So, following my suicide attempt at age seventeen, I spent eleven days at First Hospital Wyoming Valley, a behavioral health facility in Wilkes-Barre. For days, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell the story of those eleven days. I really don’t know how to put it into a clear narrative. I think the best I can do is list a bunch of things I remember.
- The first two days were horrible. I wasn’t sleeping well. Since all the beds in the ward were full, I had to sleep in a different (locked) ward at night. Worse, it also meant that I had no place to go during the day to lie down if I was exhausted (which I was). On the second afternoon, I was so tired that I lay down on the floor in the common room. A woman who worked there, an executive of some sort, told me to get up. She said, “We don’t sleep on the floor here.” I tried to explain, but she didn’t seem to care. I also remember that I called my mother that day, begging her to get me out of there. She wisely told me that she wasn’t the person I had to convince…I had to convince the doctors there.
- It got much, much better after that. After two days, I had a bed in the ward, and I slept like a baby. That went a long way. I was also taken off “suicide watch,” so I was allowed a lot more privileges. I was able to eat in the cafeteria, which really wasn’t bad. (It’s where I discovered the beauty of mixing cheese into scrambled eggs, oddly enough.) I was able to spend some time outside. I was able to go on a few field trips with the rest of the ward. I recall going bowling. I recall going to church.
- I turned such a corner after a few days, and became so invested in my recovery and in my life, that most of the new patients who arrived during my time there couldn’t understand why I was there. They expressed shock that I had tried to kill myself so recently. Some actually thought I was a nurse or something.
- There was a lot of talk therapy, in three different styles. I received one-on-one therapy, but I don’t recall anything about it. A few times, we also had family therapy with my parents. The only thing I remember about that was seeing my mother crying. I also remember that group therapy, when the whole adult ward was together, was perhaps the most helpful part of the whole experience.
- There were maybe twenty other patients with me in the ward. The population changed daily, as a few people were discharged, and someone else would enter. What struck me most about them was how normal they all were. They weren’t what I thought of as “crazy.” They were people like me, people who were just having a really hard time dealing with some particular situation or problem. This was truly a hospital, not an asylum.
- In fact, I do remember a bit about one other patient. I don’t recall his name, but I remember a few things about him: he met his wife on the internet. (In 1993, that was quite a feat!) He looked like Stephen King. He was an even bigger Beatles fan than I was; however, he was convinced that the line “and curse Sir Walter Raleigh; he was such a stupid git” in “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was actually “and curse the walls around me; I was such a stupid git.” In his defense, his version (while wrong) makes a lot more sense than the one John Lennon actually wrote.
- I wasn’t on any medication, which was unusual. The doctors there determined that I could be helped just with therapy; my life on antidepressants didn’t start until many years later.
- I wrote a poem while I was there, called “A Believer’s Prayer.” I’ll include that as an extra blog post in the next day or two.
- It was the strangest Thanksgiving dinner ever. My eleven-day hospitalization included Thanksgiving, but I was given an eight-hour pass to go home. It was the first time my family ever had Thanksgiving dinner at home, not with any relatives.
- But the most important thing I remember is my friends and family. I was awestruck, shocked, humbled, by the effect that my suicide attempt had on my friends. One friend, Maisy, came to visit me every day while I was there. I had visits from high school friends (thanks, Jeff) and college friends (thanks, Chris). There were pay phones there that we could use during free time. My father had given me his credit card when I was first admitted, and said, “Call anybody you want to, any time.” I called so many friends. And they were all so upset. So hurt. So sad. And so grateful that my attempt was unsuccessful. One very dear friend was so upset, and so angry with me for trying to kill myself, that she refused to talk to me for a few months. While that hurt a bit at the time, I understood, and we talked through it. I received cards from some of my college classmates, and from people at my church. My younger sister not only wrote me letters, but got friends of hers (who didn’t even know me) to write me letters as well. I was astonished at how loved I felt. One activity that I was encouraged to do was to make a list of the people who cared about me. My list couldn’t even fit on one page.
I think the two most important things about being at First Hospital were people, first my peers there, and second the effect I saw on my own friends and family. Don’t get me wrong. The nursing staff was great. The therapists were great. And obviously the executives there did a great job creating a program in which peers could help one another so well. But it was my peers who really seemed to make the difference. They showed me that I was normal, that I was okay. They were a mirror to me. And my friends…sheesh, I had no idea how much I meant to them. I had no idea how much I had affected them. I had no idea.
Those eleven days were a watershed in my life. By no means did they cure me of depression, but they helped me to start to taking it more seriously. I never had another suicide attempt after this.