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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.
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.