They took my shoe laces first. Better to not have temptations, I guess, but I wanted to tell the hospital attendants who flocked around me that strangulation had never been my thing, so they might as well let the gaping hole in my shoes stay sealed. But I stayed quiet. Talking took too much effort. Then I changed into shapeless sweat pants and shirt. When I’d packed to come, I hadn’t known what to bring. After all, how was I to know what the insane wear? I sat down with a kind-faced nurse who took my information. She filled in all the little spaces with writing. Sign here, please. Then I was in. Through the security post with its codes and keys. Past the nurses’ desk where curious looks followed me. Into a hospital. The place smelled like a hospital. I hadn’t thought of this as a place for the sick, only for the mad.
A physical. Blood taking. Then drugs. Lots of drugs. They put me in a small cell-like room. There were no bars on the window, but I imagine the frame was filled with safety glass. Breaking it would do no good. Like the windows they put in windshields, it would fracture in a big spider pattern, but the pieces of glass would not separate. I sat on my bed and looked out the window. The books I had brought to read sat unopened. Couldn’t read. Couldn’t really think. Couldn’t really feel. The medication was like those s-shaped Styrofoam fillers that come in boxes from mail order catalogs, but instead of protecting a new CD or book, they came between my flesh and the knife point. Muffled, I could still feel its movement but not its bite. So I just sat and stared out the window at the hills that rose above the Ohio River and imagined the river I couldn’t see.
Physical wounds are easy to understand. Soul wounds are not. I was fighting the impulse to cut myself, or in some other way try to make that pain tangible, explainable, manageable, understandable, visible. I heard a friend’s voice in my head: “She is just doing it for attention.” But I knew that it was not about the attention. I just wanted the pain to stop, and I just didn’t see any other options. But mostly, I was tired of not being known, of keeping the pain inside and hidden, of living a lie. Death seemed more honest. Clean. Open.
I sat in my quiet room, drugs keeping me still as effectively as restraints. But inside, the need to live battled with the desire to die. Killing myself was not as simple as I originally thought. The physical act was not the hard part. After suffering so much pain in the soul, it would be a relief to feel it in the body. The hardest part would be the choice to give up the good as well as the bad in living. Even as I longed to leave life, I remembered swimming breaststroke, my head just above the warm water, as I watched green terns walk on the river’s edge. Moving like a turtle, I swam close without disturbing them. Just a few feet away. They accepted me as one of them, and I swam alongside them for nearly an hour. Connected to them, to the water, to the movement of my body, I sensed the universal other in us, the spark of what some people call the divine. Peace. Remembering this moment made it hard to choose to never have another one like it.
In my first days on suicide watch, I noticed that they tried to remove temptations. The shower heads were recessed so no noose could hang from them. The dinner trays had broad, thick, rounded corners. Salt and pepper came in cushy packages, apple juice in plastic containers. They gave me plastic spoons to eat my soft, mushy food. Most doors were locked, and I had to call the keeper of the keys to get a towel, to go to the bathroom, to get my toiletries, to get into my own locker.
They thought they made sure there were no sharp edges in the outside environment to match the ones inside me. However, I did see some dangers they overlooked. A framed picture of a small village along a curve in a river hung on the wall in the waiting area. The glass had been replaced with Plexiglas but the metal frame came to four quite sharp points. Curtains that could easily be twisted into a death scarf adorned the windows behind my head. A fake potted plant hung from a plant holder long enough to break a wind-pipe. Electric sockets sat there, uncovered. If I wanted to kill myself, even in there, I could.
But I didn’t. I felt protected by the walls. Womb-like, the hospital gave me food, air, space to live. My psychiatrist, who diagnosed me without ever meeting me, went on a long weekend holiday and left no instructions for me other than the drugs, so I didn’t have any therapy and wasn’t required to go to group meetings. I was left to myself most of the day. In the evening, visitors came, good friends, who brought me homemade soup, pasta heavy with garlic, and other offerings from the world of the living. Then I slept. Days of sleep. I slowed the frantic pace of my life to a crawl. I felt the spaces in between activities. The pleasure in doing nothing. I lay in my bed in a fetal position, hearing the beating of my heart. Like a baby deciding to come into the world, I learned to breathe again. And for right then, breathing in and out and not stopping was enough.
There was something seductive about being in a psych ward. I could act in any way I wanted. Most of the people on my floor, the fourth floor, suicide watch, were old, very old. Most sat and stared. The younger ones moved around, talked, walked — but rarely did they meet each other’s eyes. And often they spoke to no one visible. Given this, strangeness was expected on my floor, which allowed some of the patients to be seduced into exposing the real. I knew that I could have run up and down the hall, arms flailing and mouth stretched in a screaming “O” — and few people would even look up. Kinda weird. But the good southern girl that I was kept her clothes on, her voice modulated, her social face intact. Even in here. But the potential for something else waited just outside my peripheral vision.
My roommate was a woman in her late 40s/early 50s whose husband was quite cruel to her. Bess told me of the nasty comments, the lack of attention, the jealous outrages, the fights, the blows. I asked her why he wasn’t in here rather than her. “He’s the crazy one,” I said. She seemed surprised. “I am here,” Bess said, “because I have to learn to accept him and love him for what he is.” She continued, “I am in the Christian counseling program.” That explained a lot. When she started to try to convert me, and when her counselors came in and tried to convert me, I tried to be polite. But soon I got angry. They were like vultures, preying on the weak. Finally, I told them that I was a Buddhist (thinking of the religion that might shock them the most). They moved her out of my room, away from my contamination, and I went on staring out the window, considering whether I should continue living — especially in a place where those so-called Christians were believed to be the normal ones.
Because I didn’t actually try to kill myself, the staff started believing and then saying: “You’re looking better.” The doctor on call moved me off suicide watch and onto a regular ward, two floors down. I gained three roommates then. All were getting shock treatments. One because she heard voices. One because she believed she had a painful tumor no one could find. And one for some problem I could never understand. We talked to each other quietly that night while lying in bed. Electricity still sizzling in their brains, their discourse swung fragmented, loose, free, like a Kandinsky painting.
Two of the women talked of learning the right words, the right tone of voice, the right gestures to make it stop. Just to make the electric shock stop. They were like rats, given electric shock when they stepped on the wrong pad. The other woman was different. She believed she deserved the punishment. When both pads are electrified, the rats learn just to sit still. The doctors call it “learned helplessness.” She sat still, like those rats, accepting the pain. I wondered, “Is this healing?”
After they fell asleep, I lay there, afraid. What if they try to do that to me? I was here on a voluntary basis. But what if it became involuntary? What if I didn’t get better? Would they try that classical conditioning crap on me, too? Me, a rat in an experiment. In my cold terror, I became more interested in getting better.
Such defeat in that room, that ward. Many of these people would never leave. Sue, the quiet teenager who sat in the back of rooms trying to disappear, had been there for years. Janet, hair frizzy because of the numerous electric shock treatments, lived precariously outside but came back every few months. And Kate, the stunningly beautiful woman whose body communicated the pain of her soul in impulses that told her brain “tumor” rather than “sadness.” Even Bess, who was not allowed to talk to me now, whose husband beat her, and who kept trying to believe it was her fault though her body told her otherwise. But even as I wondered about their lives, I knew mine would be different. I stood on the inside for now, but I knew much of me was still on the outside.
As a lawyer, I had trained my mind to work independently of my body, my heart. I could analyze, consider, think through problems even as the rest of me wanted to die. The mind kept going despite it all, and while sometimes I hated how unstoppable it was, my analytical distance kept me from being one of them.
A friend brought me a tape of “X-Files” episodes to watch. When most everyone else was at Group, I took it to the patients’ lounge and plugged it into the VCR. I watched a full episode, then started a second one when other patients started coming in and quietly sitting on the floor. Soon the room was full of attentive watchers, too attentive. I looked around the room as the bizarre unfolded on the screen and thought, “There is at least one person who believes this is the truth.” When I got up to leave, the boys down the hall asked to borrow the tape. The TV room became even more packed, full of silent stares.
At the other end of the hall from the TV room, a room with tables and chairs for the patients just wanting to sit together without the TV had one window, close to street level, that opened up to the outside world. The window was blocked by heavy curtains so no one could see in, and so those inside wouldn’t have to look out at all those people going about their everyday lives. I couldn’t help it. I peeled back a small corner of the barrier to watch those people, already so far away from me and my experience, walk past on their way to the bank or to get coffee. “What do they have that I don’t?” I wondered. Then I looked around me at the other patients, feeling my difference from them, too. I belonged to no one. Singular.
A nurse came into the room, and I dropped the curtain. The nurses had been kind to me, but most people just left me alone, perhaps sensing that I didn’t really belong here either. So I was surprised when she asked me to follow her into a private room. Her face was grim. She pulled up a chair, sitting down so her face was level with mine, and uncomfortably close. We sat in silence. “Is there any chance you might be pregnant?” she asked. I looked at her in quiet horror, my mind spinning away from my grip. I had been told I couldn’t have children. That I shouldn’t have children. When I didn’t reply, she took my hand in hers, and said, “Dana, your blood work came back from the lab with, well, a strange result. We’d like to retest you.”
Then, I knew.
Back in my room, I curled up in my bed, my mind fumbling with an idea too large for my shaking hands. My doctor had told me women with bipolar disorder shouldn’t have children. “They’ll be bipolar, too,” she said. And it seemed true. Studies suggested the children of bipolar parents were at high risk of having the same disorder; some experts even suggested sterilizing bipolar patients so they couldn’t reproduce. But was the risk of producing another bipolar person enough of a reason to not have a child? I mean, really, was having bipolar disorder so awful that I wished I never had been born? Yes, it had been hard. Immeasurably hard. But did I wish I had never taken breath? Was my illness the only thing about me that could define my life? And, most importantly, could I justify my own existence enough to make another person who might be like me? I stroked my still flat belly, imaging its fullness.
I rolled over toward the wall as another thought bothered me. Was life worth offering to a child, bipolar or not? With all the chaos of the world, with all the despair, with all the pain, would life bring my child enough beauty and happiness to make it worth it? All children come into the world heading toward death. Was what happened between birth and death enough of a reason to be born at all? I wasn’t sure if I was committed enough to life to make life.
But most of all, I worried. I couldn’t care for myself. How could I care for a child?
Weeks before I had come to the hospital, my mood swings had begun to cycle rapidly from high, to low, to the empty middle. First, bright, sharp, manias, hard as crystal shards, made me powerful, creative, tireless. I felt invincible. I spent days on the best high I had ever known or heard about. In my job as a public defender, I tried to save the world, over and over again. I worked until I collapsed, exhausted. I committed to too many social engagements, too many clients, too much emotional wear and tear. I became sexual, highly sexual, and sought the human touch to ground me, help me find my body.
It must have been when I was in one of those states that I got pregnant, with a handsome, dark-haired visiting poet I met at the reception after his reading. His poetry was full of pain, clear and direct, like I would have written if I still could write poetry. I found myself nodding throughout his reading, seeing myself caught in his stanzas.
At the reception, I had to wait in line to talk to him. As I complimented him on the rawness of his work, he moved close to me and whispered in my ear, “You understand, no?” We left the reception for a bar, and he taught me to play pool, standing behind me to help me shoot. As he was holding my arm to guide it, I saw a long scar on the inside of his wrist. I touched it, feeling its hard ridge. He jumped and pulled away.
After a few games, we sat down. He raised his glass to me, gesturing to the other people in the bar, “As only the sane can do.” I didn’t laugh. Neither did he. He pulled back his sleeve to let me look at the scar again. I knew what it was. We spent the night making it not matter.
He left the next morning, but I would have ruined it anyway. I was impatient with others who seemed to move so slowly, whose thoughts I could finish. I was snappy, imperial, a queen among peasants. I was hardly relationship material.
Then, I paid for the crystalline beauty of the mania. I fell into a deep, dark depression filled with slow water that dragged on me. It took me hours to wash the dishes, sweep the floor, do a load of laundry. I sat in the bay window that looked out of my house onto the street, watching the rain fall on the pavement and the car lights reflect on the mirror the road had become. I was empty, closed, cold, flat. When I got up to finally eat, I looked at the clock. I had been sitting there for over five hours. I didn’t know. I had lost time. And I had missed an important meeting with a client.
Later, I moved into the middle ground — normal — but the repercussions of the mood swings, the residual traumas of my life, and the pain of living beyond them paralyzed my soul. I wrote pages of dull legal briefs, and rarely felt inspired to write anything else. No poetry came from me. My journal pages remained empty. My body kept on with my work, my life. Soulless. I longed to end the hypocrisy of continuing life as if I wasn’t wounded. The final insult of the world was that no one else, besides a dark stranger who could only stay a night, looked deeply enough to see the hurt I could not ignore. I spent whole days looking out through pain-ridden eyes noticing no one notice. How can they not see? I would think. I was tired of not being known. I wanted to externalize the pain, mark myself like an ancient warrior. So, I ended up here, in a place where that part of me that I had tried to hide from others for so long could be seen. Now, the normalcy was the hidden part.
Could I be “normal” enough for a child?
One of my roommates, a sixth-grade teacher with red, frizzy hair who periodically returned to shock therapy whenever the voices got too loud, came into the room and laid a light hand on my shoulder. She knew better than to ask “What is it?” — no one around here did. Instead, she sat next to me in quiet sympathy. I folded in around myself, holding my stomach as if it had the answers.
I heard the bolt clank shut behind me as I walked through the lobby toward the exit. That is the last time, I thought. That is the last time I will ever hear that awful clank. I carried with me all that I had brought into the hospital stuffed in a gym bag in one hand. With the other, I reached for the outer door. Through the heavy glass, I saw the sunlight, the sidewalk, the people walking to get their morning coffee, and the exterior door became too heavy to open. In freeze-frame, I began to push my feet into the carpet like a Clysdale moving a heavy wagon. Inch by inch, it gave. Suddenly, the door fell open, and I was on the sidewalk, too. Among all the other people. Dazed in the sun. I realized I could still smell the hospital stink on my clothes, in my hair, and on my skin. The release papers in my hand. I signed myself in. I could sign myself out.
I started walking, just walking. I knew I should go to the half-way house that was meant to ease my transition back into the world. Help me with my new, baby-friendly, all-natural, experimental Omega-3-oil treatment. Set me up for further introductory meetings with my neo-hippie, New Age psychiatrist who believed that I could have a baby and maintain my mood balance — all at the same time. But I passed the friendly looking building by. My legs just kept moving.
Though I still couldn’t see it, I knew it was there. I sped up when I saw the gray concrete of the massive flood wall. I walked between the gates, looking way up the painted numbers that indicated how deep flood waters had grown in the past. The markers went to the very top. What had the citizens of the city thought when they could see waves at this remarkable height towering over their homes? Did they feel small and helpless at the threat of thundering water they could not control? Why did they continue to live with that threat? Why not build elsewhere? The walls were full of chips, scratches, chunks missing or cracked. I reached out to touch one deep groove made by some floating debris. The concrete felt cold, hard, and strong. Regardless of how many times the water had pushed against them and then receded, the walls were still here, guardians of a city built on a flood plain and ever subject to the ebb and flow of larger forces.
I continued through the gate, down the steps, and toward the water. My feet echoed hollow steps as I crossed the planks of the wharf. The banks were largely empty, even on this sunny day. But it was early. Later, children would come to roller blade on the paved river-side trails. Office workers would walk over from the business district with their lunches, sitting on the grass in small groups. And couples would walk hand in hand, looking out at the movement of barges, tug boats, and tankers on the water highway before them. But now, I only saw a few homeless guys hanging out at the edge of the park, nearly out of sight.
I didn’t hesitate. I slipped off my shoes and stood with my toes wrapped around the edge, and held my arms out wide. I made a nice, clean dive into the water swirling rapidly below. No splash. My diving coach would have been proud. I stayed down in the colder current as long as I could, looking up at the light filtering through the upper layer of water, which made a translucent pale green I have never seen anywhere else but from underwater. I once could hold my breath for nearly five minutes. Not anymore. I followed my bubbles up to the air, breaking the surface with a gasp.
I started with breaststroke, the most quiet and peaceful of the strokes. Turtle-like, I kept my head above water so that I could see what I passed as I hugged the shoreline. I poked along, barely rippling the water with my movement, letting the current do most of the work. A family of ducks swam close by, the little golden ducklings paddling frantically to keep up with their mother. They hardly noticed me.
After a while, I began to tire, so I rolled over to float on my back, the sun on my face warming my skin. As I relaxed into the water’s movement, I felt the hospital stink wash off of me, cleansing me. I thought about the little water creature within me, floating in her own private river. She and I floated along, and I felt bigger than just me. I felt our twoness as well as our oneness — the essential contradiction of creating life. As I expanded the concept of myself to include her, I also included the river, the ocean that was this river’s goal, and all that the ocean surrounded. As we touched water, it also touched shores, boats, islands, and continents on the other side of the world. We became part of it all, my former boundaries that had defined me now indistinct and permeable and variable. I gave into the ambiguity of myself and of our future, and simply allowed myself to drift. A deep knot untied at the center of my being, its ends, too, floating free.
I righted myself, clean and open, and turned toward shore. Time to build, I thought, even if it has to be on the flood plain.