Disclaimer: The psychosis in this story is greatly de-emphasized. I don't know how to write about it in a realistic first-person manner, having no first-person experience with it myself. I can write about stable mentally ill people, because they are just regular folk like me. I can write about their behaviors when they are not stable, because I see them every night, except when I don't work. But I don't know what it's like to be mentally ill, what it's like to have a mental illness. So, just to put that out there for everyone. I don't mean to offend folks, either, and I have nothing but love and respect for people with mental illnesses. I chose to work there, for heavens sake.
I dreamed the dream of my mother that night, after talking with Claudia. I dreamed of her, hanging lifelessly from the ceiling. The white walls of our apartment seemed to mock me in my dream, calling out to me, taunting me. The walls grew mouths and approached from all four sides, approached the body of my dead mother, hanging there in the still humidity of the room, with the walls that yelled and cried and grew closer, hotter. In my dream I was again the sixteen-year-old that I had been, gaping silently with an enormous horror and profound panic settling in my gut like a large leaden ball, weighing me down. I could move not my feet where they stood rooted on the carpet, nor my eyes where they stared unfocused at the sickly sight before me.
My stomach rebelled and finally forced the movement that doubled me up, onto my knees. The walls pressed close to me, and in my dream, the vomit that I sat in turned into a million tiny heads, swaying and swinging in the invisible draft, upside down heads on nooses, long braids hanging from the heads, swinging with them. I vomited again in the dream, and more tiny heads in nooses emerged from my mouth and I tried to cry out in terrible horror at the sight of my mother's million heads, but I choked on those ridiculous gross swaying things. I always woke up choking, gasping for breath, tears streaming down my throat. I would try to scream out, but couldn't, and then I would wake up in my own sweat-filled bed. I hadn't had that dream now for almost three years, and for the rest of the night I rocked back and forth in my tired unfocused horror, wishing that Claudia was once again near me. And then, at the same time, wanting to banish her and her pain forever from my life.
At dawn, when I finally fell back to sleep, it was a restless sleep, broken a few hours later by a new nightmare. One that I had never had before, where I was in a black room, listening to Claudia cry out terrified, then listening to a disembodied voice from above intone dramatically, as if from a script. Code Green, Claudia Nath, Code Green, Major. Code Green, Code Green. It kept repeating, alternating with the screams and cries of my girlfriend. I woke up then screaming too, and got out of bed. What did I ever do? I prayed to my God.
After Julia left, I returned reluctantly to the unit. We had spent the time mostly in companionable silence, after I explained some of my story. I told her that at first, I didn't think it was too serious of a problem. I told her about being afraid of what she would say. I thought about where she worked, in the psychiatric hospital. I didn't want to be pitied, at first, by my girlfriend. I thought about running away, of sparing her the pain. And then when I finally did realize something was pretty wrong, and that I needed her to help me, it was far too late. I didn't want to hurt her, I explained.
I knew about her mother of course, I had helped her through many nights, especially in the beginning. She would wake me up, either tossing on the other side of the bed, or crying, sobbing really, great shuddering gulps. Or screaming wildly, that was the worst. I would hold her in my arms after that, caress her face and look into her eyes, assuring her that everything was fine. She was safe, I would say, "You're safe, Jul, everything's ok. It's okay," was my promise to her.
But here I was, breaking my promise. Nothing was okay anymore, I felt as I entered back through the door to the unit. Julia still had hold of my hand, and I looked over at her mournfully. She was being so kind to me, when I had messed everything up like this. She was so calm and pulled together, so peaceful. I think I was still kind of out of my mind when we met that first time, and I know I was drugged up pretty significantly. She laced her fingers in mine and pretended none of that mattered, and all I could think about was what a letdown I had made this into.
Could she love me anymore? Was this all an act? My emotions seemed beyond my control, spinning from one extreme to another with a frightening speed. I didn't know what made sense anymore, and I pled with my eyes for her to make it all better again. She just looked into my eyes, and I saw the sleeplessness in hers. I couldn't handle this, why was I acting like this? Why did I just want to curl up and give up when I saw what I was putting her through? Where had my strong self gone?
When I look back on this time, I can pose and answer these questions better, but at the time I was consumed by my emotions. I saw the sadness and the pain in Jul's eyes, though, and wondered if we could ever be the same, if we could ever regain together what all we had lost. I wanted to run my hands through her short hair, to feel its comfort familiarity between my fingers once again, bringing everything important back into focus for me. I wanted to chafe my thumb across her cheek and watch the laugh lines spread across her jaw as the muscles tensed beneath my hand. I wanted to brush my fingers over my favorite part of her body, the gentle sloping curve where the base of her thumb meets her graceful wrist, where if I press I can feel the gentle pulse of her blood, traveling oh so smoothly through her veins.
When she visited that day I just drank in the sight of her caring face, the touch of her smooth hands on my clothed shoulder where she rubbed in comfort. I was aware of the people around us, trying not to look sometimes, and other times, well. I was aware that she worked here, knew that she was quiet about herself with her coworkers. I sensed her holding back, when she touched me. I assumed that since I wanted to take her onto my bed and ravish her bones, she was having the same feelings about me, but this wasn't possible.
I cried for hours that night, until my roommate yelled out to be quiet, goddammit. Maybe I would wake up tomorrow and have this whole thing be nothing more than a nightmare. I would wake up lying next to Julia in our double bed under the sparkling 1970s ceiling of our apartment on 28th.
Needless to say, I woke up the next morning under the same rough white blanket, to look at the same blank walls. Someone opened the door to my room and I jolted up. A woman flashed a light in my direction and left the room. And they thought we were psychos. Shit. I looked out the window at the growing light. What would happen today? They said I would get to talk to a doctor.
Another head poked into my room and belted out, "Breakfast time! Do you want some breakfast?" Mmm, food. Hospital food, no less. I sighed and rolled out of bed. I had my things from my previous hospital stay, a toothbrush and stuff, but I had lost everything from what I had come to consider my old life. But then I smiled, remembering my finally-found Julia. She would bring things for me, maybe. I padded into the dining area after putting on my slippers. You had to get to breakfast fast, or they would through it away. It was weird to think of these people as my girlfriend's coworkers. I cut open the fake-looking omelette and watched the fakecheese seep slowly onto the small plastic tray. It smelled good, though, so I took a bite. Mmm. Not bad.
I looked around at my fellow insane asylum residents. One man was wearing what looked like his whole wardrobe, hats and jackets and pants, bulking out his skinny frame. He mumbled under his breath as he spooned his cornflakes into his mouth, seemingly oblivious to the activity around him. A woman was screaming on the telephone, "No I did not! Why don't you just go look at the evidence, now see, just go look into the basement and you'll see the paper he used. This is..." I lost track of what she was saying and turned my attention elsewhere. A quiet woman was buttering her bread across the table of me, and I watched the rhythmic crisp crisp of her knife across the toast. Until she looked up to glare at me. "What are you looking at?! Are you the anti-christ?! You are! You are the anti-christ, get away from me you evil witch!" She abruptly stood up and threw her tray to the ground. I also quickly moved away with my tray, dumping the rest—the cereal, the juice, half the milk—into the garbage and darting back to my room.
I was tall in stature, but right then, I felt about as big as an ant. An ant ready to be stepped on by some unknown entity, taking my life as I knew it from me. I lied back down on my bed and called up an image of Julia in my mind's eye. Her smile. Her tender touch on me, stroking my face with her short delicate fingers. The twinkle in her eyes when she teased me. The way she would blush and look down then up, quickly, when embarrassed. Subtly in charge of her emotions in a way that I for some reason couldn't grasp at the moment, I held on to her image, turning her around in my mind all morning. I was told I would meet with my treatment team at 11:15. My interdisciplinary treatment team, whatever the hell that meant.
I found out that an interdisciplinary treatment team is a bunch of pompous adults sitting around a table already when you walk in, ready to decide your future. The doctor talked about my diagnosis, the bipolar disorder. She talked about groups, she talked about fitting into the unit. They asked me if I had any concerns. They asked me about my family. I told her my parents lived in Maryland, and that they were no longer concerned with me. We hadn't talked in four years. I said I had a brother in Tennessee, too, with whom I hadn't seen or talked to in more than four years. Julia and I had talked about what we would say. I thought of her as my family, and I wanted her to be involved in my life. From what I could remember, she had felt the same way, so I cleared my throat to come out to this bunch of fakeass pissants.
"I have a girlfriend, who is supportive and interested in my treatment." I thought I sounded suddenly like Julia and I smiled. How ironic this was going to be, I realized. The doctor cleared her throat as well, and asked if I would sign a release, so that they could discuss my care with my girlfriend. I said sure.
"Okay," One of the women opened a file cabinet and retrieved a form. "What is her name?" She looked up at me. I almost laughed out loud but was able to keep my laughter to myself.
"Julia Dracon." The woman with the pen looked up sharply.
I thought it may be a good idea to clarify, so I continued. "She's a nurse here, she told me. She visited yesterday, she said that she is taking time off. She wants to be involved in my—treatment."
A man with a mustache chuckled to himself, "The same Julia who's a nurse here? Oh my, that doesn't happen too often. Of course, we all know her I believe? The evening charge RN?" Nods went around the table and suddenly I felt odd. Julia knew all these people? I caught one woman, one with a pen but not the same one as before, raise her eyebrows pointedly at her seat-neighbor. I wondered what that meant. I searched for a concern I could present.
"When will I get out of here?" That's one of the questions on my mind. Groups? What were my medications? Would they change from when I was at that other hospital? There they had me on a mood stabilizer, Depakote, and an antipsychotic, Seroquel. I said that I agreed to take these medications. No need for shots, folks. I wanted to get out of here.
(Maybe this is a later treatment team meeting, I don't know what to do about this. I don't want to write like a psychotic person, but I want to make clear that she isn't well. Hmm. Any thoughts are okay, but this section isn't finished yet. Thanks)
I don't quite know how to write about my time in the hospital. I look back on it and wish I had written it all down. I'll go back now to revisit some of it, but a lot of it is not really clear. Maybe it wouldn't make much sense if I wrote it down. Plus, mostly I was bored out of my goard, and you would be too, if you had to read about it. They told me yesterday that I would be discharged in two days, in the treatment team meeting. Julia was there, as usual. She's been coming to these meetings once a month for what seems like forever. And she visits me, two or three times a week. But it isn't the same, I don't know. I feel so alone in here, most of the time. There are some real freaks living in this hospital, and I don't even feel like exerting the energy to get to know them. They aren't my peers, and I don't want to keep in contact with any of them. I don't know what Julia has been doing during the days. She says she has joined some groups. She's doing a lot of reading, taking a class. She takes me out on pass sometimes. We just hang around, go out to lunch or something. It's so awkward, I often cry myself to sleep. Can two people be apart for months and months like this, and still be in a relationship? I asked her if we were still girlfriends the other night.
We were sitting in a restaurant down the street, she had taken me out on a brief evening pass. I was kind of in a somber mood, and she had said she was tired.
"How's your salad?" She asked me.
"It's fine, thanks. Julia?" I had been thinking about how we hadn't had sex in four or five months, had hardly kissed even, except once a week. We didn't live together. We hardly talked about much of importance. How's your day going, thank kind of thing.
She looked up at her name, "Yep? What's going on?" She smiled and I smiled in reaction.
"Do you think this is going to work out?"
"What do you mean?" She kept looking into my eyes, and I took that as a good sign.
"I mean, us." Deciding to be blunt, I asked her, "Are you still interested? No, don't answer that. But are you?" I looked away from her, watching the man at the cash register fumble in his pocket. Then I looked back at her and saw that she had lowered her head. I reached across the table and took her hand.
The waitress came up and filled the water glasses, and I squeezed Julia's hand briefly, not even looking at the waitress. I thought that I had been ready for this, but by the clouds that had expanded inside my chest I now knew differently. I swallowed, and some of the tension released its grip around my throat.
"It's okay Julia, I understand. Is there someone else?" I forced my voice to remain steady, called up some memories of being drugged out of my mind. Thinking about things like how pretty that brown color on the table is, oh and look at the white dishes and the blue sky, and the grey clouds in the distance look at that yellow streetlight just coming on. Forcing the calm colors into my mind I was able to pull it together, I thought I could face this.
I looked back into Julia's face and saw the tears streaking down her cheeks. My eyebrows came together with consternation and guilt. "Talk, please say something Julia. I'm having a hard time."
She looked up sharply at me and immediately brought her napkin to her cheeks, sobered. My eyes widened as I saw her transformation and it was all I could do to not start crying myself.
"Are you leaving me, Julia?" My voice sounded strained and tight to my ears.
"I don't think so, Claud. I love you, remember?" She was shaking her head and still had her hand gripped around mine. "There's nobody else, nobody other than you. These last few months have been really tough for me, too."
"I know. Are you okay?" I had been worried about everything, and wanted to convey that to her. I didn't know how, though.
"I'm okay, hon. You?"
I looked away from her, organizing my thoughts. "I'm worried, Jul, I don't feel like I know how to live anymore. Will I be able to take care of myself?" I groped for the words I needed.
"Claudia, you are more than capable of taking care of yourself. Look at how well you're doing now. You are sitting in a restaurant with me, eating lunch. You ordered your food and were polite to the waiter. You have a place to live, and you have plans for the future. You have friends who love you, and you have a partner who cares deeply for you. You are holding this normal rational conversation to me, expressing very understandable fears and concerns in a calm and reasonable way. You have interests?"
I smiled at the nurse coming out of my girlfriend, and nodded.
"I think it will be hard for you to live outside the hospital after these few months, but you can do it, Claud. I want you to ask me, too, when you need help. I want to tell you what I'm scared of."
I thought I knew what was coming but I nodded again.
"I'm scared of you getting depressed. I'm scared of—you know, if you ever think about killing yourself." She smiled a kind of ironic smile. "I have nightmares, actually."
I leaned back, eyebrows raised. "You do? I didn't know that."
"Yeah, well." She studied her fingers, not saying anything for a few moments.
"Julia? I do think about suicide sometimes, I have in the past. I don't want to kill myself, though, not today. I don't want to scare you, so tell me to stop if you have to. But I don't want you to be afraid, either."
"Yeah, it's ok Claud, go on, if you want to. Thank you, I mean."
"You know, about a month ago was bad for me. I don't know why I didn't say anything to you. I'm glad we're talking." Now I was kind of embarrassed by it all.
"Did you—try something?" She was frowning at me.
"No, I didn't do anything. It's silly, we don't have to talk about this. Everyone has bad days." I took a breath. "Jul, I promise to talk to you if I feel like that, I do promise. It won't get this bad again. That's my hope."
"I'll listen, Claudia, I promise." She said. I wondered if either of us would be able to keep our word.
Claudia would be discharged tomorrow, and I had spent the afternoon picking up the apartment. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live with her again, and I hoped it would be as familiar to me as it once was. I had, three times in fact, almost picked up the telephone to call her and say hi. I resisted, not out of any great feelings of piety but rather that I knew she was stressed, and I wanted her to be able to relax and sleep well. I didn't want her to start cussing me out for continually calling her!
I picked up the folded and refolded paper laying on the coffee table, then put it down again once again failing to be able to concentrate. I looked at the telephone, then at the clock. Nine pm. I'm a slave to my passions, but I dialed the now-familiar phone number. "May I speak with Claudia, please?" Then heard someone call out, looking for her.
Then, "She's not here, call back later." A dial tone. What? I spent ten seconds reeling in my emotions, trying not to wonder about the possible meanings of that statement. Not there, huh? Hmm, it sounded like a bad joke. Where do residents of a psychiatric hospital go at night? Not very far! I rolled my eyes, and ten minutes later called the unit telephone again.
"Hello?" A woman's voice this time.
"May I speak with Claudia, please?" I spoke clearly.
"Julia? Oh, hello, I'm so glad to talk to you." She sounded relieved, and I stretched out on the couch.
"Hi sweet Claud. How are you?" I imagined her sitting at the patient phone, maybe she was leaning with her head against the wall so nobody could see her facial expressions. She told me once that she doesn't like other people looking at her while she's on the phone because she feels like they're stealing the expressions meant for me. Isn't that a clever way to look at it?
"I'm so happy to be getting out of here Julia, you don't have any idea. Tonight has been so insane around this place." She was still talking quietly, and I could almost feel her breath in my ear. My body pricked with anticipation, and I focused on the sound of her voice in my ear.
"What went on? Psychotic people acting out? Anything I can do to help?" I was well aware of the stress level on the unit during the evenings, and didn't really want to talk about it with her, but I let her talk.
"Oh, people stealing and yelling and squaring off, the usual." She laughed.
"Claudia, I love the sound of your laugh. Did anyone hit you?"
I smiled broadly when she laughed again, feeling good that I could bring a smile to her face. "Not this time!" A pause. "How're you? What did you do today?"
"Well, today I cleaned house, went grocery shopping, then I bought some soil and pansies at the supermarket and potted them with those red and gold pots, do you remember the ones? Sal and what's-her-face—Amanda?—gave them to us? Anyway, the pansies are darling. Then, what. I paced around for a few hours thinking about you, and pretending to pick up the house but really just moving things around. I ate a sandwich for dinner but didn't have any mustard so bleck. I started thinking about you again and picked up the phone a few times, but I don't know, thought you wouldn't want to be bugged or something ridiculous like that. But then I called you. And the more I talk with you, my sweet Claud, the more I want to drive over to the hospital right now, bust in and seduce you. In your room, while your roommate is sleeping. Are you game?"
By this time, she was laughing hard and so was I, but I felt weird in my gut. Like if I laughed any longer I would start to cry.
"Julia, I've missed you so much. I wish you were here with me, but tomorrow night I'll be home," she said.
"I know," I replied, "but it's been so long. Maybe I shouldn't have called."
"No, I'm glad. You can tell me about what's going to happen tomorrow. Are you picking me up?"
I got an small twinkle in my eye and grinned. "Yes, I'll pick you up, Claudia around ten in the morning they told me. I have to say this though, you may want to dress nicely and take a shower."
A pause, then she asked slowly, "Why?"
Trying to keep the smile from my voice, "Do you want to have a few people over that afternoon? To celebrate?"
"Oh no, Jul! You didn't!"
"No, I didn't, you're right. I'm mean, but I'm not cruel. I'm kidding about having people over. I'll tell you what I had in mind. I'll pick you up tomorrow then we can come back to the apartment and get your stuff unpacked. Start laundry if you need to do some. Whatever. Have lunch. Turn on the radio to listen to NPR in the afternoon. Maybe we could sit out on the porch with the pansies until we got too cold, then come back inside and sit together on the couch. Talk. Then maybe we could turn off the radio and turn on some jazz or something sexy like that. Light some candles, and that small lamp? Near the television with the little ball on top of it. I'd like to go through with you all that we could do tomorrow, but I don't know. I don't want to be too forward. I know you're shy."
"Mmm, you're right, I'm shy." She chuckled. "But I'm sure you can help me get beyond being so Victorian?" Laughing, she sensed my teasing mood and started to play along.