painful it was to imagine these violent things against my will, and now nobody did. I would adapt. If I had a problem, it would be anything but perverted, ugly OCD.
Everything was fine until 11th grade when I was sitting in Our Town rehearsal, hazy from Abilify, delivering Mrs. Gibbs’s lines about going to Paris like a bad casting temp reading at an audition. Listening to myself catatonically speak was a sure sign that my social identity, good grades, friends, whatever had melted in a depression garbage fire. One of the worst things about this depression was that it severely impacted my performance and thus my narrative of self. At that time, performance and narrative of self were interchangeable for me. In high school, I relied upon the narrative control I had in plays. Theater was the respite I needed from my inability to sit with myself without picking at her. Onstage, I could connect to everything ugly, but I could aestheticize it through performance. I could release it in a way that was choreographed and cathartic. When I got depressed, I was so swarmed by gloom that I didn’t have the ability to convert the ugliness. I was just drowning in it, lethargically miming corn shucking and oatmeal cooking as Thornton Wilder’s American masterpiece required me to do.
The depression garbage fire was actually just obscuring a taller, more toxic OCD garbage fire a few miles away. At that time, my intrusive thoughts concerned my being an unfuckable, awkward, inadequate nothing baby. In the fall of junior year, my best friend started dating the boy I was in love with, which was what we in improv like to call an extreme “heighten.” The self-berating and depression became so unbearable that I stopped being able to function. My parents and therapist decided that I had to take time off from school and go to a residential therapy program for severely depressed teenagers.
Luckily, I lived only 20 minutes away from McLean Hospital, where the program was housed. If you’ve read The Bell Jar, you might recognize McLean as the hospital where Sylvia Plath got electroshock therapy. If you’ve seen Girl, Interrupted, you may recognize it as the hospital where Winona Ryder’s character is sent after her suicide attempt. My point is that this mental hospital is a cultural landmark, a fact that I now frequently wield for social capital when the fact that I have been institutionalized comes up. Being in the hospital felt like a fluke assignment. On some level, I knew that I was in the wrong place because I was in the wrong treatment. The therapy I was doing was for general depression, and I was learning zero strategies for managing my spiraling, intrusive OCD thoughts. On a conscious level, however, I was convinced that a person like me did not belong in the program. The other patients, I disgustingly convinced myself, were actual problem children for whom moving between adolescent residential programs was the norm. I tried to frame what was happening in a way that made sense to me. In my room during free time, I took out my journal and wrote:
I am in the fucking hospital. I feel
like Piper Chapman.
Okay, yeah, that could be my hospital identity. In the TV show Orange is the New Black, which was all the rage in 2013, white entrepreneur Piper Chapman gets yanked from her brownstone and thrown in prison for trafficking drugs in her Smith days. After nights and nights of crying, Piper immerses herself in prison life and eventually works her way into a clique with her ex, who is also in prison? I can’t remember. But. The wrongfully imprisoned Type A. Off the charts problematic and right in my wheelhouse.
To my advantage, the structure of the program gave me a clear trajectory for proving wellness (read: superiority via downward comparison). Patient progress was measured through a merit based levels system. Everyone started on Level Two, and as you demonstrated investment and active participation in group and individual treatment, you moved up levels. This meant gaining privileges: Level Three’s could go out to restaurants on weekends, when there was no programming. Level Four’s could leave campus to visit friends and family. The way to move up levels was to be on your best behavior, and the higher up you moved, the more apt a candidate for discharge you seemed. I was great at seeming great, so I turned on the charm. I treated group therapy like it was AP English, giving my most thoughtful comments about the teenage ethos while we discussed the toxic high school friendships that made my peers suicidal. I never complained when we had to turn the TV off at night, and I volunteered to give new admits the tour of the snack cabinet. I lead daily goal setting group with the congeniality of Tracy Flick from Election on a mood stabilizer. “We look forward to seeing Gabi as president of the United States,” beamed the head of the program as I set down my expo marker at the end of the meeting, leading everyone in a rousing round of applause for me/his ability to teach marketable interpersonal skills to the troubled youth. I breezed through levels like some of the longer term patients breezed through Mario Kart levels every night in the game room. After ten grueling days, I finally got released and went back to school, feeling like raw hell as I prepared to kill it in Pippin.
One morning before school, right after I left McLean, I was crying hysterically in the shower. I felt like I had a medicine ball in my stomach. Suck it back suck it back. Holding down a deluge of despair in an effort toward continuation. And that was when I turned it around, the autobiography said. I decided it was over, so it was over.
Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” My slight, context-dependent amendment to that would be that we tell our therapists stories in order to collaboratively maintain a tragically beautiful self image. The summer after freshman year of college, when all the same things were still wrong, I took my mom to coffee and tearfully told her that I felt a deep disconnect with intimacy and sex. I needed to be in therapy, which I hadn’t been in since McLean. We brainstormed options. A family friend knew a cool therapist from when she got raped in her Brown days. I set up a session and felt hopeful.
A year into phone sessions with my therapist, I realized I had been sexually assaulted the summer before college. I was very relieved. This was an explanation with huge, ancient implications. I was part of a whole community and history of pain, not just a weird anomaly. I had been stewing in this nondescript melancholia, and now there was a whole fucked up history to analyze. That summer I saw my therapist three times a week. Each session, we rehashed a different episode of abuse that had occurred two summers before, reframing what I’d been through in an antiparallel narrative. Then she’d send me off with a semi-satisfying takeaway about why “assholes are seductive,” one I’d mull over to Exile in Guyville as I drove home. I figured that if I collected enough mini revelations, I’d get to the big one that would make me comfortable with my past and decisions and body and sexuality and selfhood. When I wasn’t in therapy, I was running around the Chestnut Hill reservoir. Fast. Daydreams of burning down my rapist’s house and snapping his guitar fueled me through miles. I ran around and around and around.
Seven months later I couldn’t leave my bed. It was fine because I looked like shit and who wants to see that? I was weeks overdue with scripts for creative writing classes but there was nothing in my psyche that wasn’t too humiliating to let see the light of day, so I didn’t write. No use in turning my redundant pain into a one act play, it was just too ugly. In fact, it was all irredeemably ugly. When the school year wrapped up, I began to pursue dying. With this I was creative. I faked out falling onto scissors, teased walking into oncoming traffic. I floored the gas and swerved in an intersection before pulling into the parking lot of a children’s swim school and placing my first ever suicide hotline call. Every morning, I dumped a pile of Prozac into my hand and dove into it face down, mouth open. I let the pills stick to my lips before spitting them back into the bottle. I never went through with it. I did take a few dramamine pills though. My dad told me to call poison control.
“What’s going on?” said the lady on the other end of the line. She sounded like that cute girl in AT&T commercials who says “psst, over here” to customers in the tech store and lets them in on the secret of AT&T’s very affordable monthly plan.
“Hey, sooo, I swallowed some dramamine,” I said breezily.
“I don’t super want to be here.”
“You need to go to the emergency room.”
“You need to go to the emergency room.”
“Okay.” I hung up and went back to googling “reasons to live.”
Twenty four hours later, I was at the Newton Wellesley Hospital low acuity psychiatric unit.
Around 8:15 PM that first night, I’d reached my daily limit for tolerating existence and went to my room. Alone, my self-berating intensified. Self loathing thoughts stacked in my head like bricks. I sat under my paper thin covers and let it happen for several minutes. Then I took out the novel I’d been reading, hoping it would make me want to kill myself less.
I’d been doing a lot of impulse book buying in the weeks leading up to the ward. During that period, I was in the business of obsessively trying to remind myself that I a) still had a functioning intellectual brain and b) wasn’t utterly isolated in my feeling that everything was lost. I turned to my old method of trying to find texts in which I could lose myself (or what was left of myself ) for respite. One hot day in late May, I was wandering the streets of downtown Boston, zonked out on my own brain chemicals like a less stylish Olsen twin circa 2008. I stumbled into a used bookstore and found a book devastating enough for me to relate to: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Oh, Jonathan Safran Foer, the Jewish fiction wunderkind that I would never be, especially now that I was, as my father put it, “troubled.” I sat next to some stoners in Boston Common and intently read the part of the book where the kid’s dad dies in 9/11, furiously doing the mental math to analogize his pain and mine. I too have experienced a shock of losing the self deeper and more seismic than any loss I have known before, and who knows whether I will come back from it. That was the extent of my ridiculous, self-aggrandizing analogy, and I knew it. Still, I read on, hoping I would find any resonance in this story that was fundamentally nothing like mine. I needed a sign that what I was going through symbolized something. That way, I would find my story beautifully tragic enough to be worth continuing.
That night in my hospital bed, I picked up where I’d left off, annotating the text with the pen I’d used to fill out my intake forms. I underlined places where the narrator said “I” and interpreted in the margins, trying to sound like I was still smart. What is “I?” loss = fracture of I = can you reclaim “I” once you know it is disruptable national trauma and national “I” disruption. 9/11 is so sad. 9/11 was so. Sad. Oh my god. The level of loss. So dark. I thought about it and felt like I’d just sipped bleach. My whole body was in pain. I had to put the book away. I took out the blue spiral notebook I’d brought with me and turned to journaling. If I couldn’t find myself in a text, my plan B was to start writing my autobiography while institutionalized. A bestseller from the depths. Literary theory teaches us that the self… I stopped writing. I’d pick it up in the morning. I was too stupid to talk about that shit anyways.
The next day was a Saturday, so there was no therapy programming, and I had all the time in the world to write. I sat down at the long table in the day room, opened my notebook up to that same page, and brainstormed to the background noise of Chip and Joanna Gaines on HGTV. Literary theory teaches us… No. I had to stop. I put the notebook away and started reading an issue of People. Well, first I tried to read an essay collection they had in the day room, which was a bunch of feminist scholars on 9/11. Then I got too sad again and read People. I didn’t pick up the notebook again the whole time I was there.
Sometimes several connected events occur and we arrive at the intersection of those events much later and all at once. In the fall of 2018, I took a literary theory class and read “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” by the theorist Jacques Derrida for the first time. In “Structure, Sign, and Play,” which was given as a speech at the 1966 MLA conference, Jacques Derrida renounces structuralism and the rules it imposes upon thinking and reading (not that he like, invented any of these ideas). He explains that up until the fateful event of his speech, every discourse in the human sciences had been tethered to the practice of finding a center: the irreducible kernel of truth at the apex of all interpretation. Some examples of the center: God, your childhood trauma, the smallest atomic particle. The center is the idea underneath it all that tells us our stories make sense the “why” that we yearn for. Our stories don’t make sense, so the center is a trick of the eye. You can see whole narrative arcs where there’s only stasis, because the center projects illusions and the promise of a release. In this way, the center is a home base that can’t support the weight of the things that really happen to us, or the way that they happen.
Derrida says, “In order not to short change the form and movement of the myth, that violence which consists in centering a language which is describing an acentric structure must be avoided” (Derrida, 1966). You can only avoid this violence if you dedicate yourself to moving through your life, regardless of whether or not it looks like you thought it would. This means responding openly to the unwieldy, stupid ways life moves you. The modus operandi of open response is “freeplay.” Freeplay is enabled through accepting that your life isn’t supposed to mean anything (after all, no center), so you’re allowed to respond to it however you want.
Derrida ends by saying he has no idea what it will be like to carry on without the center, but promises that carving an acentric path will be either glorious, ugly, or both. Through freeplay, you can get crafty and welcome the violence in gorgeous ugly ways.
I, or some version of me, knew I had to give up on finding meaning in the horrible shit that had been happening for so long. Why this was all happening and what it made me look like to the rest of the world was irrelevant. The shape of my narrative was irrelevant. If I wanted to want to live again, I would have to be the active player in my story and stop self-ironizing. It was only hurting me to view my healing from a critical distance.
Sitting in my apartment, I knew that I had just read something I needed to know. Sitting in the day room, I understood it as a challenge. But I didn’t put all this together until much later.
I fumbled my way through a new approach.
Stupid joy was a good way in. A few days into my institutionalization, my friend Lauren and I were sitting on the patio during Fresh Air time. Fresh Air time was the daily 15-minute slot when we were allowed to go outside to the gated rooftop patio. It was sunny out, which made for some nice shadows on the brutalist concrete. Suddenly, Lauren, who was always stretching, did a backbend. The nine-year-old failed gymnast in me was jealous and delighted. It was Stick-It perfection.
“Dude. That’s like, an amazing backbend.”
“Thanks. Yeah I used to do gymnastics.”
“For real? Like, how seriously?”
“Aly Raisman and I had the same coach.”
“Holy shit that’s amazing.”
Lauren started to cry. I looked at her, then looked down, then looked at her.
“It’s just like, it could have been, I’m just thinking about how it could have been and it’s whatever.” She wiped a tear from under her glasses. Tears kept coming, but she sucked them back with little sniffles.
I understood. I was probably too fucked up to ever perform again because if I ever had to do method acting I would only have this humiliating experience to draw on, and then I would hate acting and quit performing. I had basically already quit performing when I decided to not go to school for theater. Everything I was a part of made me so unhappy, and I had decided to be there. I was the one who begged my mom to sign me up for that horrible sleepaway camp. If I hadn’t gone to summer camp and gotten bullied by those girls I would have been happier and fucked more people cause I wouldn’t have been so ashamed of my body. I had fucked up every pivotal narrative checkpoint. Whatever. That backbend was so sick. Lauren looked so cool in the sun, just moving her body playfully. I asked her to do it again. She was too upset.
Something changed on the roof. I could breathe a little more. It happened again in arts and crafts group. If you’ve been to a psych ward, you know that arts and crafts is desperately employed to placate people who really need to be in intensive therapy at all hours when there are no therapists on the unit. Historically, I am quick to emotionally withdraw from group therapy activities. That day, however, I was so hopeless that I felt compelled to invest. I needed a break from regretting literally everything I had ever done on repeat in my head. I waited for instructions at the group activity table, which was prepped with magic markers and paper.
“Everyone. Today, we are making gratitude charts,” said Jess the social worker with a cloying smile. She took off her Lululemon warm-up jacket. Just a quick pop-in to help the deranged after her jog.
“A gratitude chart is where you draw a circle, or any shape of your choosing, and write the things you are grateful for in the middle, or coming off of the sides, like a sun.”
Jess pressed a button on her boom box and knockoff Enya began to play. This was our cue to begin. After a couple minutes of dodging thoughts about how I had nothing to be grateful for because I had ruined my whole life and needed to keep reminding myself so that I could stay on my toes and make sure it didn’t happen again, I tried to access a sense of gratitude. I started with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, water, shelter) because that’s low hanging fruit. The visual of Crayola ink dancing across a page was kind of comforting. I looked up. Everyone around me was smiling and drawing like they were using markers for the first time and it made me incredibly angry. Being angry gave me a stomachache. I turned back to the paper.
What actually mattered right now? Maybe another way into this was thinking outside of my ruined ego. I visualized brushing it aside like it was a big stone blocking a cave. Almost instantly, I realized that so many people in my life were working so hard to hold me together. My friends picked up every time I called from the payphones in the hall. Sometimes, they even went through the front desk and the you are placing a call to a patient at the Newton Wellesley low acuity psych ward voice message to get to me. My mother, whom I had terrified and traumatized, visited every single day. I filled in about half the circle. It was not revelatory. I was hopeful. I hadn’t been hopeful in five months.
Arts and crafts were not Jess’s only trade. She also led low impact aerobics once a week. This sounded like a nightmare to me, but I was beginning to worry all my muscles would atrophy from sitting so much, so I went. Aerobics was held in the common space between the high acuity ward (for psychosis and related disorders) and the low acuity ward (for depression-and-anxiety). The turnout was surprisingly high. Everyone was wearing colorful sweats, which looked especially bright under the fluorescents. Jess walked in with an iPhone speaker. “Alright everybody, you ready to move?” she said, looking none of us in the eye. She turned on “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire and started us with very slow marching. “Right then left, everyone!” It was helpful that she was telling us which foot was right and which was left, because I forgot.
When I looked around after the Arcade Fire song, the crowd had thinned out significantly. Behind us, someone laughed. It was a patient from the other ward.
“You guys look fucking dumb!” he yelled. We did.
I wanted to leave. So badly. No one was blocking the powered-off TV at the front of the room anymore, so I could see my whole reflection. My hair was in a greasy ponytail. I looked sedated. I would have kept cruelly ogling myself but then “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake came on and everyone started doing grape vines and ski jumps. The fray was moving faster around me, multicolored sneakers traveling from side to side.
A deeply specific humiliation set in. It was like I was simultaneously participating in every dance class warm up that had ever made me want me to exit my skin. Like theater troupe when I was ten. Ten years of maturity down the drain. Mortifying body. My sad stupid situation floored me as Jess yelled “come on!” Do something. I was going to die because I was going to live. Like when you have to stay awake for so long that it hurts. There was no way to un-live what I had lived. No beautiful tragedy. Assault was a cop-out, McLean was a cop-out, and this was the rock bottom truth of how fucking pathetic I was. It was so embarrassing. No community of heroes here. Nothing I can see but you when you dance dance dance dance fuck you, Justin. Don’t look at me. So sad and ugly with a horrible autobiography I couldn’t un-write. Stomach ache. Dance dance dance dance. No way to have a narrative I was even remotely okay with unless I did something to advance it. Evil catch 22. Agonizing dissonance between the ugliness that happened and the rest that I didn’t know yet. I had lost everything. Ugly lights. Everyone’s faces so sad and ugly. Guilt and no art. I ski jumped. I had nowhere else to be. This was the only place on Earth I could be. I ski jumped. I had nothing. Nothing. Fuck it.