They take my belt, but let me keep my shoe- laces. The whole place smells of antiseptic, which masks darker odors. All you have to do is breathe to know this is a hospital. This is the only ward where the doors lock behind you. “Upstairs,” they euphemistically call it, because psychiatric units are nearly always located on the top floor to minimize escape.
“You’ll be safe here,” the nurse tells me, emptying my pockets. “The voices can’t hurt you in this place.”
Au contraire, the voices beg to differ.
It is a strange experience, to have someone go through your pockets while you’re wearing them. They’re quite professional about it but I still grimace as the nurse pulls a tissue out of my back pocket and smooths it to make sure it doesn’t conceal a razor blade.
“That’s okay, you keep it,” I mutter. She leads me to a white room with two beds, one unmade. There is a window covered with thick wire mesh. The spring sun is too sickly to pierce the room. In the hall, a great naked bear of a woman shambles past, carrying a set of soiled clothes.
“Put on some clothes, Patricia,” the nurse says mildly, as if this is a frequent occurrence. In another room, someone is violently and badly singing a Linkin Park song.
“We’ll send up a tray of supper,” says the nurse, and leaves.
It will be nauseating, predicts my private demon. He is correct. The promised tray holds some kind of mammal stew and a round cafeteria scoop of mashed potatoes that are oddly smooth and sour.
You don’t have to be polite, I know you don’t care what I had for dinner in the nuthouse. You’re wondering what I’m doing here. Well, so am I.
“Ms. Robinson?” A nurse walks in. “Dr. Callahan would like to see you now.”
I follow her out to face the judge and jury. Dr. Callahan is a tall, well-dressed man with a pleasant Irish brogue, not the intense, white-mustached Freudian I half expected.
“You have schizophrenia,” he says, reassuringly. I immediately conjure images of every “Law and Order” episode I’ve seen, where all the people with this are either homeless or serial killers.
The doctor is speaking again. “Schizophrenia is a disorder caused by structural and chemical abnormalities in your brain. With medication, it’s quite treatable.” He seems to think I will find that comforting to have seen the face of evil and be told that its origin is a few rebellious neurons in my auditory cortex.
“People with this disorder experience hallucinations and delusions, or false beliefs,” continues the doctor, regurgitating the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “You may find that your cognition is impaired.”
The demon does not like his voice. It competes for my attention, making itself louder and more volatile.
If you cut out your eyes I’ll put them in a jar with a little formaldehyde. They’d be so pretty, my pet bird.
“Shut up,” I say, and the doctor looks at me in surprise. “Not you,” I assure him, “but feel free to shut up too. I’ve studied psychology and I’m very tired right now. If we could get to the part where you make all this go away, I’d appreciate it.” I know I’m being rude, but the demon’s constant verbal assault is wearing me thin.
Shadows will be back again, for children in their beds, it says in a cold singsong. They’ll creep aloft with feet so soft and chop off all their heads. I cover my face with one hand and let it slide down, trying to wipe away the ache of fatigue.
The doctor lets me go back to my room.
Soon a nurse comes and gives me a small white pill which promises to deliver me from Wonderland.
I pick at the soft bandage on my arm. There is only so much chaos you can take before you have to try to end it. My tool of choice was a razor blade applied to my right wrist.
Bacon for the slaughter, says the demon nonsensically, and I close my eyes. Shut up. Just shut up.
The first time the demon spoke, I was wandering in the park behind the playground, where a little stream dumps polluted water into the larger polluted lake beyond. It ends in a waterfall by the center of town, and the gushing water looks like orange juice foaming over the edge. I used to swim in that river with my friends. We caught frogs there, until we caught them all and kept them in glass aquariums until they died. That was the last of the frogs, but for years after I walked along the river’s edge hoping they had returned, searching for life where we had destroyed it.
As usual, the water was dark and silent, trickling over a carpet of rotting leaves. As I wandered down the tree-lined path, a couple of squirrels were fighting over a piece of bread. There was a fat, sleek one and a scrawny, diseased-looking little thing.
The big fellow will win, but he’ll die before winter, someone said. It was a chilling voice, somehow inhuman, like someone manipulating the vocal cords of something already dead. I didn’t bother poking behind trees and bushes to find the source. I knew I wouldn’t find anything. The big fellow did win the bread, but I don’t know if he died before winter.
The details of the ensuing months are vague, like the memory of a dream. The demon tormented me constantly, and his cruel words blur together. I remember vividly, though, the point where I broke. I was in the kitchen, eating a peanut butter sandwich.
Do you want to know what the black specks are? it asked me.
Lizard parts, the demon crowed. We’ll grind you up and eat you, too. It proceeded in graphic detail, but I’ll spare you. The last thing I remember is the scratchy feeling of peanut butter against the roof of my mouth as some fragile thing called sanity shattered. Then I only remember blood down my shirt as someone led me into a car. I may have been screaming. The last thing I knew was the sting of a needle in a white room and everything went blissfully dark. When I awoke, my parents were filling out paperwork to incarcerate me deep within the echoing hospital.
The sun sets outside the psych ward, making a cruel halo on the horizon. The safety-glass window, unyielding under hot foreheads and hopeless fists, is smeared with the palm prints of the broken. Probably more than a few tears have fallen against it, smudged against a cheek pressed hard on the glass.
Your tears will join them soon, the demon says. They’ll burn your eyes like acid but not the window. Never the window. The window does not bow to tears.
The doctors don’t bow to my tears either; they refuse to bend even when I cry for them. Let me out, just let me go. I don’t have the answers they need to let me leave this place. I can’t tell them what they want to hear.
I don’t have answers for you, either, or pretty words. Such is life, unable to be summarized with a literary quote or a poorly masked moral. All I can tell you is this: revel in silence. Bask in it. You’ll never know how much you’ll miss it until it’s gone.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2006 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.