It Happened To Me: I found love in 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.