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Mental Health

I Was In A Suicide Ward When The GOP Tried Repeal and Replace


It's people like me who would suffer without the Affordable Care Act — and Republicans don't seem to care. 

I heard the scream, shrill and piercing, over breakfast on the morning of May 4th.

“Look, look!” said one woman as she held up the newspaper. The headline from The New York Times: “House Passes Measure to Repeal and Replace the Affordable Care Act.”

“No!” said one man.

Another man gasped as he reached for his inhaler. “Oh my God, oh my God,” he said in staccato beats which grew more listless as the minutes ticked on. “Oh no.” The news spread like a virus, infecting everyone around me. The news dominated our conversations for the remainder of the day, and many of my cohorts grieved openly — their faces etched in a stage of helplessness and confusion.

Men and women alike railed against the GOP for mounting continued attacks against health care. People from various social, cultural, and economic backgrounds revealed they had suffered as a result of cuts to social programs, public education, and reproductive health. Some had been ravaged by HIV. Many were people of color (I was one of two LGBT people).

The ACA was their only lifeline, they said, and the one thing that tethered them to the chaos of an unforgiving world. Later, a staff member informed me that there'd been an incredible uptick in psychiatric admissions since November 2016.    


It started with the razors. That’s what I told the doctors about the episode that landed me in the psychiatric ward at Columbia University Medical Center. Actually, it began with a bottle of wine hidden in the back of my closet — a bottle I would later pour down the drain of my kitchen sink after nixing the option of poisoning it with arsenic. I would eventually slide into the tub (where I would also fail).

I finally spoke about the bottle during a group therapy session a few days into my stay in the ward. It didn’t take long for me to inherit the matter-of-factness so characteristic of the nurses and therapists who saw me each day.

“None of the staff employed here speak in metaphors; I feel I could walk in blind and still find my way. That's a comforting thought, though I miss the outside world tremendously,” I wrote later. “I long to take a walk outside and hear the cacophony of bustling feet and grunts and yells and horns and traffic to remind myself I'm in Manhattan, not nine floors above it, hidden somewhere in the sky. The people are ants from my vantage point. Perhaps I'm in here to protect them. I can't crush them.”

I noticed that my emotions took on new lives of their own. I barely recognized them; they threatened to usurp me as I vacillated between disappointment, shame, horror, and homesickness. If these feelings seemed highly charged, or more vicious than usual, that merely went hand in hand with the stress that came with living under the microscope. The nurses prodded me and poked me — figuratively and literally: "How are you feeling?" 

I had to field that question several times a day during wake up calls, rounds, meals, therapy, sitdowns with social workers, and during visitation hours as my friends gazed at me across the long tables in the dining area. So I decided to be honest: I knew from the time I was a child that I would end up in the psychiatric ward, or someplace like it. I just didn't know when, and I didn't know where. But I knew it would happen.

I have made between six and ten attempts on my life in the last fifteen years.

I was eleven when I began to unspool: I’d play with knives and jump from high places. I hadn’t yet realized that suicide would require precision. I could only stretch myself like a rubber band. The years would take their toll in the form of bullying, beatings, multiple rapes, and homelessness.

"Of course I crumbled," I told a nurse one day. Of course I did. It was my boyfriend (a doctor) — would you look at that! — who assured me during one of his many visits that perhaps I hadn’t been crumbling at all. I’d merely been "surviving," he said to, and the stress of maintaining some semblance of order was bound to get me anyway. I was soothed, at least momentarily. I’d already decided I wanted to do the work.

I wanted to be there, contrary to what others believed. I cannot fault the quality of care I received. With the exception of one incident that sent the ward into lockdown, the experience was less One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest than my fragile state had led me to believe. For one thing, I had computer access. I kept a regular correspondence with a dear friend and coworker.

“The psychiatric team… agree[s] I've been subjected to the sorts of traumas that befall victims during wartime,” I wrote one evening. “Is there another Alan somewhere, his village razed? Has he lost his relatives to a chemical attack? Did he lock himself into a car to evade the cloud of sarin gas? Did he close his eyes as his neighbors brayed blood over the windshield, the hood of the car, before collapsing around him? When he exits the car, the people are like mannequins strewn about the hillsides and his country is a stranger.”

She wrote back: “Thank you for trusting your feelings and thoughts and lovely words with me. Maybe you're closer to being ready to get back to the good things in your life now that you're letting yourself feel all the pain from the bad things. Your past won't ever go away, but it caught up to you, emotionally, and you're probably looking at it head-on for the first time. That's scary, even when you're doing it in an environment that's supportive, among people who do understand what it's like to have felt, since they were little, that there's something wrong with them.”

Mirth can feel genuine even in such a controlled environment. There were 24 of us in total. We ate together. We laughed together. We cried together. We played board games. We watched movies. We spoke about love as often as we spoke about pain, both physical and internal. We rehashed first kisses, school dances, first boyfriends and girlfriends.

“I’ve been in every psych ward in the city and let me tell you, I will only go here,” one young woman told me. She recalled suffering her first breakdown at the age of thirteen. Name a way to kill yourself, and she’s contemplated it — if not attempted it outright. Her experiences inspired her to change her college major to psychiatry. She wore sweatshirts to cover the network of scars along her arms. She was vibrant and funny, even when recalling what it felt like to swallow drain cleaner. I liked her immediately.

She left the ward a few nights before I did. I went to give her my goodbyes, but she didn’t recognize me.

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “Medication. You know how it goes.”

I do. But I’m one of the lucky ones, with a good job and a decent insurance plan.


The prospect of a full repeal didn’t die after the events in the spring. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was the deciding vote which derailed a previous attempt to repeal the ACA in July. Now, Senate Republicans have largely abandoned an impromptu Obamacare-repeal bill put forward by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

The GOP has signaled it will tackle the White House’s tax reform initiatives instead.

Senator Graham appeared to fight back tears while defending Senator McCain from President Donald Trump’s attacks. The president had railed against McCain for opposing Republicans’ latest attempt at repealing the ACA. 

“He can do whatever damn he wants to. He’s earned that right,” Graham said of McCain during a CNN debate on September 25th. “John if you’re listening... nobody respects you more than I do. So to any American who’s got a problem with John McCain’s vote, all I can tell you is that John McCain was willing to die for this country, and he can vote any way he wants to, and it doesn’t matter to me in terms of friendship.”

Senator Graham can cry for his friend, but not for the millions who would be affected by a full health care repeal. Even now, his interests are characteristically partisan.

If only he could hear that scream as I heard it. I am hearing it again, and picturing heads turning in its direction as it rolls down sterile hallways.

I am certain there are others who are hearing it now.

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Alan Jude Ryland