When death won't solve your problem – Maggie Siebert
January 28, 2020
After sitting in the waiting room of the psychiatric hospital for three hours, it began to dawn on me that I would probably not be going home. My best friend dropped me off around 4 p.m., when it was still light out, and before I could face a revolving door of psychiatrists, nurses and social workers I surrendered my belongings to a security officer: my cell phone, my jacket and a copy of Pound’s Cantos, which I brought naively hoping I could have it in the waiting room. From there I sat under harsh fluorescent light with a warm blanket and stared at a wall until my name was called.
“Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself or others?”
I was asked this question over and over, by different people with different occupations, and I tried to explain as coherently as possible that I felt as if I had lost my grip on reality. I told them I felt like I deserved to die, that I was constantly scouring my memory to inventory every wrong I had ever committed, and that for the last two weeks my mind was consumed with thoughts of hanging myself, scoring opiates and overdosing, slitting my wrists in the bathtub, slitting my wrists in my bed, running into traffic, and so on.
More questions, one after the other: does your family have a history of mental illness? Have any of your relatives, to your knowledge, attempted or completed suicide? Do you drink, smoke or use intravenous drugs? How long have you had these thoughts? Do you harm yourself? What is stopping you from killing yourself?
Yes. Not that I’m aware of. I don’t really drink, I smoke marijuana, I don’t use hard drugs. At least since adolescence. Yes, in the last few weeks I’ve been cutting myself. I think it would make my mom and my friends sad.
That answer is apparently not good enough, according to the social worker, and she strongly encourages me to voluntarily check in. I understand that I can say no, and I also understand that the police can make me stay if it’s decided I really need to. From the sound of it, I need to be there, so I sign some forms and at around 10:00 p.m. I am placed in a “transitional bedroom,” which makes me laugh in spite of everything.
I do not immediately go to sleep, though everyone else is, instead opting to briefly examine my new surroundings. It’s carpeted, which makes the environment feel about 10 percent less sterile than I imagined it would be. There’s a communal space with a TV set, and a “kitchen” that really just houses peanut butter, jam, two kinds of crackers and a lot of juice.
Just outside my room is a bookshelf divided into three sections, and I immediately notice a Michael Crichton novel I read for a fourth grade book report. I take it off the shelf and into my room. I feel dazed, bewildered, not at all dissimilar to a concussion I had while reporting on the state legislature in journalism school. A nurse enters and gives me an Ativan. Wanting desperately to take my mind off what’s happening, I read about 60 pages before the drugs kick in and, exhausted, I fall asleep.
It feels like blinking. I awake at 7:00 a.m. and have my blood drawn and vitals taken. I am wearing the same clothes. I am starting to smell. The unit is alive with activity, everyone in line for coffee. I still can’t eat, and I retreat back to my room, turn the lights off and fall back asleep.
Throughout the day I speak with P.A.s and nurses, who uniformly tell me it sounds like I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is something I’ve known for some time, something my high school therapist thought I had, but it’s nice to hear someone else say it.
As a child, back home in Montana, I remember waking up some mornings with the distinct and unshakable feeling that the world was going to end. It was the first thing I felt upon opening my eyes, and was made all the more intense if I made any accidental alterations to my morning routine. When changing into new clothes, if I failed to put on the first pair of underwear I touched, the chances of worldwide cataclysm would increase tenfold.
Other things: clenching my leg muscles one after the other, first the right, then the left, over and over until they feel “even,” (and sometimes getting so frustrated by my inability to do so that I’d punch walls); systematically cracking my knuckles; pulling out every single one of my nose hairs; replaying awkward or embarrassing memories over and over, long into the night, keeping me awake; the distinct, pants-shitting dread of always feeling like I’m in deep trouble; imagining whole conversations people are having about me. A lifetime of obsessions and compulsions, my disorder’s name too on the nose.
And, as tends to happen, thoughts of suicide follow not too long after. Sometimes they were situational, like when it would get so busy at my first restaurant job that I would imagine myself standing on top of a table in use, sticking a gun in my mouth and blowing my brains out in front of everyone. Other times they appeared out of nowhere, like when, after a pleasant evening with a high school sweetheart, I stood on the street corner and thought about splattering myself against a moving car.
My early suicide fantasies were bloody, extreme and sudden. Now they’re much less flashy but more disconcerting. I can no longer write it off as maladjusted escapism.
At the hospital, my psychiatrist tells me it’s in my best interest to go to the group sessions. There are several throughout the day, but I only attend two: the first involves writing down an accomplishment on a piece of paper and having everyone else write down adjectives that describe it; the second, we paint Halloween pumpkins on round balls of styrofoam.
The second time, I talk to a guy named Scott. Scott is detoxing from heroin, and asks the nurse to play “Soul to Squeeze” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers on her phone. He doesn’t ask questions about why everyone’s calling me “Maggie” even though I’m obviously a boy, and checks in on me from time to time, concerned that all I’ve eaten the whole time is crackers. Scott and I also teach a kid how to play Texas Hold ‘Em, but the kid doesn’t really seem to get it or enjoy it very much.
I keep taking my pills and I keep eating crackers. I finish the Crichton book and, bizarrely, find a copy of Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, which I devour. The novel concerns a roguish, bullying, narcissist who wreaks havoc on a sleepy countryside village, apropos of my current self-image.
By Sunday I’ve sobered up to the point that I now realize I have been in the hospital for close to three days, and begin making appeals to get out. Since I am not addicted to heroin, and likely since I did not make an actual attempt on my life, I am released the following afternoon. Scott gives me a poem and accompanying watercolor painting, as well as directions to an area he told me would make for good hiking. He wishes me good luck.
Like that, I am discharged. I claim my items, (minus my jacket, which security presumably lost) and find my friends in the parking lot. The experience is, in many ways, not very noteworthy. I sat in a harshly lit room for three days, ate a bunch of saltines and stayed moderately doped up on benzos and antipsychotics.
Altogether, less eventful a rock bottom than others have experienced. I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t OD, I didn’t attack my friends or family. I simply realized that alternately ruminating on and planning your own death for two straight weeks, all day, was probably not normal.
Do I still? By force of habit, yes. Pining for the release of death has been a situational defense mechanism for too long to give it up now. The reality of suicidal ideation, of wanting to die, is that the feeling isn’t always grand and dramatic. Grand declarations of intent to self-annihilate are less common, for me, than the intrusion of that desire during little moments. Cut off in traffic? Drive off the road. Failed a test? Jump in the river. Bank account in the red? Toaster in the bathtub. It’s a malady of the ages, an autoimmune response to the despair of everyday life and all its little inconveniences.
Where does that leave you? Shackled to pills, (which I’m happy to do — Lexapro has been a godsend, but perhaps not for you) spilling your guts to therapists, radical honesty, daily meditation, finding a community, finding reasons to stay alive, things to be excited about, a God to believe in. Joking about your experience in the looney bin, trying to pretend like you’re not terrified of going back someday, next time with bandages on your wrists, which is somehow more frightening than being dead.
A month or two later, I saw Scott walking around downtown after I got off work. I flagged him down and said hi, how have you been? The rehab program lasted for at least twenty days, and it was good to see him walking around, even if it was the dead of winter and he must have been homeless. I wanted to tell him I still had the poem he gave me, that I was still going to find a place to put it online like I told him I would, that I hadn’t forgotten, but I didn’t say anything. He didn’t seem to recognize me.