At the behavioural health service building, I felt something: a young woman staring at me. She was soft-looking and crazy-eyed, sitting with an old, grey, wool blanket in her lap. Avoiding her stare was the first task I failed at in the institution.
“You’re pretty,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Thank you.”
Scared, I smiled and nodded. We both looked out of place, and, when I considered what kind of woman would look like she belonged here, I drew a blank.
“I got these moles,” she said, and pointed to the five surrounding her mouth. “They’re spitballs from Jesus.”
It was a mistake to check myself in. So many people said something wasn’t right. I told them you were my saviour, and this is what neglect can do. They didn’t believe me—it’s important to be loved back. No matter, I’m a mother. My son will stay with a friend. Do this, they said. Something is wrong, I know.
We passed the hours in the waiting room watching the Weather Channel. We watched tornadoes and the fury of water wash around. Slowly, women were called in for assessment with psychiatrists and then more women came in to wait.
I was eventually alone on the couch. Regular to crazy-looking—I was somewhere in the middle, wearing an oversize black petticoat and a too-red lipstick. There was a glass where workers observed us, and I recognised a man on the other side, Josue. Years before, we worked at a call centre together. We had lunch a few times, and he told me about his night shifts at a hospital. He came outside and observed me in a quiet and careful way. Observation is a skill. Observation isn’t easy, and the right eyes can make me feel like a deer, while the wrong ones make me feel like a monster.
He stood in front of me with a binder in his hands.
“Terese,” he said.
“No. Don’t do this,” I said.
He smiled. “It’s good you’re here.”
I said a lot of things to fill a silence. He didn’t want to know why I was there. I told him every reason except the truth. He was kind of a dick, in that it didn’t matter what I said. He just smiled and sat with me for a moment and then went back to work.
A nurse came in with a girl who couldn’t have been older than eighteen.
“Sit,” the nurse said.
“Calm your tits,” the young girl said, turning to me. “Wild night?”
The fuzz of the couch came off in my hand. The orange fur of it was familiar. A nurse came out of a grey door and motioned for me. I followed her into a room. She left me there with the door cracked. There was an urge to leap and run. The doctor walked in. She was petite and wore a blush hijab, with wine-coloured lipstick.
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is your depression?”
“Seven,” I said.
“Seven’s not a ten.” She smiled. “Why are you here?”
“This is the last thing I can do.”
“Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?”
“It’s dramatic. I don’t think it’s a real plan,” I said.
She sat up straighter.
“I think things would be better if I was dead.”
She told me there was a better solution to pain, and that she’s seen it herself. She asked me to stay for five days. I’d be out two days before Christmas. I had already bought my son’s gifts. I asked her if I could write. She said yes. I asked her if I would be out before Christmas for sure. She said yes.
“Do this programme for you,” she said.
The forms made me feel big. My signature mattered. I was signing a new treaty. The gamut of questions and searches through my bag lasted for hours, and, during that time, several nurses pointed out that things do, in fact, get better.
Before I left intake, Josue approached me with a digital camera.
“We need this for head counts,” he said. I had cut my hair before I committed myself. I had thin eyebrows, which I overplucked, and I wanted bangs to cover them as they grew out. I was meticulous in my preparation. I packed books and lotion and shower gel and every outfit I felt I could wallow in: dark clothes and cotton tee shirts.
He took my picture, and I asked to see it.
“Another,” I said.
He had forgotten how sure of myself I could sound. He took another, and told me I could have smiled. He escorted me up two floors to the women’s ward. It was late, so the workers showed me to my room and gave me a paper cone of water and two pills—I don’t know what. I had to change into a hospital gown so they could examine what I wore. They said they would give it back to me soon.
I am familiar with death, and I remembered it was heavy to hold. My mother’s death was violent, internally. I remember once an elder skinned a rabbit in our yard. He wanted to teach me how to do it. He said so many times that a body is a universe. He slit the rabbit open and pointed with his knife to the thick parts of it. He said the word entropy. I remembered that when my mother died, a tube had stretched open the dry corners of her mouth. She was not given grace into the next world. When they pulled the tube from her throat, her lips were dry, and her mouth fell open.
Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see.
I fell asleep trying to remember the composition of a tooth. Gum and bone support the softer things. The raw nerve in my tooth tingled under the weight of my tongue. I don’t want my mouth to be obscene when I die.
I was finally beneath myself at a new low.
In the morning, I was the only one dressed in my hospital gown for breakfast. The nurses walked me back to my room and explained I should wear my clothes, which were put away in my dresser.
I asked the women if there was a scale to weigh myself. I weighed a hundred and twenty-two pounds the day before. They pointed to my dresser and left the room. There’s no right way to dress in the hospital. Some women were dressed provocatively. I put on my cotton shirt and leggings, thinking of what threads weighed the least. In line, a stringy-blonde woman who looked ill talked about meth, and everything she said seemed like a small lie. I stood behind her and just let her lead the way. Her feet and mouth seemed so urgent and dangerous.
The cafeteria was coed, and the men looked violent. I didn’t eat because I considered the pills I had taken might have been the type that made me hungry—the type that allowed me to eat until I’d realise I was full.
It feels like a skill to refrain. The benefit in this place is that I must refrain from you. I can’t physically see you or know what you’re doing.
The nurses escorted us back to the ward, and then they pulled me aside for a full tour. The brunette nurse asked me if I believed in God, and the smart one said I looked heartbroken.
“Is this about a man?” she said.
I felt breathless, like every question was a step up a stairway.
Casey, it was more than surreal. I needed a drink, but I reminded myself not to say that out loud, even in jest. The women walked me to the reading room.
“Nobody reads in here,” the smart one said. “It’s quiet.”
The nurses smelled good because everything in there, including us, was sterilised and without distinction. They smelled like their homes and lunches and living.
“You’re welcome to read so long as it doesn’t take away from your healing,” the brunette said.
“We have romance novels in stock and some books from the Oprah Book Club.”
I did enjoy Oprah.
Taken from Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot. Out 12th July, published by Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99