It had been ten months since my â€œdate rapeâ€ by a police officer-in-training, five months since my motherâ€™s death from a protracted battle with multiple cancers, and three hours since I succumbed to the grief of both by overdosing on whatever prescription drugs I could find in my roommateâ€™s medicine cabinet. Now I lay immobilized in Atlantaâ€™s busiest emergency room, unable to wipe the tears of terror that streamed down my face.
It wasnâ€™t my first attempt at suicideâ€”I had battled major depression since adolescenceâ€”but it was the first time I had ever sought medical assistance following such an episode. Having gone to the hospital voluntarily, I was shocked to find myself immediately restrained like a prisonerâ€”stripped of sovereignty, void of solace, as my feet and hands were strapped to a gurney that was then abandoned in the overcrowded hallwayâ€”all â€œfor my own protection.â€
After thirty minutes of what was, to me, an eternity in hell, I did not regret trying to kill myself; I regretted seeking help afterwards. Struggling to lift my head, I begged a passing nurse to at least free my hands, explaining that the bondage was too reminiscent of how I had been raped. Wordlessly, she complied.
Because I was alert and had already rid my body of at least some drugs before coming to the emergency room, I was spared from having my stomach pumped. With a mixture of gratitude and disgust, I drank a liquid charcoal solution instead, which was used to induce vomiting. Once it was certain that the drugs were out of my system, I reverted to the naÃ¯ve notion that I would be released. But without receiving any explanation, I was directed to another floor.
Riding the elevator unaccompanied, I began to worry, wondering if my friend Markâ€”who was waiting for me in the lobbyâ€”had any idea of what was happening. When the elevator doors opened, I stepped cautiously into a wide and surprisingly desolate corridor. Scanning the hallway for any indication of life, I found nothing to attract the eye, just a colorless void blanched by the overbearing fluorescence of artificial light. Yet within seconds, I was overwhelmed by both sound and scentâ€”the sound of a patient screaming, the stench of urine.
Only then did I realize I was on the psych ward. Immediately, thoughts of One Flew Over the Cuckooâ€™s Nest came to mind, along with the only piece of non-fashion advice my mother had ever given me: â€œWhatever you do,â€ she warned, â€œdonâ€™t go to a state hospital.â€
Having battled manic depression all of her adult life, my mother knew first-hand the horrors of supposed â€œhealingâ€ institutions, but she never discussed the details with me. I just heard bits and pieces from my older siblings: murmurs of electroshock therapy, at least one suicide attempt, and multiple visits to various mental hospitals. Although I could never be certain of exactly what my mother had experienced, I did know what happened to countless other women. I heard their stories in every support group I joined. Any time a woman began a sentence with, â€œI was put in a state hospital,â€ it inevitably ended with â€œand was raped.â€
But before I could project all these memories into a fear for my own future, a female staff member emerged from a doorway. Without a word or gesture of introduction, she stared icily into my eyes and said, â€œYou are a criminal, and you will be treated as such. Now sit here and think about what youâ€™ve done.â€
Intimidated and in shock, with no chair in sight, I simply slid slowly down to the cold, bare floor. With Mark in the waiting room, most likely uninformed and unaware, I had no advocateâ€”only a piece of advice from my deceased mother that I clung to like a life preserver. In an effort to regain control, I decided to use the only tool I had at my disposal: the ability to act.
When I was called into an office at the end of the hallway, presumably to be formally admitted to the ward, I calmly laid out an elaborate lie that I hoped would secure my freedom. Explaining that my therapistâ€”which I didnâ€™t have at the timeâ€”had already recommended a private hospital to me, one that specifically dealt with female survivors of rape, I felt it wise to follow her advice and admit myself there. (Fortunately, I knew the name of one such facility in town.) My roommate, I added, had only brought me to this hospital because he knew I didnâ€™t have insurance. What he didnâ€™t know, I continued, was that my aunt had already agreed to pay for treatment in the private facility whenever I might choose to go. Hoping to make myself seem more credible, I even took the risk of offering names and phone numbers so that my story could be corroborated, trusting that the obviously overwhelmed woman with whom I spoke had neither the time nor the energy to investigate such details.
Wary yet weary after forty-five minutes, most of which was spent dealing with seemingly constant interruptions, she finally consented to release me. Years later, I would come to understand that hospitals who do not admit suicidal patients are legally bound to transport them to another medical facility, but the same problem that initially imprisoned me thereâ€”a callous and compromised systemâ€”inadvertently freed me as well.
Yet I was not free from fear. Once at home, I remained anxious and guarded for days, terrified that if my lie were discovered, men in white coats would come to the house and haul me away. Thankfully, that never happened. But neither did healing.
Despite the horror of that experience, I continued to seek help over the next thirteen years, repeatedly surrendering my sovereignty to those whose own fears and prejudices often eclipsed their capacity for compassionâ€”professionals such as ministers, doctors and therapists as well as my less â€œqualifiedâ€ but more immediate friends and family. Since each attempt to heal thrust me further down a hole of despair, often deepened by additional abuse and alienation, I ultimately decided thatâ€”for my own protectionâ€”I should face my demons alone.