About 6 months after I turned 21, I had a nervous breakdown. I had started a terrible production line job on my 21st birthday and the following half year had seen my admittedly never sunny demeanor tank in a black fog, culminating in a month long stay in the psychiatric ward in a Dallas hospital. I don't remember much about my first week there in the locked ward because for the preceding two weeks, I had slept a grand total of 4 hours, so the shrink loaded me up on benzodiazepines. My friend and her boyfriend had come to visit me during that week and her boyfriend was alarmed enough at my soporific condition to suggest kidnapping me and taking me home. I don't even remember them visiting. I do remember checking in and being introduced to my new room mate, a small woman who was so loaded on Haloperidol she fell asleep standing up, like a horse. I had to pick her up and put her in her bed.
After that first week, I was transferred into the "unlocked ward", meaning that I wasn't considered a danger to myself or others and I could leave the ward and walk about if I wanted. My new room mate was a sweet elderly lady who was in the ward because her husband had just passed away and she was depressed. The lady turned out to be both Miss Dallas 1928 and a lady lion tamer with Clyde Beatty's Circus, which I honestly could not have made up if I wanted to; I didn't believe her when she told me so she brought her photo albums up one day to show me. Unfortunately, Miss Dallas 1928 also snored ferociously. Once again, I couldn't sleep, so I usually spent nights in the TV room, curled up in a chair. One day in occupational therapy, I was talking to a woman who had checked in because she was afraid that her husband was cheating on her. She asked if I was married; I responded that I really had not even had a proper boyfriend yet.
"I guess I'm just unattractive to men", I sighed.
Therapy was over, so we all started the walk back to our ward. Two younger guys sidled up on either side of me: one was tall and very large with an almost bull-like expression on his face. He was 16 and in for attacking a Dallas police officer. He was at least twice the size of the other guy, a slender long haired angelic looking young man with dimples and a shy smile. He linked arms with me.
"I heard you saying that you're unattractive, and I think that you should have a better opinion of yourself. I think you're beautiful".
No one (besides my mother) had ever told me they thought I was pretty, let alone beautiful. Not even my father had ever said anything about my appearance, so I naturally thought that I was unattractive. Pretty girls got boys and I didn't get boys, so I could do the math, right? I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was intelligent and had good taste in music.
I blushed furiously and muttered, "oh please!", but the hippie boy pulled me to a stop in the hallway, put his hands on my face and said, "I mean it. You are a beautiful woman".
I stuttered that I would take his word for it. The big guy nodded at the hippie boy and said, "You'll have to prove it to her."
We three started talking, telling each other the reasons for being there: mine was a long history of family dysfunction, depression and an ill suited job; the big guy for literally picking up and throwing a cop over a railing, and the hippie boy had tried to overdose and end it all. I learned that the hippie boy's father was a famous playwright; indeed one of his plays had been on Broadway. Other than that, our frames of reference were similar on many things. We laughed about the same things. We read similar things and we listened to the same music. We made up little catchphrases to amuse ourselves. We talked about everything and went everywhere together: to group therapy, the gym, the cafeteria. The big kid soon went home and it was just me and the hippie boy. We were walking through one of the underground tunnels beneath the hospitals primarily used for transporting patients when he pushed me against the wall and kissed me passionately. Our battered souls came together, if only for a few short weeks. He was a great kisser.
His friendship and attention made an otherwise horrible month much easier to bear. We stole every moment we could for the rest of the month, then I was discharged and had to go home and back to a job that I despised. I needed something to look forward to, so he promised that he would drive all the way out (an hour's drive) to see me when he got out of the hospital. About 3 weeks later, he came out to the trailer I lived in with my friend, who was spending the weekend with her boyfriend.
He seemed very happy to see me, but preoccupied, as I was. Seeing each other "out of context" felt strange for both of us, I think. We spent a couple of hours together then he said he needed to get back home. I didn't hear from him or see him after that, not for many years, after we were both grown and settled in our respective careers and relationships. I did email him and tell him how important he was to me during that time and how he helped me find the self confidence that sustained me until I found the love of my life, to whom I am now married. I was surprised that he even remembered me; he had more experience with relationships than I had had at the time, and certainly no shortage of female attention. Even though we had but a short time together, I hope that knowing me had helped him in some way as well.
Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author, dies at 82
9 minutes ago