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I Want to Believe | 2009 | How I Met Your Mother

08.10.09 11:43 p.m.

The thing you fear most has no power. Your fear of it is what has the power. Facing the truth really will set you free.  

-Oprah Winfrey


The Ward

I am not using a picture of her in a party hat. Admire my restraint.

I fidget as I approach the doors to the psych ward. Melissa's roommate Krista, who works in the mental health field, reminds me that they are no longer called "psych wards". Much as that term co-opted something more pejorative, "mental hospital" or "sanitarium", we are to insulate from the actual purpose of this floor by addressing it using a fluffier word that I cannot remember the moment after she admonishes me.

Our culture instills in us a certain image, of Nurse Ratchet, of people so sick that they are beyond the touch of reality, of electroshock therapy and gibbering about government implants. Everything sterile. While human bodies may dwell within, the human minds have vacated to a more colorful land. We think in books and movies, of Girl, Interrupted and One Flew over a Cuckoo's Nest. We have our very clear expectations, fed on media thirty years expired, and do not like to be disabused of these.

Illness, even that of the mind exclusively, has the air of infection about it and hospitals doubly so. If we forget to take our vitamins or shake the wrong hand, we too could be crazy. Angela notes with sardonic amusement that the elevators feature signs assuring visitors that, if they are in any way sick, they are unwelcome.

This isn't the first time I've visited this ward. Over a decade ago, Melissa and I visited a mutual associate, Chris, after she took most of a bottle of aspirin. I recall Chris calling both of us (along with several other friends) and telling us what she had done. Melissa and I took the stance then that Chris was only acting like an emo kid eight years before there was a word for it and rewarded her with our conditioned apathy. I don't think she had taken many aspirin, but it was enough that her stomach was filled full of charcoal and pumped once at the hospital. In some small way, I think we decided this was the outcome she wanted, since she never actually wanted to die. She was committed for weeks at the very least, though it is hard to hold someone until they are "better", just until they've convinced you well enough that they are not likely to give a repeat final performance.

Before arriving, Angela, Krista, and I enumerated a list of words we cannot say (crazy, mad, insane, out of your mind, etc.) that we might otherwise drop into polite conversation. We also decide on her triggers, what might set Melissa off. It helps to release and defuse before we have to walk the halls of this hospital, to remove the pathology. Yes, Melissa has a sickness. Yes, she says she overdosed on her prescribed medication to get admitted here. But she does not cease to be our friend and we have to defeat the stigma through laughter at our inappropriate jokes.
Having trouble focusing?

The hospital had lost Melissa's clothes after intake - which doesn't precisely instill confidence in us - and we had been forewarned that this might mean she greeted us in a hospital gown or scrubs, which would underscore that she is ill and would remind us without end that she is in a hospital. I didn't want that mint-green barrier to our interactions and am grateful to find that she is wearing the pajamas she had been wearing when she informed Krista of the overdose. Krista chirps that Melissa got to keep her shoelaces and I wonder how much of this is a joke and how much is honest delight.

We brought parcels for her - a present, some cherry-picked clothing from her bedroom floor, her purse - and hand these through to the nurse, since Melissa cannot have anything that has not been prescreened. In fact, midway through our visit, the nurses call Melissa to inform her than some of what we brought will have to come back with us, as the items are either contraband or unwise. Before entering, we had removed any medicines or sharp objects we had, though the nursing staff doesn't care to check us upon entrance. Whatever we could do to the patients is peanuts compared to what they do to themselves.

We are led into a meeting room. We cannot go to Melissa's room for reasons of safety. This room, obviously also used for meals, is stark but for some uneaten fruit on a shelf and a few mutilated crafts left over from Thanksgiving. The windows are not barred, but are nevertheless impenetrable. I expect cameras, as though guards should be making certain we do not slip her cigarettes to trade for hastily sketched gang tattoos; this is not a prison and, though the doctors have revised Melissa's voluntary commitment to involuntary to keep her longer, she is not an inmate. Still, it is almost easier to see her as this than someone with an illness. For as long as I have known her, no matter what trauma she was experiencing, she was the strong one. She was like a cork in the sea. The more people pushed her down, the more insistently she popped back until they tired themselves out in the effort. She was not always the happy one and, in retrospect, the eccentricities of her life robbed her from satisfactorily confronting the Eriksonian crises she needed to. In different circumstances, she might not now be beholden to friends for a change of clothing. Then again, she might also be dead, might not have sought help when she overdosed, so we don't want to speculate too far for fear of inspiring the law of unintended consequences into action. She's alive and in a hospital, that is hope enough.

We chat normally. She gossips about people in the ward with her, tell us of a patient who held the door for her and who has been polite to her. We talk of her limited choices for reading and I feel a pang of guilt for not bringing her something from my personal library. Would the nurses have scanned through the book to make certain it contain nothing psychologically subversive? Would it matter?

The visiting hour ends too quickly and the nurse politely informs us that we need to leave. It is strange to pass through the doors of the ward once more, into freedom, without Melissa next to us. She seemed almost normal, almost fully herself, setting aside. The doctors are keeping her for observation, but we know she will get out. She is herself because she is taking a regular cocktail of medications that allow her to behave more or less as though her brain were producing the right neurochemicals in the right proportions. Here, with few exceptions, she is not forced to face the stressors that provoke her equilibrium to topple. When she leaves, she reenters a world where the consequences are too dire and she can't be guaranteed that she is getting only the medications she needs. She's already lost her job owing to how often she has missed work owing to her mental illness (in fact, they fired her while she was at the hospital, "so she would be able to get appropriate support"). The implicit message is that the doctors will release her not because she is showing any improvement but simply because her insurance will not cover a longer stay. It is impossible to fully quantify mental illness, no matter how one jokes about gradations. We can know an AIDS patient's every T-cell, but how can we put a number to the content of one's mind?
She mistrusts your intentions.

The suicide attempt was not a surprise. For months, I have been uncertain if I was speaking to Melissa or the illness within her that seemed to grant her reprieve only for the sadistic joy of making her sicker and more hopeless, giving her back to us only to snatch her away more resolutely. I got frustrated with the illness and, as far as Melissa saw, at her. No matter what we were dealing with, it was Melissa, albeit a form a Melissa that lacked her full coping faculties, a Melissa whose every defense mechanism turned cancerous, a Melissa who felt backed into a corner by the life she hadn't beaten down in her unconventional adolescence.

I forbore writing this for months for fear that Melissa wouldn't understand that I needed to flesh her out, I needed to have this seen to understand. More than once in this battle for her stability, my "tough love" approach earned me messages stating that she would never speak to me again or that I was dead to her. I waited these out, not taking anything she said too personally.

I have been told that I am wrong in placing the beginning of her illness around her breakup with Stevehen (and the subsequent breakup with a poly couple she had rebounded to), but that she had the support she needed in a relationship with Stevehen that she didn't become outwardly symptomatic. I don't know how true that is or that anyone can cement a moment as when this began. What we considered normal behavior for Melissa at points in her life would be outrageous risk-taking and mania in anyone else. She has said that she thinks her years of experimenting with drugs (cocaine especially) were simply an unconscious attempt at self-medication. At eight, she was sneaking shots from her parents' liquor cabinet. Was she sick then? If so, was she ever not sick, no matter how stable she seemed? And if her everyday and welcomed behavior was sickness, what is health? It is too recursive a problem, too much like trying to make excuses. She is simply sick and in recovery, attempting to heal the rifts in her psyche that drove her to her lowness.

She is right to blame some of it on medication. She, more than most people, understands the psychopharmacology of her own body. Whether from genetics or her years of retraining her brain to respond to heavy drugs, her body no longer provides the serotonin and dopamine most of us take for granted. She'd started therapy months before this all started because she had almost crippling social anxiety and has taken more sleeping pills in one night than I would in a month, just so she could sleep a while. The meds, an ever rotating series of pills and dosages, only seemed to make her worse. She would be suicidal, she would be desperate, she would be bipolar, she would be borderline. Angela, Krista, and I tried to defuse these states, each failing in our own way.

Melissa is not weak. She is aware that she has an imbalance, that the wrong mix of psychiatric medications or withdrawal will push her from her safe zone. She uses clinical terms casually, talking of "benzo withdrawal" and "tardive dyskinesia". I research every time I hear one of these, because I want to understand and help. I want to know that my friend is recovering from her dark night of the soul. I want to be part of the light guiding her through the tunnel.

Soon in Xenology: Lake George. Melanie

last watched: Fido
reading: Skinny Legs and All
listening: Peggy Lee

I Want to Believe | 2009 | How I Met Your Mother

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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