The first part of William Henderson’s powerful memoir, beginning in a mental hospital after his failed suicide attempt.
Carrie, the fifth psychiatrist I’ve talked to since checking myself in to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, Massachusetts, calls me Bill. Carrie calling me Bill makes me not like her. And if I’m going to talk to—definitely to and not with—her, I want to like her. Since she’s been assigned to me, I don’t have a choice.
I’m scheduled to go home this afternoon, nearly ninety hours after I signed myself into the hospital. Leaving today was contingent on my agreeing to come back to the hospital every other day for two weeks, during which time I will attend a partial-hospital program. And contingent on meeting with Carrie. I probably need to convince Carrie that I’m neither crazy nor suicidal. No longer crazy or suicidal. And the partial-hospital program the hospital’s way of giving me the tools I need to never again feel crazy or suicidal.
Carrie had interrupted my group therapy session this morning, and asked Erin, the group leader—and the woman who told me I had to agree to complete the partial-hospital program in order for the hospital to release me—to borrow me. Carrie’s words. Borrow him.
You borrow butter or sugar; you do not borrow a person.
She should have just said that she needed to evaluate my mental stability and sign off on my going home. More honest than asking to borrow me.
Not enough of me to share right now. Check back next week.
The other people in the room looked at me, when I got up from my chair and followed Carrie out of the room. She didn’t say anything to me while we walked down a hallway and then into her office.
Then she called me Bill.
“Will,” I said to Carrie. “I go by Will.”
Don’t let her think I’m someone that I’m not.
That lesson, I’ve learned.
“Will, then,” Carrie said. Probably in her late forties. A slight accent, though not a New Englander’s accent. I can’t tell exactly where she is from. She crosses her legs when she talks. She holds papers in her lap. At the bottom of the stack is a manila folder. My name is written on this folder. Or, not my name. The name Bill, written on the folder before Carrie met me.
Carrie’s office is small. A desk, a computer, two shelves of books, and a chair. No couch. Psychiatrists are supposed to have couches.
“Can you tell me what brought you to St. Elizabeth’s?” Carrie asks.
My wife, Holly, brought me to St. Elizabeth’s, a hospital located in the suburbs of Boston, about six miles from where I live, with its valet parking and views of Boston, is not as well known as McLean Hospital—perhaps most famously depicted in the memoir, and then the film, Girl, Interrupted.
What I want to say: Don’t you know already, Carrie? I mean, what brings any of us here? I’m staying in a room with a man I met a couple of days ago who talks to himself. He unpacked something like thirty pairs of underwear. He asks the nurses to let him go out to smoke. He grunts in his sleep. Someone wakes me up twice each night, once to check my blood pressure, the other to ask me to pee in a cup. They call us crazy here. They must, these nurses who wake us up. Not to our faces. Probably against the rules. But when they’re home, with their families, all of us, crazy.
I tried and failed to kill myself.
I came out to my wife, who cried and took off her wedding and engagement rings.
I fell in love with a man named Jay, began an affair with him, asked him to marry me, decided I would leave my wife, and then the affair ended, not because he or my wife caught me but because I betrayed Jay, and in that betrayal I lost everything. Nothing felt as important as dying, which would release Holly from our broken marriage.
And hurt Jay, who never should have done what he did, not to me. He agreed to marry me, Carrie. He said he had been waiting his entire life to meet me. He told me the things I needed to hear to feel like I could live as an openly gay man.
He made me feel special and safe and happy.
I’m getting ahead of myself. My thoughts are racing. I want coffee.
What I say: “I’m not sure where to start.”
Carrie smiles. Not helpful, her smiling. Her smiling makes me think that she knows things that I don’t know.
“Are you thinking about killing yourself today?”
“Not today,” I say.
Am I trying to be funny? I think I am trying to be funny.
“Did you think about killing yourself yesterday?” she asks.
“Not yesterday, either,” I say.
True, both statements. Not lying.
“But last week you did,” Carrie says.
“Last week I did,” I say.
Today is Monday. I checked myself in early Friday morning. Wednesday and Thursday I thought about killing myself. I more than thought about killing myself. Last week. How has less than a week passed since everything happened? How has less than a week passed since I kissed Jay good morning goodbye?
Time hasn’t felt like time, not since I got the text message from Jay ending our relationship. Those first few hours unwound so slowly that I thought if I waited long enough, he would text again and tell me that he made a mistake. When the police officer came to my door, time stopped, and when the police officer left, time started, getting faster and faster until I no longer knew day from night and night from day and which end was up. All I knew was what Jay and I had was over.
And that I had come out to my wife for no reason. And that she wanted to get divorced. And that everything I had thought true was not true, and all I had left to show for the time preceding were memories I no longer wanted to remember.
So pills, the night my relationship ended, when I felt like I was falling into a black hole. Going supernova. Exploding. A million stars up above, the only place I could look and feel anything.
Inside, I was breaking, was broken, still breaking. First my heart, shards of it still hurting my ribs when I breathe and when I think about him and when I cry, which I have done, and am doing, sitting across from Carrie. Probably in her late forties. Slight accent.
Holding onto facts like these facts is how I keep time. Minutes into hours into days. Count days, as if I were an alcoholic. How many days sober do I have if I can’t stop thinking about Jay? I’ll never earn my ninety-day chip at this rate.
Five days since the text message. And the police officer. And the pills.
Four days since the bridge.
And somewhere between four and three days since I checked myself into St. Elizabeth’s. Seventy-two hours for observation, during which I talked to four psychiatrists, three therapists, one social worker, and six nurses—shift work, my time during their time on the unit.
Everyone here calls the psychiatric ward the unit, but unit seems like the wrong word, almost sterile. The words psychiatric ward feel ugly and dirty. I feel ugly and dirty. Psych ward. Those are the words I’ll use when I talk about this part of my life.
Breaking rules, thinking about so far ahead into the future. One day at a time and all, the one rule I shouldn’t break. And never again contacting Jay.
His request. An order, really.
“Have you tried to kill yourself before?” Carrie asks.
“No,” I say.
“Did you want to die?”
I should tell her that I didn’t want to die, but I wanted to die.
Carrie doesn’t say anything.
Why isn’t she saying anything?
Since checking in—I will have to come up with better words than the words you’d use to describe your arrival at a resort or hotel—I have been talked to and talked at and talked around, as if nothing I’d say would matter. This not talking is new, at least here in the psych ward.
This part of my life.
“But I don’t want to die anymore,” I say.
A tiny lie. I don’t really want to die, I think. But if it happened, I wouldn’t mind.
Still nothing. Carrie. Probably late forties. Slight accent.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” I say. “Everything felt so hopeless.”
“Things are different.”
“How are they different?”
“They just are.”
“Why did you try to kill yourself?” she asks.
A question I can answer. And when Carrie understands, because she has to understand, she’ll help me understand. Not why I did it—I know why I did it—but what I need to do next to make sure that what I do next matters.