Let’s start off by getting the white elephant out of the room: last week, I spent not one, not two, but seven nights (and six days) at NYU Langone Medical Center. More precisely, I lived in HCC-10: the psychiatric ward.
That’s right. After a gruesome experience on a psych unit nearly three years ago in Kentucky, I went back for round two.
Round two kicked round one’s butt, if I’m being honest … which I almost always try to be. Hence the purpose of this post.
I didn’t want to go to the hospital. In fact I argued (valiantly, I like to think) with the psychiatrist who suggested sending me there. It was the cost, you see. The seclusion. The falling behind in school. Most importantly, it was the fear that people would swoop in like mama eagles and gather me away, pull me out of school, empty my apartment and drag me away from the life I’ve dreamed of living for the past three years.
The psychiatrist countered all my arguments simply and effectively by asking whether all of that was worth my life. Whether my parents would value saving money over having me with them. Whether I was willing to permanently give up my dreams in order to keep living them temporarily.
In the end the answer to all of those questions was no. No, my fears were not worth my life.
So I went to the hospital. Shaking, heart palpitating, chewing my lips and worrying about insurance, I went to the hospital. Begrudgingly, I voluntarily checked myself in.
You meet the best, most interesting people in a hospital. Because being thrown together in a unit like HCC-10 strips away the performance, the acting, the lies.
There’s no need to pretend you didn’t feel suicidal last night, because the people you’re with understand. There’s no need to try and explain exactly how debilitating your depression can be, how paralyzing, because they’ve been there too. And there’s no need to worry that you’ll overwhelm them with your pain and drive them away because they’ve felt it too.
In the hospital, we were ourselves. We made friends. We played games – well, they played endless games of Scrabble, and I joined in when they turned to Catchphrase. We ate decently disgusting food, watched old movies on VHS and gathered at the nurses’ station to take our meds. We commiserated over how hot, and then cold, the unit was, over sleepless nights, over worried futures. We all hugged when someone left and said not to cry — things on the outside are scary, but it’s the only way to live a life.
That’s what I learned from the hospital.
I learned that living in an enclosed unit with nurses and doctors constantly fluttering can feel like a warm cocoon. It feels safe. You don’t have to worry about shaving your legs or putting on makeup or anything else; you don’t even have to worry about putting up a facade.
But after a while, safe becomes claustrophobic. Sure, there’s something so simple about only having to choose between hanging out in the bedroom or the day room. But eventually simple becomes mind-numbing and infuriating, honestly. Sure, it was super exciting when I found out that there were menus and I could choose what I wanted to eat. But after a few days my choices felt limited and, yes, claustrophobic. And sure, it was great that I could actually catch a glimpse of the skyline out the window. But after long enough, I wanted to be a part of the skyline. I wanted to walk the streets, feel wind on my face, complain about how hot the sun was and breathe in that not-so-fresh air.
What the hospital taught me is that you can’t live life between four white walls. You can’t rely on a bunch of doctors to make your decisions for you. You can’t hide from the scary things — from the crowds, insecurity, loneliness and stress that are the makeup of life. Because those very things that terrify you are the ones that energize you.
Life is about more than just surviving, sliding from Wednesday to Thursday to Friday.
It’s about thriving, about making the most of every experience and grasping at every opportunity for joy, about submerging yourself fully in Wednesday, leaping to Thursday, crashing into Friday.
I felt joy in the hospital for the first time in several weeks. I felt like I could joke and not be covering up a scar, like I could laugh and not want to cry, like I could say “I’m fine” and actually mean it.
But I had to let that joy take me out of the hospital. I had to let it set me free — metaphorically, from the overwhelming depression, and literally, from the locked doors of HCC-10.
So I left. Scared, wondering what would come next, I left. Worried about not having the strength to forge a future for myself, I left.
And I am ever so glad I did.