Note: Post contains sensitive content regarding suicide.
I found out Donald Trump had won the Electoral College while midstream in providing a urine sample for the emergency psychiatric staff of a New York City public hospital. The unlockable bathroom door in this unescapable wing was ajar, and I could hear the victorious Mike Pence’s sinister Sunday-school baritone taunting me with the truth from the hallway television.
For the preceding witching hours of election night, I had lain in a fetal position amidst a cast of anonymous men nursing their own crises, my hands clasped tightly over my ears. It wasn’t that I minded the howls of the guy nearby who was shackled to his cot and monitored by an unimpressed brood of policemen. Instead, I wanted to spare myself any word of the far greater insanity unfolding beyond the hospital walls.
Drained of tears, too tired to sleep, I stared at the fluorescent ceiling lights —which, indifferent to our suffering, remained on throughout the night — and endured the passing time by willing my thoughts to vanish into the dull glow. For a second, I imagined someone would burst in and proclaim, “It’s all right, Hillary won!” and I would bound out of bed, awoken from this nightmare.
This was all just a dream, right?
A while before, during the final hour of November 8, I had committed myself to institutional psychiatric care. A generation or two ago they would have said I was suffering a nervous breakdown: catatonic, plagued by involuntary jerking motions (my head furiously shaking “No! ”), speech patterns disjointed, weeping uncontrollably.
“During the final hour of November 8, I had committed myself to institutional psychiatric care.”
Terror drove me to this interrupted state. I was afraid for the nation, for the stigmatized and oppressed. I was also afraid for my own life. Because the values and principles I hold dear felt fatally incompatible with the hate and bigotry that Trumpism had come to stand for. I did not want to live in a world that would elect such a man as president.
I tumbled from quite the perch of high expectations. An official “Hillblazer,” I raised $187,000 for Hillary Clinton and down-ballot Democrats, mostly by selling tickets to events headlined by first-name-basis gay icons — Cher, Barbra, Hillary herself. (I was at the September gala when she dropped the “deplorables” line.) I canvassed in New York for our state’s primary and in Pennsylvania during the general. I phone banked, I recruited. To social media, I became The Hillary Guy, famous for my ever-buoyant posts and pictures about my candidate of choice.
I capped it all off by marshaling a rotating brigade of 22 out-of-town campaign volunteers during a four-day door-knocking effort in Philadelphia leading into Election Day. So feverish was my commitment that I embarked on the exhausting long weekend only a week into a shaky recovery from an emergency appendectomy.
My fundraising scored me the hottest ticket in town: entrance to the VIP wing of the would-be election Victory Party at the Javits Center in Manhattan. (It has a glass ceiling!) I bounded into the space at 6 o’clock in a frolic of an outfit: a red belt, white skinny jeans, and a blue Hillary-as-Rosie-the-Riveter T-shirt, my hair lavishly coiffed into a confident pompadour.
At first the sprawling party was a lark. I hobnobbed and table hopped. I couldn’t wait for a catharsis 25 years in the making. My only concern was the inevitable hangover.
Then came the 9 o’clock hour. Results from battleground states trickled in and an incredulous anxiety took hold. I left the VIP party area for a spell and stood with the expectant crowd before the elaborate victory speech stage. Staring saucer-eyed at the CNN screen above the set, I began to worry that my conspicuous outfit made me a sitting duck for the army of television cameras.
Sure enough, just as I bolted back to the VIP area, I got a text from a worried friend who had spotted me on MSNBC. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“I want to die,” I replied.
The sight of the huddled masses of party-goers stooped nervously over their cell phones was so unbearably foreboding, I escaped into a stairwell. There, the past year of my life caught up with me: the sudden death of my dearest friend’s fiancé, followed by the sudden death of my dearest cousin’s husband; my broken heart over a guy who didn’t share my feelings for him; a hobbling sports injury; the steady march of deadlines in my work as a science journalist; chronic migraines; major abdominal surgery; and of course the gnawing stress of the presidential campaign, ever driven by the fear that an unhinged demagogue would rise to power.
I texted a flare to my friend and plus-one, Sean, who soon appeared in the stairwell and cradled me in my hysterics. We kept in touch with a therapist friend of mine, Austin, through phone and text. Austin strongly urged me to leave the party. Hearing that I was suicidal, he proposed that I have myself committed.
Sean and I were among the first to leave the Javits Center — we fled, really — at about 10:30 that evening. I couldn’t bear to see the party devolve into a wake.
By around four o’clock the following morning, I was so lonesome in my emergency psych wing cot, I got up to see if the man sitting over by the dreaded television would talk to me. He spoke of his attempt to hang himself and of his struggles with heroin addiction, with trying to make it as an artist, with paying his ever-increasing rent. His bitter eyes were glazed from three sleepless nights, his hair greasy and matted from two showerless weeks.
A couple of hours later, they finally wheeled me up to the locked psych ward. As I wept in the hallway over the shock of landing in this prison of my own making, a baby-faced patient with thinning hair and a crooked nose gently reassured me. After I asked him why he was in the ward, he said he’d been hearing voices. Like the man from downstairs, he was probably a few years younger than I am—I’m 38 — but the cruelty of time had etched much deeper tales of hardship across each of their faces. Homeless, my new friend longed to get his SSDI check and buy a three-day bus trip back to his beloved birthplace, where life was better.
I seemed to be the only garden variety anxious-depressive in the ward, and was probably the only one gainfully employed, certainly the sole Ivy League grad. As far as I could estimate, most of the two dozen or so other men and women were homeless or unstably housed and largely suffered from psychosis.
The psych ward was the floor they couldn’t fall below. Or in political terms, it was the safety net. Mostly black or brown, these were the people at the very bottom of the totem pole, the ones Democrats strive to protect and Republicans see as a burden best left out in the cold. Even I, for all my fortune in life, was there among them in the hospital only thanks to the grace of progressive politics, with my Affordable Care Act marketplace health plan picking up the tab. (Thanks, Obama!)
I adjusted pretty easily to the steady rhythms of the ward. The only thing that surprised me was how much everything was just like in the movies. Figuring out the rules and then following them was paramount (never cross the red line barring the main exit), as was sticking to the daily schedule. There was the diverse cast of characters wearing standard-issue blue pajamas day and night, drifting about in a medicated haze. There was the high premium placed on snacks: the 11 AM queue for apple or orange juice, the mealtime pudding cups. (One woman nearly cried when I wouldn’t give her mine.) There were the 15-minute room checks. The hospital food. (Crystallized Sanka packets with every meal.) And of course there were the mini Dixie Cups the staff used to distribute our meds.
The other patients gabbed about the election with a mixture of bemusement and rambunctious excitement over the sheer lunacy of the outcome. They cracked jokes about Trump’s wall, and who among them would get deported first. The election seemed an abstraction to them, as consequential as the outcome of the latest season of “The Apprentice.” Washington, DC, is a world away when you’re living with schizophrenia on the streets.
TV really was the enemy. I dashed out of the common room whenever any political news came on. Otherwise I sat confounded by morning talk shows. What on God’s green earth did Rachael Ray still have to grin about? (Thanksgiving leftover recipes.) Why was Kelly Ripa, perky as ever, wasting her breath probing the actress who played Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey” for details about her summer vacation? It was all just so surreal.
By Thursday evening, I’d come to appropriate the other patients’ collective calm. (There were of course still isolated screamers among them, not to mention the pleading for opiates, and the paranoid woman who called 911 and claimed the staff was torturing her.) The empty hours, the complete inability to do any work, guided me toward a Zen state. I let the fear of a Trump presidency seep in from time to time—What if Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies? But mostly I looked for kernels of hope. Concerned friends and family who kept me company over the hallway payphone told me I wasn’t alone in my anguish, and that a wide network of others were mobilized to rise up and fight back. The world needed my voice. I mattered.
When I sat down with the supervising psychiatrist to talk over my discharge request, she broke the fourth wall, giving voice to her own anxieties and shock over the Trump victory. It was the first time I’d ever commiserated peer-to-peer with a mental health professional while under her care. I wish I could have reassured her.
Poetically, I was given my walking orders at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I was now a veteran of institutional care — shell shocked, but on my feet.
“Don’t come back, Ryan,” a nurse admonished as I crossed the red line toward an uncertain freedom. “You don’t belong here.”
I know what she meant. My burdens pale in comparison to those stacked against the others in the ward. Still, I had suffered a genuine mental health crisis, and until it passed was a grave danger to myself. So I fell into a safety net.
It saved my life.
Note: I November 2017, I published a follow-up essay to this piece in which I analyzed the avalanche of criticism I received from the right-wing in response to this essay. Click here for the new piece.
Benjamin Ryan is an editor at large at POZ magazine, where he covers the science of HIV. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York, The New York Observer, The Nation, The Atlantic, and The Marshall Project. A native of Seattle, he graduated cum laude from Columbia University. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
“I got a text from a worried friend who had spotted me on MSNBC. 'Are you alright?' he asked. 'I want to die,' I replied.”