We talked a lot about our bodies. What we were experiencing in the moment, what our bodies felt. What we were putting them through.
I don’t know why we talked so much about our bodies, when we were in a ward designed to heal the mind. At first it felt like avoidance, like we all just wanted to avoid the topic of mental well-being and its inevitable descent to our respective suicidal experiences.
But later, I started to believe that it was less avoidance and more necessity. We talked about our bodies because in a way, there was nothing else to talk about. We had all brought ourselves to the brink of existence, existentially for those with ideations and literally for those with attempts. And at that brink, at that threshold, we had made the decision that there was nothing in our minds worth preserving, nothing in our spirits worth keeping us from jumping (or cutting, or swallowing, or hanging).
Everything interesting or good about us had been cast aside, all the aspects of what made us who we were had been dismissed. Essentially, in order to get to the brink, we had to stop viewing ourselves as individuals, with minds and consciences and maybe souls. We had to view ourselves as bodies. Because bodies can be disposed of.
As a result, most mornings, we found ourselves sitting around a stack of children’s coloring books and a circle of small Styrofoam water cups, talking about bodies. Many sensations we didn’t have words for and we struggled to grasp. So we talked in looping, descriptive orbits around them as we might circle around foreign words, struggling to find that precise phrase to match that precise feeling.
“My eyes feel…. like they’re jiggling. My head feels like it’s bouncing up and down really fast, or like my brain is shaking. And I can see it in my vision.”
“My fingers feel weird. They don’t feel one hundred percent connected to the rest of my hand. Holy shit. They feel really tingly too, all of the sudden.”
“I couldn’t see for a second after I took my meds and stood up. Everything was black, and for a second, I was blind. Is that a black out? Does that happen to you?’
Mostly, this was the question we asked aloud: “Does that ever happen to you?” As though we sensed that we were, on some level, one and the same. A collection of misfits and oddities, coloring bits of coloring paper with coloring crayons while we struggled to speak about things that mattered. We sensed our similarities and, in the floating rubble that was our lives, we latched onto these similarities like life rafts.
They kept us afloat.
They kept us from recognizing the uncomfortable, obtrusive commonality: that we were all partially the same because we were all an identical mixture of failure and success. Failed attempts. Successful interventions.
I don’t remember much from the night of my attempt, and I certainly won’t go into details here. But I do remember the feeling of the morning after.
I woke up lying in some twisted shape on some soft surface, with no memory of how I came to form that shape on that surface. Within my first few fluttery blinks, the residue of guilt had already filtered its way into my vision.
I could grasp at shadowy memories of crying and yelling. But yelling at whom? Crying over what? What had I done? My memory, clouded by drugs and alcohol, stuttered and ground to a frightening halt at about seven o’clock the previous night.
I remember the quick drop from panic to despair. Panic, as I realized that huge chunks of my memory were missing, as I could recall only brief snatches of tearful conversations and goodbye texts and bright orange prescription pill bottles.
And then, just a moment later, I was spiraling through a cycle of shock and frustration: the dawning realization that I was still alive. There was a message on my phone from 8:01 AM, asking: “How are you doing this morning?”
I replied at 8:32 AM.
Later, the friend in question would confide that it was the single most joyful text she had ever received, though she received it completely out of context. To me, it was a cry for help. I’m alive; I’m still here. Help me.
That’s the thing about attempted suicide, from all the conversations I’ve gathered and all the experiences I’ve stitched together. There isn’t always a bright light at the end of a tunnel, a chorus of angelic voices urging you to return. It’s not always the slap in the face that you need, or the kick in the ass, or the life-altering summit. Often, attempted suicide feels like just another pit, one that doesn’t always spit you back up whole. One that you can fall down into multiple times, again and again, until eventually your body simply isn’t able to climb back out.
As a generally suicidal unit, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously.
It probably seems counterintuitive. But we were actually one of the livelier units, constantly laughing over something someone said, grinning over something someone did.
I knew that for my own part, it was often a very calculated act, designed to win me my freedom from the hospital. If the nurses saw me smiling, maybe they would tell the doctor. Maybe he would sign the paper. Maybe I would be set loose on the world again, smiling my fake smile as I skipped out the door and into the sunset.
But there was also plenty of genuine humor in the unit.
“You know there’s a problem when you’ve been here so many times that you can predict what the topic for Group is going to be,” said Solomon, one of the three-time-attempts.
Solomon had kind brown eyes and moist, sweaty skin. His love for all things science fiction reminded me of my older brother, and in doing so, endeared him to me.
“I know I should’ve learned my lesson by now. But. There are only so many ways you can beat a dead horse.”
The nurse on call frowned, shook her head. We weren’t really supposed to talk about death in the depression unit.
A few of us giggled, as Solomon noticed his mistake.
“Ah, sorry. A live horse, I mean.”
“There are only so many ways you can beat a live horse. Before it dies. Shit.”
The nurse really had to shush us up after that one, because most of us lost it.
We shared jokes, from corny puns to shrewd one-liners; one lunch, we did nothing but exchange offensive Helen Keller jokes. But we loved nothing more than jokes that centered around our own current condition, our fragility, our failures, our collective levels of sanity.
We liked to call ourselves “the nuthouse”. “The crazies.”
I think we were secure enough in our own mental stability to call ourselves this, yet close enough to the issue that it felt something like ownership. When new admits would walk through the revolving glass door, we would proudly and warmly welcome them to the loony bin (to the shaking heads of the nurses). Ownership. This may be a psych unit, but we are the psychos who make it up. We are the nutcases that make the nuthouse.
We used every bold, daring, word that we could to describe our situation. Insensitive? Looking back, it must have been a little insensitive. It certainly felt unsettling to me the first few times, when my laughter was polite and uncomfortable. But after I got used to the banter, it became essential, like another hospital rule:
Laugh at yourselves. Laugh at how absurd you look, a forty-year-old man, practicing “chair meditation” to a motivational Disney soundtrack. Keep laughing. Laugh at how you’re in a psychiatric hospital for an indefinite amount of time, your rights limited to those of a child, your drugs administered to you on the clock like a machine.
Joke about yourselves. Laugh and joke. Joke about how you’re planning to turn the scar into story about a bear fight, about how you’re planning to cover it with a full color tattoo portrait of the unit psychiatrist, about how you cut the wrong way.
We all laughed, even the ones who came in the door tearful and weepy. It was all just so absurd.
I used to carry a suicide note in the pocket of my blue winter coat.
I carried it on my person at all times, everywhere, just in case the opportunity for suicide might present itself. My fingers grew so comfortable with it there that they would involuntarily rub the paper while I walked to class. Over time, I rubbed that note so often that some of the pencil lead began to smear at the corners, blurring a few of my words together.
Now I carry a personal affirmation, a life mantra, written on a slightly thicker type of paper. My fingers are getting used to the material now, and something about this finally marks the beginning of a breakthrough for me.
It’s not the medicine that I’m swallowing every morning even though it leaves a metallic aftertaste on my tongue, or the therapy sessions I’m sitting through while a little water sculpture drips in the background, or the ten second hugs I’m sharing with my best friend, or the days I spent searching for something in a psych ward, or the toilet flushing away the leftover Xanax pills that rolled under my bed that night, or the feeling of pure bliss that washes over me when I wake up next to the love of my life. It’s not even the sticky green leaves opening in spring, or the blue sky; South Bend is cold, and the sky is gray!
It’s something else. This feeling of the paper between my fingers. I think it’s actual hope, come to me at last.