About five years ago, I went to the mental hospital. I was going to hang myself. Just as I was choosing the rope, I experienced an epiphany. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea, at least, not as good as I thought it was.
Springtime was on me. The season has always been difficult. As days get longer and the light more intense, I get more and more depressed. I find myself crying, seemingly just for the hell of it. Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness grow. I stay in bed longer and sleep during odd times of the day. Fatigue plagues me.
Soon, usually by the beginning of March, the world looks and feels dead to me. I see the flowers and the trees busting into green. I hear the birds and see the rabbits. Beauty is all around and I have no connection to it. I isolate myself. Thoughts of suicide and of absconding from home haunt me. A pall hangs over me. I know I should be doing things but cannot find the energy or ambition to undertake them. All sounds are too loud. Activity around me, any activity, grates on me like sandpaper on raw nerves.
There’s very little I favor about spring but gray, rainy days. I’m happiest when the sky closes and the rain falls. I only really like sunny weather in the high summer, when the days bake the earth and the grass dies. I’m always a little sad when the weather cools off as summer fades. But then the rain begins and the days grow shorter. Things start looking up.
Each spring, I resolve to read more, and I do. I read all the time, but as the days lengthen, I disappear into books as if they are bunkers.
I lay around in the dark until I can’t stand myself. Then, I decide to change my life. To remedy the lethargy and despair, I get busy. Manically. I’ve taken up new hobbies in the spring, started grand art projects, and terraced a backyard—a project involving shovel, mattock, wheelbarrow, and twenty tons of rock. I’ve planned long trips. It was spring when I decided I would walk to Montana, and I took off on foot for Montana the next spring, suffering all the anxieties and fears that usually come forward at that time of the year. But at the time, I had things to think about other than my inability to get out of bed. I couldn’t repair to my sleeping bag or hide. I walked through the countryside. Not many places along two-lane roads in the Midwest accommodate a depressive in the thralls of his affliction. For decades, I didn’t understand that these activities, many of them back-breaking or intellectually taxing, provided distraction from the darker feelings that erupt in me.
Five years ago, winter was dark and deep. I visited a friend in Berlin who was dying and other friends in Germany, and, thankfully, the sun shined on only one day in those two weeks. After I returned, snow blanketed Kansas City. The sun didn’t shine for weeks.
Then, the days grew longer and the weather cleared. I plunged into darkness. Sadness over my German friend’s impending death occupied me. At home, I barely talked to my family. I sunk into books. Activities with my eight-year-old son felt obligatory and difficult. I could hardly move myself much less be a father to a boy rife with all the energy and curiosity that kids his age should possess.
Soon, I wanted nothing to do with the outside world. I hoisted myself out of bed solely because the alarm clock told me to. My impulse was to burrow in further, turn off the world around me, and sleep. I had teaching responsibilities and went through them as if under robotic control. I dodged my students and didn’t talk to my colleagues.
Thoughts of suicide grew. I found myself obsessed trying to figure out how to string myself up in the basement so my son wouldn’t be the first person to find me.
All the while, my suicidal thoughts seemed rational. Of course, I reasoned, I was scared. There were things to be scared of. The weight of life pressed on me, as it should, since I have always done penance for being me. The end of a rope was a reasonable way to deal with the darkness and fear.
It never struck me that these feelings and thoughts were irrational until one morning, a Sunday. I somehow hove out of bed that morning at 11 a.m. My wife worked the night before and was sleeping in anticipation of another night shift. My t-shirt and jeans felt as if they weighed a ton. I was thinking of which rope I would use to attach my neck to the beam in the basement. I even went to the basement and started tying the knot in the receiving end of the rope. As I worked, my son Nick called me from the living room. I came up the stairs. He asked what we were doing that day. I didn’t have an answer. My hands felt filled with sand.
I sat with him for about an hour. He was watching cartoons, jumping around as he’s apt to do when he’s in front of the television for too long. Suddenly, something inside me broke like a spring wound too tightly. Darkness and weight, isolation and suicide were not rational. They were, in fact, destructive. I wondered why I didn’t see it before.
I dragged myself to the bathroom, where I bagged up my medications in a large sandwich bag. I made arrangements for Nick that evening and night. Walking into the bedroom, I woke my wife Virginia and told her, “I’m going to Research Psych. I have to.” I told her not to worry, Nick was taken care of. She looked up at me in half-sleep and told me that whatever I needed to do, I should do it.
Virginia knows the struggles I have with mental illness. Depression some call it. I don’t know if it is depression or just an inability to cope with day-to-day living. I know that my deepest periods of darkness are connected somehow with the length of the day. But enough depressive episodes occur between spring times to convince me that the darkness is just a part of me. I have to tolerate them. Sometimes, I think I’m an escapist looking for a reason to withdraw.
With Virginia’s blessing, I took that bag of medication and drove, as well as I could—even stoplights seemed too much input—to the mental hospital. I remembered that Karl Childers, the main character in the movie Slingblade, called the mental hospital the nervous hospital. I liked that. I was nervous and upset, using all my energy to walk across the parking lot.
I walked up to the counter and gave my medications to the clerk. “I’m here to check in,” I said, not looking at him. When these episodes occur, I tend not to make eye contact. I look at the floor.
“Yes, well . . . uh . . . people usually call before they come in,” he said. I handed him the bag of medications.
“I’m here,” I said. “I’m not leaving.”
“Well, fill this out and take a seat. We’ll be right with you.”
I filled in the blanks in the admitting form. I noticed my hand was shaking and my script looked arthritic. I gave the form back to the clerk and took a seat in the corner, hiding as best I could from the other people there, probably families waiting to visit inmates.
After an excruciating hour, a woman came out and asked me if I was Patrick Dobson. She took me back for an admitting interview. She asked questions about my medications, what doctor I was seeing, and if I had any medical conditions the doctors should be aware of. She asked if I struggled with depression. Then, she asked a series of standard questions about mental illness, probing to see if I really needed to be there.
“Have you had any thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself?” she said finally.
“Of course,” I said. “What’s a good depression without them?”
At that, she stood up quickly, waved me over with a weapons wand, and led me into the nervous part of the nervous hospital.
I talked with a doctor, who showed me around the place, my bed first, and then the other facilities. I shuffled behind him with my eyes to the floor. When he left, the other patients gathered around.
“Doctor,” a woman in a gray, faded gabardine jacket said. “I’d like to know when my appointment is tomorrow.” Her face twitched all over.
“Doctor?” I said.
“You mean you’re staying?” the woman asked. A group of people gathered around me.
“Yeah, well, sure I’m staying,” I said. I parted the crowd and made for my room.
“But, wait,” a man in T-shirt and jeans and slippers said. I stopped and faced him. “You’re not a doctor?”
I don’t know what would have given them the idea that I was a doctor. I was dressed in a black, long-sleeved pullover shirt and jeans. Outside of my dress, I may have impressed the patients with my aloof and distant demeanor.
“No,” I said. “I just checked in.” I stood there a minute, looking at the floor. Then, I went off to my room.
That evening was a long one. I didn’t turn on the light. Though there was another bed in the room, I had no roommate. Outside, the halls of the institution were white and fluorescent. Even tiny noises echoed through the place. Plastic covered the mattress underneath the sheet, which didn’t surprise me. It was just new to me. The bathroom door stopped about a foot and a half above the floor. The top of the door was cut at a steep angle, I supposed, to keep people from hanging themselves, which I found ironic. They told me at check-in that I’d only be allowed to shave under supervision.
I stayed in the nervous hospital for a week. I met with a doctor every day for about two hours. After a couple days of these chats, he thought that the treatment I’d been receiving was flawed. I had been on serotonin re-uptake inhibitors for about ten years. He determined that I was bipolar depressive with chronic monopolar characteristics. This meant, in effect, that I was always depressed, some times worse than others. I experienced moments when I thought I could do anything, and, in fact, could do a lot, manage a great deal, and take on more than most people. But crashes and seasonal-affective disorder created bone-crushing depressions.
The answer, he believed, lie in a drug from the 1960s called oxcarbazepine, an anticonvulsant first developed for epileptics that affects the brain’s dopamine receptors. The drug’s side-effects solved problems of anxiety and mood disorders. This combined with lamotrigine, also used for epileptics but also for bipolar disorder, might solve my chronic depressions. A psychologist, he added, “might help you with your feelings of inadequacy and this strange feeling you have of being a fraud.”
While I was in the hospital, I began eating again. I’d lost a lot of weight in the weeks previous to my nervous hospital escapade. The food in the psych ward was surprisingly good, and there was lots of it. Three times a day, inmates lined up at the door to go to the cafeteria. The staff laid out all kinds of good things in hotel pans. Since we were the only customers, the food was always fresh, with lots of fruit and vegetables, beautiful deserts, and, I supposed, since I don’t eat meat, plenty of animals cooked to perfection.
In addition, two refrigerators stood in the nervous hospital day room, where people milled about or watched television between smoking cigarettes. The fridges held all kinds of fruit juices, yogurts, and fruit. Cabinets between the refrigerators were stocked with granola bars and cereals. Between meals, I grazed in the day room, eating things just because I could.
Nearly everyone in the place smoked but me. I’ll never forget the first time I went outside to a tiny, sad courtyard. All the people there filed in the door like I had a disease. Then, they stood with their faces at the windows until I went inside, at which time they filed out and lit their cigarettes. This was disconcerting. I finally asked one of the smokers what I was doing wrong.
“Nothing,” he said. “They don’t let us smokers go outside with the non-smokers.”
One woman in the nervous hospital with me wore bandages that went around her arms above the wrists. She was very beautiful and seemed sweet. She asked me how I came to be in the hospital. I checked myself in, I said. I was going to hang myself. She laughed and held up her arms. “Yeah,” she said. “I know what you mean. I think I do. They found me on the bathroom floor.”
A tall, lanky, and friendly guy was in for alcohol treatment. We struck up a kind of friendship, or, rather, comradery over a couple of days. When he found out that I had not had a drink for twenty years, he said, “Twenty years and you’re in the psych ward? What’s in this sobriety thing for me?”
“At least,” I said, “I don’t have to go through this whole mental hospital thing drunk. I can’t imagine the horror.”
“Well, I suppose that’s something,” he said. “I might want to give sobriety a try, but you aren’t going to be my role model.”
About the third day, I began to feel better. I struck up a rapport with the hospital staff and my fellow inmates. I led art therapy sessions where the other patients and I worked with plaster, paints, and colored markers. I attended group therapy sessions where I wound up leading discussions. Every evening, I’d hide in my room, where I did pushups and shoved against the walls and beds—which were firmly anchored to the floor—to get some physical exercise. I had a roommate for one night. He snored and talked in his sleep. After he left the room in the morning, I never saw him again.
Virginia and Nick visited me twice that week. It felt like visits I’d made to my friends in prison. We sat at a round table and they asked how I was doing. We talked about little things, how Nick was doing in school, how did walking the dogs go, etc. It was nice to have them there. When the visits ended, they asked me to continue calling them every night.
One evening, I commandeered the television and turned to the classic movie channel. Instead of rounds of reality and game shows, we watched Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman. At first, my fellow groused about missing The Real Wives of Orange County. But I told them about Ingrid Bergman and how critics considered this role one of her greatest. The other patients took interest in the movie. Soon, people filled the day room. When someone came in and started talking, my mates shushed them. It was a real night at the movies with popcorn and apple juice.
After a week, the doctor told me I was good to go. I’d started the new drug regimen and was feeling better, mostly from having taken a break from myself. I drove home. The stoplights didn’t throw me into anxious fits. The sun was shining, which was kind of irritating but I didn’t feel the need to hide.
In the years since I went to the nervous hospital, depressions have come and gone. Some have been severe. During spring two years ago, I walked around for a solid two weeks on the edge of tears. I felt worthless and useless. But I didn’t think of hanging myself. In fact, the thought of suicide by hanging or any other means has not entered my head since I was on the psych ward.
I’ve wanted to return to the nervous hospital from time to time, not because I needed treatment but just because. Despite all the disadvantages—plastic on the mattresses, the dismal and sterile interior of the place, the little courtyard with its anemic bushes, the other patients—I found the nervous hospital to be a good place to disappear, just like I always wanted.
I thought I’d revealed my suicide wish to Virginia when I was in the nervous hospital. About six months ago (in March . . . imagine), I told her that I was headed into one of my episodes and that things might be difficult for me for the next couple of weeks. I always tell Virginia when the beast is on me.
This time, I happened to say, “Well, it’s not going to be that bad this time. I don’t think so. I’m not thinking of hanging myself in the basement like I did before I went to the nervous hospital.”
She immediately began to cry. Why the long face, I asked.
“You never told me that you were thinking of killing yourself,” she said. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
I realize now, looking back, that I keep a lot of myself to myself. That’s something I need to work on.
Patrick Dobson authored two travel memoirs, Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer (U of Nebraska Press, 2015) and Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (U of Nebraska Press, 2009). Canoeing the Great Plains won the 2016 High Plains Book Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award. His essays and poems have been published in New Letters, Thorny Locust, The Same, and JONAHmagazine. He teaches history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS. Reach him at http://patrickdobson.com.