National Suicide Prevention Month: Romanticizing Schizophrenia

OCH takes care to honor those who haven’t survived their battle with suicide and to those who are fighting to survive now with a personal piece from our Editor, Allie Burke.

I once wrote about my first experience as a “patient” at a mental institution. The novel was called Paper Souls and I wrote about all the things I wanted to say. All the things I would have actually said at the time if I was seven years older and had about forty years more courage.

I thought I was doing the right thing when I felt the pinch in my wrist, the broken creature begging to get out so it could breathe. The only way was to cut it out, and I was the surgeon. I had never been a “cutter,” never even thought about suicide before. I didn’t want to kill myself. I was a survivor; I didn’t want to die. I was a survivor, but I didn’t want to survive anymore. I wanted to live.

I told the nice lady at the local hospital that I was having suicidal thoughts. That I had already been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and my medication wasn’t working. I wasn’t actually taking it, but she didn’t need to know that.

She secured a tag around the wrist that housed the screaming monster, a white wristband with my name on it. She said the doctor would be in to see me soon. He came shortly thereafter, and asked me a series of questions to which I was unable to answer. Not completely, anyway, because he kept interrupting me with more questions.

I hate when people interrupt me. It’s so rude.

“So they are non-commanding voices, then.” He didn’t wait for my answer.

I learned the term then. Non-commanding, which apparently meant voices that did not clearly tell you to do one specific thing or that. I had been convinced that my voices were telling me to do something; I just didn’t understand what that was. Not yet. But what do I know? I’m not a doctor.

I was taken by a nurse through double doors with plastic for windows, down a long hallway with a red line down the middle of the floor. I asked if I could make a phone call, like a criminal might. She left me in a small room with a phone, walking away with my purse that contained my phone with all my friends and loved ones inside of it.

“They took my phone.”

“They took your phone?! What? Why?”

“I’ve been admitted. I’m not allowed to keep any of my stuff, I guess.”

He didn’t respond.

“Okay, then. Goodbye.” I hung up.

I went to the nurse’s station, with a knockable window, just across from the room with the phone, which I barely noticed had been conspiratorially locked behind me. I walked straight up to the open door and was surprised that I wasn’t arrested on the spot.

“DO NOT walk into the nurse’s station. Stay behind the line!”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, tears streaming silently down my face. “I just need to know where I am supposed to go.”

A nurse handed me a pair of socks with grips on the bottom and led me down yet another long hallway lined with gray doorways sans doors. My doorway was open to two twin-sized beds flanked by small wood tables that must have been from 1953. The bed closest to the barred window lay beneath a small woman with blonde hair. To this day I can’t remember her name. My memory is pretty good, but that minute detail escapes me. It was a typical white girl name, like Sara. That’s what I called her in the book, I think. I can’t remember that either.

I lay in the bed next to her, and began to cry noiselessly. The tears wouldn’t stop coming that day. I wondered about that a lot in those days. If you could cry enough that your tears would run out. You’re supposed to feel better after you cry, but what if you don’t? What if you kept crying until your tears ran out and you were so damaged that you couldn’t even cry?

My guess is, with the seven years that have passed, that your tears can’t run out. I still have plenty.

“It’s not that bad,” Sara, or whoever, said. “It’s a great place to relax. Replenish your energy. Rest while you get some semblance of your sanity back. I check myself in often, when my medication gets unbalanced. It really helps me.”

“How long have you been here?” I asked her, my voice betraying me for someone who wasn’t me at all.

“Six weeks.”

Six weeks?! I was hoping to be back at work by Monday. It was only Friday. Two days was definitely enough time to repair someone with schizophrenia. Right?

“It is hard on my husband though,” Sara continued, seemingly unaware of the thoughts trapping my brain. “Taking care of our two children by himself and all.”

“Girls or boys?” I asked. I didn’t care. But it was the right thing to do. Ask people about things you didn’t give a shit about.

“Girls. Five and seven.”

“You must miss them.”

“Yeah.”

A doctor came in sometime later, making it clear that she wasn’t a psychiatrist. “I just came in to check on you. How are you feeling?”

She was kind and very beautiful. I think now that she must have been a Hawaiian native.

“Okay, I guess,” I said, sniffling and wiping my face with the back of my hand. “Tired. And I have a headache.”

“Let me get you something for that until the psychiatrist arrives to see you.”

I thanked her and Sara told me that was why this place was so great. Because they had physical doctors in addition to psychiatrists to help your body—and mind—balance.

We were called for dinner sometime later. Time seemed to be a foreign concept there. I had no idea how long it had been since I was in my car, wondering if I was really about to commit suicide.

I don’t remember seeing Sara in the dinner room. I didn’t walk with her, but I thought she had followed me. Maybe not.

It was a blank room, empty of everything other than a long table and chairs that swiveled. Empty of souls, even, maybe, except mine. Well. There’s that thing about gingers and all the souls they take. So maybe there was a couple.

I didn’t notice anyone sitting at the table except the woman across from me. She stared back at me, but I couldn’t find her eyes. It was like a horror movie. You sit across from a little girl and she blinks and there are just holes in her face. The woman had eyes, but they appeared to be all white, unblinking. Was there anyone in there? If I had to bet on it, I would say no.

An orderly asked me if I wanted coffee. Thinking back, the coffee was pretty damn good, in comparison to the coffee some shops are selling nowadays. The rice they gave me was seasoned with dirt and death, but I didn’t complain. I had coffee.

I realized what time it was sometime later, because I found a clock in a visiting room. It was four. Who has dinner before four o’clock? A bunch of highly medicated patients who fall asleep at seven, I guess.

I still hadn’t seen a psychiatrist.

I knocked on the window of the nurse’s station this time and waited, instead of incriminating myself by going inside. A bald nurse emerged and I asked him when I would see the doctor. He didn’t have an answer.

“Can I leave?” I asked him.

“I think you should stay,” he replied, looking down at me. He was tall, and sane, which gave him at least two advantages.

“If I were to walk out of here right now,” I paused to look at the red line on the floor, “are you going to arrest me?”

“You would be considered AWOL until you returned to be properly discharged.”

The inappropriate thoughts that were in my head. Emily says all of them in the book. Paper Souls. I like to tell myself that I would have had the same outcome if I had the courage to say what was really on my mind, but that’s probably a lie.

AWOL? What does that even mean?

“Please let us help you,” the nurse said to me. “You said you were feeling suicidal. We can help you feel better.”

“Please give me my purse.”

He disappeared into the nurse’s station to call the psychiatrist responsible for the hospital. I was convinced that they were not going to let me leave, but I was lucky to be getting out of the place that so badly wanted to help me.

The nurse handed me my purse when I returned and a paper to sign, and I left. To this day, I have no idea what the words on the paper were.

I think about my first experience in a mental institution a lot. In those days, I lied to myself, believing that I would never return to one. The experience was so damaging to my psyche, with the eighty year old man walking naked down one of the hallways (I just remembered that part), that I had convinced myself these types of places could never be helpful or constructive to people who live with mental illnesses. I would like to prove that point by writing with the subsequent experiences that I had, but truthfully I was not cognitive enough during those later visits to even form a rational thought. My life in the last ten years—mental institution or not—has been in and out of the clouds of anti-psychotic medications. I have been a zombie more times than I haven’t since I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and that’s why I went the first time, and the others. Because I didn’t want to feel like that while I was on them and I didn’t want to die when I wasn’t.

With two years of intense self-care and awareness of the stress that drops me deeper into psychosis, I have effectively worked a corporate job without any more hospitals or suicidal thoughts. But, like everyone else, I have my bad days, which happen to be very, very bad, and I would like to live a little while without wondering when my next bout with psychosis will hit. I would like to not live in fear. Not wonder if I will lose everything I have achieved someday soon by waking up in a mental institution and not remembering what happened.

I would like to not have schizophrenia, but I do, and I make the best of it. I am thirty, and I haven’t died yet. I don’t have any plans to die anytime soon.

I just hope it’s enough.

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A Bestselling Author, NPO Director, and Psychology Today columnist from Burbank, California, Allie Burke writes books she can’t find in the bookstore. Having been recognized as writing a “kickass book that defies the genre it’s in”, Allie writes with a prose that has been labeled poetic and ethereal.

Her life is a beautiful disaster, flowered with the harrowing existence of inherited eccentricity, a murderous family history, a faithful literature addiction, and the intricate darkness of true love. These are the enchanting experiences that inspire Allie’s fairytales.

Allie has been featured in VICE, Refinery29, and Women’s Health Magazine.

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3 thoughts on “National Suicide Prevention Month: Romanticizing Schizophrenia”

  1. Thank you, Allie. Reading this I realized a curious thing, that of all the clients with whom I worked in case management and crisis, and of all their hospitalizations, none ever shared the stories of those experiences. Some were clearly reluctant, or even terrified of going in, and some insisted on it. The only comment I got about the inpatient situation was from one man who said he liked the long term facility in San Jose because when he got going out privileges, he could walk a few blocks and go sit in the quiet of a Buddhist temple for a few hours. They did not tell the stories and I didn’t ask because the subject was always, “How are you doing now?” There needs to be more time to make space for such things in treatment. Thanks, again.

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