When I was a senior in college, my friend Michelle had a psychotic break. I actually googled to see if we still use that term — psychotic break — because it just sounds so awful, and mostly it’s “psychotic episode” these days. That’s probably a better name. The word “break” makes it sound like a thing that happens quickly, a fast snap into delusion, but that wasn’t how it was.
Instead, over the course of several days, Michelle started saying strange things. I think I probably laughed off the first few, or thought she was quoting poetry to me, or even admired the incredible poetry of her own weird and wonderful mind.
But then the strange things started dominating her conversation. Other people started getting puzzled. Everyone started getting worried. It started to feel like she couldn’t be left alone, like the choices she would make on her own would not be the safest. I can remember her boyfriend and I trying to convince her to sleep and me, desperately tired, finally giving up and going to sleep myself.
It was our birthday week — hers on the 4th of the month, mine on the 7th — and our friend Zach, whose birthday was the same week, stopped by to wish us happy birthdays, maybe to celebrate with us. I don’t know how long he hung out, I don’t know which night it was. Maybe the 5th?
The next morning he came back and woke me up. Early, maybe 7AM. He said, “You are the person who has to do something; you are the person who has to make this stop. You’re the only one who can.”
I… didn’t disagree. She was my best friend.
As soon the health center opened, I said to Michelle, “We’re going to go to the health center now. You and me.” She was dubious, but I was calm and centered and resolute. I didn’t start crying until we got to the health center where I told the receptionist that Michelle needed to see a doctor now, that we needed to see a doctor now, that we needed help.
I remember so vividly the seats in the doctor’s office. It wasn’t an exam room, not then, it was an office. Michelle took the seat by the desk, I sat behind her in a chair against the wall and tears streamed down my face, silently, just pouring out of me, while Michelle told the doctor that there was nothing wrong, that she was fine, that it was just the drugs.
I told the doctor she wasn’t on any drugs.
He tried to tell me that sometimes recreational drugs could last longer than expected.
I said, “No. She is not on any drugs. She has not taken anything. This has been going on for days and I have been with her. This is not drugs. This is something else.”
And I could see the doctor glancing between her and me, not understanding why I was so upset while she was so well-spoken. And then, finally, slowly, he started to get it. Everything she said, taken in isolation, maybe made sense, but when you listened for long enough, it got stranger and stranger.
Things get blurry. I think they took her off to do an actual exam: blood pressure, maybe some blood work? I think they gave her an actual room, one with a real bed, not just an exam room. I know they decided pretty quickly that this was beyond anything they could handle and called her parents. I know they told me that, but wouldn’t tell me anything more. Medical privacy, of course.
Did they ask me to stay? Or did they just ask me if I wanted to stay? I don’t know the answer to that.
But I spent the day with her, over and over again saying, “No, this is what we’re doing now,” when she tried to convince me that she was fine to leave, that we should go to the beach, that adventure was waiting for us and we needed to escape.
“Please let’s go now,” she would say. “Please let’s leave here. I don’t want to be here. I need to go. Please let’s go.”
“No. I love you. No.” Over and over again.
Other friends, our housemates, showed up, too, including her boyfriend. People came and went, because they had classes, and because it was incredibly, incredibly hard to listen to her and not be able to find the real Michelle in the chaotic Michelle. But I stayed with her all day.
I remember her deciding the nurse was trying to poison her with orange juice. I remember promising her the orange juice was fine, drinking some of it myself to prove that it was okay. One of the reasons why it had to be me who took her to the health center was that she’d decided only blue-eyed people could be trusted. Blue-eyed people were special. Blue-eyed people were safe.
I’d never noticed before then how rare blue eyes actually are.
Finally her parents came. They were confused and worried and so grateful that we’d done our best to take care of her. I couldn’t help feeling like our best had been pretty shitty if in the end they were driving away with her, but they’d already made arrangements to check her in to a mental hospital in Boston. The one from Girl, Interrupted, in fact.
For a very, very long time, that day was the worst day of my life. I’m not sure I’ve conveyed how exhausting and upsetting and terrifying it was. I’m not sure it’s even possible to convey that. I was twenty-one years old and my best friend had gone to a place where I couldn’t follow her, had stopped being the person I knew. And instead of helping her escape, I was the one turning her over to the scary strangers and the institution.
Nobody comes back from that unscathed and she was not the exception that proves the rule.
Neither was I.
Anyway… I was reminded of that experience this week, first via a couple of comments on the blog, followed by a fast-paced stream of emails, to which my responses started with words like “mystified” and “confused.” Am I right to be reminded? I have no idea. But now I understand why Michelle’s parents were grateful. I wish I knew that a me-equivalent was hovering in the wings somewhere, braving him or herself to say, “You need help. We need to get help.”
Meanwhile, if you see some comments on the blog that seem like the kind of thing I should be deleting (I have a no trolls policy), I’ve said that if this is something he feels like he needs to do, he should go ahead. Well, in all fairness, what I actually said was, “I have no idea what this means. Do you intend to keep posting insane screeds on my blog? I guess that’s okay, if it’s something you need to do.”
This is not an open door policy for trolls, and if it gets too horrible, I’ll start deleting, but it actually took me most of a sleepless night to realize that hey, maybe those insane screeds are, you know, literally insane. Either way, they’re so over-the-top that as far as I’m concerned they fail as attacks and just make me sad for the attacker.
I’m glad Michelle’s parents had blue eyes.