This past summer, I was in an intensive out-patient program housed in the psych ward (the “Behavioral Health Science Center”) of a large hospital in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA. The events of the summer – graduating college, some nasty health problems that affected me downstairs, and a prolonged break-up – had led me to a complete break down.
I am not unfamiliar with mental health care; my parents work in the field, and nearly everybody in my extended family is or was on psychiatric medication. I had not been on any medication, but I was no stranger to therapy. But I had never imagined that I would end up in the hospital. I had never imagined that my level of depression would become so alarming.
Before I went to the pysch ward in Bethlehem, I went to the emergency room at the hospital in the small New England town where I went to college. I had not been sleeping for about four or five weeks, and I simply couldn’t keep on going like I had been, moving about in a haze and obsessively thinking about why I couldn’t be happy about anything anymore. There is a term that I learned after all this – “safe.” It perhaps seems silly, but it does capture what I felt: I did not feel “safe” to go home from work that day and resume as I had been because thoughts of suicide had gripped me with a fear that I couldn’t dismiss.
It was, in a sense, a relief to finally just say, “I give up,” and allow the full force of my emotions to overwhelm me, emotions that I really didn’t comprehend at the time. There is a way in which depression creeps up on you – you don’t realize how bad off you really are, and then all of the sudden it is like everything explodes. I felt a sense of relief because I thought, ok, now that I’m admitting to myself that I’ve reached the depths, I can begin to pull myself out.
I didn’t really know what to expect out of the ER for a mental health issue; I just knew that I had to go there because I didn’t know how else to address how I was feeling. I had been working at the college library and two friends who also worked on campus drove me there. In the waiting room I saw my friends Dave and Dan Lomax, and this made the whole thing seem like some tragicomedy for a few moments. They were walking down a corridor and I ran after them and called their names. It turns out that Lomax had twisted his ankle in some sort of drunken accident. The hospital staff thought I was really crazy when I ran after them.
When they called me in, a nurse asked me for a brief summary of why I had come. Then she drew blood to check if there were any physiological reasons for my mental state (thyroid level, illicit drugs, etc.). I was sent out to the waiting room again to wait for the social worker to arrive.
At this point, my girlfriend arrived at the hospital. I came outside to meet her, tears pouring from my eyes. “I love you, Dan,” she said as she hugged me. I imagine that as overwhelming as all of this was for me, it was not especially pleasant for her, either – to have watched me slowly deteriorate, put up with me breaking up with her several times out of confusion, and now to be visiting me at the hospital. When she told me she loved me I became even more overcome with emotion. It seemed so beautiful that beyond our convoluted break-up and beyond all of my indecision about what I wanted to do with my life she could still plainly state, “I love you.” At the same time it was exquisitely painful to hear this phrase, because one of the principal reasons why I was losing it was that I didn’t know what to do about her anymore. We smoked a cigarette together, one of our favorite pastimes, and talked about how we might salvage our relationship. Eventually the social worker came outside and told me that we had to talk.
The social worker’s purpose was to evaluate my condition and advise me on what steps to take. For about an hour we discussed why I was there. I explained as best as I could that I had a health problem that was affecting me sexually, that I had just graduated, that I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go to France to teach English, and that above all I didn’t know if I could be with girlfriend anymore. The social worker listened patiently. The best she could really do was to say that she could see it was a difficult, transitional time. She offered to have me admitted to the psych ward there, but since my parents were coming up to have me stay in a hotel room with them, she didn’t think it was necessary. After that, I saw the ER physician briefly; he gave me a prescription for Trazadone, a sleeping pill, and I was discharged.
It seemed to me that this had to be my lowest point; surely, things had to go up from there. The next day, that appeared to be the case. I made the choice to stay in the United States and to remain in that small New England town. A large part of my distress had to do with indecision, and I thought that maybe just by simplifying things a little and not being in such a hurry to move on to something new I would feel a lot better.
My girlfriend and I met up that day and took a walk along the Connecticut river, a walk we had taken several times that summer. I felt better than I had in weeks; I was affectionate, engaged, alert, caring. It was as if the last month or two had been just a protracted nightmare in which I stopped being who I was to her and to myself. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the last time I would connect with her in an unequivocally loving way.
The following day I headed back to Bethlehem with my parents so I could hang there and cool off. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do, after all I had been through. Even on the drive home, I started breaking down again, worse than before. I began to feel so awful that I couldn’t handle being alone. The only thing that moderately occupied my attention in a distracting way was watching TV, and when I ran out of things to watch, I would have a fit and start crying.
I was able to see a friend from high school at this point who was also in town, and I explained to him everything that had happened. He was able to see in a way that I couldn’t at the time that part of what was happening was an over-involvement with my girlfriend, to the point that I had lost touch with myself. He could see that a great deal of my distress had to do with the ambiguity of the situation. He could see that I had to make a clear, firm decision and that obviously that couldn’t be to stay with my girlfriend and live in my college town.