Losing It: A Black Girl on Suicide Prevention
Outside this building, on Las Olas Boulevard, the morning awakens the real people, and brings the streets to life and touches the young girls in their swinging skirts. The hectic palms line the roads, their arms thrown out in all directions as if to signal their longing for limits.
Here, on the third floor, Benjamin follows me around. He’s cute, very cute, à la Antonio Banderas cute. He’s highly medicated, so his eyes squint a lot. He’s told me this morning, when I first arrived at dawn, that his father is Puerto-Rican, that he reads the New York Times cover to cover, that he wants to have Black babies with me.
Benjamin stinks. Pants stained like a dust rag and torn at one knee, shoes cracked and laceless, raw skin. I wonder how long he’s been wearing that Family Guy t-shirt. I’m not exactly Chanel no 5 myself; I’ve been wearing the same patient’s gown for twelve hours straight—two gowns to be exact, one tied up in the back, one tied up under my breasts. Wearing just one gown will let your butt show. I’ve asked for a towel so I can take a shower, but Nurse Tonya says that I should be patient. I haven’t been assigned a room yet.
It's 2011. In the Day Room, the TV is on and the Weather Lady warns South Florida against the mist outside. Images of I-95 jump on the screen, and it’s a scary world out there. International news: Baby Doc is back to Haiti, the newsman says later. I don’t want to think about Haiti. I want to forget where I came from, who I am, and how I got here.
I’ve been in this room since four o’clock this morning. It’s now a quarter ‘til six. Duchene is screaming in the hallway. “Let me go! Let me go!” Because of her, they’ve called a Code 3, so the “SWAT Team” is there—muscled men in green hospital uniforms—and they’re busy restraining the ballistic woman, forcing her into the Quiet Room.
Benjamin worries that coffee will be late.
“If that witch could only quiet down,” Old Man says. Then he turns his attention to me. “Who are you? You’re certainly not one of us. You’re certainly not crazy.”
Benjamin laughs. “She’s a spy.” He leans back against the wall, crosses his legs, and squints down at me.
Old Man is serious. “I believe it,” he says in a muffled, grumpy voice. “You’re a shilt. That’s it. She’s a shilt.”
I stand in front of the water dispenser filled with red juice and fill up my cup. “See?” I say. “I’m one of you now. I’m drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Duchene is still screaming, locked up in the Quiet Room now. She’s banging on the door. “Let me out! Let me out!”
Barbie Girl has been crying silently because the staff won’t allow her to put on her make-up. She says, “I have self-esteem issues. I can’t look people in the eyes without my mascara.” The hand flies to her mouth again, and now her eyes blossom with fresh tears.
Benjamin turns the channel to some monster movie. “Is it hell yet?” Monster One asks. “No. But soon,” Monster Two says.
Standing by the window, Cookie Thin is worrying about her hair. “Amy told me it’s gross,” she says, almost crying. (Amy is Barbie Girl’s name in Real World.)
I hand her the cup of Kool-Aid. “It’s not that bad,” I say.
“You’re just trying to be nice. It is quite bad.”
By six o’clock in the morning, the Day Room is crowded, and I swim in the patients’ body odors. “Somebody take a bath,” Old Man says. Cookie Thin covers her face. “Can someone open the door? I’m claustrophobic.” Old Man laughs. He laughs his manic laugh at everything; his whole body shakes—wobbly, uncontrolled. When he sits next to Cookie Thin, Cookie Thin looks at him, disgusted. “Stay away from me.”
“You’ll get used to all this,” Benjamin tells me. Why are you here?”
“I’m on SP,” I say.
Maybe I do belong here, now that I even have the lingo down. SP. Suicide Precaution.
Benjamin looks at my wrists, lets his eyes linger on my limbs, on my face. “Let me guess. Pills?” He has a lovely face, the face of someone clearly without secrets but still somehow untrustable. “Who found you?” he asks.
“My husband. He brought me to Memorial West.”
“He doesn’t love you as much as I do,” Benjamin says. “I wouldn’t have brought you to the hospital. I would have held your limp body and done things to you.” He looks me straight in the eyes. “The techs—their shift ends soon, you know. They’re always distracted during the switch… Do you know what I mean?”
I know I am distracted. By Old Man who’s telling stories about his Vietnam days, about the circular parachutes they used “back in the days.” By the other ones too—Beer Barn Guy, The Artist, Barbie Girl, Cookie Thin, Rock Star—and how incoherent they can be, how needy and helpless. Voices in another language that sounds like a dangerous sea. Voices that rise unexpectedly: “The police masturbate.”
Nurse Tonya walks in. She has chin whiskers, tiny-lensed glasses, a bun of hair on her head. “Benjamin, still flirting with the ladies?” She is brisk and cheerful. “Michele F, I got you a room.”
Benjamin gives me a meaningful look, sucking on his lower lip as I leave the Day Room. I feel ageless and illusory, as if walking around in someone else’s dream.
Nurse Tonya, whose father, I find out, is from Jacmel, Haiti, follows me to my room. 318. She says my husband came back with some clean clothes for me. They wouldn’t let him on the third floor because today is not a Visitation Day.
Shirts and panties. He forgot the pants, so I’ll have to wear the stinky gowns over the Alpha Phi sorority T-shirt. There’s no towel, but Nurse Tonya hands me some baby soap. I wrap my head in a T-shirt and the shower I take is hot, hot, hot. They wouldn’t let me have the plastic shower cap my husband brought (“You’re on SP”). No deodorant. No toothbrush (“We ran out,” Nurse Tonya said) but some diluted mouthwash. Clean panties, though. Clean shirt.
In this place, I don’t have to be anyone, anything. I don’t have to be pretty or smart or friendly or happy. I just have to be alive when the techs take attendance every ten minutes. I am “Michele F.” Just another “Michele F” among all the “Michele F”s in the world. I’m not sure I ever want to leave—I don’t want to face my husband who found me simmering in my own vomit, or my mother who flew from Port-au-Prince in a panic to be with me, just to be told that she’d have to wait for Tuesday, two days from now. I don’t want to return to my middle school students, broken. I want to stay here and be a nobody. Here solace like a hospital gown, disposable and renewing.
Nurse Keith brings another gallon of Kool-Aid. The employees here are very well dressed, in a careful effort to differentiate themselves from the patients perhaps.
“I swallowed the pills with some Kool-Aid,” I tell Benjamin, who insists that he wants to hear it all.
And before the pills swallowed me, my last thought was for Evanotte and all the others that did not get saved.
In January 2010, the announcement was sent on Facebook and traveled the web in a flash. “To get a rescue team on a site email email@example.com. Be as precise as you can and give street directions. Send a telephone number, so we can find the place easily, and also confirm the last contact.”
On January 15, three days after the earthquake, there were still numerous survivors’ stories being reported. The Americans were on Haitian ground and rescue teams ready for action.
“You can help,” my brother-in-law Olivier said. He is an ex-army guy and was in touch with one of the rescue teams on site. “We’ll use your email address in a press release. You’ll collect information about trapped survivors, format it, and forward it.”
Before I sent out an email, I needed specific street directions, the victim’s phone number, and the exact time of the last contact made. I called sick at the middle school, and braced myself for the S.O.S. messages.
Every two minutes, they came.
We need help in Delmas 60, on the Caroli field. A lot of injured there. Hertz Juin and his wife are there. His phone number is 429 36 78. Merci, Que Dieu Vous Bénisse!
There is a young man under the rubbles of Caribbean Market in Delmas 95. His name is Adolfo Prato. He’s still alive, by the freezers. Please, please, for the love of God, send a team on site to help him. I am begging you!
Tetchena Bellange succeeded to make a brief phone call: she is isolated, stuck on a balcony in Port-of-Prince without food, water or medication. She suffers from high blood pressure and is surrounded by dead people. She is at Delmas 42, at 12 rue Pinçon. Someone might be able to help. Maybe someone can help, please.
Six people are alive at UNIBANK.
Jennifer Raymond is still buried under the rubble of a cyber café, right across the Nouveau Collège Bird (at the corner of Rue des Casernes and Rue de l’Enterrement). Her Mom is at the site every day, waiting for help.
Sarah Lauture, 28 yrs old, who is an employee of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince Haiti, is still buried under the rubbles. If you could please transmit this information to the rescue teams on the ground, we need to help her.
In the span of 24 hours, I replied to three hundred fifteen messages, offering words of comfort, requesting more information, focusing on the task at hand to keep my cool. At first, I only got an automatic reply from the Rescue Team: “We received your email. Thanks for the information. We are trying to make our best to help you.” Then, a human actually wrote back to me: “Michele, we will send a SAR team to these places as soon as possible. As a reminder: we have few SAR teams, and need to prioritize those requests that are as confirmed as possible. Can you cross-check somehow?”
Soon, people were also asking for food, water, and medications.
Madame Evanotte Robert is in need of insulin Novolin 70/30 and water. She also has breast cancer. has a valid visa n passport. Address Tabarre 14 rue Lumiere. Impasse Fermous #1. Please please please help HELP her. Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®
Adolfo Prato did not make it. More than a hundred shoppers died inside the Caribbean Supermarket after the earthquake hit.
Sarah Lauture did not make it. Two hundred people died in the Hotel Montana.
Madame Robert did not make it. Her medications did not arrive on time.
As the news poured in, I started screaming inside. But the screams never passed my throat. They morphed into a throbbing, stabbing fist that lodged under my rib cage.
I need help. I could never speak the words aloud to someone. This mal d’être, after all, could not be justified. “Who did you lose? “ they’d ask. “No one,” I’d say. The sun still rose in the morning and set at night, and I and everyone I knew (for the most part) were still alive and breathing. So how would I explain this sudden sense of peculiarity, a kind of scaly oddness I would later learn to shield from the world so skillfully and consistently, it rarely felt like a defense.
01.12.10. Happiness became something behind me, something mousy and slick and sliding away into some hole, into some hole of that some hole.
01.12.10. I wanted to believe that life was a sleep I’d wake from.
I’m sharing Room 318 with Duchene.
When you are on SP, you’re not allowed to sleep with the door closed. Because the light coming from the hallway bothers her, Duchene throws a chair at Nurse Tonya, who’s covering a 24-hour shift. Code 3. On her way to the Quiet Room, escorted by Nurse Keith and some of the techs, Duchene kicks the Exit sign by the elevator. Old Man is walking back and forth in the hallway, complaining that his head is messed up. He pops his head in my room. “Do you know what I mean?” he asks.
I wonder how many people in this place are only pretending to be crazy.
I take a quick shower and dry up—with a towel this time. At 6:30 AM, Nurse Keith checks our vitals. While we’re in line, Barbie Girl asks me if she can French braid my hair. Nurse Keith checks my blood pressure. I remember waking up briefly at Memorial West. A Nurse was monitoring my heart and drawing some blood. When I woke up again, Danny, a tall, black guy with horrendous acne, was tying me up on a gurney; he transported me to an ambulance heading toward the psychiatric ward in Las Olas.
Danny looked sorry for me. “You’re only twenty-nine,” he said.
I meant to tell Danny about the sinking feeling that never left, that grew heavier over the year following the earthquake. Cars in the street passed in a steady stream, and I wondered how many people in them knew what I knew, had lived through being helplessness in a time of tragedy. Many of them, I thought, many of them had to know, and yet they kept driving their cars.
* * *
It's 2020. It's hard to believe the earthquake happened so long ago.
In the 10 years following my stay in the mental ward, I've learned to confront depression, anxiety, grief, and loss through poetry. I help others write their way through trauma, build community and create social change. I work with veterans, disenfranchised youth, cancer patients and survivors, victims of domestic and sexual violence, minorities, the elderly, those with chronic illness or going through transition and any underserved population in need of writing as a form of therapy—even if they don’t realize that they need writing or therapy.
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Create hope for the future. Paloma is faking it. On the outside, she’s A-Okay. She’s electrified at work, there is a cadence in her step as she walks her dog, she posts memes on Facebook, and she keeps up with most relationships. Looks can be deceiving, however. Inside, Paloma is just going through the motions, and she feels like things are spiraling out of control. But when things are at their darkest, dawn arrives with clarity and focus, and with it, healing. Paloma learns to value small glimmering moments of joy rather than searching for constant happiness, thus building hope for her future.
A manifesto for life. Happy, Okay?: Poems about Anxiety, Depression, Hope, and Survival is not simply a narrative spun in verse by a masterful poet. It is an invitation to readers to shake off the stigma and silence of mental illness and find strength in the only voice that matters: your own. It can be an electric roadmap to healing and a manifesto for wholeness.
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