The first sentence in my essay—None of the puzzles here have all their pieces—references a specific moment during my stay in the hospital. A few of us were close to completing a difficult puzzle when we realized it was missing nine or ten pieces. I looked over our hole-filled masterpiece, gave a laugh that sounded a bit like a dry heave, and got out of my seat to go stare through the locked glass doors at the Burger King across the street.
I thought, Dear god. If they’re going to let a metaphor that obvious inside a psychiatric hospital, somebody ought to at least have the decency to be ashamed of it.
I’ve tried to write about my stay in the hospital from a dozen different angles. I could’ve written about the paramedic’s “You don’t want to do that…you’re so young, how old are you? No need for all that,” or about the seven hours I spent in a suicide-proofed ER room with a supervisor who called me Little Buddy and was determined I know everything about his nephew’s junior high soccer team, or about how my bladder somehow stayed full my entire ER stay no matter how many supervised trips I made to the bathroom. I could’ve written about all the ignorance, transphobia, and medical discrimination I encountered that week. I could’ve even written about after I left the hospital—the stifling silence of my dorm room as I unpacked, the $7,400 bill I received a week later, the way my pulse chewed my eardrums every time a nurse took my temperature or blood pressure in the months following.
And I do plan on exploring those uncomfortable and traumatic experiences, someday. But I knew enough about the systemic awfulness of mental health care in Mississippi not to be surprised. What did surprise me was the respect, vulnerability, and kindness with which most patients approached each other. The sense of unity among patients—the shared loneliness, pain, grief, joy—was so intense that I struggled to maintain a sense of my own individuality during my stay. I think that may be why writing about the subject never felt genuine until I decided to experiment with first-person-plural.
My use of first-person-plural ties back into the puzzle story. At first glance, the missing puzzle pieces are an obvious reference to jokes about mentally ill people being “a few pieces short of a puzzle.” Or one might interpret it in a broader sense—that the missing pieces aren’t the patients’ fault but a result of a neglectful system. For me, though, the most important interpretation involves the understanding that incompleteness will always be a defining part of the “we.” People enter and leave psychiatric hospitals every day. We carry away small pieces of the other patients’ lives as we leave, though we usually never hear from them again. Three people may work on the same coloring sheet on the same table in the same hospital and never meet each other. Because of this cycle, someone who’s been part of the “we” may never completely leave it. There’s no doubt that many carry away trauma from the experience—I’m one of those affected—but where there’s community, there’s hope. And hope is the story I want to tell.
MAX HUNT (he/him) is a queer and neurodivergent writer living in Oxford, Mississippi. His fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in One Teen Story, Polyphony Lit, Otherwise Engaged, Outcast Magazine, BreakBread Magazine, Mistake House, and The Blue Route. In his free time, Max likes to draw, play guitar, and collect unusual items that range from a Renaissance lute to rocks that look like barbecued chicken. Max attends the University of Mississippi as an undergraduate. Find Max on Twitter @hyperfixeaten.