As the kids are going back to school a lot is being said about the concept of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and the like. And since I’m a great many years out of college, I was pretty much out of the loop. But I started rambling on Twitter tonight, and figured out that I really did have something to say about it. So here goes.
When I was a sophomore in college, I had a bad night. The specifics of it really escape me, but I was a cutter. I kept it more or less in check, but I really, really felt the urge that night. That’s really all I remember about the preamble to this story, and that’s the thing that brought me to the incident. That night, I didn’t want to cut. I didn’t. I wanted the feeling to pass, to ride the wave of what was going on that seemed so tremendously important at the time, and to move on. And for that, I needed to be around someone else. Someone safe. Someplace safe. I, decades before it became a buzz word, needed a safe space. And the results of looking for one were catastrophic.
I went to my RA. We had been told over and over that this is what their job was. It was late, my friends were out or busy or I didn’t want to rehash what was upsetting me, whatever. Doesn’t matter. I went to my RA and asked for help. And…well…She freaked out. The minute I said I was a cutter, and that I didn’t WANT to cut that night, that all I needed was someone to talk to, all I needed in the entire world was someone to talk to, she lost it. Suddenly there was the RD. And hushed, frantic tones. And then I was informed, as I dully stared into space, knowing that something had gone horribly wrong, that I didn’t deserve that space, that I didn’t deserve that comfort, that safety, that SAFE SPACE, I was informed that if I didn’t “go quietly” to the ER at New England Medical Center, that I would be forcibly taken there. I didn’t want to make a scene, did I? So I went. I was lost, and terrified, and the only people with a modicum of authority told me to do something. So I did.
In the ER, I was summarily dumped by the RA and RD, and put in a bright, cold room. The door was locked, security was at the door. I was in hysterics. I also had my jacket with me. In the inside pocket of my jacket was a hard plastic knife that looked like a tent post. I always had it with me. Downtown Boston could be shady back then, and there it always stayed in my jacket, just in case. They never took my jacket, they never looked for weapons. I was alone, in that cold, bare room, with my knife. And HAD I been suicidal, as was my immediate diagnosis, I could have ended it before they ever unlocked the door. How careless of them, I thought. Someone could hurt themselves in here. Not me, of course, not me. All I wanted to do was call my mother. But they had told me no on the way in, so I sat there with my jacket on the floor, sobbing and rocking until a psych resident came in, gave me a memory test, some brisk, formal questions, and left.
I was bereft. All I wanted to do was go home. Back to the dorm where I could go to sleep and forget all about that night. But I couldn’t. In fact, I sat there for hours until a sweet med student came in and told me that if I just calmed down and spoke rationally, they would let me go home. And I did. And they did.
I walked back to my dorm in the freezing night, around 4 AM, alone. I let myself back into my room, draped my jacket, knife still in it, over my chair, took a shower, and went to my early Western Civ class. And I promised myself something.
I promised myself that I would never, ever, EVER ask for help again.
What if “safe spaces” had really existed back then?
What if the dorm staff had been better trained?
I’ll never know. And I’ll carry that night with me for the rest of my days. And today, 20 years later this winter, I STILL have a hard time asking for help. I’m suspicious. I don’t trust people as a rule. I remember that promise I made myself that night in the ER.
After that night, it took another 11 years for me to really ask for help. And even then the road was just beginning.
I wish it had happened that night. But it didn’t. Because there were no safe spaces. So when I hear people saying “back in the day we didn’t have safe spaces and look how we turned out!” I can’t help but look at my life now, and my scars, and the mountain of psych pill bottles on my nightstand, and the ruins of so many years since that night, and I think,
“Yeah. Look how we turned out.”