Image Credit: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
Like most avid readers, I have long let Don Quixote, that seventeenth century tome of imaginary adventures, sit unread on my bookshelf—allowing it to collect enough dust that one might think it to be Cervantes’ original manuscript itself. The book, all nine-hundred or so pages of it, is often considered the first and most important novel in the Western canon. The beauty of its language, the plummets it takes into its protagonist’s psychology and the long arc of its narrative amalgamate in a way that elevated fictional prose to the status of art, supposedly casting a shadow under which all Western novelists since have been living. Yet, despite all this, I have always had mixed feelings toward the book. On the one hand, its unread pages have been a source of ceaseless wonderment. Moreover, I’ve carried the belief that the experience of reading it will act as a sort of literary hajj to the origin of that which has imbued my life with so much meaning and sense of possibility. Contrarily, however, its length, antiquity and reputed difficulty have repelled me from it. Nabokov referred to it as a “crude” (10) and “cruel” (157) old novel, while Martin Amis has said of it, “Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminisces, and terrible cronies. When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last . . . you will shed tears all right; not tears of relief or regret but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that Don Quixote could do” (427). Thus, my naïvely romantic feelings toward the novel devolved into those of tedium, and the prospect of reading the book began to feel more like a chore than anything.
The first somewhat serious attempt I made at reading the book came soon after being rushed to Beth Israel’s psych ward. The beginning of that day had been fairly regular. Despite having been in a more intensive depressive and anxious state than usual in the prior few months, I managed to get out of bed and go to class like any other December morning. But as the day wore on, my depression and anxiety worsened. I went home and took every medication I had to try to calm myself down. Nothing was working; the feelings deepened further, and then even further. Even with the perspective of hindsight, I’m not exactly sure why things spiraled so quickly that day. At least from my own experience, when going through a major depressive or anxious episode like this, the depression, anxiety and panic don’t seem connected to anything tangible. If they were, there would at least be some hope and a way of imagining a way out. In other words, there would be something in the real world which, once obtained, would give you that vague sense of happiness and peacefulness you’re lamenting. You would still have that necessary feeling of hope that links us to the real world, our present and our future.
But even now, as I reflect upon that day and try to think about what factors pushed me to that point, every reason seems insufficient. I had become sober less than two months earlier, I was stressing over finals, going through several medication changes and I had recently been rejected by a girl with whom I thought I was in love. None of these answers seem satisfactory. I suppose the right answer must be that it was an amalgamation of them all in addition to my lifelong mental health problems—but even that doesn’t fully capture it. Perhaps the reason I’m struggling to describe this experience has to do with the nature of anxiety itself. In one discussion I had with my therapist, she astutely noted that it’s difficult to imagine anybody being able to produce anything creative out of an anxious state. I don’t think this is quite true with depression. While too much depression certainly destroys the creative impulse, it does seem that one is still capable of being artistic while mildly depressed. When anxiety is present, however, one’s mind becomes like a hunk of bread tossed into a koi pond of panic and dread, and forming the concentration necessary for artistic production is impossible.
My mind kept spiraling further away from itself and the real world, making each moment more unbearable than the last. This may present a rather solipsistic worldview, but the worst thing about depression and anxiety is precisely this: It locks us deep within the white walls of our mind. The speed at which my mind was turning against itself became faster by the second. Then my body started to freeze and tingles like electric shocks reverberated through every part of it. My legs went numb and it was difficult to stand. I kept pressing my hand to my chest. At times, my heart was pulsating so quickly that I could feel it bulging against my skin. At others, it felt like it wasn’t there, and my chest felt like an empty bottle of hairspray. Depression may be worse for some people, but for me, the overload created by anxiety has always been more miserable, and I was looking for any means of escape.
A few months earlier I would have turned to pills or alcohol. But with neither of them readily available, I resorted to a way of coping that I hadn’t used in years. Grabbing the closest glass bottle I could find, I walked into the bathroom, stood on the toilet and dropped the blue bottle against the tiled floor. The piercing sound of shattering glass felt fitting, almost cathartic. I remained standing on the toilet for the next few minutes, replaying the sound in my mind. Then I jumped down and looked for the longest and sharpest piece of blue I could find amid the fractured ocean that covered the floor.
At first it was just scratches; I was just getting reacquainted. But the surface level cuts then became a bit deeper, lightly smearing my forearm red. As my therapist and I talked about in another conversation, cutting feels like such a potent way of coping because it gives you a physical representation of what is going on in your mind. At the time, it felt right to be doing this. It was what I needed; it was what I deserved. As my mental pain deepened, so did the cutting. I kept pacing around the room, and the cutting started to crescendo. This destructive process continued for the next half hour or so. But then a new feeling creeped into my mind which caused me to put the shard of glass down. I walked out of the bathroom and, for some reason, decided to check my phone. It was during this brief moment that my mind felt as if it was becoming clearer. I looked down at the leaking tatters on my forearm and weighed the pros and cons of going further. It felt like I was being objective. Scrolling through my messages, I realized that I had left a conversation with one of my friends in medias res. Since I knew that she, too, has had her own difficulties with mental health, I decided to send her a message that alluded to the dark place I was in. Discussing our anxious and depressive states was nothing new, so I don’t think she initially recognized the gravity of the situation. Besides, she was in London at the time and was out at a bar when I messaged. At one point, however, I casually mentioned that I was cutting myself and was considering going deeper, phrasing it as if it was merely a throwaway exaggeration.
Perhaps it was because she knew me so well, or maybe because of her firsthand experience with mental health issues, but for whatever reason, she didn’t interpret my message the way I thought she would. Her tone became serious and empathetic. She immediately left the bar and, after dashing back to her dorm, called me. In the few minutes where she lost Wi-Fi on her run home, I picked up the blue glass, whose edges were now rusty with blood, and resumed cutting. Distracted, I didn’t answer her first few calls. Then I saw that she was calling for the fourth or fifth time. I was torn. One part of me wanted so badly to pick up the phone and try to make some sort of human connection; the other wanted to go on cutting. James Baldwin described the devil as “that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself” (571). This was the (un)reality toward which my depression and anxiety were pushing me, and I had never before felt the contradictory emotions which led to my two options so strongly.
Finally, I answered, the glass still digging into my other hand. My friend asked how I was doing, with a great deal of worry in her voice. I can’t remember what my response was, but very quickly she started sobbing. Crying does not come naturally to me. I don’t attach this to any image or ideal of masculinity that I feel it necessary to uphold, emotion is simply something that I’ve never felt comfortable expressing, and repression has always been more instinctive. But in this instance, I began sobbing so deeply that it felt like violent torrents were coursing beneath my body’s frozen surface. Despite this overwhelming physical reaction, speaking with my friend did slightly turn down the shrieking in my mind. I can recall very little of what was actually said—it’s the emotional weight that has stayed with me. All I remember is that she kept telling me how much she loved me, while repeatedly making references to seemingly banal but spiritually meaningful experiences we had shared together. The only response I gave was “I just want it all to end,” while watching blood drip through the briny lens of tear-filled eyes.
Since she was abroad, I’m still not entirely sure how she managed to get in contact with the NYPD. I believe it had something to do with reaching out to another friend’s dad who was in New York at the time and having him make the call. Regardless, the last bits of our conversation centered on her telling me the police were on their way. When they did arrive, however, it wasn’t anything like I’d expected. I had assumed that a single police officer and a few EMTs would gently come knocking on my door. Instead, the door was thrown open by five or six steely, militant cops whose intensity was intended to diffuse the situation as fast as possible. They rushed into the room, took the glass away from me and moved me to a corner of the room where I could be closely monitored.
After I’d been contained, and the initial intensity of the situation had subsided, the lead officer began relaying information in a tone that shifted between being stern, sympathetic and procedural. The EMTs were on their way, he said, but it was going to take them some time. They were stuck in traffic, and, if I remember correctly, there was some uncertainty about which hospital they were going to take me to. During the long wait, two police officers took turns supervising me. One remained silent, something which was in turns comforting and disheartening. The other took the opposite approach and talked a lot. This, too, was sometimes comforting and sometimes disheartening. He asked me a lot of questions about myself and my family. Some of them I answered, some of them I didn’t. Whenever I remained silent, he spoke lovingly about his own family and, with the exception of a few moments where he offered some consolatory words, the conversation had the air of being regular small talk taking place between two polite strangers. When I reflect back on that officer now, however, I find myself immensely grateful. While his words clearly showed that he understood nothing about mental health issues, they also revealed that he was trying to. True empathy is impossible; ultimately, we all must carry the weight of our minds and emotions by ourselves. But the longing for empathy, the sincere desire to experience what another person is feeling so that they don’t have endure their burdens by themselves, is probably the greatest act of love there is.
In addition to contacting the NYPD, my friend in London had somehow been able to reach out to my dad’s office in Manhattan as well. So, amid the chaos of the scene, with multiple police officers blocking the doorway, my father managed to break into the room and, crying himself, wrap me in his arms. My father, the man who, like me, has always masked his emotions, was actually crying, holding me and saying how much he loved me. Outside of this instance, I cannot honestly recall a single time when anything remotely similar has happened. I have always felt close to my dad, but I thought it was our lack of emoting which bonded us. Perhaps this is common between fathers and sons, but I have always felt that there is a tacit agreement between my father and me, which states that we will only ever address superficial things, and that all the emotional weight lurking behind them will be repressed by us both. Yet this tacit agreement, mutually agreeing to endure the weight of repression, has, oddly, always felt like a recognition of each other’s pain, and caused me to feel a peculiar closeness to him. That being said, the fact that we were now breaking this rule made me feel closer to him than I ever had.
The police quickly rushed him out the room. Through the barrier of NYPD officers, I only managed to pick up brief shards of the argument he was having with the lead officer. My mind was too busy eating away at itself to process much of the dispute, but I believe it revolved around my father wanting to take me to Silver Hill, a mental hospital in my home state of Connecticut, and the officer telling my dad that neither he nor I had any power of choice at the moment. I would first have to be examined in a psych ward before any future plans could be arranged.
Soon after, the EMTs arrived. There were two of them, but only one started treating me. Grabbing my forearm, she applied pressure and wrapped my arm with gauze and tape. It was only after she’d finished this that she spoke to me. “Why are you sad?” she asked in a strong Russian accent. I laughed, and she gave me a puzzled look. Meanwhile, the other EMT was speaking to the police about how they were going to get me to the ambulance outside. She walked over to me and asked if I felt capable of walking. The question struck me as strange because, for some reason, I felt that I had completely lost control over my legs and realized that my body and mind had completely dissociated. Descartes may have been certain about his mind’s existence and unsure of his body’s, but in that moment, I was certain that, if they did exist, they no longer belonged to me. Eventually, however, I nodded. She and two of the cops pried me to my feet and, after lining up in the middle of the procession, we began our descent. Inching our way out of the building, crying and surrounded by a group of police officers, I bowed my head and caught only glimpses of the faces that looked on. They all looked shocked, confused, but above all, still, unnaturally and painfully still—as if they’d just been carved out of a Van Gogh painting.
Almost everything in a psych ward is white. Many mental hospitals actually look much different from what one may expect—psych wards do not. The walls and floors are white, the linens and pillows are white, the nurses’ shoes are white, the blaring artificial lights are white. The whiteness was so consuming that even things which weren’t white remain white in my memory: “A / world lost, / a world unsuspected / beckons to new places / and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory / of whiteness” (Williams, lines 35-40). Williams Carlos Williams wrote these lines late in his career. A poet whose oeuvre is tinged with every color imaginable focused on white, the absence of color, toward the end of his life. Are all my memories destined to be bleached the same way this one has?
A majority of one’s time in a psych ward is spent waiting. Their purpose is only to keep you from hurting yourself or others until your manic episode subsides and then ship you somewhere else. After being stripped of my clothes and belongings, I changed into the paper-thin cotton scrubs that are given to every patient. Since they come in only one size, they were easily three sizes too big for me. The “short” sleeves drooped down to my wrists, and, having no strings, I had to grab my butt every time I stood up to keep the pants from falling down.
Most of the activity I experienced came at the very beginning. A nurse took my blood pressure, drew blood and asked a couple cursory questions. I was then directed to a small circle of couches, where I was to wait for my mental evaluation or the time of night when the bedrooms would open, whichever came first. So, I spent the next few hours trying in vain to find the most comfortable sitting position I could. Every once in a while someone new would be admitted, and the couches slowly began to fill. The first patient was a generous man who took great pride in his Dominican heritage and offered his food to those he thought needed it. He was also very skilled at convincing the different nurses to allow him to make phone calls. Each time, he dialed 911 and told the operator he’d been kidnapped. Shortly after him, a friendly man who smelled of urine and had a severe limp was admitted. He said he was living on the streets and had broken his foot jumping out a window several months earlier. One of the nurses said it must be very painful; he agreed. She asked him whether he had seen a doctor; he said he preferred to self-medicate.
“With what?” she asked.
“With crack,” he said.
All the while, the hours slowly ticked away until I was finally brought forth for my mental examination. I was taken into a small room where I was met by even more white walls. The interviewing panel was composed of three hospital employees who each held wooden expressions and solemn clipboards. I felt like I’d been sent to the principal’s office.
They pointed me to an uncomfortable-looking plastic chair and waited a while before beginning. All three were women, and the one in the middle was clearly the psychiatrist, while the one to her right was a social worker. The woman sitting on the far left was much younger and, I believe, still doing her residency. This was made clear by her eager note taking, which made me feel like a slide on a PowerPoint.
When the questions started, however, they were asked almost exclusively by the psychiatrist, who always left long gaps between them. One would not be wrong to draw similarities between the psychiatrist’s cold, seemingly unsympathetic tone and that of Nurse Ratched’s in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I have always been critical of both Ken Kesey’s and Miloš Forman’s portrayals of this character because it has always seemed to me that they were more interested in using her as a symbol than they were in trying to create an accurate depiction of a psychiatric nurse. That being said, what the novel’s and the film’s portrayals of her and her relationship with Randle do accurately convey is the excruciating, often insurmountable distance that exists between psychiatric patients and the staff that’s treating them.
One of the first questions she asked me was whether I had tried to kill myself. Anyone who has ever been in a mental health facility knows that suicide is the last word you say. The moment you mention it you lose all sense of autonomy, and the doctors are given permission to do whatever they want with you for however long they think is necessary. So I talked around the question. In The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene writes, “We are all of us resigned to death; it’s life we aren’t resigned to” (242). If I had tried to be honest in that moment, I would have said that my views toward life represented the fullest embodiment of this sentiment. But if I’m being honest now, nothing I could have said at that time would have felt truthful. I was so far removed from my mind and emotions that everything would have felt like a lie. Regardless, I dared not give an answer as psychologically dark and ambiguous as Greene’s. Instead, I remained vague and polite. They wouldn’t be able to do anything with vague answers, and, given the amount of mentally ill people that come through their doors each day, they would eventually have to give up on me. I tried to be polite because I thought it would play against the notions they had of suicidal people. People who are suicidal are too imprisoned in their own minds to be considerate about the needs of others, I thought. So, if I could show them that I was thinking of their needs, while also upholding the mundane social niceties that govern our lives, they wouldn’t think I was too seriously ill. As the questions continued, I also made several references to the therapist and psychiatrist I had outside the hospital. This would show them that I was still interested in improving my mental health, while also making it easier for them to release me—since there were other people they could dump my problems onto. Near the end, the psychiatrist asked if I would be willing to sign a consent form which stated that I would voluntarily admit myself to a mental hospital. I said I would consider it, but asked what would happen if I didn’t sign. She said that she’d then have to sign an involuntary consent form.
Thus, the psych examination ended inconclusively. I had no clearer idea of what the immediate future held for me than I did going in. I was sent back to the couches where I saw a few new faces. The realization that I had no idea what my immediate future held, however, caused me to sink to an even lower level of dejection. All I knew was that, for the foreseeable future, there was no chance of me leaving, and I was stuck within these white walls until they’d confine me to the even smaller white walls of a bedroom. This would happen when evening came, which I could only guess was at least some hours away. I sat down on one of the couches and tried to fall asleep, with my only conception of time being created by the ambulatory rhythms of an elderly woman who paced through the narrow hallways like a metronome.
They opened the bedrooms early, or at least so it seemed. The reason they typically open the bedrooms late is because the staff first needs to determine which people are going to stay as overnight patients. These decisions are predicated upon one’s mental state, room availability, among others. I believe this premature opening of the bedrooms had something to do with the insistent pleading of one of the other patients, although I’m not entirely sure. I was given the first bedroom, which was, unfortunately, intended for two people. Yet, despite further engulfing me in this universe of whiteness, having a mattress to myself, no matter how uncomfortable, was a new luxury.
For a while, the prospect of sharing this room with another person made me nervous. In order to distract myself over the next couple of hours, while the dust created by the eruption in my mind was still settling, I started to ruminate on what this fictional roommate would be like. From there, in order to pass the time, my mind turned toward the fiction of memories, and I tried to create new stories out of them. In Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel, For Bread Alone, while stuck in the isolation of a prison cell, the narrator ponders, “What would life be like, I wondered, if all of it had to be spent sitting like this here in this room? We would all have to exist only in our memories, acting out the parts we play here until we were so bored by both them and the memories that we came to rest in a silence like this. We would disappear one by one, until all of us were gone, and the unluckiest of us would be the one who disappeared last” (180-181). As a writer, I somewhat pride myself on being good at this “play acting” that Choukri refers to and have entertained myself with it many times. But unlike those other times, it wasn’t much of a choice now, and I didn’t get to decide when it would end.
So, I killed time indulging in memories. I tried placing myself in Chinatown, during a night early in my freshman year when some new friends and I wandered the streets late into the night, laughing and growing exponentially closer. Then, when my memories became worn-out and uninteresting, I created hypothetical situations that I thought would make me happy. I imagined that the girl I was in love with was lying under these wafery white sheets with me—sharing warmth in this overly air-conditioned room. Then I stretched back even further, to my childhood, and tried to reconstruct those figures, friends and teachers, who, having once meant so much to me, were now only dissolving blots on the broken radar screen of my mind.
The hours pushed deeper into the night and, despite being very tired, my anxiety made it difficult to fall asleep. Over the course of the night, my paltry hypotheticals started being punctuated by a nurse who would wheel a lanky blood pressure monitor in every few hours and mechanically wrap my arm in its plastic strap. She was always backlit by the light emanating from the hallway, and her shadow devoured the entire room. Each time, she read out the numbers and then wheeled back out the door. I tried asking her a question once or twice, but her concentration remained permanently fixed on the monitor. It seemed as if she was capable of thinking only in numbers and that my words were merely faint echoes of the air-conditioner’s lightly hummed white noise. But her lack of responses eventually made me feel even lonelier. This was the worst part of my experience in the psych ward. At a time when I felt most cut off from anything meaningful, the staff seemed to be finding new ways to make me feel even more isolated. I was in a state of depression and anxiety which, despite battling these issues my entire life, had reached a level I’d never imagined possible. What I needed most at this juncture was connection. Instead, the ward’s staff kept burrowing me deeper and deeper into the prison of my deteriorating mind.
These feelings of isolation ruptured sometime in the middle of the night. Anxiously, I staggered into the deserted hallway, the traction pads on my socks slowing down my pace, and tried to get the attention of the first nurse I saw. She walked out of the section of the ward sealed off for staff and asked what I wanted. I asked if they had a book, a magazine, anything that would kill (fill?) time. After thinking for a moment, the nurse directed me into the kitchen, which confused me even more. She opened one of the kitchen’s many locked closets, and I realized that the room was also used as storage space for miscellaneous hospital equipment. Before the books, I saw bags full of syringes, more blood pressure straps, and tightly wound rolls of gauze. They had only a few books, which were all strewn together on a single shelf. It was mostly a collection of cheap, yellowed paperbacks with weeds growing out of their spines. But placed right in the middle was a recent edition of Don Quixote. Its vermilion cover gave it the appearance of a ruby nestled inside a mound of trampled ferns. I grabbed it and began flipping through its thick pages once I was back in my bedroom. As I readied myself for this literary endeavor, I remembered having read somewhere that, while serving in the Spanish Navy, Cervantes had been captured and spent five years in an Ottoman prison. I imagined all the “play acting” he must have done during those years and the ways it must have informed his writing of the novel.
I stayed up with the book for most of the night, but, admittedly, didn’t get very far—my mind was still too concentrated on devouring itself. Cervantes spends the first few pages playfully mocking his hero. He describes Quixote’s obsession with Romantic tales of chivalry and knighthood and tells us that Quixote has sold large portions of his land and livestock in order to fund his book collecting. His community looks down on him, with the consensus being that he is a fool who’s brought misfortune upon himself by living in his fantasy worlds. It is initially unclear to what degree Cervantes agrees with these opinions. I have a hard time believing that someone could write a thousand-page novel about a character without having sympathy for him, but if Cervantes does, it is not reflected in the opening pages.
Living alongside Don Quixote on a night like this, however, both of us filling our minds with fantasies of heroism and happiness, did provide some comfort at first. But as I read on, I started to recognize the inadequacies of imagination and the way in which it burrows us deeper into the hollow chambers of our minds. While reading, my mind rapidly started sinking, until it reached a state similar to the deepest level of hell in The Divine Comedy. Like Dante’s vision of Satan, my mind was submerged in a tarn of ice which my imagination had created. But how could this be? Imagination, that thing which had made life bearable and guided me through the darkest periods of my life, was now being stretched beyond its limits. It was like a sword that was suddenly growing a second edge, and as I blindly swung it at my depression and anxiety its new edge kept digging further into me. I had finally realized the limitations of imagination and the need to embrace reality. But what is reality? And what was there to embrace at that moment? I put the book down and tried to escape from my mind; but when I finally did, I was met only by the reticence of the white walls which cordoned me. I spent the rest of the night veering back and forth inside this tunnel in which there was only darkness at each end. The more I ran, the further away from answers I became. Sleep enveloped me in a blissful relief.
The next day I was transported to a mental hospital in Westchester. The thoughts from the night before still haunted me, but were slowly ameliorated by the banal interactions and responsibilities I had to perform. Are these interactions and responsibilities what constitute reality? The only times when I’ve actually felt like I was experiencing reality are when I’ve felt connected with something greater than myself. And when I say greater than myself, I mean other than myself. Truly connecting with something or someone other than yourself requires you to fully recognize the importance of that other thing and value it more than you value yourself. The belief in something greater than oneself is, ultimately, the belief in anything other than oneself. It requires an unwillful submission which, once fully believed and embraced, allows you to escape the solipsism that dominates most of our lives. Some call this escape from solipsism faith, others call it love. I’ve never been sure which word to use. But as I’ve grown older, I have become less concerned with this. It is the experience itself that matters, not the syllables we stick onto it afterwards.
I was strapped into a gurney and was unable to move anything other than my head and neck. Despite how gentle the EMTs were, the fact that I looked like Hannibal Lecter, minus the mask, made me feel more like the crazy person that I thought everyone thought I was. Accurate portrayals of mental health issues and its treatments are in some ways worse, because when you have the same experiences and go through the same procedures you’ve seen portrayed, you further internalize the notion that you are crazy.
Mental hospitals often look different than what people may think. The one I was taken to was a small compound of quaint cabins tucked away in the woods. I would say that the trees all looked dead, but that would imply that those apoplectic beams looked like they were ever capable of containing life. Pulling into the parking lot, the place looked like an abandoned summer camp.
When the ambulance doors opened, the raw, December wind cascaded onto my face. It was comforting. Compared to the recycled air of the psych ward, its crisp stream was refreshing. The nausea caused by not being able to move my body during the ninety-minute drive through New York’s serpentine backroads also started to dissipate. After lowering me out of the ambulance, the EMTs struggled to wheel me into the hospital’s reception area. Their short walk was made difficult by icy walkways, which panels of snow had narrowed.
Sitting in the waiting room as I went through the long process of admission was actually quite enjoyable. Although I knew it hadn’t been that long, being in the presence of other people and having a world to look out upon through the windows gave my mind a feeling of tranquility. The iron fetters of isolation were gradually being loosened. I felt that the worst of it was over, and, “I knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen” (Bishop, lines 71-73).
After a rather extensive body search and the cutting of strings and laces, I was able to change into my regular clothes. I tend to look down on the fashion world and often consider it vain and superficial. But in that instance, I remember the enormous gratitude I felt toward my clothes and the sense of identity they helped restore. A nurse threw the scrubs into a corner, where they settled like a freshly shed snakeskin.
My mom arrived soon after, which also improved my mood. It took a long time to process each patient and there were many who came before me. This gave us a lot of time to talk. (Talk!) She told me that when I was in the psych ward, she and my dad had been sitting in the small waiting area just outside. All that time, when I was in the deepest recesses of isolation, my parents were on the other side of those white walls. This seemed unfathomable. Mental space and physical space aren’t meant to be that far apart; a metaphor should never stray that far from its source.
The time I spent in the waiting room was also enjoyable because, after convincing my mom that I had the mental strength to do so, I made a few phone calls to friends who would be wondering why I’d gone AWOL. I vaguely told each of them what had happened, always excluding many details. Everyone understood; everyone was sorry. Each told me about times when they’d been sad or stressed, but always ended on a positive note, usually saying something like, “at least you’re finally getting help.” After these calls, however, I had to make the one I’d been putting off. The girl who had recently rejected me was, and still is, a close friend. When she picked up the phone, she was already crying. I hadn’t even called from my own phone, but she must have recognized the area code. Unlike the others, she knew what had happened, and, in many ways, I think the experience was harder on her than it was on me. She blamed herself, but I didn’t feel like the victim of anything. All at once, my feelings of isolation, hopelessness and dread transformed into hatred. I hated myself for what I had done and for the way it was making her feel. There was so much I wanted to convey, but I only managed to keep repeating “it’s not your fault.” I pictured myself as Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting and wished that my words carried the same emotional weight as his. Instead, they were hollow, and neither of us ended the call with a feeling of resolution.
The admission process was choppy. Every thirty minutes or so, someone would call my name, and I’d walk into their room to answer a few questions. One person asked me which medications I was on, while another had me give her a rundown of my drug and alcohol problems. A third then asked me how long I had felt depressed. This question brought to mind Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is one of the greatest books I’ve read that deals with mental health. In the book, she quotes Emerson and then offers her interpretation. “‘Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus’ wrote Emerson. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly” (30-31). Nelson’s analysis has always frightened me because the blue bead of depression is the only lens through which I can honestly remember seeing the world.
The only exceptions are the times when the lens of anxiety has taken over, a lens which vibrates so quickly that all color is obscured. When I try to think back to the times when I wasn’t depressed, or at least not unhappy, I can only recall distant images of childhood—a time when the world was simply the world, and it wasn’t filtered through any particular lens. “Our moods do not believe in each other” (406), Emerson states in another essay. As much as I agree with this aphorism, I have a hard time applying it to my own situation. Maybe my depressed lens has made it impossible for me to believe that I have ever seen the world through any others. But even now, this seems too optimistic. Finally, I responded to the man’s question with “for a while,” which seemed to satisfy the form he was filling out.
What I’ve gleaned from this first experience of being in a mental hospital is still unclear to me. The days I spent there seem more like an epilogue to the much briefer experience of being in the psych ward. One of the first things I noticed in the mental hospital was the wide variety of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, that were under the same roof. Something else I noticed was that, when it came to the other patients’ attitudes toward the hospital, they could be divided into two categories: those who wanted to stay as long as possible, and those who wanted to leave as quickly as possible. I fell hardly in the latter. But which category someone fell into wasn’t determined by any obvious factor, such as class, gender or age. For some, the stability created by the hospital’s rigid schedule was preferable to whatever life was waiting for them outside. For others, there was a particular aspect of the hospital’s care that they especially enjoyed. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it seemed to come down to the fact that some of the patients were willing to accept help, while others were not. This being said, mental health is always too complicated to make such generalizations, and I certainly do not consider myself an expert on or a spokesperson for others who have been in mental hospitals. I do believe, however, that my strong desire to leave resulted from the resistance I had toward receiving help. At the time, I considered myself beyond all hope and thought that being miserable would at least be better in the outside world. So, by demonstrating how “normal” I was, then through pleading and having my family describe the access to care I had outside the hospital, I managed to leave sooner than anticipated. In hindsight, I probably should have stayed longer.
The days that I did spend in the mental hospital were composed of rhythms created by meetings and activities which took place every day at the exact same times. Looking back, I was probably the youngest patient placed in the adult ward. In mental hospitals, however, things like age don’t matter. Everyone treats each other as equals and interacts with one another. While some people at this facility inevitably grew closer to others, there was no social hierarchy. From later hospitalizations, I have experienced the sense of family which develops between patients over time. The main purpose of mental hospitals is to re-teach you how to be human and instill in you the value of being one. During this first experience, however, I didn’t stay long enough to recognize this.
Despite how rigid the schedule was, there was a lot of free time. I kept trying to read or do something productive, but each time my brain wouldn’t allow it. This depressive malaise seemed rampant among the patients. As a result, I spent many hours playing Connect Four with Erica, who was nearly twice my age, and Apples to Apples with Sharon, a mother of two from Long Island.
One of the worst effects of the solipsism created by mental health issues is that it hinders one’s desire to empathize. Someone like Sharon, who had tried to kill herself, and apparently succeeded for a few moments, had a tragic life story which now moves me greatly. But at the time it affected me very little. This was a mindset I held toward the histories of all the other patients. Moreover, I tended to group them into two categories: people who were “normal” like me, and just had issues with depression or anxiety, and those whom I deemed actually crazy. Despite our similarities, while I was there, I didn’t want to associate myself with the latter group, and I used all my ingrained prejudices toward mental health to distance myself from them.
The attitude we each held toward our own mental health, however, came up quite often in the group meetings. In Bluets there are two quotations which reverberate through my mind every time I think about my attitude toward my own mental health. First, Nelson writes, “Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that” (29). Later on, when writing about a self-help book, she says, “Like many self-help books, The Deepest Blue is full of horrifyingly simplistic language and some admittedly good advice. Somehow the women in the book all learn to say: That’s my depression talking. It’s not ‘me’” (34). The type of advice given in the latter quotation is something I have received many times. One friend of mine always ensures me that “mental health issues don’t define a person.” But while reassurances like these sound nice and true enough, I think, like Nelson, I have always found them to feel a bit false. My mental health has and will continue to dictate so much of my life that it’d be wrong to say that it hasn’t become at least some part of who I am. To say that one’s mental health isn’t a part of one’s identity seems to deny that mental health exists at all. This is why the first of Nelson’s quotations has always troubled me so deeply. Is the best course of action to submit oneself to one’s mental health issues and become their servant? At times it certainly feels so. But that’s not a role I’m comfortable subjugating myself to. But then what role should I have in relation to my mental health?
Anyone who has ever taken an essay writing course probably knows that the English word “essay” comes from the old French verb “essayer,” which means “to try”. While the essay form has undoubtedly changed, if I started writing this piece trying to solve the above question, I have failed. I’m still not sure what my mental health means to me, but I’m pretty sure that it is a part of me. I think that throughout my life I’ll be trying to answer this question. But I think that this “trying,” both through writing and outside of it, is the best thing for me to do. “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them” (413), Emerson writes later on in “Circles.” To commit oneself to a single role in relationship to one’s mental health, whatever that role may be, seems to be condemning oneself to one’s mental health. It seems that a power we have over our mental health exists in constantly changing our relationship to it and not letting it subjugate us to one role. But I’m still learning how to do this, and still looking for the beauty in it.
- Amis, Martin. “Broken Lance.” The War Against Cliché: Essays and Review 1971-2000, Vintage, 2002, p.p. 427-432.
- Baldwin, James. “The Devil Finds Work.” Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, Library of America, 1998, p.p. 477-572.
- Bishop, Elizabeth. “In the Waiting Room.” Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, Library of America, 2008.
- Choukri, Mohamed. For Bread Alone. Translated by Paul Bowles, Telegraph Books, 2007.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Circles,” Essays and Lectures. Library of America, 1983, p.p. 401-414.
- Greene, Graham. The Heart of the Matter. Penguin Classics, 2004.
- Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Don Quixote, edited by Fredson Bowers, Harvest, 1983.
- Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009.
- Williams, William Carlos. “The Descent.” Paterson, edited by Christopher MacGowan, New Directions, 1995.
Alex Watanabe is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, who is pursuing postgraduate studies on Japanese literature. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin and previously taught high school English in the Bronx .
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.