The emergency room of Atlanta’s monolithic Grady Memorial charity hospital is legendary for housing a procession of humanity at its most bereft.
The denizens of the city’s impoverished, uninsured underbelly arrive there in droves and present every imaginable physical and mental malady. Because of its inherent offering of extremes, freshly-minted physicians find the Grady ER their training ground of choice. At Grady, you see everything.
I never had occasion to visit the Grady ER until I arrived at the hospital in the thick of a suicidal tailspin in early March 2016. I was brought there from the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) just a few blocks away from the hospital on Marietta Street, the last rung above rock bottom where I had been in residence since the end of January.
My initial exposure to Grady did not disappoint. I began my visit in the ER waiting room after signing in and writing “suicidal” in answer to the registration form’s “Why are you here?” query. Surrounding me in the overly-packed lobby was a maelstrom of human misery; gunshot and car wreck victims, alcohol-poisoned derelicts, sick and downtrodden elderly, all seemingly in dire consequence.
Amidst this spectacle of suffering a trio of bespectacled black women at the front desk with thousand yard stares worked to maintain order. They barked out names, issued commands, requested information, and choreographed movement. They had no time for the pleas and complaints of the suffering who had been flopped in the waiting room’s uncomfortable plastic chairs for hours waiting for care. They forged ahead with a callous efficiency warranted by circumstance.
I was summoned to the front desk some 45 minutes after signing in, where I was seated next to the oldest of the gatekeepers. She appraised me with a severe expression for a few moments and then asked, “Are you feeling like hurting yourself?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you have a plan?”
Apparently, my “yes” was the magic word. The gatekeeper whirled in her chair and summoned a large black male orderly from the room just behind the desk. “He’s got a plan!” she yelled.
The orderly gripped my arm and led me to the room behind the desk. It was a small consultation pod replete with blood pressure monitors and a computer. He closed the door behind us, and as he walked out the back exit of the room said, “Someone will be right with you.”
Within a few moments, a kindly-looking, gray-haired woman of about fifty sat at the desk next to me. Her green eyes glistened with compassion as she looked me over.
“Hello, Mister Hays,” she said, reaching out her hand and shaking mine. “I’m Doctor Harris. Tell me what brought you here.”
Slowly and quietly I shared my story.
I told her that I was a homeless, indigent, mentally ill alcoholic who had made an absolute wreck of his life and had run out of options.
For years I had unsuccessfully battled my addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, destroyed my relationships and career, and now the Salvation Army ARC had been my last resort following a death spiral involving a bogus New Year’s Eve domestic violence arrest, a heart attack, loss of all my money and nearly every possession, and deserved abandonment by family and friends.
I explained to the doctor that as my circumstances rapidly degenerated in the first days of 2016, my desperate trolling of my life’s Rolodex proved fruitless. No matter how I begged or pleaded I could get no one to provide me a place to stay for a single night. Every door was slammed in my face. All of my bridges had been napalmed.
After emerging from Fulton County jail and a two-week hospital stay (where I suffered a heart attack while enduring severe alcohol withdrawal), I had briefly landed in a county crisis detox center for the uninsured. For several days I furiously worked the phones before finally getting word that the ARC was willing to enlist me in their six-month program.
During the ensuing weeks, I had dutifully followed the ARC’s faith-based, stringent protocol, trying to fly under the radar, rejuvenate my relationship with God, and regain some semblance of stability. But when I realized how much of a pariah my addictive behavior had caused me to become, and how those people I cared most about in the world had seemingly given up on me, my pillaged psyche sparked increasing suicidal thoughts.
I couldn’t stop my brain from taking inventory and flooding my system with a tortuous anxiety which made each conscious moment a burden. Sleep was fitful and rife with sweat-inducing nightmares, the restless nights capped by early morning awakenings in which my brain was enveloped by a resuming wave of the panic which would keep me in a stranglehold for the remainder of the day.
My tried-and-true method of downing an entire box of Benadryl to ease the panic failed me, and in the last days, my ideation had crystallized into plans to slash my wrists with the box cutter I used in the Salvation Army donation warehouse.
That morning I’d scribbled a crude, self-pitying suicide note and worked to prepare myself mentally for the deed. I gripped the box cutter repeatedly and debated whether to cut downward or sideways.
The two p.m. work break was going to be my cue. While the other workers left for a snack in the cafeteria, I was going into sneak to a darkened storage area and end my misery. The thought gave me a giddy adrenaline surge, like the feeling children have in the hours preceding Christmas morning.
I told the doctor that somehow, in the midst of my scheme, I was touched with a bolt of lucid thought. I had an “a-ha” moment where I recognized the enormity and finality of what I was planning. Perhaps, I told her, this was a gift from God Himself.
At the two p.m. bell I asked a warehouse co-worker to escort me to the ARC front office. There, I revealed my plans to the program administrators, wept and begged for help. They brought me to Grady.
“And how do you feel now?” Doctor Harris asked. “Still fantasizing about hurting yourself?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
At some point during my wait in the ER lobby, my lucidity had ebbed, anxiety had returned, and I was once again fantasizing about my demise.
“We’re going to bring you in and try to get you stabilized,” she told me.
Within minutes I was stripped and gowned and prodded and measured and led to a bed in a quiet, chilly treatment room, all before the watchful, suspicious eyes of workers who clearly had been told that I was a threat to myself.
For the next two hours, I was visited by a succession of nurses and doctors. I repeated my story to everyone who asked. Another kindly female psychiatrist named Dr. Edwards told me I was going to be admitted to the hospital’s 13th-floor psychiatric treatment area “so we can see what we can do for you.“
In spite of the cold, rivulets of sweat poured down my forehead. I had never felt so isolated in my life. While I waited for my trip to the 13th floor, I laid alone in the room with the television muted, enduring the familiar pulses of despondent panic.