Jan 102012

Last week I read A Million Little Pieces and this week I’m re-reading I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and The Bell JarAll three are about mental illness . . . and so it’s been a theme for me, these past two weeks…insanity. In truth, it’s been a theme for me these past few decades.

I spent some time in a mental hospital during my senior year of high school. I’d been a horrible bulimic for eight years and therapy wasn’t helping, especially since I spent most of my therapy sessions discussing how fine I was and how lovely the weather was. And one day during my Senior Year, I ate too much at lunch, and I thought I was going to die. Because to me . . . full =death. But I couldn’t find a place to throw up. And so finally, right then and there, in the middle of the Senior Hallway, I decided I was not fine – not at all. And I walked into my guidance counselor’s office and I said: “Call my parents. I need to be hospitalized. I can’t handle anything. Someone needs to help me.”

Here is a picture of me that was taken the week before I was hospitalized. I’m there in the Blue Suit.

I was a student government officer to a class of close to a thousand. An athlete, too. Relatively pretty. Smart. Seemingly confident. My Senior superlative was “Leading Leader.” In this picture I was co-hosting the Homecoming Pep Rally for the entire high school. Wearing the corsage to show I’d just been nominated for Homecoming Court. People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.

And so that counselor called my parents, and they came right away. And they found a place for me to get help. I often think about what that day must have been like for them. Maybe they desperately wanted to say No, No it will be okay! Not a hospital! We are your parents! We can fix this! But they didn’t. The moment I became brave enough to admit I needed help they believed me, and despite the shock, the pain, the stigma . . . they gave me the exact help I asked for.

I’ve never written about my hospital stay before, because a whole lot is fuzzy, and I can’t get a real grip on the memories. Back then not many specialized eating disorder hospitals existed, so the one I went to was a real mental hospital. There were only two of us on the unit with eating issues, the others were there because they were mildly schizophrenic, drug addicted, depressed or suicide risks. Many of them had violent tendencies. I do not remember being afraid of any of them. I do remember being afraid, in one way or another, of most of the people in my high school.

There was one man on our unit who spoke only in numbers. I ignored him at first . . . it’s hard to know what the appropriate response is to “Twenty-one ninety-six forty NINE?” But one day I decided to take a guess. “Fourteen?” I responded tentatively. I remember his face changing from empty to surprised to happy. Then back to empty, quickly. But I definitely saw happy, for a moment there. That taught me to try, at least once, to speak each person’s special language.

There was a sandy haired girl who always hung her head so low that I never really saw her face. I do remember what her arm looked like, though, because it was sliced up like a pre-cut ham. I saw it up close because I held her hand once when she started crying during a therapy session. She pulled it away at first but then she offered it back to me a few moments later. I remember that her hand was very cold, but it warmed up after a while. I don’t remember her name. I do remember her story and it was very, very sad. She was right to be crazy.

There was my roommate. I will call her Mary Margaret. Unable to speak with my little Sister, I allowed Mary Margaret to take Sister’s place for the weeks I was hospitalized. We whispered long into the night, every night. Mary Margaret was from a tight knit, fiercely loving family too, and we wondered aloud for hours how we ended up in that room together. One night, very late, we wrote vows that said we promised to take care of each other forever. We both signed the vows, with crayons because we weren’t allowed to have pencils. Mary Margaret made me promise not to eat the crayons. I told her maybe she should. We laughed. Mary Margaret was eighty pounds during her stay. She used to hide her food in her huge sweatshirt at lunch time and sneak it to me when we got back to our room. Mary Margaret and I saw each other once in the real world and then never again. We did not honor our vows to take care of each other forever. I’ve never looked for Mary Margaret, I’ve never even Googled her name. I’m too afraid. I know the survival statistics for anorexics.

There was art therapy and dance therapy and group therapy. It all made sense to me. The things the other patients said made sense to me, even though they weren’t things that my peers in my real life would have ever, ever said. Everyone had to listen to each other. There were rules about how to listen and how to respond. There were lessons about how to empathize and where to find the courage to speak. All the lessons made sense to me. I enjoyed them much more than my high school classes. They seemed much more important to me. We learned how to care, about ourselves and about each other.

There was the field trip we took to the art museum in Washington D.C. We rode into the big city on a small bus, we mental patients.We had a special appointment time at the museum, our own private tour. Because there were other groups and we weren’t to mingle with the normal people. I remember thinking that was probably best. We had a rule that we would all need to hold hands. In a long line. Like an extremely motley and sedated Conga Line. Throughout our entire tour.

I remember wondering why Mary Margaret and I had to hold hands with the group. We were relatively well behaved. We’re people pleasers, we bulimics and anorexics. I thought maybe our therapists were concerned that I would run away and attack the diners in the cafeteria and that Mary Margaret might run away with me and stand there and starve.

Then I remember walking by the museum cafeteria, and seeing twenty slices of pie revolving around on one of those buffet lazy susans. And I remember suddenly feeling very grateful that my hands were being held. I felt safe.

That’s what we all wanted. Safety -someone or some structure that would save us from ourselves, from the strange real world that others seemed to be navigating so flawlessly and we just couldn’t, at the time, for whatever reason.

And I remember trembling the morning of my release. I remember knowing I wasn’t ready, and knowing I had to go anyway, because I would never be ready. Because inside the hospital was so much easier and safer and surer than outside the hospital. And I knew I could get much too comfortable. Much too safe.

Because it all made sense to me in there. And that was a little confusing.

I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to go ahead and publish this without editing it first. I’m afraid that if I edit it at all, I’ll edit out all of it.


Carry On, Warrior
Author of the New York Times Bestselling Memoir CARRY ON, WARRIOR
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  150 Responses to “Fourteen?”

  1. […] that there was something good in their perspective, something we could work with? In her essay Fourteen? Glennon Doyle Melton talks about a man she met in the mental hospital who would only say […]

  2. […] long time since I’ve thought about that phase of high school, until a few weeks ago when I read another mom blogger’s bulimia story. Poor thing, she’s got issues, Present Me said. But then all of a sudden these memories came […]

  3. When I look at where you’ve been and where you’ve gone, I am so appreciative of your honesty. It lets others now that it is ok to be broken, to be hurting, to be fallen, so long as we are working towards getting up (or letting others help us up). We don’t have to be perfect all the time, yet I know I put up a facade all the time of “having it all together” which I most certainly do not.

  4. I cried when I read this post.

  5. So much of that was so familiar to me from my days in in-patient ED treatment! You have SUCH a gift for writing, and show the truth with such a vividness, I believe that this blog is your calling in life. I hope that you march on and on with it because many of us need to hear what you have to say, if only to better understand our own tangled insides.

  6. This made me cry..because I wish life had a “hospital/ school like that” for me. I wish more educational places had group therapy and taught how to relate to others. I would have loved that safe place. I am glad you found one for some respite. This was brave and beautiful.

  7. Thank you!!! So glad you did not edit this. Much gratitude for your humor and honesty.

  8. Someday I’ll be as brave as you but until then, this monkee admires you far beyond words I can express…

  9. Been a Monkee for a few weeks now but just found this post….I now know why I feel so safe here. There is an underlying theme among all of your stories/posts and all of your readers….We are all broken and we are somehow trying put ourselves together. I won’t say back together because if I went back to what I was so many years ago I wouldn’t want to be here at all. Just together….

    Love :)

  10. I am the mother of a beautiful, smart, funny, kind, people pleasing 16 year old daughter who is anorexic. She was admitted into a mental hospital 2 summers ago and was there for a month. The longest, saddest, month that I can remember. We went everyday to visit her and it broke my heart to see the girls (and boy) on their unit. 2 years later we are still struggling against this beast of an eating disorder. I came across this post at a very needed time. Thank you so much for your honesty and candor. I just want to wrap my arms around my little girl and tell her that everything is going to be fine and that she is perfect just the way that she is, but I know that it won’t matter. She won’t believe me. But I won’t stop hugging her and I won’t stop telling her because maybe, just maybe she will listen. Fingers crossed and hands folded. God bless you!

  11. Sometimes I think about the days I spent huddled over a toilet trying to purge my imperfections and I realize that I was trying to piece together shattered pieces that were never meant to fit in the first place. “I just didn’t know that everything was okay. That my messiness and my dramatic, worried heart were what made me beautiful.” (From a previous post of yours that I read from time to time) Thank you for finding the words that I can never seem to find. Although I seem to have no problem locating MOST words, the ones to describe the intense years of fixating all my worries and hopes into bulimia, seem to escape me.

  12. WOW, that was amazing. Thank you for sharing your story.

  13. Your courage to reach out for help was amazing. Your courage to share your experience is more amazing. Thank you.

  14. you are very brave. thank you for posting. God is definitely working through you in great ways! Thank you for being real and inspiring out here in blogland! I am a new subscriber of your blog (after reading “gifts” and “unwind” today:)

  15. Very beautifully written. I stumbled across your blog from a post that was posted on facebook. So glad I did, you have a way of speaking the truth in warm comforting way. I also literally laughed out loud at your Vacuum Post. :)

  16. well, my goodness. another new reader here, and i am so grateful that you re-posted this, revealing tremendous honesty and generosity of spirit. a truly incredible piece. and i’m so new i haven’t even read the ‘Monkees’ tabs yet (though i did read ‘About Glennon’ and fell head-over-heels with you b/c of the last 5 lines), but i have a sneaking suspicion i may be one. hooray!

  17. Bravo. This story is part of you, and really I’m glad that you are you. I love reading what you write.

    It makes me wonder: if so many people with sad stories suffer mental illness AND so many people with good, wholesome, loving-family stories suffer mental illness, where is the surge in this kind of illness coming from? Part of me thinks that society has just become a low-level poison at all times. Another part of me knows that I only hope that because otherwise, it cannot be prevented or kept from taking root, and deep down I’m terrified for my kids.

  18. Thank You.

  19. Thank you for your unedited honesty. I can relate to many of the things you talk about… only in my real life, I’m not brave enough to be honest about it. I find myself lonely, and scared to trust people, and afraid i’m not really good enough.

    Your writing and vulnerability is helping me to question a lot of how I live now, and want something better for myself. I’m just starting therapy, and it all seems so daunting.

    Thank you again! I’m looking forward to catching up and getting to know you better!

  20. Thank you.

  21. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I was the postpartum chick among the schizophrenics, addicts, and cutters. The thing that I took away from that experience is that we were all the same. No matter how it manifests itself, we were all coming from a place of pain. Your blog teaches such a great lesson….to be honest with each other, accept each other, love each other. I’m so glad I found you. Your honesty and humor are refreshing.

  22. “People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.” So true! Thanks for sharing your story!

  23. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I was the postpartum chick among the schizophrenics, addicts, and cutters. What I learned most from that experience was that, no matter how it manifests itself, we all were coming from a place of pain. Your blog teaches such a great lesson….that we need to love each other, accept each other, support each other. I am so glad I found your blog. Your honesty and humor are refreshing.

  24. I think you are awfully lucky to have gotten through your mental hospital experience unscathed. Most people don’t. Most of them end up on mind-altering drugs for the rest of their lives that leave them wooden, apathetic and checked out. It’s a crime against humanity, and it’s promoted by the drug industry simply so they can make a buck.

    • Megan, I think what you are saying is true only part of the time. Believe me, there are plenty of hard-working, caring mental health professionals in those hospitals who are frustrated by the constraints that our current health insurance system puts on what should be purely medical decisions. In the 80’s, patients stayed in the hospital 2 – 3 months. 90’s, they still usually got a full month, which makes sense, as most of the drugs can’t even have a real effect in under 4 weeks. Now? The average stay is 5 days.

  25. brutiful

  26. You might also like the book ‘Veronkia Decides to Die’ by Paulo Coelho.

  27. You know what’s sad? If you were that 17-year-old girl today, you wouldn’t have had all that time in the hospital to be safe and to figure things out. Today, a suicidal girl can enter that hospital (maybe the same one as yours) and be told to leave 5 days later because “the drugs are working” – drugs that you can’t even see the effects of until 2-4 weeks have passed. So she goes home. 3 days later, she cycles back in. Rinse, repeat. Each time she goes back in, she feels like a failure because she had to “go back” – even though it is explained to her that she never should have left, she isn’t the failure, it is our mental health coverage system that is a failure. Also? The hospital psychiatrists are a failure, for refusing to stand up to the insurance companies and insisting on proper care for their patients and for pretending that someone who was suicidal 5 days before is now perfectly okay with once-a-week outpatient therapy and once-a-month pharmacological visits with a psychiatrist.

    I could write a book. It’s shameful, what happens to these girls now. Shameful.

    • Oh, and originally (before I got side-tracked on my rant against our mental health care system) I wanted to say that it is super-fantastic that you asked for help and allowed your parents to find help for you. That shows real strength.

  28. Wow – you are amazing! Just recently found your blog and am in awe of your honesty! It is so much better than always pretending – we should strive to be more like you. Thank you for sharing this post. What a great quote: “People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.” SO very true!

  29. I have never put myself into inpatient care, but I have been in counseling and medicated since I was 23, and I am now 34. Am I ashamed? Nope…I go to the doctor for the flu, why wouldn’t I go for the depression that cripples me? Good job for sharing your story Glennon…maybe it will help others not be ashamed either. You are an amazing writer!

  30. I just discovered your blog yesterday when someone posted your unwind to fb. I came back today to read and I’m so glad I did, it was a Divine appt. for me. Thanks for being so honest!

  31. Thanks for sharing. It is incredibly courageous. I too was brought to your blog via your anti-Carpe-Diem post and was hooked. I was more drawn in when I read your “about me” section and this post sealed the deal. Your vulnerability is so refreshing. I am a licensed associate counselor in Arizona who “specializes” (whatever that means…I did my internship at an in-patient facility and have a heart and passion for young women so I think that means I specialize) in the treatment of Eating Disorders. I am convinced that blogs are the new therapy. I think women today are more and more afraid to be real and vulnerable in real life but the internet and especially these Mom blogs provide an opportunity to dish the dirt and be as real as we want to with some sort of anonymity…especially if it is just via the comments (not as much so for the writer). It is a fascinating outlet to me and as a consumer of blogs as well as a professional who is passionate about helping women through life’s hard seasons I am refreshed and drawn in by your story, vulnerability, passion, and permission to be you. Thanks for sharing.

  32. Thank you for breaking the silence of mental illness and psych hospitals.

  33. Thank you for sharing this story. I just found your page today via something someone shared on Facebook. I think there is a lot here I should read. Thank you for the Courage to share.

    Eleanor H.

  34. G- Been there done that as a fifteen year old! Failed suicide attempt, drug and alcohol addiction landed me in a mental hospital too. Back in the day there were no other options, I’ve always thought it was better for me that way, it was more real, more scary. I’ve been sober over 25 years now and I identify with so much of what you write. You are awesome! You make me laugh. You remind me to be grateful.

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