"What Do Plaintains Taste Like?" 5 Vignettes From McLean's
We're all happy to be here, even though none of us want to be here.
I’m in good company.
Robert Lowell wrote the first draft of "Waking in the Blue" at McLean Hospital in January 1958 (“Azure day makes my agonized blue window bleaker”), while the mathematician John Nash and his Beautiful Mind were here a little more than a year later. Noted memoirs by Sylvia Plath ("The Bell Jar") and Susanna Kaysen ("Girl, Interrupted") are based on time spent at McLean, but let’s not dwell too long on what happened to poor Sylvia.
James Taylor wrote “Knocking Around the Zoo” about his stay at McLean when he was a teenager:
Some of the friends all come to see me
They point at me and stare
Said, "He's just like the rest of us
So what's he doing there?”
A sympathetic judge sent Ray Charles to McLean for observation after his third arrest for pot and heroin possession. "The nicest part was meeting one of the nurses who I got next to a little later on," he wrote in his autobiography. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith checked himself in the rehab wing in the 1980s after his bandmates confronted him about his drug use, and the author David Foster Wallace was treated here for addiction and depression.
These are some of the people who never made it to McLean:
Chris Cornell, Kate Spade, and Ernest Hemingway. Marilyn Monroe, Aaron Hernandez, and Margot Kidder. Hunter S. Thompson and Verne Troyer. Kurt Cobain and Anthony Bourdain.
From the outside, McLean Hospital doesn’t even look like a hospital. It sits on a 240-acre campus in Belmont, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I used to teach writing down the street at Bentley University in Waltham. Before this week, I had only seen the entrance when I drove by after class and thought it was someplace for “other people.”
“It’s always just other people, until it’s you,” one of my former students wrote in a heartfelt note after she learned I was here. She brought me a eucalyptus plant when she came to visit on Saturday, but she couldn’t give it to me until a nurse found a plastic jar to replace the glass vase it came in.
You have to earn trust here before you earn privileges: privileges like hoodies with drawstrings and shoes with laces. On the first day I was here, I was told how beautiful the property was, but I was only a level 1, meaning I couldn’t go on the twice daily walks around the campus or onto the stone patio off the cafeteria for “porch time.”
“The carefully landscaped grounds, dotted with four- and five-story Tudor mansions and red brick dormitories, could belong to a prosperous New England prep school or perhaps a small, well-endowed college tucked away in the Boston suburbs. There are no fences, no guards, no locked gates,” Alex Beam wrote in “Gracefully Insane,” his 2002 book about McLean. “On first acquaintance, the only indication that you have entered one of America's oldest and most prestigious mental hospitals is a large sign jutting into Mill Street: McLean Hospital.”
Fuck off, Alex: there’s nothing graceful about being “insane.”
You’re probably wondering why I’m here. That’s a story I’m not ready to unpack in detail, suffice it to say, it’s both heartbreaking and cliché. But this essay is about how I got here.
It wasn’t easy.
There are only two ways I know of to get inpatient mental health treatment at McLean and most other psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. You can spend months on a waiting list — totally unhelpful in the throes of a breakdown — or do what I did:
Have a loving family who makes it clear you can no longer do this on your own.
Have your wife drive you to the emergency room.
Tell the person at the front desk “I’ve been having suicidal ideation for two weeks. It’s getting worse, and I think I’m going to hurt myself.”
Then you spend the next 14 or so hours in a room locked from the outside until they hand you off to two lovely EMTs. Despite the uniforms, they are punk rock stars: tattoos, hair shaved on the sides and septum piercings. They’re wearing layers against the cold. The driver sees my hospital gown and apologizes for the 20-degree weather during the 20-second roll from ambulance to front door.
“You’re a relief after the last guy,” the shorter of the two told me. “He kept threatening to go to the bathroom right in the gurney if we didn’t unstrap him.”
“Did he…go?” I asked tentatively. Laying where someone else had pissed earlier, even if it had been carefully cleaned up, wasn’t going to make the worst night of my life better.
“Nah, I called his bluff,” she said. “He didn’t pee in the gurney.”
Of all the skills EMTs have – advanced life support, physical strength, problem solving, calm in a crisis and the ability to drive like an Andretti when needed – the most underrated is the ability to treat people with dignity and make them feel human at the worst moment of their lives.
McLean looks much more like a hospital on the inside than the outside, but there’s also a dash of college dormitory. People in slippers and sweats are watching football across the hall as I write this. There’s a well-stocked shelf of puzzles and games. It’s clean and nicer than the maternity ward at MGH, but it’s also a bit worn on the edges. The clothes dryer doesn’t dry and the shower doesn’t get hot. Or even warm for that matter. The rec center is half a basketball court without a single un-warped ball. Behind the three-point line there’s a beat up pool table and a ping pong table that dips into a 45-degree angle under the net.
The short-term ward where I’m staying is not full of scary screaming and patients wandering halls mumbling to themselves like some modern-day remake of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” The nurses and everyone else who works here are polar opposites of Nurse Ratchet. They are warm and kind and, because McLean is the number one psychiatric hospital in the country (according to U.S News & World Report), they’re the very best at what they do.
There are details – obvious and not so obvious – that initially terrified me, but after five days the food is the only thing that still scares me. Details like checks every 15 minutes, day and night, every single day. There are no exceptions. If you’re in the bathroom – with its polished steel mirror – when they knock and say “checks,” you say your name. They come back in five minutes to see you, ready or not, so “please plan accordingly” the sign on the door warns.
When I did laundry this morning, the staff member had to place the detergent pod in the machine. The duffle bag of clothes my wife brought the other day was meticulously searched, and the cheap plastic sunglasses — which could easily broken into shards — were taken away.
The clothes hooks in my bedroom are designed to fall away if you put too much weight on them. They’ll hold a t-shirt and maybe even a pair of a pajama bottoms, but jeans and sweatshirts instantly slide down the wall on the linoleum floor. You can use your phone, but you can’t have a charging cable in your room. When it’s time for one of my visitors to go home, I have to find someone to unlock the door and let them out.
I’m level three now, which means I was able to get a four-hour pass to go to dinner with my wife and kids on Saturday night. We went to our favorite restaurant and, while Kate parked the car, my seven-year-old daughter and I walked down to an East Boston bodega to get cash from an ATM.
Mia is a bright and empathetic kid, and she knows something is going on. I want to be honest and open with her so she doesn’t grow up with the stigma around mental health that I have ingrained in me. It has to be done in a way that doesn’t terrify her, and, most importantly, in a way that won’t make her feel shame or weakness if she ever needs help. We say things like “Daddy has a brain boo-boo” and emphasize how it’s not contagious or not fatal.
So we didn’t tell her I was away on business. The night before I left, I explained I’d be away for a little while and did my best to keep it light hearted. I was proud of myself for not sobbing until after I had dropped her off at school Tuesday morning, knowing it was the last time I’d see her before I was hospitalized.
Children under eight aren’t allowed on my ward, which sucks. It would be easier if I could show her where I’ve been staying. We could play Uno in the cafeteria and she could check out the art from past patients hanging on the wall. We could raid the snack drawer for Oreos and Rice Krisipies treats, then munch them in front of the saltwater fish tank. She could see my room and smell the little eucalyptus plant on my night stand.
Instead, after showing her the plantains and promising to show her how to cook them when I get home, I asked her if she had questions about my brain boo-boo and I told her about what I had been doing. And, as it turns out, the simplest explanation is the best explanataion, whether you’re seven or 57 that sums it all up.
“Daddy found some really great doctors and nurses who are giving him new medicine that is going to make his brain boo-boo feel better. A lot better,” I said. “But they want to make sure it’s working, so that’s why I have to be away for a little while.”
There were a few more questions like “What do you do all day?” and “Have you made any friends?” And then Mia made a hard pivot back to our original conversation in a way only a seven-year old can change a subject.
“What do plantains taste like?