The is part one of Karis’ story about being hospitalized for depression. Follow this link to read part two of her story.
Let’s start off by getting the white elephant out of the room: I’ve been hospitalized twice. Not for any physical ailment, but for depression so thick and so bad, my doctors didn’t think it was safe for me to go anywhere else.
In 2013, the morning before Valentine’s Day, I was admitted to a hospital in Kentucky for Round One. Last October, I spent not one, not two, but seven nights (and six days) in a psych ward in New York City. That was Round Two.
Round Two soundly kicked Round One’s butt, truth be told.
Three years ago, I was a sophomore in college. I had been dealing with depression and seeing counselors since high school, but after a failed experiment with medication the year before, I was flying solo.
I woke up the morning of February 13, 2013 in an indescribably bad mood. Within a few hours, I was wandering through the mists surrounding campus, crying, wondering what my future was. Soon after that I found myself in the bathroom with a knife to my wrist.
I locked the door and pulled a paring knife out of my backpack. I had four of them, strategically placed throughout my life — under my mattress, in my purse, in my backpack, and a spare one in my desk drawer. Months earlier I had sworn never to hurt myself again, but here I was, desperate.
When I looked into the future, I saw nothing but darkness. I felt no hope, no joy, no expectation, just dread. It filled me with sorrow and despair, and I truly felt like I couldn’t go on. I used to have expectations and hope for the future. As a child, I was happy. I planned out my adult life: I would marry a rich doctor named Harold, have nineteen children, and live on an old plantation in the South. And yeah, that was a stupid and unrealistic dream, but at least it was something.
Now I didn’t have anything. I couldn’t bring myself to imagine the future because I believed it would be just as sad as the present. I didn’t like myself, didn’t like anything I did, didn’t believe anyone else liked me.
I made one slash across my wrist and dissolved into tears. As much as I didn’t want to do this, I felt like I had no choice.
And that’s when I realized I had reached a crossroads. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to continue living the way I had been, with depression looming over my shoulder and demolishing all of my hopes and dreams. Depression made it impossible for me to believe in the future, and I knew that if I didn’t kill myself in that moment, I would keep trying again. And again. And again. Or I could try and fix this issue once and for all, so I could continue to live and actually believe and hope in something. I went to my school counselor’s office, crying, begging for help.
Melissa, the head of the center, leaned in, folded her hands together, and asked me, “Karis, do you feel safe?” Of the five counselors I’d seen since high school, she was the first person to ask me that question. My answer, in the negative, earned me a trip to Good Samaritan Hospital for the next 48 hours.
The ER was a long, narrow room buzzing with caffeinated activity and short, overtaxed nurses. A doctor conducted my psychiatric evaluation on a bed in the middle of the hallway, not even giving me the courtesy of a curtain for privacy. And after examining the shallow cuts on my wrist, the doctor (a man? A woman? I hardly remember) tried to convince me to go home, that until the scratches on your wrist become gouges and the blood in your veins spills onto the floor, there’s nothing wrong with you. And the scared little girl in me, the one who shies away from change of any sort, nodded and said, “Yes, maybe that is true.”
I was lucky that my boss, Deb, was in the building. She came to see me on my lonely bed in the ER, took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and told me that it didn’t matter whether I had cut deeply or not — what mattered was my intention. She told me, so clearly, that she accepted the depth of my despair and would not give up until I got better. She saved me.
So I let them take me upstairs to the locked ward, let them lead Deb and my best friend out, let them hold me prisoner in their jail.
I would gladly have stayed locked in the room they assigned me with the roommate who had visions and tried to steal my clothes. But they told me the whole purpose of their ward was to prevent “isolation,” and I knew I would never be free if I didn’t participate. And from the moment the door shut behind me, my goal was to be free.
So I grabbed my three-volume copy of Lord of the Rings and hesitantly made my way to the common area. I sat down and smiled shyly at my fellow inmates — should I call them patients? We felt more like inmates than anything else — and ate the food they gave me, slept on their thin sheets in the room without a view. I played their game.
At lunch the next day, I broke down, seemingly for no reason. I ran down the long hallway to my room, curled up in the dark, and just cried. And that’s when I noticed the painting on the wall.
It was, I think, of a green, leafy area under a bridge. Or maybe it was a cityscape. Or a beautiful hillside. The point is — I don’t remember the details, but I remember the thoughts that came to my mind. I want to go there someday.
And that gave me the idea to make a list, of all the places I hoped to visit someday and all the things I wanted to do. It was my proof, the sword I would wield in front of me to slash myself out of prison.
And it worked. I convinced myself that I was better, and used that conviction to convince my doctors, nurses and parents of the same. I truly believed that my short stay in the hospital had fixed me, made me better, eradicated the depression from my life.
I don’t think the doctors wanted to let me go, but what could they do? I was an adult with a plan and a firm belief in my ability to survive. So they signed the papers and, the afternoon after Valentine’s Day, I walked out the door.
I guess I’d have to say that’s my biggest regret — leaving the hospital. Don’t get me wrong, I hated my time there. I’ve had nightmares about it, and just thinking about it now makes me shudder. It was not a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination. But maybe, maybe if I had just waited it out, let the time and counseling and medication sink in, my “recovery” would have lasted.
Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up back for Round Two.
I didn’t want to go to the hospital the second time. In fact I argued (valiantly, I like to think) with the psychiatrist who suggested sending me there. It was the cost, you see. The seclusion. The falling behind in school. Most importantly, it was the fear that people would swoop in like mama eagles and gather me away, pull me out of school, empty my apartment and drag me away from the life I’ve dreamed of living for the past three years.
Shortly after Round One, I took a three-day trip to New York City with some fellow editors from my school newspaper. That’s where I fell in love — not with a man or any other human, but with a city, a career, a future. I adored New York, I realized my passion for journalism was true, and I knew that all I wanted out of life was to spend it in that city doing that job. A month after my loss of hope in the hospital, I found a desire for a new future. I spent the next few years working toward it and finally, finally, there I was in New York. I was also in a psychiatrist’s office, giving her all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t be sent to the hospital.
The psychiatrist countered all my arguments simply and effectively by asking whether all of that was worth my life. Whether my parents would value saving money over having me with them. Whether I was willing to permanently give up my dreams in order to keep living them temporarily. In the end the answer to all of those questions was no. No, my fears were not worth my life.
So I went to the hospital. Shaking, heart palpitating, chewing my lips and worrying about insurance, I went to the hospital. Begrudgingly, I voluntarily checked myself in.
HCC-10 is a long hallway with rooms off to the side, a day room, a laundry room and a nurses’ station. We congregated at the nurses’ station in the morning and evening to have our vitals taken and be given medication. The day room is where we watched TV, ate, and played games.
My room was at the very end of the hallway, and I shared it with a young woman from the South. Although at first we didn’t connect very much, but over the course of a few days we became, dare I say it, friends. We talked before bed about relationships and friendships and why we were where we were.
You meet the best, most interesting people in a hospital. People you might never have hung out with outside of the hospital, people who know how to handle your issues. Being thrown together in a unit like HCC-10 strips away the performance, the acting, the lies. There’s no need to pretend you didn’t feel suicidal last night, because the people you’re with understand. There’s no need to try and explain exactly how debilitating your depression can be, how paralyzing, because they’ve been there too. And there’s no need to worry that you’ll overwhelm them with your pain and drive them away because they’ve felt it too.
In the hospital, we were ourselves. We made friends. We played games – well, they played endless games of Scrabble, and I joined in when they turned to Catchphrase. We ate decently disgusting food, watched old movies on VHS and gathered at the nurses’ station to take our meds. We commiserated over how hot, and then cold, the unit was, over sleepless nights, over worried futures. We shared our fears about the future. We all hugged when someone left and said not to cry — things on the outside are scary, but it’s the only way to live a life. That’s what I learned from the hospital.
I learned that living in an enclosed unit with nurses and doctors constantly fluttering can feel like a warm cocoon. It feels safe. You don’t have to worry about shaving your legs or putting on makeup or anything else; you don’t even have to worry about putting up a facade.
But after a while, safe becomes claustrophobic. Sure, there’s something so simple about only having to choose between hanging out in the bedroom or the day room. But eventually simple becomes mind-numbing and infuriating, honestly. Sure, it was super exciting when I found out that there were menus and I could choose what I wanted to eat. But after a few days my choices felt limited and, again, claustrophobic. And sure, it was great that I could actually catch a glimpse of the skyline out the window. But after long enough, I wanted to be a part of the skyline. I wanted to walk the streets, feel the wind on my face, complain about how hot the sun was and breathe in that not-so-fresh air.
After a few days, I realized I had to get out. I had to get back into the groove of things and start living life, surrounded by people.
What the hospital taught me is that you can’t live life between four white walls. You can’t rely on a bunch of doctors to make your decisions for you. You can’t hide from the scary things — from the crowds, insecurity, loneliness and stress that are the makeup of life. Because those very things that terrify you are the ones that energize you.
Life is about more than just surviving, sliding from Wednesday to Thursday to Friday. It’s about thriving, about making the most of every experience and grasping at every opportunity for joy, about submerging yourself fully in Wednesday, leaping to Thursday, crashing into Friday.
I’m not sure what all it was that allowed me to feel better — maybe the medication kicking in after several weeks without it, or just taking some time for myself to relax and let go of what was stressing me. It’s not so much that I spent hours in therapy talking through my problems or that I dealt with every problem I’d ever faced. I just spent some time stepping back, letting my brain get back to normal, relaxing and thinking through things. That allowed me to feel happiness again.
I felt joy in the hospital for the first time in several weeks. I felt like I could joke and not be covering up a scar, like I could laugh and not want to cry, like I could say “I’m fine” and actually mean it. But I had to let that joy take me out of the hospital. I had to let it set me free — metaphorically, from the overwhelming depression, and literally, from the locked doors of HCC-10.
So I left. Scared, wondering what would come next, I left. Worried about not having the strength to forge a future for myself, I left. And I am ever so glad I did.
I’ll never regret going to the hospital. Even more, I’ll never regret leaving.