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    My Bravest Day

    A girl struggling with mental health issues makes the decision to go to the hospital and get help.

    If you're struggling, you are not alone.

    I drove slowly into the cool shade of my garage, out of the bright Arizona sun. Pushing a button on the remote in my center console shut the door behind me. My car idled as the room got darker, until finally the only light came from my dashboard. I sat there, the atmosphere slowly filling with carbon monoxide. I played this game with myself sometimes, letting the air become increasingly saturated, waiting to see how long I could go before I got scared and turned the car off.

    I looked over at the convenience-store groceries in my passenger seat. Junk food. Stoner food. Chips, cookies, ice cream, a couple sodas. Maybe I would never eat any of it. Maybe my self-preservation instincts wouldn't kick in this time. Maybe I would fall, pink-skinned, into an eternal slumber.

    Waiting, waiting, waiting. Was I getting light-headed? Was I starting to flush? My imagination ran wild. I pictured the person who found me trying to shake me awake, trembling as they called the police. Who would it be? Probably my best friend. She was on her way over and she had a key. She'd see the bags in my car and realize that right up until I closed my garage, I planned on having a future. She'd definitely cry. I visualized that moment. Tears streaming down her face. Her knees hitting the pavement as she fell to them. Her hands clasped over her mouth, muffling the sound of her sobs.

    I welled up until the water spilled out of my eyes. I couldn't do that to her. She didn't deserve that kind of pain. I reached over and turned the key toward me. The engine stopped.

    I yelled out, cursing my cowardice. I just wanted to stop hurting. Quiet the never-ending ache inside me. The pain blinded me sometimes. I hit the steering wheel and it shook from the force of my fists. And, god, would I ever stop crying? My brow furrowed in an effort to stem the flow. I took a deep breath. And another. And another. I pushed back at the tears and they ceased for a moment. Long enough for me to grab my bags and get up the stairs into my nice one-bedroom apartment. But as soon as I shut the door, they resumed.

    * * *

    A fist wrapped around my heart and crushed it like a wet sponge. My chest, my throat, my upper arms ached with the most unpleasant tingling—longing so desperate it manifests as physical pain. Every molecule in my body yearned for him. As he drove further and further away, he pulled my soul along with him so that it was trying to separate from my body and follow.

    I folded to the ground, my back to the wall, knees to my chest, hugging myself. Maybe if I hugged tight enough I could hold the crumbling pieces together. Sobs racked my lungs. Was I actually crying or just gasping for every ragged breath?

    "Owwww." I moaned in agony. "Nooooo, it hurts it hurts it hurts." I repeat myself when I'm anxious, and my anxiety was peaked. I sobbed more, holding myself even tighter, rocking back and forth. What was I going to do? How would I ever get over this?

    A key turned the lock in my front door. It opened and in walked my best friend, here to support my decision. She crossed the room swiftly, bent down to my level, put her arms around me. I welcomed the touch, someone to help me hold the pieces together. Without her, every minute that passed was a minute I risked going down to the garage, turning on the car, and drifting off into the void. She bolstered my strength.

    "You're going to be okay," she told me. "Did you pack anything?"

    I shook my head, finally able to breathe a little. "Not yet."

    "I'll help you."

    She went into my room as I composed myself to the best of my ability. My black sequined duffel bag lay open and empty on the bed. She grabbed t-shirts and I grabbed a pair of leggings, shoving them in unceremoniously.

    "Is there anything you don't have that you want?" she asked.

    I looked around frantically, still shaky and distracted.

    "I—I don't know. I don't know. I just wanna go. I need to get out of here… I need to get out of here."

    "Okay, we'll leave." She spoke with just the right amount of calmness. Her voice was steady and sure, comforting but not condescending.

    I nodded and zipped up my bag. "Okay. I'm ready." Deep breath. "I'm ready. Let's go."

    And I took my first step toward the hospital.

    * * *

    I strode across the white-with-speckles, commercial-tile floor, following the nurse into a world I never imagined I'd see from the inside. Fluorescent lights, always one flickering in a corner, illuminated a scene that one of the others would describe as "confirming all my worst fears about a place like this."

    Everyone looked fucked up and drooly, like a group of mentally ill senior citizens with late-stage dementia. I worried I would become one of them, tranquilized, barely conscious. I needed to run. Take it all back. Get out. Get out. Out. Out. Out.

    The rational voice in my head took over. It reminded me that I was there for a reason. A good reason. And besides, my final destination lay beyond this place; it was just an abnormally large waiting room.

    I focused straight ahead and tried not to turn toward the roomful of eyes boring into me. Zombies looking at me like I was fresh meat, a human unknowingly wandering into their midst. Soon they would consume my gooey innards and leave me as a shell of the person I used to be, empty, simply existing from moment to moment. On the bright side, though, it seemed like I would get some pretty killer drugs.

    After the longest walk of my life, I found myself in the back room, stripping in front of a nurse, answering questions about my scars and tattoos. I traded my sweatpants and tank top in for a set of paper scrubs. I said large pants and extra-large shirt. Big mistake. They engulfed me, like Violet Beauregarde blown up into a maroon berry. But it was too late; I was already wearing them. I sullenly pulled on my hospital socks, light blue with rubber pads on the bottom. Sexy stuff.

    The nurse told me I wouldn't be allowed to have my phone, so I scrolled through my contacts for the numbers I wanted to write down and keep with me. Five numbers made it onto the paper: my therapist, my mom, my two best friends, and my ex—the one who moved and broke the camel's proverbial back. In retrospect, adding my dad and my third best friend would have been smart; I loved them just as much, but I hadn't spoken to them as recently.

    She assigned me a chair in the first column, closest to the entrance, second row from the tv. A blanket and pillow sat there, clean and waiting for me to lay my armchair flat and cuddle up with them. A vinyl mural, a beautiful beach scene, took up the whole front wall. Blue waves greeting a golden shore.

    A memory swam in front of my eyes, as clear as the day it happened. My best friend and I lounged side-by-side on the Santa Monica sand, arms linked, her head on my shoulder, my head on hers. We listened to the water cresting, inhaled the salty ocean air. A strong sense of peace enveloped us both, held us in its tranquil arms. It was calming to look upon this scene and be transported, forgetting my reality if only for a moment.

    I overheard some of my peers complaining about the horrible beach, but didn't understand why. For the first time since I got there, my heart finally stopped hammering. My breaths came steady. The scene would never turn on me, never become a source of agitation. And I genuinely believed that.

    * * *

    I sat in my chair, the urge to kill myself greater now than it was on the outside. One more second of that fucking beach and I would lose it. Almost a full fucking day had passed since I checked myself in. And I kept swearing at myself in my head, a sure sign I was about to crack.

    I admitted myself voluntarily, but the help I so desperately needed was nowhere to be found. A bunch of techs and nurses in pale blue scrubs did nothing to counsel or reassure us. Instead, they filled us with drugs and left us to mentally decompose in front of a single tv playing movies completely inappropriate for a mental institution, like Die Hard and Twilight: Breaking Dawn. I reasoned that since that place was making me feel worse, it would be better to check myself out.

    I asked somebody—I don't remember who—how I could go. They told me I would have to meet with a counselor first.

    I waited impatiently for someone to come talk to me. I paced the floor near my chair, fidgeting with the hem of my paper shirt, rubbing it raw between my thumb and forefinger. I ran my hands erratically through my hair. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. It wasn't healthy. Not healthy. Better to go. Go. Better. Better go. Better leave. Get out of here. It's not good not good not good.

    Finally, after my feet had worn a rut into the dingy tile, a lady escorted me into a small room. I hated her instantly. Asking me questions like where I would be right now if I wasn't at the hospital. Dumb bitch. Did she honestly think that condescending bullshit would work on me? She treated me like I was a toddler throwing a temper tantrum while I strained to hold back, to remain as calm as possible.

    "Do you really think it's a good idea to leave?"

    Patronizing. Of course I thought it was a good idea. Would I have been trying to leave if I didn't think it was a good idea? Would I have been in there having that inane conversation otherwise? She wasn't helping at all, but she did convince me to return to my chair.

    My mental state deteriorated rapidly. I imagined I would prefer throwing myself into that vinyl ocean and drowning over staying in that godforsaken purgatory of a room one more second.

    An epiphany struck me. That room was purgatory. I had died, actually died, and now I bided my time in purgatory before reaching the promised land. And purgatory wouldn't release me until I had atoned for all my sins. I guessed it would be a while before I made it out, then.

    But suddenly, at last, a man donning the detestable blue scrubs offered a reprieve: rec time for anyone who had been there more than 24 hours. My time served counted just shy of that, but I jumped at the chance, deciding not to mention the small discrepancy.

    My stomach fluttered in anticipation, eager for the fresh air. Finally, I would get to see the light.

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