Words by Emily Birukow
When I was 21, I overdosed on sleeping pills as an attempt to commit suicide. That’s not the end of the story, but the beginning. Before the beginning, however, I need to give you background.
I was the second oldest of five children, but as the eldest daughter, served as sort of a secondary matriarch to my family. We were a severely impoverished family, and without going into great detail, were marked by many social difficulties posed by 1980s America. When I look back, I had suffered from depression and anxiety at least since age 12, but since it was all that I knew, I had no idea.
It hit me hard when I was 21. I was going through a toxic on again, off again relationship with my boyfriend who was also my roommate in a house with a number of our mutual friends, and when we finally split up, loyalties were divided, largely I felt at the time, not on my side. I had started counseling via the free program offered by my university, and I’d just started taking an antidepressant six weeks prior. Those who have taken antidepressants will be familiar with the effects, especially in the first two months: in increase in suicidal thoughts, insomnia, nausea, and my least favorite, the “brain zaps.” I had them all. I hardly slept at all, I was too nauseous to eat much, and my eyes had a persistent twitch.
This peace for me fell apart one Sunday morning when all of the roommates went out to brunch together without me. Prior to then, when sorrow struck, I would go for a long drive westward down country roads until I felt better. That time, feeling humiliated, I stopped along the way, bought sleeping pills and a bottle of Cherry Coke, and drove the half mile to park behind a building at my university in private. I listened to the radio and took two pills and a sip of soda with every new song that played. After 8 songs, I wasn’t upset anymore, I thought I wasn’t feeling anything, and I decided to drive home. Thankfully, the weight of the sleeping pills didn’t hit me until I tried walking up the stairs to my bedroom, and my roommates and ex-boyfriend had come home by that time.
My ex-boyfriend immediately knew something was wrong with me, called 911 and my parents, and forced me to vomit up the medicine. My parents met me at the hospital, where the doctors had me drink a charcoal cocktail and told me to make a decision: agree to enter the psychiatric ward voluntarily (where you can get released immediately if the doctor says so) or refuse treatment and be forced into what they call “Rescue Crisis,” which is also psychiatric care, for 72 hours. I chose the former, thinking I would get out easily.
They moved me to another hospital, needlessly in an ambulance for which my parents would later be billed. They said that each ward has a different specialty, and they were finding the right fit. When I arrived, however, I found that the right fit simply meant, “wherever we can fit.” I shared a ward with a dozen other patients of varying degrees of psychosis: the obsessive compulsive who regularly spends holidays in the ward due to manic episodes, the war veteran with anger issues waiting for the VA to move him to a PTSD program, the old schizophrenic man who claimed to constantly hear frantic and terrifying voices. My roommate was a woman who had to have a life flight helicopter ride after her fifth suicide attempt. Her snoring was the only thing that drowned out the periodical nighttime screams of the other patients of the ward. One of the patients told me that I should ask to sleep in the padded room since it was the only quiet spot.
I had the same psychiatric doctor as my roommate, but she was released after just a day. When I told him I wanted to go home too and that I had “learned my lesson,” he told me, “I can keep you here as long as I want.” So he did, for 8 days, until with the help of my angry mother and an angry insurance company, I was released (good news: he got disbarred). In the meantime, I participated in a combination of group therapy, seminars on different medications presented by pharma reps, and infantile activities like painting pictures of butterflies and planting spider plants.
Finally, just before Thanksgiving, I was released to my family and began the difficult but rewarding road to recovery. It has now been 9 years since my failed suicide attempt, and with work, pluck, luck and opportunity, I am able to honor the misguided but lovely me of my past.