Mental Illness Has a Face

What I learned while visiting a mental health facility.
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It wasn't easy for her, but she made it through spring break without hurting herself. When she came back to campus she stayed with us a few nights a week (as a way of rewarding herself for being strong and staying on campus most nights, and for resisting the urge to cut herself). Overall, things seemed to be improving.

Then, during a conversation I'll never forget, as Paige and I sat outside the student center one afternoon, she told me that she couldn't live like this for the rest of her life. She had started having thoughts of dying. She didn't really have a plan (or even a desire) to kill herself, but she fantasized about being dead—about not having to deal with the stresses and complications of life any longer.

That was when I called counseling services (the CCO had definitely trained me for this scenario). The following day, Paige met with her counselor again. And after their meeting, they decided to take her to the hospital. She called me in tears and asked me to bring some of her things to the ER.

I ended up sitting with her in the ER for six hours—watching some show about tattoos on the little TV above the door in her room and asking her questions like, "So, what's your favorite candy bar?" After a while she said, "Tell me I'm not overreacting." (At this point she thought she still had the freedom to leave the ER if she wanted to, although I'm not sure she did.)

"You're doing the right thing," I assured her.

Finally, the ambulance arrived to take her to a mental health facility in another hospital. I offered repeatedly—practically insisting—to drive her, but the nurses wouldn't let me. We said our goodbyes as they strapped her onto the stretcher she didn't need, and I promised to visit her as soon as I could.

During my visits, Paige and I would sit in the courtyard (even though it was often far too cold), because she wanted the fresh air. Plus, in the courtyard, if she got the sudden urge to dance, she could get away with it (sometimes) without the nurses accusing her of causing "too much stimulation." In mental health facilities, apparently, energy and emotions are dangerously contagious.

During these visits, Paige and I talked about both the meaningful and the mundane. And often our conversations were interrupted by other patients. Cathy, a delusional schizophrenic who was being subjected to electroshock therapy and who seemed to be half-fried most of the time, developed a real attachment to Paige. And someday when Cathy gets elected president, she plans to appoint Paige to be her secretary of state or something important like that. I, on the other hand, am slated to be one of her boring, run-of-the-mill cabinet members.

On nice days, the patients could write on the concrete walls of the courtyard with sidewalk chalk. I sat on the ground and watched while Paige drew designs and wrote in large letters: "God is good. Always."

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