The summer after my twenty-first birthday, I spent five and a bit weeks as an in-patient in a psychiatric hospital.
I remember my twenty-first as one of my worst birthdays. Good friends came, but nothing as many as had come to my twentieth birthday. For some reason, I chose a rubbish pub. I remember the stools being very uncomfortable. We didn’t go clubbing afterwards. I went back to one of my best friends’ houses. I remember sitting in her bedroom and bawling crying. I don’t remember why I was crying. I just remember crying and crying.
That year should have been my greatest. I had been elected to run the university debating society. I was a “big man” on campus. Everyone knew me. I knew everyone. My opinions mattered. I was in the final year of my law degree. My final mark rested on just five subjects, that I was more than clever enough to cope with.
But it wasn’t my greatest year. The summer before had been a shambles. I’d gone on a J1 visa to New Jersey, but failed to find work and came home early. I then went to Dingle and worked there in a restaurant instead. I can now say that I was bullied by the other staff there, but I don’t know how I viewed it at the time. The debts I made during that summer (2001) are still with me to this day.
My studies were going terribly. I was gripped by fear. Fear that I wouldn’t do well enough in my exams. The fear stopped me from studying. I didn’t have a lovelife or a sexlife. I didn’t really think I ever would. I had had two “experiences” at the age of eighteen, and hadn’t kissed a boy, or even gone near any gay societies or pubs in the three years after that. “Gay” was still a word that was whispered rather than shouted, and as my sister was part of my social circle in college, it was treated as particularly secret in my case. By that year, I had settled into a comfortable obesity, pretending my body didn’t exist, avoiding mirrors and sitting in the dark, in the hopes that I wouldn’t have to see myself. I ate, drank and smoked an awful lot. I still lived at home. My relationship with my parents was generally good, but there were two big tensions: my quiet refusal to return to the fringe religious group of which they were members, and my lack of study.
Like had happened in the run-up to my Leaving Cert exams, I found myself dreading the “end” more and more. I began finding it difficult to motivate myself to do anything – not just to study, but to go to lectures, to shave, to shower, to work hard in the debating society that I was so proud to be in charge of. And it was this year that my nervous tics all began to become magnified. I would get jumpy and agitated for no reason.
I went to Student Counselling, and to the college psychiatrist. I was put on Prozac, as I had been before my Leaving Cert exams. I couldn’t afford to pay for the first three prescriptions. I got a loan of the money from some college friends. Eventually, I had to tell my parents, even if only so I could pay my friends back for the pills. It was excruciatingly hard to tell them. My mother said she was relieved it was just depression, because she had been worried when I said I had something to tell them that I had got a girl pregnant.
I decided to withdraw from my exams, and to repeat the year. This made nothing any better. I continued to be unmotivated, depressed, tearful, nervy and jumpy. I was awake all night and asleep all day.
I took the car and drove around Waterford and Wexford for a few days, just to get away from “it” all and to calm down. I had a nice enough time, but didn’t come back feeling any better.
I kept on going in to college, just for something to do. I was re-elected to the chair of the university debating society for a second year. I was still popular. I was still somebody. I won an award at the Clubs and Societies’ Ball, and I managed to get two friends into the Ball without tickets. I was a “big man”.
But this wasn’t enough. I continued to suffer, bursting into tears, smoking ridiculous numbers of cigarettes. And then came the night. I spent a night in my parents’ kitchen with a box of cigarettes and my Dad’s stanley knife. I don’t know if I was going to do anything. I don’t think I was. But that was my lowest point. My mother got out of bed in the middle of the night. I hid the knife. She told me how worried she was and she read to me from the bible, from the start of the Book of Jeremiah, the bit that says “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”. She wanted me to know that God knew me perfectly, that He had a plan for me, that He loved me. I wished I could believe. I couldn’t.
That day, I went to the counsellor. I went to the psychiatrist too. The psychiatrist had said to me previously that if I stopped coping that I’d have to go to hospital. I told her that I’d stopped coping. She wrote a referral letter. That afternoon, my mother brought me to the psychiatric ward in the Regional Hospital in Cork. I was interviewed by a large black doctor, who told me not to do anything stupid. She told my mother to keep an eye on me and that they should have a bed within day or so. When we got home, my family went into full middle-class activity. My parents rang around the various doctors and psychologists they knew and it was decided that I was to go to a private hospital, in Dublin, St. Patrick’s. It would have a bed available the next day. The next day, I called on some of my friends, who were getting ready for exams, and said goodbye. I was terrified of where I was going, but a small bit of me did appreciate the drama of it all.
My dad drove me up to Dublin late the following day. A tiny mousy doctor interviewed me. She seemed a bit skeptical, but I remembered the lesson I’d learned at 17. If you want to make a mental health professional take you seriously, talk about suicide. I was so exhausted by life, so disgusted by myself and so fearful about the future, that I was willing to claim to be suicidal, when I don’t think I was.
The first night there was terrifying. You start out on 24-hour observation, in one of a group of beds directly in front of the nurses’ desks. A lot of the nurses were male. They all had huge bunches of keys. They were never alone. They gave me valium to help me sleep. That was my one and only time taking valium. It gave me hallucinations. It was horrible.
After four or five days, I was given a private room and was no longer under 24-hour observation. During those first few days, I talked to a lot of doctors, and to a formidable clinical psychologist, who was my counsellor for the rest of my time in the hospital. In that time, I read a lot of books. My parents visited a lot. I think in the entire month and a half I spent there, some member of my family visited from Cork every day but two. At the time, the drive would have taken at least four and a half hours. The rest of my family’s religious community wanted to visit too, but I forbade that.
After about a week, I began to enjoy the hospital. No one expected anything of me. Life was easy here. I had space to breathe. And the counselling I was getting was very good. My medication was changed as well. Efexor instead of Prozac, Librium for anxiety and sleeping tablets at night. After meals, we would queue up for our tablets like some kind of bizarre Holy Communion ceremony.
As well as my counsellor and my doctors, I was treated by an eating disorder specialist. I didn’t like her and I felt she didn’t like me. Her advice was, more or less, if you want to lose weight, go on a diet. I felt she didn’t value me as much as the anorexics or the bulimics. So I stupidly tried to be one of them. I spent two weeks trying to make myself vomit. I was really bad at it. It never lasted.
What I really enjoyed was the Young Adult Programme. Although I was 21, I was put into a group with 14-18 year-olds, as that seemed to be the closest fit for me. And this was the summer camp experience I had never had. For three summers as a teenager, I had gone to Irish college in the Gaeltacht. And every summer, I had come home without a single new friend. I had been called smelly, and nerd, and fat, and gay. I had had other boys refuse to share a room with me. I had had girls refuse to dance with me. I had walked along country roads alone while all the other teenagers walked in packs, coupling up, singing songs, having the best summer of their lives. Irish college was a lonely hell for me.
But now was my chance to do this right. I befriended the other members of the Young Adult Programme with gusto. We were wild. We hid from nurses. We teased elderly patients. We compared cuts on wrists. (Although I didn’t have any). We played Colourblind by the Counting Crows and the Jeff Buckley version of Hallelujah over and over and over again. We shared confidences. Boys kissed girls. Boys kissed boys. Girls kissed girls. We condemned our parents. We played with each other’s hair. We shared every secret we had. We held hands. We fed each other chocolate and licked each others’ fingers afterwards. We cried. We had “black” days when we ignored each other. We read each other’s text messages and wore each other’s underwear.
We were encouraged to do activities together. We modelled things from clay. We cooked together, in a kitchen where the knives were numbered and locked up. We did relaxation exercises with a nice man in a wheelchair. We did creative writing. We had group counselling, where I used my age and my articulacy to make myself sound more fucked-up than any of them.
I fell in love that summer.
Gradually we were allowed out to acclimatise to the real world. My sister took me to the cinema one day. We saw one of the new Star Wars films. My parents took me out to a restaurant.
At one stage, I panicked at the idea of going back out. I drank some shampoo, in a feeble and hygienic call for help. It didn’t really change anything.
I spent my last two weekends at home in Cork. Both times, I had long discussions with my parents, which I’d practised with my counsellor. In the first, I told them about my relatonship with food and with exams, and the stress that both cause in my life. I told them about the night with the stanley knife. The second weekend, I told them that I wanted to move out of home for my last (repeat) year in college. My mother couldn’t understand this. They agreed to it, because my counsellor was in favour of it, but they had grave reservations. Another thing I told them was that I was still a Catholic, even though I didn’t want to go to their religious group. It didn’t even occur to me that this crisis might be the perfect time to come out.
On the weekends I visited home, I didn’t meet my college friends, although I had been in very regular contact with a lot of them while I was in hospital. And I didn’t meet the boys who I’d been friends with all the way through secondary school. Instead, I met the indie, semi-cool, semi-dangerous boys that I’d hung around with in my final years of secondary school. We hadn’t really kept in touch, but they were the kind of people who I felt closest to at that time in my life. Like me, they were Jack Kerouacs, they were James Deans. They were on the edges.
Leaving St. Pat’s was very weird. I was sad. I felt what all the normal kids got to feel on the last day of Irish college. But I was glad to not be a mental patient any more.
Those five and a bit weeks changed me. I will never not be a person who was once a psychiatric patient. It’s always there. Waiting for the judgement of myself or of others. Some of my friendships were strengthened by the experience. But some of my friendships gained a distance, which they have never quite recovered from.
I stayed in touch with the people from the Young Adult Programme for a while. I visited one of them quite a few times, and had more incredibly fucked-up experiences with him and his friends. But those friendships had all fizzled out within six months.
I did move out of home. That was a disaster. I spent almost the entire year in bed. I sat alone drinking whiskey. Some days I turned off the lights and didn’t answer the door. I resigned from my job in the debating society. I skipped debates. I stopped taking my tablets, except for one time when I took too many and walked into the Accident and Emergency in the Mercy Hospital alone. I certainly didn’t study. I slept through my Moot Court exam. I scraped through my degree, and left the country. I spent three years in Poland. By the time I’d been there for three months, I was already far better than I’d been for the whole year and a half before that.
I needed to write this. I’m not sure why. I am the person who experienced these things, who did these things. I’ve stopped being that person, but I am a product of that person.