Friday, June 24th, 2011

The Night Clay Aiken Saved My Life

A room full of depressives, schizophrenics and recovering addicts will almost never agree on what constitutes “Must-See TV.” The only options that night were "American Idol" and a Mel Gibson movie, the one where the kids make tinfoil hats to ward off alien mind control. Watching anything brain-related in a mental hospital—forgive me, behavioral health facility—is pretty much verboten, so we decided on "Idol." Personally, I was more interested in my proximity to Mike on the couch, and how his hand had crept toward mine under the edge of the stiff, synthetic blanket on my lap. It was August, but you wouldn’t have known it. The air conditioner was set to “arctic,” and the skylight in the rotunda only registered day, night and rain.

In the course of three months, I had been hospitalized three times. The first time was fairly straightforward; I was depressed, and wanted to feel better. On my second trip, I still complained of depression, but something far more frightening was starting to shimmer around the edges of my vision. The world just didn’t look right. Unable to pinpoint the problem, I checked out of the hospital and headed home, thinking I could shake it off. It only took me a few days on my own to figure out exactly what was wrong: I was crazy. The word "crazy" pulsed like blood behind my eyes; it saturated the air through which I moved. I had no evidence that I was crazy, other than that I thought I was crazy, but it was enough. I began to tell people, cautiously: “I think I’m going insane.” They assured me otherwise, and in a sense they were right. I wasn’t seeing or hearing things that weren’t there (as far as I knew). But I couldn’t work, I stopped eating, and I was afraid to be alone. Less than a week after my second release, I was back in the hospital.

I had been there about three weeks when I met Mike during Activities. Everyone lost their lake privileges when another patient—my roommate in fact—pulled an Ophelia act and tried to float to her doom, so I signed up to play basketball instead. It was just him and me and one of the orderlies in the gym, and we shot some hoops. Mike and I passed the ball back and forth, taking turns hurling it in the general direction of the basket, jogging placidly after it when it went astray. I was surprised to find myself flirting. Then again, I was surprised to find myself breathing, most of the time. I even wondered how I looked, without quite making it to the point of caring. The few mirrors the hospital had were made of some sort of industrial plastic instead of glass; they flattened our faces and deadened our eyes and as a result were pretty accurate in their own warped way.

Mike looked like a slightly younger version of any guy in an Irish bar at 5:05 on a weekday—not exactly down and out, but well on his way. He was in the DD wing of the hospital, meaning Drugs and Dependency. I didn’t know too many of the DD people, just enough to predict that few of them would stay clean for more than a week after discharge. When I first earned my rotunda privileges and could mingle with everyone else, I expected to hear a lot of one-day-at-a-time talk, but there wasn’t any. It seemed as if some of them had only checked into the hospital to get back in shape to drink a little longer. I sort of envied them. I thought it must be nice to have a calling. I, on the other hand, was supposed to get better. Threatened with intravenous feedings, I had started to eat a little (contrary to popular belief, you can in fact lose weight while consuming only cake). And three times a week I rode in the hospital van to an outpatient clinic for electroconvulsive treatments.

The best part about ECT is when they put you under. After I got used to it, I was an anesthesia junkie, waiting wide-eyed and eager for the doctor to sink the syringe into my IV. It became almost erotic, an eerie nexus of drugs and sex that literally knocked me out. I liked counting to ten, knowing I’d be slurring by three, blind by four, and out by five. The drug felt like a sudden frost, as if someone was threading a tiny ice-cold wire through my vein. They told me to close my eyes, but I enjoyed watching the faces leaning over me grow fuzzy, then disappear.

Waking up was another story. Without unconsciousness to look forward to, I was just a crazy person lying on a stretcher, divided by nothing but a plastic curtain from other crazy people, hearing the moans and whimpers as they, too, swam reluctantly back to the surface. Nobody wants to come out of anesthesia. We fight the return of consciousness, mentally and physically; we thrash and wail; we vomit. We cry. Or maybe it’s just the depressed people who don’t want to come back, frustrated to find ourselves still in the world we’d been briefly, blissfully out of. Later in the day, they used that same room to perform abortions. The continuity made sense to me. Another procedure, “minor” in the surgical sense, with a wide range of potential repercussions; another operation after which you’d never be quite sure what you’d lost.

The medical community prefers to call it "ECT" but let's call it what it is: Shock treatment. Treatment with shocks. No one knows exactly how or why it works, although it often does. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it works but sizzles out memories along with the depression. In all, I would lose about a year of my mind to ECT, but I didn’t know that yet. Right then, I just needed a reset button. A jumpstart. A jolt that would send me, like Frankenstein’s monster, staggering back into life, make my mind process normal messages again, instead of endless anxiety and pain.

Amid all that was new and, frankly, awful, Mike seemed normal. Safe. He had close-cropped hair, a little longer in front, and unlike most of my summer companions he wore clean, preppy clothes. He’d even been to a college I’d heard of, although he didn’t graduate. He looked like someone that, back in the real world, I would have liked, so I liked him, or tried to. We became a Thing. Despite—or maybe because—of the fact we were never alone, we became enough of a Thing for some crone in stirrup pants to hiss at me in the hallway, “Maybe you should think about that sweet man who brings your kids three times a week.” I didn’t see the need to tell her that thinking about “that man,” about men in general, had put me here in the first place. I had no libido to speak of, so I’m not sure what I thought I could offer anyone new. But it seemed silly to feel guilty when the situation was so absolutely asexual. Any urges I had in that area had been fried right out of me; if Mike sent any signals, they went unreceived.

By now there were about a dozen people clustered around the TV, and Mike and I were holding hands under the blanket. This made me feel special in a way I knew was completely and utterly whacked, as if I’d been picked first for Crazy Kickball, crowned queen of the Crazy Prom. If you’d asked me why I was playing handsies with a random guy under a scratchy blanket, I wouldn’t have had a reason. I’m fairly certain it had nothing to do with Mike himself. Maybe it was because he liked me, which meant there must be a me to like. Logic, in the form of my therapist, suggested comfort, but back then I believed that solace from other patients didn’t count. If they were messed up enough to be in there with me, what the hell did they know?

On the television, a bristle-headed blond man was singing. I didn’t have a TV at home, but I knew his name was Clay Aiken, and that the show was in its second season. Other patients, more recent arrivals, knew more: who had been eliminated, who the competition was, that tonight’s episode was some sort of finale. Aiken looked like a dapper angel stuck in a big purple Slinky of a stage. The Slinky was encircled with television sets in a variety of sizes that, weirdly, weren’t displaying the stage, but instead what appeared to be screensavers, as if they’d been left on too long. Aiken’s voice was a bit trilling for my taste. The spectacle itself, though, all those circles, mesmerized me. So I watched.

The song was “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers. You know the one: he’s far away, he misses someone, there are seas and streams, time goes by, he sends love and asks her or him to speed some back. What with all the water, it’s not clear where anyone is, and if you stop to think about how anyone’s supposed to catch all that flying, floating love, the whole thing makes no fucking sense. But the song somehow matched the stage, which, while blue and soothing, also looked improbable. The big screen behind Aiken circled calmly, as if about to suck him gently into a slow-moving vortex. He sang on.

I panicked. I wanted to warn him. He looked so small, so frail, so plaintively purple. And it suddenly struck me how crazy that was. For weeks I’d felt nothing but anxiety and fear; now I ached. I ached because, at that particular moment, the mass-market carnival I was watching was somehow, incomprehensibly, more normal than I was. “Normal” was a scrawny white closet case screeching on a neon stage, waiting for cell phones to shape his fate. No distance or diagnosis could account for the space between there and here, that garish platform, this half-moon of mental patients huddled around a TV. If that was normal, seriously, how hard could normal be?

I forgot all about Mike’s hand. My rigid shoulders rose up around my ears as an eerily cheerful (it’s a sad song, asshole) Aiken strode toward the song’s mid-sentence, one-verb climax. That motherfucker nailed that high note. His crowd went bananas, my crowd went bananas—well, more bananas—and ZAP, right then, Aiken’s wail did what shock treatment didn’t. There I was, as if someone had dropped my old sane mind back into my dwindling body. I wasn’t my roommate, breathing through tubes in a windowless room. I wasn’t the random guy holding my hand under the hospital blanket. I definitely wasn’t in a Hollywood audience, weeping, waving a sign I’d made myself to help a singer win. Yet amidst all that not-me I felt myself again—not like myself, but my actual self, my insides and my edges. Clay Aiken shrieked “I need,” and I remembered who I was.

“He has to win,” whispered Mike.

“I have to go,” I answered. “I just had the lamest epiphany in the history of the world.”

It has taken me eight years to realize that my recovery from that moment forward may owe as much, if not more, to ECT as it does to “American Idol.” If so, I definitely gave up part of my brain to get the rest of it working again, but that’s another story. I prefer to think of it this way: you can’t pick your epiphanies. They find you when they feel like it, in their own good time, in whatever form fits the knowledge you didn’t know you needed. Rarely ideal or elegant, real epiphanies are often inconvenient, if not downright undignified. If you wait for the lightning to work, you risk missing the messier truths that show up in unexpected, embarrassing places … like, say, Date Night in the loony bin.

Clay Aiken didn’t win that night. I can’t recall who beat him. I never saw Mike again. I still hear that note, though, that one purple, piercing word.

Beth Boyle Machlan teaches writing and rewriting to college freshmen, has blogged for Nerve, and now writes for The Faster Times. You can guess where she lives.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

This was lovely. Thank you. When I was in the adolescent mental ward after a suicide attempt, we watched Better Off Dead. Which was exactly as bizarre as it sounds.


Villa (#2,985)

Beautifully written, thank you

VeeCee (#1,189)

Beautiful. Loved this: "waiting for cell phones to shape his fate"

Loved this too: “I just had the lamest epiphany in the history of the world.”

Not to diminish any of your experience, but you must not have given up that much of your brain to still be able to write so beautifully.

ida_claire (#14,357)

During my brief mental ward stint, the other patients loved to watch Intervention. One day it was just me and another guy watching tv and it was tuned in to Intervention. A lot of screaming and yelling and interventioning was happening on the screen and I asked him if he wouldn't mind changing the channel to something a "little less crazy." He turned it to Leave it to Beaver and said "How about this? The Beave ain't so crazy."

SuperMargie (#1,263)

What a great piece. Thanks so much.

AnotherStrayCat (#4,970)

Fantastic. Beautiful on its own, and easily the best thing tangentially about Clay Aiken ever written.

Wow. Brilliantly written, this.

Cheryl (#14,376)

Beautifully written.
Sad that you glorify ECT which causes brain damage but has been given such great PR (Public Relations) that psychiatrists are then allowed to force people to have it against their will.

C_Webb (#855)

@Cheryl: BBM here. I very much sympathize and agree with your point of view, but I'm not sure how my saying that ECT doesn't always work, sometimes sizzles out memories, and that I lost a year of my mind to it is "glorifying" it; in fact, if you read the last paragraph I only very reluctantly admit that it may have worked for me. But I'm glad you liked the writing.

jetztinberlin (#392)

@C_Webb I didn't see any glorifying whatsoever. As a person who has seen the effects, good and bad, of ECT on some of my nearest and dearest, I thought this was painfully honest / accurate as to both the good and bad. And by the way, this was generally beautiful; Beth, thank you.

C_Webb (#855)

@jetztinberlin Thanks so much JIB. It's amazing how many people have been touched by this sort of experience. Most people have come to terms with antidepressants, but admitting you've had ECT is just a little less dramatic than saying you've been lobotomized. I wish that didn't have to be the case, and I also wish someone would fund a real study to find out more about exactly what it does to people, over an extended period. Best wishes to your nearest and dearest.

K8 (#14,379)

@Cheryl why exactly would you suggest that psychiatrists somehow made up the benefits of ECT? Do you want to suggest that the treatment given credit for helping this writer recover her wellness was some propaganda attempt? And what exactly is the benefit to doctors to lie about the benefits of the treatment? Have you ever taken care of someone who was so depressed they couldn't eat? Or someone who's gone through a merry-go-round of medications that are never quite enough, so that they considered suicide a viable option most days?
The decision to use the treatments available is a personal decision between a patient and their doctor. Until you are in the position of having to make such a hard decision, please don't make baseless accusations.

C_Webb (#855)

@K8 : It's me, the author again. Cheryl is right that ECT has been widely misused, and that its negative effects have been vastly underreported since, unlike a drug, there is no single corporation responsible for the success or failure of ECT. Only in the last few years has a major study been done following patients from a range of backgrounds to determine the extent of their memory loss. In a recent case, a woman sued her doctors for giving her too many treatments in too short a span of time; she lost THIRTY FIVE YEARS of her memory, including all recollection of her own dead husband. She can never get that back. And it is true that patients who are viewed as incapacitated for some reason can be given ECT without their consent, although lawmakers have tried in some states to change that.

So I appreciate your defense of a process that may have worked for me (with side effects), and I do think Cheryl misread my portrayal of ECT. But it is important to note that it's a controversial procedure with side effects that, until recently, went vastly underreported — because no one had anyone to report them to. I didn't realize the extent of my memory loss until months later, but no one ever followed up with me, so, as far as the medical community is concerned, my experience meant nothing.

RJ Silva@facebook (#14,391)

Good writing, I enjoyed the taste and texture of the words. Sorry you couldn't figure out how to be better w/out the shock treatment. I pray you find peace.

eliza0 (#14,345)

This was a wonderful article; unfortunately I don't have anything more interesting to contribute to this comment thread other than that sentiment.

This is the best article I've read in years. Be well, Beth, and when you cannot manage that, keep being real.

I've always loved your writing in your comments (I remember us having commenter interactions when you maybe had a different handle back in the Balk/Choire Gawker days?), and I am so delighted to be able to enjoy your writing in the long-form here. Seriously, I can't think of ever reading a piece where somebody has done a better job of relaying a the story of a split-second-moment-in-time (I NEEEED…) in such an enthralling and interesting way without it becoming navel-gazing. Really, just very well done.
And separately, I very much hope you now find yourself content while out of anesthesia.

Also, I teach introductory psychology to college kids, and feel this will help better color the 5 or so minutes I spend on ECT. It's tough enough to explain to them that it doesn't look like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest anymore, and relaying the ins and outs of why it's a controversial treatment is always tough.

C_Webb (#855)

@HeyThatsMyBike: I'd be happy to help anyone understand anything. And yes, most fictional treatments of ECT are terrifying; something like it shows up in Invisible Man, too. I always thought it was interesting that the Big Two of depression/crazywriting, Andrew Solomon and Kay Redfield Jamieson, both decided that ECT wasn't for them. There's no really honest accounts; I wish Kitty Dukakis the best, but her version is riddled with inconsistencies.

As for the old days of Gawking … I was CWebb there, too, until I got killed, and then I was Tammany Fall. Memories … from the corners of the interwebs …

Anyway .. Thanks. So. Much for your kind comment. I'd like to do more work for these guys, hopefully on cheerier topics.

@C_Webb I hope you write more for them, too! And I'm also glad that according to your response down below to what might be a commenterbot (since it just stole a sentence out of my too-long comment it seems? The internet is weird) that you likely have cheerier anecdotes to relay to us in a similarly eloquent fashion in the future!

C_Webb (#855)

@HeyThatsMyBike OMG I KNEW it looked familiar, but I thought I remembered it as a separate comment, and then couldn't find it and figured I was wrong. Or, you know … crazy.

ahamviky (#14,455)

it is good

brsaxel (#14,457)

hmm very nice Really, just very well done.
And separately, I very much hope you now find yourself content while out of anesthesia.

C_Webb (#855)

@brsaxel Ha! Yes, I have to say I've accumulated a few good un-anethetized (sp?) moments, here and there, over the years. Thanks for asking! (And reading!)

Helen Holdun (#18,674)

Fascinating article. Please contact me, as I'd like to include your epiphany in a book I'm writing.

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