A curly-haired woman sits at the front of the Day Room, smiling at us. Only four patients came to Mindfulness Therapy today. The man next to me keeps nodding off on the table, the fluffy ring of white hair encircling his skull bobbing gently up and down with his breathing.
“Take a look at the lists I gave you,” the woman says. “Think about what you’re feeling and mark it off. We’ll share in a minute.”
I study my page. Negative feelings on top. Positive feelings on the bottom. I picture bars and locks, weak coffee, the window on my bedroom door.
Frustration. Worry. Anxiety. Helplessness. After a moment’s contemplation, I make a check, too, next to Shame.
Here I am again. Staring out through the square bars on my window, I can see a piercingly blue sky and fresh snowfall, unmarred by footprints. My room is simple – a twin bed in the exact center of the floor, a chair where I’ve draped my clothing, paper bags lined against the wall containing the few belongings of mine which the front desk security guard didn’t seize as contraband. It’s the bed where I rocked and cried out last night, visited by dreams of stunning brightness. It’s the chair where the angel was.
Here I am again, huddled under a thin brown blanket. There is nothing to do but write, nowhere to go but up and down, endlessly, the fluorescent halls. Things are shabby, and sturdy, and cold. The domain of the insane.
So, here I am, again. Last night, strapped down in the stretcher on the ambulance, I trembled despite the warmth and my heart, red and hot inside of me, became its own creature – a trapped deer maybe, a wounded crow. A hundred miles. Two. In the night’s darkness, I couldn’t make out the building I now sit in; in my mind’s blinding glare, I couldn’t make out myself. When they emptied my little backpack onto the table, I was numb. When they paged through my journal, I was tired. When they told me to take off all my clothes and stand in front of her, I was small. When the woman in the flowered shirt asked how I was feeling, I said in a little voice: Scared.
The psych ward is a place of routine and order. Even babbling and screaming can’t interrupt the mundane snapshots its travelers will recall – push-button showers, slippers, identical trays, a single shelf of battered books, styrofoam cups of coffee, white bracelets, plastic chairs, the slow and purposeless walk of souls with nothing but pain and time. Psych does not mean healing to me, nor, although the word is everywhere, does it mean care. It means desks, pills, tedium. It means blank space, a paper on which you can scrawl with a black pen black words, silhouettes of black trees, and the distant aeries of your mind.
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. –The Prophet, Khalil Gibran
Serenity is a blue kite caught high in a tree. Days pass all but featurelessly, with a slowness that chokes my soul to shapelessness. There is no clock in my room; my phone and watch were confiscated. Time grinds on, one empty second plodding morosely after that last. I swing my legs, I pace my room, I place my palm flat against a windowpane to feel its chill. Serenity is a paper boat floating out of reach on a pond.
I’m here because I’m crazy again. The din of the voices has become too much for me. I am an alien, commanded by the Metatron to die and be reborn. Hunted by a coalition of governments, I am hiding in plain sight in the catacombs of The System, where old men color in pictures of princesses and nurses search my room for jewelry. I wonder, watching the free world outside, what truths hide deep in the belly of these fallacies, what fathomless sickness is alluded to.
Extremity enthralls me; madness fascinates. After all the journal pages filled front and back with my untidy print, underlinings and exclamations proliferating like spring dandelions, after all the equations inked feverishly on my bedroom wall, after all the star maps and the bookmarks, one thing remains yet unclear. Take this mind of mine, this brain that is a doll sewn together wrong or a puzzle piece put away in some other box: what is to be done?
In another culture, or in another age, we mad ones might be seers, prophets, witch doctors. But here and now, in a sterile facility, a sharp and bespectacled psychiatrist types different words into her computer: Psychotic. Schizophrenic. Suicidal. As morning sweeps slowly into my sixth day on the ward, I cradle my head in my hands. My mind is a ghost town, and I am a tired traveler wiping dust off the window-panes. The pills they hand me in a little paper cup each morning and every night, it seems, are working; God is mute, the soil of my delusions untilled. There are no more strange voices, crackling as some irresistible, sacred fire in my ears. The euphoric certainty that I will be resurrected, hale and dazzling and strong, is a memory. There is relief, there is calm. There is tedium, too, and a strange sense of loss.
Medication: my enemy, my friend.
I put the pills in my mouth and I swallow. I stamp the seal on my own sentencing. Opening wide to show the nurse proof of my compliance, I feel momentarily like an extra in an old film about an asylum: drooling, stupefied, black and white. I’m next for the ice bath or the spinning chair, as-yet-unforeseen terrors. I’m tired. I am numb and normal. I hurt for my Icarus-self, flying too close to the sun.
Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “I miss the lost intensities, and I find myself unconsciously reaching out for them, as I still now and again reach back for the fall and heaviness of my now-gone, long, thick hair; like the trace of moods, only a phantom weight remains.”
This is a curse we can carry: sane now, gears clicking steadily along as they should, I am back on marked trails. What now? Music, knocking, footsteps, all are threads in the siren song calling me to the reasonless wilderness. I want the glorious renaissance I was promised. I miss the radiance of all things.
It’s easy for me, this time, to romanticize my psychosis. I remember gates, red and golden, stars, dizzying heights, and living moment to moment, when it struck me, in a cocoon of pure and holy revelation. Voices calling my name – my name! – and rousing me to the ineffable purpose for which I was created in fire and earth. Yes, I lose myself in this. I tell myself stories about the springtime in return – last spring, full of pale things, grasping and searching which should never leave their hell of blackness; next spring, maybe, healthy. Grounded. Serene. Naked of the armor I once imagined, but unafraid.
How many of us choose to live forever in the magic, the majesty, created inside ourselves? I am solitary by nature. I speak quietly and I keep my own company. But moderation has never been my ally, and something in this latest thread of psychosis pulls hauntingly at my heart. Come with me, come with me, it says. Over the mountain is a beautiful dawn. I think about my parents and my brother, Jessica and Drew, my cigarette smoke rising to the icy, snowflake-dappled black sky the morning I left for the hospital. I’ll take my pills tonight.
Featured image by garlandcannon