I met Mia for the first time at my tennis club. A small Chinese woman with dark brown eyes and short-cropped black hair, she greeted me with a heavy Chinese accent.
"Are you Ken?" she asked.
To my ... [+]
A pale, blonde woman in pink scrubs first asks my name and birthday. She has an accent that sounds Scandinavian, and she looks past the tears in my eyes as I answer her questions. She leads me down a large hallway, our footsteps echoing off the floors, past pictures of flowers and fields and waterfalls that look like clip art, to my room. She slips fresh sheets on the bed with a plastic, rounded frame; no sharp corners. The desk and chair are built similarly, as well as the sink—which sits under a blank space where a mirror should be—in my private bathroom. A metal screen shrouds both sides of the small window.
“I have to take that,” the nurse says. She’s pointing at my crotch.
“Oh. Sorry,” I say, and I fuss with the drawstring in my sweatpants for a couple seconds. It won’t come out. I give it a violent yank, finally the string tears out through the hole at my waist, and I pass it to her with the hand not holding up my loose pants.
She leaves a disposable toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste on the sink and tells me that vitals and breakfast are at 8 a.m. and that every fifteen minutes throughout the night a nurse will be checking in on me. I say thanks, and her face as she walks out makes me wonder if she hears that often.
At 8:12 I am the only one out to get my blood pressure checked. After she unwraps the sleeve, a black nurse who looks young enough to go to my school takes me to a wide room with two wooden tables, handing me a paper menu and a pencil. She sits by the door and reads a magazine flaunting Kendall Jenner’s face, while I sit at one of the tables and stare at the list of breakfast choices. I can’t clear my head enough to read them.
My eyes stay on the paper as two girls walk in, grab menus from the nurse, and head over to the other table. They’re talking loudly, but one of them bursts out laughing at an unintelligible comment from the other. My head, sore from the tears last night, throbs at the noise.
“Hey, you can sit with us.”
I glance up. They’re staring at me like I’m disabled.
“Okay,” I try to say coolly, but it catches in my throat and the word barely scrapes out. I take a seat next to a girl even paler than the nurse from last night, with blue streaks in her black hair. The other girl is just as white, with brown hair and a vintage, oversized sweatshirt.
“I’m Sadie,” the girl in the sweatshirt says. “What’s your name?”
I’ve already read the other girl’s wristband before she tells me her name: Victoria. She asks where I’m from. New Berlin. They both say where they’re from. Sadie’s from Port Washington and Victoria’s from Downtown Milwaukee.
“This is why I’m in here.” Sadie pulls back her massive sleeves and shows me her forearms, grisly black ridges lining from her wrist to the inside of her elbow like a mountain range, and I have to stop myself from gasping. Victoria tells me she downed a bottle of wine right after 30 sleeping pills.
“Why are you in here?” Sadie asks. I knew it was coming, but still the question startles me. I'm not comfortable telling these girls my Instagram username, much less this. I only met her a minute ago and she’s asking to divulge one of the darkest moments of my life.
Then again, maybe that’s how it works in a mental hospital. Talking about it is supposed to help, right? Letting people in. That’s what I need to work on, that’s how you get better.
I clear my throat and scramble together the wording of the stark phrase in my head.
“You don’t have to yet,” Victoria says, smiling. I give her a grateful nod, then circle the options I want for breakfast.
In group therapy I string thoughts that have never been words into words. I don’t recognize the boy saying them. It’s like he’s been a tourist in my brain for a day and has been asked to fluently speak its language on the spot.
Sadie and Victoria and Eddie and a boy named Ariel get to know me deeper than my best friends, and I don’t even like them that much. I’m the only one in here for the first time. I intend to never come back.
Eddie fights with his family too, but not like me. He throws punches and runs away and crashes cars and gets glass bottles thrown at him—his fights are real.
On my last day Ariel draws a picture for me and says I’m his best friend. Victoria asks me for my number, for when she's out too. Eddie and Sadie ask me for my Snapchat. It hurts because I don’t want to speak to any of them ever again.
The second I step outside I’m harassed by the sun. June started while I was gone, stealing away the cool spring air. Dad’s arms envelop me and it’s even warmer. I follow him to the red suburban that dropped me off six days ago, and we drive home in silence.
Coping Strategies. Emergency Contacts. Framing Mindsets. Meds. Vitamin D Supplements. All the resources I didn’t have before. I enter my home and it smells the way home does after a vacation; sweet and familiar and an anxiety drug in itself. My brothers barely notice I was gone. I spend the rest of the day catching up with my friends over text and ignoring the schoolwork I missed.
My brothers are in bed when my parents call me into their room.
“Do you have any idea what this has put us through, financially?” Mom says. “Was that enough attention for you?”
“Did you get what you wanted?” Dad says. “Are you happy now?”
They’re right, I guess I did it for attention. We’re not poor. We don’t throw glass bottles at each other. I don’t drink or do drugs and I get good grades and I’m in choir and orchestra and theater and seminary and tennis and I go on runs and I teach piano and cello lessons to little kids. I have good close friends, no tragic breakup stories. There is literally nothing wrong with my life. Why else did I do it, if not for attention?
Every second in the hospital I regretted it, too. I told myself I will never do anything like it again, I will never feel like that again. I’ve learned better than to think it was a realistic option. I will never end up in that room again with the plastic bed and the caged-up windows and my loose pants and the disturbed kids who are way worse off than me.
Once it’s over I go downstairs to my bathroom with a mirror and I can’t fall asleep in my wooden bed, and I regret it in a different way. Mom and Dad’s voices drown out the recently implanted positive self-talk, and for another night I regret not being successful.