The blur of the hallway lights rushed past me, making me squint, but I didn’t want to look anywhere but up. The gurney I was strapped to was rickety and making an awful squeaking from the wheel. As we crossed the threshold of the double doors, it made my heart jump and I clutched my bag tightly. That’s when I knew I had made a terrible mistake. When the heavy metal doors shut and a ‘click’ followed, I knew I was stuck here. The two paramedics who wheeled me in, unstrapped the safety belt and helped me down. It was around midnight and all was quiet except for the woman lying on the floor near the nurse’s desk, moaning and yelling out occasionally, “I want to die.” My heart was racing and I felt a dread sweep over my body.

Yes, I made a terrible mistake.

I didn’t belong here, but according to the “rules,” I was stuck here for the next 72 hours. The nurse came up to me to check me in. She didn’t have to say anything—I just started to cry holding onto my small bag, the only thing that reminded me of home. The nurse wasn’t exactly nice, but she wasn’t exactly mean.

“Why are you here?” she asked, using a tone like I would when talking to one of my two-year-olds. I guess maybe that tone comes with her job.

“My…my…my husband just died of cancer. I…I…just had a baby and…I have two-year-old twins…I’m…I’m just so…so tired,” I sobbed. “I think I made a mistake. I don’t think I belong here.”

“Lots of people say that, dear,” she said, not looking up from her notepad. If I were her and saw my stringy hair from showerless days, my oversized hoodie and maternity sweatpants and the deep, dark circles under my eyes, I’m sure I would agree with whatever she was writing on her pad, which I’m sure was something like, “Yep, she’s crazy.” But I wasn’t crazy. I was tired. I was a month postpartum. I was a 28-year-old new widow and a new mom. I was suffering from a broken heart from having to nurse my dying husband until his death, and grief was trying to make its way out but just…couldn’t. Bottom line, I was more than tired—every molecule of my being was exhausted. I was sleep deprived from months of sporadic sleep and high adrenaline. My candle had been snuffed out on both ends and all that was left was a tiny burning spark that I held onto for dear life. I was tired and I just wanted someone, anyone, to take care of me, so I reasoned in my sleep-deprived fog, that a hospital would do that, and checking myself into a mental health facility was the most sane option I could think of at the time.

“I’ll need to take your sweatshirt,” she said, motioning to the tie strings on the hood.

“Oh, OK,” I gave it to her. She removed the strings and gave it back to me.

“Do you have any other pants without strings?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll have to cut the strings off,” while she took shears and snipped the strings off my pants. “I’ll need your shoes too. You can have them back without the laces to walk to the cafeteria.”

“You’ll be staying in Room 4 with a younger girl like you,” she said, putting my things in a plastic bag.

“Um, no, I can’t…I can’t stay with anyone. The whole point of why the doctor OK’d this was because I need to be alone. I just need to catch up on sleep,” I said, starting to cry again. This was turning out terrible. “And I need to be able to use my breast pump for my baby. I can’t do that with a roommate…I have to do it every three hours.”

The nurse thought for a second and, probably wanting to avoid some kind of breast-milk lawsuit, said, “Well there’s an open room on the men’s side you can have.”

When she saw the look of terror on my face she added, “don’t worry, they’re generally harmless.”

She checked in the rest of my things and showed me to my room. It was dull and dreary. How were people supposed to feel better in a place like this? But there was a bed. There weren’t any crying infants or toddlers. So, this place was looking better by the minute. I laid down on the bed and fell into a dreamless, uncomfortable sleep. Then they woke me up at 5 a.m. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to get the rest I needed. Instead, I’d just have to play by the rules to get out of there.

I was in the mental facility for three days. For three days someone would stand at the door to my room while I used the breast pump every three hours day and night to make sure I didn’t strangle myself with the tubing. I wasn’t allowed dish soap to clean the pieces and parts, so I had to lather up soap from the small bath bar we were given. I wasn’t allowed to take naps. If I did and missed group; I lost my privilege to walk to the cafeteria and had to eat the leftover dinners that came back to the living quarters after dinnertime—no chocolate cake included, which was the worst part of that whole thing. It angered me that I was there, that the doctors would even admit me. I didn’t belong with all these people who wanted to die. I was there because I wanted to escape death! I desperately wanted to live, even though living meant feeling all the pain I didn’t even know I was going to have to feel in the following years. I was grieving that I was not being able to grieve. But most of all, sleep deprivation doesn’t make room for any sort of coherent thoughts and can make a totally normal, sane person feel crazy. But I wasn’t crazy. I was in over my head. Finally, after three days of playing by the rules, going to group and really accomplishing no sleep whatsoever, they released me.

The days and nights after being released from the hospital blurred together. I was wandering through the house and every corner was marked with death I couldn’t escape. The hallway I’d help my 34-year-old husband down to take a shower was the same one our twins took their first steps in. And our bed. I’d look over to the side of the bed that was my husband’s. The indent of his body was still on the mattress from months of laying in one spot. Flashes of holding the trash can for him as he leaned over the side of the bed sick to his stomach flooded my mind. Flashes of reaching over to hold his hand when he’d wake in a panic attack. Flashes of measuring out morphine, praying I remembered which dose to give as the tumors in his one remaining lung suffocated him. He was everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. I was so haunted by his dying that I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around the fact that he was actually dead. The house was a tomb and I felt trapped in it.

After almost three years, I finally made my way to a counselor who specialized in PTSD and traumatic grief—something I should have been the poster child for during the past two years. I committed to intense EMDR therapy—Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It wasn’t until a very small, rather mundane moment in my life that I realized I was getting better, that grief didn’t have to hold me hostage, and I could finally remember and honor my husband without it defining me.

This moment was when I took the kids to the park, which is not unusual, but what I did this day was. Normally, I’d sit on the sidelines and watch them play, or stand and robotically push them on the swings, my mind sucked into a replay of trauma and unable to live in the moment. But this time I watched my boys trying to swing on their own. They sat there flailing their legs, kicking and getting frustrated at the swing that was at a standstill. I got up and got on one of the swings.

“Hey guys, it’s OK, I’ll show you how to swing.” I effortlessly took off. Swinging higher and higher. Suddenly I felt free and light. Like every kick up into the sky shed years of pain and heaviness. Like I was leaving my old self behind—the dead parts of me that I had been dragging around, the parts that lead me to the mental hospital, that lead me to sadness and despair. All of the sudden I felt the muscles on my face form into a smile, a free, honest smile, and from that smile raised an elated laughter. For that moment, I was free to feel whatever I was feeling, not held in the past, not paralyzed by the future, but just there. I got out of that moment for a second and looked down at my children who were just staring at me intensely. I realized that they hadn’t seen me laugh or have fun in years; the baby, who was now two, had never experienced that side of me. Tears welled up in my eyes and I knew why my journey had been so painful. I needed to go through it to help me to feel again, to help me fight for my kids and to show them hope and resilience. I’d been so shamed by the fact I had to check myself into a mental hospital, so hurt that no one showed me a better way, but I realized, in that moment, that I needed to have that experience, I needed to rise above it all.

At that moment I realized that my story doesn’t define me, I define the story. The attributes I wanted my kids to remember was not my despair but my resilience, and fight for what is good, what is true and what is right. Just like my husband fought for his life, I realized I was in my own fight that I would wage for a good life, a better life, for myself and for my children until my last breath, whenever that may be. I realized that my short visit to the mental hospital was the sanest thing I could have done at the time. To reach out, to ask for help and to be brave enough to enter the battle not knowing the outcome, but knowing the reason for entering it.

Nicole Hastings

Nicole is a is a widowed mom to three children. With a background in journalism and a sudden need to “figure out what to do,” she turned to writing about her experience with a husband with cancer, caregiving and widowed parenting and overcoming the aloneness of all of the above. She believes the art of storytelling brings people out of the dark into the light together to share in joy, humor, suffering and pain in life. She hopes that by sharing her story with transparency and heart will bring others hope and empower them to share their own stories.
Facebook: @JustAMomNicoleHastings