I haven’t slept more than three hours a night for the past six days. My wife’s been out of town on business, my son got hand, foot & mouth disease and his blood sugar has been crazy, I’m juggling a ton of work and stressing out about the summer, I’m frayed down to my last thread.
My wife gets home and she’s exhausted too. We get the kids to bed but we’re obviously both on edge, sniping at each other over little things.
I go outside, start angrily bagging up recycling. Things keep escalating through the window. I’m starting to lose it, my voice rising in pitch. I can’t keep it together.
My son comes downstairs. He’s crying. “Why are you fighting? Why won’t you stop fighting?”
The look on his face. The look on my wife’s face. I can’t do this anymore.
I rear back, howling, and slam my head into the cedar siding of my house at full force. A tooth shatters and flies out of my mouth. I crumple to the ground.
Everybody is screaming.
I need help.
I’m in my car. I’m driving to the hospital, my tooth clutched in one hand.
I’m pushing the button for the emergency room doors.
“My name is Thor Jensen. I have purposefully injured myself. I have constant thoughts of suicide. I need help.”
They take my wallet. They take my phone. They take my car key. They take my tooth.
I change into a hospital gown. A shutter drops and leaves me in a room, on a cot, with nothing.
The nurse takes my vitals. They take some blood. They take some urine. A doctor comes in and we talk.
“I have had suicidal thoughts on a near-daily basis since I was eight years old. No, I have never written a suicide note. No, I have never made a plan.”
He puts one of those plastic things in my mouth to hold it open and secures the broken tooth back in with putty.
I lay down on the cot and sob intermittently for the next 24 hours.
A man comes in. He’s a mental health professional and immediately I feel a sense of incredible confidence emanating from him.
“I’ve talked to your wife. We’re going to fix your problems. Everything that you are struggling with can be fixed. But you need to go away for a few days first.”
I agree. I sign some papers.
Another doctor comes in.
“Okay, so right now you’re here as a voluntary, which means you can leave. But if you try to leave, you’ll be an involuntary, which we don’t want. So I’m going to lock the door.”
I ask to go outside for just a second, under supervision. I haven’t seen the sun for a day.
“Ah, no, that’s how we get runners.”
My wife sends me food. I love her. I miss her. I miss my family and right now I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to go back to them.
I start sobbing again.
Then I’m climbing in the back of an ambulance, barefoot, holding my hospital gown closed. The doors close and we drive off.
I’m at the mental hospital.
It’s night when they do my intake, and most of the patients on the ward have already gone to bed except for one heavyset, bearded man who is pacing up and down the hall.
“I feel great right now,” he tells me.
I can’t muster a reply.
I’m shown my room and I lay down in a single bed with a blanket and a pillow. It feels like I haven’t done anything but sleep for the past 24 hours, but I still fall right back asleep immediately.
I wake up at six in the morning. I feel disgusting. My clothes were taken and I changed into scrubs last night, and time without fresh air or exercise has left me greasy and uncomfortable. I decide to take a shower.
The bathroom is a walled-off corner of the suite with a tile floor and a drain in the middle. The toilet and sink are one unit, basin of the sink on top of the toilet’s tank. The shower is a nozzle jutting from the wall. Everything’s operated by push buttons on timers. No temperature adjustment.
There are cameras in the rooms, but not the bathrooms, so they tell you to change in there. I strip down to my boxer briefs and go in the bathroom with a towel and a bar of soap.
I assume that the shower won’t spray water all over the top of the sink and toilet, so I put my underwear there , along with the roll of toilet paper I was issued, and turn on the nozzle.
I assumed wrong. My underwear — the only ones I have — are drenched instantly.
The shower nozzle soaks the entire bathroom, the water painfully cold before heating up. I clean myself, dry myself off, put my scrubs back on and hang my soaked underwear on a pole.
I walk out to the nurse’s station and they give me a pair of mesh hospital underwear.
It’s time for breakfast.
The unit I’m on is called One Central. It’s split into two halves. The south half is the one I’m on — six rooms, each with two beds and a bathroom, connected to a lounge with a TV, some chairs, two phones (local calls only). An exercise bike is in the hall, some jigsaw puzzles, a few books.
Days in the mental hospital are very scheduled. You wake up, get your morning medications, and eat breakfast. Then there’s a morning check in, where you rate your mood for the day — 1 being the worst, 10 the best.
I’m a 4. Most of the other people there say 7, 8.
Then you go back to your room for a bit until it’s time for group. Then snack, group, lunch, afternoon activity, snack, group, dinner, bed. It’s a lot like being a child. Your activities are circumscribed to a tiny sliver of their potential in the real world. Other patients pace up and down the narrow hallway, or write in their journals.
I get a journal, but since I’m on “moderate caution” I can only use a felt-tip marker. I can’t think of anything to write, so I draw pale blue pictures of the different parts of the ward.
My first day is spent numbly proceeding from activity to activity, in between each retreating to my room to cry and stare at the ceiling. My greatest fear is that I’m never going to get well enough to leave this place and go back to my family, that it’s finally over for me and my life as a regular person is just… done.
I have my first consultation with a doctor. I tell her everything.
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with depression. Since about eight years old, I’ve had suicidal thoughts multiple times a week, more frequently during times of stress. I have managed to keep these feelings mostly under control for my adult life, but every few years they explode out in a panic attack that has demolished relationships, terrified onlookers, and continued to convince myself that I am too damaged to live.
I’m scared. I’m sad. I’m lonely. I don’t think I have what it takes to be alive in this world that’s so madly collapsing into chaos.
She thinks I should go on Prozac.
I agree, and a little while later one of the nurses brings me my first pill.
Later on, one of the counselors gives me a thick stack of printouts about dialectical behavior therapy. I sit down and start reading through it, answering questions, underlining passages.
Eventually, I go to bed.
I wake up the next day. 24 hours have passed, so I’m allowed to change out of scrubs into the spare clothes my wife packed for me. I feel a little more human. My mood is a 7 at morning meeting.
I go to group. I make a wellness collage. I ride the stationary bike, a few miles at a time. I talk through the way I’m feeling, I listen to other people and give them the space to express themselves.
I was always sort of dismissive of the concept of mental hospitals. If you were crazy, why would you want to be around a bunch of other crazy people? Wouldn’t that just make things worse?
It doesn’t. I’m not talking much about the other people who were in there with me, out of respect for their privacy, but they were men and women, teenagers and old men, mothers, fathers and children. Surly teenagers convinced that a conspiracy was keeping them from their trust funds, religious depressives consumed with passing judgement, meek people, and the man I met the first day, who is consumed by past trauma and spends his time either talking about how he could get all of the meth dealers in his old neighborhood arrested or drawing lurid, colorful chameleons copied from an issue of National Geographic.
They’re people. They’re hurt and they’re trying to heal. Just like I am.
I feel the worst for the young men in there, late teens and early 20s. They’re caught in a grinder that’s all too familiar to me, without the rigid cognitive structures that I’ve been using to manage my mental illness, and it’s tearing them apart.
One of the main differences between me and the other patients is that I’m there voluntarily. I could theoretically ask to leave at any time. But I don’t. The last thing I want is to go back to the way everything was before and have an even bigger collapse down the line.
My wife calls. I talk to her, slowly, haltingly. She wants me to get better so I can come home.
I’m going to.
On my third day, my cautions are relaxed. I’m allowed to go outside with the group at 1:00 for a walk. I’m talking with the recreational therapist when we exit the hospital’s front doors and my voice snags in my throat.
I haven’t been outside — or even seen the sun — in days. It’s overwhelming. I’m talking a mile a minute and have to force myself to slow down.
I sleep like a baby that night.
The fourth day comes. I’m in the routine. I go to group. I meet with doctors. I take my pill. I do the work. And at the end of the day, they say tomorrow I can go home.
I have my last meeting with my doctor before discharge. We talk about future treatment plans, what I’ve been learning. I tell her I’m happy I got to work with her.
She replies “It’s at times like this that I really regret giving up my private practice, because I think you’d be a great psychiatric patient.”
I take it as a compliment.
My sister picks me up. We hug, I say my goodbyes, and I go home.
I’m back with my family now, taking the work I did in the hospital and bringing it back to them. I’m taking my medication, being mindful of my habits, doing my breathing. I’m feeling better, but I know I have a long way to go.
I set this piece aside for a month or so after I started writing it. I focused on my recovery. I did my best.
And then, last week, a young man in my community, a father of two with another one on the way, walked into the deep island woods and ended his life. I knew it was time to finish this story and put it out into the world.
If you saw someone walking down the street on crutches with their leg in a cast, you wouldn’t think “Wow, that asshole must have some weak bones.”
But picture that same person crawling down the street on their belly, dragging their mangled leg behind them, claiming that everything is OK. It’s not. They need help to heal.
Mental illness is an injury. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean somebody isn’t hurting.
It’s all right to need help. But you have to ask for it. You have to say those three words that I didn’t allow myself to say for 32 years.
Say them to your family. Or say them to a friend. Or walk into the emergency room and say them if you need to. But say them.
We need help. And we can help.