‘I Helped My Boyfriend Commit Himself’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An especially heartbreaking story from a reader:

In an airport I came across your writing prompt for stories and started crying. I haven’t been a patient at a psychiatric facility, but just a few weeks ago I spent one of the worst days in my life at one.

I had been dating a guy for barely a month, but it had been a quick ramp-up. Part of why our relationship had developed an intensity so soon was an early realization that we shared some mental wiring—or mental-wiring defects, to be more accurate. What I didn’t realize until it was too late was that although we both struggled with depression, he was on the cusp of a major breakdown.

Not that he had been dishonest, or that we hadn’t talked about it; I just didn’t realize how bad it was until suddenly I was driving him to a psychiatric facility so he could voluntarily commit himself. Sitting with him in the stark, cold bleakness of an ER psych room, trying to distract him and calm him and cheer him for nine hours, was one of the hardest things I have ever done. He was on a gurney, and I was in a chair, and there was nothing else in the room: bare walls, a picture window facing a hallway where the ER psych staff sat. It was frigid, and they knew that because they brought blankets in right away, but they didn’t offer to adjust the heat.

Other than the initial checking in and psych evaluation, all completed within two hours of us arriving, we were just waiting. They never told us why it took so long, and they hardly even checked in as the morning and afternoon wore on. I babbled on about anything that came into my mind, and I tried to help him think through practical matters: Who do you want me to call? Is there anything I can bring you from your apartment?

When the doctor came in for him to sign the paperwork, I learned that the law in our state is that if you commit yourself and change your mind, the hospital is allowed to keep you for five days to evaluate you. And even then, it can go to a judge who might still rule against you. Five full days.

He signed those papers. Watching him, everything in me screamed DON’T DO IT!, but I kept my face still and nodded encouragement. And then a few hours later I had to leave, had to walk away from him and leave him behind a locked door.  

I hated visiting him there. I hated my anxious interactions with the staff, who unevenly enforced rules and always hovered nearby. I hated knowing how much power they had over him and over me while I was in those walls. I hated the overpriced parking garage. I hated having to sign in and wear a name tag. I hated locking my purse and coat and cell phone in the waiting area. I hated planning my entire schedule around the limited visiting hours.  

A few years ago I went to the ER for an extreme panic attack. I took an Ativan, called my psychiatrist to adjust my meds, went home—and it took a year to pay off the massive hospital bill. This episode with my boyfriend brought that all back, and whatever strength or progress I’d gained crumbled in a matter of days.

And then he broke up with me—a searing rejection that seemed to confirm my worst fears about being unlovable.

Later, after he was out, I told him the day he committed himself was one of the worst days of my life—and he told me it was one of the best days of his. And so you can imagine our mental healths as two lines on a graph, his slowly creeping upward just as mine comes crashing down, and that day is where we intersect. Before I had been so healthy, so great. But now I know I am not so far from needing to be in that place.

When I told my therapist how much I hated being in the psychiatric ward, she agreed with me that they are not built to be therapeutic; they’re built to be emergency safety measures. I understand that. But I also know I will never voluntarily submit to such a place. I’ll die first. That’s the plain truth, dramatic as it sounds. I’ll swallow pills and cut my wrists and make damn sure there will be no hospitalization. It will not be an attempt.

If you or someone you know ever gets to that point, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. And if you, like our reader, have an experience to share about a loved one or yourself in a mental hospital, please send us a note—especially if you think it might help in some small way. It seems to have helped Eva, the reader who started this whole series. In response to me mentioning that her story sparked a wave of reader emails, she replied:

Thank you so so so much. That’s the biggest, most beautiful compliment I know. For someone to find brief comfort or compassion or someone who gets it—that really is the best gift I know. Better than health.

Depression really feels like you are in this alone. I’m never really sure why that’s so, but it feels comforting that people understand. And if someone buys that book Stay for another person, that also means something to me. It’s the only one of its kind I know as a librarian, the only one to combine anything and everything secular that there is to reject suicide with. I give the book whenever I can.

Update from a dissenting reader who makes a nuanced distinction between our reader’s story and the general impulse to commit suicide:

You quote a woman who, reflecting on her time in the psych ward, says, “I will never voluntarily submit to such a place. I’ll die first.” She’s not actively suicidal; she’s trying to convey how extreme her desire to avoid the psych ward is. You immediately follow her words with a suggestion that readers at “that point” should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. According to the policies on their website, “a crisis center staff member’s decision to initiate active rescue for unwilling callers at imminent risk should be made without concerning oneself of the potential effects of involuntary hospitalizations.” I know referring your readers to a respected institution seems like the responsible, caring thing to do, but this series itself should be a reminder that those well-intentioned actions can have dangerous, devastating consequences.