My new therapist is a family friend but assures me, rather too eagerly, that everything we talk about here is confidential. In the hospital, they made me think if I didn’t go for follow-up therapy after my release, I’d suffer setbacks—psych ward nurses love to make the downward spiral motion, accompanied by a long, low whistle. The theory of the downward spiral goes for the pills, too, in which they believe utterly. “If you don’t take your meds?” Out comes the finger. “Wheeeeeooooooooooh.” They resist the urge to make a “splat” sound at the end, but watch intently, for effect, as the tips of their own index fingers go around, around, and down. Sign language for disaster. The gesture for “to the moon, Alice” in reverse. Turned on its side and raised up to the temple, it’s sign language slang for crazy.
Kris had just about decided on psychiatry as her area of specialization, and enjoyed her internship most when she worked with Nico, a young, serious, mild-mannered specimen of male nurse with no perceivable qualms about the idea of nursing being women’s work. He’d been nudged toward psychiatry by supervisors early on, who noted his calm demeanor, and his imperturbable way with women in particular, result of having grown up with sisters. He lived happily now with an impassioned, red-haired, raw vegan yoga teacher named Sonia whom he adored, and who loved him in return. His clothes tended toward natural fabrics in shades of brown and green; his hair curled softly against lightly furred cheeks, and his native French lent his English a soothing roundness. The two of them were measuring out doses in the High Care office one day when they heard a familiar, Marlboro- and rye-inflected voice growing louder and louder as its owner—who could only be Virginia, a ward regular—approached.
Virginia was making the journey to High Care yet again, transferring now from the emergency room, where an associate from one of her preferred happy hour establishments had deposited her that afternoon. Escorting her was a young female nurse who believed the dual nature of the word “patient” was a linguistically deliberate act of God, and who often ruminated on it as both adjective and common noun, as both virtue and its test, extrapolating ever larger and broader meanings until she arrived at either laughter or tears. Her slow, steady stride provided a rhythmic counterpoint to the story Virginia was telling, which was convoluted both in content and delivery. As they broached the High Care office, where Nico and Kris prepared to receive them, Virginia reached the climax of her tale:
“So I told him! Bitter women make the sweetest cookies! Right? Right?” Virginia was laughing and coughing at the same time, trying to nudge the young nurse in the ribs with her elbow.
“Right,” the young nurse conceded at last, evading the elbow, even managing a slight conspiratorial smile. Virginia sighed in relief.
“Well, well!” said Nico, coming forward. “Virginia. We meet again.”
“Darling, you know I can’t stay away from you for long. Are you single yet?”
Nico smiled and looked away. Virginia coughed a long-term smoker’s cough—a barfly cough. The young nurse excused herself from Virginia’s side to confer with him. “The hand-off,” Virginia muttered.
She stood alone for a moment, marooned, all five feet of her (she was nearly as wide around as she was tall) clad in leopard-print velour leisure wear, great lowing brown eyes traced with navy blue crayon. Her bleached blond hair was half teased, half combed, as though she’d been about to do it up in a beehive and been interrupted. On her feet she wore dirty, fuzzy pink bedroom slippers.
Kris tried to initiate dialogue with her, but Virginia’s gaze had darkened and contracted in response to some perceived malice at the back of the room. The corners of Kris’s mouth turned down, as they did naturally when her face was at rest, and she busied herself with the intake forms. She sat down at the conference table, indicating an empty seat next to hers. Virginia settled into it, plunked an elbow onto the table, and mashed her face into the palm of her hand, reminding Kris of the first time she’d cooked chicken and held the raw, disembodied pieces, their severed skin sliding off, joints exposed, the dead cold flesh shifting in her fingers. She cleared her throat and took up a pen.
“Are you still at the same address?”
“You’re so gorgeous,” Virginia said, staring into Kris’s face. “I wish I were young and gorgeous like you.”
“You’re the most beautiful woman in psych, Virginia!” Nico yelled from across the room.
The nurse who’d escorted her took her cue. “That’s right! You’ll make all the men in there crazy for you. Watch out!”
“Eh. They’re already crazy.” All her coquetry fallen away, Virginia was every inch the 53-year-old psych ward habituée, and visibly tired of being so.
The young nurse came over to say goodbye. She handed Virginia her tote bag, which Virginia had abandoned near the door. “You take care now.”
“Thanks. Thank you, dear.”
“All right.” She smiled kindly and left, her white shoes quiet against the floor, a scent of drugstore gardenias marking her wake.
“Give ‘er ten years,” Virginia rasped. “She won’t be so damn nice.”
“In ten years, I hope you’ll have forgotten all about this place, Virginia,” said Nico.
“Don’t fucken patronize me.”
They took Virginia to her room. When she balked at the folded hospital garments Kris offered, Nico said, “Come on, you know it’s easier this way,” and fed her an alprazolam. Kris looked on wide-eyed, and wished she could be as firm.
I wish they’d just let me sleep and eat here for a while, and not make me speak. They want me to talk about myself all the time, and let me tell you, I am not that interesting. I’m afraid if I did that, if I just kept my mouth shut tight, as I want to, they would keep me here forever, and make me take the kind of pills that interfere with the laws of physics—last week a newly minted young psychiatrist, disturbingly merry, prescribed a little bomb that made me feel like I was walking sideways, or perpetually falling, like Donald O’Connor doing the ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ number in “Singin’ in the Rain”—except it wasn’t funny. I wish this were a rich kid rehab farm, in Connecticut, say, with chickens to feed, and barns full of hay, and maybe some spider-webs spun by benevolent, motherly, wisdom-dispensing spiders, and all I had to do was push, pull, lift and carry things all day. Be a beast of burden. But I hear places like that are expensive.
The High Care office where they count out the meds and fill in the forms has this giant window overlooking the patients’ common area and the corridor that runs the length of the ward. The nurses and the patients watch each other through it, but only the nurses have control over the lights, so they can make themselves invisible if they want to. We can’t. Sometimes, before or after a visit, a family member will hang out in the office with the nurses and join in the watching, which scares the bejeezus out of every patient in here, no matter how far gone. My father does it one day—watches me from behind that picture window. He and the nurse chat behind the glass, a terrible TV show on mute, while I sit there in the common area clutching a magazine, trying to act sane. God knows what she’s telling him. Can’t be anything good by the look on his face. His eyes are all screwed up, and he’s looking at me like I’m a charge on his credit card bill he can’t remember making, or maybe mold. He’s looking at me like I’m mold. Does he think I don’t feel him watching? Maybe they told him it’s one-way glass, like in a police interrogation room.
The television in the common area points down at us from high up in a corner, strapped onto a special, slanted shelf. No one ever watches it, probably because it’s hard not to imagine it crashing to the floor, but it’s always on. Vinyl-covered chairs with exposed steel arms line the walls, and a wood-look coffee table holds a few free local tabloids, some trashy magazines, the occasional newspaper. An architectural quirk of the building keeps the common area dark all the time, even during the day, in spite of a good 20 square feet of window along one wall. It’s like the shittiest airport lounge on earth: everyone waiting, arrivals, departures, hope, despair. Family reunions.
My sister comes to visit with her fiancé and we sit in my room. They bring playing cards. My sister says I have to stay alive so I can serve as maid of honour at her wedding, and her eyes open wide as she says it, as though she’s surprised; she acts surprised to be getting married, she acts like her fiancé’s the most amazing creature that ever drew breath, and he pretends to believe her, and deals the cards.
Generic paroxetine hydrochloride coats my thoughts in cheap glitter. If I were four years younger, it would be illegal to give me this stuff. Vesicle-disgorged serotonin collects in my synaptic gaps and goes rancid, its still-expectant receptors flailing uselessly. The Raphe nuclei are pissed off and demand an explanation. I recognize the chemical composition of my meds from things I’ve taken voluntarily at parties—homemade pills etched with symbols, or whimsical images, like doves, procured in giddy dancefloor tete-a-tetes; bumps of ketamine inhaled off the meaty fist of a friend long since succumbed to intravenous indulgence and indiscreet sex—whole warehouses stacked with young bodies self-medicated to the gills, so we could dance our asses off and act stupid with impunity, until the early morning exposed our graying skin and sticky noses.
Patients must comply with recommended psycho-pharmacological intervention, though, and they do test the blood to make sure you’re on board, the midnight express team flipping on a ceilingful of overhead fluorescent lights at 4 am to jab a needle in your arm. The nurse with the helmet hair and nimble fingers coos sweet nothings, “What a nice girl,” while an orderly skulks in the background, manning a cart of vials and syringes, broadcasting silently, “There but for the grace of God….” These two have what seems like a well-honed routine. They doze away the witching hours in the High Care office, lights turned down to a blue glow, in chairs piled high with blankets and pillows, the nurse’s somehow rigged up like a dentist’s chair: high, supine. The orderly beds down in a corner somewhere. I’ve seen them at night on my way to the washroom. Night shift on the psych ward.
I once read in a cookbook a list of tricks for giving medicine to children. You hide it inside maraschino cherries or marmalade sandwiches; give them an ice cube to hold in their mouths. And there’s always Mary Poppins’s reliable old spoonful of sugar, though that was for the old-fashioned kind of vile-tasting stuff they used to pour from a bottle, not pills. I guess here they save those kinds of tricks for cancer patients and actual kids—cuddly patients of the definitely-not-psychiatric variety, the ones not deemed to be shameful; the ones who don’t arouse the nurses’ and doctors’ and orderlies’ disgust. So I hold my nose and choke down the pale blue, cashew-sized pills like a good little girl until my last week, when I know the night nurse and her furtive sycophant won’t bother with me anymore, and what a delight it is to take the smug little bastards and their soppy, aggressive cheer out from under my tongue and send them pinging into the trash! Of course moments later I go scurrying through the bin to find something to wrap them in, in case a nurse or an orderly should find them there. I play it safe and flush them down the toilet, hoping they don’t make some poor body down the river predisposed to inexplicable euphoria.
A lawyer appears among us. He has an excellent haircut and a perfect, healthy complexion, yet he surrenders his clothes and dons the faded hospital garb and smiley face slippers like the rest of us—though with aplomb, I should say, as the gentleman at leisure he is. An ascot would not look out of place. He claims he came to the emergency room in search of the mythical “someone to talk to,” and was shocked to find himself processed and admitted outright—to High Care, no less. He never reveals what it was that made him wander into a hospital, present his Medicare card, and ask for someone to talk to, and no one is terribly curious. It takes him nearly two days of phone calls to get the whole thing sorted out, which he does with methodical calm, but before he leaves he teaches us how to play poker.
We sit around the table after dinner, beyond the prying eyes of the office thanks to a bit of a corner in the wall, Virginia shuffling past now and then to snarl and mutter at us—they’re trying something new on her, she’s gone a bit herky-jerky, and refuses to bathe. Cigarette smoke sticks to her clothes and wild hair. Staff policy is not to interfere with Virginia’s smoke breaks except to bid her enjoyment in a wistful, disappointed-parent tone that is nauseous to hear as she saunters off toward the designated room in the building’s bowels to mingle with other defiant, tobacco-loving staff and patients—a loophole in the locked-ward policy, since she doesn’t leave hospital property, or maybe just the privilege of the repeat customer. Virginia is also a scion of one of Montreal’s older and better English families as well as a drunk and lifelong psychiatric patient, capable of you never know what kind of talk, and she requires daily exposure to a broad range of humans in order to feel all right with the world.
“What’s that? Gambling inside public property?” she says now. “That’s illegal! You should know!” Virginia gives the lawyer a shove that sends his torso flopping forward, a silken fringe of hair falling across his forehead. But he smiles at her, and she smiles back, then sashays away, twirling an end of her bathrobe belt. In fact, we’re all smiling.
The pharmaceutical haze is like another creature at the table, but we manage to learn the rules. The lawyer is a patient—in the adjectival sense—and affable teacher, and we play a good few rounds, betting stockpiled vanilla wafers arranged in the lid of a Styrofoam clamshell box. George, a congenial Souvlaki chef whose wife, whenever she’s had enough, deposits him here with a bagful of ironed pajamas, wins the kitty, and everyone’s glad for him. It’s the friendliest game of any kind I’ve ever played.
We’re in the middle of celebrating George’s victory when Virginia comes barreling out of her room. She charges up to the giant office window and before anyone can stop her she starts to slam herself against the unbreakable glass, again and again, screaming at the placid nurses grazing on muffins behind it, “You’re just using us for target practice! Bang! Bang!” It’s a plausible theory. With each “Bang!” she hurls her entire body against the window. Her physical energy is sudden and astonishing, the choreography of it remarkable, and we sit there, frozen, in equal parts admiration and horror, because we all know what comes next. In no time flat she’s being overpowered and dragged off to her room by an efficient team of orderlies and nurses, who with obvious relish strap her to the bed and administer enough sedative to quell a dinosaur. We listen until her cries subside, then pack in the game.
The next day, Virginia’s navy blue eyeliner has turned to deep grey rings that come from within. She’s a wraith, drifting around with an eerie lightness that belies her girth. She stops going for her cigarette breaks, and she gets quiet—too quiet. Even Nico, usually so unflappable and used to wild fluctuations in temperament among his wards, grows worried. His young man’s forehead folds in a single horizontal line when he looks at her. She’ll be sitting in the common area, staring out at nothing, and Nicolas will come with her pills and get down on one knee in front of her, as though proposing—which she would normally have a field day with—and he’ll beg and cajole until she accepts the meds and a cup of water. Other nurses are far less patient with her. And then Virginia is simply gone, her room cleansed of all trace of her, and the ward is like an empty stretch of highway after a carful of rowdy teenagers has just gone careening by.
In a windowless corner near the dinner table sits a dusty old exercise bike. The day the lawyer leaves I get on it and ride like hell, and people gather around to watch and cheer me on like it was the Tour de France. Some days, George the Souvlaki chef, Ed the ex-Hell’s Angel, and I pass the time and stretch our legs pacing up and down the length of the ward. At one end are the heavy locked doors that seal off our “low stimulation environment” from the regular psychiatric ward, with vertical slit windows of thick glass crosshatched with re-enforcing wire, through which we can see the door to art therapy, where grad students hover encouragingly over the tables (“Art Therapy and the Adult Psychiatric Patient: Symbiotic Cycles of Success.” “Portraits, Poster Paint, and Paranaoia: Images of Schizophrenia.” “Decoupage and Dementia: Patterns of Recovery.”). High Care patients get to go on Wednesdays. I sketch a few self-portraits in which I look like I’m trying to sink my cranium into my ribcage.
They give us two-toned slippers embossed with happy faces over the toes that come in a cellophane wrapper. The men’s are brown and mine are green. Actually, George often wears the slippers his wife brought him, which are plaid with hard black plastic soles and match his bathrobe. But he wears the smiley ones, too, perhaps for the novelty, or out of solidarity—he and Ed have really hit it off. The slippers wear through quickly when you pace a lot; the polyurethane waning with tiny, almost imperceptible squeaks against the floor, variable according to the presence of socks, and there soon opens a rapidly expanding hole under the ball of the foot. If you ask politely, a staff member will fish out a fresh pair for you from a box they keep in the office. They’re not stingy with them. So, on the one hand, you have a nice new pair of slippers, with no holes. On the other hand, you’ve been, and will be, here long enough to need a new fucking pair of slippers.
The nurses approve of the visual white noise of us tamed timorous beasties floating by, acquiescent, brains parked in pharmaceutically- and institutionally-induced neutral. The men walk side by side and I walk alone, reaching one end as they reach the other. A tiny child-woman has appeared, flitting about like a hummingbird, her movements intelligently erratic. Compared to her, George, Ed, and I are plodding old mules, she a fairy, a muse. One time Ed nudges George and makes a little fuss as I pass, as though I were a pretty girl going by, not this pimply awkward thing with a bad haircut and recently pumped stomach—I think I was even dead for a few minutes. What does that make me now? Undead? Oh, the melodrama. Pacing the ward is not a reasonable facsimile of normalcy, however. When Ed goes out on his 30-minute walk privilege, I watch from the window in my room—he’s easy to keep track of in his leather biker get-up. The combination of pills they have him on are fine for perambulating the boundaries of the ward in humiliating footwear and drawstring pants; but when it comes to setting motorcycle boots to pavement, it’s a different story. Ed’s got the classic Hell’s Angels look, except for his sweet, vulnerable eyes, and he’s used to commanding fear and respect out there, not picking his way along like an arthritic old lady. He stares down at the ground, every pebble and crack in the sidewalk a threat, moving so gingerly that people shove past him and give him dirty looks.
I keep my head down. They grant me outing privileges, and my father takes me to his health club to play squash. Soon after that they announce my release date, one week shy of the twenty-second birthday I tried to avoid. Once when I was pacing, just before I did my about-face at the dinner table, I decided that when I got out I’d go to Vancouver and study photography, grow strong and independent between the sea and the mountains, but I neither acted on the idea nor confessed it to anyone. I’ve relinquished any notion of control; indeed my mother’s cousin has gone ahead and lined up a secretarial position for me, and there’s no question of my turning it down. The day my parents come for me I have nothing but the slightest membrane to protect myself from the world, I have the high-performance sensory perception of a ten-year-old, and all is too bright, too loud, too much and too many.
Rebecca Rustin is a Montrealer with roots in London, England and the shtetls of Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. After studying the great authors of the English tradition at Concordia University, she finally picked up a copy of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and felt at home.
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book