True Stories: Lookin' For Love In All The Wrong Places, Specifically A Mental Institution

It happens more often than you'd think.

by Nick Keppler

Before I went to pick up Gail, I printed out some movie times. I was sure that by the time I got to her place, she would have reconsidered and realized she shouldn't go hiking with a guy she'd just met in a mental hospital.

Two days earlier, we were both trapped in Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health, a seventy-six-bed holding cell for people who had reached an emotional critical mass. Psychiatrists, families, and ER doctors stashed depressives on the verge of suicide or psychotics who'd broken from reality there, until medication was adjusted or long-term care was settled on or they'd just gotten a break from trying to be functional adults.

Without being able to grab so much as a toothbrush, I was locked up for five days.

I'd been brought there after calling a suicide hotline, unsure of what I wanted from the woman at the other end. I told her I was working sixty hours a week as the associate editor of a small alt-weekly newspaper which was starving for its former revenue and relevancy. I told her the job stranded me in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a hollowed-out city of mini-marts and boarded-up buildings. I told her that, combined with the usual drifting away from college friends, this was all adding up to a really dark quarter-life crisis. I told her I was sick of it and I might, that afternoon, step onto some train tracks.

After an hour of back and forth, she sent a squad of police and paramedics to my door. They gave me a choice: I could voluntarily go to the ER, or they'd force me in a psych ward for seventy-two hours — the longest they can keep someone without a judge's order.

So I went to the ER, which, on a Saturday night, didn't have a psychiatrist on duty to release me. Neither would Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health until Tuesday, because the medical staff got Presidents' Day off. Without being able to grab so much as a toothbrush, I was locked up for five days. I should have taken the seventy-two hours.

The paradox of involuntary hospitalization is that it would make a normal person act absolutely crazy. Not surprisingly, being involuntarily locked up causes feelings of alienation, paranoia, and loss of control. After a night spent staring at the ceiling of a dorm-like room, with a stranger afflicted with God-knows-what sleeping a few feet away, I was ready to figure out an escape route.

The next morning, I had to make the one choice that defines a new person's role in a social order from grade school on: I had to pick a table to eat at. I headed for the one full of people well enough to get out of their pajamas and make small talk about toast. This is how I met Elizabeth the grief-overwhelmed widow, Chip the agoraphobe who was jovial as long as he was indoors, and Gail the dental hygienist who'd checked herself in to preempt another drinking binge.

The less hopeless patients, I soon found out, were a clique, always within a meter of each other in the common rooms during the vast amounts of downtime that make up a psychiatric hospitalization. Terrified by the fact of being mental patients, we banded together to separate ourselves from the muttering schizophrenics and vacant sad sacks all around us.

Gail made eyes at me in group therapy. She was a serious-looking brunette with wavy hair, doe eyes and high cheekbones that made it look like she was always gritting her teeth. At lunch, she laughed as I nervously returned a chicken sandwich and then a bowl of clam chowder and tried to explain to a nurse what being a vegetarian meant.

Later, she sought me out. "Oh my God," she said. "This sweaty guy just asked me to marry him. Would you stay with me? I feel safe around you."

Over the next few days, we did jigsaw puzzles and watched daytime TV together, her head nearly resting on my shoulder, as we humored New Age-y group therapy and awaited the all-important daily fifteen-minute visits to the doctor who had the authority to release us. When Gail was released, a day before I was, she gave me her number.

I wasn't sure I should call, but as soon as I stepped out and breathed cold air for the first time in five days, I missed Hall-Brooke. As horrifying and humiliating as it had been, it was the first place since college where I had a ready-made peer group, and like most depressed people, I was chronically lonely.

So I called Gail and invited her to go hiking. When I pulled up, she marched out in rubber boots and a hoodie. She looked different in the sunlight, faint as it was in February — older, and with harder lines on her face. She laughed when I handed her the movie times. She hadn't reconsidered. Gail's ADHD-rattled brain never held any thought long enough for her to reconsider it.

"I think I really like you," she said, applying ChapStick as I accelerated down the parkway. "I feel good around you. I think I should be your girlfriend." By the end of the day we had hiked five miles, shared a pizza, and had sex.


For obvious reasons, a mental hospital seemed like a bad place to pick up women. For less obvious ones, it seemed like the perfect place at that point in my life. I was sure my last girlfriend had dumped me because our all long talks had only served to infect her with my unhappiness. Gail was already infected.

With a note from a psychiatrist, my boss let me go back to work, but every day the editor kept a close eye on me. With everyone at work, I danced around the question of where I'd been for that week. But Gail knew and understood.

I told a friend with a history of hospitalizations how I'd met my new girlfriend. "I believe it," she said, unfazed. "Pairings happen more often than you'd think." It makes sense — put a group of people with questionable judgment together in a soft, touchy-feely environment, and the results are predictable.

Commentarium (26 Comments)

Apr 30 12 - 12:29am
CT Native

Bridgeport is an easy place to go crazy.

Apr 30 12 - 12:45am
True Patriot

Wow. What a fucking nightmare.

My compliments to Mr. Keppler. It is a brave thing indeed to bare one's darkest secrets like this. I realize that his experience still only counts as anecdotal evidence, but it's of several first-hand accounts I've heard which lead me to believe that the medical community still doesn't know how to help certain people.

Such as: people who seek help getting institutionalized, which in turn drives them crazy. People with mild depression being treated as though they're suicidal. Giving patients a month's supply of meds at a time (rather than a week's,) which practically encourages abuse. I've even seen TV ads for meds to take in addition to prescription anti-depressants when the latter aren't working. To me, this all points to a trend of medical professionals attempting to help people but failing. But they either don't notice that they're failing, or are afraid to try new or different treatments, or simply want to maintain the facade of doing everything they can to help their patients rather than admit defeat.

Apr 30 12 - 1:24am

Obviously there is no easy solution for depression, but it's not like there aren't a multitude of paths to take, paths that it sounds like neither of these people took. Hospitalization (which is what I assume you mean by "institutionalized," although you could also mean an inpatient treatment facility, which I've heard is wonderful but is also wonderfully expensive and well out of most people's reach) is not meant to cure your problems. It is meant, as the author stated, to get you through a psychotic break, a period of suicidal depression, or some other extreme and temporary behavior or urge.

From there, it is tremendously important to continue to do work. Your problems will not be solved entirely by medication (although I don't see why you find pills that can augment anti-depression meds so surprising or disturbing); any good psychiatrist would tell you that. That is why there are support groups, CBT/DBT therapy, and recovery coaches. These new and 'different' treatments are available and effective. It is a sad truth that many people are unable or unwilling (or uninsured), and cannot reach out for these tools. But they are there. The medical community does not just throw up its hands and/or throw pills at people with mental health issues anymore.

I sincerely hope that both of these people found a way to live more functional, happier lives, with or without external help. This story was difficult to read, and I could only imagine how difficult it was to write. I share in True Patriot's admiration for the author; this is emotionally raw and skillfully written. I hope that my little defense of the psychiatric system does not derail conversation 0n this wonderful story.

Apr 30 12 - 9:26am
True Patriot

I wasn't trying to condemn the entire psychiatric system with my post, although it may have come out that way and I'm sorry. I was simply trying to share my observations of people I've known personally who I consider to have been failed by the system. Mr. Keppler's story reminds me of them.

Apr 30 12 - 1:39am

anyone ever think that the root of all problems is thought? Animals don't think. They are fine. If you stopped thinking the excess and focus on things that need to be thought on you would be fine.
For example, not thinking about how someone wronged you, and instead thinking about what to make for dinner, or paying attention to the road.
It is too complicated to explain on a simple post like this, but there is a point. Turn off your brain.
My mom had an epic saying to this. "If you are depressed, it means you aren't busy enough"
Granted it doesn't mean all your life. But really, its true. If you are bored you start to think about things that do not matter just to entertain your own ego. If you don't have enough problems then you make up problems.
If you are brave enough to try, try to go an hour without excess thought. See how you feel

Apr 30 12 - 2:08am

My mom used to say the same thing.

Apr 30 12 - 3:12am

Hi Bob. You are right. And it can save you. But then y0u reach the other side when you have thought about everything you can besides yourself, and then it all comes crashhing down on your head. You get back up. You start over, But damn sometimes it's so fucking hard.

Apr 30 12 - 8:05am

Bob: Just writing off every kind of depression as if the person is "bored and over-analyzing" is a bit cheap and easy. Sometimes life doesn´t fit into your mind and you get depressed over what I guess you might call "real things". To believe such pop quotes is only proving that you´ve never had the sh*t hit the fan in your own life, which is good for you, but don´t brush other people´s problems off as miniscule when you can´t relate to them. True, some people over-think - other´s don´t, and actually do have "a valid reason" to be depressed.

Apr 30 12 - 9:35am
True Patriot

I've known dogs which were sometimes happy and sometimes sad, and I've known dogs which were sad all the time and didn't respond to efforts to make them happy. So I'm afraid I must reject your "animals don't think and are thus immune to depression" argument. Even orcas show behaviors in captivity which are almost never seen in the wild.

Also, the writer of this story was working 60 hours a week. Does anyone really think that the solution to his problems was more busywork?

Apr 30 12 - 10:06am

Zoo animals frequently get depressed. I recently saw a turtle exhibit where the plaque said that this species of turtle needs new objects to interact with or it would shut down! Human depression has a similar cause as zoo animal depression: immersion in an environment that is hostile to mental well-being.

I have found that keeping occupied helps in matters like getting over a breakup, but it's hardly a cure-all for depression.

Apr 30 12 - 10:11am

Thinking does not cause depression. True, negative thinking has been linked to depressive tendencies, but there has been no cause/effect relationship established. Saying that over-thinking is the sole cause of depression is incredibly dismissive of everything that is known about psychology. I'm a psych student, so I really can't let that slide without comment.

I also second what True Patriot said about animals. Animals very clearly show signs of depression when deprived of mental stimulation, companionship, or a suitable habitat to live in. Birds pluck their feathers when they are unhappy. Other animals will snub food or pace in their enclosures. Animals may not exhibit symptoms of depression as humans do, but they experience it all the same.

Apr 30 12 - 7:00pm

wild animals don't feel that way because they don't have any idle time to feel that way. captured animals don't have to think like wild ones do. im just saying, depression is when you have too much time on your hands.
How you think is affected by how you feel. How you feel is affected by your surroundings. Your surroundings are affected by how you think about your surroundings. its a cycle. If you think life is great, then you feel great and your surroundings are great. If you think you are shit, then everything else is shit. It can start at any point in the cycle.

Apr 30 12 - 9:05pm

Was your mother German, or of Nordic blood?

May 01 12 - 3:00pm

while interesting in theory to say that "thinking is the cause of depression," i can only partially agree, as someone who has suffered with depression, as a biological component plays an extremely large role that you can think about all the time or not at all and yet will still have a crippling effect. either way, our society has huge issues with recognizing depression and dealing with it, and this piece is aactually a wonderful example of that.

May 04 12 - 9:48pm

The reason wild animals don't get depressed is because they're in the environment that they evolved for and they're well suited to, not "because they don't have any idle time", that's idiotic. And there are plently of people who are busy as hell and depressed.

Apr 30 12 - 5:05am

Hey now Bridgeport's not all that bad

Apr 30 12 - 1:41pm

This explains a lot.

Anyway, great job, Nick.

Apr 30 12 - 2:00pm

sometimes the best thing when you're depressed is to get laid, even if it's by an older alcoholic.

Apr 30 12 - 8:51pm

Damn. Writer is a mess. But who hasn't known this guy/this woman/this relationship? Help is needed, for sure, for real.

Apr 30 12 - 10:48pm

Totally happens all the time. Psych wards are a weird place to be and no one can relate to it unless you've been on one.

May 02 12 - 1:30pm

I learned from this article to not give the suicide hotline people any identifying information.

May 02 12 - 2:10pm

Wow this sounds like something that would happen to me. Being locked up for that sucks and it is even more alienating. What is worse is hearing all the stories from people who are way more fucked up than yourself.

May 04 12 - 1:34am

I'm surprised nobody's pointing out the obvious here. I can't believe you abandoned her when she was going on a downward spiral just because YOUR life had stabilized and you didn't want her dragging you down anymore. not to mention saying "I don't care how you get home" and not replying to her text. you treated her like a thing, good for you to use while you were still having mental problems and then unworthy once you were ok again, and not a person, which is how many people with mental illnesses end up being treated. NOT TO MENTION that you enabled her to start becoming an alcoholic again (giving her pills, not even attempting to stop her drinking when you knew she'd been in the hospital for alcohol problems). talk about a lack of empathy.

May 04 12 - 4:10am

This is an excellent piece, totally engaging. I wish the author continued luck.

May 04 12 - 2:53pm

Yeah, it sounds like he's had a lot of luck so far.

May 25 12 - 12:17pm

Writer: You are an excellent storyteller and well-crafted, I hope you write a memoir! I also sort of want to date you, because unlike most NY men you are a giver, and seem very kind. More of a catch and less sociopathic than most NY daters. I think the difference between crazy people and normal people is that normal people don't know that they are crazy. Stop thinking so much, and leave Bridgeport. Also, India, ashrams, WWOOF, moving abroad, travel, stuff like that can serve as breaks from "functioning adulthood" just as easily. I am a writer too. I hope you married a nice lady in the end, did you?