Sometimes when you pray, you get an answer right away; at other times it takes more time. Right after I prayed the most dangerous prayer, I got an answer—I should ask for help; I should call my parents. This isn’t the kind of phone call that parents hope to receive. You hope to hear your kid is doing well, has accomplished something great, is enjoying life. You don’t want to hear he’s a mess.
But that was no surprise to them. I had been honest with them already, well sort of. My mom had visited me several times in Michigan already, and I was in touch with them on a regular basis. They knew I was struggling. But they didn’t know how bad it was. I was about to tell them.
Barely able to read the numbers on the phone because of tear-soaked, red-streaked eyes, I dialed my home number. I could tell I woke my mom up by the number of rings it took for her to answer. As soon as I heard her voice, I started to cry. I couldn’t even put words together. I just held the phone to my face, sobbing into it. She figured out pretty quickly who it was, and she started to cry, too. “Oh, Chris, oh, honey,” she kept repeating.
The call went on for awhile like that until finally, I was able to speak. It was then that I told her how bad it was, although I suppose I had already demonstrated it to her. She assured me they would find help for me. After saying she loved me, we hung up the phone and I fell into a deep sleep.
A few days later we were on our way to a mental health facility in Illinois. I normally would have resisted the idea. There was a stigma to being labeled “mentally ill.” Growing up in church, we prayed for people with physical injuries, but I don’t remember praying for people with emotional or mental problems. Break my leg or cut my arm or give me scabies, but don’t let me be mentally ill.
We just didn’t talk about it. I don’t remember sermons preached on mental illness nor Bible verses shared that dealt with the topic. I don’t remember people telling stories about their struggles nor tales of others visiting those who were struggling. It seemed that in church, the mentally ill just didn’t exist. So what would this say about my faith?
Like I said, I normally would have resisted, but there wasn’t much fight left in me. Plus, what I had been doing (boozing and scheming and moping) wasn’t working, and sometimes when that happens, you have to try something else. On October 31, 1998, I tried something else. I checked in to the mental health facility.
Checking in is the first thing you do at a place like this. Another term for checking in is “being admitted.” I think this is interesting. To what exactly are you admitting? That you need help? That you’re sick in the head? That you’re hoping your insurance covers it? Why is it called being admitted? The word admit comes from the Latin meaning “to let go.” I came to the facility to be helped, which as a first step, required letting go.
After filling out a series of papers, we sat in the waiting room, which besides us, was empty. The silence was thick as we waited for my name to be called. Words didn’t come easily. The only sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall. Round and round the second hand went. Despite its movements, it didn’t really go anywhere; it kept returning to the place from which it had come. I wondered if this hospital would make a difference for me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t want to return to the place from which I had come: the sad, lonely place.
Finally we heard footsteps at the door, then keys jangling, then the lock turning. The door swung open and a nurse stepped out, “Chris Heinz?” I don’t know why she called my name. We were the only ones there, after all. She could well have said, “Hey, you” and it would have had the same effect. But I think it was important to be named, you know, part of the whole admitting process.
I picked up my duffel bag and we walked through the door. Just as we were through, she shut the door and locked it. Boy, was she eager. I mean, in the two seconds the door was unlocked, were we really going to swoop up patients and run them out? I was sure her name was Nurse Ratchet.
Nurse Rachet walked us over to a table and instructed me to put my bag down. She said it was time to say goodbye, and she stepped away to give us space. My parents looked at me, both with tears in their eyes, both biting their bottom lips. I guess they didn’t want to cry.
They hugged me, said they loved me, and then followed Rachet, who unlocked the door and let them out. As soon as they were through, and when I say through, I mean just as the very tips of their feet cleared the doorway, she shut the door and locked it. Oh, Rachet, give me a break. Then reality struck: I was in a mental hospital. I was a mental patient. I was locked in. What now?
Ratchet showed me to my room, which was very plain: two beds, two bookshelves, a chair, and a bathroom. (The mirror in the bathroom wasn’t real glass; it was a sheet of shiny metal). Both beds were unoccupied so I got my pick. I put my bag on the far bed and sat on the chair. Then Ratchet unloaded my bag, and carefully wrote down all of the contents. Then she put everything back except for three things: my electric razor, my belt, and my shoelaces.
“These are dangerous,” she said. “If you want to shave for a few minutes, you have to ask the front desk.”
“What if I want to wear my belt for a few minutes?”
Then she left, probably to find some doors to lock.
I lay down on the bed, exhausted. It was only mid-morning, but it seemed later. I felt violated. Some strange woman dug through my belongings to make judgments about their suitability. Then what she deemed unsuitable, she took. And furthermore, I would have to ask for permission to use my stuff. Now I was offended.
A voice from the hallway announced: “It’s group meeting time. Please report to the central meeting area.” Group meeting time? Excuse me? What’s group meeting time? Group, I presumed, meant patients, and group meeting time, I presumed, meant meeting such patients. Excuse me, I didn’t come here to meet any patients. I came to meet doctors. Where’s the doctor group?
I couldn’t see how any good could come from this. I was desperate; they were desperate. Together we would all be desperate. What good can come from a bunch of desperate people?