Trigger warnings: Hospitalization, Self-harm, Suicidal Ideation, Abuse, Sexual Assault, Addiction
All names have been changed.
It always gets better, he says as they wheel me away, and I see his earnest eyes and know that this man believes it. Fluorescent lights that make your skin look sickly; a man with a distended belly writhing in a cot; the clicking sound of a keyboard going at full throttle; pulse, blood pressure, temperature. Vitals. Wait, sleep, wake, wait, sleep. Wake.
~ ~ ~ ~
The lounge room has large paneled windows that stretch from floor to ceiling, braced with metal beams. Plastic chairs line the walls. We sit here every morning as we get our vitals taken. Hand out to scan your identification wristband, arm out for blood pressure, finger out for temperature and pulse. If you sit in one of the chairs, you can see the tops of the buildings in downtown New Haven: the Omni, the Knights of Columbus museum on the way to Union Station, the financial center by the Green. I draw the skyline on the back of a mindfulness meditation handout.
I learn that I can’t wear my shoes, because they have laces. I can’t have my retainers, because they are sharp. I am in a quad with Tiffany, Kate, and Bee; Bee is my roommate. Goals group is mandatory. I will meet my team soon. I can use the communal telephone for thirty minutes at a time. Quiet half is three times a day. Bedtime is 9:30 pm.
I learn that the hospital has the best fries I have ever eaten in my life. All the patients agree on this. The food is wildly unhealthy but delicious.
I learn that the doctors are not the ones who see us at our worst; the nurses and floor staff are. Tiffany breaks a plastic spoon and she is in the bathroom wailing Tiffany what are you doing please don’t hurt yourself I run for the floor staff and Jordan comes to calm her down and he tells Tiffany to be strong for him.
There is a boy whose mother dropped him off here because she didn’t know what to do with him. Bee says she was terrified of him, terrified of her son. He shits all over his room that evening and we can smell it all the way down the hall. Jordan has to clean it all up and watch him. In the morning, Jordan is still there, bleary-eyed.
After twenty-four hours of good behavior, two days of perfect group attendance, and the doctor’s approval, I obtain status. This means I can go down to the cafeteria to pick my own food, and I can go outside in the courtyard for thirty minutes every day. The courtyard is tiny, with a volleyball net stretched over a patch of sad-looking grass, a basketball hoop fixed over a blacktop, and a high fence separating us from the street. Everyone peers through the slats to catch a glimpse of the Other Side. A boy wearing a backpack strolls by, probably on his way home from school. We all stare at him. Fresh air has never smelled so sweet; sunlight has never felt so warm. The sky is so very blue.
~ ~ ~ ~
Kate has a boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend, who relapses into his drug addiction, steals her laptop, iPad, and phone, and runs back to his ex-wife while she is here. Her mom never liked him. She spends a good hour on the communal phone yelling at Apple customer service to change her passwords. She tells me that his place is one of the better ones. She was at Danbury before. They only let you take one shower per day there, and the nurses treated the patients like they were stupid. Kate doodles violently on the back of her self-worth beliefs worksheet during treatment mall.
Tiffany was abused as a child, and can’t stand to be touched. She turns on herself when she doesn’t know what else to do. Her brilliantly dyed red hair has faded to a mousy pink. When she leaves, she will live in a group home with other boys and girls. She is excited, because they get to go on weekend outings.
Bee comes from a family of addicts and has a daughter. She says her daughter is afraid of her and won’t be alone with her and the father’s new girlfriend was posting all these photos of them on Facebook for Mother’s Day and I can tell how much it hurts her. The worst thing, she says, is that her mother looks at her daughter and says she knows she is going to become an addict too, she can see it in her eyes. Bee is silent. Bee, who is the toughest person on the Floor, Bee whose every other word is a swear word, Bee who hoards snacks from the cafeteria with Kate, Bee who can make me laugh till I can’t breathe.
~ ~ ~ ~
After Stan the nurse runs evening goals group, Elias goes to Kate crying with his shirt torn, Kate please go get the doctor, Kate please help me. She has never seen Elias cry; he is so confident.
Kate tells me about it later. Elias wouldn’t listen to Stan so Stan grabbed his shirt shoulder and pulled so hard it ripped, and then Stan sent him back to his room and fumed about it to another nurse: “Do you know what that boy did to his mother and sister? Do you know what he did? He’s a monster.”
I think about Elias asking me to play cards with everyone on my first day here, and asking me to play volleyball on his team when I got status. Elias doing backflips in the courtyard, Elias singing Beyoncé, Elias cheering up Karen on one of her bad days. I think about Stan telling another boy he was lazy and didn’t deserve a bathroom break. We don’t see Elias for all of the next day.
~ ~ ~ ~
It is quiet half, and Bee and I are laying on our beds on our side of the quad. White sheets, white walls, white floor, white lights. A baby blue curtain hangs between the beds for privacy. It is half pulled out. Soap and Neosporin and detergent. I like to think of events in relation to each other, as dots on a timeline. A year before today, I was in high school, excited for the summer and for college. Fresh. Innocent. Naïve. Carefree. I did that the day before my concerto performance with my youth orchestra. Tomorrow at this exact time, I’ll be on stage performing. An hour later: tomorrow, will I be happy? Or will I have performed poorly? Will I be ashamed? Will I be crying?
It’s funny, I say. Exactly a week ago today, right now, I was at the housing draw with my suitemates. We were picking between the third and the fifth floor and we couldn’t decide. That’s what I was worrying about, and now I’m here. It all doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.
Yeah, you realize a lot of things don’t matter so much here. But what matters? That what I keep trying to figure out. What matters?
I nod, but of course she can’t see me. I am silent because I do not know. I wish I could think of something intelligent, but I do not know. I wish I knew the answer, like I think everyone here wishes they knew, but I don’t. What matters? What matters?
~ ~ ~ ~
Karen comes into my room the day I come back and watches me put on makeup, a luxury. I thought you weren’t going to come back, she says, and hugs me. She won’t let go. I thought you weren’t going to come back she says over and over again and starts sobbing. I thought you weren’t going to come back.
~ ~ ~ ~
I think the worst thing about this place is that it erases your empathy. You cannot care about everyone here. You cannot be soft. You cannot really feel anything, because you’re always always always being watched. The ones with the dead eyes are the ones who believe they’re fucked up and have given up. At treatment mall, they ask us to write three positive things about ourselves. Mary, a lady with dead eyes who looks like a turtle, cannot think of a single thing. A man with dead eyes rambles on and on about alcohol and his strained family relationships. I would have listened and shown that I cared but I just can’t, I can’t, I can’t feel anything and it bothers me all I want is to leave.
~ ~ ~ ~
It is Elias’s discharge day, and he is oddly subdued. He dresses flamboyantly, in acid wash ripped gray jeans, a green camo jacket with an American flag on the back, and a graphic shirt.
You’re too healthy, eat fries with me, it’s my last day, he says, and I do. When Elias leaves he does not say goodbye. No one does.
In the downtown museum back home, there is a music exhibit. One of the stations consists of a touchscreen panel that, when poked, produces brightly colored rings that expand across the screen. As the rings collide, different pitches sound. It produces a cacophony of color and tone, mesmerizing, ethereal. That is what it is like here. Our lives touch for a moment, like passing subway cars, and then push apart, the sound still ringing softly in your ears.
~ ~ ~ ~
On Sunday, Frida leads music group, which means we sit and listen to her enthusiastically play violin in her scrubs. When she finishes, she asks us to move our chairs into a circle and pulls out her phone. One by one, we can go around the circle and tell her our favorite song, and we can all hear a few minutes of it on YouTube.
What would you like me to play?
Well, I don’t know if everyone wants to hear it. It’s classical music. Isn’t that kind of lame?
That’s fine – we can all listen to what you want to hear.
Rachmaninoff Piano concerto No. 2, the Evgeny Kissin one. You can skip to one minute thirty.
I know how it goes because I’ve listened to it so many times. It’s my favorite recording. When I hear it, I think of bells tolling in a cathedral, like a funeral march, and then bleak winds sweeping across Siberia, the tumbling piano arpeggios running over the powerful swell of strings. My art teacher in high school played this recording for me years ago, and it sent chills down my spine. I lean forward in my chair. The last time I heard it, I was doing a p-set for statistics. How long ago was that? How different were things then?
Frida cups her hand around the bottom of the phone to catch the sound, the tinny notes diffusing across the room. It is the absolute shittiest sound quality, but nobody cares. It is warm orange and royal purple in this white-and-gray linoleum cell, sea salt and crisp pine overpowering the rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer, rugged mountains and blooming sunsets and churning waves instead of pills and beds and hospital socks. It is a reminder that there is still the Other Side.
~ ~ ~ ~
This place reminds me of something my orthodontist said six years ago. Your teeth are essentially floating around in your gums, easily prone to external influence. That’s why braces can pull them into straight lines; that’s why, after you have braces, you have to wear a retainer at night for pretty much the rest of your life. Otherwise your teeth will move around right back to their original fucked up alignment. Something has to hold them in place.
We stick to a rigid schedule of groups and quiet halves and meals and bedtimes to reestablish structure in our lives, but in reality we are floating around aimlessly, playing Uno to pass the hours, volleyball without rules, sleeping the day away. The same thing over and over again, and isn’t it like that everywhere? Linda has been here three times. Eric’s family no longer expects anything from him. The dead eyes, the glassy eyes, the stifling darkness and jagged music, again and again and again. Hammering beats and flashing lights, and a sicker pulse. Floating and sinking, flying and falling, laughing and sobbing. Giddiness and despair. Sweat and smoke, bubbling spirits, nothing is real, reaching and running, it wasn’t your fault, but it is, it is, it is. It is a black hole, and you are lost in it. Is it you? Where are you?
He reads out of his notes. You were saying you felt like a burden and that you wanted to jump out of the window. Stop this is not what I want to hear I don’t want to hear what I said that is not me that is not me—
I told them that I don’t remember what happened but the truth is I know exactly what I was doing it was a razor-sharp moment of clarity and I reached for end, the beautiful beautiful end. I said goodbye to someone, I said goodbye and I meant it I really meant it
I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.
They tell me, months later, that that night someone was kissing me, kissing my neck, wanting to take me away. There are gaping black holes in my memory; I didn’t know it happened, I don’t remember it at all. I would have let him do anything. If you don’t remember it, were you really there? And if you weren’t really there, is it you? If you don’t know what you are doing, is it you? Is it what you really wanted? Is it you? Who is you?
~ ~ ~ ~
Jason killed a man and served his time in prison. His wife no longer loves him; he is full of regrets. He is bald and has lots of tattoos. A week ago he walked onto the I-95 overpass to end his life. Instead, a truck driver stopped and brought him here.
Michael drinks when he is upset to escape it all. He was admitted on his daughter’s birthday, and he didn’t get to give her a present. He wishes he could have been there, he wishes he just hadn’t drank at all, he wishes he were a better father. His daughter called him and said Daddy don’t worry about me, I don’t need a present, I just want you to get better, I just want you to be okay Daddy, promise me you’ll be okay. She is seven years old.
George was raped by a man when he was a child and cannot forget what it is like to be helpless. He runs away from relationships when he feels he is getting too close, because he can’t forget, he has to protect himself. He doesn’t want to press charges because he cannot bear the thought of ruining someone’s life.
Bee says her first love will always be heroin. No matter what it does to her, she cannot forget the relief it brings; just seeing the needle makes her heart quicken. No matter what happens, she says, she still can’t stop thinking about it. I’m here and all this shit happened and I’m going to a sober house but still, all I want to do is shoot up. Isn’t that fucked up? I got burns while being high and it fucked up my teeth and I still love it. Maybe I love it more than my family. Maybe I love it more than my daughter. Bee is silent; she closes her eyes.
~ ~ ~ ~
The day before I am discharged, I make a card for Bee. I draw a phoenix on the back of a self-goals worksheet that is folded in half. It is an ink drawing, black ballpoint pen on white printer paper. The phoenix is part of the flames, head and wings pointing upward. I pack my belongings into an Urban Outfitters bag that was allowed because it didn’t have any strings, strip my bed of its sheets, throw away the toiletry bin. They will bleach and wash the sheets; another body will fill this side of the room, and then another, and another. Again and again.
I find Bee moving her things to my side of the room. I’m taking over your bed since my mattress is fucked up. A throaty laugh. I pick up my things.
I get to go home now—I made you this.
She takes the paper and looks at it.
Thank you. Good luck—I would give you a hug but we’re not allowed to hug people here.
I laugh and wave goodbye. Colored rings pushing apart; subway cars flying past. Inside the folded drawing is a note.
Did you know, you’re the first roommate I’ve had here. At school, I have a single; at home, I got the bedroom to myself since my sister is in college. Thank you for being hilarious and kind. You’re truly one of the funniest people here.
I think that some people here have dead eyes, especially the ones in treatment mall. I think most people on our floor still have eyes that are still alive, maybe cause we’re still young. I think your eyes are alive. I hope it stays like that, no matter what happens.
On Wednesday, you asked me what matters, and I didn’t know. I wish I did, and I tried to answer. My suitemates are the wise ones—they would have known what to do, and what to say. I still don’t know the answer. I think that’s what keeps your eyes from being dead. Not knowing the answer, but trusting that there is one, and searching for it.
On the cover of this card there is a phoenix. It’s my favorite bird. No matter how many times it dies, it always rises from the ashes. It always gets reborn. You can interpret that in whichever metaphorical manner you want.
Thank you, good luck, and see you on the Other Side.