The night before I checked myself into the hospital, I told my brother that I only had two episodes of the third season of House left to watch, and that once they were over, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. He can’t be blamed for thinking I was exaggerating.

But the truth was that Hugh Laurie was the last man standing in a long chain of conditional statements about whether or not I could hold myself together. I’m okay as long as my classroom of preschoolers doesn’t get too loud. I’m okay as long as I don’t have to try to hold a pleasant conversation for more than a few minutes. I’m okay as long as it’s never too quiet, as long as there’s TV or a record or an audio book every single second. I’m okay as long as I can hold perfectly still in bed, blanket pressed against my face, lights off, doors locked. Finally, irrevocably, I wasn’t okay anymore, not by a long shot.

That night, I took my old comforter and I made a bed for myself on the floor of my closet because it was the only place in my apartment that got pitch-black. I brought in a package of double-stuffed Oreos, relics of springtime I’d waited to open because the seasonal yellow filing tastes better than the regular kind.  I sent text messages to a friend, trying to banter and seem Normal, but it only took 480 characters or so for it to become clear that I was in a bad way. After the second or third gentle iteration of, “Really, you’re welcome to come over if you like,” I undertook the Herculean work of finding shoes and keys and trudged out the door.

We watched a few episodes of a  BBC comedy show. The last episode we watched was thirty minutes centered around the main character’s acquisition of a high definition television. “That’s probably my problem,” I said. “I need higher definition.” I was maybe trying to be funny. I was probably trying to be literal. I was barely making sense.

We went to bed and I came apart. I used to think saying “I can’t remember” when faced with recounting trauma was a cop-out or a lie, but it’s the same manner of memory of my dislocated ankle from years ago. I can recount parts of it — the panic, the choke-crying, the cold compresses my friend held against the back of my neck — but I can’t quite access the nature of the pain, the feeling of it. Whatever tenuous thread I was hanging on by had twisted, and twisted, and twisted again, and finally snapped.  I’m aware that sounds cliché. I also recognize that every cliché started out as a true thing somebody said.

If this is any indicator of how completely my self-preservation instinct had crumbled: I got out of bed the next morning and then taught preschool for eight hours straight. Then I called my parents and told them that unless they could come up with a better idea, I needed a ride to the hospital.

I read Franny and Zooey in the ER waiting room, which made it feel all the more like I was appearing in a play about someone else’s mental collapse, not living out my own.

The triage nurse asked if I was suicidal. “Not exactly.”

“It’s either yes or it’s no. And if it’s yes, I put you in a locked room with a policeman at the door.”

Okay. Fine. “No.”

To be clear: not exactly was a perfectly legitimate response. It wasn’t as though my friend’s invitation to sleep over had yanked my head out of the oven in the nick of time. But I had spent the preceding days harvesting pills and storing them in the soft pouch from the pearls my parents gave me for college graduation. A handful of Ativan, an industrial-grade anti-nauseaent so I wouldn’t vomit when the pills hit my stomach, but mostly over-the-counter pills, Benadryl and Sominex that I’d shucked in front of the television, peeling back the foil-and-plastic casings the way I used to spring peas from pods with my grandmother. I was prepared, then, but prepared is not the same as ready, a distinction I was too far gone to try to make anybody understand.

Somewhere in the seventh hour in the emergency room, my mother said, “You’ve just been pretending to be okay for a pretty long time, haven’t you?” After that I went and stood in the parking lot and called friends, hoping that someone would say I was overreacting and should just come home and eat some steak and fix a gin and tonic and get a good night’s sleep, but everyone was maddeningly supportive, saying that this was the right thing, that I was brave, that they were proud of me. So I went back in and they drew my blood and I signed the forms and we went up to the unit.

The truth was that psychiatric hospitalization had felt inevitable for awhile, an unavoidable consequence of the day when I could no longer try or no longer felt like trying, whichever came first. I’d spent much of my late teens and early twenties in an irrational state of near-lust for a hospital where I’d lay in clean, crisp white sheets, string together beads and paint with watercolors in art therapy, and talk with psychologists who intuitively understood me, to whom I never had to explain myself.  They just fixed things.  There would be gentle nurses speaking in dulcet tones, pills always an option and not a requirement. My greasy hair and sweatpants wouldn’t be considered slovenly; rather, I’d be praised for turning my attention away from my appearance and towards getting by.  Maybe I’d get better, maybe I wouldn’t, but there would be calm and quiet and always the lowest of expectations.  You live through the day, you win.

The intake psychiatrist was nicer than the triage nurse, but her questions were harder. I don’t remember much of the written test, aside from the question that required you to look at a drawing of interlocking pentagons and then copy it. I couldn’t do it. I’m not spatially oriented on the best of days, and my brain was too addled to break the shapes into individual lines. Later, I’d ask other patients about their intake exams. “Weren’t the pentagons hard?” They all asked me what I was talking about. Trying to determine whether she’s  imagined a set of pentagons does not make a person feel any less crazy.

“Okay, a few more questions,” she said, picking up something from the desk and holding it out in front of me. “What’s this?”

“It’s a mechanical pencil.”

“Oh. Most people just tell me it’s a pencil.”

“Well, I didn’t want you to think I thought it was a pen.”

“Uh-huh.” She made a note of this.

The floor tech told me that before I went to sleep — I’d gone to the emergency room as soon as I finished work at five, but it was almost two in the morning — he’d need to search my purse, lock away any items I wasn’t allowed to have, and take an inventory of the things I was keeping with me. He rummaged through my purse, listing the items inside — books, my security blanket, pens, a Moleskine. “Are you wearing any jewelry? A watch?”

“Just this, ” I said, showing him the two necklaces I was wearing — a golden L pendant and a dented heart on a silver chain.

“Those chains are pretty short. You can keep those,” he said, and added them to the list. N-E-C-K-L-I-S-S-E-S.

I spent a lot of my stay latched on to semantics. I favored the nurses who asked, “Do I need to worry about you hurting yourself?” because I could say no without lying. Nope! Of course you don’t need to worry! You probably have much bigger things of your own to be worried about! It was, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” that required the lie.

When my mother turned up with a bag full of my things, I apologized for how hard it must have been to find sane-seeming shirts to pack, knowing what she had to choose from: a Johnny Cash t-shirt with a pair of Remingtons on it, a tank top from the Ashlee Simpson tour, my City Girls Do It On The Subway and Comfort Inn: Sleep With Someone You Can Trust shirts.

“It was no big deal. You had lots of clean stuff.”

“The nurse took away the razor, though.”

“Lauren, I didn’t send a razor. There’s no way I’d send you a razor.”

“Well, there was one in the bag, and the bag isn’t mine. In the side pouch, with the zipper?”

“Oh. OH. It was in there from the last time I used the bag for my stuff. Shit. Shit.”

“It’s no big deal, as long as you realize that was the rough equivalent of sending me a cake with a file inside.”

Clayton was the only man my age on the unit. He had a guitar that he carried with him everywhere, which seemed a little bit on the dangerous side until I realized that even if you tried to bludgeon someone to death with a guitar, it would probably shatter before things got fatal. This was the way I thought then.

I trailed him and flirted with him mercilessly, asking All the Right Sensitive Questions and wheedling him out of dinner rolls. I may have actually batted my eyelashes at one point. It would seem, then, that while the nurses had taken my razor and my cell phone charger and set the showerhead at a level too low to hang from, they’d neglected to confiscate my pesky habit of trying to make the world a little less crushing by goading inappropriate men into falling in love with me.

Arguably more destructive.

The friend I’d stayed with the night things fell apart turned up for visiting hours the first day with an armload of books and a plastic bag full of magazines and candy.

“Well,” he said.  “You’re here. You’re a girl interrupted.”

After he left, the craziest girl of all — the one who insisted we call her Goddess Enchant, who every person on the unit (residents and staff alike) held their breath around — stalked over to me. “You’re going to have a lot of visitors, aren’t you?”

“Oh, um…” I smiled nervously and half-shrugged.

“Don’t smile. They’ll think you’re manic, and you won’t ever get out.”

In occupational therapy, we played board games with relaxed rules — untimed Scattegories, Monopoly with a Post-It note concealing jail. My childhood of playing cooperative board games — the four of us sharing a single Pictionary token, with the goal of “making it to the end of the board as a family” — should have prepared me for this, but that was a parenting strategy that backfired, ingraining in me that things are tedious if there’s not the possibility of winning and nearly unendurable if the winner isn’t me.

It wasn’t surprising, then, when I became agitated during a game of Scrabble (in my defense, the set of tiles we were using was NOT regulation), and a nurse — I called her the Mean Nurse because 1) I didn’t like her, and 2) I was too sapped of self to come up with anything more creative — pulled me into the hallway.

“Look,” she said.  “You’re clearly very smart, but I don’t know that that’s going to get you anywhere here. You’re not going to break the curve — there isn’t going to be a valedictorian.” I was disgustingly proud when, two days later, I proved her wrong by graduating six hours early from a 72-hour hold.

Another nurse, who I named the Nice Nurse by the same conventions, said to me at one point, “You seem like you’re very self-aware. That’s an important part of recovery.”

“Sure I am. But don’t you think that self-awareness is really just the gateway drug to self-hatred?”

We parked ourselves in front of the television most of the time: every iteration of Law and Order, The Big Lebowski at one point, but mainly the Discovery Channel, since my stay overlapped with Shark Week. Surely there’s a metaphor in there someplace. Nurses parked us in front of educational videos for much of the rest.  We watched videos on visualization, on deep breathing, on mindfulness.  On my last full day on the unit, we were shown a video about coping with stressful situations.

The “stress specialist” in the film delineated a sample stressful situation for us:  you buy a house that’s painted purple, but you hate purple.  You request that the house be painted pink (your favorite!) and the current owner agrees.  But on move-in day, you pull up, and the house.  Is.  Still.  Purple.  WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

I looked around the room, at an assortment of people whose sources of stress included meth, homelessness, arms covered in cross-hatched scars, babies taken into protective custody, the looming prospect of electroconvulsive therapy, the impossibility of leaving the house without crumbling, and the certainty that unrelenting sadness was an undeniable fact of life and that the sooner one got used to it, the better.

What would we do if we were given a wrong-colored house? We would be fucking thrilled.

I was uncharacteristically, heartbreakingly optimistic the day that I left, putting on a brightly-colored shirt, cutting off my bracelets, carefully writing down my aftercare appointments in a newly-purchased journal, filling my prescriptions.  It wasn’t until a few days later that I looked around my life, at the friends I couldn’t quite connect with and the job I hated and the nights I couldn’t sleep through; the medications that weren’t working, that occasionally sedated but never, ever tranquilized, and realized with a sinking feeling that all this was most definitely not my pink house.

It wasn’t even my purple one.

 

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LAUREN HOFFMAN lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. By day, she pretends to know a lot about computers; by night and weekend, she is at work completing a collection of essays titled When You I Feel Because. She holds an MFA in non-fiction writing from The New School and has no cats.

18 responses to “Purple House”

  1. kristen says:

    “I’d spent much of my late teens and early twenties in an irrational state of near-lust for a hospital where I’d lay in clean, crisp white sheets, string together beads and paint with watercolors in art therapy, and talk with psychologists who intuitively understood me, to whom I never had to explain myself. They just fixed things. There would be gentle nurses speaking in dulcet tones, pills always an option and not a requirement. My greasy hair and sweatpants wouldn’t be considered slovenly; rather, I’d be praised for turning my attention away from my appearance and towards getting by. Maybe I’d get better, maybe I wouldn’t, but there would be calm and quiet and always the lowest of expectations.”

    Sounds like heaven. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Laura Bogart says:

    This piece is incredibly poignant and darkly funny. What a brave, beautiful read, Lauren.

  3. “I looked around the room, at an assortment of people whose sources of stress included meth, homelessness, arms covered in cross-hatched scars, babies taken into protective custody, the looming prospect of electroconvulsive therapy, the impossibility of leaving the house without crumbling, and the certainty that unrelenting sadness was an undeniable fact of life and that the sooner one got used to it, the better.

    What would we do if we were given a wrong-colored house? We would be fucking thrilled.”

    You nailed it, Lauren. Magnificent essay. Wish you didn’t have to live it to write about it. (I realize that presents it’s own conundrum, but you get my point.)

    To a future that makes more sense than the past, Litsa

  4. Karla says:

    Goddamn it, this was awesome. Thank you for writing so eloquently and brilliantly about what it’s like to ride the crazy train, so to speak. It makes me feel less alone.

  5. Lea says:

    Thank you for writing this, and please don’t ever stop. Karla, I’m with you on that one!

  6. Amy Monticello says:

    Another nurse, who I named the Nice Nurse by the same conventions, said to me at one point, “You seem like you’re very self-aware. That’s an important part of recovery.”

    “Sure I am. But don’t you think that self-awareness is really just the gateway drug to self-hatred?”

    I love this, Lauren–this piece of insight, this essay altogether. My husband praises me for being self-aware, too, even at my lowest points, and then we talk about how being self-aware comes with its own set of nasty feelings and behaviors, that it often feels more burdensome than freeing, that it has, at times, become a reason not to make changes, a method by which I can say I’ve arrived at change already. And certainly to be self-aware is to acknowledge my own flaws and entrenched patterns (notice I didn’t say “embrace”), which isn’t necessarily an empowering thing. In fact, it can be damn defeating.

    Really great work. I look forward to reading more on TNB.

  7. Sharanya says:

    This was surprisingly funny, and unforcedly hopeful, and being both – said so much more about what this feels like than so many other things I’ve read.

  8. Summer Block says:

    I absolutely love the ending, brilliant work, thank you for this!

  9. jmblaine says:

    Lauren,
    So good
    so good
    so brave
    so sharp
    so real

    I was there
    on the other side.
    So right.

    Post-it over
    Go To Jail.

  10. Brian C says:

    Amazing brilliant story…

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