My eyes scan the grass around my feet as I walk. The grass hasn’t been cut in a long time, and long blades brush against my knees. My body feels light; spare. All skin and bones and muscle. To my left, not far off, I can hear the sound of tricking water, but otherwise it’s quiet down here. The ground under my feet is squishy in places, and I tense whenever I feel the ground soften. People say that there’s quicksand somewhere around here, although I don’t anyone who’s actually seen it. Still, you never know. I continue walking and enter a wide, grassy field; straight ahead I can see a small wooded area. I know that if I walk through the woods to the other side I’ll find on my right a steep incline, almost a cliff, and that if I climb it, I’ll be up against the fence bounding the golf course. There’s a path up there you can follow that will lead you all the way to Lake Ontario. The path is very narrow, with the fence on one side and a steep, dangerous drop on the other. I used to run up the incline and then jog along the path at the top all the way down to the lake. Once when I was running along the path I got caught up across my chest by a thin piece of wire that had been strung across it, one end tied to the fence and the other tied around a tree. If I’d been a little shorter, not so tall for my age, it would have caught me right at the level of her neck. As I stood there looking up at the wire, I felt cold. Somebody who knew that children jogged along here had strung that wire across the path. Somebody has set a booby trap just for them.

I stops and looks to her left over at the creek. Some accident of geology has left the creek and its banks riddled with fossils, and I own my weight in rocks with tiny spirals and shells embedded in them; one rock even has what, if you look at it from the right angle, might be interpreted as a fragment of some prehistoric insect. Instead of heading for the woods, I turn around and walk along the creek until it passes under a big concrete bridge. Under the bridge is a number of small pieces of Styrofoam, the kind that you find on the inside of boxes containing electronic equipment. There’s no explanation for why they’re there or where they came from, but I feel a flush of pleasure at the sight of them. I walk over toward the smaller of the two nearby pieces and bend over to pick up a small rock. I look over at the piece of Styrofoam, lean back in an exaggerated way, then heave the rock toward the Styrofoam. The rock hits and then dislodges it, but there are rocks and branches everywhere in the creek and it’s not long before it gets stuck again. This is all part of the game.

I throw a few more rocks, sometimes dislodging the Styrofoam temporarily, sometimes missing it altogether. At one point the Styrofoam gets hopelessly tangled up with some branches and I have to find a stick, walk out, and, balancing on the rocks, poke it until it’s free. I become absorbed in my task until it seems as though it is in the nature of the bits of Styrofoam to become trapped, and it is in my nature to free it. My mind doesn’t need to create a story to give the activity meaning; it is inherently meaningful to me. The elation and then building apprehension as it travels past rocks and branches, the disappointment of having it jam up again, the grim determination I feel as I target it, and finally the satisfaction of setting it free.

It’s a hot day, even with the sun so low on the horizon, and I stop to scoop up some water and pour it over my head. Just as I’m about to launch another rock at a difficult tangle of driftwood and seaweed, I hear the sound of gravel behind me and look back to see a car wheeling down the hill. It comes to a skidding halt in the dirt-covered area that serves for a parking lot and six older kids pile out of the car, laughing. From the way they walk, it looks like they’ve been drinking. I don’t want them to see me; in their state, teasing a younger kid might be exactly the sport they’re looking for. I look at the piece of Styrofoam one more time, released by some current from the seaweed but jammed up now by an old brick lying in the water. Then I run, bent down, into the trees. I run past the fire pit, staying near the water, as if held close by something. I approach a low bunch of bushes and crawl into the middle. Then I wait, squatting, trying to quiet my breathing. The older kids run across the grassy area next to the woods, pushing each other and tossing around a Frisbee. When they reach the woods they head immediately for the fire pit, then pull beer cans out of their knapsacks and sit down on the ring of enormous logs that surrounds the pit. I groan inwardly. They’re not going to be leaving any time soon, and it’s getting late.

While I crouch, I start to feel something like sharp pin pricks around where my bare ankles meet the tops of my sneakers. I barely notice, though, until the pricks start to travel up my legs. Then I bend my head and look down at my shoes—maybe I caught some burrs on them when I was running. Instead of burrs, though, I see that my bare legs are covered with tiny red ants. They’ve become angry at those points where they’re being blocked—around the top edge of my shoe and where my thigh meets the back of my calf. I look closer, and to my horror discover that I’m squatting almost directly on top of a red ant hill.

I look over toward where the older kids are and bite the back of my hand to keep me from making any sound as the ants crawl over me. I put my other hand down in front of me, trying to ease my thighs up off of my calves. That’s when I feel the rock—it’s the size of a plum, and almost perfectly round. I drop onto my knees and crawl forward, swiping at the ants on the backs of my legs with one hand and grabbing the rock with the other. Then I stop and lean back on my calves again, bringing the rock close to my face. I turn it around in my hand and notice that it has a tiny set of vertebrae snaking around the circumference in a band that doesn’t quite meet itself. There’s no obvious head or tail to it, just a long trail of vertebrae. It’s beautiful—the best I’ve ever seen. This rock would be perfect for my collection—the centerpiece—but that’s not its destiny. I poke my head up through the bushes for one more look at the group of kids and then begins to crawl slowly toward the edge of the woods, knees bruised by the sharp rocks, the back of my legs throbbing with hot, red welts. Just as I’m about to reach the boundary of the wood, something releases in me and I jump up and begin running, yelling at the top of my voice. I run crazily across the grass, then slow down just slightly and look in the direction of the water, still running. I jump up and turn sideways, legs spread apart, and throw the rock out into the middle of the creek. Then I somersault onto the ground, scramble to my feet and keep running, arms trailing, feet trying to catch up to my head, all the way up the dirt road and around the corner at the top. I look back once and think I can just make out a small piece of Styrofoam bobbing its way toward the lake.

*

A week and a half into my stay I receive a call from my brother to let me know that I haven’t landed a job at Ohio State, where I had made it to the top three and been invited for a two-day campus visit. The reality is, I’ve already, begun to fact the fact that, with each passing day, my chances of success have become more and more remote, and I don’t feel that surprised when I get the rejection call. Still, my devastation is acute. I can’t stop crying, and the nurse finally gives me some Ativan to calm me down. Just as the Atavan is kicking in I decide to go find Suzanne and convince her to come out with me. I feel a bender coming on. We sign ourselves out (I, as Virginia Woolf; she, as Madonna), and head off to Deco’s. Deco’s is the coolest—albeit one of only two—women’s bar in town. It’s huge, with multiple rooms, each with a different ambience, and I find it hard to imagine that lesbians, who are more likely to find love over at a potluck or activist meeting than at a bar, are going to fill this place. For a while they do, though, and I spend the tail end of my clubbing days hanging out here.

When we get there the place is dead, but as the night progresses the crowd starts to fill out and gain energy. I drink steadily, and after people start approaching the dance floor, I get up too and begin to move by myself to the music, eyes closed, head thrown back, arms stretched above me. One moment I’m laughing—crazily, too loudly; the next moment I’m standing still in the middle of the dance floor sobbing, my hands clutching my hair. No one notices me; the mass of bodies just separates and rejoins around me—fluid and adaptable. I return to the table to find that Suzanne, who’s straight, has become the object of attention for a sharp-faced woman wearing cowboy boots, who describes herself as a trucker just in town for the weekend. After ten minutes of distracted conversation with the trucker, whom I find at once dull and grating, I drain my beer and weave toward the bar to get another. Normally I can drink quite a lot, but the combination of the Ativan and the beer is making me feel woozy. On the way back I knock into the side of someone on the dance floor and spill half my beer onto the woman’s shirt. The woman turns around and gives me a push, but I just giggle, step backward into someone else, then steady myself and retreat to the edge of the crowd. As I’m scanning the bar tables that circle the dance floor for Suzanne, my eye is caught by a woman standing over by the entrance. I squint, and tilt my head back to get a better view. It’s Anne, who was my first girlfriend, We split up in 1989, but we’re still good friends, and I’m pleased—if surprised–to see her.

I raise my arm and wave. “Hey, Anne. Hey, over here!”

Anne looks over, shielding her eyes from the glare of the disco ball, and heads toward me.

“Wow!” I exclaim. “What a bizarre coincidence, eh? Imagine, both of us coming here on the same night. But hey—I thought you didn’t like this place.”

“I came here looking for you, dummy,” Anne says. “Your brother called me—told me about Ohio State, said he’d called the hospital back and was worried when they didn’t know where you were.”

“Hey, have you seen my roommate? She’s around her somewhere.”

“You mean Suzanne? Nope.”

“Anyway, her stuff’s here,” I say, gesturing vaguely at a table occupied by two twin lipstick lesbians. I walk again in the direction of the dance floor.

“Listen,” Anne says, trying to walk alongside me through the crowd. “Don’t you think it’s about time to be getting back to the hospital? Don’t they have a curfew or something?”

“I suppose,” I reply. “But what are they going to do, not let me in?” I continue on to the dance floor and wedge myself in the midst of what is now a very packed crowd, letting them prop me up. After one song, I realize that I’ve been holding an empty beer bottle in my hand and walk over toward the bar to order another.

“Sorry, Ma’am, you’re cut off.”

“Cut off!” I exclaim, incredulous. “Since when has anyone ever cut off anyone else at a queer bar? I grin and steady myself on the bar. “C’mon, Fred. Just one more.”

“My name’s not Fred, and sorry, you’re cut off—on the advice of that woman over there.” He points to Anne.

“Fuck it,” I say, and turn around, intending to have words with Anne. Just at that moment, Suzanne sweeps by me and heads for the door.

“Hey Suzanne! Hey! Where are you going? Hold up!” I shout, but she just yanks the door open and walks out.

“Huh,” I say to myself. “That’s weird.”

Anne comes up behind me and takes me by the shoulder. “Come on, you’re going home.”

As soon as I walk out of the door and breathe some fresh air, I get the spins and feel my legs going out from under me. Anne throws my arm around her shoulder and supports me all the way up Yonge Street to College. I try to help out, but the full force of Ativan and alcohol has hit me and I can barely put one foot in front of the other. When we get to the ninth floor, Anne bangs on the door to summon the night nurse.

The nurse takes one look at me and says,  “Just put her to bed like that. We’ll deal with it in the morning.” I’m out before my head even hits the pillow.

*

My night out has a disturbing outcome that centers around Suzanne. Sometime during mid-afternoon my doctor shows up at my door and asks me to meet him in the interview room. I groan, roll onto my front, and push myself up to a kneeling position. My skull feels like it has cracked open, and I lower myself slowly back onto my stomach. After another couple of minutes, I roll onto my back and swing my legs onto the ground. The room is directly across the hall, so I don’t bother to put shoes or socks on. I walk over in my bare feet and sit down gingerly in the chair opposite him.

 “I’ve heard some disturbing news,” he says, “but I wanted to check this out with you because I’m not sure how to take it.”

“Uh huh,” I say, the pain in my head now accompanied with waves of nausea.

“I understand that Suzanne went out to a bar with you last night.” The tone of his voice and the mention of Suzanne combine to focus my attention.

“That’s right,” I answer. “Why?” I’m annoyed at myself for already sounding—and feeling–defensive.

“Well, Suzanne told her doctor about something that happened while she was at the bar with you, and I just wanted to get your input on it.”

“Well, all I know is that she disappeared somewhere, and then later on she stormed out.”

“Suzanne tells us that she had an upsetting…encounter with someone in the bathroom.”

“What do you mean?”

“She says that a woman forced herself on her in the bathroom. She’s saying that she was raped.”

What?”

“She says this woman raped her.” He says it slowly—not so it will sink in, but as if reaching for comprehension. “So what I want to know from you is, does this sort of thing ever…happen?”

“Do women rape women? I suppose, but…”

“I guess what I mean is, is this the sort of thing that happens at a women’s bar? You’re not in any trouble, I just want to know if Suzanne’s story is plausible.”

I think back and try to call up an image of the trucker. She did look kind of dodgy, and I’ve seen a lot of unwelcome coming-on to people, but I’ve never heard of rape in a bathroom women’s bar. I doubt that Suzanne is outright lying; it seems more likely that her perceptions of her own and the other woman’s actions are distorted. But I have no way to know, really. I feel my loyalties divide—on the one hand, to a community of women that is already badly misrepresented; on the other hand, to a woman who shares my condition and is probably in genuine distress. I choose to dispense with nuance and just pick a side.

“No, that sort of thing does not happen,” she says emphatically.

“Okay, that’s what I thought.” He sounds relieved. Incident avoided.

I don’t see Suzanne much in the next few days, and when I do, I avoid her eyes. For weeks after, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve somehow betrayed both Suzanne and myself.

*

My nurse, Nellie, hears about my bender, and knows that it has to with not getting the job I had been hoping for. During our one-on-one nurse, she brings it up. “Listen Jennifer,” she says. “A lot of people don’t get to have the jobs that they want. I think you should start figuring out what else you might do. You’re just making yourself miserable, keeping on like this.” She sounds irritated.

“Why are you saying this?” I ask. “I thought you were supposed to be, you know, supportive. I thought you were supposed to be encouraging.”

“I am being supportive, Jennifer. But listen, do you think this was my first choice for a job? I wanted to be a teacher. But there were no positions then, and it wasn’t a realistic goal. The province was dying for nurses, it was a guaranteed job with good benefits, so I did that instead. And here I am.” I look over at Nellie. The knowledge that she’d rather be elsewhere makes me feel like an imposition, and I finish up quickly with her and return to my room.

I occurs to me that I envy Nellie. Nellie just gave up. Changed course. Did the sensible thing. Why can’t I do that? A series of low-paying, Government-sponsored jobs during the summers I was an undergrad has left me with a fair bit of experience working with physically and intellectually disabled people. Add to that my jobs taking underprivileged kids and then young offenders out on wilderness trips, and surely I could cobble together a resumé targeted toward working with disadvantaged and at risk populations. I’d have to take the PhD off my resumé, of course; nobody wants to hire someone who’s overqualified and is likely to jump ship when a better opportunity comes along. Having been passed by again and again, you’d think I’d be ready to move on. It’s not like my classmates have had any better luck. There were eleven of us, and as far as I know, only one of us has actually found work in academia. Somewhere in Tennessee, where, during class, students spit out the juice from their chewing tobacco into empty coke cans. One of our group works in a bookstore. Another runs a yoga studio, a third works in a bar. Yet another, a German fellow, the star of the department, works for some large corporation back in Germany doing something in the corporate world that’s extremely lucrative.

I’ve crapped out where the job market is concerned, and my efforts are exhausting me emotionally. I lie on my bed, faced with the sure knowledge that one more rejection and I’ll lose myself—not just the image of myself as an academic, but a deeper disorientation that will suck away the last of my agency and purpose. I can’t imagine applying for any sort of job right now, but my knob sorting gig is petering out, and I’m in a real jam. And so reluctantly, and only after repeated prompts from my doctor and the social worker, I entertain the possibility of going on welfare. Just the thought of it fills me with shame; although I know them to be distortions, I balk at being associated with the images of welfare slackers and con artists portrayed in the media. But I’m not crazy enough to qualify for disability benefits—reserved for the deserving disabled—and the only option left is to become an undeserving burden on the system. I finally agree, the paperwork is filled out, and I begin my six mortifying months on welfare.

There remains the question of where to stay. There’s always my brother’s couch, but that thought too fills me with dismay. It’s not that it’s particularly unpleasant, and I’m certainly welcome, but if failing to get a job makes me feel like I’m standing still, returning to my brother’s couch feels like going in reverse. Fortunately, a solution presents itself during a visit from Anne. She’s planning to get a new apartment while she’s in law school—would I like to get something together? Sensitive to my financial situation, she offers to pay two thirds of the rent. It’s a bad time to be on welfare, what with the twenty-one percent rollback in social assistance that the Harris Government has imposed, but with Anne’s help, I should just be able to make it. It might be a bit complicated, given the fact that we used to be girlfriends, but we have eight, stabilizing years of friendship behind us.

Because my depression is so stubbornly resistant to medication, as a last ditch effort my doctor has put me on Ritalin. For those people with ADHD, Ritalin has a calming effect; for the rest of us, it’s like drinking ten cups of coffee. Because welfare doesn’t cover the slow release version, I have to take the quick release a couple of times a day. While the slow release gives you an even boost over about eight hours, the quick release gives you an abrupt high that lasts about an hour and a half, followed by a precipitous dip, at which point you take another one. The highs are great—I feel like I can do anything, even the most banal chore feels pleasant and meaningful, and I find it easy and fun to interact with people. If I feel a little uncomfortably speeded up at times, if sometimes the high mutates into a crushing anxiety that leaves me curled up in bed, unable to stand even the touch of the sheets on my body, chasing that great feeling is worth the liability.

With Ritalin coursing through my system, and my finances and living arrangements somewhat in order, I begin to feel more hopeful, and in a couple of days my doctor agrees that I’m ok to leave. I stay with my bother until Anne and I can find a place, which proves to be difficult, given the almost zero percent vacancy in Toronto, but eventually we find a two story apartment in an Irish setter colored brick house on Ossington just south of Bloor. Anne takes the small bedroom at the front, and I take the larger one at the back, reasoning that I’ll need space for a desk once I return to making revisions to my book. There remains the matter of continuing to look for paying work so that I can present evidence to the welfare office of my sincere efforts to improve my station. But the book is much more important to me now than looking for work. Fueled by an artificial stimulant, my fantasy has found new life, and I reason that If I’m going to land that tenure track job, I’m going to need a published book in hand.

I work on the book in the morning and then visit the welfare office in the afternoon, which creates in me a profound cognitive dissonance. For the first half of the day, I immerse myself in the heady world of postmodern and critical Marxist theory, teasing out the utopian impulse in their logic. Navigating this elevated terrain, when combined with my Ritalin high, makes me feel smart, focused, in control. But by the time I slink into the welfare office in mid-afternoon, my second Ritalin has worn off, and the full force of my shame hits me like a punch in the gut. I keep my eyes down when I talk to the worker behind the glass, imagining her disapproval at my indifferent efforts to acquire work, at my presence here, at my very being in the world. It’s difficult to reconcile the disparity between my academic work and my social status, and tough to maintain a coherent sense of myself.

I spend my days swinging between chemically-induced confidence and socially-induced shame, and my evenings escaping from my double life into a haze of alcohol. During that time, I manage to obtain one low-paying sessional course in Ryerson’s Continuing Education Program, teaching writing and grammar to mature students. The actual classes, which take place in the evening well after my Ritalin has worn off, are an exercise in endurance. The grading, however, which I do in the morning after my first pill, is a delight. I blitz through the papers, and if I miss the odd comma splice, pass over the occasional verb tense disagreement, I more than make up for it with my effusive and lengthy comments. If my enthusiasm is artificial, well, what’s the difference, really? The work gets done. And if the highs sometimes turn to a crippling anxiety that leaves me lying with my eyes squeezed shut, unable to tolerate the faintest sound, what choice do I have? At least I’m free from the depression, and I dare to think that maybe this stuff will beat it back for good.

After being processed, I go straight to bed, but I wake up around midnight and can’t get back to sleep. After half an hour of staring at the ceiling tiles, I get up and walk into the dining room. There’s one other person there, and I hang back; something tells me I shouldn’t disturb her. She’s pacing with a syncopated, irritated gait that is impatient with the room, the arrangement of the furniture, the view. The lights are turned way down, but this woman negotiates the furniture with expert precision. Either she’s been in this place for a while, or her senses are stretched so tight that the very space around her falls back as she approaches. She ignores me with the self-absorption of someone whose battle is elsewhere, and I feel embarrassed standing there, as if I’m intruding on someone caught up in an intensely private moment. But then, maybe she’s not alone, I think—maybe she’s never alone. In her head, anyway. I’m reminded that there are worse things than having no one to talk to. Despite the woman’s preoccupation, I feel like standing still is going to get me noticed, so I wander over to the window and look out, moving slowly and trying not to displace the air around me.

Most of the office buildings are dark; a few display scattered lights. I wonder about the people behind those lighted windows. Are they doing something that feels important? Are they rushing to meet a deadline, phoning home and apologizing again for working late? Do they have somewhere they’d rather be, or somewhere they’re avoiding? I close my eyes and try to remember what it’s like to feel as though I have something important to do, even something small, but I can’t think of a single thing beyond the effort to survive. I’m overcome suddenly with longing and contempt in equal parts: imagine being able to believe that the daily stuff of life mattered; but then, how pathetic to believe that all that living means something.

I stare out the window for the longest time, and when I draw my gaze back into the room, the woman is gone. The room feels so empty that I begin to suspect she was a product of my imagination, some projection of a part of me not accessible in daylight. I shake my head, as if to rid myself of her image, and walk slowly back to my room. Still, sleep doesn’t come, and I can’t banish the feeling that someone is watching me; I feel guarded, an animal wariness prevents me from closing my eyes. When I do finally drop off, my sleep is uneasy and broken, and the sounds of morning activity outside of my door comes as a relief. Someone sticks their head in and tells me it’s time for breakfast, and I sit up, rubbing my eyes in fatigue.

            I walk out into the hallway and am greeted by the familiar smell of institutional food. It’s funny how you can feel nostalgia for even the most unpleasant circumstances if they’re far enough away, and if the trigger, so often a smell, recalls only vague generalities. Unlike most people, I enjoy hospital food—I like its uniformly over-processed, overcooked, and pre-digested quality. It makes for less effort. Less chewing, less sorting, less comparing one meal with another. The equalizing influence of all that salt. I pick up a tray with my name on it, and turn around to survey the room.

            I’m pleased to see that there are round tables here and not lines of rectangular tables–at a round table you can get away with not exactly facing anyone; everyone is in a state of falling away from one another, and not interacting feels almost natural. Still, I find it hard to decide where to sit, not yet having had the advantage of even the most superficial interaction with anyone. I spot a lively table of people over by the window who are carrying on what looks like a normal conversation. But they look as if they’re tight with one another, and that means trying to insert myself and risking the embarrassment of being shut out. I think of high school. I never seemed to become more than a collection of tendencies–on friendly terms with most groups, or at least with friends of friends in most groups, but if people from each of those different groups had gotten together and described me, they would have had a hard time convincing one another that they were talking about the same person. I was never more than on the margins of any group, and even my best friends were better friends with one another than they were with me. I did once have a fight with a girl who passed for my best friend, and we didn’t talk to one another for two weeks—that has to count for something. There has to be some kind of investment to avoid a person for two weeks.

I choose a quiet table, eat my food quickly, and take my coffee back to my room. It turns out that I have two roommates: Tamara and Suzanne. Tamara is a schizophrenic crack addict with a BA in English from The University of Western. She’s bright, and completely screwed. The detox centers can’t handle her because of her mental illness, and the psychiatric units can’t handle her because of her addiction, so she ping pongs back and forth between the two systems—when the addiction gets really bad she ends up in detox, and when she gets really crazy, she ends up in a psych ward. The really crazy part, though, is that they keep putting her in an open unit—one where you can come and go as long as you sign out and back in. For the first little while, probably just the seventy-two hour period before her Form One runs out, they keep Tamara in a gown. Then they give her back her clothes, and within half a day she’s back out on the street looking for crack. She doesn’t have any money—disability doesn’t come close to paying for a crack habit—so to make up the difference she has sex with her dealer in exchange for drugs. She’s lucky she’s on disability and not welfare, or she’d be on her back a lot more often. In this respect being really crazy is an advantage—it pays better, and elevates you to the category of the legitimately unemployed.

My other roommate is Suzanne, a gorgeous, very manic bipolar woman who is always under the spell of some enthusiasm or other. She’s also quick-tempered, and easily frustrated. Tamara, Suzanne and I hang out with a schizophrenic named Charles, whose anti-psychotic medication has been raised to heroic proportions. We don’t exactly interact with Charles, because he’s been turned pretty much into a vegetable, but we tend to bring him along wherever we go, kind of like a pet. Sometimes it’s out of kindness; for example, Charles smokes, but would never be able to do it without help. He just doesn’t have the coordination, and so one of us lights his cigarette and then holds it to his mouth when he indicates that he’d like another drag. But at other times we can be cruel to him–maybe because when we look at him we fear for what we could become.

One late night we decide to sneak down to the cafeteria. There’s nothing to do or buy there; it just feels cool to sit in that huge, empty room, only the three of us. We buy four cans of Coke from the vending machine and sit down in the middle of the room. As always, we get a straw for Charles; his efforts to tip the can and pour the liquid into his mouth have proven disastrous. Instead of guiding the straw for him, though, we sit back and drink our Cokes, watching him as he tries to get the straw into his mouth. The more he tries and fails, the harder we laugh. At one point the straw sticks painfully up his left nostril—at least it looks painful, you can’t really tell by his reaction—and we laugh even harder. I’m laughing so hard that tears are running down my cheeks and my knees feel weak. Then all of a sudden I stand up, say, “You’re pathetic, Charles,” and walk out.

 The next night I’m lying on my side in bed, almost asleep, when I hear someone whisper, “Hey, Jennifer.” I open my eyes and am greeted by Tamara, whose face is inches away from mine.

“Tamara, Jesus Christ! You scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry. I thought your eyes were open.”

Tamara is squatting, and bouncing up and down on her calves. Here eyes dart back and forth.

“Is something wrong?” I ask.

 “No, no—everything’s good. Hey listen, do you want to do some crack?”

This should be a no-brainer for me—I have a fragile mind, a history of substance abuse, and I’m currently clinically depressed. But then, I think, when else am I going to get the opportunity to do crack with a paranoid schizophrenic in the bathroom of a psych ward?

“Sure,” I reply.

“Okay, c’mon.” Tamara’s pretty high already, and it makes her seem far away, unreachable.

I follow Tamara into the bathroom and put a dampened, twisted towel across the bottom of the door. Tamara pulls out a Coke can and turns her back towards me, as if protecting some secret, or shielding a nakedness. The next thing I know, the can is being shoved in my face and Tamara is saying “Suck!” I suck, but my mouth isn’t really anywhere near the can. Tamara has missed it by about two inches.

“Not bad, eh?”

“Yeah, not bad, Tamara.” I stand there as Tamara hunches back over the can, ignoring me, maybe even forgetting I’m there.

Suddenly she says, “Oh fuck. Oh fuck, man,” and drops to the ground as if cut down by a bullet. Oh Christ, I think, looking down at Tamara’s crumpled body—she’s having a heart attack.

“For God’s sake, help me! Help me!”

I reach out to take Tamara by the arm to help her up. Tamara shrugs off my hand and bends over so far that her face is no more than a couple of centimeters from the floor.

“Help me look, will you? I dropped a piece on the floor.” Tamara pours over the linoleum, millimeter by excruciating millimeter. I stand there for a moment watching Tamara, then move the wet towel aside with my foot and walk out, closing the door softly behind me. I look back once before I close the door and see Tamara still there, bent over, palms spread wide and pressed flat against the floor, looking for her little piece of hell.

Tamara gets bumped from the psych ward—not because of that particular incident, but because her more and more sporadic appearances and her obviously tweaked condition when she does appear lead her doctor and his team to conclude that this is no longer an appropriate place for her. Tamara’s doctor is a manipulative prick who likes to cozy up to his patients—male and female—and then accuse them of behaving seductively toward him. He’s a total head case, but he does have a point. This isn’t the best place for Tamara. Unfortunately, that place falls exactly between here and there; it’s a vacant nowhere that was supposed to be occupied by an array of easily accessible community services, promised but never created when somebody first decided, in the seventies, that long term institutionalization wasn’t a good idea.

Three months later, Tamara is dead. I find out because Suzanne recounts how she was walking down the hallway toward her doctor’s office for her weekly appointment, and she ran into my doctor. She says she saw him standing way at the other end the hallway, his feet almost touching and his arms hanging by his sides. He looked like an oversized boy, she says. As she approached, she saw that the expression in his eyes was soft and sad. Somehow, Suzanne tells me, she knew what was coming.

“I some bad news, he said.  “Tamara’s dead. She took an overdose three days ago in her sister’s basement, and she’s dead.”

Suzanne says that before my doctor had even finished speaking, she felt her knees buckle and she knelt down hard on the floor. As she tells me this, I don’t think, this could have been prevented. I think, this was so inevitable that to prevent it would have required a massive upheaval in the order of things. This was as inevitable as gravity, or the passage of time.

Keeping Tamara alive would have required rewriting the laws of physics.

Toronto–1995

Time is against me, I know that. Immigration wanted me out after I defended my PhD in 1993, but I’ve found a way to extend my life in Chicago temporarily: a secretarial job at Northwestern’s Women’s Centre. The Centre is run by Arlene Daniels, a sociologist who, along with directing the Women’s Studies Program, created the Women’s Centre in the 1970s as a place for women to receive support and counseling. Arlene’s friend and co-worker describes her as “a force of nature,” and there’s no question that Arlene has a big personality. In many ways, Arlene is the Women’s Centre; she embodies the history and purpose of the place with her monumental presence. She’s also a bully, and unforgiving, and I spend much of my time there in anticipation of her reprobation. My job isn’t difficult: I take appointments, publicize and help with events happening at the Centre, and write a monthly newsletter. I’m distracted, though, and my attention is caught up with concerns other than the next potluck.           

 In part, I’m caught up in a national struggle that has left the humanities on the defensive—politically and financially. These are the days of Pat Buchanan and his famous culture war speech, where he proclaims the advent of a religious war for the soul of America. In addition to criticizing “radical feminism,” Buchanan and his allies want to cleanse popular culture, end affirmative action, rid academia of the fascist, “politically correct” left, and withdraw funding for the arts, which is only going toward supporting the depraved imaginings of queers and baby killers. Academia in particular is under attack from the religious right, which seems almost to grow daily in numbers and strength on the wave of powerful, vocal supporters like Lynn Cheney and Rush Limbaugh. As the United States lurches to the right, those of us on the left are beginning to feel the squeeze.

Far from wanting to escape to the somewhat kinder, gentler shores of my homeland, however, I find myself appreciating the advantages of remaining in the belly of the beast. Better to be here, at the epicenter of the battle, than to stand on this sidelines in Canada and watch these conservative values creep across the border. Better to be part of a frontal assault where lines have been clearly drawn, sides have been taken, good and evil square off against each other in a battle for the soul of Americans. While a grad student, I attend rallies, go to Washington for the reproductive rights march, and participate in a spontaneous, quite literal attack by my office mates on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. We stab it with pens, rip out pages. We stop short of setting it on fire, though; that would suggest intolerance and censorship.

In the midst of this, my mind is also focused on getting a real job, and I spend a good deal of my time at the Centre using their computer and printer to launch a massive, scatter-shot campaign to win a tenure track job. It never really occurs to me to apply in Canada; I came of age intellectually in the States, I’m immersed in its culture and politics, and most of my friends and acquaintances live here. Because I spend so much time at work looking for a job, I often forget about tasks related to the Women’s Centre, I neglect to record upcoming events, I’m late with the newsletter, I don’t pass on important messages. As a result, Arlene is constantly on me. She finds me vague and indolent, the latter quality in particular fueling her belief that I’m a moral failure. Arlene believes in discipline, hard work, and a sense of purpose, and finds none of these qualities in me. I suspect that, more than anything else, she’s disappointed in me—she’d been keen to take me on, and I’d possessed the appropriate feminist credentials. Now I’m the once promising daughter who has turned out to be dull and passive, who lacks leadership abilities and dedication. I can hardly defend myself by pointing out the hours and hours that I’m spending researching and applying for jobs elsewhere, and so I accept her assessment of me, her continual badgering, her penchant for pointing out my failings. But it wears on me, and one day in June, I stare into her eyes as she reproaches me and find myself hating her.

At the end of that summer, in August 1994, my time finally runs out. I can find no way to extend my stay in Chicago—that brash, sprawling adventure I have come to love—and I have no choice but to return to Toronto. For me, returning to Toronto is less a homecoming than it is the marking of a colossal failure. None of my job applications have panned out. It’s a terrible time to be applying for a job in an English department; in fact, 1993-94 will eventually be held up as one of the driest periods in what had become a progressively arid job market in the humanities and in English particularly. Homeless and jobless, I end up on my brother’s couch, a temporary arrangement that lasts five months. At night, which means after my brother is finished watching TV for the evening, I unfold the couch, bring out my sleeping bag, and lie there counting my shortcomings. In the morning, I fold up the couch, stash my sleeping bag, and get to work on revising my dissertation, which is under contract with Minnesota Press. It’s a good press, and I should be pleased to be taken up by it. But my immediate circumstances overwhelm any sense of accomplishment I might have; the book begins to seem more and more unreal in comparison to my immediate circumstances. I start another round of applications for academic jobs, but it feels like an empty, soul-killing exercise that leaves me drained and despondent.

Money is a problem. The money I’d saved and brought back from the States is running out, and I’ve got to find a way to make more. I turn to my brother, who works in hardware sales, and he manages to secure a job for me stocking bins of decorative knobs at Home Depot for Amerock. Most of my job consists of fishing around in the bins to find knobs that have been misplaced, and then putting them in the proper bin. It’s the definition of meaningless work, and yet something about it appeals to me. Outside of the hardware store my life feels chaotic, ineffectual—organizing these knobs gives me a pleasant feeling of imposing order, of beating back a kind of creeping entropy. In a way, this job becomes more meaningful to me than working on the book. In fact, the revisions to the book aren’t going well; although it was well received by the readers to whom Minnesota Press sent it for vetting, there still are many changes to be made. But my imagination seems to have shrunk, and my ability to hold in my mind the unifying design of my argument erodes. I’m forever getting caught up in conceptual drift, taking paths that peter out and become overrun by a dense foliage of contradictions. Only when I’m imposing order on the bins do I feel a sense of command, the power to place things precisely where they’re supposed to be.

Still, the whole situation is depressing and, finding my mood slipping more and more, I decide it’s time to find a therapist. Having been swayed by condemnations of the over-medicalized and medicating psychiatric system, I decide to look in a direction that better fits my new ideology, and contact a Women’s organization that was set up to match women with suitably progressive, women-centered therapists. Each client is given three people to choose from. The first person I go to seems promising, supportive and insightful, but when she begins to insist that I pound on the mattress in her office to “release my anger,” I decide to move onto the next candidate. This one has a small house in Leaside, and holds her therapy sessions in her basement. I’m initially uncomfortable with the blurry line that this suggests between her private life and her therapeutic one; I’ve become big on external boundaries, having realized that I have none. Still, I decide to give it a go. She’s a good listener, and I feel comfortable around her. But despite her support, I become sicker—more and more depressed—and it becomes clear that she isn’t really equipped to deal with serious mental illness. She seems uncomfortable with despair, and stymied by my withdrawal into silence. Her talents appear more appropriate to, say, coming out issues or relationship problems, and my illness is proving too big for her tiny basement to hold.

Our sessions end the week after I come in feeling particularly distressed, unable to sit still, pacing the room, throwing my arms up in the air and letting them come down to smack the sides of my legs. In a moment of frustration, I slap her coffee table, and she jumps in her chair. My agitation is enormous, unstoppable, and it ends up overwhelming her.

The next week, after I sit down, she says, “Jennifer, I don’t think this is going to work out.” I stay perfectly still, say nothing. She continues. “I can’t rescue you, Jennifer, and I do believe that you do need to be rescued.” Silence again.

“If you want, I can give you some references,” she adds.

I sit for a moment, absorbing the fact that I’ve just been fired by my therapist, then stand up and walk out the door. In a moment of intense anger, I abruptly turn around, nearly overpowered by a desire to punch in her screen door. I pause, my fists clenched, imagining the glass shattering, the satisfaction that I’d feel, payback for all of this rejection—rejection from her, rejection from academic the institutions to which I’d applied. But after a moment my anger mostly fizzles out, and is replaced with hurt and dejection. My shoulders sag, and I turn away. It’s a fair bus ride back to my brother’s apartment, but in an attempt to wear out the rising flood of emotion, and wary right now of contained spaces, I choose to walk. This hour and a half walk represents one of my darkest moments. I feel as though I’ve hit rock bottom, unable even to hang onto the one person whose job it is to be there for me. How toxic one must be, I think, to drive even a therapist away. She had been afraid of me, afraid that in the intensity of my distress, I might hurt her. I’m not just depressed—I’m dangerous, out of control, a threat. By the time I arrive at my brother’s place, my anger is entirely spent, and I’m left only with the feeling that I’m an untouchable, a contaminating presence from which the whole world needs protection.

During the next few weeks my depression deepens. I mostly stop working on the book; when I do take the odd reluctant look at it, I find myself gazing at the words, disoriented and uncomprehending. When thoughts of suicide began to intrude with increasing frequency, I decide that, despite whatever qualms I may have, and despite the fact that it compromises me ideologically, it’s time to try the system again. I feel now as though someone working within it—preferably someone affiliated with a hospital—would have behind them a kind of institutional buffer against my more extreme expressions of distress. I try to get a psychiatrist through my family doctor, but no one has openings. The city, it seems, has more mental distress than can be accommodated. The thoughts of suicide become more persistent, and so one afternoon I take myself to the emergency at Women’s College Hospital and tell the intake nurse that I feel suicidal. I’m led to a bed, where after an hour a man enters and introduces himself as Dr. Schertzer. He has dark, curly hair, and wears a star of David in one ear. As he begins to take my history, what strikes me most is his gentleness—it’s there in his voice, in the way he prompts rather than prods. When I’m through talking about the Chicago admission, about my current struggles, he puts down his clipboard.

“So Jennifer, tell me what it is that you need,” he says.

“It’s like this,” I answer. “If I don’t find a psychiatrist, I’m going to end up back here in a lot worse shape than I am now. I’m going to hurt myself.” It feels like a threat, but I’m desperate. This is my last chance for some kind of intervention, and I really do fear what might happen if I walk out of that hospital without some sort of professional support.

He pauses, seems to weigh his options.

“Well look,” he says finally, “I don’t have any regular spots left, but I do keep a few hours free to deal with emergency cases. I can slot you into one of those hours until an opening comes up.”

“So, you’ll be my doctor?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll be your doctor.”

I’m awash with relief and gratitude. I want to hug him. Here is my savior; here, I think, is someone who’s not afraid of me. Not yet, another part of me adds. Still, I felt bolstered, encouraged. If I really do need to be rescued, this man, with his quiet assurance, might just up to the task.

I see Dr. Schertzer in his Women’s College hospital for a month before my depression and suicidal thoughts begin to overwhelm me. One day I walked into his office and find myself unable to take off my sunglasses. He puts on his own sunglasses in an uncharacteristically clumsy attempt to express solidarity. I talk of suicide, as I often do these days, but what appears to catch his attention is the single tear that emerges from underneath my sunglasses and makes its way down my cheek. Perhaps it merely punctuates what I’ve been saying, but as the tear curves around my jaw and makes its way down my neck, he takes off his sunglasses and says, “Why don’t we walk across to the other side?” He means the other side of the floor that we’re on, the side where the inpatient unit is. I barely hesitate before I stand up and follow him out of his office and along the hallway that leads to the ward.

One afternoon, about a week after our trip to the beach, Allie walks in with a broad smile on her face.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“I’m going hoome,” she sings.

“You got a weekend pass?”

“No, I’m going home home—for good. I’m outta here.

I take a moment to absorb this information. “Home?” I’m not sure whether I’m having trouble with Allie going there, or with remembering what it is. I almost want to ask, “But why would you want to go home?”

Allie looks over at me, and sees the puzzlement on my face, which she interprets as dejection, and says, “Oh, hey, listen,” she says, “you’ll be going home soon, too, you know?

How long has it been, I wonder. I came in on a Tuesday, and I think today is Friday, but I can’t remember the dates. A month? Six weeks? It went by so quickly. And why have they decided to send Allie home? She doesn’t seem any different than she did when I first came in. She seemed okay then, and she seems okay now. I feel angry, and betrayed. She’s my ally, a friend even, or at least the kind of friend you make in these very specialized circumstances, and who feels important and real for the time that you share these circumstances. Trenches. Prisons. Allie and I have analyzed the staff together, we’ve broken rules together, we’ve shared the same intimate space—both living and emotional. I know more about Allie’s troubled life than I know about most people’s lives; I know things about Allie that Allie’s parents don’t know, that she’s never told her real friends. I can’t believe she’s just going to leave like this.

Trying to sound casual, I say, “So, what are your plans when you get out?”

“Who said I had to have any plans?”

“Well for one thing, I know they’re not letting you out without having come up with some kind of plan. So what is it?” This is coming out wrong—I sound like I’m challenging her, when I want it to sound like polite interest.

“Oh, well, the plan is that I go home and take care of myself and get a job or go back to school or something. They gave me a list of resources, and a ‘healthy foods’ menu planner.” Allie pulls a crumpled piece of paper out of her front pocket and tosses it to me. I open the paper and smooth it down on my thigh. On it is a long list of organizations and their phone numbers—employment assistance programs, career counseling services, job marts, diploma opportunities. “That’s it? They gave you this bunch of numbers and that’s it?”

“Well, no, there’s a social worker who’s supposed to come to my apartment at some point.  I forget her name. And I’ll see Dr. Boyer every now and then to renew my prescriptions.  And there’s the meal planner.” She grins.

The next morning Allie leaps out of bed. I think we should do something to mark the occasion, but nothing comes to mind. After breakfast Allie and I return to the room. She packs up her stuff, then sits down on the bed and sets her bag down beside her.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” she says, looking awkward and kind of guilty.

“So, take care then,” I say.

“Oh here, let me give you my phone number.” Allie takes my hand, turns it over, and writes her name and number on the back. I tell Allie that I’ll call. She hikes her overstuffed knapsack onto her back and we both walk out into the hall. As I watch Allie walking toward the elevator, I reach up and rub the back of my head where it has started to buzz and tingle. I continue to watch her until she turns the corner and disappears.

The next day I get a new roommate, Christine, who suffers from multiple personality disorder, or, as it’s now know, dissociative identity disorder. As such, she comes with an entire portfolio of identities: Christine, Christina, Mary, and Mother of God. Christine and I talk a lot, and I find myself becoming fascinated by her. Four characters, each successively more than the previous. Christine, the depressed one, the one who wants to end it all, the easiest for others to handle and the most deadly for her. Christine, the most herself, which is okay, except that she doesn’t much like herself. Then there is Christina, the electric one—bold, creative, confident, an artist–and a handful. Christine says she likes being Christina the best. And then there’s Mary—pious, delusional. Finally, Mother of God—in full flight from reality and burdened by a horrible sense of responsibility. It’s not easy to be the Mother of God. You may only be a supporting player, but still, all those people to comfort and all those prayers to answer. As the Mother of God, Christine feels an oppressive accountability, but also pride and some condescension.

The staff members warn Christine not to advance any further than Christina; Mary or Mother of God will get her sent to the other side. For the time that she’s with me, Christine lives with the constant anxiety of that possibility, dreading the transition that the very stress created by that dread is likely to bring on. Christine is suffering from a dizzying bout of rapid cycling, and in the space of the weekend, I meet every one of her personalities. Christine’s nice, but a downer, and Christina is fun, but exhausting. It’s hard relating to the other two.

One night I’m awakened by the feeling of a nearby presence. When I open my eyes, I’m startled by the figure of Christine standing beside her bed. She’s opened the top drawer of my dresser, and is emptying my clothes into a knapsack.

“Hey, Christine. Christine, what are you doing?” I whisper. Christine doesn’t answer, doesn’t even acknowledge the question.

I ask again, “Christine, what’s going on?” Still nothing. I sigh, and not willing to risk a direct confrontation with whomever Christine is right now, I shuffle down the hall, still groggy, to the nurses’ station.

“Um, excuse me,” I say to the night nurse.

The nurse raises her eyes from her book to the level of my chin, managing not to move her head at all. Everything about her bearing communicates indifference and irritation. “Yes?” the nurse replies.

“I think you should come down and check out Christine. She’s behaving kind of…erratically.”

The nurse waits before replying, and if she doesn’t let out a sigh, it’s only because it’s not worth the effort. Finally she snaps, “I’ll be there shortly.” I return to my bed to await the nurse, but she doesn’t come, and eventually I fall into a light sleep. A little bit later I’m awakened by the sensation that my body is moving. I look down at the end of the bed, and there stands Christine, naked now and furiously turning the handle that rolls the upper part of my bed up and down. I lie there for about a minute, appreciating the novelty, then wait for the bed to roll up into a sitting position and swing my legs onto the floor. With a final look back at Christine, rolling the bed up and down with singular purpose, I leave and cross the hall to an empty room. I know there’s no point trying to communicate with Christine—she follows mysterious logics now.

 

In the morning Christine is gone. I assume she’s been taken back over to the other side, where she’ll continue her battle with her selves, a Sisyphean ordeal that she may win for a while, until the stress of the staff’s surveillance and the unpredictability of the other patients lands her back where she started. I can’t imagine how she will ever make it out, caught as she is in a catch-22 where the imperative to keep it together initiates the very anxiety that leads to her dissolution. They say that dissociative identity disorder is the result of some early trauma. Escaping into other selves to shield the child who has no other strategy for self-protection. While we were together, Christine inspired in me both fascination and exasperation, but now I mourn the child she once was, whole and undamaged. And when I imagine what might have happened to blast her into parts, a deep anger swells in me. It feels like only some divine intervention could put her back together again, and in the forsaken place where Christine dwells, where uninvited demons afflict her mind, God seems conspicuously absent.

I’ve only just settled back into my room, put my things back in order, when my doctor calls me in.

“So, Jennifer,” he says, “How have you been feeling?”

“Ok, I guess.” I hesitate to commit one way or the other. I think it’s clear to both of us that I’m less depressed, that something has shifted or the anti-depressant has been working, but the world beyond these walls seems alien now, and trying to navigate its complexity seems overwhelmingly daunting.

“Well,” he says, “I think it’s time we start talking about discharge. I think staying in at this point might do you more harm than good.” As if reading my mind, he adds, “the longer you stay, the more intimidating the world outside is going to seem. I don’t want to see you developing a dependency on this place.” Too late, I think. I’ve become so acclimatized that I find myself clinging to the safety, the structure, the predictability. I don’t want to lose hold of these people, whose job it is to accept and validate the worst of me, and to whom the worst is not the measure of a person. I don’t have to hide a thing in here, don’t have to reassure or protect anyone.

“Right,” I say.

“So, how does tomorrow after breakfast seem to you?” It seems awful; it’s disquieting prospect, returning to the site of a failure—in my case, the failure to cope, the failure even to manage those daily routines that others had seemed to take so easily in stride.

“Uh, ok,” I say, without enthusiasm. “You don’t think,” I add, suddenly suffering a loss of nerve, “ that it might be too soon?”

He smiles. “I’m confident that you’ll do fine, Jennifer. It’s time for you to go.”

“Right,” I repeat, and stand up. I’m suddenly angry at him, at this place. For creating this need in me, for making me weak and afraid. I try to remember how awful things were when I came in, how I was barely able to get out of bed, let alone attend my classes or do any writing. It seems at the moment, however, that I’ve traded one evil for another. Hopelessness and paralysis for fear and dependency.

I spend the rest of the day in an effort to mentally detach myself from the trappings of that dependency—first, by skipping all of the groups. Since I’m now allowed to leave the floor at will, have the option of disengaging from anything that will encourage my attachment. I’m hardly dependent on art therapy, which I find largely irritating, but still, I make sure that I’m gone before it starts, and that I stay gone through movement therapy (again, no loss there) and through group therapy. The last one would seem to provide an important opportunity to achieve closure, but in my effort to purge myself of vulnerability, I view personal disclosure to be at cross purposes with overcoming my dependence. I also want to avoid any one-on-ones where I might be compelled talk about my feelings. I return just before dinner, eat without interacting, and retire to my room immediately afterward. I’m already in bed by the time the evening nurse comes around with my meds, and lie there waiting impatiently for sleep. I don’t want to think about tomorrow. I don’t want to think about anything at all.

In the morning, in that half awake state where past and present, real and imaginary meet, I turn to see if Allie is still asleep. For a moment the empty, neatly made bed confuses me; Allie never makes her bed, I think. And then I remember that she’s gone, and that I’ll be gone soon, too. The fear returns, and I reach for a way of facing my departure. I skip breakfast, afraid that Lynn might be hanging out there, waiting to talk to me. If there’s anyone or anything that makes me dread most the prospect of leaving, it’s Lynn. She may have been doing her job, but I’ve become quite close to her, and the anticipation of her absence threatens to open up a hollowness in me that makes saying goodbye feel intolerable. But just as I’m finishing packing up my knapsack, Lynn pokes her head inside the door.

“So, I hear you’ll be leaving us today,” she says.

“Yup.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nope.”

“No thoughts you want to share?”

“Nope.” I avoid looking at her eyes, focus only on shoving the last of my clothes into my bag. I walk past her to the bathroom, grab my toothbrush and toothpaste, and walk back over to the bed, still avoiding her eyes.

“Ok then,” she says, still standing in the doorway.

I throw my backpack over my shoulder, and walk past her into the hall, keeping my eyes down.

“Goodbye, Jennifer,” she says from behind me as I walk down the hall. “And good luck.”

“Bye,” I say over my shoulder.

I walk to the end of the hall and wait for the attendant to buzz me out. It seems ages, but she finally hits the buzzer and I walk to the elevator and take it down to the ground floor. I walk out of the hospital just as an el train is passing by; the noise rattles me and for a moment I hesitate, almost turn and walk back in. All of the city sounds hit me at once, and I suppress the urge to crouch down and scramble behind a nearby bench. Chicago feels big and loud at the best of times; right now it threatens to overcome me. I wonder where I’ll find a place inside this huge, lively city, amongst the bold and the jaded, the businessmen and the con men. I step into the riot of color and sounds and people, and allow the crowd to carry me on.

One afternoon, about a week after our trip to the beach, Allie walks in with a broad smile on her face.

“What’s up?” I ask.

            “I’m going hoome,” she sings.

            “You got a weekend pass?”

            “No, I’m going home home—for good. I’m outta here.

I take a moment to absorb this information. “Home?” I’m not sure whether I’m having trouble with Allie going there, or with remembering what it is. I almost want to ask, “But why would you want to go home?”

Allie looks over at me, and sees the puzzlement on my face, which she interprets as dejection, and says, “Oh, hey, listen,” she says, “you’ll be going home soon, too, you know?

How long has it been, I wonder. I came in on a Tuesday, and I think today is Friday, but I can’t remember the dates. A month? Six weeks? It went by so quickly. And why have they decided to send Allie home? She doesn’t seem any different than she did when I first came in. She seemed okay then, and she seems okay now. I feel angry, and betrayed. She’s my ally, a friend even, or at least the kind of friend you make in these very specialized circumstances, and who feels important and real for the time that you share these circumstances. Trenches. Prisons. Allie and I have analyzed the staff together, we’ve broken rules together, we’ve shared the same intimate space—both living and emotional. I know more about Allie’s troubled life than I know about most people’s lives; I know things about Allie that Allie’s parents don’t know, that she’s never told her real friends. I can’t believe she’s just going to leave like this.

Trying to sound casual, I say, “So, what are your plans when you get out?”

“Who said I had to have any plans?”

“Well for one thing, I know they’re not letting you out without having come up with some kind of plan. So what is it?” This is coming out wrong—I sound like I’m challenging her, when I want it to sound like polite interest.

“Oh, well, the plan is that I go home and take care of myself and get a job or go back to school or something. They gave me a list of resources, and a ‘healthy foods’ menu planner.” Allie pulls a crumpled piece of paper out of her front pocket and tosses it to me. I open the paper and smooth it down on my thigh. On it is a long list of organizations and their phone numbers—employment assistance programs, career counseling services, job marts, diploma opportunities. “That’s it? They gave you this bunch of numbers and that’s it?”

“Well, no, there’s a social worker who’s supposed to come to my apartment at some point.  I forget her name. And I’ll see Dr. Boyer every now and then to renew my prescriptions.  And there’s the meal planner.” She grins.

The next morning Allie leaps out of bed. I think we should do something to mark the occasion, but nothing comes to mind. After breakfast Allie and I return to the room. She packs up her stuff, then sits down on the bed and sets her bag down beside her.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” she says, looking awkward and kind of guilty.

“So, take care then,” I say.

“Oh here, let me give you my phone number.” Allie takes my hand, turns it over, and writes her name and number on the back. I tell Allie that I’ll call. She hikes her overstuffed knapsack onto her back and we both walk out into the hall. As I watch Allie walking toward the elevator, I reach up and rub the back of my head where it has started to buzz and tingle. I continue to watch her until she turns the corner and disappears.

The next day I get a new roommate, Christine, who suffers from multiple personality disorder, or, as it’s now know, dissociative identity disorder. As such, she comes with an entire portfolio of identities: Christine, Christina, Mary, and Mother of God. Christine and I talk a lot, and I find myself becoming fascinated by her. Four characters, each successively more than the previous. Christine, the depressed one, the one who wants to end it all, the easiest for others to handle and the most deadly for her. Christine, the most herself, which is okay, except that she doesn’t much like herself. Then there is Christina, the electric one—bold, creative, confident, an artist–and a handful. Christine says she likes being Christina the best. And then there’s Mary—pious, delusional. Finally, Mother of God—in full flight from reality and burdened by a horrible sense of responsibility. It’s not easy to be the Mother of God. You may only be a supporting player, but still, all those people to comfort and all those prayers to answer. As the Mother of God, Christine feels an oppressive accountability, but also pride and some condescension.

The staff members warn Christine not to advance any further than Christina; Mary or Mother of God will get her sent to the other side. For the time that she’s with me, Christine lives with the constant anxiety of that possibility, dreading the transition that the very stress created by that dread is likely to bring on. Christine is suffering from a dizzying bout of rapid cycling, and in the space of the weekend, I meet every one of her personalities. Christine’s nice, but a downer, and Christina is fun, but exhausting. It’s hard relating to the other two.

One night I’m awakened by the feeling of a nearby presence. When I open my eyes, I’m startled by the figure of Christine standing beside her bed. She’s opened the top drawer of my dresser, and is emptying my clothes into a knapsack.

“Hey, Christine. Christine, what are you doing?” I whisper. Christine doesn’t answer, doesn’t even acknowledge the question.

I ask again, “Christine, what’s going on?” Still nothing. I sigh, and not willing to risk a direct confrontation with whomever Christine is right now, I shuffle down the hall, still groggy, to the nurses’ station.

“Um, excuse me,” I say to the night nurse.

The nurse raises her eyes from her book to the level of my chin, managing not to move her head at all. Everything about her bearing communicates indifference and irritation. “Yes?” the nurse replies.

“I think you should come down and check out Christine. She’s behaving kind of…erratically.”

The nurse waits before replying, and if she doesn’t let out a sigh, it’s only because it’s not worth the effort. Finally she snaps, “I’ll be there shortly.” I return to my bed to await the nurse, but she doesn’t come, and eventually I fall into a light sleep. A little bit later I’m awakened by the sensation that my body is moving. I look down at the end of the bed, and there stands Christine, naked now and furiously turning the handle that rolls the upper part of my bed up and down. I lie there for about a minute, appreciating the novelty, then wait for the bed to roll up into a sitting position and swing my legs onto the floor. With a final look back at Christine, rolling the bed up and down with singular purpose, I leave and cross the hall to an empty room. I know there’s no point trying to communicate with Christine—she follows mysterious logics now.

 

In the morning Christine is gone. I assume she’s been taken back over to the other side, where she’ll continue her battle with her selves, a Sisyphean ordeal that she may win for a while, until the stress of the staff’s surveillance and the unpredictability of the other patients lands her back where she started. I can’t imagine how she will ever make it out, caught as she is in a catch-22 where the imperative to keep it together initiates the very anxiety that leads to her dissolution. They say that dissociative identity disorder is the result of some early trauma. Escaping into other selves to shield the child who has no other strategy for self-protection. While we were together, Christine inspired in me both fascination and exasperation, but now I mourn the child she once was, whole and undamaged. And when I imagine what might have happened to blast her into parts, a deep anger swells in me. It feels like only some divine intervention could put her back together again, and in the forsaken place where Christine dwells, where uninvited demons afflict her mind, God seems conspicuously absent.

I’ve only just settled back into my room, put my things back in order, when my doctor calls me in.

“So, Jennifer,” he says, “How have you been feeling?”

“Ok, I guess.” I hesitate to commit one way or the other. I think it’s clear to both of us that I’m less depressed, that something has shifted or the anti-depressant has been working, but the world beyond these walls seems alien now, and trying to navigate its complexity seems overwhelmingly daunting.

“Well,” he says, “I think it’s time we start talking about discharge. I think staying in at this point might do you more harm than good.” As if reading my mind, he adds, “the longer you stay, the more intimidating the world outside is going to seem. I don’t want to see you developing a dependency on this place.” Too late, I think. I’ve become so acclimatized that I find myself clinging to the safety, the structure, the predictability. I don’t want to lose hold of these people, whose job it is to accept and validate the worst of me, and to whom the worst is not the measure of a person. I don’t have to hide a thing in here, don’t have to reassure or protect anyone.

“Right,” I say.

“So, how does tomorrow after breakfast seem to you?” It seems awful; it’s disquieting prospect, returning to the site of a failure—in my case, the failure to cope, the failure even to manage those daily routines that others had seemed to take so easily in stride.

“Uh, ok,” I say, without enthusiasm. “You don’t think,” I add, suddenly suffering a loss of nerve, “ that it might be too soon?”

He smiles. “I’m confident that you’ll do fine, Jennifer. It’s time for you to go.”

“Right,” I repeat, and stand up. I’m suddenly angry at him, at this place. For creating this need in me, for making me weak and afraid. I try to remember how awful things were when I came in, how I was barely able to get out of bed, let alone attend my classes or do any writing. It seems at the moment, however, that I’ve traded one evil for another. Hopelessness and paralysis for fear and dependency.

I spend the rest of the day in an effort to mentally detach myself from the trappings of that dependency—first, by skipping all of the groups. Since I’m now allowed to leave the floor at will, have the option of disengaging from anything that will encourage my attachment. I’m hardly dependent on art therapy, which I find largely irritating, but still, I make sure that I’m gone before it starts, and that I stay gone through movement therapy (again, no loss there) and through group therapy. The last one would seem to provide an important opportunity to achieve closure, but in my effort to purge myself of vulnerability, I view personal disclosure to be at cross purposes with overcoming my dependence. I also want to avoid any one-on-ones where I might be compelled talk about my feelings. I return just before dinner, eat without interacting, and retire to my room immediately afterward. I’m already in bed by the time the evening nurse comes around with my meds, and lie there waiting impatiently for sleep. I don’t want to think about tomorrow. I don’t want to think about anything at all.

In the morning, in that half awake state where past and present, real and imaginary meet, I turn to see if Allie is still asleep. For a moment the empty, neatly made bed confuses me; Allie never makes her bed, I think. And then I remember that she’s gone, and that I’ll be gone soon, too. The fear returns, and I reach for a way of facing my departure. I skip breakfast, afraid that Lynn might be hanging out there, waiting to talk to me. If there’s anyone or anything that makes me dread most the prospect of leaving, it’s Lynn. She may have been doing her job, but I’ve become quite close to her, and the anticipation of her absence threatens to open up a hollowness in me that makes saying goodbye feel intolerable. But just as I’m finishing packing up my knapsack, Lynn pokes her head inside the door.

“So, I hear you’ll be leaving us today,” she says.

“Yup.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nope.”

“No thoughts you want to share?”

“Nope.” I avoid looking at her eyes, focus only on shoving the last of my clothes into my bag. I walk past her to the bathroom, grab my toothbrush and toothpaste, and walk back over to the bed, still avoiding her eyes.

“Ok then,” she says, still standing in the doorway.

I throw my backpack over my shoulder, and walk past her into the hall, keeping my eyes down.

“Goodbye, Jennifer,” she says from behind me as I walk down the hall. “And good luck.”

“Bye,” I say over my shoulder.

I walk to the end of the hall and wait for the attendant to buzz me out. It seems ages, but she finally hits the buzzer and I walk to the elevator and take it down to the ground floor. I walk out of the hospital just as an el train is passing by; the noise rattles me and for a moment I hesitate, almost turn and walk back in. All of the city sounds hit me at once, and I suppress the urge to crouch down and scramble behind a nearby bench. Chicago feels big and loud at the best of times; right now it threatens to overcome me. I wonder where I’ll find a place inside this huge, lively city, amongst the bold and the jaded, the businessmen and the con men. I step into the riot of color and sounds and people, and allow the crowd to carry me on.

The next day I have another meeting with Dr. Boyer. He mostly listens and smiles, listens and looks serious, or listens and nods. I don’t feel like I’m telling him much, although I have the uncomfortable feeling that’s he’s hearing more than I think I’m saying. He’s told me that he follows a psychoanalytic model, which just exacerbates the feeling that extra import is being added to everything I say and do. It makes me careful with my words—I weigh them for excess meaning before I speak, try to keep my sentences as spare as possible. He puts me on an antidepressant but says nothing about the course of my treatment or when I’ll be leaving—nothing about money or insurance. I talk to fill the time; in spite of my efforts, my words seem directionless, meandering. Because I can’t think of anything else to say, I draw from parts of my autobiography, now a sprawling document that, mercifully, is almost finished. I don’t know if this is something that he wants to hear about, but he doesn’t interrupt me, so I keep on going until he says it’s time to stop for the day. I don’t feel better afterward, nor do I feel worse. Mostly I just feel a little hungry.

Several more days go by like this, meeting with the doctor, meeting with psychiatric residents, social workers, attending groups, avoiding financial services. It turns out that falling apart is a full time job. Despite all of this intervention, I find my depression deepening. insert

One day during art therapy when we’re asked to draw our mood, I color my eleven by sixteen inch sheet of construction paper a thick, dense black with a pastel crayon. By the time I finish, the area of the table surrounding my sheet is covered with black sticky dust; my hands and arms are streaked with black, and I leave black smudges on everything I touch. I’ve inadvertently leave a little pinhole of uncolored paper in the upper right corner, and Rebecca asks me what it means—if it refers to some ray of hope. I stare down at my paper with what I hope looks like thoughtful intensity. Rebecca lets the silence go on far too long, and toward the end I have trouble suppressing a nervous giggle. After group Rebecca comes up to me and says that she’s worried about me. I don’t respond; I just walk away from the mess I’ve made and crawl under my covers.

*

It’s during Afternoon Group that I finally find out why Ronald never looks at anyone. Samantha has already ventured a few exploratory comments, but today she presses him on it until he finally says, in a voice that is barely audible, “It’s just that every time I look at someone, I can’t stop my eyes from looking down at their private parts.” I hear a snort and then a cough from Allie’s direction, but I don’t dare look at her. Laughing right now would be cruel. Samantha tries to rescue Ronald by observing that we all allow our eyes to rove around people’s bodies when we’re talking to them, and he responds, “You don’t understand.  Once my eyes are there they just stay there, staring at the person’s privates until the person moves away. It’s embarrassing, and it makes people uncomfortable.”

            Samantha asks, “Does this happen with both women and men?” He looks past her and nods.

I begin to feel sorry for Ronald, for whom I’ve developed a fondness. He’s a very gentle person, very kind and attentive to other people. I wish I could offer something to make him feel better, reassure him. If only Bishnu were here. She would think of the thing to say that would make Ronald smile and stop twisting his fingers in his lap. But she’s not here, and I can’t think of anything to offer. Then I start to wonder what Bishnu is doing right now—reading on the El? Sitting in a cafe with a couple of their friends? Cooking? I haven’t talked to her much since she brought me some clothes on my second day. It’s not because I’m angry at her for bringing me here—if anything I still feel a little guilty about putting Bishnu through that. Maybe it’s guilt that keeps me from calling, or maybe it’s because this world and the one associated with Bishnu have begun to seem fundamentally incompatible.

I feel as though, if I were to spend time with Bishnu, this world will become thinner and thinner, and these people will become flatter and flatter until, like cards in a deck, they will tip over and fade into the pattern of the rug. Not being able to sustain the idea of both worlds at the same time, I prefer hanging on to the one that’s right in front of me. Besides, I’ve come to like the structure they impose on my day, I like the talks with my doctor—although he still says almost nothing—I like my one-on-ones with Lynn, I even like the food. If I feel bleached and hopeless a lot of the time, if some evenings I stare out the window and imagine jumping, well, that’s just more reason not to leave.

*

Some time into my stay, they decide to do a twenty-four hour electroencephalogram on my brain. To accomplish this, they’ve places about twenty evenly spaced electrodes around my head. The hair surrounding each electrode sticks up a random angles, and each electrode has a color-coded wire extending from it. The wires fall down the back of my head and are collected together with a loose band. Then they snake around and trail down my chest, where they all attach to a little box about the side of a portable cassette player that hangs around my neck by a nylon strap. Part cyborg, part garish Rastafarian, I’ve been forced to walk around the unit, eat my meals, and sleep wearing this get-up. Allie laughs out loud whenever she looks over at me, and even Lynn suppresses a smile when she sees me. The whole thing is awkward and irritating and, I suspect, useless.

I don’t notice at first that fewer people are around—at the dining table, in groups. It just seems that gradually I’m being asked to participate more, that they’re focusing more on me than they used to. Frankly, I kind of enjoy it, the attention. But when Ronald disappears—dear Ronald, whose eye color I’ll never know—I look around and realize that there are only a few of us left. I’d sort of assumed that people were absent because they were meeting with doctors or family or were having tests done—there are a dozen reasons why someone misses a meal or a group, and there’s never a full complement at any given time. Once I start to take note, though, the relative emptiness of the place is impossible to ignore, and one Tuesday afternoon, I find out that Allie and I are the only two people left on the unit. That makes the staff to patient ration about seven to one. Lynn, the other nurses, and the psych techs lounge around, looking bored and redundant. I try to think of ways to engage them, but with my depression slowing me down, I just don’t have the initiative.

*

The highlight of these days is a trip that Allie and I take with Lynn down to Grant Park. It’s a hot, sunny day, and I’m glad that on her last visit to the hospital Bishnu brought me some shorts. People are spread out in beach chairs and on towels, throwing Frisbees, eating ice cream. I’ve been outside a few times by this point, but I’ve never actually gone anywhere; I’ve stayed pretty close to the hospital, like a house cat that, when it finally gets the opportunity to sneak out an open door, balks at going more than a few feet away. I certainly haven’t been around a crowd like this.

What I notice first are all the colors. On the unit, there’s not much opportunity to experience color. The furniture is beige, the walls are beige, the food is beige. But I also realize that this is the first time I’ve actually registered color at all in months. That’s a good sign, I think, but it’s also difficult in an unexpected way. The color drained away from my life so gradually that I didn’t really notice its passing; now, to have it all come back in such a rush is overwhelming. The fullness of it is almost too much to take—appreciated all at once, the people on the beach are a splatter of mismatched hues—fire engine red against tangerine, teal beside mustard, forest green next to mauve. All of it in motion, wiggling around on the sand, bobbing up and down in the water.

At first the three of us stand awkwardly on the edge of the sand. We’re not prepared for a day at the beach—we haven’t brought bathing suits, or towels, or sun screen. All we have is lots of time. Eventually, Lynn sits down and takes off her shoes, and Allie and I do the same. The three of us sit there, heels dug into the sand, staring out at the water. The intense blue of the sky makes the water look green and cold in comparison, and the sun bouncing off its whipped edges makes the three of us squint. A few people are swimming, but I feel the automatic aversion of someone who grew up next to the summer stink of lake Ontario. I remind myself that Lake Michigan is a whole lot deeper, can absorb more effluvia. Then, out of the blue, Allie stands up and runs full on toward the water. Lynn scrambles to her feet and takes a couple of steps toward her, then stops and just watches. At first it doesn’t occur to me that there’s nothing stopping me from doing the same thing; when it finally does, I looks over at Lynn and then turn and sprint toward the water. I look back once and see Lynn standing there, feet spread apart, one hand shading her eyes. The looking back throws me off balance, and I take a few long steps, feet trying to catch up with my head, before I tumble face-first onto the sand. After a moment I roll onto my back and lie there, staring up at the empty azure sky.

*

I’m kneeling on the grass underneath a large apple tree. All around me are fallen apples—small, no bigger than a young child’s fist. The hand that reaches out is just big enough to cup one comfortably inside its palm. Some of the apples are ripe and easily picked up, but many others have already rotted. When I pinch the stem of the rotten ones and pull, I’m left with only a tiny stick, gooey at one end. For the really rotten ones, I have to scrape my fingers underneath the squishy flesh, and then shake it off into the green garbage bag sitting beside me. The flesh gets under my fingernails and makes them feel tight and swollen at the tips. Everything smells like mashed apples, and I have to pick my way around them carefully to find places where I can sit. It’s a big job—this used to be an apple orchard before it was converted to a suburb—and so I let my mind wander to pass the time. I imagine that I’m a famous, brilliant scientist who has decided, on principle, to leave the scientific world with its ego-driven, self-aggrandizing and self-defeating competitiveness—all of which is against the principles of science that I uphold—and have returned to the land to pick apples for a living. Or maybe I’m not doing it for money, maybe I ask only for simple sustenance and shelter. As I work my way across a sea of rotten flesh, one-by-one my colleagues come to visit me, entreating me to return to the vocation for which they believe I have been chosen. Such a loss to the scientific world, and all that. I turn each person away with disdain. Finally they’re all gone, and I’m left in peace. Peace turns quickly into boredom, though, and then I have to rewind the tape and start over again. To introduce variety, I imagine that I’m a spy and this is my cover. Someone approaches me and my stinking pile of apples—he’s come to warn me that my cover has been blown and I’m in danger of being captured. I’m not sure how to end this one, though; it seems to call for some kind of action on my part—some kind of daring escape—but I’m not allowed to leave the apples until they’re cleaned up. I achieve a weak kind of closure by imagining the villains showing up, but never figuring out who I really am. 

As my hand reaches down to scoop up another pile of mush, I hear a soft, mewling sound from directly above me, and my head tilts back to look up into the branches. It’s a still day, but the sunlight in the leaves creates the illusion that the branches are moving. After a moment I spy a cat at the top of the tree, crouching at the end of a branch that thins and then breaks apart into several smaller branches. The cat seems to want down, but it only attempts to climb down a couple of inches before it starts to back up again. I can’t stand listening to its hoarse cries, so I lean back on my calves, stand up, and walk over to the tree. My hand reaches out and touches the rough bark. It feels intensely familiar, and as I look up, I recognize every branch, every twist, every foothold. My body climbs easily up the trunk and into the crotch of the tree, and then I turn to my right and head up one of the branches leading toward where the cat is crouched. Its mews have turned to distressed howls. The branch that the cat sits on is too small for my weight, and I shimmy up the bigger branch beside it. I should be able to reach over and coax the cat onto my branch, which isn’t as steep. Then we can both slide back down.

Once I’m beside the cat’s branch, I hold onto my branch with my right hand and lean my torso toward the other. My left hand reaches slowly for the cat, but just as I’m about to touch it, the cat jumps onto my back, its claws fully extended, and then skitters down my body and jumps onto the ground, disappearing around the corner of the house. My position is off-balance to begin with, and the surprise of the cat’s claws on my back makes my grip on the thick branch loosen, so that my entire her body swings around until it’s hanging underneath. I grab the branch with my left hand and hang there for a moment, sloth-like, feet and hands wrapped around the branch. But the branch is too big around for my small hands, and the weight of my body pulls on them until they start to slide down around its sides. Then I feel myself let go. I land flat on my back in the grass, squishing half a dozen rotten apples beneath me. I lie there, waiting to breathe.

After dinner I lie in bed awake for a long time, going over the day, the people, the organization of this place, the idea of this place. My mind starts to move out in ever-widening circles, but I stop short of wandering into what I’m already thinking of as my “outside life.” If there’s one advantage I can see to being here, it’s in the way it facilitates the impression that there’s nothing beyond it; everything outside of here is already becoming watercolor vague, its outlines blurring into distant background. Perhaps, I think, there are advantages to being in here, surrounded by people who are worse off than I am. It was living amongst all of those people who were coping just fine that made me feel my deficits so keenly.

The next couple of days are pretty unremarkable—I meet with my doctor, who continues to take a literary approach to my problems, so that they begin to accrue more and more layers of metaphor, become abstract and allegorical. Bishnu brings me some clothes, and some books to read. We talk for a short while in my room until she has to go and do some more reading. Bishnu’s PhD comprehensive exams are coming up, which means she has to get through about a hundred and fifty articles and books in the next two months. She should follow the example of our fellow classmate, I think, who takes people out to eat and has them summarize books for him: one person, one book, and then on to the next lunch date. It’s expensive, but efficient.

The only disturbing interruption in the course of my days is the daily visit from the financial services woman. With the exception of Dr. Monteby, the staff members are sympathetic to my financial situation and, getting paid regardless of my insurance status, undertake what appears to be a well-practiced strategy of making me unavailable when they see the woman approaching. My one-on-ones, for example, tend to start moments after Lynn sees her square form exiting the elevator.

By the fourth day of my stay, I’m finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I feel wooden and sad again, and now that the constant activity that had distracted me for the first few days has begun to taper off, I experience a return of the heavy, bleak feeling that swallowed up my days before I arrived here. While I have begun to participate in the groups, engage with other people’s problems, I remain mostly silent about myself. If at first that silence had as its cause a profound disorientation, it’s attached now to a desolate conviction that nothing I say, nothing anyone else can say, could lift my mood or change the direction of my thoughts. And I don’t like the direction those thoughts are taking. Whether it’s the result of my own descent, or a new vista opened up by the examples of people like Ronald and Mark, the idea of suicide has crept into my mind. It lurks, almost imperceptible, until my mind, allowed to wander, brushes past it. And then it attaches itself to me for a while in the form of a possibility, an option. It’s frightening, this dark expansion of options, and at the same time that I find myself withdrawing, I also find myself very much wanting to be relieved of it.

And so on the sixth day, I arrive at the realization that I must try to get a new doctor if I’m going to make any progress. I’m feeling a desperation that I’ve been able to separate, through a series of mental precipitations, from the feelings that brought me in and that are intensifying. Once separated, it crystallizes into the figure of Doctor Monteby. I’ve heard about another doctor here—Allie’s doctor, actually—who’s supposed to be good. I decide to talk to Lynn about it, even though I sense I might be disrupting the accepted order of things. When I mention it in my one-on-one, I expect Lynn to say that there’s nothing she can do; instead, she nods her head as if she’s been waiting for me to arrive at this conclusion. She remains non-committal, though, says she’ll do what she can. The next I hear about it is when I’m leaning against the wall between the dining and living room staring idly down the hall and wondering what’s behind the big oaken door at the end. I see a man step out of the nursing station and indicate with a curl of his forefinger that he wants me to approach him.

When I get there, he says, “Hi Jennifer. I’m Doctor Boyer. Why don’t you come into my office?”

His office is tidy—precise. A little generic, apart from the large, white phrenological skull that’s marked in sections with dotted lines and that sits, a curious anachronism, on his shelf. At any rate, this office is certainly better than Doctor Monteby’s lair.

“I understand that you’re not happy with your doctor,” he begins.

Again, I expect to hear that I’ll have to put up with it, but instead he says, “I’ll support you if you’d like to switch, but you’ll have to be the one to tell your doctor. He’s probably not going to like that. And I’m afraid that if you’re not happy with me, you’re out of luck.” I’m surprised, then pleased, then apprehensive. How will Doctor Monteby react? What will he say? What if I go through all of this, and then this doctor turns out to be just as bad? There must be a million ways to be bad at this job. Too distant, or too close. Missing the point, or inventing the wrong one. Hating a patient, liking a patient too much, not caring, caring too much. Getting bored, tired, distracted, irritated. I look up at Dr. Boyer. His eyes are clear and intelligent, and he seems reassuringly in control.

“I don’t have very much insurance,” I say, not wanting the relationship to start under false pretences.

“Why don’t we worry about the later?” he replies. “Doctor Monteby is in his office right now, if you want to go speak with him.” I nod and look down at the floor. I’m getting what I asked for, but I’d sort of hoped that someone else would take care of the details. Am I not supposed to be fragile right now? Aren’t they supposed to be taking care of me, protecting me? Isn’t that what this place is for?

I nod and say nothing, still staring down at the floor.

“Okay, then,” he says. “I’ll be around until about noon. You can ask Lynn to come and find me once you’re done.” He smiles again.

When I walk out into the hall, I’m relieved to find Lynn still hanging around outside the nursing station. As if she’s already prepared for this moment, she says to me, “Remember, whatever he says, you have the legal right to do this—there’s nothing he can do to stop you.”

I nod again. Lynn’s coaching has the opposite effect of what she intends; the fact that she’s making this effort to prepare me for a confrontation only underscores its likelihood.  Before I knock on Dr. Monteby’s door, Lynn adds, “Just spit it out. Don’t think about it.”

Dr. Monteby’s office door is open, and I stand in front of it for a moment, fighting the impulse to flee. After a minute he looks up and says, “Ah, Jennifer, there you are. I just sent someone to go get you—I was starting to wonder if you’d stopped along the way to pursue some poetic thought.” He chuckles.

I smile weakly, feeling the bile rise in the back of my throat.  I hesitate at the door, unwilling to place myself at the mercy of that enormous, engulfing chair that seems particularly intent today on swallowing me up.

“Please, sit down. I don’t bite,” he says. I perch on the edge of the chair and swallow hard.

“I’d like to switch my doctor—doctors. I would like to switch doctors.”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

I feel like Oliver asking for more food.  “Um, I’d like to switch doctors.”

His bearing transforms, with alarming speed, from avuncular to hostile. “Is there something you’re unsatisfied with?” His tone is sarcastic—I’ve been demoted from melancholy poet to dissatisfied customer. He’s mocking my vulgar temerity to shop around.

“I’d like to switch doctors,” I repeat, in a monotone. The words start to lose their meaning, become rote and insubstantial.

He tacks, becomes the benevolent, indulgent father. “Jennifer, I know therapy can be hard to tolerate; it’s not easy to come to difficult realizations about yourself. Sometimes the urge to run away can be very strong. It’s not reasonable to expect that anything’s going to be resolved in the time that we have. Which, incidentally, is coming to a close. My job is just to set you going in the right direction.” He speaks softly, reasonably. I’m the one who’s being irrational, childish. I start to wonder whether it really matters that much. I’ll be out soon, if I stick with him. It’s been six days; my insurance has more or less run out. Why not just let him discharge me?

But then, just as I’m about to tell him to forget it, his surface composure dissolves.

“Fine,” he says spitefully, peevishly. “Fine, if that’s the way you want it.” He stands up and gestures impatiently for me to go. As I stand up to leave, he hisses, “Your insurance is running out. Switching doctors won’t fix that—no doctor here is going to work for free.”

I’m taken aback by the disgust in his voice. It’s as if I’ve revealed myself to be a lower life form, as if there’s something repulsive about me. I’ve failed to come to terms with my troubles according to the prescribed timeline.

After leaving the office, I stand for a moment beside a glassed off empty hallway, staring at the elevator and waiting for the adrenaline to leave my body. A sudden, loud “thud” next to my head makes me swivel abruptly and take two steps backward in an effort to regain my balance. Once I right myself, I look in the direction of the sound and then takes another quick step backward in surprise. In front of me, reflected back in the glass and barely visible, is my own uneven image. One side of my image is broken by the face of a woman, pushed right up against the glass, her eyes looking directly at me. Her head is tilted back and cocked to one side, and her eyes stare glassily from underneath half closed lids. The tilt of the head suggests a challenge, but the eyes are looking at nothing. There are specks of gummy spittle at the corners of her mouth, which is slightly open, as if she’s just thought of something she wants to say. She’s wearing a rumpled hospital gown over her jeans, and her feet and arms bare. Skinny arms, raised palms of her hands pressed flat against the glass. It’s like looking, from below, at someone doing push-ups.

As I stand there motionless, staring back, another figure, a man, walks rapidly down the hall toward us. When he reaches the woman, he puts his arm around her shoulder and turns her around so she’s facing the other way. Before he walks her back down the hall, he puts his own hands flat on the glass, raises himself up onto his toes, and shouts, “Fuck you!” The sound is muffled by the closed door, but it’s clear enough. I can see the blue veins on his forearms standing out against his skin. The muscles in his neck and face are stretched taut, and he looks furious, enraged. Then he turns around and the two of them walk, together, back down the hall. At one point the woman half turns her head as if she’s going to look back, but the man tightens his grip and presses her forward.

I look around and behind me, but no one else is here. On my right, Dr. Monteby’s door is closed; on my left, also closed, is the imposing oak door. Behind and to my right, curving around the corner, is the nursing station. There are people inside, but no one offers any indication that they heard or saw anything. Shaken, I walk quickly back down the hall to my room and close myself in the bathroom. On my first day here, Samantha made reference to the fact that Mark had “come from the other side.” What was then a piece of information without context, thrust aside by the gravity of what Mark had done to get there in the first place, has now come crashing into place. This empty hallway clearly leads to another, probably larger psychiatric unit. My new knowledge makes me feel strange. I’ve come to manage the other people in here, the notion of them; they’re troubled, depressed, suicidal—some of them are weird or just plain irritating—but until now they’ve bounded what amounts to my world, and I’ve gotten used to them. They have attributes, like anyone else—one likes chocolate bars while another prefers chips, another likes blue but not green. Trevor always finishes one item on his plate before moving on to the next. Allie bites her nails, and squints when she’s lying. This is the way people are, these are things that people like and do. And this space, with its television, comfortable chairs, beds, sheets, bathrooms, rituals—it’s become usual.

Now there’s a whole other space to account for, to absorb and place, and I experience the frustration of someone who has almost sat down to rest, is halfway into the chair, when the doorbell rings. It’s not just that there’s some other unfamiliar, previously unaccounted for space leading off of this one. These people, the people on “my” side, have constituted, not a physical boundary, but rather the limits of an idea. The limits of crazy. Now its horizons are no longer clear to me. When I came in I thought that everyone would be extravagantly mad—talking to themselves, attacking people at random, shaking and twitching and pacing and rocking. What a relief it had been to realize that the people we call crazy are really just us, fucked up. It’s become easy to imagine anyone getting to that point—or, at least, anyone with a particular set of vulnerabilities. I could have been anyone. Anyone could have ended up being me. Now another category of individual is crowding in on me, and that thin glass door doesn’t seem nearly substantial enough to keep it at bay.

Behind all of this, bewilderment. How did I get to this place? What steps, exactly, did I take to reach this moment? Perhaps, if the answer or the way back or through doesn’t appear when sought from a distance, it lies in the details. Something that I didn’t pick up or put in the right pile, a streetcar missed, a meal I ate but didn’t taste. Somewhere, amongst the infinite rearrangement of matter and energy, a wrong move. I spend what feels like hours standing in the bathroom, pouring over the events and patterns of my life, barely aware of my surroundings, looking for the misplaced article. Either a lack or a surplus—some kind of displacement that might show itself as a tiny irregularity not perceptible in the normal manner, but there nonetheless for someone who looks in the proper way.

Finally, I splash some water on my face and leave the bathroom. Allie is lying on the bed.

“Hey Allie,” I say, “have you ever been on the other side?”  I feel more than curiosity—there’s more at stake here, although I’m not sure what. It has to do with who I am. Which has to do with who I’m not.

“When I first came in, yeah. Then I got out for good behavior. You’re lucky—you got fast-tracked.”

I’m lucky. This is a perspective that I didn’t consider. I’m the fortunate one, not the guy standing outside on the sidewalk putting mustard on his hot dog, catching a quick meal before his afternoon meeting. Not the woman who’s jogging, or checking her rear view mirror, or mowing the lawn. Luck is relative, it seems, and here, luck is spatial. I’m here and not there, and that’s a good thing.

“What was it like?” I feel like a grade schooler asking her friend what it was like to have a detention.

“Not great. There were a few people who refused to wash, and you had to be careful who you talked to. Lots of lifers—hard core schizophrenics. Everyone smoked, which made the smoking room pretty unbearable.”

“They have their own smoking room?” I feel a pang of envy.

“Yeah. The smoking restrictions are only on this side; those guys can smoke their faces off. Did you know that over ninety percent of schizophrenics smoke? I read that in Mental Health Today. Anyway, just forget about it. You’re cool, don’t worry. It’s harder to get in there from here than it is to get out.” I feel warm relief; I’m going to stay here, on this side, where I belong.

I continue to lie on the bed after they’re gone. Allie comes in, picks up a book, and leans back on the bed with her knees up. I’m staring at the ceiling, looking idly for patterns in the dotted tiles, when Allie sits up abruptly and says, “Oh–there’s lunch. Let’s go.” I haven’t heard anything to indicate that lunch is here, but when I walk into the dining area, the carts are there  with another pre-ordered lunch for me. I eat quickly—I have a lot of work to do this afternoon, and it’s starting to create a small knot in my stomach. It’s not the MMPI—I figure that, if I don’t second-guess myself, I can probably get through it pretty quickly. It’s the autobiography. I feel sure that if I can nail that one, my problems will resolve themselves. Something will be unveiled. Maybe I just need to find a different perspective, I think. Bishnu says I’ve been taking things too seriously, and this gives me an idea for the autobiography—I’ll try a different tone, one that feels foreign to me right now. I’ll keep it light, a touch whimsical. Nothing too earnest or overwrought—just a collection of observations about those amusing, quirky things that make me, in my unique way, human.

I settle on the bed and begin to write. “I was born in a split-level bungalow, the youngest of three children. I was moody, with a tendency towards tantrums.” I stop, and then cross out the reference to my moods—I’m supposed to keep things light, and besides, they might read too much into it. I continue, “As a child, I enjoyed British bulldog and was good at four-square….” I wonder if they have those games here, and decide to revise. “…good at sports, with a habit of reading in trees.” That last part is supposed to seem quirky, but after I write it down, I wonder if it just makes me sound weird. A statement like that might get me designated as an introvert. I stare down at the page, reaching for inspiration. This is going to be harder than I thought; I imagine pitfalls and snares everywhere. The safest course would be to say nothing, but that may get me defined as a resistant patient. I begin to doodle geometric shapes in the margins of the paper, longing for distraction.

To my relief, Lynn appears at the door and says, “Dr. Monteby will see you now, Jennifer.” I swing myself off the bed and walk beside Lynn down the hall. Doctor Monteby’s office is right beside the nursing station. The door is open, and I can see that the office is small, dark, and windowless. His desk is littered with files, magazines, journals, pens, notes. There’s nothing obviously threatening about the space, and yet the phrase, “abandon hope, all ye who enter here” passes through my mind.

Doctor Monteby is sitting at his desk writing hurriedly, and so I stand by the doorway, not wanting to interrupt. Finally, after a minute, I cough quietly.

“Ah Jennifer, yes, come in,” he says, without looking up. I take the only other chair in the room—a heavy, monumental piece that dares you to sit in it. It’s way out of proportion for the office, and in bizarre contrast to the simple, spare black desk chair that Dr. Monteby occupies. He looks briefly up at my face and then back down at the mess of files in front of him. Then he pinches the edge of a file that is barely sticking out halfway down the pile, and pulls it out with a satisfied, “Ah ha.”

After spending a minute or so looking at the file, he takes off his glasses, puts them down, leans back, and swivels his chair to face me.

“So, Jennifer, it says here that you’re a student of literature.”

“That’s right.”

“And what are you studying right now?”

I attempt a quick mental inventory of my last stated research interests, but all I can think of is the stolen paper. Or merely towed, left fallow and discarded in some lot on the north side of Chicago. Privately I opt for stolen, as if this assigns some value to it. As if it means that someone actually wanted it.

“Gargantua and Pantagruel,” I say, immediately embarrassed of the shoddy writing, the lack of a clear argument, the fact that I hadn’t even read the whole book and had relied instead on tendencies I saw in the first part and then on secondary sources.

“Mmmm,” he replies, sticking out his bottom lip and nodding significantly. He follows this up with a series of questions about my medical history, family history, financial situation, current relationships, and so on. I answer each question as directly and economically as possible, as if there were some kind of word count within which I have to stay. As soon as I give an account of my financial situation, this portion of the interview concludes abruptly. He leans back even further in his chair, to the point where I become anxious about him toppling over. Then he crosses his legs and puts his hands behind his head.

“Jennifer,” he says, “Who’s your favorite writer?”

“Virginia Woolf.” I answer without having to think, and feel heartened by the certain knowledge that I got this one right.

“I see, well, that is interesting. Virginia Woolf, hmm? Such a shame.”

I assume he’s talking about Woolf’s suicide and shake my head with what I hope is the right mixture of sorrow and regret.

“Well then,” he says, sitting upright and slapping the palms of his hands on his knees in a summary gesture, “I think that what we have here may be more a question of temperament than of a disorder.”

“Temperament?”

“Temperament. What I mean to say is, perhaps it’s just the case that you have a melancholic temperament. Like Woolf. Or Proust.”

“Melancholic temperament?”

“Yes. A melancholic temperament.”

I’ve heard of people being medicalized, having pills thrown at them, but this literary approach is new to me. I feel a certain thrill at the idea of sharing a temperament with Virginia Woolf, but then I remind myself that pretty much everyone agrees now that Woolf suffered from clinical depression punctuated by bouts of psychosis. There’s talk of Woolf having been bipolar. Then I think about studies they’ve done showing that bipolar illness has a long term negative effect on cognitive ability, quite separately from acute episodes. Maybe, I think, Woolf didn’t kill herself because she was depressed or crazy; maybe that’s no more true than the theories that attribute it to her childhood experiences or adult liaisons. Maybe she was not delicate, or tormented. Maybe she just gave herself the long, cool stare and decided that, rather than watching her genius diminishing in stages, she would retire at her peak.

I look up to see Doctor Monteby already standing. “We’ll talk more tomorrow,” he says, gesturing toward the door with a smile. As I walk back down the hall, I feel conflicted. If I go along with this “melancholic temperament” thing, I’ll likely be discharged before my insurance runs out, which is a good thing. After all, what can you do about a temperament? It seems to me like something that you’re born with, immune to medication and too foundational to respond to therapy. At the same time, the suggestion that I’m immune to intervention leaves me feeling let down. Cleary, something is wrong with me—something has changed for the worse over the last few months. Is there nothing to be done, then? Have I simply become more myself, has some already existing tendency in my personality solidified into a disposition that I must learn to tolerate, if not embrace?

I feel like I need a cigarette, and I go to look for Allie. She’s not in her room, so I head for the living room, and almost walk right into the middle of a group of people sitting on chairs arranged in a circle.

“Oh, sorry,” I say, backing up.

“Hi, Jennifer. Come on and join us.” A woman sitting right in front of me cranes her neck back so she can get a look at me. The thin guy stands up and fetches a chair.

“Hi,” says the woman, “my name’s Samantha. Welcome to Group.” The woman has a warm, easy smile, a comfortable air about her. She gestures toward the other side of the circle and says, “go on, Mark.”

Mark turns out to be the blond young man from breakfast, the one with the striking blue eyes. He looks so healthy, so wholesome, that I have trouble imagining how he could possibly fit in here.

“Well, I’ve been here for a day,” he says, “and you all seem like really nice people, and I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I don’t think I belong here. I’m not crazy—uh, no offense; I was having a hard time, I made a mistake, and that’s it. I don’t feel down anymore, I’ve never have any weird thoughts or heard voices or thought someone’s out to get me, and I sleep like a baby.”

He smiles, and I feel immediately sympathetic. I look around at the other people in the group—pallid skin, downcast eyes—these are people who need, at the very least, some support. But this boy’s eyes are clear and bright, his smile is easy and open, his posture casual and confident. I wait to hear Samantha’s justification for keeping him here.

“Dude, feel your fuckin’ head.” I look over at the speaker, resenting his challenge. It’s the razor-thin man with the shaggy hair.

“That’s behind me now,” the young man says, “and I wish people would just let me move on.” I almost begin to nod in agreement, but as he’s finishing his sentence he turns his head to face the thin man, and my eyes open wide. On the left side of his head, beneath a barely visible stubble, is a narrow, angry scar that runs, in the shape of a rainbow, from his temple almost around to the back of his head. On either side are dots at equally spaced intervals, marks left over from the staples that had held his head together. At the sight of it I suck my breath in sharply.

Samantha adjusts her chair so that she’s facing directly at Mark. “Mark, you only just came over from the other side yesterday. I understand that it must feel like you’ve come a long way from where you were when you came in, and you have, but I think it’s premature for you to start thinking about leaving. Is there some reason that you’re in a rush to leave?”

“I just think this atmosphere is unhealthy for me. I can’t lift weights, I can’t go for runs, I can’t hang out with my friends. This place freaks them out.”

The Holt Renfrew woman speaks. “You’re a lucky man, Mark. If that bullet hadn’t deflected off of your skull, you wouldn’t be here right now. I think you should be content with that right now.”

I feel my mind adjusting to the new Mark. Mark the shooter. Now that I think about it, maybe there is something a bit unbalanced about him. Maybe the intense blue of his eyes is a little disturbing, and what had at first looked casual about his posture might be interpreted as loose and unpredictable. I’ve never met anybody who’s tried to blow a hole in his head. I haven’t even seen it on TV—only heard it, off-screen. The way the character waits for the friend or spouse or child to walk out of the room and partway down the hall, and then you hear the bang and you know what’s happened. And there’s always the jolt, and then the satisfaction of having anticipated the shot before it rings out.

Ernest Hemingway blew his head off with a shotgun. Every time I think about that, I get caught up in the logistics of it. It seems like it would take some skill to arrange the gun in such a way that you could trigger it. You could use your toe, but that would be kind of undignified, found there, slumped in a chair with one bare foot. You could also use some kind of stick, that would be cleaner—but again, very awkward.

“Jennifer?” Samantha and everyone else in the group is looking at me.

“Pardon?” In my musings, I’ve lost track of what they’re talking about.

“I was just wondering if you wanted to say anything before we wrap up.”

“No. No thanks.” I almost add, “not yet,” as a kind of promissory gesture. Again, I don’t want to disappoint.

She doesn’t push it. “Okay, then, that’s it for today. We’ll meet again tomorrow.”

After the group breaks up, I notice Allie for the first time, tucked away in the corner by the window. She looks over at me and jerks her head toward our room, flicking her finger in a imitation of lighting a lighter. I nod almost imperceptibly and get up out of the chair. I really do need a cigarette.

Allie performs the same ritual with the towel and then lights our cigarettes.

“Hey Allie, who’s your doctor?” I ask, trying not to betray any real interest in the answer.

Allie looks over at me. “Oh, God, they’ve given you that dork Monteby, haven’t they. Word is that he’s completely useless. How much insurance do you have?”

“What?”

“How much insurance do you have—how many days?”

“I figure about six.”

“Well, don’t worry, he’ll have you out by then. He doesn’t treat the uninsured. Sometimes I think his real goal isn’t to help people—it’s to make them more cost-effective, you know, rid the world of lingering, expensive illness.”

Having a context for Dr. Monteby’s rather dismissive diagnosis should make me feel better, but instead I feel like the loser who’s drawn the short stick. I try to put thoughts of Dr. Monteby out of my mind, and since there doesn’t seem to be anything that I have to do right now, I return my attention to the paperwork. This time I start with the straightforward personal data forms, and work easily through the first two and half forms before I stop and stare out the window. I think about Ronald and Mark. There’s something obscene about their failure to cope, something I don’t want to face. I imagine the anger—even hatred–behind the acts of violence that people like Mark and Ronald have committed against themselves. But something more than the kind of self-hatred that could lead to humiliation of the flesh. Suicide, it seems to me, suggests a universal hatred of things as they are.

Mind you, the anger around suicide goes both ways. There was that guy last year who was threatening to jump off of the Burlington bridge during rush hour. It was a sweltering day, and people had to wait on the bridge in their cars for hours while he just stood there on the edge. They would miss dinner engagements, miss putting their kids to bed; they were hungry, tired, hot, and eventually, bored. Maybe they had to pee. After about two hours, people started yelling “Jump!” to him, and at just over three hours, he did. He landed on the concrete next to the river. I wonder how many people felt chastened, and how many people, perhaps as a defense mechanism, perhaps not, told themselves that it served him right. I remember all of the times back home when I’ve been delayed on the subway. If it’s a major delay and everyone has to get off the train, I always hear talk of suicide. I feel shock, for sure, and sadness. But sometimes, beneath my sadness, I’ve detected a sliver of annoyance.

Below you’ll find another instalment of my psych ward memoir. In this excerpt, I have my first, somewhat surreal experience with the financial side of private hospitals in the U.S., learn what it means to be admitted “voluntarily,” and have a dissociative episode that includes a flashback to my childhood.

Inside Out: My Lives as a Psychiatric Inpatient: excerpt IV

“Jennifer?” I turn my head, expecting to see Lynn. Instead, I’m greeted by a large, square woman holding a proportionally large clipboard. “May I come in?”

“Uh, sure,” I say, half rising from her chair.

“No, no, stay where you are,” the woman says cheerfully. “I’ll just sit on the edge of the bed here.”

I expect her to introduce herself, but instead she looks down and begins flipping through the pages on the clipboard. “I’m from financial services, and I’m here to clarify your method of payment and offer financial advice if needed.”

For one unreal moment I experiences a kind of institutional conflation, and think that they’ve found my car and she’s here to collect on the parking tickets. For that brief moment it makes sense to me that a hospital administrator is collecting money for traffic infringements.

“I notice here that your student insurance covers you for $10,000,” the woman continues. I didn’t know that, but am relieved to hear it. I hadn’t really thought about it, but this is a private hospital and of course I’ll need some insurance to cover my stay.

“So, do you have any other coverage?”

I’m confused—why would this woman care if I have home or car insurance?

I say nothing, so the woman continues. “What method of payment do you intend to use?” Her manner has become distant, mechanical.“Um, my insurance,” I say, starting to feel like we’re going in circles.

The woman looks up from her clipboard. “If you mean the $10,000, I’m afraid that won’t be sufficient, unless you’re discharged in the next couple of days. It costs a thousand dollars a day here just for the bed, on top of which you have meals, therapeutic activities, appointments with your psychiatrist, consultations, psychiatric testing, medications, etcetera., etcetera. An average stay here costs about $13,000-15,000 a week.”

The summary of her calculations cycles me through a number of emotions. First I feel taken aback, then indignant. Part of my Canadianness growing up was born of a superiority complex connected to having a public health care system. However much it may be limping along, overburdened and underfunded, it’s something that Americans don’t have. And possessing what Americans don’t have (or not possessing what they do have—if it’s something bad) is a large part of what makes Canada Canadian. Well, I think, if I can only afford around six days, that’s just as well. I’ll be glad to get out. I probably could have worked it out without coming here in the first place, if Bishnu and Hilary hadn’t intervened. I’ll use up the six days, and then work the rest out on my own, or with the help of my friends, like Bishnu says.

Since I don’t say anything, the woman continues. “How about I come back a little later once you’ve had a chance to put your affairs in order. We also offer long-term financing, if you choose to take that route.” With that, she bounces off the bed with improbable lightness and walks briskly out of the room.

I’m still absorbing what I’ve heard, enjoying the sure knowledge that I won’t—can’t—be in here for more than six days, when Allie, who has been lying on the bed throughout the conversation says, “You know, you can’t just leave whenever you want, in case that’s what you’re thinking.”

“But I came in voluntarily,” I reply.

“That doesn’t mean that you get to leave voluntarily,” says Allie. “The only place you get to go when your insurance runs out is over to County. And trust me, you don’t want that.”

I’m attempting to absorb this new piece of information when Lynn walks in. “Sorry I’m late,” she says. “We had a situation.”

“Jennifer’s just learning the finer points of volunteerism,” Allie says.

My throat feels tight, I look up at Lynn and say, slowly, so that there’s no confusion, “I came in voluntarily.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Lynn says, looking over at Allie and then back at me.

“So I can leave when I want, right?”

“Well, technically, but of course we can’t let you go if we don’t think you’re safe.”

“What happens if I just walk out?”

“Well, for starters, the door is locked and you have to get buzzed out by a staff member, so it’s not really a matter of just walking out. But if you did manage to leave, say, once you have outside privileges, then we’d have to pick you up and commit you.”

“But I came in voluntarily.”

“Yes, and if you agree to stay voluntarily, it will be a lot easier for you to leave.”

“But you’re saying that I can’t leave when I want to.”

“Things are a less complicated if you agree to stay voluntarily.”

“So, I can leave voluntarily as long as I leave when you want me to.”

“See what I mean?” Allie says.

“Listen,” Lynn says. “Let’s not worry about that right now, okay?  I know that you’ve just spoken to Finance. No one’s about to send you to County”—she gives Allie a pointed look—“and no one’s going to commit you. The important thing right now is for us to start developing a plan for your recovery. The next two days are going to be kind of busy—there are a lot of forms that need to be filled out, and a fair bit of psych testing to be done. Once all that is taken care of, we can focus more fully on the issues that brought you here.” All of this sounds like preparation for a long stay, and I start to worry in earnest about how I’m going to pay.

Before I can say anything about it, though, Lynn hands me a very large pile of paper and says, “Take your time with this, but try to have the MMPI done by tomorrow. We also ask people to write a brief autobiography. That may take a little more time, but try to finish it within the next few days. It can be very helpful to us in figuring out how to approach your situation. But first, how about we have a chat?” Allie is still in lying on her bed, now with headphones on; Lynn walks over and lifts up one of her earphones. “Allie, could you give us some time for a one-on-one?” she asks. Allie takes the earphone and places it back over her ear, and then rolls off the side of the bed and walks toward the door. “Have fun,” she says as she walks out.

Lynn sits down on the edge of my bed, leans forward, puts her forearms on her knees, and then looks up at me. “So, Jennifer, what can you tell me about why you’re here?” Ever since art therapy this morning I’ve been dreading another moment like this: I’m beginning to feel the “hows” and “whys” piling up, unanswered, around me.

“I don’t know, I mean, my friends brought me here, because. . .I guess they were worried about me. They said they know someone who stayed here,” I add, doubtfully.

“And how are you feeling right now?” It’s the same question that Rebecca asked, and yet when Lynn asks me, in her quiet voice with a soft hint of southern drawl, and with what sounds like genuine concern, my eyes fill up. I look up and see Lynn’s frank, grey eyes looking back at me, her hands clasped together. Then I hear a sound like the rushing of blood to my head, and little dots appear in front of my eyes that start to blank out parts of Lynn’s face. I stand up and manage to say, “I think I need to–.” before my legs collapse underneath me.

*

I’m walking down a wide road—paved, but pebbled rather than smooth asphalt. There are no sidewalks, just ditches on either side of the road with longer and lusher grass at the bottom where the lawnmowers can’t get in close enough to crop it. I’m looking down with the purposeful intensity of someone searching for something very specific. I can’t see my body, just the alternating appearance of the tops of my running shoes as I walk. Worn white leather, with three jagged-edged blue suede stripes on either side. There’s a Tennis Association tag threaded into the first loop of the left shoe’s laces. I feel myself stop abruptly. I bend over, and a skinny, sun-browned arm comes into view and picks something up off the ground. When I stand up again, I’m holding in my hand a dirty, worn piece of paper—maybe a business card. A brown stain makes the left half of the card unreadable, but on the other half of the card I can make out the phrase “reasonable rates, ” and below it, “help.” Satisfaction swells in me as I tuck the card into my pocket and turn back the way I came. Not completion, but something on the way to that.

Now my head is up and I’m staring straight ahead at a long road that curves off to the right in the distance. I feel a desire to look at the uniform bungalows that I know are there to either side, but my head continues to face straight ahead. Eventually I turn up a wide driveway—also pebbled—and walk toward an open garage. On the driveway I pass a couple of squished monarch caterpillars. Once I’m inside the garage, I turn around and pull the heavy door shut. After the washed-out brightness of outside, it’s hard to make anything out in the dim light. A single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling casts a weak light onto the floor, but after a moment my eyes start to adjust. The floor of the garage is covered with pieces of paper in every different size and shape. Some are arranged in horizontal or vertical rows, others are clustered tightly together inside circles that have been sketched out with chalk. Off to the side sits a tall, unsteady tower of scraps. I try to get a closer look at what’s written on some of the pieces laid out on the floor, but am thwarted when my body walks toward the tower and places the card on top. The satisfaction that I felt when I had first found the card on the street is washed away in the contemplation of that pile—unordered, uncategorized—and is replaced by a diffuse anxiety that builds until it’s barely tolerable. I step from one foot to the other, staring at the pile, trying to place something. Anything.

*

I’m conscious for at least a minute before I open my eyes, trying at first to remember where I am, then to remember what happened. I begin with an inventory of my body. Predictably, there’s a slight tingling sensation in the back of my head on the left side. Nothing smells unusual, except maybe a hint of mustiness in the air, the smell of library stacks in winter. I can feel a tightness around my left bicep—a blood pressure cuff?—and I can hear at least two voices. One is Lynn’s, but the other voice I don’t recognize. Even after I conclude that there’s no threat, I keep my eyes closed. I keep them closed because they’re going to want to know what happened, and because I don’t know. Every now and then since I left home at eighteen, I’ve suffered from these occasional…fits. I can be sitting having a completely normal conversation, and then suddenly I’m sucked violently away from consciousness. I wake up a few minutes or even half an hour later with no recollection of what has happened. These spells don’t necessarily correspond to any particular topic, but they do tend to come on during emotionally intense moments. There’s no obvious physical cause, although an MRI has shown a small area of tissue damage and scarring in the left posterior of my parietal lobe. One person called it a “low density area.” People speculate about an in-utero or a subsequent “quiet” stroke that has been just as quietly compensated for ages ago. Most agree that everyone, under the scrutiny of an MRI, will turn up imperfect, already compromised from the day they were born or before. But I become convinced that this low density area is somehow related to these “events.” When I learn that the parietal lobe has to do with language and psycho-motor skills, I develop a theory: somewhere there exists a very specific combination of words and gestures that I was born without, or, more accurately, lacking the ability to generate or to interpret. I possess all the words, all the gestures, but I can’t make or process all of them in that particular combination. Any part of this lost combination, when offered, will precipitate an event. In the same manner as lights strobing at a certain rate can set off an epileptic seizure—so certain gestures, tones of voice, glances, combined with a certain order of words, can set me off, with no warning except a tingling in the left back left portion of my head. It’s the tingling at this very place that convinces me that the two—the wound, and the words—are somehow connected.

After a couple of minutes I peek under my eyelashes and see that Lynn is talking with an older man; both of them are half-facing away from me, so I open my eyes to get a better look at him. He’s probably in his early sixties, with silver hair, clean shaven. He’s leaning slightly forwards on the balls of his feet with his hands cupped behind his back, and he’s looking down at the floor and nodding. There’s something tweedy about him, despite the fact that he’s wearing a light blue cotton suit. When I open my eyes more fully, I decide there is something distinctly academic about him; whether it’s the shabby vagueness of his outline, or the habitually neglected posture, I’m not sure. I wonder if he’s the source of the mustiness.

Lynn looks around, sees that I’m awake, and walks over to the bed. “How are you feeling, Jennifer?”

“Fine. Good.”

“You gave us a bit of a scare, there. Do you know what happened?”

“I’m fine, really.” I’m not about to offer Lynn my theory about words, gestures, and low density areas.

Lynn looks at me for a moment, and her eyebrows knit together. Then she smiles. “Let me introduce you to Dr. Monteby. He’ll be your attending doctor during your stay.” The man, who has been waiting politely behind Lynn, steps forward and says, “Hello there.”

He asks me again what happened, and I say I don’t know. He asks me if this has ever happened before and I hesitate and nod. Diabetes? No. Food allergies? No. “Low blood pressure?” No. The questions continue, and my answer is always either “no” or “I don’t know.” Finally the questions stop.

“Yes, well,” he says, “I’ll let you rest for a while. Perhaps we can get together early this afternoon to catch up. How about I call on you shortly after one o’clock.”

“Sure, yes, that will be fine.” I feel like I’ve just accepted an invitation to tea.

 

The three of us exit the elevator when it reaches the 9th floor, and the tech guides me down the hallway and into a carpeted room with two beds, two dressers, and a bathroom. It looks like a hotel room. Once we’re inside, he asks me to get undressed, gives me a gown to put on, and steps back out into the hallway, where Hilary waits. The request and the setting seem bizarrely incompatible—there are no instruments, no charts or diagrams, no stainless steel instruments anywhere, and yet this man, who is clearly not a doctor or a nurse, has just asked me to undress and put on a gown. It strikes me as so extraordinary that I lack any context for resistance, and so I comply, folding each piece of clothing carefully before setting it on the bed in a neat pile. I even roll my socks together in a ball. I’ve just finished tying the last knot in the gown when he knocks quietly on the door.

“Come in,” I say, suddenly not knowing where to put my hands. He enters and proceeds to pick up my clothing piece by piece, going through the pockets of my pants, my jacket, putting his hands in my shoes. He even unfolds the socks and turns them inside out. He leaves the quarters in my pocket, but keeps a paper clip and a washer left over from when I’d screwed a lamp into the wall two weeks ago. I wonder whether he will pat down my body, but instead he leans over and takes the laces out of my boots.

When he tells me that I can get dressed again, I feel a rush of relief; I had begun to fear that I’d have to keep the gown. I know it makes no sense to stay in a gown given the nature of my injury, but one naturally associates being in the hospital with wearing a gown. Again, I find myself wanting a context for how I should be, what I should do. I wait until I hear him walking down the hall before I slowly and methodically put my clothes back on, including my laceless boots and my jacket. I sit down uncomfortably on the edge of the bed and look over at Hilary, who’s taken a seat by the door.

“Well, I guess I should go now,” she says, looking down at her watch. I want to beg her to stay for just a couple more minutes, but she’s already up and halfway out the door. I follow her out of the room wordlessly and stand there with my arms hanging at my sides, watching her recede down the hallway and then disappear around the corner.

I figure it must be pretty late by now. There’s no one around, and I stand for a moment, staring down the hall, not knowing what to do. I turn and walk in the other direction until I find myself in a sort of living/dining room area. To my left are two couches and a couple of chairs—all pleasant versions of the ones downstairs. There’s another gleaming mahogany coffee table in front of one couch, and a smaller one to the side. On the smaller table there’s a collection of magazines fanned out in a neat pile—Vogue, Time, Chatelaine. I take a couple more steps and see, against the wall opposite the couch, a television cabinet housing a large TV with a bunch of books and video tapes below it. To my right is a longish rectangular table that looks like it seats about twelve. On the wall next to the table is a whiteboard with the days of the week written across the top, and the hours from 8 am to 8 pm written down the left side. Almost every hour of every day is filled in with something: “art therapy”; “exercise group”; “dance”; “music”; “yoga”; “movie night” and, in the middle of every afternoon a two hour block titled simply “Group.” Meals and free time have also been slotted in.

I suppose that nothing more is going to happen tonight, so I go back to my room. I have nothing to sleep in and I’m not comfortable putting the gown back on, so I just take off my jacket and boots and crawl into bed. The quarters in my pants make an uncomfortable bulge that digs into my hip when I turn onto my side, but I leave them there and turn onto my back. They’re the only protection that I’ve been offered, and I’m not prepared to risk losing them. I don’t expect to sleep, and am surprised when I hear a man’s voice saying, “It’s time to get up.” I sense the light even before I open my eyes, but still I’m not prepared for how bright the room is. I’m even less prepared for the person lying in the bed by the window. Where did she come from? How had I not seen her before? She groans, sits up, and shakes out her long, wavy auburn hair. Then she leans back on her arms, looks over at me, and says, “I’m Allie—and you are?” I hesitate for a moment before giving her my name, as if it might be dangerous to give this person any information about me.

I force myself to return her gaze. “Jennifer,” I say. My name’s Jennifer,” I repeat, as if reassuring myself.

“Well, Jennifer, welcome to the ninth floor.” She leans forward and presses the palms of her hands against her eyes. “Fuck. I did not sleep well—again. God, what I wouldn’t give for some sedating bedtime meds. Do you take sedating meds? Consider yourself lucky if you do.”

“No, I…I don’t take any medication,” I reply.

“Oh. Well, I’m sure they’ll fix that,” she says, leaning back against the wall and closing her eyes.

I have no idea what to do next, so I sit on the side of my bed trying not to look like I’m waiting to see what this Allie woman will do. Part of me is waiting for her to do something mental, like start talking to herself or lie back down on the bed and stare blankly at the ceiling, unaware of her surroundings. Instead, she opens her eyes, swings her legs over the side of her bed, and walks into the bathroom opposite me. I hear a flush, and then the sound of her brushing her teeth. A moment later, she throws open the door and walks back to her side of the room. “Can’t be bothered with a shower this morning,” she mutters, walking over to the four-drawer dresser beside her bed and opening an overstuffed drawer.

“What to wear, what to wear,” she murmurs to herself.

I don’t move from my position, too busy marveling at the mundane familiarity of the previous ten minutes. This woman and I really could be sharing a hotel room. Someone will come around at about 10am to make the bed and leave fresh towels while we’re out sightseeing. We’ll come back around 3pm and have a luxurious nap; when we wake up, we’ll watch TV while one of us flips through the pamphlets looking for a good place to go for dinner.

Eventually I get up and walk slowly toward the bathroom—slowly enough, I hope, not to break the spell. But there’s no miniature bar of soap at the sink, no miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner on the edge of the bathtub, no overturned glass cups on little doilies. I’m disappointed—it had been a seductive and comforting fantasy. I lean against the sink and squeeze my eyes shut; maybe when I open them I’ll be somewhere else, somewhere usual. But it doesn’t work, and the heaviness and tingling in my head returns. When I come out, I don’t notice at first the small, clear plastic bag has been placed on the dresser beside my bed. Or was it there all along? I walk over and pick it up cautiously. Inside it there’s a brand new toothbrush in its plastic wrapper, a little bottle of shampoo, and a small, square bar of soap in its wrapper. I glance toward the open door, expecting to catch a glimpse of the person who left it here, but there’s no one and no sound except Allie humming softly to herself as she gets dressed. If it’s been here all along, how did I not see it? If it hasn’t, who put it here?

Allie is heading for the door, and I decide that the best strategy is to stick close to her. We walk into the dining room, where seven or eight people are sitting at the table eating breakfast and chatting noisily with one another. Allie grabs a tray off of a metal cart as she walks by, and then takes up a seat at the other end of the table. I’m not sure what to do–there doesn’t seem to be a tray with my name on it–but just as I’m about to turn and go back to my bedroom a woman appears from behind me and says, “I’m afraid we had to order for you, since you didn’t have a chance last night to fill out a meal card. We ordered a muffin, some cereal, juice, coffee. That’s your tray at the top on the left.”

The woman looks about thirty, with kind eyes and a slightly unruly bob tucked optimistically behind her ears. She’s wearing jeans and a sweater, and looks like she’s just walked out of a Land’s End catalogue. I don’t move, so the woman takes the tray down and hands it to her.

“Hi Jennifer, I’m Lynn,” she says, smiling at me.

I nod my head, but say nothing.

“I’m your primary nurse,” Lynn continues. “We’ll meet together after breakfast and discuss your stay.”

“Okay,” I answer, wondering what a “stay” consists of.

Allie is sitting down at the very end of the table next to the window, and I walk over and set my tray down opposite hers. She’s already deeply involved in a conversation with the person sitting next to her, and I take the opportunity to get a closer look at my roommate. She looks young—not more than nineteen. She’s leaning forward with her elbows on the table so that she can hear the person opposite her above the general buzz of conversation, and I notice that she has slender, delicate hands. Beautiful hands. There’s something vulnerable about the way she holds  them, one tucked inside the other, and I have trouble reconciling this with the confident, offhand manner in which she’d spoken to me, the decisive way she navigates the space around her.

I’m not at all hungry, so instead of eating I survey the rest of the table. Most of the people are young to youngish—only a couple are over forty—and at first glance they look entirely normal, except perhaps for one older man in his fifties who keeps his eyes on the table when he talks. Take away the institutional trays, and it would be hard to tell these people from a bunch of guests at a bed and breakfast. There’s a man who looks about twenty-seven, painfully thin, his hatchet-sharp features softened by a shaggy mane of shoulder-length hair and a pair of deep chocolate-brown eyes. The woman sitting beside him is chunky and plain—not ugly, but tending that way. She’s tucking into her food with singular concentration, while at the same time directing a constant patter at the woman sitting beside her. The recipient of her monologue is a small, frail, mousy woman who looks as though she’s misplaced something and is trying hard to remember where it is. Beside her sits a woman with a notepad in front of her, into which she is scratching out what looks like a series of long mathematical formulae. The entire page is filled with these calculations, and she’s resorted to filling up the margins with tiny, cramped writing. I admire her focus, even if the activity seems odd and misplaced. Across the table from that woman sits a young man with white-blond crew cut hair and a farm-fresh face. When he turns partway in my direction, he exposes a pair of brilliant sky-blue eyes, their color intensified by the light shining in from the window. Beside him is a subdued-looking woman with dark, long hair and a tasteful skirt-sweater combination. She wouldn’t look out of place shopping in Holt Renfrew.

People are getting up now and putting their trays back on the cart, so I do the same, having eaten nothing. It occurs to me that I’ll regret not drinking the coffee—a horrible dependency leaves me with penetrating headaches if I don’t have a cup before noon. Someone pushes the cart against the wall, and there’s a general dispersal toward either the living room area or down the hall to the bedrooms. Some glance at the whiteboard as they pass by. Only Allie hangs back, and I hesitate, not wanting to lose sight of her. She takes a couple of steps, then turns toward the other end of the hall and shouts, “Steeeeven.” A moment later the psych tech from last night is walking down the hall, carrying a small canvas bag. He stops in front of Allie, reaches into the bag, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, removes one, and hands it to Allie. Then he fishes out a lighter from his pocket, sparks it, and hold it in front of Allie. She leans toward him with her cigarette hanging loosely between her lips, lights it, and then straightens up and says “Ahhhh” as she exhales. Steven places an ashtray on the table and then stands to one side. I start to think of Steven as some kind of concierge, absent until summoned, then suddenly there to do whatever it takes to make his guests’ stay more pleasant. In the absence of a reason to keep remain standing beside Allie, I start to feel awkward, and so when she points to her cigarette pack and asks, “You want?” I take one. I quit smoking three months ago, around the same time Bishnu did, but I feel that under these unique circumstances, not taking one might put me at a social disadvantage. When I inhale, the smoke catches unpleasantly at the back of my throat, and after two drags I feel dizzy and a little sick. I don’t put it out, though; instead, I lean against the table and let my cigarette burn down on its own. Allie finishes her cigarette, butts it out, and joins the rest of the people in the living room.

I walk over to the whiteboard and see that the words “Art Therapy” have been written in the slot between 9 and 10 am, then look at my watch and then realizes that I don’t have it on. I look over at the people sitting around in the living room, talking or reading magazines, and experience the familiar sensation of being an outsider. Being inconspicuous suits me right now, though, and I walk up the hallway to my room. Just as I’m about to sit down in the chair by my bed, I hear a sing-song voice call out, “Art therapy, everyone.” I take a couple of cautious steps into the hallway, and then walk toward the group of people who have begun taking up seats around dining the table. I look around for Allie, but she’s already seated herself at the other end by the window, and the only seat left is the one right next to the woman who has called everyone together. She’s small, with bleached hair and red glasses that hang from a gold chain around her neck. She sits with enviable posture, pert and smiling, and welcomes each person by name as they sit down.

“Hello Jennifer,” she says cheerfully, turning toward me. “I’m Rebecca, the art therapist here on the West Wing.” I’m starting to get used to the fact that everyone knows my name before I know theirs, and I start to say “Hello,” but Rebecca has already turned away and is busy passing out colored pieces of construction paper to everyone. With a wink she hands me a purple one and whispers, conspiratorially, “My favorite color.”

“Okay everybody,” Rebecca says in a loud, clear voice, “it’s time to begin.” I look over at Allie at the other end of the table; she rolls her eyes dramatically and adopts a pained expression.

“Allie, why don’t you begin,” Rebecca says, looking pointedly down the table at her. “How are you feeling today?”

Allie looks back at her blandly and says nothing. Rebecca stares back at Allie and narrows her eyes. There’s a pause, and then with the faintest of shrugs she turns to the man sitting beside Allie, the one who never looks at people when he’s talking. Right now he’s staring with lidded eyes at a point somewhere between my and Rebecca’s heads.

“Ronald?” Rebecca says, attempting to move her head into his line of vision.

Ronald shifts his gaze slightly to the right and says, “I’ve been wondering–it um, do you…? It’s just that I can’t sleep. Do you really need to come into my room so often at night?” He looks down at the table and begins to fiddle with the ring around his baby finger.

“I’m afraid so, Ronald,” says Rebecca. “Until you can assure us that you’re not going to try to hurt yourself again, we have to check on you every fifteen minutes, twenty-four hours a day.” She smiles benevolently. “I’ll tell the night staff to try not to shine the flashlight directly at your face, okay?” Ronald looks over at the window and nods.

This is the first jarring indication that I’m not on some sort of weekend retreat, and it throws me. I look as discreetly as possible over at Ronald, assessing him. He looks like anyone else. His hair is rumpled, and he’s wearing a grey fishing sweater that makes him look like someone’s uncle. The only thing odd about him is the way he avoids looking at people when he talks. I hadn’t realized until now how really central eye contact is to normal conversation. Watch him as he interacts with people creates in me a strange feeling of anticipation and apprehension—I wait for the moment he will look up, but am uneasy about what I might see if he does. What’s hidden in those eyes? I wonder. Then again, maybe he’s just cross-eyed and embarrassed about it. I knew a cross-eyed guy in University, and when I talked to him I always tried to reposition myself so my face would fall in front of at least one line of sight. But every time I tried to move he’d turn his head, and there he’d be, looking elsewhere.

Still, it’s a minor eccentricity, and apart from that he could be anyone. But he’s not. This man sitting at the other end of the table from me has not only thought about hurting himself, he’s attempted to hurt himself badly enough that he needs to be watched constantly. I don’t know anyone who’s hurt themselves, except through carelessness. I know people who drink way too much, or who do drugs, who date abusive losers or sleep around. Sleeping during the AIDS epidemic can get you killed. I think again about Ronald, and then about myself. Do I want to hurt myself? At that thought the floor seems to drop out from under me, and instinctively I grab the edges of the table. I find suddenly that I’ve lost the sense of my own contours, the shape I makes in the world and the manner in which I occupy space. I look down at my hands and feel my head expand; when I close my eyes I feel my hands swelling like basketballs. I open my eyes and look around the table again. Who are these people? I look over at Rebecca, think about Lynn and Steven. What do they want from me? For the first tile—but not the last–I’m possessed by the feeling that I’m Alice at the Mad Tea party, and everyone around me is some version of the Hatter, the March Hare, or the Dormouse. This isn’t because I believe that I’m sane and they’re not—if anything, I feel more unbalanced than when I came in–but rather because, like the characters in the book, everyone around me seems to understand the logic of this world, whereas I am increasingly baffled by it. Everyone else—staff and patients—seems to know what their role is, and I’m not even sure exactly why I’m here. I know why someone brought me here—I said something stupid–but that’s not the same as knowing why I should be here. Yet I feel as though the reason must be perfectly clear to the people around me, who have accommodated my presence with ease. The only people who have acknowledged that I haven’t always been here are the staff members who’ve introduced themselves, and Allie, but even they act as though there’s nothing to explain. It’s as if there’s something about me—some look or smell—that marks me as belonging here. I scour my mind again for thoughts of self-harm, but come up only with the reassuringly obvious fact that my life is a mess right now. The things that make up this mess are concrete, measurable, and like digging my fingernails into the palm of my hand, they bring me back to myself.

When my attention returns to the group, the pattering woman from breakfast is speaking.

“…and then I said, well that’s just like the time when I was fourteen and I came across a wounded bird lying in the grass on our lawn. That poor little bird, it was all I could do to look at it in such pain.”

I look around the table; most people seem to have checked out. A few are doodling in the corners of their pieces of construction paper; the “numbers” woman—the one with the notepad at breakfast–is deeply involved in filling her construction paper with formulae. Allie has backed her chair away from the table and is sitting with one foot resting on the edge, making an elaborate show of retying her shoelace. Rebecca is looking at the speaker with a tight, practiced smile and just the barest hint of impatience.

“… so then I told him that I couldn’t meet him on Tuesday, because I had to pick up the laundry and then go over to my sister’s—she just had a baby, you know.…”

Just as the woman pauses to refuel with another breath, Rebecca swiftly inserts a clipped, “Thank you for sharing, April,” and there’s a look of universal relief around the table. April stops talking and folds her arms, looking a little as though someone has just played a trick on her.

“Jennifer? How are you feeling today?” Rebecca asks.

How am I feeling? I repeat the words to myself several times, and the more I repeat them, the more I find myself incapable of understanding the question. How, exactly, do I feel? Through what mechanism can I package up these sensations and impressions and deliver them up as sadness, or fear, anger? I want to say, “How do you think I feel?” but that will come out the wrong way. Besides, Rebecca seems like the wrong person to ask; she seems like someone who wants a tidy answer, something that can be condensed into one or two words on a chart. But then again, I really do want to know if Rebecca has any suggestions about how I feel, or at least how I might go about finding out. Rebecca is waiting for my reply, and so, not willing to wade into the psychological, I fall back onto the physical. “I’m tired,” I say. Rebecca nods sympathetically, but I suspect that, so far, I’m a bit of a disappointment.

“Today,” Rebecca says, “we’re going to draw ‘anger.’ You can put down anything you want—it can be a picture of something, or it can be entirely abstract. The idea is to capture the feeling and what it means to you. After you’re all done, we’ll go around the table and discuss what you’ve drawn.

Anger. When I think of anger, I think of people being angry at me, and that makes me feel guilty. How do you draw guilt? A prisoner sitting in an electric chair? A child lying? What color is guilt? I think of green, but that’s more for envy. Guilt should be black. Or at least the parts of you that are guilty should be rendered in black. Black for guilt, red for pain. What’s the relationship between guilt and pain? Maybe I should do the guilty parts in black and the painful parts in red. But then, what happens where they overlap? It will end up looking muddy.

I push these thoughts aside and look down. There’s nothing on my construction paper but a single, curved line that trails down from the upper right hand corner and ends up somewhere near the lower left hand corner. A backwards lifeline. I rack my brain for a way of linking the line to the theme of anger—I don’t want to disappoint again—but I can’t come up with anything. Fortunately, Rebecca looks at her watch and says we’re out of time for now and will have to pick up again on Thursday. Rebecca collects all of the drawings—to what end I can’t imagine (is there a display board somewhere, like in the halls at primary school? Are they going to put it in my file?)—then packs up her things and is gone. I’m struck again by the abruptness with which people appear and disappear around here. Before I have a chance to stand up, I hear a whisper next to my ear, “Wanna go for a smoke?” It’s Allie. I murmur that I don’t think I’m allowed to leave the floor, but Allie just stands up and says, “Follow me.” She leads me back into our room and tells me to wait by the door. Then she walks over to her bed, tilts up the mattress, and pulls out a pack of cigarettes from underneath. She stands back up and walks past me into the bathroom, indicating with a jerk of her head that I’m to follow. Once the door is closed she grabs a towel, soaks it under the faucet, winds it into a loose rope, and stuffs it along the bottom of the door. She hands me a cigarette and takes one for herself, and then she reaches inside the toilet paper role and takes out a lighter. She grins at me and lights both cigarettes.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t have a cigarette after one of those goddamn art therapy groups,” she says, shaking her head. I feel like I need a cigarette too, but I’m also feeling very uncomfortable—I haven’t even been here for a day and I’m already breaking the rules.

Allie flushes the toilet as soon as I drop in my cigarette, and then takes the towel away from underneath the door and opens it. I can’t believe that the smell of smoke issuing out of the bathroom won’t alert a staff member, but Allie, apparently unconcerned, walks over to her bed and flops down onto her back. Then I remember that Lynn said she would come by after art therapy, so I sit down in the chair by the door to wait. It feels less awkward than sitting on the bed. I continue to sit stiffly with my hands on my lap and my sock feet tucked under the chair until I hear a voice behind me.