by marie brown
"Claudia Nath?" I had turned to look at the white board behind me. "Excuse me, I have to make a telephone call." I excused myself from the group gathered around the table, waiting for the nurse coming off day shift to give report. I stepped into the next room and dialed quickly. "Yes, Sarah? I have a concern about working with our new admit on 3-A. No, it's just that I know her, and don't feel comfortable working as her nurse. Okay. Thank you very much. I'll step over there. Thank you." I went back into the next room to tell them that I would be working on the other unit for the night, and gathered my belongings mechanically.
Whatever would I do? Three weeks ago, when Claudia stepped out of my life, I never would have dreamed that she would re-enter it in quite this way. I couldn't even think clearly at that moment, except to move forward as a robot with my job, smiling and greeting the staff on 3-B and beginning to fill out the staff schedule for that evening. Rounds. Meal times. Any behavioral checks we needed to do? Any fluid restricted patients? The monotony of it occupied my mind for the time being, but I knew this would hardly last. I tried to keep the flow of tasks constant, action forcing my mind against the stagnation and wallowing that lurked at the edges of my consciousness. Claudia? I felt left out, like I had missed a vital chapter of an important book, and the teacher was quizzing me in front of the rest of the class. What are the major themes in this work, Julia? Tell me about the character foils that develop?
It was all I could do not to think of her next door, sitting on the institution-bedlinens, holding the institution-mealtray, drinking her skim milk I knew came from Curly's Dairy in Salem, the pink carton in her pale hand. How, after all this time, did she end up in this hospital? You would think they would ask such basic questions as to avoid situations like these. How would I ever be able to face her? I ran my hand through my short dark brown hair and corralled my attention back to the name being read by the man on the other side of the table. Calm, pleasant in the morning. Complaining about his roommate, loudly and persistently for us. They didn't do a roomchange, as the man had calmed when presented with his other options for roommates. Apparently he saw the relative good points of his current arrangement when faced with certain others of his peers. I couldn't say I necessarily blamed him.
The shift wore on, thankfully hardly giving me much as a moment to spare on idle thoughts. Emergency after tense situation after conflict to be resolved arose, and before I realized it, eleven o'clock had rolled around and I was in the midst of giving the next shift a action-filled report.
As I sat in my car, I reviewed what had happened. Claudia had been missing from my life for three weeks now, with no explanation or contact in that time, until now. I had thought—I had thought everything. That she left. That she hated me. That she had been kidnapped. I had talked to the local police, but as they saw the evidence—as I had—that she had packed and left willingly, without apparent struggle, they were most unwilling to look into this issue. This issue of a grown woman, who I thought had loved me, who could just pack up and leave, without so much as a word to me. I think some part of me was still shocked, that night when I saw her name on the board at work. New admit, Claudia Nath. Oh, heavens. What was going on? Did this sort of thing happen? And why did she just leave me? To describe the motion of my thoughts as spinning would have been quite the understatement, as I leaned against my steering wheel, still in the dark parking lot outside the hospital. I could call the unit, ask if she had given release of information to anyone. Oh darnit, Claudia. I didn't exactly hide my relationship at work, but I didn't usually see the necessity of airing my more personal life with my coworkers. Now, though, I didn't see how I could avoid it. Unless, of course, I was too late entirely.
The decision to leave so quickly was, as I later discovered, a product of my illness. Of course, I had little insight—haha insight—into this fact as I was packing my bag frantically that rainy afternoon in February. I had to leave, that was the thought I kept coming back to. I had to leave and get away before I hurt something or someone, before I hurt her before my mind fell apart. I couldn't ever hurt her she was the perfect one for me and I needed to run away I needed a bag where were my socks I need to find those hangers why was I bringing hangers and did I need three shirts or just this one? Maybe I didn't need any shirts, did I need any shirts? What about the television No I didn't need the television where would I plug it in? My mind moved rapidly but I was not too aware of how fleeting my thoughts were at the time. I was too worried. I had to leave before she arrived home. The packing left shirts and socks flung on the hardwood floor of our bedroom, and I meticulously retrieved these items before turning off the light and closing the door. I locked the front door and stepped quickly down the front steps. Heading for the bus stop.
After that, my thoughts grew even more hazy. I'm afraid I couldn't tell you what precisely happened, except that the police were there. Shouting. Other people, too. A lady in a red blouse, frowning My next memories are from the hospital where I stayed three weeks in a drug-induced haze manic haze. I was 24. Oh, I thought, every night before I went to sleep. How had I fucked this up? Oh Julia, how did I fuck this up? Where are you? I prayed for her face, and, remembering her line of work, prayed I would never see her again. Prayed I would never have to face her and my shame.
They had explained to me my diagnosis, and I had to admit that that explained quite a few of my thoughts and situations within the past several months. Bipolar disorder, most recent episode manic with psychotic features. Sheesh, what a fucking mess I had made of it all. And the worst part was, I heard nothing of Julia. Afraid for some unimaginable reason of what she would think of me, I didn't call her until nearly two weeks later. In treatment team meetings, I had claimed to have no living family, no relatives or friends. It was all I could do for her, I thought. I don't know what I was thinking, and a few weeks later I was literally banging my head against the wall for my mistakes and illusions. So fucking stupid, and now what? Now I would be in this place for God, fucking people. And every time I reached her answering machine I hung up the phone, too scared to talk into that machine that would capture the scared tone of my small voice her my love. How could I be so stupid, Lord?
"Claudia? Can you stop banging your head please?" The calm voice barely penetrated my concentrated focus on the stupidity of my life as it was now. How could I have done this? I was scared and drugged and my thoughts were beyond my control, and where oh where was my Julia?
"Code green, unit 3-A, Code green, unit 3-A." Even that, I hardly heard. Bang stupid fucking idiot that will teach you to think bang I hate this fucking place bang if only I could just bang wake up from this insane bang dream. I felt hands on my arms under my armpits pressure against my legs—What was happening?! I heard myself shriek and cry out, felt myself crumple to the floor.
I saw heard her cry from next door and my heart jumped into my throat. Oh my God I couldn't work like this. Oh holy shit this was too much, what were they doing to her. I rushed into the bathroom, aware of the stinging pressure behind my eyes. It was Sunday, and I would have to wait until tomorrow to speak with someone from management about my situation, and meanwhile I had been slowly falling to pieces. The shriek of my partner substantially hastened the process of my breaking apart, and I held the cool paper towel over my eyes, breathing deeply. It's ok, it's ok, it's ok. I hadn't read her chart, knew that it would be inappropriate for me to be involved in her care if I wanted to be involved in her life. I had not even called, treading so lightly in this situation for which I had been utterly unprepared. How could I have been unprepared? Oh jesus, what a mess. I forced my thoughts back to the unit, back to the dinner that was being served by the one mental health tech and I quickly reappeared on the unit. Oh Claudia, if only I knew what you were thinking, my dear. A bulb of tension, if you could call it that, had lodged itself in my throat but I worked at pretending calm and nonchalant as I handed out coffee to people who had lined up at the nurse's station, joking with some, greeting them and forcing my mind away from the happenings next door.
I was a nervous wreck by the time I entered my supervisor's office the next morning, having spent another nearly sleepless night, not hearing anything from her and not daring to call the unit telephone. I knew my hands shook, and I quickly took a seat in his office.
"How can I help you, Julia?" I respected him as a unit supervisor and hoped he had an acceptable solution to this problem, because I could not see one for the clouds that hazed over my vision in this matter. All I could think of was Claudia.
"I have a problem with the new admit on 3-A," I tell him, astonished at the calm quality of my voice. "I know her personally in my life, and don't feel that I can work with her and be a therapeutic part of her treatment." This is what I spun off the top of my head, after 3 years psychiatric nursing. I was faintly impressed with myself, actually. Ha.
The supervisor—Bob of course—steepled his hands in front of him and leaned back. "Well, that is a situation. Thank you for coming to talk to me about it. Would you rather move temporarily to another unit, or have her temporarily moved? Or we can look into other options, family leave. We can transfer her to Salem, possibly."
I took a deep breath, relieved at the possibilities finally laid out plainly for me. I told him about the code green situation of the previous day, how the staff had spoken of her upon returning to the unit and how that made me feel uncomfortable. I couldn't believe I described it as uncomfortable, when I had wanted to scream at them myself. Of course, I couldn't. Uncomfortable, what a comfortable word. I forced an illusion of calm over myself. I looked at the options. A leave of absence? A transfer to the Salem campus for me? For her? "There's no possibility of her being transferred to another hospital in the city?" Of course I knew the answer.
"No, I'm afraid we are looking, if I'm familiar with this patient, at more long-term stabilization for her, and then the discharge planning will be difficult, as she has no family or friends able to look after her care." At his last statement I sucked in a breath and looked away.
"Oh," I was finally able to get out. Perhaps it was best for her to go to Salem, to start with a treatment team where very few knew me. I could pretend to be someone else. I could pretend... which was silly, how could I pretend with Claudia? I looked at the one picture on the wall in his office while I went through my options once again. Leave of absence? This was going to get out. I wasn't ashamed. That thought became clear in my mind. I wasn't ashamed of my partner, and I never would hide behind a different city, different people who didn't know me or her. I would like to take a family leave, for as long as she was in this hospital being treated. This was acceptable with my supervisor, and with me too. I wouldn't have to deal with working at the same hospital as the one where she was being treated. I could participate in her care. I sighed with relief, the tension flowing and ebbing around my tired mind. All I could feel at that moment was relief, and only could think of my love for her. I smiled, my face a mask, and thanked Bob. I stepped out of the office, returning briefly to the unit for my coat and purse, speaking to nobody, and left the hospital to change my clothes and my role. I would call the unit, try to speak to my Claudia.
"Someone named Claudia here? Claudia Nath?" The yell came from the other side of the dayroom and I looked up from the point out the window which had held my focus for the past hour. I stood up and approached the payphone, which was being held out my a tall young man with blond hair. "Thank you," I mumbled. Not thinking before I put the handset to my ear. "Hello?" A sharp intake of breath on the other side of the connection. "Julia?" That thought finally penetrated my slow mind, and I struggled with my words.
"Claudia, oh my gosh. Thank god I am speaking with you. Oh my gosh." The woman, my partner, was sobbing on the phone. I didn't know what to say, and I started crying too. Oh I thank the Lord for bringing me my Julia, just when I had thought that there was no hope left for me.
"Oh Julia, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I don't know..." I was blubbering, crying and slumped against the pay phone as I clutched the phone.
"Oh Claudia, it's ok hon, it's going to be ok. Can I come to visit you? I would like to talk to you, if you'd like. I've missed you so much, I was so worried." Her voice caught and it felt to me like it caught in my stomach and I gasped.
"Please Julia, I don't know what's happened. Please come, I need to see you." My small voice echoed in my mind, and my head thumped against the wall. Oh, what would she ever think of me. But she's coming, and that will be enough, that will be enough I'm sure. If I could just see her again, things will be right. Oh, please, I prayed.
"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry you were alone. Oh my sweet Claudia. I want you to go up to the nurses office, Claudia, okay? I want you to sign a release of information, that I can know that you are a patient there. We can talk about if you want me to be involved in your care when I see you, okay? I love you." I was amazed at the calm in my voice compared to the roaring circus in my heart as I heard Julia crying softly on her end.
"I love you, too, Julia. I'm so sorry..." She stopped speaking and I could hear her tearful breathing.
"It's okay, Claudia, you have to know that. It's okay, everything will be just fine. I'll see you in about a half an hour, okay? Is that okay? That will be six pm, right?" I forced my voice to remain calm and reasoned, as I thought of what she must have gone through these past few weeks. Oh my fair Claudia, you are so strong. "Say you'll see me? Please, dear. Please don't be afraid." I was the one who was becoming afraid, in the silence.
Then I heard a sob, and realized that she was crying, she had only been crying and I dried my own eyes with my sleeve. "The nursing station, ok Claudia. I'll see you soon."
I pulled back into the parking lot and stepped out into the rain. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, tennis shoes and a light jacket. A hat and sunglasses, for I had spent twenty minutes after hanging up crying my eyes out, which were now a frightening shade of red. The receptionist Megan opened the door as she saw me approach. I spoke to her in that calm voice again, and once again it amazed me.
"I'm here to visit a patient, Megan. I spoke with Bob about it this morning. Am I able to visit Claudia Nath? I went to the sign in book and signed my name with the pen provided, and accepted a visitor name badge from her. In the space marked "Relation" I paused. What word did I have to describe the bond she and I had shared these past four years? Girlfriend, but that felt somehow odd. Partner? Partner in crime, I'm sure. Significant other? Oh lord, Julia, who cares! Really! I scribbled out "girlfriend," forcing myself to not care a damn about anything except seeing my sweet Claudia. There.
"I'll call back, Julia. Bob spoke with me earlier about this. I didn't realize you'd be visiting, though. Has she signed a release for you?" I told her that she should have, and waited while the staff on the unit checked. I tried to imagine who was working, but then jerked my mind away. It wasn't important. I had a good team, they would give my Claudia good care. I looked up as Megan said my name. "They'll have someone out for you shortly." I thought about it and quickly decided that if she wanted to, I would prefer we visited at the activity center, instead of in front of all my coworkers.
"Thank you Megan." I looked away, and went to sit down on the chairs provided. Soon, I told myself, soon. And then Richard came out to take me back to the unit. Pretending to be calm, as was becoming second nature to me now, I greeted him informally and followed him back to what I could only think of as my unit. I shook my head with amazement, what a crazy world, I chuckled. And then gasped as I saw her sitting in the corner. Richard called out to her that her visitor was here, and she stood up and looked toward me. She didn't walk over, but I walked over to her and grasped her hand. "Oh Claudia. I'm so happy to see you." I let go of her hand and we embraced. To hell with them, I thought. I was not working at the moment. "Shall we go to the activity center and talk?" I whispered in her ear, and felt her nod. I just sighed, releasing her and rubbing her shoulder in comfort. She smiled at me and laid her head on my shoulder, and it was all I could do not to start crying, right on the unit.
"Let's go," she said. I looked at the clock. Eight after six, and I'm sure that the group leaving for the activity center had already gone, on the hour. I sighed. We'll go at six thirty Julia, okay? Where is your room?"
She lead me to a room and we sat down awkwardly on her white hospital-blanket. I put my arms around her shoulders and held her close. "Why did you leave, hon? Tell me about what happened. If you want, of course."
"I—" Her voice caught, and she tried again. "I don't know what happened Julia." Smiling ruefully through her tears she turned to me. "It's been crazy."
I laughed and rubbed her back with my hand. "I love you, you know that."
She looked away, and then back. "This doesn't change anything? Even though I'm a nutcase?"
"Of course not, you are the most important person in my life, Claudia. I'm here for you." I took a breath. "I don't know if this is the best time to say this, but I'm a little hurt that you ran away from me." I didn't look at her, but I reached around to take her hand. "But I understand. Whatever happens baby, you can count on me, okay? Can I count on you?" I spoke softly. I hadn't meant to say this to her today, but it seemed the thing to do. I wanted to be honest with her.
"Oh Julia, I'm so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. It was so confusing and messed up, I was just, I don't know. I love you, you know I do. This is so, I can't believe it." She seemed to be relaxing, and for that I was glad. My Claudia. I squeezed her hand, and felt a returning squeeze from her. "Thank you for finding me, Jul, I don't know what I was thinking." She paused. "How did you find me?"
I laughed. How would she ever believe this. "Oh hon. This is where I work, my unit. I was so shocked when I heard that you'd been admitted." She was looking at me strangely, and I hurried on. "I'm not working here, hon, not as long as you're here, okay? I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm on leave right now. I don't even work in the building."
"Is it going to be okay, Julia? I—" She paused.
"Let's go up to the activity center, okay? I promise it's going to be just fine, you'll be just fine." I smiled at her. God I loved that woman so much. Did I love her more than my job? Would everything really be okay? Would she still love me? Would anything ever be the same? Would my work be accepting of my dykehood? Would she ever trust me? Would I ever trust her to not shut me off again? What was blocking me from loving her completely? Did I have a mother who was bipolar and committed suicide? Was I afraid to love her, for fear of what would happen if I lost her? Would I run from her, only to find her love once again in the end? Or would we be apart forever, driven apart by mental illness?