I signed myself up for therapy after my father died when I was 16. I was depressed, unmotivated, and spent most of my time with my co-depressive girlfriend talking about the best way to hide self-induced scars (I would cut myself on the top of my wrist right where the face of my watch rested, usually small dashes with the file from a fingernail clipper). I ran out of my own head like a poorly behaved child in a fire drill once I realized what I was doing and how much time I spent simply staring at the scars.
My first therapist (there’s a fun statement: “my first therapist”) was a grad student by the name of Heather. She was attractive and young, brown hair with frosted tips and a gap in her front teeth. My least favorite part of her was her fake smile, which she used a lot. My second least favorite part was her fake laugh, which she used more often. You know when someone laughs and you can hear the dishonesty of it in each exclamation, and you suddenly feel like you’re a puppet show standing in front of a room full of really polite people? That was my experience with Heather. She laughed at things that had no humor in them whatsoever, presumably believing that laughter truly is the best medicine. I shouldn’t be so hard on her now as I was quite hard on her during our appointments, often resisting and arguing even the most basic points (“No, I don’t think friends are a good thing.”). Why I was resistant to therapy I signed up for myself speaks to the level of insanity I was experiencing.
It wasn’t long before I was prescribed Wellbutrin, the first of three selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or “SSRIs” or “magic tabs.” For the uninitiated, antidepressants like Wellbutrin are “black-boxed” by the FDA. “Black-box” indicates the medication may not end suicidal or depressed thoughts but, in fact, make them worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but what I did know was watching my mother take a soup ladle of prescribed medication only to spend the day in bed was enough to steer me away from any medication. I came up with fantastic ethical and philosophical talking points on the matter: “It’s not a broken leg but the actual organ that constitutes my self that the pills are affecting,” “therapists want you to take the pills so they don’t have to work as hard in actual therapy, building a standard of laziness within psychiatry as a profession,” or the favored “I don’t want to and now I hate you.”
Luckily for me (sort of), I was 16 and therefore legally qualified to make my own medical choices. So Heather and I trudged away at the glacier of my ego, she trying to battle it down to save me, me trying to build it up for the same reason. Meanwhile, my depression grew worse. I regularly skipped class to sleep in the nurse’s office, acting like a 12-year-old girl getting her first period. I would skip meals solely to listen to Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News or Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral, the former a carnival tour of death and its many facets and the latter a dissonant collection of intentionally painful songs I now find nearly unlistenable. I was attending a boarding school and therefore forced to be social nearly all day, often breaking down in tears after an hour of even leisurely conversation.
It wasn’t until my self-harming became so impulsive that it was recommended I stay in a “Behavioral Research Center” or “psychiatry ward” or “funhouse.” Unlike medication, this seemed like a genuine solution to me. Maybe all I needed was a few days away from society to collect myself and move on from my father’s death. What I got instead was a roommate who kept trying to devour himself hand-first and a wake-up call that I was an enormous pussy.
First, the roommate. I was the only male in the adolescent ward for purposes of depression. Most of the other guys were kids a few years younger than me. One was a blonde who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Little League team, meaning he was very polite but not very bright. That was, however, until anyone asked that he stop playing “I Stand Alone” by Godsmack on repeat for the entire half-hour time we were allowed to have the communal CD player. Such a request was met with the rage most boys that age reserve for being called a gay slur. “IT’S THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL TIME! OF ALL TIME DAMNIT!” he would scream while one of the assistants (“orderly” sounding a bit too Victorian, I guess) forced him into his room. My roommate, however, was a quiet Indian boy who laughed a lot during group therapy. Not entirely sure why he was there for aggression issues, but he did have the terrible habit of trying to bite his knuckles quite viciously, to the point it left bloody trails on his fingers. Again, I was sent there to relax.
The girls lived in a ward directly down the hall. It seems most people’s image of psych wards are fostered by movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted. My experience was far closer to the Ned Vizzini YA novel It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, later turned into a mediocre film with Zach Galifianakis. The walls were not white and the beds not steel, but rather looked like a well-kept yet bargain hotel. There was not a constant aura of fear and oppression, but rather of boredom and frustration. Teenagers were kept separate from adults (there was a child’s ward down the hall, and let me tell you how easy it was to sleep while small children kept from their parents screamed in fear throughout the night), but boys were not entirely kept separate from girls. Group therapy, music therapy, meals, activity time, and everything else but living quarters were intergender. The girls were there for far more varied reasons. While most had eating disorders of some kind, there was myriad psychoactive trouble abound. One girl was schizophrenic to the point that she regularly ran out of the room to draw the visual hallucinations in that room. Several (as had been shared during group therapy) were suffering from PTSD by being molested or raped as a young child. Most, like myself, self-injured on a regular basis.
Group therapy was the biggest trip of the center. It ranged from well-humored and informal to drastically dark and revelatory. In the aforementioned Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Nicholson’s character Randall McMurphy compares their group therapy sessions to a “pecking party,” whereby the patients slowly and angrily pick each other apart. The only such occasion I can remember was when a 13-year-old boy revealed he killed animals in Satanic rituals but was depressed because it scared his little sister. The majority of the group acted in disgust, some in fear, but he was duly broken down to admit he was taking himself way too seriously, and no one was making him kill small animals (I might have even told him it’s a key sign of a sociopath or future serial killer). The assistants regularly took a backseat, letting the crowd guide the therapy sessions as nearly everyone had something to say about everyone else. One session where this was not the case involved a girl my age talking about the sexual abuse she suffered from her grandfather. He regularly forced her to fellate him from the age of six, and she said she broke down when she realized she was simply doing it without his asking. As she detailed her story, you could hear the self-esteem in the room drop as most realized their troubles paled in comparison with hers. And that was the moment I realized I was being a massive baby.
Depression is common but can be quite serious. That said, hearing the stories of people with actual troubles (troubles larger than my dead father or my inability to process social situations) gave me an immense amount of strength. It’s not like feeling bad about throwing away food when people across the world are starving. I met these people in a deep and vulnerable situation, one where we were explicitly meant to work through our darkest times and thoughts. The girl who was sexually abused? I watched her laugh and pick out which boys in the ward were the cutest. She wasn’t letting something so terrible define her. I wasn’t seeing things that weren’t there, I wasn’t abused as a child, I wasn’t eating my own flesh, and I wasn’t killing woodland creatures. Was it possible to man up and handle my own problems instead of mourning for the rest of my life?
I realize this all seems incredibly obvious and possibly even cliché. But the last thing I would credit for any benefit I got from my time there was the staff or the center itself. Half the assistants were looking to have God save me, which I ruled out with more furor than medication, and the others were more than likely education majors who hoped to work with teenagers but not actively help them. One assistant, named Andrew, chose me as his passion project, convinced he needed little more than film-school glasses and a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life to fix my problems. The staff worked immensely hard to avoid being personable or social on any level. The one thing Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted both get right is the immense paranoia being watched at every moment can foster. When the boy in the room next door is strapped to a plastic board and taken to an isolation room — with carpeted, not padded, walls — by the same people who want to discuss your innermost thoughts, it becomes hard to establish the necessary level of trust. It was enough to make me miss Heather’s fake laughter. Anything I learned at the center I learned from my fellow patients.
I unceremoniously left the center after two weeks. As much as I’d like to say my behavior changed right out of the door, it did not. I continued to cut myself, albeit less often, and would spend two or three more sessions in the school’s private health center. I did eventually begin Wellbutrin, followed by Lexapro, followed by Prozac. I left my pills behind when I went to my hometown of Las Vegas for the summer, however, and realized what a fog they were inducing, then hiding and flushing the pills to have my therapists believe I was still taking them. I gradually grew out of my depression (realizing it was merely grief and not a sickness) and therapy as a whole. Was it at all helpful? Only in that it taught me how to change without losing what I considered myself.
Psychiatry is not, as some people believe, attempting to turn us all into drugged-out skulls, but medication and treatment are far different than the work physicians do. If you aren’t careful, you can, like my mother, end up with a litany of prescriptions that carry side effects arguably worse than the conditions themselves. As for the center, it was an experience of dramatic enlightenment, one that gave me an incredible amount of respect for those who must work through their troubles, no matter how horrifying. You know your brain far better than anyone else, and while some problems requires a mechanic, you can handle the small changes necessary to deal with life. I don’t look down on anyone that opts for medication or found a psych ward helpful, but even in accepting those solutions one must hold on to themselves — no one will do it for you.