A NURSE CAME up to the gurney to tap a vein in my arm. As she tied me off, I removed my glasses and shut my eyes tight—though I’d been blasé about the pills and about going to the hospital, I was scared to look at a needle. Soon, I felt the metal pierce the crook of my elbow… and slip out. “I’m sorry!” the nurse said.
It went in again, then out again. I cried “Ow!” and squeezed my eyes to suppress the tears. When I finally looked, there was a tiny portable IV, or “hep-lock,” attached to my skin, and my hospital gown was covered in bright streaks of blood.
“Whenever you’re ready to go to the bathroom,” the nurse told me, “let me know, so we can get a urine sample.” She swabbed blood off my arm with a piece of gauze. “When you get up you can ask for a clean gown, too.” The nurse walked away.
One of the other psych-ward patients, a sallow man who looked exactly like Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty, stared at me and muttered to the guards, “You need to take her out of here, she’s gonna get raped.”
It was summertime in Washington Heights, which in those days was a nonstop celebration. Infected by the spirit of the place, we ate empanadas and tortas and deli-bought peanut butter and jelly, drank forties and bottom-shelf whiskey and five-dollar bottles of Gato Negro. I had gone to a party on a rooftop, had too much to drink and smoke, cried over a boy (really, over the cumulative actions and inactions of several boys), and on the subway ride home had planned to take all the painkillers I could find in my bathroom. When I got there I opened two bottles of generic Tylenol and swallowed all the pills inside, three or four at a time, then lay in bed and felt my heart slowing. Right as I realized I was going to be very sick, I also realized I didn’t want to be dead. For the rest of the night and the next morning I crawled around on the bathroom floor, throwing up at intervals, until at 9 AM I called my boss and told her I wasn’t coming to work.
As I entered New York Presbyterian my prevailing attitude was Let’s get this over with. The kind clerk in the ER who took my information called it a “suicidal gesture” rather than a “suicide attempt”—I think she might have termed it a suicide attempt if I were a 911 case, ambulanced in. Instead I had walked here at three in the afternoon, hungover and shaky but feeling basically okay and relieved to be alive. The thing was, I could still die: of all the over-the-counter painkilling drugs, acetominophen is the one that, in an overdose, can cause liver failure up to 24 hours later.
This was an ugly chapter in my nice life. I don’t talk about it because most of the time it barely feels relevant to the rest of the story—who I was, who I still am. But it happened and, writing years later, I want to know what it meant. How many years, you wonder. The exact date isn’t important. In fact, it could have been almost any time within about a decade. I was a young woman, we can agree, trying to cope with all that entails.
In the hospital, I felt a need to keep myself amused or at least awake. So, I catalogued the boys I knew. I’d been searching ardently for the boyfriend I thought I deserved, but had come up with only distant, airy infatuations and quick flings. They were scarcely more than their names, many of them having the same name; I was sometimes reminded of the sister in Back to the Future when they tell her a “Greg” or “Craig” has phoned for her and she asks, “Well which one was it, Greg or Craig?”
At the party, the catalyst—the dude that broke the camel’s back—had been a photographer named Brad. Brad had a ponytail, a perfect isosceles-triangle torso, and an aloofness that suggested he might be a genius. This is my conquest, I’d been thinking while Brad roved around taking pictures of everyone, snapping the shutter and then walking away. I thought the ones I was in all looked ugly, and when he wouldn’t talk to me I was sure that was why. What photographer would ever want to flirt with an unphotogenic woman? But I kept trying, following him around making dumb jokes. An acquaintance had even tried to step in and escort me safely home and save me from embarrassment.
“I tried to kill myself because I was cockblocked,” I imagined saying to a therapist sometime in the future. Looking up into the neon lights, I laughed.
If one survives this particular indignity and gets better—speeds toward a life of joy, leaving the memory of one night in the psych ward in the dust—then why should she tell the tale at all? It’s exciting to be pulled from the brink of death, but I was never near that brink. My self-conscious side insists I barely even wanted to do it, so I shouldn’t reveal it here. I must be, in some way, ashamed. For what it’s worth—I feel confident in this much, now that I have turned from a young woman into a mere woman—there are plenty of other stories I won’t write, because they are yet more shameful, lurid, or boring.
The girl on the gurney beside mine was Sammy, a homeless prostitute who batted her lashes at two of the security guards, trying to get them to give her stuff. She called the male guard “Papi” and the female guard “Mamacita.” (In my mind I started referring to them thus too, since I never got their names.) Sammy had her hair in cornrows and a soft, ever-smiling face; she was missing some teeth. Her posture was flagpole straight, her hands usually on her hips even when she was sitting in bed. When her doctor asked her if she had any children, Sammy copped to having only one earthbound child, a daughter, though she also had two sons who lived on Mars. “Your daughter, then,” the doctor said calmly. “How old is she?”
“Oh,” Sammy sighed. “Really, she’s all ages.”
Further down the aisle was an old white lady named Dorothea with long, curly hair dyed Lysol yellow and no teeth at all. She complained to her doctor about having been ejected from her Washington Heights apartment because her landlords thought she was a lesbian. “They are Hasidim,” she warned, wagging a finger, “so I probably should have seen it coming!” Dorothea needed help walking to the bathroom with her cane and every five minutes demanded meds for her “urological infection.” The other patients were silent, staring or glaring around glassily, or else asleep or pretending to be.
“It’s kind of quiet,” Papi said to Mamacita, right after my blood sample was taken. They each, like all the guards, had a grey uniform with a badge and walkie-talkie.
“Well, it’s not eight o’clock yet,” Mamacita replied nonchalantly, smoothing her shiny hair with her hand. There’s a phenomenon called “sundowning,” observed in hospitals, elder-care facilities and elsewhere, in which the loss of daylight causes confusion in the mentally unstable. I knew 8 PM meant dusk—the time when the crazy people of uptown Manhattan started to really show it.
At 7 PM they gave me grey charcoal solution, in a gallon bucket with a straw, for flushing the toxins out of my system. It looked like water mixed with the contents of a dirty fireplace. The security guard, Papi, came up to me and gave me a plastic tub to vomit in.
“You know what’s weird,” I told him, “is that this charcoal doesn’t even really taste like anything.”
Papi gave me a blank look and said, “But still. Sometimes.” He made a polite hand flourish to suggest vomiting, like he was introducing me to something from his stomach. I understood then that the hospital staff wouldn’t act friendly toward me. They probably weren’t allowed; besides, I was a crazy person who’d just done something weird to herself, so why would they want to?
At eight o’clock an elderly Dominican man named Edwin was wheeled in, who had checked himself in because he heard voices in his head. Judging from the gossip of the nurses and guards, I could tell he’d been here before: a girl nurse said to a guy nurse, “He’s asking to be restrained.”
The guy nurse shrugged and said, “He’s drunk.”
As they parked Edwin’s gurney in the corner, he was sitting up and grinning, eyes magnified by his square Coke-bottle glasses. He yelled, “Somebody have to help me NOW! I need to be tie up! I’m going coo-coo!”
It was mealtime. Guards came around with sandwiches on trays, but there was a problem when some of the trays were discovered to be hard plastic—they were all supposed to be Styrofoam, soft, so we couldn’t hurt ourselves or each other with them. We got spoons, but no forks or knives. When I asked a nurse for food, he pointed at me, called to someone at the desk across the room and asked, “Does she eat?”
Sammy ate two sandwiches ravenously and kept asking for more and more apple juice. Noticing I hadn’t touched my pack of Snackwell Vanilla Cremes, she pointed at them and asked, “Hey, you all set with them cookies?” When I gave them to her, I tried to say something, some small pleasantry, but she giggled like a child and covered her face with her hands.
A “medical doctor” came by and told me I was healthy. The charcoal, she said, had probably been just a precaution. But when the “psych doctor” came, she said she wanted me to stay overnight, to make sure my liver function was okay. I found it ironic that for a year I had been trying to make time for a liver cleanse, the kind that uses grapefruit juice and olive oil, but had been too scared to go through with it. I told her this and the psych doctor smiled, though she didn’t look like she thought it was funny. “Before this overdose,” she said, “had you been feeling depressed?”
I told her, truthfully, no. I’d been feeling desperate and overwhelmed, but manic. My life contained too much stuff—too many boys, jobs, friends, and hobbies, with too little payoff. Stubbornly disinclined to look for an office gig, I was walking dogs seven days a week, tutoring undergraduates four days a week, collecting vinyl records, writing, drawing, blogging, and DJing late nights at a bar. On the subway ride home from the party, when I made the plan to take all the pills, I’d been carrying a guitar that I was borrowing because I felt like I wanted to teach myself how to play guitar. None of my efforts seemed to be leading me anywhere, and I was dissatisfied.
I told the doctor that I’d never taken pills like this before and never cut myself or engaged in any other self-harming behavior.
“Have you ever been hospitalized for depression?” she asked.
I looked down at my lap, my bloodstained hospital gown, picked up my hands and, exasperated, let them drop. The gesture meant that I used to be able to answer ‘no’ to that question—until today. She did laugh at that.
We talked awhile longer. I mentioned my shortage of money, frustration about my writing, and a jazz musician named Jeff who had recently cancelled a date.
It would be years before I could pay the bill, a year again before I’d let myself have painkillers in my medicine cabinet (even now, it’s never Tylenol). I recall that, six months after my hospital adventure, I drafted an email to an ex-boyfriend trying to explain. I attempted suicide last summer and spent the night in the hospital. Things are OK now. I never sent it. It’s not something you can email about unless you want to seem tragic and be “helped,” patronized, humiliated. I’d prefer for him to contact me on his own, remembering me as happy—not least because, the whole time we were together, we’d decided I was the happy one. Besides, the way I saw it, even right there in the hospital there was nothing actually wrong with me. I even overheard Sammy, yanking her thumb in my direction, declare to the nurse: “She’s a norm.”
Papi and another guard, a Haitian guy, chatted as they leaned on the divider between the patients and the rest of the floor, hovering over us in their grey suits like gargoyles. “I’ve been trying to learn Spanish but it’s so hard,” the Haitian guard said.
Papi replied, “You gotta get Rosetta Stone.”
When I finally swapped my stained gown out for a clean one, on my way back from the bathroom I asked Papi what I should do with the stained one. He gestured to a giant laundry hamper in the corner and said to put it in there, so I did. “Check it out!” I said, holding the old garment up, displaying the impressive amount of blood. He just made a concerned face and said nothing. I wondered if “check it out” sounded like something a crazy person said.
Edwin the drunk and Dorothea the wild-haired non-lesbian had struck up an alliance. He kept yelling, “This is a beautiful lady! How you wanna put a coo-coo nutcase like me next to such a beautiful lady?” He told her he loved her hair, and she should never cut it.
She asked him for his full name, asked the staff’s permission to write it down. When a nurse told her she wasn’t going to be given a pen or paper, she shouted her dissatisfaction. “No one wants me to know you!” she complained. “I’m hardly surprised!” She gossiped to him about her favorite doctor, named Fajardo.
He interjected, “Fajardo! That’s my half-brother!”
She took this to mean it was literally his half-brother, and was delighted—but I think he just meant that he had some family back in the D.R. named Fajardo.
“He found a friend,” Mamacita said to Papi. “It’s cute, right?”
I tried to make eye contact with Mamacita to acknowledge that the start of this friendship was, indeed, nice to witness. She smiled for a fraction of a second, hardened her face and turned her head away.
The Chris Cooper-looking man, who I learned was waiting for an organ transplant, became hostile toward his doctor. “You’re a moron,” he kept shouting at her, his voice cracking like he was about to burst into tears. “You and my wife are trying to kill me in here.” They called a different doctor in to speak to him instead.
Nurses wheeled Sammy around to different rooms; they gave her X-rays and a pelvic exam. Through it all she giggled and chatted, loving the attention. After her blood sample was taken, the male nurse came back and told her, “Listen, you’re anemic.”
She looked at him coyly and guiltily, as if she had been caught with her hand in a piggy bank, and said, “I still have HIV?”
He said, “Yes, you still have HIV.”
At 9 they moved me to another wing of the hospital, to sleep. The nurse who removed my hep-lock told me I was “going to the other side.” A guard walked me across the ER waiting room and into a much quieter place with beds instead of gurneys, in real hospital rooms with doors (although we were not allowed to close the doors). My room already had someone in it, a girl of around eighteen who appeared to be sleeping, her curly black hair spread out on her pillow. There was a TV bolted to the wall, blaring ABC Family; after an hour the nurses shut it off. Then they shut the light off. There was nothing to do but sleep, or lie awake in the dark.
Before retiring, I used the ward phone to check my voicemail and found one message from my friend Benji. He was asking if I felt better after last night, if I got home okay, and if I wanted to talk about the Brad debacle. But I couldn’t call him back because I didn’t know his number. They would not give me my cell phone to retrieve people’s numbers—it was locked up in the security office and the guards said I’d get it when I went home, whenever that was.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been without both my phone and my computer for this long. Their absence made me nervous, and I picked at my hangnails on both hands because there was nothing else for my hands to do. I understood how easy it would be to go crazy in this place, not just because they expected it of me.
Crazy Dorothea was brought into the room next to mine, in full sundown mode, still upset that she wasn’t allowed to take down the number of crazy Edwin. “Do you know what he said?” she announced to the nurses. “He said ‘Madam, you have beautiful hair. Don’t cut it.’” Before long she was irate, screaming that her landlords had tried to kill her over the winter by leaving the heat off in her apartment. “I WON’T KEEP SILENT ABOUT THIS,” she boomed on her way to and from the bathroom, shuffling down the hall aided by her cane. “THEY CAN’T TREAT ME THIS WAY! I AM A BRILLIANT INTELLECT! I AM A BEAUTIFUL AND TALENTED WOMAN!” I hardly slept all night.
This lost day isn’t something I often think about. What I think about more is a nebulous idea of how it was back then, the milieu and mood. My apartment near City College was sunny, the streets around it full of bachata music (later, reggaeton) and 24-hour bodegas; Mexican and Chinese takeout places; gigantic all-in-one stores with clothes and housewares for the whole family. Sunshine pervades my memories of living there, from age 21 until I moved out at 32. I walked, past Grant’s Tomb, over the 125th Street viaduct in sunshine; I pedaled my bike in sunshine through lush, overgrown Riverside Park toward the Cloisters, across the narrow top part of Manhattan and back down the Harlem River, weaving around double-parked cars. Once, on my way down the park stairs to buy snacks at Fairway, I came upon a homeless woman using an old broom to sweep up the space where she had been living. “Hey, it’s Sleeping Beauty!” I heard her say as we noticed each other. “Princess, I want you to have a beautiful day,” she told me when I passed, the picture of warmth, beaming with her arms stretched wide. “Smile your smile in your beautiful world with all the flowers and angels in Disneyland!”
Yes. Even though I always had a broken heart and no income and dirt-rimmed fingernails, it was a beautiful world. Most of the time I knew that. Certainly I knew it as I was pulling a crumpled dollar out of my jeans to give to the homeless lady. But does anyone in any world never have a fit of self-loathing, of utter despair? Sleeping Beauty herself can’t be immune.
In the morning, after more perfunctory blood work and a soft-tray breakfast that I didn’t eat, a bald man in a shirt and tie called my name and stood in the doorway. When I responded (“Yeah?”), he jerked his head sideways in the gesture that means “Come over here for a second.” So I followed him, into a conference room that did not have a door. He was a psychiatrist—I guessed that the other psychiatrist, the woman I’d seen last night, had gone off duty. The bald guy asked me to recount for him, again, what had happened. He asked me if I had wanted to die.
Grateful for a chance to have a real conversation, I said to him, “You know, I wonder if part of the reason I came here was that I just wanted quiet. Maybe I just wanted to be taken care of, peacefully.” This now seemed preposterous as I recalled Dorothea’s yelling, Chris Cooper’s fight with the doctors, the overhead announcements paging Spanish interpreters to triage.
He asked me to tell him the name of the photographer boy. I didn’t want to tell him it was “Brad”—“Brad” being so simple and bland, not the right name at all to be charged with my fall from grace. The complete list of men who’d made me so unhappy, the wholesome Matts and Brads and Chads, now loomed over me, scarily recontextualized. But I did tell the doctor Brad’s name, to prove that I knew how to cooperate. And I told him about jazzy Jeff, how he’d cancelled our date because he claimed to have a gig that ran too late. About the Jeff situation, my doctor said, “Well, okay, it sounds like he is planning to call you, doesn’t it.”
This was the most pleasant thing anyone had said to me for the past 24 hours. Distracted, I thought about how I wanted Jeff to look at me across a table, how we’d eventually lean in and kiss because we couldn’t wait any longer. I felt a keen sense of wanting to be free and to forget this ever happened.
But then, my doctor said, “Well. My preliminary feeling is that you need to be admitted into a treatment facility.” He mentioned a place in Westchester that had been established for people with borderline personalities—“Not suggesting that you necessarily have a borderline personality,” he hastened to add.
“You mean like Girl, Interrupted?”
He said, “What?”
“The woman who wrote the book Girl, Interrupted,” I said. “She had borderline disorder, didn’t she?”
He gave me a look like something was dawning on him about me, and nodded. There was a pause.
“Please don’t send me there.” I was starting to cry, but I knew I couldn’t show it, lest I be thought crazier for doing so.
“Why not?” he asked.
I told him I had too much to take care of. Trying to sound like a calm human and not like a delusional megalomaniac missing only a Napoleon hat, I talked of my mom’s upcoming birthday party, the two literary readings I has scheduled, my monthly meetings with my writing group, planning to learn how to play guitar, and the start of the fall semester at the college where I tutored. The thought of being away from all that routine—all those people—filled me with dread and loneliness, but I didn’t tell him that. I also didn’t tell him Can’t you see I’m psychologically fine? I was only in here to make sure my liver didn’t fail! Instead, I concluded by folding my shaky hands and saying something like, “I have obligations to take care of on an ongoing basis, that would make my going there very inconvenient.”
The dawning-on-him look returned to his face. “So,” he said, “you’re saying you have some things to live for.”
On the way back to my room I glimpsed Dorothea passed out on her bed in a sitting position, her feet on the floor and her head facedown on the mattress framed by the spray of yellow hair. She had dropped or thrown her bowl of cereal. In front of her on the linoleum was a puddle of milk and Crispix.
The eighteen-year-old girl, my cellmate, now had her boyfriend visiting her. He was a little tattooed white kid. He sat beside her bed while they talked about how they were not allowed to touch each other. “They control when the TV gets turned off and on, and what channel to put,” she complained. Sounded like a norm to me.
After awhile a social worker appeared, a medium-sized man slightly older than me with a gentle, nervous face. Back in the doorless conference room he asked me to tell him all about the party yet again, so I did. By now I had a better handle on the story; I knew exactly why I’d come to feel bad that night on that beautiful rooftop. “What it boils down to is I felt rejected,” I said.
“Were you upset,” he said, “about being… blocked?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Yes!” I said. “Exactly.” This pleasant therapist and the stern, well-meaning bald doctor both controlled my fate, but neither seemed to know any more than me, or to be any happier. Either I was the smartest of us, or we were all the same.
That, I realize, is part of the weirdness of suicide. Those who end up killing themselves can be regular people who were having a bad night. They wanted to die for just a minute, but by the time they changed their minds it was too late. I can believe that anyone I meet is capable of committing suicide and may have already tried. Considering the stigma of it, I don’t blame others for keeping quiet.
Eventually the doctor walked in again and gave me a thumbs-up. He said I was going home.
It had been only a day and a night, but I was so happy to see my clothes again that a lump rose in my throat. I got dressed, signed one more form. My everyday outfit—T-shirt, hoodie, jeans, colorful sneakers—felt like a uniform now, unshakable proof to the hospital staff that I was myself. (How had they guessed I would dress?) A guard shook my hand as he unlocked the door to release me. Before I exited, I was privy to one last ritual of the psych ward: this guard bellowed my name to announce that I was cleared to leave. It sounded much like the warden in that movie saying “Dead man walkin’!” However, I floated out like a guest arriving at an 18th-century society party. They’d heard my name, so I could proceed to the ballroom that was the world outside.
This year, I was called up to my former neighborhood on an errand. The block had changed—it was gentrified, scrubbed, with a Duane Reade on the corner and fancy signs outside all the tenement buildings that had been converted to condos. As much as I understand that every neighborhood shifts this way sooner or later, and as good as it feels—truly—to have left the raging emotions of youth behind, I couldn’t help being sad. That is someone else’s Disneyland now. Two pretty girls that had been in my subway car gossiping about their coworkers’ raises and lamenting the lack of organic supermarkets walked a yard ahead of me and, to my horror, right into my old address. My resentment of them was absolute. It felt like they had stolen my life.
But that other day, after recovering my money and phone from the security office I emerged into a brilliant, hot Washington Heights, packed with drivers double-parking to pick up their friends, teenagers leaning against buildings, ladies pushing granny carts full of groceries. I walked from the hospital on 168th Street down Broadway, stopped in Dunkin’ Donuts for an iced coffee, then walked half a mile more until I reached my block. Love welled up in me—it occurred to me that my heart was at that moment “wide open,” that this is what that felt like.
I got my phone out of my bag and called Benji.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I said, “Yeah. More or less.”
“You know,” said Benji, “I’m pretty sure you didn’t have anything to be so upset about.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. “You’re the greatest.”
“Back at you.”
In the pause that followed, I wanted to blurt out everything about the psych ward: not just the events, but also the thoughts that had kept me from despair in that chaotic place. Peace is love, I’d tell him, that’s all either of them are; outside of love peace does not exist. And I love you, I wanted to say. I love you and all the rest of them; all the stupid boys and girls, all my friends. But I couldn’t expose him to this—it was too complicated, it would disturb him, and I had a hunch that, at least on some level, he knew all about it anyway. So I just walked on, thinking about playing the guitar, looking above me at a square of sky.