Nonfiction / Brittany Ackerman
:: Going to the Hospital ::
You are thirty-three and today you need help. You teach a class from your little desk at home, your remote set-up, and you hope the kids can’t tell that you’ve been up all night, begging your husband to take you to the hospital. He wrapped his body around yours and told you it would be okay, but you knew it wouldn’t. You told him you felt bad that he has to be married to you, that he isn’t with someone who can live, laugh, love. Someone who can enjoy life.
In the morning, you call your insurance company. You have been looking for a new therapist, someone to talk to because you want to get better—you really do—but you’ve also been having visions of standing in your backyard and letting the wind take you away. You picture your body disintegrating into particles that dissolve and pixelate and vanish into thin air.
Your insurance can’t find any openings, even for Tele-health. Nothing for this month or one after that. They send you a list of phone numbers to try and you call the numbers, one after another. Some places don’t take insurance, they aren’t sure why they’re on the list; or they’re too busy, not taking any new clients, but they can put you on waitlist. You don’t know how long the waitlist is and you need help now. You’re not sure how many other people are waiting on the list, but you assume it is a lot. All these places advise you to call your insurance, again.
You sit in your car outside your new home and refuse to come inside. You have packed a bag because you thought you might go to the gym, take a Pilates class and have a steam, clear your head, but realistically you know that won’t work, that the whole class you’d be anxious the entire time while you wait for phone calls, for good news.
Your husband comes out to the car and encourages you to come back in. You tell your husband you are going to the hospital. You close the door, start the car, and drive. It is just after 11:30AM when you pull up to ER and roll down your window. Here is where you start yelling, where you scream at every attendant, every passerby, that you need help, that you are having a breakdown, that you are not okay. This is the beginning of the yelling, of completely losing your mind. The day seems stretched and measured by fits like these.
Your husband follows you in his car and pulls up shortly after. He handles your keys that you have thrown on the ground. Your ID. Your wallet. He handles everything. The whole check-in process. You cry and yell and want to know if you can talk to a doctor soon. A woman comes up to you in the waiting room, she tells you what a great hospital this is. A man in a flowered shirt and a cowboy hat tells you you’re in the right place. He says he was once in your position, that we’ve all been here before. You are taken to triage. Your vitals are taken. The nurse asks how you are doing and you don’t answer. When she asks again you say, Not good.
You are admitted to the ER and given a bed, number 36, in an area where there are many patients in their own respective beds. Some have their curtains closed, some rest out in the open. Your blood is drawn, your nose is swabbed, you pee in a cup and are sent back to your bed. No one knows how long it’ll be until a doctor can visit. You hear the woman to your right talking about how much she loves oatmeal. The nurse asks for her favorite recipe. She’s too tired to give the whole thing, but she loves to add chocolate. You think of your mom who once told you that the meaning of life was good sex and chocolate. Your mom doesn’t know you are in the ER. Your mom is a substitute teacher at a private school in Florida. Your mom calls your phone and you don’t answer. She writes, Not important, just driving home, love you.
The woman in the bed across from you has her curtain closed. She talks in whispers on her cell phone saying she will have the money, she promises. She is given Ativan and then a nurse asks if you would like some Ativan, maybe a small dose just to take the edge off. You say no. You want to have a clear head when you talk to the doctor.
The woman catty-corner has fluid in her knee. A young man is wheeled past with a swollen testicle. He has a copay of $100. You never find out what happens to his testicle.
Everything in the hospital is blue: the curtains, the uniforms for both nurses and doctors, the piece of rubber they use to tie your arm to find a vein to take your blood, the railings on your cot, the plastic water bottles they give patients to drink, the chairs in the lobby, the ceilings and the floor tiles, the fanny pack the social worker wears.
But the blankets are sea foam green, a color that reminds you of Florida. Sea shells and pastels. Sandy beaches and the waves spreading across the shore. You finally call your mom and she wishes she could jump on the next flight to see you. Your dad tells you to get some rest, to relax. You can barely breathe when you speak to them, these people who brought you into this world. You are worried they are disappointed in you, but when they tell you they are rooting for you it makes everything worse. You can’t explain that you feel like a failure, that you are not sure you will ever be okay, if you will be able to bounce back.
A nurse named Julie in the hospital asks you what you do for work. You say you don’t want to talk about it. Your husband spills the beans that you are a writer. Julie tells you that to write is a gift, that when you write a book, no one can take that away from you. It is your power. You want to believe her. You want to believe that your work is important, that you can make sense of your life. You want to love yourself, but you don’t. She tells you to let yourself be who you’re meant to be.
You wonder if it’s worth it to keep trying. It is hard to feel like whatever you do is enough. You write about your life, about what you know. You often tell your students nothing is more interesting than real life. In real life, you are sitting in a hospital bed. You are taking notes on your phone because you think this might make for a good essay.
You think of your childhood, the things that may have brought you to this present moment. It always felt like a party you weren’t invited to. Even though you were there, you were only ever watching it happen. You were never a part of things, even though you had the same name as your friends, even though you went to the same school.
You text your Rabbi and he tells you that you are a child of God, that you have power and meaning that cannot be taken away from you. It is inherent. It is immutable. He tells you that you are strong.
You do not feel strong here. You feel sick, worthless. You stand in the middle of the lobby with your hands on your face. You cry and scream and your husband takes you aside. “They will keep you here,” he says, afraid. And he’s not wrong. Your brother has been here before, has coached you on what not to say in the ER. He told you about how they strip you naked, how you can’t call anyone, how you are treated like an animal. You haven’t spoken to him yet, but you can feel him here in the hospital with you.
You go back to your bed and lie down. You cry into the green blanket. You drink apple juice out of a small aluminum pouch.
When the sun starts to set, you see a psychiatrist through video chat. He’s having technical difficulties, so his screen remains black. He spends an hour with you. You cannot see him, but he can see you. In this way, he might as well be God. As you talk to the black screen, you feel okay for the first time all day. Someone is finally watching you, taking care of you, despite the fact that you cannot see him. But in that hour, he diagnoses you with something that makes sense. He says there is a way to live a normal life. He compares what you experience to driving a car, to the gas pedal being stuck so that your mind is going, going all the time. He says you need something in order for the pedal to release.
He suggests you might benefit from being put “on a hold” in the hospital, from staying put for a while and being monitored. But he gives you the option to leave, as you might start feeling better soon.
And then the ER doctor clears you for release. Your vitals are taken again. You will not be held here. You walk toward the waiting room, toward the door, and then you are outside. You feel something like relief, the cold air on your face, the world coming back to you. Your car pulls up and you get in.
You wait at home until your husband pulls up. You ask if you can go to Toppers Pizza. You haven’t eaten all day and you are starving. Toppers is your favorite pizza place in town, a local restaurant where there’s a build-your-own salad bar and teenagers bring your food to the table. You order a medium cheese pizza and a Coke, a warm cookie with vanilla ice cream for dessert. The first time you came to Toppers was the day you moved to this new town. It had been overwhelming, but you wanted your new life here to work out. You wanted to start over. Something about Toppers always brings you back to who you are. It’s stupid, you know, but you feel at peace here. You feel hopeful.
The next day you resume teaching, not mentioning to your students what happened the day before. You look for therapists and make more calls. While you are on your way to a yoga class, a secretary calls you back with the good news of an opening. You book the appointment and keep driving.
Your mom texts you that the WiFi is out on her campus, that her and the kids are playing charades to pass the time. It’s the end of the school day on the other side of the country and you imagine your mom in her cardigan, the way she shuffles her sore feet in and out of her shoes at her desk. You wonder if the room is cold, what she had for lunch, what she’ll make for dinner. You tell her that charades sounds fun.
She writes back: Got to go, it’s my turn.
You will start writing again soon. It’s just a matter of time.
From the writer
:: Account ::
Going to the Hospital is a true story—my story. I started writing this piece the day it happened in an attempt to document most accurately the experience. Mental illness permeates my whole life, and most, if not all of my writing embodies the inner struggles that people—both real and imagined—face day to day. I think we often want to project a linear version of healing in stories; a beginning, middle, and end to the suffering. But the truth is that pain is perpetual. This doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless pursuit to get help, but that it will be a lifelong ride of ups and downs, leaps and hurdles, and that’s okay. Post hospital trip, I encountered a lot of backlash and questioning about my mental health. I had friends distance themselves from me, not sure what to say, how to ‘deal’ with me, how to be around me. I had people tell me that my life was so good from the outside, therefore how could I struggle so much? While I can’t imagine combating someone’s openness with skepticism, I do understand the way that society and media have flattened and falsified the experience of mental illness. With the advent of the glittery meme came slogans of normalizing and opening dialogue about mental health. But can a tweet or a small carousel of words and images accurately portray the complex, unique experience of what happens in someone’s brain? The more posts I see, the worse I feel. I don’t feel the glow of community, but rather it feels like someone else, some faceless account, is speaking for me. I write in order to share my account, which is just one single story. I don’t proclaim I am one for all. I only wish to be one voice that inspires other voices to share.
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. She has led workshops for UCLA’s Extension program, Catapult, HerStry, Write or Die Tribe, The Porch, and forthcoming for Lighthouse Writers. She currently teaches writing at Vanderbilt University in the English Department. She is a 2x Pushcart Prize Nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine (Red Hen Press, 2018) , and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.