Learning to live after trying to die


Amanda Kurukulasuriya

Warning: Contains sensitive subjects
When I mention my experiences in the psych ward, I try to keep it light. I tell people about the snow globes we made out of urine sample jars or a pleasant girl I met who would have conversations with the voices in her head.
Aside from these intermittent anecdotes, though, I have all but stopped talking about my experiences because I can sense people’s discomfort. I never thought there was anything to be embarrassed about until others made me feel like I should be ashamed.
My first time in the psych ward, during November of my sophomore year, I was terrified. After being deemed a danger to myself by a psychiatrist, I was sentenced to a week in the pediatric unit of the University of Missouri’s psychiatric center (MUPC). I didn’t know what it would be like, and I didn’t want to spend even one night in a strange place where someone would surely shank me in my sleep.
What I found instead were three kids about my age lead by a peppy girl named Cybil who asked me if I wanted to come down to the game room. Bewildered but willing to try anything that might leave the dam holding back my tears intact, I followed them to a room where we sat and made bracelets.
Huh, no freaks, I thought to myself. Just kids hard at work finding the perfect combination of zoo animal shaped beads before racing back upstairs for snack time.
I soon realized the psych ward was basically kindergarten summer camp, except with more talking about our feelings and learning coping skills. Also, to get through a door a staff member would have to scan his or her key card, and the facility was built like a maze so that even if you did somehow manage to slip through a door, you would never find your way out.
But other than that, it was basically summer camp.
In a way, being surrounded by people as depressed as I, was freeing. I could tell them about how every day felt like a struggle to keep my head above water, how most of the time I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
They understood that not wanting to get out of bed didn’t mean wanting to sleep later; it meant waking up with my heart pounding, terrified to face the day.
My second visit, almost exactly a month later, was not scary but humiliating. I saw the staff members who had been so kind to me before and thought of how much I must be disappointing them.

Yet, no one was upset with me. They just wanted me to be all right, and I wanted that, too.

So after my week-long stay, I came out fully committed to my recovery. I saw numerous psychiatrists, therapists and caseworkers and did my best to be an active participant in my treatment. Even when I got frustrated with seemingly incompetent psychiatrists or an exasperated therapist who told me I was too stubborn to get better, I persisted.
For a long time I felt stuck. I tried more than a dozen medications and cycled through a rotating team of mental health professionals, and I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. But for the most part I wasn’t getting worse, and at some point I realized that, in itself, was an accomplishment.
Then junior year came. I floated through the first two and a half months of school in a dark fog. I tried to pretend to be at least somewhat normal, but at some point, I gave up. I would openly cry in class, simultaneously hoping not to be noticed and that someone might try to help.
I felt half alive, if even that much. Then one day I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought I made everyone’s lives worse, and I would be doing them a favor by just disappearing. I was sure no one would care, that they would forget I existed because I had never seemed to matter. So I took the pills and went to sleep.I woke up a few hours later with my heart racing, and what I had done was suddenly real. I had made a horrible mistake.
The next few hours were a blur. I remember being dragged into an ambulance, hardly able to walk. Then I was in the emergency room and later the pediatric intensive care unit being pumped with drugs that would save my liver. After that, I was back in the ward that held a melancholy familiarity.
I spent almost three weeks at MUPC and then at a residential treatment facility. My medical team decided it would be best if I stayed home for the rest of the semester. During that time I felt lonely and isolated; I just wanted to be normal. But I also gained a new resolve. I always said I wanted to change the world, to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. I couldn’t do that if I was dead.
While writing this, I pulled out the things I brought with me from the psych ward. I looked back at the artwork and sweet notes friends from the ward gave me. I looked at the things I created, seeing the artist I might have been had all my time not been consumed with advanced placement classes and extracurriculars. I looked at the poster of encouraging quotes I made during one of my therapy groups.
At the time, I thought it was stupid, but some of the quotes really resonate. There is one I keep coming back to, a wise mantra uttered by a great philosopher of our time: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”
A year and a half ago I could never have told you that I would be a recurring character in the bizarre world that is MUPC. Things may not always be all right, but I try not to take them so seriously now. School is still stressful. Relationships are still hard, and being a teenager will always be tumultuous, but I’m not ready to give up. I want to keep learning, growing and doing. I want to be alive.