As I come up on one year out from inpatient care my brain has started to go a little wild. For some reason it’s like it knows that this is around the time things started to go really downhill. I’ve been having vivid dreams, replaying scenarios, and trying to allow the time and space for memories to come and go. I’m not sure they will ever fully go and I’m not sure I want them to. I believe all things, good or bad, happen for a reason. I believe I landed in that hospital, with those people for a reason. One face I will surely never forget was Mr. Ricky’s.
The first time I remember seeing him was when we lined up for dinner on my first night there. Every single meal we had to line up, single file, against the wall. Those with food allergies, including myself wore a special wristband and were always at the front of the line. Mr. Ricky stepped in line right ahead of me.
He didn’t say anything. The first 2 days I was there he didn’t speak a single word. If he wasn’t in his room sleeping, he was sitting quietly in a chair, staring straight ahead. There was something about his gaze that seemed to explain far more than words ever could. There was a battle he was fighting, just like the rest of us. But the amount of pain and sadness I could see in his eyes was enough to bring me to my knees. I avoided looking at him most of the time.
It wasn’t until the third day when we had recreation time that I even really interacted with Mr. Ricky. We weren’t allowed outdoors so recreation time meant a game or indoor activity that would attempt to get people up and moving. That day the activity was Wii, which felt like winning the superbowl for me after three days of no sleep, constant anxiety and panic, and zero exercise.
The younger members of our crew decided on tennis. I stood up to take a controller and knew I was going to be the only girl. Right off the bat I claimed my ground knowing full well I was going to swing the shit out of my controller and release whatever bit of energy I had while the Wii was present. The first serve came towards my player and I swung full force winning the point for my team. Being the competitive person I am, it came as no shock that before I knew it I was fist pumping and high fiving my teammate.
I suddenly heard the sound of a booming yet full laugh from the back of the room. I turned around to see who it had come from. There was Mr. Ricky, sitting in his chair, with a smile the size of Texas on his face. He only had a few teeth in his mouth, but the few that he did have were fully present. I smiled right back at him.
Mr. Ricky was not a small man. He came in to the facility with only the clothes on his back and had been there much longer than I had. He struggled to walk, struggled to bathe himself and had respiratory issues. He could barely carry his own meal tray in the dining room.
But in that moment, as he smiled at me with his mouth full of missing teeth, I felt pure joy for the first time in weeks. I watched his full belly bounce up and down as he let out another laugh.I didn’t care if he was laughing at me. I joined him and man did it feel good to laugh. It felt so good to simply make real eye contact and connect with someone in a true moment of happiness.
When the game finished we looked around the room for the next round of players. I turned right back to Mr. Ricky and said “come on Mr. Ricky, come play.” He was already shaking his head no before I had finished my sentence. He broke eye contact with me and looked to the floor. I remember bending down to catch his gaze and smiled as big as I could. The room joined me in cheering him on and finally he took both hands to the sides of his chair, pushed himself up, and inched towards me.
I strapped the controller on his hand and stood behind him. He could barely hold it which made swinging a challenge. We all stood around him, cheering him on and it took him almost the remainder of recreation time to hit his first ball. In all my years of coaching at both the youth and collegiate level, I’m not sure I’ve had a more fulfilling coaching moment.
After the Wii disappeared and the laughter and smiles faded away I made it a point to speak to Mr. Ricky every chance he was up. We all took turns grabbing his meal tray for him and cleaning up his plate after he ate. We got him to get out of bed more in the next two days and at least be visible and around other people. And then, finally the day came for Mr. Ricky to be released.
I knew I should be happy and excited for anyone’s release out of that place. The smile on his face that morning said it all. He was ready. But for some reason I was saddened that Mr. Ricky would no longer be there. There was a part of me that knew I would never see him again. His presence, although quiet, was calming and joyful to me. For being in a place that seemed to suck all the joy and hope out of everything and everyone, this was monumental. I didn’t want to lose that for the remainder of my time in the hospital.
The other two people being released that day left around 10am. We got to lunchtime and Mr. Ricky’s ride had still not come to pick him up. After lunch we always had down time which usually meant TV, reading, or journaling. I realize life happens and people run late, but you would think picking someone up from a psych ward would be something you are on time for. When was Mr. Ricky’s family coming?
As it got closer to dinnertime, Mr. Ricky still sat in his chair. I will never forget the hollow gaze in his eyes. He sat still. He gazed forward with no focus. He wasn’t frowning, he wasn’t crying. It wasn’t sadness. It was beyond sad. It was an empty gaze. One I knew too well. It was hopelessness. As I continued to watch his eyes I was suddenly struck with one of the heaviest moments of grief I have ever felt in my entire life.
Who was going to come get him? When were they going to show up? I knew I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. I could see it in his face. It was in this moment I stared right at the reality of mental health and how lonely this journey can be. Mr. Ricky wasn’t panicked that his ride hadn’t shown up. He wasn’t frustrated or irritated that he was still sitting there. He was hurting and he was alone. I was looking at a man who was waiting for someone to show up. He was waiting for someone to be present, to acknowledge his presence, and to simply be with him. These were feelings I had felt a thousand times before. If you’ve ever dealt with any mental health issue, I’m sure you know that it can be completely and utterly isolating. Even in a room full of people, good and loving people, you can end up feeling like you are on an island all by yourself.
Too many times in our anxiety, in our panic, in our depression, in our addiction, we struggle to understand all that goes on in our own brain. It’s overwhelming, it’s chaotic, and its frightening. Whatever the issue may be, depression, alcohol, anxiety, an eating disorder, the grip that these diseases latch on to the mind with can be extremely intense. It consumes you and it’s hard to make sense of it all. There is a very real and raw fear that you won’t ever make sense of it all. When you can’t make sense of it all, the first the first question you ask is ‘How could someone else possibly make sense of it?’ So you end up keeping it all to yourself.And there in itself starts a tragic cycle of simply staying right where you are, in your own head, all alone.
Point being, it’s all really hard to talk about. The chaos of mental health takes up a lot of space. It’s even harder when you know deep down in your heart that that space is supposed to be filled with love, and joy, and connection. And many times we find ourselves struggling alone and in silence.
I woke up the next morning and Mr. Ricky was gone. Someone finally came to get him in the middle of the night. I didn’t say a formal goodbye because who comes in the middle of the night to pick you up from a psych ward? There was no doubt in my mind he would be there at breakfast the next morning. I would give him a pat on his back and say good morning. I’d let him go in front of me in the breakfast line. I would help him get his breakfast tray. I would see him smile one last time. I would make sure that he did not feel alone that morning.
But instead I lined up for breakfast and leaned my head against the wall and I cried. I was tired, I was anxious and I was ready to go home myself. But more than anything I kept replaying the look on Mr. Ricky’s face from the day before. It haunted me and it was exactly how I was feeling as I wiped the tears away from my eyes. I had never felt so alone in my entire life.
I think about Mr. Ricky almost every day. It’s been almost 365 days and I can still see his face as clear as day. I think about where he might be and how he’s doing. For me, it’s been a yearlong battle of ups and downs. Some days are great and some days take me right back to that look in Mr. Ricky’s eyes.
Again, this stuff is hard. It doesn’t make a ton of sense. It wears you down. It strips you to your core. It will make you feel like you are all alone. There are still many days I fight this loneliness. Some days it takes every bit of strength to remember that I am not alone. I am far from alone.
The people that I love and who love me continue to show up. They are brave when I cannot be. They are joy and light when I have none. They are my feet and legs when I feel like simply standing is an impossible task. They continue to remind me even when I don’t respond, I don’t acknowledge, and I don’t initiate that I have love and support at all times. As I think about Mr. Ricky I pray that he has these reminders too. I hope that everyone who reads this has this type of support. It is these people, this support, this unconditional love that reminds us all that we are not and never will be left alone.