Looking for love in all the wrong places—specifically, a mental institution Put a group of people with questionable judgment together in a soft, touchy-feely environment, and the results are predictable.

Before I went to pick up Gail, I printed out some movie times. I was sure that by the time I got to her place, she would have reconsidered and realized she shouldn’t go hiking with a guy she’d just met in a mental hospital.

Two days earlier, we were both trapped in Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health, a seventy-six-bed holding cell for people who had reached an emotional critical mass. Psychiatrists, families, and ER doctors stashed depressives on the verge of suicide or psychotics who’d broken from reality there, until medication was adjusted or long-term care was settled on or they’d just gotten a break from trying to be functional adults.

I’d been brought there after calling a suicide hotline, unsure of what I wanted from the woman at the other end. I told her I was working sixty hours a week as the associate editor of a small alt-weekly newspaper which was starving for its former revenue and relevancy. I told her the job stranded me in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a hollowed-out city of mini-marts and boarded-up buildings. I told her that, combined with the usual drifting away from college friends, this was all adding up to a really dark quarter-life crisis. I told her I was sick of it and I might, that afternoon, step onto some train tracks.

After an hour of back and forth, she sent a squad of police and paramedics to my door. They gave me a choice: I could voluntarily go to the ER, or they’d force me in a psych ward for seventy-two hours — the longest they can keep someone without a judge’s order.

So I went to the ER, which, on a Saturday night, didn’t have a psychiatrist on duty to release me. Neither would Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health until Tuesday, because the medical staff got Presidents’ Day off. Without being able to grab so much as a toothbrush, I was locked up for five days. I should have taken the seventy-two hours.

The paradox of involuntary hospitalization is that it would make a normal person act absolutely crazy. Not surprisingly, being involuntarily locked up causes feelings of alienation, paranoia, and loss of control. After a night spent staring at the ceiling of a dorm-like room, with a stranger afflicted with God-knows-what sleeping a few feet away, I was ready to figure out an escape route.

The next morning, I had to make the one choice that defines a new person’s role in a social order from grade school on: I had to pick a table to eat at. I headed for the one full of people well enough to get out of their pajamas and make small talk about toast. This is how I met Elizabeth the grief-overwhelmed widow, Chip the agoraphobe who was jovial as long as he was indoors, and Gail the dental hygienist who’d checked herself in to preempt another drinking binge.

The less hopeless patients, I soon found out, were a clique, always within a meter of each other in the common rooms during the vast amounts of downtime that make up a psychiatric hospitalization. Terrified by the fact of being mental patients, we banded together to separate ourselves from the muttering schizophrenics and vacant sad sacks all around us.

Gail made eyes at me in group therapy. She was a serious-looking brunette with wavy hair, doe eyes and high cheekbones that made it look like she was always gritting her teeth. At lunch, she laughed as I nervously returned a chicken sandwich and then a bowl of clam chowder and tried to explain to a nurse what being a vegetarian meant.

Later, she sought me out. “Oh my God,” she said. “This sweaty guy just asked me to marry him. Would you stay with me? I feel safe around you.”

Over the next few days, we did jigsaw puzzles and watched daytime TV together, her head nearly resting on my shoulder, as we humored New Age-y group therapy and awaited the all-important daily fifteen-minute visits to the doctor who had the authority to release us. When Gail was released, a day before I was, she gave me her number.

I wasn’t sure I should call, but as soon as I stepped out and breathed cold air for the first time in five days, I missed Hall-Brooke. As horrifying and humiliating as it had been, it was the first place since college where I had a ready-made peer group, and like most depressed people, I was chronically lonely.

So I called Gail and invited her to go hiking. When I pulled up, she marched out in rubber boots and a hoodie. She looked different in the sunlight, faint as it was in February — older, and with harder lines on her face. She laughed when I handed her the movie times. She hadn’t reconsidered. Gail’s ADHD-rattled brain never held any thought long enough for her to reconsider it.

“I think I really like you,” she said, applying ChapStick as I accelerated down the parkway. “I feel good around you. I think I should be your girlfriend.” By the end of the day we had hiked five miles, shared a pizza, and had sex.

***

For obvious reasons, a mental hospital seemed like a bad place to pick up women. For less obvious ones, it seemed like the perfect place at that point in my life. I was sure my last girlfriend had dumped me because our all long talks had only served to infect her with my unhappiness. Gail was already infected.

With a note from a psychiatrist, my boss let me go back to work, but every day the editor kept a close eye on me. With everyone at work, I danced around the question of where I’d been for that week. But Gail knew and understood.

I told a friend with a history of hospitalizations how I’d met my new girlfriend. “I believe it,” she said, unfazed. “Pairings happen more often than you’d think.” It makes sense — put a group of people with questionable judgment together in a soft, touchy-feely environment, and the results are predictable.

Plus, Gail could be my project. Instead of holing up in my nervous office — where aging professionals kept up feigned smiles and recent college grads drowned themselves in work in the hopes of getting a foothold in a dying industry — I could Save Gail, two words that, in my mind, became the theme of our relationship.

Gail was twice-divorced. She had meant to become a dentist and meant to have kids, but neither happened, so she drank. A few years before I met her, she got fired for coming to work drunk. She got sober — or at least switched to a diehard reliance on doctor-prescribed meds — and cobbled together part-time work at a few dentists’ offices. But she came home to an apartment empty and silent but for the hacking of an old, sick cat.

She was thirty-nine. I was twenty-four. The age difference didn’t seem strange or crazy; the whole relationship was built on the strange and crazy.

We slept in the same bed for a week because she was afraid her new medication regimen would make her sleepwalk or oversleep. Our sexual workouts were exasperating, two bodies and two souls numbed by medication pounding against each other.

Because the theme of the relationship was Save Gail, one day-long date went like this: we cleaned her apartment, scrubbing cat puke and transferring piles of clutter into drawers and closets. Then I drove her to the laundromat and treated her to dinner at a cheap faux-Mexican place she liked. As depressed people are encouraged to do, we spent vast amounts of time talking.

“Do you ever think about marriage or kids?” she asked me once.

“I just don’t know,” I said.

“But it’s not something you think you want,” she said.

“I know you’re older than me…”

“And the age difference is too much…”

“And then there is how we met…”

“…which is just weird, and you want to break up?” Gail’s quick-fire cognitions wouldn’t wait for me to finish my sentences. She wanted what seemed like inevitable rejection to be quick.

“What I am trying to say is that there are a lot of risks in this relationship, and I love you, so I’m willing to take them,” I said.

A few days after we cleaned out her apartment, a pot of tomato bisque boiled over onto her newly scrubbed stove. Gail began crying hysterically. I tried to calm her down by putting my arms around her waist and swaying her back and forth. She broke free, turned around, and said flatly, “I need Klonopin and I lost my bottle. Can I have some of yours?”

We both knew she hadn’t lost her bottle, and maybe we also both knew I was too much of a pushover to scold her for downing a month’s worth in two weeks. I gave her three tablets and rubbed her shoulders as she fell into a hazy sleep. Later, I got out of bed to re-clean the stove.

A few nights later, I let her drag me to a neighborhood bar, where she knocked back shots, fast. As she got frustrated trying to work the internet jukebox, I convinced her to go back to my place. She said she’d need her car there to get to work the next day and, before I could stop her, she was in it, drunk. I called her cell phone and guided her to my apartment. Then I threw a comforter around her and laid her out on the couch. The next day, she didn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t want to have a conversation where I have to be the jerk,” she said.

Next weekend, we made plans to go hiking again — to be away from gloomy apartments, decayed city streets, and booze — but by that time Gail had convinced her doctor to prescribe her muscle relaxants. We drove to a 722-acre park, but she didn’t make it past the pond near the entrance. She sat down on the dam containing it, dangled her legs above the water, and dozed off.

I held it in when she rambled through dinner that night. I managed to contain myself when she got pouty and invited herself to sleep over at my place. I didn’t get mad when she nodded off and left it to me to gather up the laundry basket of make-up, medication, and clothes she needed to spend the night. But I finally blew up when she tracked mud and grass into my apartment and then flopped over on the couch.

“Get out,” I said. “I don’t care how you get home. Just get out.”

“What?” she said.

Then it all came out — all my pent-up disappointment and disgust. “You’re becoming a drunk again,” I said, “and I can’t handle that in my life right now.”

She just stood there, tears dripping down her face. I’d finally disarmed her of her machine-gun speech pattern and without it, she looked so defenseless.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I need you to go.” And she did. The next day, I woke up and saw she had sent me a long text, apologizing for having a “princess complex.”

I never replied. It’d be self-serving to say that was for both our sakes, but Gail had become the last remnant of my time as a mental patient. My editor had slowly upped my workload back to the ungodly pile that was the norm in the newspaper industry, and I didn’t sense whispering around me at the office anymore. For better or worse, I deleted Gail’s text and walked back onto the garbage-strewn streets of Bridgeport and into the dour office, sitting down at my desk a half-hour before I was supposed to.

P.S. Protect yourself from the coming data-powered panopticon by getting a VPN.

Freelance journalist and editor, bylines at Men's Health, Slate, Daily Beast, VICE, and Washington Post.

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Me
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Me

Writer: You are an excellent storyteller and well-crafted, I hope you write a memoir! I also sort of want to date you, because unlike most NY men you are a giver, and seem very kind. More of a catch and less sociopathic than most NY daters. I think the difference between crazy people and normal people is that normal people don’t know that they are crazy. Stop thinking so much, and leave Bridgeport. Also, India, ashrams, WWOOF, moving abroad, travel, stuff like that can serve as breaks from “functioning adulthood” just as easily. I am a writer too. I hope you married a nice lady in the end, did you?

Angie
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Angie

I’m surprised nobody’s pointing out the obvious here. I can’t believe you abandoned her when she was going on a downward spiral just because YOUR life had stabilized and you didn’t want her dragging you down anymore. not to mention saying “I don’t care how you get home” and not replying to her text. you treated her like a thing, good for you to use while you were still having mental problems and then unworthy once you were ok again, and not a person, which is how many people with mental illnesses end up being treated. NOT TO MENTION that you enabled her to start becoming an alcoholic again (giving her pills, not even attempting to stop her drinking when you knew she’d been in the hospital for alcohol problems). talk about a lack of empathy.

ST
Guest
ST

Wow this sounds like something that would happen to me. Being locked up for that sucks and it is even more alienating. What is worse is hearing all the stories from people who are way more fucked up than yourself.

bob
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bob

anyone ever think that the root of all problems is thought? Animals don’t think. They are fine. If you stopped thinking the excess and focus on things that need to be thought on you would be fine.
For example, not thinking about how someone wronged you, and instead thinking about what to make for dinner, or paying attention to the road.
It is too complicated to explain on a simple post like this, but there is a point. Turn off your brain.
My mom had an epic saying to this. “If you are depressed, it means you aren’t busy enough”
Granted it doesn’t mean all your life. But really, its true. If you are bored you start to think about things that do not matter just to entertain your own ego. If you don’t have enough problems then you make up problems.
If you are brave enough to try, try to go an hour without excess thought. See how you feel

monkey
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monkey

Hi Bob. You are right. And it can save you. But then y0u reach the other side when you have thought about everything you can besides yourself, and then it all comes crashhing down on your head. You get back up. You start over, But damn sometimes it’s so fucking hard.

k
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k

Just writing off every kind of depression as if the person is “bored and over-analyzing” is a bit cheap and easy. Sometimes life doesn´t fit into your mind and you get depressed over what I guess you might call “real things”. To believe such pop quotes is only proving that you´ve never had the sh*t hit the fan in your own life, which is good for you, but don´t brush other people´s problems off as miniscule when you can´t relate to them. True, some people over-think – other´s don´t, and actually do have “a valid reason” to be depressed.

True Patriot
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True Patriot

I’ve known dogs which were sometimes happy and sometimes sad, and I’ve known dogs which were sad all the time and didn’t respond to efforts to make them happy. So I’m afraid I must reject your “animals don’t think and are thus immune to depression” argument. Even orcas show behaviors in captivity which are almost never seen in the wild.

Also, the writer of this story was working 60 hours a week. Does anyone really think that the solution to his problems was more busywork?

BrosephofArimathea
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BrosephofArimathea

Zoo animals frequently get depressed. I recently saw a turtle exhibit where the plaque said that this species of turtle needs new objects to interact with or it would shut down! Human depression has a similar cause as zoo animal depression: immersion in an environment that is hostile to mental well-being.

I have found that keeping occupied helps in matters like getting over a breakup, but it’s hardly a cure-all for depression.

bob
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bob

wild animals don’t feel that way because they don’t have any idle time to feel that way. captured animals don’t have to think like wild ones do. im just saying, depression is when you have too much time on your hands.
How you think is affected by how you feel. How you feel is affected by your surroundings. Your surroundings are affected by how you think about your surroundings. its a cycle. If you think life is great, then you feel great and your surroundings are great. If you think you are shit, then everything else is shit. It can start at any point in the cycle.

rezoid
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rezoid

The reason wild animals don’t get depressed is because they’re in the environment that they evolved for and they’re well suited to, not “because they don’t have any idle time”, that’s idiotic. And there are plently of people who are busy as hell and depressed.

M
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M

Thinking does not cause depression. True, negative thinking has been linked to depressive tendencies, but there has been no cause/effect relationship established. Saying that over-thinking is the sole cause of depression is incredibly dismissive of everything that is known about psychology. I’m a psych student, so I really can’t let that slide without comment.

I also second what True Patriot said about animals. Animals very clearly show signs of depression when deprived of mental stimulation, companionship, or a suitable habitat to live in. Birds pluck their feathers when they are unhappy. Other animals will snub food or pace in their enclosures. Animals may not exhibit symptoms of depression as humans do, but they experience it all the same.

andi
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andi

while interesting in theory to say that “thinking is the cause of depression,” i can only partially agree, as someone who has suffered with depression, as a biological component plays an extremely large role that you can think about all the time or not at all and yet will still have a crippling effect. either way, our society has huge issues with recognizing depression and dealing with it, and this piece is aactually a wonderful example of that.

True Patriot
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True Patriot

Wow. What a fucking nightmare.

My compliments to Mr. Keppler. It is a brave thing indeed to bare one’s darkest secrets like this. I realize that his experience still only counts as anecdotal evidence, but it’s of several first-hand accounts I’ve heard which lead me to believe that the medical community still doesn’t know how to help certain people.

Such as: people who seek help getting institutionalized, which in turn drives them crazy. People with mild depression being treated as though they’re suicidal. Giving patients a month’s supply of meds at a time (rather than a week’s,) which practically encourages abuse. I’ve even seen TV ads for meds to take in addition to prescription anti-depressants when the latter aren’t working. To me, this all points to a trend of medical professionals attempting to help people but failing. But they either don’t notice that they’re failing, or are afraid to try new or different treatments, or simply want to maintain the facade of doing everything they can to help their patients rather than admit defeat.

Saranonymous
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Saranonymous

Obviously there is no easy solution for depression, but it’s not like there aren’t a multitude of paths to take, paths that it sounds like neither of these people took. Hospitalization (which is what I assume you mean by “institutionalized,” although you could also mean an inpatient treatment facility, which I’ve heard is wonderful but is also wonderfully expensive and well out of most people’s reach) is not meant to cure your problems. It is meant, as the author stated, to get you through a psychotic break, a period of suicidal depression, or some other extreme and temporary behavior or urge.

From there, it is tremendously important to continue to do work. Your problems will not be solved entirely by medication (although I don’t see why you find pills that can augment anti-depression meds so surprising or disturbing); any good psychiatrist would tell you that. That is why there are support groups, CBT/DBT therapy, and recovery coaches. These new and ‘different’ treatments are available and effective. It is a sad truth that many people are unable or unwilling (or uninsured), and cannot reach out for these tools. But they are there. The medical community does not just throw up its hands and/or throw pills at people with mental health issues anymore.

I sincerely hope that both of these people found a way to live more functional, happier lives, with or without external help. This story was difficult to read, and I could only imagine how difficult it was to write. I share in True Patriot’s admiration for the author; this is emotionally raw and skillfully written. I hope that my little defense of the psychiatric system does not derail conversation 0n this wonderful story.

True Patriot
Guest
True Patriot

I wasn’t trying to condemn the entire psychiatric system with my post, although it may have come out that way and I’m sorry. I was simply trying to share my observations of people I’ve known personally who I consider to have been failed by the system. Mr. Keppler’s story reminds me of them.