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Some of you may be familiar with the New York Times weekly column Modern Love. This is inspired by it.
There is a phenomenon known in the circles of the severely mentally ill as Hospital Goggles. The term describes the tendency of inhabitants of mental hospitals and treatment centers to romanticize their fellow patients, sometimes doctors. You’ve seen it on Survivor or Big Brother, perhaps; in the giddiness of the adventure springs premature, shallow connection that will surely vanish when they’re voted off of the island, but that’s part of its charm. As is the eternal condition of the mentally ill world, its version of this is more beautiful, complex, and doomed than anything you can watch on cable.
I’ve been a patient of a total of three mental institutions. The bonds that I’ve watched blossom amongst my fellow patients, known both by me and between their component parts for a maximum of a month or so, are unlike any you could find outside the manned confines of these hospitals. Rosy though they may be, the goggles I wore granted me an invested peek into the most dramatic and pivotal moments in folks’ lives. The interpersonal depth I witnessed in each institution is such that I’ll be lucky to ever find it again.
I sat in on an AA meeting that a quiet, seemingly reclusive member had been required by court order to attend. I’d never before even sampled alcohol, but I jumped at the chance to catch a peek of people at their most vulnerable, to hear their interpretations of the shadows that plagued them by virtue of their being present. At my first meeting, huddled in the shady rear of the room, I watched the recluse stand up, state his name, and declare to the crowd that he was inpatient because he’d killed someone while driving drunk not a handful of weeks ago. His features utterly expressionless and his voice even moreso, I felt as if I was witnessing something I wasn’t supposed to, like the room had been accidentally privy to something that should have remained unsaid. Nothing goes unsaid in a mental institution.
One by one, as the meeting concluded, other meeting members approached the boy, a skinny college aged thing with a surely agonal path ahead of him. You’ll get through this. What you said was so brave. There is always hope, you can do this man, things will get better. If these sound like inspirational quotes from Instagram, know that they are, but when they escape the lips of a person who’s suffered so greatly, as all of us there had, it says just a bit more, goes just a bit further. It means that so many suffer unimaginably, and so many find ways to live on. We’d all escaped death by arriving at treatment, and this drunk driver would, too. Where else do you see this kind of unconditional empathy?
Wide eyed, I watched a teenage boy admit that his mother searches his room daily for needles, terrified of a second heroin overdose that would whisk him beyond her watchful grasp. He was conflicted but I could hear her frantic devotion in his confession. I watched a young girl grapple with her guilt-ridden lasting love for her father, a love defined by insults, beatings, and choking. I watched a middle school teacher fall in love with her eating disorder, spurn it the next day, and beg it to take her back on the third.
These battered souls felt, as mine did, that their shadowy parts were safe in the blaring overhead lights of our hospitals. I fell in love many times over during my stays. I loved the nameless, scruffy alcoholic who plucked his guitar wordlessly during hospital-wide sharing time. I loved the melodious redhead who told me her father beat her with a belt. I loved the girl who refused to eat pizza and I loved her roommate, who needed exercise in the same way that the rest of us need oxygen. I loved every nurse and doctor for showing up to work every day to take our vitals, watch us eat, take urine samples, soothe our core fears, prescribe us meds, and listen to our concerns, no matter how ridiculous at face value. These people meant safety, comfort, companionship, core understanding. What else is love, really?
And it was all within the span of a month, or less.
In these hospitals we felt a sense of belonging that can only be understood by someone mired in the world of the mentally ill. Almost every day, someone would say to me “This is a bubble, isn’t it?” or “In the real world, people don’t go as deep as this.” The self exploration we were all beholden to in our meeting rooms and lounge areas, as we fell asleep on uniform mattresses early in the night, in one-on-one therapy, is not frequently replicated in the “real world.” It’s obvious to anyone who’s been in the bubble. “Real” people don’t think like this, don’t love like this.
I’m back on my feet, now. In the “real world,” love is more exclusive. I often think myself supremely lucky to have been privy to the kind of love that I found in the places where people are most vulnerable. Familial but romantic in its own right, born of intense empathy and desire for emotional connection, these bonds are designed to be short lived- only a select few survive discharge- but are forever imprinted upon the part of our brains that seek hope when we’re at our lowest. We should all be so lucky as to have such love that we can tap into when all hope seems lost.