Bright, white light pours into my eyes, which have opened themselves slowly. I clench them closed again, hoping to push the light out. For a brief second, I wonder if I’ve just woken up at the beach on a summer day, the sun beating down on my shut eyelids as I lie basking under its rays, but this couldn’t be the case, as there is no warmth to accompany this light.
Unrecognizable voices murmur in the background, gradually becoming louder and crisper, as though I’d just been on the other side of a closed door that has slowly started to swing open. My ears feel like they are turning themselves back on after being off, and I’m not sure why I have this sensation.
“Laura? Can you hear me? Laura?”
I hear these words, and recognize a voice associated with memories, although it takes a moment to place it as my father’s. I hear another voice, unfamiliar, say, “She’s coming back.” I think to myself what an odd dream I’ve found myself in.
“Laura? You’re alive. We’re so happy you’re alive. You’re going to be all right. We love you so much.” My father’s voice, still slightly distant, fills my ears again.
A sense of dread starts to trickle into my consciousness as I realize, my eyes still closed to what’s around me, that this feels different than a dream— too clear, too visceral. Opening my eyes once again and trying with all my might to keep them that way by lifting my eyebrows as high as they’ll go, I will my eyes to focus on the scene around me. In a matter of seconds, I realize that the white light above comes not from the hot August sun; it is the sterile light of a fluorescent lamp that is positioned directly over my prostrate body. I am not lying on the beach, but on a cold, hard table of some type. There are indistinguishable bodies moving around me, many of them.
I discover that I’m not speaking, that I can’t speak. I sense something blocking my throat, something foreign and uncomfortable. As though someone has just read my mind, I see a pair of hands over my face, and close my eyes in panic as I feel the horrible sensation of a contraption being pulled from deep out of my chest, up and out of my body, scratching along the inside of my throat as it comes out, but feel relief when I suck in fresh air a second later. I see a long breathing tube in those foreign hands, and wonder how it could be that this whole thing was just inside of me. All of a sudden, the pieces of this puzzling situation snap into place. I am alive. I am not lying in a dream, but rather in a hospital, surrounded by doctors and family. I am covered with wires and tubes, and my neck is held firm in a brace of some sort. Machines are beeping all around me.
I go back to those first three words that seared themselves into my consciousness just a moment ago— I am alive. Immediately, I am filled with a fury that lights my very being on fire. I feel my entire body clench in rage. I begin to speak, my voice hoarse, my throat surprisingly sore. I feel like a teakettle about to explode, shaking and spewing on the stovetop.
“WHY? WHY am I HERE? Why didn’t you just let me DIE?”
I am angrier than I’ve ever been in my life and I feel my body begin to move uncontrollably. I am suddenly shaking and convulsing, and I hear an unfamiliar voice announce that I’m seizing. Someone moves near the head of my bed, and a sensation simultaneously warm and dull begins to flow through me, as though my body, my thoughts, my entire perception of reality is all of a sudden in slow-motion, and I fade into a state of blackness.
From the remaining time I spent on this unit, I don’t remember much—a male nurse with a foreign accent and dark hair; my parents’ constant presence; an increasingly deep, intense ache throughout my body as I continued to emerge further from the coma I’d been in; a horrible pain in my throat, and a scratchy voice that left me only able to whisper.
Upon being moved sometime later from what I’d come to learn was the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in Boston to its General Medicine floor, I remained in a state of almost complete disorientation. I had no sense of how I’d gotten there, no sense of what day it was or how long I’d been there for, and no sense of how quickly or slowly the hours were passing. I was stuck in a sorrowful state of complete awareness that I had utterly failed at the one sacred thing I’d held onto for so many years as the only reliable escape from my life. Now what was I to do? I felt more imprisoned in my skin that I’d ever been. Unable to move my limbs more than a few centimeters without experiencing tremendous pain, I was trapped in my body and my mind, with myself and with this reality, as I moved in and out of the drugged state of sleep I was in.
What I learned in the coming days from my father was that I had been found hours later on that Saturday evening by him, after he’d started to worry when dusk came and I still hadn’t returned home. How he’d chosen the right path and found me, in the darkness and with the roaring sound of the ocean, nearly a half-mile away from the house, when he could have walked in a countless number of directions, I couldn’t understand. I was baffled, as I was sure I’d had a foolproof plan, and felt a wave of anger towards myself that I hadn’t done a more thorough job. How could I have messed this up?
The local hospital in the town next to ours had told my parents that they didn’t have the proper facilities to treat me in the condition I was in and that I’d need to be sent by helicopter to either Portland or Boston if there was any chance of my survival. The doctors, I learned, had recommended that my parents sign a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’, for if I survived, which they said would be a miracle, they believed I’d be in a permanent vegetative state. How was I still here? Why didn’t it work?
As I lay in my bed on the Gen Med floor, supervised by a 24-hour hospital-appointed chaperone, I tried to wrap my mind around the strangeness of hearing what had happened to me, around me, because of me in this period of time, the length of which I was still unsure, without a single speck of my own memory connected to it. My physical body was present throughout it all, undoubtedly picked up and carried and prodded and strapped to machines, undoubtedly surrounded by fear and sadness and confusion and anger and desperation and crying and yelling and screaming and deafening silence and an overall sense of complete dread, but my conscious self wasn’t there for any of it. And here I was, thrown back into that consciousness against my wishes, a section of my life’s movie-reel cut out and dropped to the editor’s floor to be discarded forever, the details forever a fantasy in my mind, never to be remembered as they really happened. How was I to make sense of this?
For now, the depth of my understanding was merely a glimmer of awareness, as a thick mental fog had me insulated from the cold, hard reality of everything that had unfolded in that period of time. I only had one thought with any clarity in my mind, and it had set itself on replay— Because I failed, I am now stuck here in consciousness, and who knows how long it will be before I’ll have another chance to turn this failure into a success.
Lying in bed with a catheter strapped to my leg, I watched life go on around me during my time on Gen Med. The “one-to-one” chaperone sat upright in her chair along the wall, glancing up at me every thirty seconds or so before turning a page of her magazine to make sure I hadn’t managed to complete the botched job that had brought me in here in the first place. Countless nurses and doctors circulated through my room on a regular basis, examining me and my body, and I was sure I could see a subtle look of disgust in their eyes as they undoubtedly wondered how I could have been so selfish as to choose to take my life and leave behind a loving family. As I was poked and prodded over and over like meat on a slab, I told myself that if they only knew what my life had become, they’d understand.
My sisters took turns sitting by my side, the look of shock and despair in their eyes screaming loud despite the calm quiet of their voices, as one would read aloud to me— from what book, I can’t remember— and the other would hold my hand until I slipped into sleep. I knew I should be feeling guilt for everything I was putting them through, but I was unable to feel anything other than my own selfish despair.
Days passed, how many I’m not sure, and I eventually gained some physical strength. I was too weak to use the toilet on my own, the catheter still strapped to me, but I was able to shuffle in my rubber-grip hospital socks to the bathroom a few feet away to brush my teeth and put water on my face, a nurse’s arm around my waist and my hand clenched tightly around the pole of my IV drip.
When my eyes met the mirror, I was faced with an unfamiliar likeness. I remembered what my dad had told me at one point— that he’d found me at the bottom of a small cliff that my body must have rolled off of after I’d lost consciousness— as I looked at the black and green bruises around my eye and on the side of my ashen face. The eyes that looked back at me were cold, hardened, and empty, and I didn’t recognize myself, although this experience of dissociation was nothing new. I was a body with a heartbeat, devoid of a conscience and a soul. I held onto the hope that I’d find escape from this body in just a matter of time, when the chaos of this hospital mess was resolved and I was back in the real world. I held onto this thought, and it kept me going. I knew I needed to stabilize and get well in there if I was going to get discharged, find freedom, and finish the job once and for all.
Eventually, it was determined by my insurance provider that it was time for me to move on to the next phase of my recovery. I was to be sent to a locked psych ward just a few towns away by ambulance, to the very same hospital on the hill that had initiated me into the world of psychiatry back when I was eighteen years old, when I was filled me with a naïve hope that my life would get back on track and that I’d be fixed. Here I was, returning once again, seven years from the January day in 2002 when I cruised down the hill after my first appointment with my new doctor— an MD and PhD!! — to the bus that would take me back to Harvard Square, my head held high, sure that everything would work out OK now that I’d accepted my bipolar disorder and the treatment I was told I needed. That hope now felt so foreign to me, and I thought about how stupidly ignorant I was back then to have thought I’d ever be well.
Life moves in a vicious circle, doesn’t it? I thought as I was straight-jacketed in blankets, my body freezing cold, moved from my bed, and strapped tight to a stretcher. Two EMTs waited in the hall to take me to the elevator, along the winding corridors, lights flickering in the ceiling and silence broken only by the squeak of their shoes on the linoleum floor, as we weaved our way down to the basement and the rear of the hospital where an ambulance sat waiting. Secured in the back of the ambulance, one EMT by my side and the other in the front behind the wheel, I looked out the back windows, the world going on as it always had, just beyond my grasp.
We pulled out onto Storrow Drive and immediately found ourselves in traffic. I watched the car behind us, a Volvo occupied by parents in the front and children in the back, and I wondered what they’d think if they knew how mentally ill and insane the person was who lay strapped in the stretcher in the ambulance just in front of them. I wondered if they could see me, although I did nothing to get myself out of plain sight. I thought about how I was once a kid, myself, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, en route to hockey practice or a play-date or dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant, blissfully ignorant of the future that awaited me. And here I was, on my way to another psych ward, my life in shambles and my fuel tank of hope totally empty. As I wallowed in self-pity, the EMT sitting to my left began to breathe heavily. The reek of cigarettes that hung about his body had me wondering if his smoker’s lungs might be working on overdrive for oxygen. I soon realized, however, that he had slipped into sleep, his heavy breathing now morphed into a deep, loud snore that ripped at my eardrums.
Storrow Drive was leading me to my fate at a snail’s pace of ten miles an hour with the soundtrack of my life a stranger’s snore, and I wondered how much more pathetic my life could become. I thought about the hospital on the hill sitting in its nearly two hundred years of psychiatric wisdom, just ten or so miles away. It had known all along that I’d be back, strapped to a stretcher in this state. It had been waiting silently and patiently for me all these years.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.