The Psych Ward, Ten Years Out

I VOTED metal button with union bug
Vintage Johnson County, Iowa union made I VOTED button, circa 2012-2014, I think.

A few days before Halloween in 1998 my mother hauled me out of the chair I’d been living in and into the car and into the hospital, where I signed a great many pieces of paper, including the ones that said I was committing myself to the psychiatric ward. I seem to remember that I was riding in a wheelchair, although that seems unlikely, since surely my legs were still working, even if I wasn’t inclined to use them. But the wheelchair is an appropriate metaphor (although I realize this is about to be hugely insulting to wheelchair users, for which I do apologize): some one had to push me, because there was no way I was going to move anywhere unless acted upon by an outside force.

I was what they call a voluntary committal, which is to say that I was not ordered into the ward by a judge. I would not say, however, that I went voluntarily: I was not volunteering for anything at that point, although I suppose if God had said, “Hmm, we need someone who’s willing to die,” I would have stepped forward.

Due to the vagaries of medical fads and the travesties of managed care, psych wards nowadays function as little more than holding tanks for the suicidal. As soon as they decide you’re not going to do yourself in, they let you out, regardless of whether or not you feel any better. As Kay Redfield Jamison points out in Night Falls Fast, this discharging is not a particularly good or helpful policy, since a great many suicides occur just after people are let out of the hospital.

The psych ward was, I suppose, useful to me in one way. I loathed the place. It was small and crowded; the windows didn’t open and the blinds, which were set in between two panes of glass, could only be tilted, not raised or lowered. The furniture in the main room was uncomfortable, and uncomfortably close to one’s fellow residents. The smoke leaked out from the smoking room. The TV was always on. If you sat in your room to read or think or just not be around people, they marked you down as unsocial. There was another little TV room where you could watch movies borrowed from the hospital library, supposing you could get someone to go there for you, or had privileges enough to go by yourself. They would not give you caffeinated coffee, not even in the morning, though they’d sell you pop at 8 p.m. They had an alarming fascination with your bowel movements, or lack thereof. And they would not let me vote.

Somewhere, in all my stacks of paper, I still have an evaluation form they sent me after my hospital stay. I have been carting it around all these years because I keep thinking that someday maybe I will be mellow enough to complain about the experience without screaming, but that day has not come.

I was only on the ward for five days, but I was under the highest level of lockdown the whole time. I could not leave the ward, no matter what, not even in a straitjacket with multiple attendants. That meant I couldn’t go to one of the many absentee voting booths set up around the hospital during the weeks before an election. I asked every doctor, every nurse, and every aide I saw. “How will I be able to vote?” Not one of them answered me. It was an off-year election, and I suppose that most of the other people on my ward, who mostly had schizophrenia and were fairly heavily medicated, were perhaps not very in touch with current events and thus not as interested in the whole business of participating in the democratic process as I was. But I was appalled.

So I suppose you could say that it was, in the end, my belief in democracy that saved me from depression. I worked as hard as I could to get out of that place. I spent all my time in the common room and played Yahtzee with people who didn’t know where they were. I watched day time television. (Seriously, all the stuff they tell you is bad for you in the outside world they totally push in the psych ward–the place is smoke free now, but when I was there, I swear the answer to every complaint was “go take a smoke break” or “go watch TV.”) My mother very kindly started bringing me coffee in the morning. It was, for some reason, permissible to have someone bring coffee to you, but they’d only give you decaf. I ate the horrible hospital food and stopped making extra-big circles around the COFFEE option. And it worked, I guess. I was discharged on election day. I walked the four blocks home to my mother’s house, got in my car, and drove to my polling place.

It was a long time, and a lot more ups and downs, before I really got better, and even today, there are parts of me that still aren’t always better. This year I’ll be spending thirteen hours in a chair at the Meeteetse Town Hall ensuring that the machinery of democracy is working smoothly. I know most of the people who read this will vote, or have already, but I’d urge you all to think of anyone you can who might be prevented from voting and try to help them get to the polls. My mother now works in the psychiatric department where I was once a patient, and she assures me that everyone there will have the opportunity to vote this year. I hope that’s true for everyone on the outside, too.

As for me, I’m still cynical as all get out, and I still think voting is the least thing you can do to make the world a better place. But it’s still important to me — so much so that, you might say, voting saved my life.

Bangs and Whimpers

We all know, or know of, people who crash and burn, the mad ones, the ones whose candle burns at both ends, who end with a bang, who burn out instead of fading away. They are common enough, in fact, that I am able to write an entire sentence about them using other people’s words. The rock stars, the drunken poets, the strung out artists, the ones who get Rolling Stone issues dedicated to them, whose graves inspire supplicants, who put the chic in heroin chic and the manic in manic depressive.

I don’t in any way mean to denigrate the sufferings of these people, which are real, and troubling, and which surely do as much to detract from their lives as they do to enhance their art. But this weekend brought a sad reminder that there are other kinds of suffering — less blinding, perhaps, but no less real.

I first read about David Foster Wallace’s death via my friend Steve’s FriendFeed post. I have rarely been so grateful to have an online community. Watching the comments on that post, and later posts by Steve and Steven and Rochelle and Jessamyn, I was bouyed somewhat from the awful shock of it because I was connected to so many people for whom the news was equally tragic, and in some cases more so.

My cousin Jennifer gave me a membership to the Quality Paperback Book Club when I graduated from college, and one of the first books I bought was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I knew Wallace because his story “Girl With Curious Hair” was included in the anthology Voices of the Xiled, which I bought, I think, on some New York City trip in college, and I was just starting to think that essays were perhaps my favorite literary format. The book didn’t disappoint; a decade later, it’s still on my shelf, and I still crack up every time I even think about the title essay.

I remember the boyfriend, later husband, of another good friend talking about how he and some friends always meant to take a pilgrimage to Bloomington-Normal to go pay him a visit, although they never did. I remember starting Infinite Jest and thinking it was marvelous and wonderful and crazy and then stopping sometime in the middle of a footnote and not getting back to it, though I always meant to.

Just this morning I was talking to a library patron about Wallace and about how sad we were, and about how both of us had started but not finished Infinite Jest, and about how guilty we felt, me because I bought a remaindered copy; she because she gave hers away.

Today at work I checked through all the various blogs and things I regularly read, and I came across the New York Times story that quotes his father, who talks about how Wallace had been taking medicine for depression for twenty years, and how just last year medication had started to fail, and in the past year new things had been tried, new medicine, no medicine, ECT, and how none of them had ultimately worked.

And I was reminded of how cripplingly, dully, horrible depression is, how unromantic, how difficult. We think so often of the mental illness of artists as being of the crazy, manic, candle burning at both ends sort, and in doing so we forget that just as often it is the sort of unrelenting, boring, deathly illness that probably plagued David Foster Wallace for years, that has plagued me at times, that I believe probably ultimately killed my father, who killed himself when he was only about a decade older than Wallace was at his death.

There isn’t any really happy conclusion to this. I don’t have a policy proposal or even a pat remark, except to say, as one does in so many situations, that it is terrible that things should have to come to this for us to take notice.

PS Steve has a good collection of links on DFW.