One evening while sitting in the recliner, staring out the window into the huge tree in our front yard, watching thousands of leaves falling and falling and falling, I texted TD, (who was in the kitchen): “Give me three good reasons why I can’t go cross-country in an RV by myself.” I had already come up with hundreds of reasons myself why I couldn’t do it but my determination to do something often came with someone else’s belief that I couldn’t.
She texted back, “Safety, I’d miss you, and you can’t drive.”
Every leaf that pulled away from its hold, that struggled for its release, that tumbled free fall in that glorious, weightless abandonment, fell limp and dead on ground smothered with the thousands of other leaves that had attempted the escape before it.
I walked into the kitchen and sat down across the table from her. She sucks at lip reading and charades, but she has always been able to read my eyes.
I texted. “Safety? Like if I fell?”
She looked at me with a sad expression. “What would you do if you had a flat tire? What would you do if the trailer overheated? What would you do if there was snow on the ground and the trailer slid off the road? What would you do if the plumbing messed up?”
I crossed my arms.
And then she said in words as quiet as a whisper, “Tracy, you can’t even get in and out of the shower by yourself.”
I had limitations.
I once had the ability to make a split decision and put it into action the very next day. One day I decided to become a nurse and four years later I graduated from nursing school. One day I decided to stop drinking and this past September I celebrated twenty-eight years of sobriety. One day I decided to get the hell out of Florida and I moved to Virginia, and then to Ohio, and then to North Carolina. One day I decided to get my Bachelor’s degree and fifteen months later I got my degree, with honors. One day I decided to give everything up, buy a travel trailer and head out cross-country to see America and…I couldn’t even get in and out of the shower by myself.
Thinking about this new lifestyle was the only thing keeping my heart pumping. I was quickly giving up hope that I would ever be happy again with anything this singular life could offer. Even if fate allowed it and I got the full use of my foot back, would everything just go back to normal or was I now too jaded to accept anything else but a furious, outrageous, way-off-the-mainstream, in-your-face, fuck-you life?
I thought about this patient I had once named Britney. She was a newly-diagnosed schizophrenic who had been making a name for herself on the up and coming young artists’ scene in DC when she accidentally fell into her first psychotic break. One morning while I was pouring meds she appeared before me and beckoned me forth with a come-hither finger. “Britney,” I said, “I’ve gotta get these meds out. Do you need your nurse?”
She shook her head frantically. “No, not her,” she said and looked around. “You.”
This was not the first time another nurse’s patient sought me out over their own. It happened all the time. I used to think it was because I had amazing abilities, keen perception, kind and gentle empathy, stellar communication techniques, and bad-ass Nurse Nightingale qualities that simply could not be matched. It wasn’t the case at all. In fact, it wasn’t my perception at all. It was theirs. The sicker, the more psychotic and delusional the patient, the more my own psychological instabilities stood out to them. They could see me. They knew me. I didn’t have to wear a shock helmet for them to know that I had been the recipient of electroconvulsive shock treatments in the past. They felt the static in the air around me. I didn’t have to tell them I was slaughtered with medication to keep depression and mania from eating my brain from the inside out. They saw it in the twitch. They saw it in the pause. They saw it in the thirst, the yawn, and all the other insipid side-effects invisible to the watching public that are so obvious to soldiers fighting the battle from the same trench.
“I need to show you something in my room,” she said. “Just you.”
This is never good.
She took me by the hand and led me to her room. I was not surprised by the disorganization. There were piles of papers stacked in sloppy piles on her bed. Her clothing was unfolded and strewn about on the bed and chairs. Her suitcase was unopened on the toilet seat in her bathroom and her sneakers, oddly, were placed one of top of the other in the center of her pillow. She led me to the center of the room and cocked her head to the side. “There,” she said, “on the wall.”
There was a Monet-type painting on the wall. The landscape was muted in shades of oranges and pinks with reflections of flowers on water. “What?” I asked. “This picture?”
“Shh,” she said and approached the painting. She pointed to the bottom left-hand corner. “This woman right here. Look.”
I tilted my head side to side. I squinted my eyes. I turned my body slightly to the left and viewed it from a different angle. If I did all those things at the same time, I could make out the shape of a face with shocked-white hair blowing behind it as if in a great panic. “It does look a little bit like a woman, I guess, but it’s only the reflection of this flower on the water. See? It’s muted by the fluid.”
Britney put her hand in front of the face but was careful not to touch the glass. “She’s trying to get out.”
A wave of nausea washed over me and my throat contracted. I couldn’t swallow. I tried to say something but what words could be used for this? There were none. I could neither feed into this girl’s delusion nor deny her distress. My first impulse was to take the picture down, but pictures on psych units are bolted to the walls. I took the blanket off her bed and we tried to cover it up but the blanket wouldn’t hold. I grabbed Britney’s hand and took her with me to the nursing station. I thanked the gods that Tameca was our unit secretary for the day. “Hey, Tameca, call engineering. I need a picture taken off the wall in sixteen.” She picked up the phone and dialed. No questions. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Britney followed me around for the next two hours. We looked at the two other empty rooms on the unit to see if one would be more appropriate, but all the rooms had those seemingly benign yet horrifying paintings. Engineering finally arrived sometime after lunch with a drill and removed the picture. I had them put it in the patient locker closet and told them I would call at a later date to have it put back up. They didn’t care. As we were coming out of the room Britney grabbed my hand and said, “She’ll be okay in there?”
I squeezed her hand.
The Britneys used to terrify me. I had been walking the edge of insanity for as long as I could remember. When I was in third grade I got a paper back in English class with a note scribbled on the bottom that read: “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’re a writer. Mrs. Hill.” I’ve always known about that connection between creativity and madness. I’ve always known it was in me. Before the writing ever took hold and made me its slave, I was an insignificant little rat following the insanity of my pied piper down dark alleys and twisted pathways, in and out of hospitals, undergoing shock treatments and handing over my body and mind to the gods of the pharmaceutical industry for their magic elixirs. I’ve had the counseling and the personality tests and the IQ tests and the MMPIs and the ink blots and the hypnosis. I’ve stood in front of a mirror for hours and hours unable to find one discernable detail of my own face. I’ve questioned my mind and emotions and thoughts and have screamed and balled into a pillow at three in the morning and wondered why about nothing at all until it nearly killed me. I’ve been tied down and taken away and locked up and force fed and demoralized and second guessed and laughed at and scorned and pitied. I’ve denied and countered and fought and ran away. But all the while, I wrote. I don’t think every artist is insane. I don’t think everyone with a mental illness is an artist. But the line that separates creativity and madness? That is a fine, fine line.
The insanity doesn’t scare me anymore. I’m not afraid to be a Britney. I’ll go willingly to the pit of a psych ward screaming, cussing, biting, throwing feces, demanding recognition and declaring myself the Queen of Bedlam. I will go in outrageous color. I will go in opera. I will go in 3-D with a tin-foil crown on my head. I will flaunt and spin and flash my panties and laugh maniacally at Let’s Make a Deal as it plays to an empty dayroom. I will voice all my opinions and I will say no without apologizing for it. I will pepper my language with obscenities and offend the staff with pornographic jokes and sexual innuendo.
But God, I beg from the core of my soul, don’t let me stay locked in this muted landscape, shocked white with panic, insignificant and unnoticed, immortalized in this perpetual terrain, forever trying to escape the confines of my imprisonment behind an inch of unbreakable, laminated glass.