Friday, February 18, 2011

The Hospital

On February 8, my wife called from her counselor's office and asked me to bring her to the emergency room. Once there, she made an incredibly brave decision, asking to be admitted to the hospital for treatment of severe depression. I wrote this in the day or two after, when I was alone and scared and had no idea how things were going to turn out. I'm pretty sure I pounded out the last couple hundred words at 4:15 one morning. I had to work in four hours, but getting the words out was important, for my sanity.

While waiting for her to come home and give the thumbs up or down on posting it, I thought about maybe doing some editing, adding more thought and detail and perspective and turning it into a more complete story, a better piece of writing. But my friend Chris, one of only two people I showed, gave me some great advice. He said, "You can't edit feelings." I thought that made sense, so I decided to leave it largely as is, an emotional outburst from a vulnerable moment.

They take her coat. They take her clothes. They take her purse, her belongings, and most of her dignity, and they lock it all in a closet.

She was lucky (or smart) enough to be wearing footwear without laces, so she gets to keep her shoes.

They give her a pair of scrubs, a bed in case she wants to lie down, and chairs that look and feel like they were pulled directly from the waiting room. They pretend to care about her comfort, but that locked closet, the security guard waiting patiently outside the open door, and the signs warning that she is under video surveillance suggest that they’re more concerned with making sure she doesn’t hurt herself.

When it comes down to a choice between taking away her self-respect and keeping her alive, they choose the latter.


As the observer, you want to question the approach. It feels so cold. You want to explain to them that you know her better than anyone, that the fact that she’s even here means she won’t hurt herself, that she’s not nearly capable of hurting anybody else.

You want to step up and fight for her dignity with a strength that she doesn’t have.

But then you realize that this is the wrong response. Understandable, but wrong. These inconveniences are important because they keep everyone safe. You, her, the hospital staff, the other patients. They’ve seen others like her in their day. They’ve taken in people that would never hurt themselves or anybody else, and then had to stop them from doing exactly that.

And while it’s humiliating to feel like she’s being treated, at her most vulnerable moment, like less than a person, part of the reason you’re there is to remind her – while all these indignities are being imposed and freedoms compromised – that she is still a person, that she still has value, that this too shall pass.


The hardest part is going home to pack her bag. She gave you a list of things she needs, but she always handles this sort of thing, and this is out of your league, and by the time you’re done half an hour has passed and you’ve reached for the phone at least three times to call her up and ask where things are.

The problem with that, of course, is that her phone is in your jacket pocket, where you put it when she handed it to you before they wheeled her out of the emergency room on a stretcher. They don’t allow electronics where she’s going. You’re told it’s for reasons of privacy, which makes sense, but they also want her to focus on getting better instead of worrying about the phrasing of her next status message. That makes sense too.

It’s not until you actually reach for the phone and start to run through the conversation in your mind – “Hey…where did you say that black t-shirt was? Next to the desk…are you sure, I don’t see it…” – that it sinks in. This is what it could have been like if she hadn’t had the presence of mind to get help, if you hadn’t given her that last little push to be selfish, to stop worrying about everyone else and just focus on herself, on getting better. It sucks to have to make it about yourself, but that’s what it takes to drive the point home: you’ve just walked into a version of the future, a scary version. A version without her.

You have a chance now to make sure it doesn’t happen. You hope you don’t blow it.

It occurs to you that if she dies before you someday – a long, long, long time from now – you will feel this again. And despite that, you find yourself hoping that when the time comes, many years from now, she goes first, because you never want her to feel this kind of desperate loneliness.

That’s when the tears come.


It only takes a couple days to understand what those folks in the hospital, the ones who deal with this stuff every day, knew all along: self-respect can be rebuilt, retaught, replaced. A person can’t.

She still hasn’t slept, and the med situation is precarious at best, but the lack of stress means she already looks a little bit better. The tears that marked her days for the past two weeks are gone, at least. She’s had visitors, and made a couple of friends, and is intent on completing every puzzle this community room has to offer.

She’s in good hands. She wants to get better. She’s trying to get better. She will get better.


In a few days, she’ll come home. And that second chance, the one you don’t want to blow?

It’s go time.

Because you have to be honest with yourself: you should have seen this coming. Maybe you did. Maybe you saw the dark clouds forming out there on the horizon, and instead of wrapping her tight in your arms and telling her everything was going to be alright, forcing everything to be alright, you closed up shop and cared only about yourself. It’s an attitude borne of the loner’s life, of a life lived just below everyone’s radar, a life where you’ve never had to be too necessary, never had to care too deeply about anyone other than yourself, because there has always been someone else to worry about it for you.

That mindset protects you, allows you to keep your anger and sadness inside. You thought it protected those around you as well, to an extent, kept them from the worst side of you, kept them from seeing too much of your unhappiness.

You were wrong.

So now, the challenge: to be there, in body, mind, and spirit. To put the computer aside more often and allow for more family time. To remember what you have and how quickly it can be lost. To give her the time and space to find herself, to figure out exactly who she is and what she wants and how she will get it.

To remember what it was like to reach for the phone and know that no matter how many times you dialed the number, there would be no answer.

Maybe you can’t stop the bad things from happening. Maybe this is your life now, dealing with the constant ebb and flow of human emotion, doing your level best to handle each day as it comes. If it is, so be it. It will be a mighty struggle, but it will be worth it.

Together, we will get better.