A person goes missing: Notices appear on milk cartons, volunteers start sweeping the forest, police hold press conferences with the grieving family, somebody goes to check the cornfield where Anthony sends those who've displeased him -- you know the drill. One day in spring, "Megan" just up and disappeared. Her friends and family thought she had been kidnapped or even murdered, but there was no massive search effort or no national news circus; the cornfield went unchecked. She returned two weeks later with a much better understanding of how the world really responds when you drop off the face of the Earth.
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Two days after I went missing, my ex, Mike, called the police. The first part of their investigation consisted mainly of grabbing my laptop and combing through its contents. They browsed through my selfies, my personal writing, and my extensive hentai collection hidden in a folder cleverly labeled "Not an Extensive Hentai Collection." Mike played the devoted boyfriend just asking after his lost girl, but when the police poked around a little further and questioned my friends, they discovered that Mike and I had broken up and weren't on good terms at all. In fact, even though we lived together, Mike hadn't seen or spoken to me in the two days before my disappearance. He never had a good reason to hedge about this, but there he was, lying suspiciously like a cliche from a Law & Order episode.
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Mike suggested that I'd run away and was hiding with a friend. But my computer revealed that I hadn't signed in to any social networking accounts since disappearing, so police didn't buy this story. Those friends of mine pushed for a public missing person's report, put up fliers with my information on them, and contacted local media. There were a few scattered news stories online.
But it wasn't huge news. Not even locally. See, while a missing person's case makes for great drama in film, in reality they're just depressingly common. Law enforcement doesn't have the resources -- and people don't have the attention span -- to turn every one into a national event and ensuing made-for-TV movie starring an aging, former teen starlet.
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Due to his sudden case of crime-proceduralitis, my friends were convinced that Mike had murdered me, but they still had to act on the hopes that I could still be alive. Statistically, the odds were good that I'd either wander back into civilization eventually or be found dead in a reasonably short span of time. Of the 661,000 yearly missing person's cases, 659,000 are eventually canceled, usually for one of those two reasons. The other 2,000 presumably turn out to be games of hide and seek that just got way out of control.
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What no one thought to tell the police was that, just the previous year, I'd had a breakdown and spent two weeks in the hospital. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, depression, and anxiety as a result of abuse that I'd suffered as a child. A doc on my computer even spelled out my fears of going through another episode of psychosis, but the cops must have missed that file. Seriously, it was a very extensive hentai collection.
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After work on disappearance day, I went with friends to a local area karaoke bar. While singing Mindy McCready's "Maybe He'll Notice Her Now," I had a PTSD flashback. I decided not to sing anymore and drove home. But I didn't make it into the apartment. I just stayed in my car, staring at the light coming from the window to our living room. I didn't realize it at the time, but I slipped into what psychiatrists call a transient dissociative episode. It's a break that comes with amnesia, derealization, and depersonalization. Without warning I suddenly began thinking that the band Snow Patrol were talking specifically to me. The song was "Chasing Cars." They wanted me to chase cars? Drive! They wanted me to drive, but where? I grabbed a notebook and started writing because I had suddenly figured out how to solve world hunger. Then I realized where Snow Patrol wanted me to drive. The patent office! I had to get to the patent office so no one could steal my ideas!
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If this all makes a weird kind of sense, please explore the possibility that you have just gone crazy.
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I wound up driving out of state, and everything I did over the next couple days was, to put it scientifically, wallpaper-chewingly crazy. But no matter what I did, and no matter who I ran into, no one contacted authorities or responded in any way -- despite me being a missing person. At one point a cop even stopped me for speeding. By this time, I'd been out for days. I hadn't showered or slept and hadn't drank so much as a drop of water. I was so unhinged that I wanted to go home, but I had no idea where home was (my address was on my license or registration, but that was one step of reasoning too complex for me). You'd think there would be some sort of alert that would pop up on the police cruiser's screen, but the cop saw nothing wrong, didn't question me, and just let me on my way after giving me a speeding ticket. With late fees, the charge would eventually grow to a couple hundred dollars, and I'd never get around to paying it. What I should have done is become the first person to plead insanity in traffic court.
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Later I stopped at a roundabout and began chucking garbage out of my car. I flung out clothes, jewelry, books ... until another cop stopped me and made me put it all back. While they stayed long enough to make sure I cleaned up my mess, the cop didn't question anything about what I was doing or why. I then followed a van and wound up heading back to my home town. There were balloons in the back of the van, see, so I figured they for were for my welcome home party, and I was excited to get back for it. Then my car's engine died. I pulled over, and yet another cop came by. Finally, this one intervened ... to get me a tow truck. So, if you're keeping track so far, in my first few days after being reported missing, I had direct encounters with three police officers, rubbed my crazy all over them, and nothing happened
I finally realized that I had to get myself help. So I went to a nearby firehouse, rang the bell, and sang gibberish at the top of my lungs until they opened the door. This is apparently how you summon firemen. Considering that there was a local missing persons report out on me, they should have been able to ID me and then return me home. If you're catching on to the pattern, you can guess what didn't happen.
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The firemen couldn't identify me, even after squinting really hard and guessing wildly, so they shipped me off to the psychiatric ward, where I was not identified, diagnosed, or treated. That's one thing the movies got right: Mental health wards are just crazy people storage lockers. Even worse, hospital disclosure laws can make finding missing persons all but impossible: Unless an adult gives their consent ahead of time, hospitals can't disclose information about an admitted patient to their family. You could be searching for someone for days, completely unaware of the fact that they're sitting in a psych ward or a hospital bed just miles away.
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It was a co-ed ward, and when I entered the bathroom at night, a male patient came in after me and bent me over a toilet seat. I screamed, and orderlies quickly responded and separated the two of us ... with an unlocked door. The patients are crazy, guys -- not too stupid to work doorknobs. They ended up moving me to a different facility, where I got some meds but began hallucinating. I started to think that I would never make it out alive. Luckily after four days on antipsychotics, my memory returned to me in an instant. I was doing some dumb arts and crafts project when I suddenly said, "Where the fuck am I? Why don't I have shoes? Holy shit, I remember how doorknobs work!"
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A wave of sweet lucidity hit me. I contacted the nearest nurse, told them who I was, and got sent home.
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The detective in charge of my case quickly closed the missing persons file, presumably after being reminded that he had it open in the first place, but my friends and family were unsympathetic. Having lost my phone, I announced my return to the rest of the world through a Facebook update, and this didn't sit particularly well with anyone. Instead of being relieved, everybody who was worried about me -- my friends, my ex, my mother -- were now just pissed that I didn't contact every one of them personally. It's understandable. Tension and worry need someplace to go, and sometimes they manifest as anger. Some thought I'd pulled the whole stunt for attention. Some thought I'd shacked up with a secret lover I'd met online -- the only reason they could imagine that a woman would disappear for a week. My family came around and forgave me eventually, but I lost most of my friends and my job. You try "Snow Patrol told me to take two weeks off" as an excuse. It doesn't fly very well.
As a final insult, I was even barred from karaoke for being unstable.
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But I learned a valuable lesson: I now know who my real friends are. Isn't that a sweet note to end on?
Here's another, less sitcom-caliber lesson for you: If your mind ever breaks, those real friends may be the only people who try to find you, and there might be jack they can do about it. You won't find that tidbit closing an episode of Full House. To learn that, you need a (geographically and mentally) multistate drive resulting in the implosion of your life.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About Schizophrenia and 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless.
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