July 24, 2017
This is something I wrote two years ago that I've been scared to share publicly. So here goes.
I called myself an atheist out loud for the first time on July 24, 2017. Interestingly, July 24 is my dad’s birthday and my dad was a minister. Also interesting, it was while being checked into the psych ward of a hospital near my house. They called it their “Behavioral Health Center” which I do think sounds better than “psych ward.” I was recommended inpatient treatment because my suicidal ideation had begun to move from passive to active. “Did I have a plan,” the intake counselor asked multiple times. I told her about a play I’d written. She said, “So that’s how you’d do it?” I said, “Yeah. Pills.” She noticed a scratch across the inside of my right wrist. I didn’t tell her that I’d thought a lot about my belt and Robin Williams and Chris Cornell and how I’d always take a mental note of the chemical combos found in celebrities’ toxicology results. I didn’t tell her that on my last walk in the woods I’d been looking at branches wondering if they’d hold. I didn’t tell her that I knew how the dark web works and had created the username. I could tell she knew all the stuff I wasn’t saying.
Earlier that day Sherry had been denied a refill of one of the prescriptions that she takes to manage the symptoms of a rare neuromuscular disease. (And she takes what I love: benzos, opiates, muscle relaxers.) I’d already done it once before, stolen enough of her pills so that she’d been unable to get a refill. There’s a pill problem going around and they don’t refill them like they used to. The first time had been bad and she’d said “if this ever happens again…” I nodded dutifully when she said it even though I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop. Because I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to dabble. Turns out I can’t dabble. I knew that about alcohol and I should’ve known it about pills as well, but I was miserable and I wanted to feel better and it’s no more complicated than that.
People I know and love say god is everything or nothing. I’ve never understood that. If those are the rules then I’ll take nothing.
After signing a bunch of papers and pretending to listen as they were explained to me, it was time for me to talk to a real diploma wielding psychiatrist who I guess had to be the one to actually say in a deep manly voice, “uh, yes, yes, I think this is definitely an inpatient situation…," clearing his throat with authority. We were told that we’d speak to him via FaceTime on an iPad. I remember thinking this would be a bad early 2000s commercial for Apple, our silhouettes against a painful neon; me with my elbows on my knees, head in face; Sherry rocking back and forth from her muscles seizing up and the emotional cost of the moment, simultaneously keeping her distance and being close enough to touch. And then the old white male psychiatrist told the intake counselor over the phone that he didn’t use FaceTime. He used some other program. Skype? No. Yahoo? No. Landline? Nope. So Sherry and I sat around and cried and talked and I could not stop crying and talking. So many things. Guilt, sure. Shame, no doubt. But deep, deep, deep fucking fear. Aware for the first time how close I’d come.
Turns out he was having dinner nearby and I could just wait until he was finished and came to do his rounds. (I don’t know for a fact that this was the deal but I’ve pieced it together with common sense, of which I obviously have an abundance.)
The intake counselor apologized and didn’t try too hard to hide her own frustration with the big important psychiatrist. “I’m sorry about that,” she said, “We can still get through some of this paperwork.” She was really nice. And she could tell where we were in this moment. And even though I’m sure she’d seen far worse, she treated us with amazing care and compassion.
At some point she asked me if I had any spiritual or church affiliation and I immediately shook my head and said no. Emphatically. Passionately. “I’m an atheist,” I said. My knee-jerk response took me by surprise. It was the first time I’d ever identified myself with that word. It was the first time I’d ever felt like I was in a safe place where I could say it without causing worry or disappointment to those around me, without sounding like an asshole, without being struck down by something I’ve always pretended but never felt certain was there.
It felt spiritual. It was an exhale from I don’t know how many years of drowning. Followed by an inhale of desperately needed air. A hand was reaching into the murk to help me out. A human hand. A real hand. And I find it beautiful and humbling that it was a hospital intake counselor just doing her job and doing it well. I was her last intake for the evening, so I guess she just went home to her family after I was done.
We hadn’t brought any clothes or toiletries to the hospital. That’s alright, they said, we have what you need, your family can bring stuff the next day during visiting hours. I’m amazed with all of the time we spent waiting for the doctor to show that I didn’t bail. But where was I supposed to go? I was scared to go home because the pills were there. And I knew this was my last chance with Sherry. She was about done with me, or so it felt. But truth be told, I had started to feel like nothing more than the guy who loaded the wheelchair in and out of the car anyway.
The pills had literally become all I could think about, little whispers in my ear, all day everyday. And there was a very deluded part of me that thought maybe Sherry was in on the game. “I’ll hide them and see if he can find them.” I always did. She hid them in her box of tampons which was an obvious place to look. She hid them in shoes, I would check each one. She has a bunch of old bags and purses and shit and over the last few years I’ve picked through every inch of her closet and half of the bathroom and I’ve been far more successful at finding the stash than she’s ever been at keeping it hidden. She bought a little lock box at Walmart and we thought we’d found the solution. But then it was just about finding the key which was easy. Then one time she went out of town for the weekend, taking only what she needed for the trip and leaving the lock box. She took the key with her so I looked up on YouTube how to pick the lock. I found a video of an eleven year old boy doing it with a nail file in about seven seconds. It took me half an hour but I got it done and as I opened the box it felt like the various orange bottles were shining on my face like Travolta’s in Pulp Fiction.
Vincent, we happy?
Yeah, we’re happy.
Eventually the psychiatrist showed up, read what the intake counselor had done, and green lighted me for inpatient care. By then it was around eight o’clock and it was time for me to go through the doors and for my wife to go home without me and try to explain to my kids where I was. We cried some more as we held onto each other. The people around us just looked down at the ground. They had told us I could leave at any time but typically people stayed for five days or so.
Two nurses took me into a little room and had me take off my shirt and pants to do a skin check. They took note of the scratch on my wrist. I had done it with a pair of tweezers earlier in the day right after Sherry had gotten the call about her prescription. I’d barely drawn blood, I honestly could have done more damage with my thumbnail. I was embarrassed, not because I had scratched my wrist, but because I was sure they thought I was a wuss. I covered the scratch with the hospital wristband as they took my belt and told me to take the shoelaces out of my shoes. I asked if I could wear socks which is what I did for my whole stay. Somehow walking around in sneakers with no shoelaces seemed more bizarre.
If god is everything then he is guilt and fear and hate. He is disease. He is pain and death and muscles not working anymore. He’s cancer. He’s silence. Opioids. Newtown. God did that.
After the skin check they gave me some towels and washcloths and showed me to my room. On the way I walked between the two common rooms on the floor. On the left was a rec room of sorts with lots of chairs and one table where two women were doing a jigsaw puzzle. (Holy shit there’s actually a jigsaw puzzle.) On the walls were completed pictures from coloring books, some more completed than others. Butterflies and flowers and peace symbols and maybe a partially colored dragon. (Oh good, I’ll get to color.) There was a big white board and that’s where I figured we’d be having the group therapy and classes I’d been told about. The intake counselor had been quick to say this wasn’t a vacation. There would be a strict schedule of activities. Coloring and the like.
Across the hall was the tv room with a juice machine and washer/dryer that I’d come to learn didn’t work. The lights were off in the tv room and I don’t remember what was on the tv but I do remember thinking that I was missing Shark Week for this. There were three loud talkers huddled together, two men and one woman. One guy had long blond hair in a pony tail and looked to me like he must’ve been in a band in high school. He was scrawny and unshaven, taking up as much room as he possibly could. The woman was short and tough looking, laughing and punching the guys playfully, finding any excuse she could to make contact. The other guy looked like a young Kevin Hart wearing scrubs and was the quickest wit of the three. I could immediately tell that the rest of the room, five or six people, had just come to accept that they wouldn’t be able to hear what was on the television. Most everyone gave me a silent glance as I walked by holding my towels in one hand and my pants up in the other. There were men, women, old, young, white, black, everything in between, a melting pot of the fucked up.
The nurse showed me to my room and said in his thick, from somewhere else accent that he’d be back with some meds. The automatic muscle memory joy I felt at getting to take a pill (or maybe two!) made me feel even more disgusted with myself. I wondered if I should’ve gone to a drug rehab. Or if I should’ve stayed home. Or if I should’ve applied myself more to the tweezers.
I was relieved to find that I didn’t have a roommate though the room had two small beds. It felt more like a dorm room than a hospital. It was a square room with white walls, the beds, two little nightstands, and a fish-eye camera in the corner of the ceiling. There was a window and I thought that was a score somehow. I don’t know if it was mere curiosity that made me see if it would open but of course it didn't. My view was of a fenced-in pen of oxygen tanks, all locked up to be used or recycled. There was a tiny bathroom with the most idiotically designed shower I’ve ever seen. I’m 6’4” and the water hit me directly in the chest with my head inches from the ceiling. There was a little built-in bench. If I sat on it the water would be shooting directly into my face. There was no barrier between the floor of the shower and the floor of the bathroom surrounding the toilet so that when you got out you were walking in cold standing water.
I opted not to shower. I opted to lay on the bed and stare at the oxygen tanks and wallow in terror. At some point I got up and went to the common room that was mostly empty to use the phone. I had to ask for a long distance code because we haven’t changed our numbers in so many years of moving around. (It’s a real bummer to be asked if you’re from Waco all the time, let me tell you.) I called Sherry and she was still crying and I started crying and I asked her what she told the boys. She told them I was sick but I was okay and I’d have to stay in the hospital for a few days. As I was talking on the phone my shorts fell down to the floor because I didn’t have a belt and the cord for the phone was only about a foot long. That’s dumb, I thought, why on earth would they make the cord so- Oh. Right.
The nurse told me that the psychiatrist wanted me to take a new medication called depakote. I didn’t understand what he said but I didn’t care. Then he asked me if I wanted something to help me sleep and I was relieved. Then he asked me if I wanted a nicotine patch or gum and I began to think I could live there forever. I took the two pills and headed back to my room, again aware of glances from the other residents. Truthfully I was becoming paranoid there would be hazing or a code red.
When I got there the second bed was occupied. He was unshaven and mostly bald, curled up under the pitiful blanket. I felt bad for taking the pillow from his bed but he’d gotten another one. He barely looked at me and then looked away. I walked past the foot of his bed silently and got into mine, staring at the window at the little signs on the oxygen tanks reading “danger, explosive,” astounded at where I was and why and how and when. Just an infinity of questions with no answers.
The withdrawal from my cell phone was precisely as bad as the drugs. I didn’t know how to fall asleep without drugs in my blood and noise in my ears. Some valium and muscle relaxers. A podcast or loud music. I could hear the guy breathing so I tried to breathe with him. Eventually I fell asleep.
And I didn’t pray.
July 25, 2019
It’s two years and a day since I checked myself into the hospital. We’ve moved to Atlanta to be closer to Sherry’s family and take advantage of a wheelchair-modified home that became available within the family. In these two years Sherry has gone from using a walker to being in a wheelchair full-time. A big motorized one that destroys everything in its path. I wish she could play murder ball. She’s like Mad Max.
I haven’t called myself an atheist again since that day. Mostly because no one has asked and it hasn’t been on any form that I’ve had to fill out. I’ve wanted to post this essay that I wrote for a long time, but I haven’t because I don’t want to worry my mother anymore than she already is. I don’t want to disappoint all of the teachers I had in all of the Christian schools I attended. I don’t want to be called “lost.” I don’t want my soul to be prayed for in that way. I’m posting it now with this follow-up or disclaimer or caveat. I’ve wanted to post it because I’m proud of the writing. Not even the content, but the words. The rhythm, the bounce, and even the humor.
I’m posting it because there’s a lot of talk about mental health now. There’s a lot of talk about self-care. I’m posting it for men to read. Men my age have the highest suicide rate. I realized recently that I write about male depression pretty much exclusively. Write what you know and all that. But for the first time I feel focused and qualified. I wrote a play called International Falls where a man succumbs. I don’t want that to happen anymore. To my characters, or to me, or to anyone else. My latest play is called The Willing and it has a depressed man who makes it to the other side. He ends up in therapy. He tries to meditate. He tries to breathe.
I’m not an atheist. I can’t turn my back on the goodness of faith. But I can sure as shit turn my back on the guilt. That’s the work I’m doing. I started with a new therapist and he pointed out how many times I said the word “guilty” after he asked why I was there.
Once in a recovery meeting a guy said this: People seem to get all bent out of shape over the God thing. For me, God is the collective wisdom of the men and women in this room.
I think I can work with that.