I wake up to the sound of fluorescent lighting, a penetrating vibration over my head. I feel trapped under that light, like a lab animal. I’m lying on my back and the light has made sunspots in my eyes.
I sit up; I feel small and bare-skinned in my thin blue hospital gown, which drapes my body to the knees while only touching the skin of my shoulders and hips. I’m wearing thick, unfamiliar, mismatched socks and I stare at them dumbly for a moment—are they Robb’s? He’s gone—visitors leave by 10 p.m.— but he has promised he’ll return, with donuts, in the morning. There are no windows in this hallway, but the clock says 3:57 a.m.
Everyone else is asleep. I should be asleep, too—I feel the pressure of heavy tranquilizers in my brain—but I’m not asleep, I’m awake, in this insidious near-silence broken by the buzzing of the fluorescent light. The woman in charge of watching over our sleeping forms is asleep herself, and the nurse must be on a break because her station is deserted. There’s a good chance I could make a break for it.
We were overflow, you see. ER was too full so us emotionally disturbed got shoved into an abandoned hallway, an improvised commune with faulty lighting and no privacy. We could be moved, they said, we were healthy, hearty, strong. There was nothing wrong with us, no broken legs or heart disease or kidney failure. Nothing except our rotten, rotting brains. I never thought I would so urgently miss the small privacy of a curtain between beds, the acknowledgement that I needed my own space in which to disintegrate.
I attempt to stand—they’ve got me so flushed with pills no physical movement is a sure thing—and hold onto the railing of my cot until I’m sure I’m not going to fall. The corridor is an inky gray at the far end of the hall; they managed to turn off those lights, but not the ones down here. I walk towards that grayness, seeking quiet—that fluorescent buzzing is drilling small holes into the top of my head—quiet, just quiet, no more noise, no more static, no more shouting.
When I reach the end of the hallway the absent nurse still hasn’t returned, so without thinking I slip past her work station and turn into an adjoining hall. I hear the distant noises of the ER, but they’re soft and muted like a television program turned to low volume. More cots are pushed up against walls, and their unconscious occupants look wasted, tired, some with IV’s in their arms, or oxygen masks, or other various tubes and wires. I had never felt the instant wave of chemical change until I was in hospital; when the liquid in the IV hit my bloodstream, I was instantly not myself—or whatever “myself” was left after previous, subtler chemical alterations—but a drowsy child or a turtle on its back, wordless, supplicating. I had trouble speaking to the nurses and the doctor’s aids, I had trouble forming words. I could only tell Robb I needed a sweater, needed water, I could only look at him with my terrified child’s eyes and beg him silently to get me out of here. He told me about his readings and his papers, he talked to me about Christina Rossetti and D.H. Lawrence, but I couldn’t reply, I couldn’t form counter-thoughts, I could only listen, his words like moths batting their wings against a screen door.
I suddenly wish he was here, with me. My keening, trembling brain needs the solidity and reassurance of his presence. Without him I am not sure anything around me is real, even myself.
I am not sure how many turns I have made, how many hallways I have crossed. I could be a minute away from my cot or on the other side of the hospital. The walls are taupe, all the same. I hear the echoing sounds of the ER, but farther away now, and closer the sounds of patients in rooms—rooms with doors—shifting and coughing and gently snoring. I am jealous of their doors. I would like a room with a door. I would like a room with a large, soft, four-poster bed with white translucent curtains I could draw around me like a shroud. I would like a large window through which I could watch the changing light, and a comfortable chair for Robb and a shelf for his books. This is the furthest my imagination can stretch: I would like a room with a door and a window and a comfortable bed. Being on display among dozens of other young people in a fluorescent-lit hallway with a smiling unblinking mannequin watching us in case we have episodes and a single nurse trying desperately to cool our boiling brains—this seems Hellish, disquieting, terrifying, and no matter how many sedatives they pump into me or force down my throat, I can’t sleep through it.
Someone coughs. This area of the hospital is empty, asleep, but as I turn the corner, I see a man standing with his back to me, the elevator doors reflecting his tired face. He doesn’t look like a patient. He’s wearing a dark suit and tie, wrinkled but presentable, a black button-up coat, black leather gloves, an old scarf.
I instinctively take a step backwards, but he hears the whisper of my sock feet—except for the ringing in my ears, the corridor is silent—and turns towards me. I say nothing; I’m unsure I could speak if I wanted to. He looks at me for a moment, studying my hospital gown and my sweaty, vacant, moon-pale face. I can feel lines of dried salt on my cheeks and I know my pores must reek of anti-psychotics and hospital food.
“Are you waiting for the elevator?”
Yes, I think, and then, with a concentrated effort, say: “Yes.”
He gives me a slow nod, his eyes moving from my face to my neck, where there are purple bruises fading to a sickly sort of yellow. “It’s late.”
Yes, I think, and make myself say: “Yes.”
“I was visiting with my wife,” he says quietly, adding, “They know me by now. I bend the rules. She doesn’t like to be alone.”
Even through the massive fog of tranquilizers I understand his wife is like me—like us.
“Does she have a room with a door?” I ask.
He laughs, bemused. “Yes. She’s an in-patient, psychiatry. She has her own room.”
I’m jealous, but I don’t say so. The elevator door opens but he doesn’t move towards it. Instead he looks carefully at my hospital gown, and even more carefully at the (I assume) glazed look in my eyes.
“They’re keeping us in a hallway,” I say. “Psych unit full, ER full…. Nowhere else.”
He nods, thoughtfully. Small, deep lines are etched into the skin around his eyes. “My wife has been staying in psychiatric wards on and off for 20 years. Or units, I guess they call them now… not so scary. A few weeks here, a month… sometimes three. She woke me up two nights ago because she wanted to go out in the snow and make angels. But she was crying while she said it.” He smiled ruefully. “She’s my sweetheart, you see.”
I do see. I am Robb’s sweetheart. I don’t understand his devotion, and I don’t know why I am a beautiful girl in his eyes, but I am.
The man in the black coat shakes his head. “Psychiatry is a joke,” he says. He speaks carefully, almost without bitterness. “Of course, it’s all we have. So we use it. What have they put in your brain?”
I don’t answer. I don’t remember all of it.
“We don’t know what we’re doing,” he says. “Any of us. Therapy and counselling and drugs and shock treatment and surgery—they save that for the really tough nuts, don’t they. She’s lost but sometimes she comes back to me. I guess I’d rather that than the alternative.”
The elevator door opens again, and this time the man turns to enter.
“Are you supposed to be somewhere?” he asks.
“But you want to make angels in the snow.”
I say nothing. He moves aside to make room for me in the elevator. I join him, cautiously. My bare legs are covered in goosebumps.
He presses the button for the ground floor and we ride in silence. When the door opens, he looks at me again. His eyes are pale and gray. He looks again at the bruises around my neck, at my ragged face, at my blue cotton gown. He shakes his head.
“It’s not my place to tell you Jesus loves you and every life is valuable and things will get better. It’s your place to decide whether or not you believe it.”
He gives me a small, pained smile, then turns and leaves the elevator, walking quickly past the mini-Starbucks and the gift shop and out the front doors of the hospital. Snow is falling outside, blocking out the sky, blocking out the roads and the cars and the people. The world has gone white and still. Quiet. So quiet.
I take a few tentative steps towards the front door, and that beautiful oblivion. The Starbucks is deserted. The gift shop is closed. There is a Paddington bear on display complete with thick blue duffle coat and a tag that states, “Please look after this bear”, and I think of Robb, how much he loves those stories. When I reach the doors, I place my hand on the cool glass and watch the snowflakes fall in a thick white curtain on the other side of the pane.
You want to make angels in the snow.
I push open the door, and feel the first cool snowflake kiss my face.
Meagan is a survivor of the Ontario mental health system and a graduate of the University of Ottawa. She writes plays, poetry and short stories around the subjects of mental and emotional health. She has a depressing blog called Depressed Mermaids. She also loves guinea pigs.