Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador
We hope to share the experience of a relationship, but the only honest beginning, or even end, may be to share the experience of its absence. —R. D. Laing
One Thursday in early August when I was 27, my father drove me to Austen Riggs, a mental hospital in New England. Thursday had always been a good day for me because it anticipated entertaining times ahead in the weekend.
We left Florida at 6:00 AM in my dark green Firebird. On the Gulf Coast, mosquitos are black and thick in August, so we had shoved the red suitcases, maps, a box of gingersnaps, an old German camera of my father's not used in 20 years, and a staghorn fern (the hospital brochure had featured a greenhouse) into the car quickly and slammed the doors.
My mother in a blue robe stood outside the fogged, dripping windows, fanning her face against the insects with her hands. She made a circular motion in the air. We rolled down the windows, and she said, "Be good. If Nixon can hold his head up after what they have put him through, then so can you."
She smiled brightly as if we were newlyweds leaving a reception. We pulled away, and in the visor mirror, I saw the blue robe slide to a speck, drift a moment, then blink back into the sky.
I was driving and reading road signs as they appeared around curves. So many curves for one used to flat horizons and mostly sky.
"Is that possible?" I asked my father.
"You don't have to go. Don't change it around and think we are sending you away. We wouldn't be spending this kind of money unless you thought it would help and you were willing every second to do your best."
"I will. I'm sure I can get well here."
It was difficult to sound convincing, to be both the authority on sound judgment and the one going in because my thinking was disorganized. It was especially difficult to reassure him now because I didn't feel sick. Sick people didn't drive cars through scenic country like this—people on vacation did. I felt a little guilty.
"Don't get out," he said two days later when we arrived at the Pittsfield Airport from which he was leaving for Florida. He got out and walked around to the trunk for his luggage.
I felt hot when it slammed shut. He came around to my window.
"Do what they tell you."
"I love you and Mama more than anything."
"We love you, too. Do the best you can."
A moment before he turned to go, I inched the car forward. He couldn't leave me if I left first.
Dr. Frank Dennis pushed through the swinging doors and held one open for me. He smiled cheerfully. The smile contrasted against his somber features: tall, slender, with dark eyes and black, straight hair. He appeared smolderingly intense. He had come to Riggs only recently himself, he had told me, and also from Florida.
I stubbed out a cigarette, stood quickly, brushed past him, and entered a cubicle with one tiny dormer window. One bare office desk and empty bookcase. Two large maroon vinyl chairs with ottomans faced the same wall at a 90-degree angle to each other.
I dropped into the farther chair and stared at the one picture on the walls, an abstract cat in black-green-gold, reproduced carefully to include blobs of paint.
He eased himself into the other chair. He watched me watch the cat and the clock next to it for several minutes.
I was thinking very hard about no one thing.
"When I saw you here for the first time yesterday, the first thing you said was, 'Do you want me for a patient?'" he began. "I've agreed to take patients sight unseen for the two years I will be here at Riggs. You're in the same position I am: you couldn't choose your doctor. How do you feel about that?"
"I won't be here very long. There really isn't anything wrong with me, and when they find that out, they'll ask me to leave."
"You've spent one night here. Do you want to leave?"
"No. It's beautiful here. I want to see New England. But I will want to leave soon. That's my problem, if you can call it a problem. I've left lots of jobs and apartments. And I will leave this time, and you won't know why, and you won't be able to stop me."
"You will be the one to decide when you are ready to leave. There are no locks on these doors, and you were not committed. You're free to leave. It's your life. I hope you will stay long enough for us to see at least why you came. Why do you think you are here?"
"I came because I was bored. And this is better than working. You'll see. I tricked you all. Do you believe I could trick you?"
"I can only go by what you tell me. Perhaps you can. Why would you want to?"
"I don't want to."
I knew I hadn't answered his question. He had asked a hypothetical question, but I felt he had accused me with, "Why do you want to trick me?" Then it had been an easy defense: "I don't want to." I had to plan ahead. He hadn't answered me definitively about whether I could trick him, either.
We are like two flamingos in National Geographic. Evasive and awkward. It's crucial to learn how his mind works.
"Why do you think you are here?"
"You already asked me that."
"The doctors at the Mayo Clinic recommended long-term hospitalization."
"Why do you think they did that?"
"I don't know. I don't think I'm sick. Then sometimes I think I am very sick. Do you think I'm sick?"
"You seem to have some difficulties keeping you from living as you would like. I can't be more specific yet. After you have been here a month or so, you will be given a battery of tests. With those results, I may have a clearer picture."
"What kind of tests?"
"Standard psychological tests."
I felt dismissed and began more closely examining the cat and the clock, a large, round elementary school clock with bold black-on vellum Roman numerals. The second hands stopped, clicked loudly, then jerked ahead. They seemed relentlessly accurate.
"You seem concerned with the time. I try to end ten minutes before the hour, if that's what you are wondering."
I pushed the ottoman forward, let my feet slide to the carpet, and pulled myself out of the chair.
He observed, "We have a few more minutes."
"I don't have anything else to say. Thank you."
"You don't have to thank me. I'll see you tomorrow," he said, and walked me out.
A man standing in the middle of the anteroom with hands jammed into the pockets of a khaki jacket spun around and looked at us. He was powerfully built and loomed down from a shock of bushy, unkempt brown hair and eyebrows. His eyes were shining, and his clenched mouth worked constantly as if he were trying to remove something sticky from his teeth.
"Marcus? Come in."
So that was his other patient.
Main Street, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. 5:00 PM.
Deep shadows cut across the sides of houses, tall white wooden boxes wrapped in black silk scarves. Crunching gravel, squashing seed pods, swishing pine needles. Mentholatum. Cedar cigar boxes. Arpege.
Concrete headstones, or are they footstones? E. Self, 1801. Cold and hard. Pretty far north. Just a short vacation. Could always go home. This is the saddest time of the whole damn day.
Midway down Main Street I observed Riggs's imposing stone buildings. They included a residence hall where 40 or so patients ranging in age from late teens to early 30s lived together. Down a hill behind it stood a greenhouse and tennis courts, and a workshop cabin farther up the street functioned as a voluntary activity for anyone who wished to engage in artistic endeavors.
Patients passed in and out of these buildings and through the town of Stockbridge as they wished; there were no locked facilities, fences, or other means of physical restraint.
The 1974 Handbook read as follows:
Although the patient has come to Riggs for a special kind of intensive therapy and a special kind of community living, his right to live his life with a high degree of personal freedom is respected. Because of this open environment, Riggs accepts only patients who can accommodate themselves to it and are not threatened by the lack of restrictions. Patients are in treatment for such disturbances as severe anxieties, fears of specific situation or persons or places, depression, indecisiveness, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, marked incapacity to mix with others, fractional use of abilities, chronic failures in human relationships or work, and impairment in assessment of reality and fantasy.
Sometimes in the course of treatment, states of regression occur, marked by heightened anxiety and inability to take part even minimally or at all in the therapeutic program—at such times, special care is given to help the patient through the episode without his having to go elsewhere.
Patients who are too ill to respond to available treatment are not taken. This group includes addicts, alcoholics who cannot control their drinking during evaluation and treatment, psychopaths, and cases of suicidal risk of a degree of which Riggs' facilities for care are considered inadequate.
Adjacent to the residence hall stood the Professional Office Building where therapy sessions took place with psychiatrists three or four times a week.
In psychotherapy, the developing relationship between the patient and therapist is the basis of a process of learning, unlearning, relearning and growth, with continual examination of the relationship itself... gaining knowledge of certain patterns of living found in the examination of past and present experiences, and they will be altered—when the patient wants them to be—in present experiences both in the one-to-one relationship with the therapist and in the patient's life outside the therapy hours.
There is minimal use of sedatives, antidepressants, and tranquilizers in support of continuing psychotherapy, never as a substitute for it—and no use of electroshock, insulin, psychosurgery, other physical interventions, or psychological shortcuts to symptom removal.
Now walking in the dark, I made my way back to Riggs and to my small Room 219 of the residence hall in the new patient wing of the stately four-story red brick building.
Around 10:00 PM, I was lying in bed reading the introduction to MacLeish's J. B. when I heard a knock.
"I'm Peg, your grandmotherly RN and one of four staff members on East Wing. We'll be stopping by to see you regularly. You may have met Curt who works nights, and there's also Arlene and Elias. You and I spoke yesterday while you were moving in."
"We didn't see you at dinner."
"I didn't get back in time. I ate here last night, though."
"I understand there was a commotion. It may have upset you to see Laura drunk and throwing glasses of milk."
"I was through anyway."
"That's a pretty red wool blanket. You must have brought it from home. You'll need it. This room gets colder than the others on East Wing because it's on the north and has windows on three sides."
"That's why I chose it. There are two others vacant. Because it's to itself and I can see out better. And the fire escape is just outside the door. I can't tell the staff from the patients because you all wear street clothes."
"New patients usually say that. Is there anything else you need before I go?
"I was wondering about my Valium pills? They took them from me."
"You can't keep those in your room. We try to get along without pills here. We have four rules at Residence Hall: no self-medication—including alcohol—except at planned social functions. No gambling for stakes. No possession of a deadly weapon. No sexual activity."
"Okay. I guess you need to see some other people tonight. I don't want to keep you."
"I do need to check on one or two others."
"Thank you. Good night."
After the door closed, I wondered how it were possible to want someone to go away, to get my wish, and to hate her for leaving me all at once.
"Love," the book read, "affirms the worth of life in spite of life. Answers life with life. What once was cuddled must learn to kiss/ The cold worm's mouth: that's all the mystery/ That's the whole muddle."
I thought back to days ago. How much road is there behind a temporary end?
At 2:45 I woke up wondering if there were traces of dawn. I reached for my jeans at the foot of the bed and groped the floor with hands and bare feet for the knee socks and desert boots. I was in a hurry. Buttoning with one hand a flannel jacket over the tee shirt I had been sleeping in, I walked downstairs.
There was no one in the front hall though the lights were on. I went into the darker living room, got into an overstuffed chair and tucked my feet up. A silhouette appeared in the door.
"What would you think if I came up to you and spoke?"
"It must be a slow night."
"What? Must be a slow night? Well, actually, it is. But that's not the whole reason. There are other things I could be doing. Do you know who I am?"
"I'm surprised you spoke."
"I understand you haven't been very communicative since you came. Only sitting by yourself."
"Who told you that?"
"It was written in the nurses' notes."
"Nurses' notes. Are you a nurse? Who reads the nurses' notes, besides nurses?"
"No I'm not. Notes are read aloud at morning report to the doctors and the pw's who work here.
"Prisoners of war?"
"Are you a pw?"
No, I head the night staff. I'm in a class by myself. I know everything that goes on here—who, where, how and why—as it happens. I have, for 13 years. I could make the rounds blindfolded."
"Was it you who shined the flashlight into my eyes earlier when I was almost asleep?"
"Yeah. Just checking."
"I'm very thirsty. Can I get coffee between meals?"
"I brew coffee in the kitchen, but it's locked to patients. It's been tried. They always finally abuse the privilege."
"A privilege to get a cup of coffee?
"Even black coffee?"
"Yeah. For cream and sugar, you need a note signed by the Medical Director. C'mon," he told me.
I followed him into the kitchen where overhead lights dazzled when he switched them on. I sat on a stool and took out a pack of cigarettes.
In a gust of wind, a gray robe pushed me aside and an extended hand clawed at the pack, grabbed it, and then rushed back out the door.
"What was that?" I asked Curt.
"Constance. She looks for cigarettes: I didn't get to lock the door in time. Never mind."
"She smells terrible!"
"Never mind. Here's your coffee. It's not long until breakfast now. I have to leave you and go upstairs and write notes. Don't worry. You didn't give yourself away."
"Thanks for the coffee. Do you stay for breakfast?"
"Tuesdays and Fridays I do. There's scrambled eggs."
"Then maybe I'll see you there tomorrow."
"Today," he said, reaching back to open the kitchen door and lock it behind us.
At 7:40, the double doors to the dining room were loudly and tortuously unlocked from the inside. Louise of the kitchen staff pushed through and glanced at the few patients waiting in the front hall.
The front hall at Residence Hall appeared to have suffered through another night. Dozens of cigarette butts shared ashtrays with olive pits and pistachio shells, a tangle of brown hair, fingernail clippings, a frazzled guitar string, one gold earring.
"DNR" was the clinical term for the night people who found their ways to this foyer. "Day/night reversal."
I filed into the dining room behind them.
I scooped some scrambled eggs onto my plate and pressed down two slices of bread into the toaster. As I stood waiting for them, a girl walked up and popped them out and placed two English muffins in the slots.
"That was my toast."
"Well, wait a minute, can't you?"
"I'm sorry," I said.
Curt walked up as tears welled in my eyes and I put down the plate and started for the door.
"Laura may have been trying to be nice in her own sociopathic way when she took your toast out for you."
"It's not just that. I spend all my time on little things. I'm so tired... and the day hasn't even begun yet."
"You're too sensitive, Alison."
I climbed the fire escape two steps at a time to Room 219.
The workshop associated with Austen Riggs consisted of a converted three-story frame house in the middle of Stockbridge's one-block downtown.
The workshop's basement housed storage for skeins of yarn. There Myra, an older woman, taught crafts. In the woodworking area, 20-foot planks of California redwood extended horizontally along with New England pine, maple, cherry, apple; there was timber from the Philippines, Ceylon, Africa. Lew oversaw woodworking.
Upstairs on the street floor, a display bench at a bay window held patients' wares: pottery salad bowl sets and carved wooden ladles; bead and feather necklaces; porcelain-headed dolls with soft, raggy bodies dressed in muslin; batik wall hangings; bright woven pillows. A red and blue geometric oil painting six feet square served as a backdrop for the window. Looms, pottery wheels, and power saws took up most of the remaining floor space.
Behind another bay window in front stood a huge round table: pitted, dappled with paint and burned by neglected cigarettes around the perimeter. Several stools and light ladderback chairs circled the table. A coffee pot nearby stood at the ready along with a small pitcher of cream and a box of fresh pastries. Newspapers and art magazines lay casually in the windowsill along with inverted paint jar lids used as ash trays.
From the window, the view gave onto an elm tree just outside, then a sidewalk and Main Street a few yards away. Down the street one way toward Riggs stood private homes, the buttercup-tinted Unitarian Church, a private golf course, and finally the Housatonic River cutting through Stockbridge, rushing coldly over pebbles and boulders seemingly untouched for eons. Directly across the street from the workshop loomed one wing of the historic Red Lion Inn and next door the library, grocery, country store, liquor store, and bank.
Expanses of purple hills swelled up behind the picturesque red brick, high-roofed row of buildings and provided, along with whatever pattern the sky was taking, zones to accommodate most gazes and moods.
Someone almost always sat at the table, looking out.
I jangled the front door open and noticed the gnarled, shaking hands and bright eyes of the workshop's artistic director, Otto. German-born and 60-ish, he often sat and waited for patients to drop in.
"Shall we take a tour of the painting room?" he asked me.
The third floor of the workshop housed photography supplies and a dark room. Additionally, the painting area was itself a huge primitive painting, a composite of random splotches. Here and there a blue coffee can with paint brushes soaking in it or a Chinese red footstool with a yellow crayon on top stood out sharply.
Three-foot-wide bands of primary-color-painted arrows completed the room-canvas. A white arrow began over the door to the staircase and pointed downward. A short red arrow also pointing down framed the light switches. A blue arrow over the faucet at the sink pointed left.
He sat me down with a paint box of watercolors and a large tablet and asked me to paint whatever I thought of, from memory.
Later, he stood at my shoulder and asked if this were a chair in the living room of the residence hall.
"In perspective, everything is correct except that the fourth leg of the chair is off in the air instead of on the floor. Did you plan for it to be that way?"
"I just ran out of room. But it doesn't bother me like that."
"Nor me. Good to leave it as it is."
"I just want to play around with these watercolors. I hope you won't expect much."
"I do not rate people's art, in competition or commercial value. The painting you do in here is a form of self-expression for its own sake. The only thing you have to worry about is not painting. Riggs's administration likes getting its painting budget back on paper. It's part of your therapy here."
"Thank you. Thanks for spending time with me and for your encouragement."
"Never mind thanking. Just take these watercoloring boxes to your room and keep painting."
"Had you been sitting out in the waiting room very long before I called for you?" Dr. Dennis asked me.
"No. A few minutes."
"Were you thinking about anything in particular?"
"Yes. I don't belong here."
"You're afraid of being sent away. Are you afraid of being sent away or of being left?"
"I don't know. Both. They send me away when they get to know me."
"How do you see yourself?"
"Mousey, frightened, quiet."
"You look more sad than frightened to me. What are you thinking about that makes you cry?"
"I couldn't get my bread toasted this morning. A girl took mine out and put hers in and yelled at me."
"You didn't get what you wanted, in other words, and you got what you didn't want. How did that make you feel?"
"What were you afraid of?"
"Her anger, or yours?"
"They were just thoughts."
"I believe that, that they were fantasies and not acts or plans. So why are you reluctant to talk about them?"
"They're my only defense against people. If you explain them away, I'll be defenseless. Not getting my toast the way I like it is trivial. I can't bear to hear myself crying over nothing. The little things are the only ones that bother me. I don't need to be in a mental hospital for them."
"I would say if you do get upset over such things then you probably do need to be here. This morning when you cried at breakfast," he said, "you were angry. Are you aware of any feelings of anger toward me now?"
"You're allowed to get angry at me."
I hate you for implying that I'm angry at you.
"No. I'm not angry at you."
Arlene, thin, athletic, with short bobbed hair, dropped by to check in on me. She was a pw on East Wing.
"Curt is the only one around here I can stand," I told her.
"Well, thanks a bunch!"
"Yes he is. He can't see much but he knows just about everything that's happening around here."
"He can't see much?"
"He's legally blind."
"How long have you known him?"
"Curt, Peg and I have lived in Stockbridge all our lives. Curt lives just up the hill that winds beyond the tennis courts."
"Born and bred."
"I wish this were my home."
"It is, for now."
"I wish it felt more like it."
"Get out of this room and meet some people."
"Soon. Now I'm tired."
"Well, when you feel like talking, Elias and I are around. Come find us. Let us know. We can't read your mind."
After Arlene left, I pushed open the door to the fire escape and stepped outside onto the landing.
Louise and Elsa, the Food Services Manager, walking in from the parking lot. Scarves blowing, purses, umbrellas, paper bags. They don't see me up here smoking. Now they do but they don't look up. They're deciding whether to veer off or continue walking straight ahead, which will place them underneath me. They aren't veering. They're risking it. They don't want me to know that they know what I'm thinking. It might make me mad, if I knew that. "Then," they are thinking, "then she would throw it."
"I thought you might be sleeping. May I come in?"
The hall to Rooms 217, 218, and 219 at the end was divided from the rest of East Wing by a heavy swinging door. When opened, a draft rattled the three closed doors to the rooms. Since the other two rooms were vacant now, I had a warning device against intruders. I needed those extra seconds to become sociable. This afternoon, they were not enough.
"I don't feel like talking."
"Here are your cigarettes," Elias said. "I noticed them on the fire escape as I walked by."
He tossed them on the red wool blanket and then turned and started back down the hall.
"Come back and close the door!"
Instead, he stopped against a window ledge and raised one foot, tightening his bootlace. "What difference does it make whether the door is open or shut?" he asked without looking up. "You close yourself off either way. Now may I come in?"
I propped a pillow behind my back. He sat in the desk chair at the foot of the bed and next to a black-lacquered Chinese-style bookcase that housed the books I brought from home: Laing's Knots, Diane Arbus's photography book, Shaker Furniture, Chess Openings, Goncharov, MacLeish, O'Connor.
Do you play chess?" he asked eventually.
"Why don't you go then? I can't handle both your desire to go and my anticipating that you are getting ready to."
"Do I look like I'm leaving? Why do you anticipate my response instead of letting me respond to you?"
"People don't say what they mean. Usually they don't know what they mean. My interpretations are more reliable."
"That gives you a lot of control over people."
"I don't control people at all. I leave people alone."
"You can trust some people not to give you confusing messages, to answer you as they experience you, honestly. You need to get out of that circular, self-defeating pattern of expecting and so causing the rejection you fear."
"I brought that chess paperback on the way up to Riggs. I don't play. Thought maybe I would teach myself. I bet you're very good."
"Not bad. There are several sets in the library downstairs. Tell me when you want to play a game."
"I won't be here. I leave at four today."
"Take care" he said, walking out of the room.
He is short and slouches his shoulders the way I do, and his hair is black and curly all over while mine is long and straight and blonde. At 27, I am older than he is. He has a New York accent.
"I'm getting ready to go off shift. Walk me to my car? Get up, old lady," Arlene said, kicking my boot as I lay on the bed.
I got up and led her out. "This way," opening the door to the fire escape.
"Oh I forgot. Your private staircase."
It did feel good outside. The afternoon was hazy and a dry, cool wind pressed against my face.
"Smell that? Burning leaves: fall is here. I love that smell."
"Why do people rake leaves and burn them? They look pretty."
"The snow covers them. In spring they would be a soggy smelly mess. Have you ever seen snow?"
"No. Is there much?"
"The last four or five years we haven't had hardly any. Some of the ski resorts around have closed down. This year should be better for snow."
"How do you know?"
"The almanac predicted it. And have you seen any of those red and black furry caterpillars that are everywhere now? They have heavier coats when there is going to be lots of snow."
"Are you putting me on?"
We looked at each other.
Arlene laughed, "No. Here we are. See you tomorrow."
I'll keep a journal. It will be someone to talk to. Fall is turning everything in nature impressionistically perfect, perfect color and crispness, and I find myself wanting to say, "Oh look! But no one has ever been there to look with me at cathedrals or tombstones or movies. And I'll never forgive them for not being here and they don't deserve to be here now, but I'll record it for myself. Maybe one day it'll all make sense.
By the end of August, I had developed a daily routine. Breakfast in the dining room when the doors opened when few people were there, an early hour pottering in the greenhouse, a long walk up the hill past the tennis courts and Curt's house to the Mass Turnpike and back down through the oriental gardens of a vast castle-like estate, past herds of cows, the cemetery, up Main Street to the fire escape.
Afternoons I painted with watercolors in the workshop or in my room. Another walk. I slept from 11 PM to two or three in the morning and then alternated between sitting downstairs talking with Curt and washing my hair or clothes. This way, it didn't seem like a hospital. I went to therapy and tried, as I had promised my father, but most people at Residence Hall had begun to bother me.
Constance seemed to single me out to follow, coughing loudly, leaving half-eaten food on couches, always silent, disheveled, smelly, clawing through ashtrays for cigarette butts. There were stories how Housekeeping found feces smeared in her room. Once I found her in my room and shouted, "Get out!" and she crept out, glaring at me.
One of the few times I stayed in the dining hall for lunch, a dark-haired, belligerent patient with horn-rimmed glasses and gaps between his teeth said purposefully to Elsa, the dining room manager, "How did it taste the first time you ate it... before you threw up in this?"
He knocked the pan to the floor
I leaned down to help her pick up the steaming tray.
"I'm sorry," I said.
He strode out of the room while an older outpatient who had witnessed the incident looked at me.
"You have some good Jewish qualities: guilt and justification. And besides that, looking at you makes me autistic. Every time I see you, I want to paint you nude. When will you let me?"
Anya, an olive-skinned page-boyed girl who had guided me around the first day, smiled at me. She spent most of her time with staff members, acting as if she were one of them. Her laughter at their jokes sounded loud and maniacal.
Laura, petulant and sneering and beautiful in a flushed and restless way, continued to drink and be reprimanded.
East Wing's newest patient, and my next-door neighbor, wore evening gowns all the time and played music on her stereo full-blast at all hours.
I asked East Wing staff several times to tell her to turn down the music. They told me to tell her myself.
I found I looked forward to visits from Peg, Arlene, Curt, and Elias and wondered if they also enjoyed their visits with me even if, of course, it was their job.
Fridays were linen change days.
The first time I exchanged bundles of sheets, I found more pieces than I knew what to do with: a mattress pad, two flat sheets stamped "Riggs" in indelible ink, two thin woolen blankets, blanket cover, a chenille bedspread. Pillow cases and covers were tied with string on top of the bundle along with two bath towels, two hand towels, and two washcloths.
I made the comparison that Florida was drip-dry and disposable, paper plates and Styrofoam cups, Greek salads and melting ice cream. Prefab walls and vinyl tile and aluminum jalousie windows, electric central heat and air. Flat, light, convenient.
New England, particularly Residence Hall, this fortress, was starched, bleached 200-count cotton or linsey-woolsey, china and goblets even for breakfast, pot roast and berry cobblers, slats and stones and oak floors, clanking radiators, windows with thick panes, springs, and catches. They worked if you knew how to work them. They endured. I got the feeling they would outlast me.
And they were large-scale. I almost needed a blueprint to navigate the mass of corridors, stairwells and the forgotten rooms of the four floors of Residence Hall. The grand rooms, those with fireplaces and chiffoniers, were hoarded by patients who had been around longest and were highest on the room change list that meant getting "plusses" on weekly room inspections
I thought about moving up the list. Those rooms were suites, sharing bathrooms and roommates.
I preferred Room 219 and had no plans to move, even if I kept it clean. I mentioned that to Curt and he told me that I didn't ever have to move. He'd see to that. I didn't want to have to change from my candid and so-far trustworthy staff members, either.
Weekends were the hardest times, beginning Friday afternoon after therapy. The first Friday in September began a three-day Labor Day weekend. An extra dead day. Sundays and holidays at Residence Hall meant I would not meet with Dr. Dennis, an event to which I found myself looking forward, though I didn't mention that to him. The dining room opened 45 minutes late for breakfast. The hot meal was in the middle of the day. The workshop was not open. There was no mail. There was nothing festive about holidays. I tried to find other ways to occupy my time.
The staghorn fern from home had died back to the roots from the draft of the air conditioner on the drive up from Florida. There was nothing to be done for it but keep it damp and give it partial light and expect nothing until spring.
The rest of the space I had been given on the gravel-floored bench in Riggs' greenhouse contained sprigs I had recently started of pineapple geranium, sage, spearmint and rosemary in clay pots, and a three-inch Norfolk Island Pine.
I stepped over to the adjoining rainforest thicket containing philodendron, jasmine, orchids, wisteria, bougainvillea—which vines had swept up the wet stone walls and moldy iron-bound windowpanes to the rounded roof. They formed a swaying canopy and dripped, bloomed, and exuded heady odors.
I leaned into them and felt it would be nice to stop here forever. A tin bucket clanked.
From outside, a siren pierced the afternoon. It stopped, then started again in short staccato bursts, then stopped again.
A mournful human cry pierced the air.
From several doors at Residence Hall and from different points in the yard, people began running to the center. When several met there, the others stopped and watched. I recognized Peg and one or two other staff members as they led a moaning girl to the Hall. I recognized her as Karen, a close friend of Curt's who had been at Riggs for five years and was to be discharged soon. The group moving together reached a door and disappeared.
I don't want to be here anymore. I know how she feels. But she shouldn't be allowed to make everyone else uncomfortable. She got a lot of attention. She's a pretty girl, pretty brown hair. I wish my hair were thick like hers. Where did everyone go?
Sunday afternoon I decided to drive to Pittsfield in hopes of finding a drug store open on the holiday. I needed small bottles of shampoo and detergent.
A coolish wind whipped across the parking lot. I heard my name as I stepped into the car and looked up to see Marcus, Dr. Dennis's other patient, waving at me from a distance. I waved back and watched him approach.
"Hi," he said loudly, stopping at the open door.
"Hi. Some breeze," I began.
"This your car?"
"Where're you going?"
"Um, just out driving. Maybe to Pittsfield."
"Can I come?"
Is he supposed to? He's so... strong. I shouldn't hesitate and hurt his feelings.
"Is... should you tell anyone you're going with me, in case they need to get in touch with you... for a phone call?"
Good God. You've said enough. You've said more than enough actually.
"No, it's OK," he assured me.
"Get in. Wait. It's locked. There."
He went around and got in heavily, slammed the door and locked it, and then turned to me.
"Where'd you say we're going?"
He fills the car up with his presence. There's a substantiality, a largeness about him.
"Pittsfield. I've seen you out walking sometimes. Were you just on a walk?"
"Only a few weeks ago I got lost and was afraid to go out again until today. It's windy enough to get directions."
"Before long it will be too cold to walk," I said. "I'll miss the exercise."
"Yes," he said. "But the anthills will disappear. Are we going to a grocery store?"
"You know how they sell those three cold jars together of shrimp cocktail?"
"I want some of those shrimp cocktails."
I looked at him to try to catch what he meant by that. Maybe nothing.
He was turned away looking out the side window. I looked back at the road and started laughing. Whatever game we were playing, I'd play too. He looked around and saw me laughing and laughed also.
In other cars, people who were not laughing and driving to Pittsfield for shrimp cocktail looked in at us.
We're a couple. A couple of what?
The next morning I was smiling as I sat down across from Dr. Dennis.
"I like Marcus."
"If you have nothing specific you want to talk about today, I need to know how you saw your childhood."
"What about it?"
"Was it happy?"
"No, I can't think of anything particularly happy about it to tell you."
"It's interesting that you remember being unhappy. People usually remember good things and repress the bad."
So what? So mine must have been very good and I am lying to you now to get sympathy?
"I don't remember much. How young do you mean?"
"As young as you remember."
"In St. Paul. We moved there for three years when I was one. Yellow flowers, sunflowers, eating strawberries in the backyard garden. In winter eating apples and listening to 'Johnny Appleseed' on the record player in the living room."
The Lord is good to me and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need the sun and rain and the apple seeds the Lord is good to me.
"Yes. And once in a white field. I was fat then, crouched in a red snowsuit in the middle of a field, crying. They had gone on ahead to ski because I couldn't keep up so they said they would be back for me. I found a weed sticking up through the snow and cried to it and broke it apart."
"Did you think they would come back for you?"
"Then your family returned to Florida when you were three?"
"Or four, yes, I hated nursery school... did not like to be around those other kids who smelled like poop and vomit. Teachers humiliated me all morning and then expected me to stand in line to kiss them good-bye at noon. People were always telling me to smile. All my life, people have told me to smile."
"And in elementary school?"
"In the first grade, I didn't want to go. Every morning in the car I screamed until I couldn't breathe. The few times my father took me, he brought me home."
When I was born you were on crutches and couldn't hold me.
When my breasts were swelling and Mama told me to try on hand-me-downs, I pulled the dresses over my head and you watched.
You always told me to do the best I could but you meant do the best of all. Be the best.
"When she drove me, my mother always made me get out when we got to school."
"You're sneaky," she told me after I ate candy and vomited in my friend's mother's car.
"You're silly," she concluded as she combed the tangles out of my thin wet hair and I cried.
"You're shifty," she said after the pulmonologist suggested she caused my asthma.
"You're shameful," she charged when I was older and slurred my words on the phone.
"By high school, I adjusted. I walked through it: made good grades, won elections, dated some. The senior class voted me most likely to succeed. They didn't tell me at what."
I looked up and caught a smile in his eyes.
"Then I went away to college and dated a few men that I liked. That embarrassed me. I didn't want them to know so I avoided them. Hid around corners or in crowds if I saw them coming. They stopped looking for me.
"I graduated. Held a few clerk-type jobs. Lived at home for one year. Was hospitalized some."
"How do you feel you've handled your life?"
"I can't stick to things. Jobs. Relationships. I'm nasty to people sometimes. Sarcastic. Discourteous or impatient. I say I'm sorry a lot. I'm 'too sensitive,' Curt said. And you say there's no syndrome, no illness at all."
"So you are still worried about being found out to be malingering and still wondering why you are here. It may take months for us to know. We see that you are depressed. There are other things we need to look into. As I told you before, I am not looking for a certain configuration of symptoms.
"You are an individual—everyone does the best she can with what she has. You have intelligence and talents you are not using, and we need to know why."
"I know what's wrong with me. I was an overanxious child. That was 20 years ago. Why don't I change now if I understand what is wrong? It was all right when I was seven but now I'm too old to be so young."
"You understand intellectually but not on a feeling level."
"What causes change toward health? Is it willpower, the way people tell me?"
"Psychiatry deals with breaking repetitive cycles by dealing with old situations in new ways," he said, "and with a new self-image. Which comes first is disputed."
Sounds like something he read somewhere. Next he'll be telling me the joke about the two porcupines not being able to get close. I wonder what he does when he's not being a doctor?
"I see," I said modestly, examining white-clenched knuckles.
When I got back to my room, I found a green note from Elias lying on the bed.
REFERRAL was printed on the top. It read: "I am concerned about your isolation from members of the community at Residence Hall. Interaction with other people is integral to progress here, but you have devised many ways to avoid such confrontation. To explore some of the ways people might be helpful often exposes one more than she would like or want; in this situation, I think it would be useful. Please come to Community Meeting tomorrow afternoon at 4."
Peg had explained to me about the self-governmental bodies at Residence Hall: the Community Meetings for all patients held three times a week and the weekly District Meeting for new patients housed in East Wing for the first six weeks. I knew attendance at those meetings was encouraged but not, as in other centers I had been in, mandatory. So I had avoided going. Now I had to. I should have known talking to Elias would lead to this.
Community Meetings were held in the living room at Residence Hall. The chairs and couches—heavy, high-backed, padded furniture covered in corduroy or velveteen in blues and greens—were pushed back into an oval.
Some days, no more than five or six patients attended. Other days all the chairs, and the piano bench and the floor around the piano and the windowsills that opened into the hall on the south end of the room, were filled.
The purpose of the meetings, which included patients, the Staff Coordinator and patient Chairperson, nurses and pw's who were "on," was to discuss general topics such as a new admittance, a going-away party for a patient or staff member, elections among patients for a new Chairperson or Activities Director.
A second purpose was—so read the "Green Book" that contained the charter for the nebulous patients' organization responsible for the meetings—"to talk over problems in and solutions for living with one another. Anyone acting out or keeping too low a profile is asked to come talk."
I noticed that up to a point in the meeting, alternating voices reading reports droned on. Some patients walked out. Among them were the ones who would have been asked to speak and in their absence, those who stayed talked about them.
I was sitting across the room from the Staff Coordinator who began this portion of the meeting with a glance towards me, saying she was concerned I don't attend or share my thoughts here in Community Meetings.
I said I'd been in group therapy before and didn't feel like the words spoken had much meaning and were openly hostile much of the time.
"That's pretty haughty," Elias put in. "We can tell you how we react to you without being hostile. You could talk about your isolation, why you don't know anyone here."
"I felt like I needed to give you a chance."
"Do what you have to do. I don't have anything to say."
"You already have," he said.
I jumped up and walked fast out of the living room and closed the door. I ran up the high, curved front staircase and into the passageway between the front hall and Room 219. I counted 21 steps and six turns, one hollow-sounding ramp, three swinging doors.
I shoved open the door to my room and slammed it shut. I dropped onto the bed on my stomach, out of breath.
I heard the door rattle and knew it was Elias.
"May I come in?"
"How can you stand to come into this room?"
"There are planned activities here at Residence Hall. Last night, movies in the living room. A group went bowling this afternoon. A volleyball game just ended out back. There's tennis. Some folks are driving to Pittsfield for a string quartet concert at seven. The rec room downstairs has ping-pong and a pool table and a TV. Have you been down there?
"Have you noticed the bulletin board? If you aren't interested in any of the posted events, suggest some to the Activities Director."
"I hate ping-pong."
"I said, 'suggest some.' Do you want to play a game of chess after dinner?"
"No. I don't feel good. I'm not going to be here much longer anyway."
"Where are you going, Florida?"
"Yes. They want me home. I'm not so lonely and bored there. I can't take these endless days. Planned activities stretch them out. I know what you're thinking. I know how whiney this sounds. You sit there so judgmental and smug. Have you got enough for your nurses' notes? You've probably got enough so you can leave. Thank you for your time."
"You have a way with sarcasm," he said. "What was the last thing I said to you?"
"You asked me if I were going home."
"From that remark, what did you hear that made you so angry?"
"That I'm weak and a quitter. Before that you were giving me advice, as if nothing I do is right."
"Can you imagine advice as suggestions rather than criticism?
"Did I say I disapproved of anything you did today? Did I say I feel contempt? Didn't you say those things about me and then get angry with me as if I had said them? I can't defend myself against something that never happened. My back is to the wall. I don't like the feeling."
"You're not helpless. You can leave."
"Do you want me to leave?"
"There are people here worth knowing who want to get to know you and help you. Let them."
The door vibrated down the hall. The vibration also warned me when intruders left.
One Friday evening after therapy and change-of-shift, I went to the nursing station on the second floor at the top of the stairs to find someone who could give me Valium.
A cherubic-faced RN asked me if I would like to talk about what was bothering me.
"No. I need some Valium, I told you."
"We'll have to call the doctor-on-call tonight before we can give you anything. I can't give you Valium without an order for it."
"Call him! Call him! Or I will call my doctor! I won't stay here tonight without medication—without real help. You can't make me. You have to call him if I tell you!"
"Just calm down. This is a mental hospital and you are a patient. There are certain procedures we all have to follow. If you want to calm down and have a seat out here until I can make arrangements for someone to cover my duties at the station, then I'll try to place the call for you. I'll see what I can do."
She reached out to guide me to a chair, and I cringed at her touch.
"No! Never mind. I don't need any medicine. I'm sorry if I've caused trouble. I think I'll go lie down now. Thanks. I'm sorry."
Later I was awakened by a streak of light against the wall. I twisted around and saw Curt standing in the doorway with his flashlight.
"Are you all right?"
I sat up in bed. "Yes, why?"
"Well, you were pretty upset after dinner. Some of the nurses were concerned."
"I only asked for medication. They wouldn't give it to me. I won't bother asking for anything again around here."
"Dr. Dennis put Valium on the books for you. You can have it when you ask, for now."
"Maybe I'll get some now."
"That seems sort of silly—you were sleeping when I opened the door."
"I don't want to be here anymore. You know there is nothing wrong with me that I have to be here. Other people do, but not me. They upset me. I was better off before. I have been feeling worse since I've been here."
"Sometimes people have to feel worse before they can feel better. But no one can make you stay. This is an open hospital. For myself, I think you need to stay awhile and get your head together. That works slowly and in ways you don't always notice. The time you spend with your doctor is only part of it. Living here isn't easy—and you're right, there are upsetting people here, but you learn to live around them and find others you like, to balance it out. I would miss you if you left now."
"You would miss me?"
"Do you get close to all the new patients on East Wing and miss them when they leave?"
"No. Some—a few really. If they've been here a long time and we've been through a lot together, it's hard not to get close. I want to see you stick it out and get some help."
"Maybe I will."
"Now lie down and go to sleep," he said.
So I did.
The next day I grabbed my portfolio and headed for the workshop to listen to Otto talk about my art and praise my work. I ran up the stairs and burst in, jangling the bell over the door, and took the steps to the third floor two steps at a time.
"Show me what you have been painting."
He spread the works out on a counter and slowly looked through them. Again he commented on the spaciality in the portrait of the blue woman sitting in the chair, suggesting that I may have disregarded a background for fear of destroying the woman's poignant isolation.
"See what you have done here?" he asked. "You have left her hanging in the air. So what? Can she fall and twist her ankles? Here you have trusted your own beliefs. In art they are all you have to go by. Your beliefs are all that are true to you. An artist is one who has beliefs which he must let out, try to follow exactly, re-present. The beliefs and the needs are indisputable. The painting can be judged true or false only by whether it came into existence and by whether it represents the belief.
"You, Alison, have an elegance of style necessary to paint truly. Your problem is now that while all of your paintings are symbolic in some way and you can handle abstraction or naturalism, you must eventually decide which way you want to go. I am trying not to influence you in one direction. You will find out only by painting honestly and earnestly and listening to your emotions, and with time."
"Otto? My father told me to do what they tell me at Riggs. At Residence Hall they tell me to live as they do, but that's not my way. My doctor tells me to live as I choose. You say that I should go by my feelings, which are true, but my doctor tells me that sometimes my feelings are not reliable. Whom should I listen to?"
"I was talking about art. Art is not life. It is an interesting question, what you ask. We predetermine the answers to our questions by whom we ask them of. There are many answers and few questions. Ask me only about art."
"Is it possible to be an artist—to live as an artist, I mean, as a profession?"
"I have not been able to live by my painting. There are art-related professions. It is still early for such questions. For now, continue to paint. Paint what you are feeling now."
Forty miles northwest of Stockbridge on a little-traveled road, a partly-restored Shaker village spread itself—its fields, round barn, and wooden industrial, residence, and administrative structures. Dark green and red, they resembled Monopoly blocks.
In 1970, the St. Petersburg Times had published a photograph of the restoration, and I read about it at college in Tallahassee. The photograph showed bare wood floors and ceilings, a maple trestle table, four one-slat low-backed chairs at one side of the table, one ten-foot pine long-bench at the other. A tin candle sconce, a bunch of herbs hanging on a pegboard running six feet high around all four walls of the room. The caption to the photograph read, "Mystics who worshiped God through ritual shakings to cast off sin, the Shakers were 19th century America's most inspired craftsmen and the first functionalists, designing everything to be useful."
I had felt an instant oneness with the setting and for the past few years read about the Shakers and their three disciplines of celibacy, community of goods and separation from the world.
I bought an antique Shaker rocker. I used to sit in it and rock and feel that a natural, workable philosophy of life could be found in the concept of Shaker functionalism. I found a doctrine that allowed me to search for a simpler, more perfect life and to set exalted standards for myself.
Do the best you can.
I visited the anomalous glass-tinted visitor's center and bought a maroon, hooded, floor-length cloak out of all the other available cloaks, tins of herb remedies, and wooden split wood basket wares from the salesgirls who were the only remaining inhabitants of the spare village and lost culture.
Dr. Dennis opened the door and said good morning. He wore dark brown slacks and a classic brown wool herringbone jacket over a pale blue shirt.
I had on a blue shirt too and started laughing and put my hands over my mouth and tried to stifle the exuberance but couldn't.
He smiled too.
"I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't stop smiling. I'm making a fool out of myself."
"Good. Maybe you will one day."
I was still smiling when I sat down in the maroon chair and reached down to brush some grass off my suede boots. I counted seven jerks of the clock, stopped smiling and said, "I don't have much to say. It was a quiet weekend. I can take care of myself."
"I'm glad you had a restful weekend. It's all right if you prefer not to talk just now. This is your therapy hour and you may do as you wish with it. You may not want to come at all."
"I know that. I know it's my life and it doesn't particularly matter to you one way or another whether I come or not. I know you don't care. That's why I said I can take care of myself. I have, for a long time."
"I guess rather than not caring, I feel I have no right to intrude on your preferences."
I was silent and then began to cry. I had never gotten through an hour in therapy without crying, though I was surprised at the end of the hour to find so many wadded tissues in my lap.
"I need help knowing what to say. I want to be here. When you're quiet, it's as if you're not here. I don't want to be alone in here. I don't want the hour to be over."
"Did you want to be here last Friday night?"
"Yes, but it was night. No one saw her doctor then."
"You rationalized that doctors weren't there but feelings are not rational: were you feeling resentment at me for not being there?"
"I wasn't resentful at you, only at being alone."
"Was there something else you wanted to discuss about that night?"
"Did you hear something about me?"
He said, looking down at his clipboard, "perhaps we could get a truer picture of what is going on with you if you held off taking any Valium during the next few days."
He read the nurses' notes. He knows everything that happens to me, every second, and yet he holds back. He's wanting to trip me up on some small point, to expose me.
"If you know that, then you also read in the nurses' notes that I didn't take any."
"Medication can keep feelings from getting out in the open where we can take a look at them."
"I didn't take any Valium." I stood up.
"Would you like to talk about what you're feeling right now," he said, "that is prompting you to leave early?"
"No. Why do you accuse me of something you know I didn't do?
"Alison," Dr. Dennis said in a careful voice, "look what is happening here: I know you believe that I am accusing you, but that isn't the case. You have made a false assumption. I said nothing. The accusation you are hearing is yours. You are accusing me."
"You are accusing me of accusing you of accusing me. And I have to go now."
"I hope we can continue from this point tomorrow," he said.
Make me stay. Make me stay.
"But I don't want to."
"Then you decide what you want to talk about."
"I mean I don't want to go back to Residence Hall, back to all those angry people. It's only people who call attention to themselves for wrongdoings that are helped. If you're stoic about hurting... but I know how childish this sounds to you. You are contemptuous of the problems I have. I don't get drunk or slash my wrists or do drugs or destroy things and so I don't have important problems. To be important in this group of sick people, you have to be very sick. Best is sickest."
"People can be 'very sick' without being suicidal or psychotic. I think you are angry with me. What do you feel you should be getting from me that you are not?"
"Compassion maybe, or kindness. My parents are kind to me in some ways."
"Do you want me to treat you as your parents do? How would that help you change? Our work here is to seize onto the problems you experience here, the same problems you have had in the past and will continue to have until you work through them, seize those problems and talk them over and understand why they occur. We have a chance to do that here at Riggs, and we have time. It seems that one problem area we need to look into is the difficulty you are having living at Residence Hall."
I hate it when you get so wordy.
"I don't want to talk about it. I want you to do something about it."
"What could I do?"
"You're supposed to know! You're the doctor!"
"But it's your life."
"I hate you."
"Because I won't help you?"
I said triumphantly, "Because you can't."
"Your move," said Elias.
"Don't make me make the opening move. What if I just copy you?"
"For the time being, that's OK. But it's usually not a good idea to copy your opponent's moves because later in the game, your opponent could do something you can't copy, and then you will be punished for it."
"Just remember that the player who controls the center controls the game. Develop quickly. Bring out your center pawns first, but don't be too concerned with winning pawns in the beginning."
"When you bring out your bishops, make sure they aim somewhere."
And castle. Castling quickly is important because an unprotected king can lose a game in the opening."
"Try to bring out your pieces to places where you will want to attack in the middle game."
"Already planning for the future?"
"You have to," he said.
One Friday morning early in October, I was sitting at breakfast with Curt and Sheri, a large, slow-moving patient from the Midwest and sweet-faced Molly from New York City, who reminded me of a Renaissance Madonna in a navy cardigan. We were alone in the dining room, relaxed and enjoying each other's company.
"Well, it's a good thing I came down," sneered the gap-toothed obnoxious patient who had excoriated Elsa.
"A very good thing. Fooling around with the female patients again, Curt? I need to keep an eye on you. My eyeglasses on your glass eye."
"Eat your breakfast," he told me. "Ignore him."
Forking sausages onto a plate, the patient observed, after a few minutes of silence, "Nobody has much to say around here this morning."
"He shouldn't be allowed to say things that hurt people," I said softly to Curt.
"Who cares?" put in Sheri. "That turd. He's been here for four years and hasn't made a single change for the better, that anyone has noticed. Crass bastard."
"He didn't hurt my feelings," said Curt.
"Well, he hurt mine. What nationality is he?"
"Lunar," Molly offered. "You going to the going-away party for Karen tonight? You, Curt?"
"I'll make some of it. She asked me to try."
"I need to get going," Sheri said. "I'm in charge of this shindig. Come on, Molly. See you people tonight."
"Well," Curt yawned.
I looked at him, "That's your 'I'm going home and get some sleep' yawn."
"Well, yeah, it is."
"If you're walking up the hill now, may I walk with you?"
"Yeah. Wait till I get my jacket."
"Wait 'til I change my shoes."
Curt's two-story frame home was poised two-thirds of the way up a steep hill at the top of which Nutmeg Street branched northwards and became Rt. 6 leading to the Mass Turnpike or straight on to Pittsfield. Taking the southern route, which I usually did, the street turned back down through cow pastures and the cemetery and on to Main Street.
The front door of Curt's house cracked open, and a little boy with tousled hair stood in wrinkled pajamas and blinked at them. "I'm coming," Curt assured him.
"Have a good day," he called back to me.
Peg, standing in the East Wing hall when I returned, introduced Mary and her parents.
"Mary will be moving in two doors down and needing someone to show her the ropes, if you are willing," she said to me. "That shouldn't be hard for you by now, especially since you have the same doctor."
She's pretty. She's got red lips and lots of straight black hair like his. He'll like her. But he shouldn't be taking on another patient. He can't even take care of Marcus and me. Especially me.
"Of course," I replied.
At 9:30 PM, Mary and I walked downstairs to the party.
The chairs in the living room were pushed back Community-Meeting-style and more were clustered around the glowing fireplace that furnished the sole lighting. The room was dark, smoky, and crowded. Plinking zither music emanated from the stereo. Some people were slow-dancing.
We made our way to the refreshments and poured glasses of ruby red chablis. Mary was asked to dance, so she handed me her glass and I drank those two and then another. I sat down knees up with my back against a wall.
Elias appeared at the door and stood a moment, caught my eye but walked over to a group of people and spoke to the honored guest of the party, Karen. Everyone laughed. He stood there, looking happy and at ease.
Curt appeared in the door. I was glad to see him. He smiled at me and looked over at Karen, standing near the fire, laughing.
"I'm going to miss her," he said to me as he approached.
"Do you like her more than you like me?"
"Of course. I've known her for years. We've been through a lot together. I saw you with the new girl. What's she like?
I pushed past him and got to my room and lay down. The wine had gone to my head. I felt dizzy. Then I got up and walked over to the sink and took a razor blade out of a paper packet and pressed my left elbow to my side, turned my palm up, and cut five parallel lines across my wrist. Bright red blood-beads sprang up along the tracks. Looking closer, I cut four deeper lines in between those lines and this time, the blood waited and accumulated at the bottom of the line and formed droplets.
I set the blade down and lay down on my stomach and hung my arm off the side of the bed.
In a little while I got up and walked barefooted to the nurses' station and asked a nurse for a gauze bandage and he swabbed my wrist and wrapped it and, tearing a slip of green paper from a pre-printed pad, filled in the particulars on a referral notice. He handed it to me and without reading it, I thanked him and went to bed.
Monday morning, a special Task Meeting was held in the library downstairs. The mission of the several staff and patient members of the meeting was to "attempt to resolve or clarify conflicts between individuals and to alter destructive social behavior which threatens individuals, groups, the hospital, or the larger community."
Its authority included imposing bans or groundings. Task meetings were scheduled as soon as possible after incidents of particularly destructive behavior. The referral procedure was traditional, democratic, and unmitigated. Any staff member could refer any patient.
The nurse who treated me addressed the group:
"I am asking you to attend Task group to share with us some feelings about yourself. Your loneliness and isolation, which culminated in your scratching your wrist with a sharp instrument, are things that I think this group might be able to help with. While this experience may be difficult for you, I think it is critical to your success in this hospital."
"We hope you will feel free to talk with us," said the Staff Coordinator. "We are concerned about your activities with the razor blade and would like to hear from you."
I watched her lips as she spoke, hearing the words slightly later than they should have been coming, as if they were dubbed into a foreign film. She touched her glasses higher onto the bridge of her nose and pursed her lips and stared at me. The moment stretched on.
The referring nurse broke in, "If you wanted to speak to me, Alison, all you needed to do was ask me to talk with you or go on a walk; I would have spent time with you without being forced to."
Anya, the patient hanger-on of staff members put in, "There's only so much people can do. You can't expect them to come to you all the time."
My East Wing staff member "friend" Arlene added, "I've heard other people say they feel the distance, too, Alison."
"I'm sorry. I'm doing my best. I am trying to get something out of being at Riggs."
Laura, who had been listening at the door, loudly interjected, "Suffering, suffering, suffering... why do you think you are suffering so much more than the rest of us?"
"Wait outside, Laura," The Coordinator ordered.
"You all seem to agree that I don't fit in here, and I guess my answer to that is, 'I'm glad. I would be worried if I did fit right in to a mental hospital. I really would. I'm holding out as long as I can.'"
Don't do this. Don't get mad. Don't let them trap you. It's what they want.
"I hear anger in your words, Alison. Will you tell us where it's coming from?"
"This meeting is a travesty. You say you called me in to hear my feelings, but you're all manipulating me, humiliating me, making me angry! The scars are almost gone and so am I. I'm leaving this hospital now and forever!"
"Do you want me to call Curt and ask him to come talk with you for a while?" asked Arlene. "You have a good relationship with him."
"I laugh at Curt."
"Those are pretty strong words. You can't just go around saying things like that that hurt people," the referring nurse put in.
"I can! I did! I just said them!"
"I'm feeling uncomfortable in here," Anya began in a rising voice.
"I think we'll close here, and take a break. If you decide to stay at Riggs, Alison, bring your razors to the nursing station."
I ran out of the room, down the hall and upstairs, sidestepping around Constance who was sitting on the bottom step, crouched, coughing. As I passed, the coughing intensified to chokes and gasps. Reaching a landing, I spun around and glared.
She was looking up at me with fixed, colorless eyes, the rest of her body convulsing into the limp sleeve of a purple nylon windbreaker which she partly wore and partly wrapped around her head and the lower part of her face.
"What do you want from me? Go away!" I turned to the steps and tried to run up, missed a step, fell to one knee, struggled on, and finally slammed into the East Wing phone booth. I dialed home.
"I'm so terribly lonely," I told my father. "And I don't know if I am getting enough out of this hospital."
"We settled that, didn't we? A year to a year and a half? But only you know if it is worth it. How is your doctor?"
"Cold and stony."
"That's what you need isn't it? We'll call him and check how things are going."
"Thanks for taking my side at the meeting," I told Arlene when she stopped by. "That little bit of reassurance turned the tide, gave me a whole new way of looking at things. Thanks for the support."
"Usually I like coming to this room to talk with you, but when you're sarcastic and obnoxious, it's the last place I want to be."
That night Curt pushed open the door and shined the light at me. I was crouched on the floor next to the cold radiator. The room was freezing.
"I confiscated your razor blades," he said.
"May I have some hot coffee?" I asked through clenched teeth.
"I don't get coffee for people who laugh at me," he answered and closed the door.
I missed therapy Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
"I know you feel a need to leave now," Dr. Dennis opened with on Friday. "But do you see that it is well that it is happening in here where we can explore it?"
"You explore it. I don't feel good."
"You said yourself you have a need to feel worse before you can feel better."
"I meant getting sicker, not feeling worse. Getting sick enough not to care. I won't keep feeling worse."
"What will you do about that?"
"Last week I cut my wrist."
"I wondered if you would decide to bring it up in here."
I rearranged myself in the chair and didn't respond.
"No one can stop you if you decide to commit suicide here," he said. "But I consider it a rather irreversible step. Do you need to have me prove that I care about you by forcing you to do or not do something?"
"What could you do?"
"Send you to a closed hospital where you could be guarded until you felt more in control of your feelings."
"If it's my life, how can you influence it like that?"
"It is inconsistent, but I will do it if you tell me you are going to do yourself in. Then we could look forward to several months of working through your hostility toward me at having sent you away."
"I didn't get sick to be near you."
"Why did you get sick?"
"I didn't. I'm not. I could be well any time I want."
"Then I wish you would. It would save us a lot of time."
"I could get well enough any time to go to work for 40 years at a hated job, going home every night to an empty apartment."
"All your descriptions of the future do not include people, and yet I think you feel a need for them, and recognize it."
"Relationships have never worked for me."
"I think we need to talk about them."
"I wanted to."
"Wanted to what?"
"Wanted to talk to you yesterday when I was on a drive."
"What did you want to tell me?"
"Wanted you to see the last dying colors."
"As a matter of fact, this is my first season in New England, too. I took a drive myself earlier this week and wondered at the time if you—interested in art and also seeing this fall for the first time—were aware of the changes."
You thought of me outside this room when you didn't have to?
I became preoccupied with the picture of the cat. The background, had the cat been a fish, would have worked well as a seascape.
I stood to go, then sat down and was crying, sobbing. "Please help me... please do one thing that will really help me."
"I don't know what you want me to do. You seem to think I have an answer. I don't. Yet if I did suggest something, I have a feeling you would reject it as restrictive, or insufficient, or coming too late."
"You're probably right." I stood up again.
"I would be willing to see you tomorrow morning," he said finally.
"Tomorrow is Saturday."
"Yes. I could see you at 9:30. Choosing to come in and see you doesn't interfere with my plans for the weekend."
"You know yourself that well? You always know when you're choosing?"
"I try to go by that."
"Did you talk to my father?"
"Yes. He was concerned that you were upset and confused about your program here, but I told him not to worry, that you are going through an extremely difficult, expected phase but that you are very much in therapy now, and things are going well and actually somewhat ahead of schedule."
"You told him that?"
"Did you tell him I'm trying?"
"Do you think I'm trying?"
"And do you care that I'm tying?"
"I care about all my patients."
When I returned to Residence Hall after therapy, I stopped by the nurses' station to weigh myself and Peg saw me through the glass window and came out and hugged me.
"I'm so happy for you," she said. "You have such a kind, caring doctor. I'm always glad when he comes for morning report. He's so polite. Things are going so well. You're so lucky."
Late that night, Curt flashed his light in and murmured, "Just checking."
Tired of our feud, I waited a few minutes and then ran down the hall and hung over the bannister where I could see him below sitting with some people in the front hall. I lit a match and called down, "Just checking."
They laughed, and he blew me a kiss.
It's easy. I can make them all love me if he does.
The first cold day in November I set out down the fire escape in my maroon Shaker cloak lined in red and green plaid. I tied the hood around my neck. The clothing draped to ankle-length, and I was having some difficulty keeping from tripping on the hem. The wind whipped through the cotton fabric.
"I don't want to hurt your feelings," Arlene called up from the ground, "but you look like a madwoman in that outfit. You'll never get through a New England winter in that."
She drove us to an outfitter at a nearby ski resort and I bought an $80 khaki down-filled parka that had a helmet-shaped, detachable hood. We ate hamburgers from little silver bags and drank hot chocolate at the foot of a mountain.
When we returned to Residence Hall and walked in the front door, several people standing around pointed at me, laughed and made cat-calls. I took the hood off and decided not to wear it any more. The hood may have made me look ridiculous, but the parka felt cozy.
Elias sat in the chair at the foot of my bed that afternoon and idly reached over to punch a key on my typewriter.
"Yes. It's not extravagant. I feel comfortable owning it. I can keep up with it, use it to my advantage."
"I'm not a good typist," he confessed, "but creative. You know when I've typed something."
"The creativity is supposed to go into what you've typed not how you type it."
"That's one way to look at it."
"A fantasy?" I baited him.
"I have a fantasy about Southerners: surfers, gung-ho conservatives, Cadillacs in high school."
"It amazes me how you big city boys can sneer at Cadillacs and attached garages to keep them in and then ride buses. To me, buses are something you get on and vomit from the fumes and lurching."
"I grew up in the streets. Buses are a way of life."
"Here, read this. Flannery O'Connor's Good Country People. This is what Southerners are about. A Bible salesman steals a girl's wooden leg, leaves her without a leg to stand on."
"A Bye-bul salesman?"
"No—I think it's neat that people actually talk that way."
"Shit. Your condescension blows my mind."
"Shee-it. You even curse in Southern. Well, I'm going to splee-it."
"Bring back my book."
"I can't get through Thanksgiving and Christmas alone," I told Dr. Dennis. "I'm going home."
"You're already worried about being alone then? You don't get what you need from the people at Residence Hall?"
"I ask, but I don't get it, don't get enough. I don't want to talk to you anymore. I can't take the coming and going, coming and going."
"Me, you, staff."
"Coming or going?"
"It's the same thing."
"Because they come, they have to go?
"You know your problems, Alison. You need someone with you 24 hours a day but when they come, you send them away. You have needs but they aren't possible."
"I want to be drugged up, locked up. I was happy one month when I was drugged up at a hospital."
"You want that for life?"
"No one can do that for you. Mental hospitals don't keep patients anymore unless they're actively psychotic. Even then, they let them go as soon as possible."
"Then help me some other way. I came here for help"
"No one can help you but yourself."
"I can't help myself or I wouldn't need to be here, so I'll go."
"You need to stay."
"Or I'll die."
"I'm not going to interfere with what may be your last chance to work through these problems by putting you in a place where you can't hurt yourself. I'm going to take the chance. I want you to think about whether it would help if I were to make temporary arrangements for you to be able to contact me directly or have me visit you at Residence Hall if you feel the need. You don't have to make up your mind right now. Just think about it."
"I don't like to ask special favors from you."
"You think I can read your mind when you need help?"
Mary and I worked at adjoining tables filled with a perlite medium in the greenhouse. We both had started cuttings, and some were sprouting. Other patients had given us potted plants. Our stations began to appear fertile.
"Dr. Dennis stayed longer with you at therapy yesterday. He shouldn't give you extra attention."
I checked the undersides of my coleus for whiteflies, though I hadn't noticed any yet. We'd been told they were a dangerous pest in greenhouses.
"He cares about all his patients. He told me." I said.
"If you act out enough, he responds."
"I'm not acting."
"Yes, you are. Who are you that he should give you extra attention?"
I showed Otto a watercolor in brown and gouache of the "Mission House" up Main Street.
"A study in distortion," he called it. The windows, instead of designating glass panes, appeared untouched, unpainted.
"I couldn't finish it," I said.
"You panic at the point you become unsure of your emotions," he posed.
"I wanted to finish it."
"An artist doesn't paint what he wants to paint; he paints what he can paint. Possibility in the medium—necessity in the artist."
He looked at a pastel drawing of my fire escape.
"Here you work within the medium and don't try to make pastels do what watercolors do. It would be difficult for you to blend now when you are so unsure of yourself."
"Didn't you say 'Anything in any medium?' And didn't Mary Cassatt create pastels that are as blended as watercolors?"
"We can't do what artists in the past have done. These are different times, with different values, different symbols. And," he continued, "you are not Mary Cassatt, and she wasn't Degas, although she couldn't be convinced of that."
Early one morning I stepped out onto the fire escape and gasped. Overnight, snow had powdered the iron ramp and steps and, below it, the asphalt parking lot and expanse of yard and the heavy branches of tall firs and pines. All were white as if beach sand had been sifted over the landscape. I started for the greenhouse.
Snow was supposed to be soft, soundless. This was more like crushed glass—silica—the crust that forms across a sandbar overnight. It always seemed profane to go first tracking up the sand and it seemed that way now in the snow. Still, it was exciting. I stamped heavily and ran up a slope.
From downhill came shouts and clapping. I crouched. Down around the tennis courts, piles of snow had been shoveled to each end and automobiles were parked with their motors running. People in bright parkas, mufflers, and mittens sat on the cars and followed a match between a man with black curly hair and a woman.
From the cheers, the man was the favorite. Everyone's favorite.
I watched him lunging and pivoting and because my vantage point did not allow a close view of his features, he seemed to be performing an absurd, ritualistic dance, and I felt embarrassed for him and looked away.
In the adjoining court, two women played intently. Outside the tall chain-link fence, a toddler wearing a red hooded jacket and carrying a doll by one leg played even more intently.
He picked up pebbles and threw them down. Threw the doll down and picked it up. Hugged it and threw it back down and dropped pebbles on it. Then he threw himself against the latched gate and hung on it, staring through.
At one point he sat down on a patch of snow and, back to the fence, folded his hands in his lap and sat perfectly still.
I dreamed I was at my mother's house by the water and gave birth to a six-inch baby boy who talked to me. No one would give me diapers for him, though I begged for them. I went shopping with him for a sun hat but couldn't get across a deep canal. Then it was years later and he was grown and came to me with a sore foot and I put iodine on it and then he was well and he walked away.
"What are you laughing about now?" Dr. Dennis asked after hearing my dream.
"What you must be thinking of my dream symbols. A six-inch male baby?"
"I thought these were your fantasies, not mine," he laughed.
"Well, I'm not going to give you any more raw material to laugh at."
At four AM, Curt stopped by my room and told me it was snowing again and would I like to go walk in it.
We crunched out to the front yard together and rolled three snowballs over to the Professional Office Building next door and formed them into a large, lopsided snowman and leaned him up against a tree. By morning, rain had disfigured part of him, but some remained there for several days as evidence of our shared handiwork.
Marcus stopped by my room. He was fresh and clean and smiling. He watched me paint and, because I had seen him painting at the workshop, I asked him if I could have one of his paintings to put up in my room. He went out and returned with a multi-colored, almost three-dimensional watercolor.
He said he was going back to the workshop tomorrow to work on some pottery.
"You know how to throw on the wheel?"
"I think so. But Myra taught me so well that I've forgotten how to do it."
"You mean she did it for you?"
"Yes," he said.
"Or maybe I forgot how because I got a haircut and lost all my good thoughts. I have to go home soon. My brother is a paranoid schizophrenic. He got raped by his best friend at another hospital."
"He would be all right if he could bash everyone's head in who's ever given him a dirty look, and if he could have sex with a girl."
He leaned forward, seeming very powerful and bizarre. Then he got up and walked out of the room, rattling the doorknob, trying to lock the door from the outside.
In the evening I found Constance huddled on the floor at the entrance to East Wing. She was crying.
"Are you having a bad time?" I asked, feeling suddenly compassionate.
She looked at me with swollen eyes but did not reply.
Later Curt stopped by to tell me that Constance had thrown up on the stairs in the front hall. He said he was repulsed by the smell, by her. That he was going to raise hell at the next nurses' meeting.
I skipped breakfast and asked Peg if the smell had gone away.
"Well, that's not good enough. May I come down the fire escape and go through the kitchen for meals?"
"That's against policy."
"Then let me have some Valium so I can go to sleep and not be hungry."
Arrangements were made for me to be able to come through the kitchen and serve myself and take my plate back up to my room without passing through the loathsome dining room and front hall.
"I need to get away from people more at Residence Hall," I told my doctor.
"I don't see how you could."
"The only person who is ever-present is Constance. Everyone else leaves."
"Who is leaving?"
"You're leaving at Thanksgiving for four days."
"We won't have therapy, but I'll be in town if you need to get in touch with me."
I sat quietly for several minutes and then got up to go.
"Don't go," he said softly. I thought that was what he said.
"I can't stand it," I cried. "You sitting there thinking about other patients, glad that I'm not talking so you can think about them."
"Let's talk about that."
I sat back down.
"I wasn't thinking about other patients."
"They knock on Mary's door and I can't tell if it's my door or hers. They want to talk with her more than me."
"Staff, you, Marcus.
"You see Marcus as not wanting to see you?"
"Yes." I told him of our visit in my room. "Still, he probably won't remember talking with me."
"I'm amazed that you have to see yourself as not worthy of attention when in fact Marcus has come to you before anyone, has opened up to you when he couldn't even in therapy."
"You've picked up in him a sensitivity that you can know better than I, are more aware of."
"When people talk to him, they say his name a lot."
"They treat him as if he were a child," he suggested.
"They're cruel to him."
"There's an irrationality in the way he acts that causes people to treat him that way. It's not malice."
"Sometimes I'm guilty of the same feelings toward him that others act out," I said.
"I'm not such a good friend."
At five, darkness was falling on the cold evening before Thanksgiving. I put on my down jacket and went downstairs to see if Elias wanted to go for a walk with me. I brought a potted succulent from the greenhouse with me; stuck in the dirt was a wide wooden stick on which I had written, "Happy Birthday, Elias." On the other side, "Watch me grow."
He said he'd been on his way up to ask me if I wanted to walk. He thanked me for the plant, put it away in his locker, and we set out down the street toward the Housatonic.
A full moon hung in the sky and soupy fog hovered over the horizon, making the distinction between up and down difficult to determine. On the golf course we passed, all was haze in a circle around us, and even the carpet of snow appeared shrouded. We reached the river and looked down at the rushing tumult below and the moon floating in it.
"Reminds me of the dog and the bone fable, or the myth of Narcissus," I remarked.
"You never heard of Narcissus?"
"So how have you been?"
"Sarcastic and obnoxious, according to the nurses' notes."
"Well, you are sarcastic sometimes."
"And obnoxious, I know. It's cold. Let's go back."
Elias began walking down the middle of the road, pushing me to the left.
"Stop herding me. I feel like a cow! Let me walk up here with you and take my chances.
"Can't let you do that. You don't know where you're going."
"My lungs are rotting in this fog and everything smells like it is dying."
"Your senses are over-susceptible to stimuli."
In my room after Elias left, I found I couldn't eat my omelet from the kitchen. I tried to write in my journal, then thought about trying to paint, but nothing could ease the restlessness, the loneliness.
Elias came by to tell me good night, but I was silent.
"It must be an awful situation to need to talk and not be able to. What do you do when that happens?" he asked.
I mumbled, "Tonight I marked on my arm."
He reached over to see.
"Don't do this, Elias."
"There are a lot of cuts."
I had a lot of reasons." I began to cry.
"I don't want to spoil your Thanksgiving," he said softly. "You were happy earlier, and I don't want to give you a referral and make you cry."
"I had a birthday present for you. It seems like an unfair exchange."
"I know it is. I'm sorry. I know you feel bad."
"I know I do, too."
He put his hand on the doorknob and then turned. "I just thought of something you need."
"From Chinatown. It's an heirloom passed down for good luck. It doesn't look like much: green albumin and a black yolk. Smells like ammonia."
"Never mind. Take care."
Early Thanksgiving morning I bundled up, snatched the old camera off a shelf in the tiny closet of my room and set off on my usual route.
Today, with new black and white film, I was determined to figure out how to use the camera and shoot some photographs of the scenes I had become accustomed to. Heavy snow blanketed the statues, staircases, reflecting ponds, and towering firs at the oriental gardens of the deserted estate at the top of the hill, giving them a furtive presence.
Clicking away, I ran on down past the pastures to the cemetery. Here the snow lay even heavier and perfectly clean and pure.
No one had come this way this morning. I walked carefully, keeping my footprints behind the shots I wanted to take. I came upon a small tombstone of a lamb, a child's gravestone, heaped with a mound of snow. I shot most of the remainder of the roll on this one scene, hoping to get at least some right.
Then I returned to Residence Hall. I found Anya, the Activities Director, in the dining room eating breakfast with some other patients and asked her if she would help me develop my film even though it was a holiday as she had keys to all Riggs's facilities. Plus, I knew, she was majoring in art. Appearing somewhat disconcerted that I would ask a favor of her, she agreed to meet me at the workshop in an hour.
We stayed in the darkroom from 10 until 4, trying to get one perfect print of the stone lamb. After a dozen or so tries, we settled on one and matted it.
I was pleased with it, and Anya told me it felt good developing again as she had been absent from composing lately, and that the negatives were very good quality, good contrast.
I returned to my room with a sense of a day well spent and thanked Anya again later that day for her help.
The next night I sat on the floor of the East Wing hall and painted the three doors, slightly ajar, that I passed so often and that affected my moods so much. The watercolor turned out to be a distorted perspective in browns, greens, and blacks and when I finished, I rather liked it. Perhaps I would give it to Dr. Dennis for Christmas. I was planning ahead, as Elias taught me at chess.
I lay down to sleep and dreamed I was driving. Driving, driving. I wanted to go home but there were children in the car and no one would listen to me. When I awoke, I was crying. I wanted to hear Dr. Dennis's voice so I walked to the nurses' station and told Arlene to talk to him. Now.
"I need to talk to you first," she began. "He'll want to know why."
"No he won't! He's not like everyone else here. He wants me to call when I want. He's not concerned with red tape! I'll go see him on my own!"
"Go sit in the alcove. I'll call him."
Dr. Dennis came around 10 PM. He looked tired, but he had come during the holiday. I told him about the dream, about needing him to reassure me that I was being taken care of.
He told me it sounded like I hadn't woken up, quite—the feeling of being alone was dream-like.
"Children need reassurance when they wake up. But Alison, you are an adult. Somewhere, sometime, we have to come to terms with that need for reassurance. No one will ever be around all the time to do that for you."
"Are you angry I called you when I'm upset?"
"I'm glad you called. There have been times when you couldn't."
"I didn't abuse the privilege?"
"No. As I told you, I know when I feel comfortable coming."
He came to Residence Hall to meet with me two more times in the evenings in early December when I felt anxious and thought I knew why and that I could put it into words. Once he was cheerful, interested in what I said. The other time he came late and seemed preoccupied and I recognized his other life I had encroached on and was sorry I had asked him to come. He had come. He never mentioned it later.
One of the nights, Mary walked past us while we were sitting talking. I passed her on my way back to my room and she asked me again, "Who are you that he should come to talk with you?"
"Who am I that he should come talk with me?" I asked Curt as we sat in the library. "Everyone would like extra time. Why is he doing this to me?"
"I thought he was doing it for you."
"I don't trust him. I feel a big put-down coming."
"Of your skepticism, maybe. Or maybe it's simpler than that."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe he gets something out of visiting you. He lives alone. It's human to enjoy being needed."
"I feel good when you ask me to talk with you. It makes me feel important, like I'm someone whose opinion you respect. Someone you care about."
"That's how you tell someone cares about you—when he asks something of you?"
"I'm looking for signs of caring."
"Other staff are cagey about risking caring and opinions. They never get personal."
"Well, see, with me, it's not such a risk because my opinions are right."
"Sixty-five percent of the time," I half-joked. "And this time, you're wrong about my doctor's reasons for coming."
"Ninety-five percent. But have it your way. He's perverse. He comes to drive you crazy.'
"Seventy-five percent. I thought you were going to say he comes to catch a glimpse of Mary."
"Eighty-five, bottom. I come to do that."
"I'm jealous of her, but I like Marcus."
A Community Meeting was convened to catch up on some outstanding issues.
"I'll confess to, apologize for everything right now, beforehand, and save you all the trouble of going through it," one patient began.
Another male had been offended by Marcus's insulting sexual remarks to him and attempt to start a fight. Other patients agreed they were afraid of Marcus and wondered if he was right for Riggs.
Marcus replied by saying, "Yes. No. Yes. No." He did some deep knee bends.
I was at the meeting to respond to the referral Elias had given me. I spoke up for everyone to leave him alone, that he was upset and confused but he was always a gentleman with me, unlike Constance, whom no one ever accused but who repeatedly snuck into my room for cigarettes and was genuinely revolting.
Almost everyone was sick of Constance and her slovenly ways, the Chairperson said, but the nursing staff had decided she would not be forced to take medication that would allow her to be more fastidious. No one was forced to take medication at Riggs. It was hoped she would be able to work through her problems in therapy.
When asked to share my feelings about the cutting incident, I replied that the referral process was too little, too late and by the time anyone got around to formally asking what had been wrong, I had found other ways to take care of my needs.
Otto admired the painting of the three dark doors.
"You begin with a conflict in yourself, something negative, disturbing and turn it into a positive statement in art."
Myra, in charge of crafts, wondered if it were a print. Lew liked it as well, he said, and offered to help me frame it.
I thanked him "I'm giving it to my doctor if he shapes up."
We walked through the aromatic workroom and looked at woods, and Lew pulled out a five-foot mahogany board. He said he could show me how to cut the glass for the frame, even, and how to make unique slats to hold the picture and glass onto the back. The end result should be good, he predicted.
I stayed to make candles at a workshop Myra was holding for anyone wanting to generate handmade Christmas presents. Some of the candles were made from colored wax poured into orange juice and milk cartons and other shaped molds; some were made free-form.
I created orange and apple candles. I had other ideas but needed implements I didn't have with me. Arlene stopped by while I was experimenting with making a fried egg poured onto a marble slab and she had an idea of how to make the yolk.
Crossing the street to the country store, she returned with an aluminum melon-baller.
"Perfect! It even has a hole for the wick!" I told her. "I know just who to give it to!"
Elias was leaving early for Christmas vacation in New York City. The afternoon he was to go, I left the fried egg candle in his box in the nurses' station. Later I was standing out on the fire escape smoking when I caught sight of him below.
"I'll see you before..."
"No! You won't!" And I stayed away on a two-hour walk to avoid him.
After breakfast on Christmas Eve day, I gave Arlene a hand-carved stoneware pendant that I had made at the workshop of the dwarf "Happy" on a blue silk ribbon .
"It's the nicest thing anyone's ever given me!" she laughed.
To Curt, I presented a framed watercolor of the yellow Unitarian church that he attended. He told me he knew just where it would hang in his living room and gave me a hug.
I trudged over to therapy at the Professional Office Building carrying the watercolor of the three doors in the oiled mahogany frame Lew had helped me make and cut the glass. It was a large, unwieldy package wrapped in brown paper and tied with raffia.
Dr. Dennis's small room was not decorated for Christmas in any special way except for a clay pot filled with yellow and white oxalis I had seen at Mary's bench in the greenhouse.
"This is for you," I said. "Merry Christmas."
"I can't accept a gift. It would interfere with therapy," he responded.
Tears sprang into my eyes.
"Is the gift payment for my coming to see you when you've called?"
I thought I knew you better than that and you knew me better than that: that the gift was in some way a bribe to get you to care for me if you didn't already.
I began sobbing.
"Can you tell me what is making you unhappy now?" he asked.
"Could you just please tell me something good before I go back there that will make me feel better?"
"All I can say is that people with your problems do feel better, are able to live happier lives. I know that when you are feeling as depressed as you are now that it is hard to remember when you were happier. I don't think there is anything good I could say that would make you feel better."
Oh, I think there is.
That afternoon I packed my red blanket, purse, and a flight bag and set off. The Albany airport was an hour's drive away but it had taken me three hours because I'd decided to avoid the turnpike and just drive and think without direction or tolls.
Sitting at the bar in the airport lounge at dusk I held a gin and tonic on the counter with both hands and stared into the restless prism of multi-colored bottles mirrored behind the counter.
There were no flights leaving on Christmas Eve for another hour and a half. Even if I had more than $12 in my wallet, there would have been no hurry to buy a ticket. Nor, particularly, any reason. I had been gone from Residence Hall long enough to be missed, for my absence to be recorded in nurses' notes.
I felt around with one foot for the Alitalia flight bag that had for years been the permanent home of, among other things, certain old letters, sketches, hospital wristbands, report cards from the first grade through college transcripts, a shriveled magnolia petal on which a haiku once carefully penned in black ink was now shrunken indecipherably, a newspaper article describing in some detail someone named Nattie Armbruster's movements from room to room one evening as she—driven to despair by shoddy repair work on her St. Petersburg retirement home—slashed her body to ribbons with a kitchen knife, a Xerox of the nine Rorschach inkblots, an origami shrimp folded from red tissue paper.
The bag was of magical significance, representing fragments of my past that taken together represented me. Complex, but comprehensible. Sometimes I went through the bag at night, examining parts in chronological sequence of how they had been acquired. One day I would read it all and know who I am. Until then I would keep it secret. Dr. Dennis certainly knew nothing about it. He would be the last to know. After four months of therapy, how much about me had he known this morning?
I located the bag and hauled it up on my lap and finished the drink. Lounge lights dimmed. Strands of white Christmas lights stretching across the runways glittered. Country music pumped from the jukebox. I felt suddenly exhausted. It was time to go back.
Hands cradled my face. Cool, strong hands. A 50-ish barmaid with auburn hair stroked my hair and said simply, "Don't be sad. And whatever you decide to do, then good luck."
When I returned to my room around midnight, there were gifts on my bed: potpourri from Arlene, a card from Peg, a candle in the form of a blonde, angelic little girl from Curt and, wrapped in a blank green referral slip on which Elias had written "to be used for therapeutic purposes only," a small, black, withered 100-year egg.
I skipped therapy following Christmas break and when we met again, I told Dr. Dennis I wanted to be able to have medication, not Valium this time.
"That's strange. Most people don't like the way they make you feel. Do they hide some other feeling in you that you haven't told me? Are you angry at me for not accepting the Christmas gift?"
"I wasn't angry at you, just hurt." I said. "Everyone takes things from me—even Constance takes my cigarettes—but no one accepts my gifts to them. I and my things are unacceptable."
"Is that how you see yourself now?"
"I see myself lying in a bathroom cut to pieces, falling onto the turnpike, driving into a tree, drinking poisons from the grocery, greenhouse, darkroom."
"What's in your room to hurt yourself with? I'm thinking you have a need for medication now because I refused the gift. I can see that it hurt you, although I didn't mean for it to; it was just my policy.
"Talk to Dr. Karl if you feel the need... he's more lenient than I would be. He may give you some medication and I won't interfere for the time being while you are having a difficult time."
The afternoon of New Year's Eve day, Dr. Karl started me on 50 mg. Thorazine at nights plus Valium when I needed it for a while as he'd heard I'd been upset.
At midnight, Molly and Sheri stopped by my room to persuade me to come down to a party in the living room. I twisted my hair up and clipped it, put on a long black wool dress and sterling "honey pot" necklace and started down the stairs with them to the front hall. Anya said, "You look beautiful" and handed me a glass of champagne.
Seeing Marcus entering the library, I followed him.
He smoked one of my cigarettes but refused champagne. He said he was looking forward to 1975.
"Whom did you kiss at midnight?" I asked him.
"But it's past now—you missed your chance."
"No one seemed favorable to it. How much do you weigh?"
"I'll be getting fat now. I'm on medication."
"I don't think there is anything wrong with you," he told me. "You've just been hurt in the heart."
"Dr. Dennis is a good man."
I thought a moment and agreed that he was.
I told Dr. Dennis I was living on two levels at the Hall: dressing up for New Year's Eve so I could wear that dress one last time, printing negatives of a child's tombstone, buying only small bottles of toiletries and soaps, not letting him know my true motives.
"Do you think I can ever get rid of these thoughts of dying?"
"Yes. It may be interrupted for a while if you begin to act on those thoughts, but as we've discussed, I think you will ask for help in your own way before you hurt yourself. I think you need to be free to make your own choices," he said. "Even choices about living and dying."
Dr. Karl stopped me in the front hall and, taking my face in his hands, he looked into my pupils to see if they were dilated and asked how I was feeling. I told him the ceilings were lower. That it felt as if I had blinders on and I felt better. He said I was speaking more slowly.
I stood outside Dr. Dennis's door knocking and felt anxious when he let me in holding the big wrapped package.
"Are you bringing me the gift again?"
"It's just an impulse. I want you to have it. To give you another chance if you want it even though I'm afraid you will refuse it again. Afraid you will feel you have to change your policy because I have manipulated you... and I will never know if you really want it, if it is good enough. I'm afraid you will laugh when you see it and think it wasn't worth all of this."
"Do you feel enjoyment giving things?" He unwrapped the package.
"When I have made something with my own hands and feel it is good and mine and tangible and not subject to criticism."
"You painted this?"
"I thought you knew. And I made the frame. The glass is a little chipped at the bottom. Non-glare glass is hard to cut. Lew was running out of glass and patience so I settled for that."
"You made all of it? I didn't know. Do you want me to have it now?"
"Then I do accept it. Thank you."
"Can we drop it now?"
"Yes." He smiled. "We'll go over it again only if you bring it up."
The greenhouse plants went dormant, but the workshop was aglow and welcoming under the weight of heavy January snow.
Otto said he thought my best paintings used illusion to keep front-back-up-down on one plane. I had a feeling for the limits of painting in two dimensions but that needed to become a point of departure and less something reached.
"The paradox," he said, "is to get to the point where you say, 'the hell with it' in order to do well what you really care about... to be surprised by the result."
I wove a small pillow on a loom with thick skeins of red- and blue-dyed wool.
Borrowing chess pieces from the set in the library, I pressed them into circles of wet clay, fired them, and created three-dimensional figures.
Sanded and burnished, a chess board that another patient had left unfinished, along with the clay figures, formed a useful and handsome set.
At the Stockbridge library, I found a woodworking project to go with the chess set: a Shaker tray with cut-out handles. Lew told me he liked to see people make "small pieces of fine craftsmanship" and that it was a good project and not many people would make one like it.
He showed me how to dovetail a sample block of wood, then pulled from a stack of lumber a beautiful piece of knotty pine, with "constellations and starry spin-offs of pitch-pine," I observed to Lew—for the bottom of the tray.
Busy and content with art, I found therapy sessions turning deadly.
Two weeks after I began taking Thorazine, Dr. Dennis began to question why I needed it.
"I'm taking the medicine because I'm very upset, although you don't believe it. If you are going to start asking me that every day, then cut it off now. I don't want to feel guilty every time I take it."
"You need to take it because you are 'very sick'?"
"I need it to stay here. If you discontinue it, I will leave Riggs or die. Why do you want me to feel bad?"
"I don't think that you believe that. I think that eventually the medication—which separates your thoughts from your feelings—is going to interfere with your dealing with your problems in here."
"I need it."
"What is it you feel you need?"
"I need to know I can get real help: a pill, a real comfort, security, relief... the only things I've found that really work."
"I don't want to talk to you anymore."
"The time may come when you don't feel able to talk to me, and then I don't know what we'll do."
"Be transferred to the state hospital?"
"I am angry at you for the first time at the thought of you in a state hospital."
"But I need to be locked up, tortured. I need it."
"You need my anger. So you will feel less guilty: you are being treated horribly for being a horrible person... getting what you deserve."
"Yes. And you will feel guilty for not helping me."
"I think I understand why and how you got me angry at you. I'm not angry anymore."
"Don't be angry at me."
"I'm not angry at you anymore. But no one can meet your needs as they are becoming. And if you leave now, you will be an infant for the rest of your life."
"I can't take care of myself."
"That's true, for now. It is not impossible that one day you will be able to."
"I am scared to death."
"You have 'free-floating anxiety' at no one thing, as an infant experiences it."
"Don't be angry at me."
"I'm not angry or tired of you or saying I won't come if you call me, but I need to point out the trend, the impossible course you are headed on."
The next time we met he told me he had scheduled a three-week vacation to begin on February 22. He was telling me in advance so that I could work through the feelings of abandonment I may feel.
He thought it would be kinder to tell me ahead of time than wait until it occurred.
"You set me up. You told me to depend on you rather than the drugs. Then you said I may soon be too much for you to handle. Then you leave."
"I can see I've played something of a part in your dependency. I think I have disappointed you terribly and you feel abandoned—unable to take care of yourself—and you are angry at me. I never meant to make you feel unhappy, as you must know by now."
"I'm not angry, just hurt. I wasn't good enough so you got tired of me. It always happens. You're like everyone else: I ask too much, so they pull away."
He told me I had it wrong. But I told him not to bother explaining, that it felt like he was saying what he was denying.
You were angry. I was angry. But, did you just apologize?
The first day Elias returned from New York City, we walked to the river again. Snow was falling. Huge branches of firs lay on the ground, broken under the weight of the snow.
"It's good to be back, peaceful after the city," he said.
"He apologized to me."
"Dr. Dennis was sorry for how he treated me."
"Think about this: what if everyone did apologize? Would it make a difference, really? You'd still be here. And they'd be there. Who are you hurting when you cut yourself? Who bleeds?"
"Marcus said he would be all right if he could bash everyone's head in who's ever given him a dirty look."
"If I saw things, heard things the way you and Marcus do, I would feel the way you do.
But I've seen people get over being hurt here. You have a chance for the first time to start living for yourself. Help yourself. See yourself so strong no one has to apologize to you."
"You always have an answer. It all seems so easy for you."
"People don't want you to leave, give up. Do you expect them to agree with whatever you want when they disagree?
"Elias is a 'trustee.' I told Dr. Dennis. When I get upset, people say, 'Get Elias.' Who needs him? He acts like he is doing everyone a favor by being here."
"They talked to me."
"Arlene and Elias. They each asked separately to talk with me and I did. Not because they are tired of you or disgusted. But because they wanted to know how they could help you more. Can you believe that?"
"...I don't need it."
"Don't need what?"
"The medicine. I want to be off the medicine."
"We'll see how things go without it."
"When you said I was 'sarcastic and obnoxious' that time, I thought you meant I wasn't sick, that I was just acting sick," I told Arlene in the evening in the second floor alcove.
"They don't send you to Riggs for being sarcastic and obnoxious," she said. "Anyone can be sarcastic and obnoxious. All my friends and I would be here if they did."
"I don't have an escape hatch like other people: drinking, sex, cross country skiing, playing the guitar. Not even the workshop anymore. I'm tired of sneaking my food up to my room, keeping out of people's way, just existing. That drive to the airport showed me how little anything matters... go or stay? Who knew? Who cared? I can act out and never see my friends—you, Elias, Curt, Peg, Dr. Dennis—again, or if I do, differently, less naïve and good somehow. Do you believe me?"
"You've asked me that a billion times. I do believe you. Do you know this is the first time we've really talked?"
"You believe that I'm confused, not sarcastic and obnoxious?"
"Yes. And I believe in you."
Curt stopped by for a while when I got back to my room and got me coffee. He talked about how interesting it was that staff members on East Wing had the same philosophy and agreed on the big issues. They had no problems as other districts had.
"What is that philosophy?"
"Well, to let ourselves get close to, get involved in people's lives."
"You all are the best. You, Peg, Arlene, Elias. I'm not neglected."
"You know, we've talked of you. You are our prize pupil. Arlene told me she's learned from you, learned something about first impressions, about individuals and how cruel and inadequate groups of people can be. That she doesn't want you to change rooms although she knows it means growth. Other people care about you: your doctor, Elias, Arlene."
"If I can't recognize it, then they don't care."
"Well, no, they care, but you don't recognize it."
"I think they're more than word games."
I lay on top of my red blanket and tried to make sense of things.
He's sorry he didn't accept my painting. He's sorry for making me dependent on him. He's sorry for abandoning me. He cares for all his patients, so he cares for me. I care what he thinks of me. He did the best he could. I forgive him.
What ifeveryone did apologize? What would happen if they didn't have to? If I were strong? Not the best, but strong and forgiven and believed in and cared about by my friends? Word games?
Marcus caught up with me returning to my room. He sat down on my bed with me.
"I'm 27 years old, have had lots of girlfriends and boyfriends, and I'm still alone."
"I know. I've felt it too. Where is everybody?"
He reached over and cupped the socked heel of my right foot in one palm and squeezed it gently three times.
His touch stirred me. In that moment I felt, and I believe he felt, generosity and love. Not with each other, but with someone. It was the beginning of an experience of mutuality, of presence. If he could love me, then...
He stood and turned his back and walked away, and I let him go.
I removed a long white robe I hadn't worn before from my suitcase and put it on and walked to the top of the imposing staircase above the front hall. As I stepped down my foot caught in the hem.
"Have a nice trip?" a voice yelled up.
But I'm back.
"Who's the new patient?" I asked Sheri as she, Molly and I sat in the front hall in the middle of the night sharing a bag of Cheetos.
"Leon. Tall, not-bad-looking schizo from D.C."
In early February Dr. Dennis asked how I felt about his leaving soon.
"In my head I understand it."
"But you feel?"
"Frightened, abandoned. You're pushing me to be independent. You probably think I will be ready to leave Riggs soon... get a job... get married."
"You haven't really spoken of either of those except to say you didn't want them. You broached the subject. Your leaving will be by mutual agreement. I don't think you've resolved the impediments to work or whatever you will decide to do now."
"I don't want to be here talking to you," I said, standing.
"You're leaving before I do?"
"I don't want to hear this."
I walked down to the rec room. Leon was shooting pool with Marcus.
I sat down on the couch. When they finished the game, Leon came over and sat down beside me.
"Leon," he said, by way of introduction.
"I guess not much happens around here without everybody noticing."
"New patients, for sure," I said.
The news was on TV. The Khmer Rouge was launching what it hoped was the final assault on Phnom Penh. Two million refugees were starving as US airlifts attempted to feed the entire city.
He got up and changed the channel.
"Good Times is on... you know... Dyn-o-mite!"
"Do you feel like talking?" I asked him. We went to my room.
We talked about his diagnosis, the psychological tests he was taking now, medication, my Firebird, his Camaro that have the same chassis, shattered egos, suicide, movies.
He looked around at my home-spun red blanket, candles and folksy décor and said he preferred French Provincial to American Primitive.
He said the pine tray looked like an expensive orange crate. and I talked about the workshop and invited him to come.
"Maybe I will," he said agreeably. "I used to enjoy electronics, making things with my hands."
"I don't think they have a demolitions room at the workshop." After a moment, I said, "I have a request. I may be coming out of a rather extended depression and I'm feeling... untouchable, having been six months without being close to anyone. I'm paranoid about nurses' notes and don't care for any of the other patients and..."
"Do you want me to kiss you?"
"Well, if we could just turn off the light and lie here."
We hugged and touched lips once, then twice more.
"If you tell anyone, I'll just kill you."
He stood up and laughed and walked out the door.
One morning the sun came out from behind the clouds and blued the sky and silvered the remaining ice. Elias and I walked down Main Street wiping away occasional drops of water that fell from overhanging branches.
"The golf links are melting," I noticed.
"Are you laughing at people who play golf?" I asked.
"It's for rich old men," he said. "I prefer tennis."
"At least a golf course preserves land."
"If God had wanted land all sculptured and manicured, he'd have made it that way."
"God made asphalt tennis courts?"
"At least they're smaller."
"It's a beautiful day... good for photographing. Will you be here this weekend?
"Oh—it's just that I wanted to go get some film and shoot."
"Tell me when you decide to go; I'll get my camera."
"Why are you laughing?" Dr. Dennis asked.
"I just feel good and don't know that I can explain why, or want to burst the bubble."
"Are you afraid you couldn't be upset then, within the hour? Some people are very labile with their emotions. It doesn't mean that any of them are false."
"Partly that, I suppose. But it is also long-term: it is frightening to feel better."
"And Riggs and getting a job and having to get attention in another way than sickness."
"In a more adult way," he offered. "Does that sound like criticism?"
"I think it is a good sign that you could hear it that way."
"I don't want to think unpleasant things now."
"We don't have to analyze away happiness... even if we don't understand it just now."
Word got around that Mary drank a bottle of cough syrup, then the next afternoon climbed to the roof of Residence Hall and sat there until she was spotted and a group of pw's talked her down.
When I asked Arlene about it, she told me Mary was concerned about Dr. Dennis leaving on vacation and had asked where he was going and how she could reach him.
"What did you tell her?"
"Dr. Dennis said, 'Staff can handle it.' But he's talking to her now in the alcove. How do you feel about that?"
"I should feel jealous that he's paying more attention to her now. But she seems so pitiful that I feel sorry for her."
"I heard something else you should know."
"Marcus's gone, for insurance purposes. He may be back or not."
"Gone just like that?"
I told Dr. Dennis I was learning about what I could ask from people.
"You do need people and can't remain isolated without problems. You apparently have managed—I don't know how, maybe you don't—to get the few people you do care about at the Hall to come to you, to your room. It's a way of getting your needs met."
"It seems so temporary. I can never get it out of my head that they will leave me eventually, or that I will leave Riggs. I'm feeling awash because of Marcus's leaving."
"You two were close."
"Yes. I can't help feel that he was cut off just when he was so close."
"The administration has written the insurance company... I'm going to go against the rules of psychotherapy and tell you that I spoke to Marcus just before he left."
"Yes. And he spoke of you. He gave me some suggestions on how to help you better in therapy... in all, a loving and tender thing to do, I think."
"Did he really?"
"I think he knows he has friends at Riggs. He may be back."
"Will you tell me if you find out that he is coming back?"
"Yes. I don't think that is confidential."
Leon and I watched a movie on the projector in the living room, then drove to Pittsfield to the Hilton for gin and tonics.. He said our discussions were "mutually provocative, not manipulating."
He drove back fast to the Hall and took 1 AM meds, then followed me to my room.
"You're sitting in my chair," he told me.
"You're lying on my bed," I said.
"You need a Mellaril—no Placidyl—it would make you fly. I feel like there are lots of things we could be talking about, but I feel comfortable not."
"The last two days I've been becoming dependent on you; other relationships seem vacuous."
"I feel that, too. It unsettles me, but I'm not willing to stop," I said.
"I've felt at times this evening you wanted me to go away, you wanted to be alone."
"That's not it. I need to give you a chance to go away if you like."
"I'm afraid what's going to happen when I go off Mellaril. I get anxious. I'll need to find other ways to fill in the time. Maybe I'll walk with you."
"When it gets warmer..."
I laughed, moved the ashtray and turned out the light. "They'll be checking soon."
The door rattled.
"Get in the closet!" I whispered.
He turned on the light but no one came. Finally he looked into the tiny closet—not an inch of space.
"This reminds me of a French Restoration comedy," he said. "Or a Peter Sellers movie."
Elias asked me to walk. He didn't have his camera, but I had mine, and we walked to the cemetery where I had taken the first shot of the lamb. He sat on top of a large, rook-shaped tombstone, darkly damp with mold. I tried to take a picture of him but when I pressed the button, the shutter jammed and I couldn't get it to work anymore.
"I have something to tell you, Alison," he said. "I'm leaving Riggs the end of March. I've known for a while except for setting a time, but I haven't told anybody. Been accepted for fall at two schools and am having other interviews. I'm going to Europe until then as I won't be traveling much for five years."
"Congratulations on being accepted."
"It will be beautiful in Europe soon."
"Looks like it is going to snow again here."
"Yes. But it will pass."
Peg came into my room that evening to find me sobbing. "Elias's leaving," I choked out. "I can't stand it."
"It must have been important to him to tell you so soon in advance, to make things easier. He only told us today, for the schedules. You'll find other people, Alison."
"Not like him. Not like Elias. I hate life! I've always hated it! There is nothing permanent in the world. I've had an easy, pampered life until now. I hate it!"
I made Peg promise not to tell anyone I had been crying.
Leon stopped by to say he told his doctor that the relationship he had with me was more important than the one they had. He said he'd either stay two months or two years. "My idea is there's always another hospital, but it's more important to be happy for a while."
On the last day before Dr. Dennis was to leave on vacation, I tried to talk to him about how I felt about Elias's leaving and about Leon, but somehow I couldn't.
"A breach of confidence and... I'm embarrassed."
"Talk about the embarrassment."
"You're up to your old tricks," I told him. "I have to tell you what it is that I don't want to talk about so you can reassure me that I don't need to be embarrassed."
He laughed. "I know it's difficult for you to talk about your interpersonal relationships. All the people you have had contact with are shadow people to me. You are not purposefully evasive, but since your problems lie in relating to people, it is also difficult to explain them."
At the end of the hour, I told him I was having a sensation that the room was suddenly very large—vast—a plain. The walls had slipped back quickly, out of sight.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"Far back also."
"Can you explain that?"
"I am feeling alone."
"I didn't mean to put a damper on things," I said. "I am better. I'll be all right. I hope you have a good time."
Smiling, he said, "I think you are better too. I'll see you when I get back."
The first Monday Dr. Dennis was gone, I sat in an overstuffed chair in the living room for a special meeting at which Laura was running unopposed for Community Chairman. Mary was lying under the piano giggling.
"I question Laura being Community Chairman," I said at the outset. "It's been a while since I 've been to meetings, Laura, but I see how you're acting now and how you have acted at other meetings—in fact, I've never seen you sit through an entire meeting without being disruptive: climbing in and out of windows, running in and out doors, slamming them, yelling, laughing, cussing. Being irresponsible. Disruptive. Is that appropriate for a Community Chairman?"
"Were you here yesterday? Did you see me then? Who are you, Miss Prima Donna? You think you could do better?"
Catcalls and clapping from Mary.
"But I'm not running."
"I know how to act as Chairman!"
The subject was dropped for the most part. Other issues arose. Laura ran out of the room and slammed the door.
As the meeting came to a close, Curt called Laura's nomination "a joke."
Someone said she might do well with more responsibility.
"You don't get elected to responsibility," I said. "It's gradual. And earned. That could be an important position for the right person. There were times the Chairman could have helped me if she had known the right things to say."
As the room cleared, Arlene put her arm around my shoulder and said mine was the voice of reason.
Leon said he would have voted for Laura out of perversity if I hadn't spoken.
Molly said Laura would have been elected otherwise.
In early March in the greenhouse, the staghorn fern put out new fronds and the forced bulbs were blooming: lilacs, paper white narcissus, daffodils, iris, hyacinth. The fragrances were so heady that being inside was overwhelming. Rejecting them, I brought a lacy, delicate maidenhair fern up to Leon's room to cheer him.
We began spending much of our time together. He made me laugh by ridiculing most of what I had taken seriously before he came.
While I loved walking, he drove his car to the drug store half a block from the Hall. He played pool with whoever would make bets because, he said, he "loved to hear the balls fall into the pockets." He convinced me to play Scrabble, and I beat him. "I should have held out for 'Exodus'—in the eighth at Saratoga."
Once we sat at the Red Lion's Den and watched a blues group. "Why does the guitarist look green?" he asked me.
"He has a green light shining on him."
"But why would anyone want to look green? It seems I have to fine-tune him on the remote control."
We sat in the rec room and made fun of the advertisements on TV and watched Carson. Once he let me have a sip of his tea.
"It may be too sweet," he warned me.
I tasted it. "Not really—I love glucose!"
Once I told him, "It feels so natural to be with you, you know? Almost like being alone."
"I take that as a compliment, coming from a schizoid," he said.
Always his thoughts were not far from which medications he was on or wanting to be on, preferably of the illegal kind. When the wind gusted against the panes in the window in my room, he said "I'm fantasizing we're flying to a South Seas island; now I'm on a beach with cocaine, Demerol and you."
He had lived a privileged and mostly hedonistic life—the Orient Express, he told me, had "gone downhill since the '30s," but I had been to Europe, too, and found the irreverence, and his attention to me, charming.
One night he drove us to a college town an hour away to hear a noted anthropologist speak. I wore a skirt, which he liked but I felt uncomfortable in. When we arrived, the lines wound around the lecture hall, so we decided to go eat spaghetti instead and then find a place to drink. At a bar, we chain smoked and he played with a candle, making a face with crying, drippy eyes. I plugged up the rivulets of wax.
I talked about leaving for Northern California to see the Columbia River Gorge, about my fear of being discharged to loneliness again, and the old thoughts of the risk of suicide. "If you decide to die, let me do it with you," I said.
"I think you'd rather die with me than sleep with me."
"You frighten me," he said. "I want to be included in your plans. You never mention me."
"I have to be in control of being alone. It's a defense. I want to be with you."
We went to a Holiday Inn and lay in bed and talked more about our insecurities, mine of abandonment, his of virility since he'd been on anti-psychotic drugs for so long.
"You have lovely, smooth hands," I told him.
"It's going to take a while for me to trust you enough to let go."
I lay on top of him and in a little while said, "Bravo."
"I'm sure glad you suggested we go get some culture tonight," he told me. "Do you like to drive fast?"
"I like you to," I said. "I feel the need for dissolution now. Anything but solitude. But we need more than just being together."
"What else is there?" he asked, nodding, "besides drugs?"
Elias came to my room one night while Leon was there. I was flushed and my hair was mussed. He smiled and backed out the door.
Arlene came to my room one night and brought a load of my laundry from downstairs. Seeing us together, she waved a little and left. I told Leon I was embarrassed, didn't know what to say to Arlene the next time I saw her.
"Just tell her it was one damn thing on top of another all night long," Leon said.
Peg came, and I asked if staff were avoiding me.
"No. You aren't often in your room when I come, and I find it hard to talk to you when Leon is here."
Leon told me his doctor said we were being discreet and responsible, that our relationship appeared to be "mutually supportive" and "life-affirming."
"I told him so far our relationship is keeping me strong—I feel a responsibility to be well for us, for you. But I may need to get sick. If I change, from drugs or whatever and become erratic or angry, what will that do to us?"
"That will be all right. I just don't want it to be something trivial that ends us."
"No matter—we'll both be dead by the time we're thirty."
Elias came in. "You look upset. What's been happening recently?"
"I've needed someone around me. Maybe while my doctor was away. I don't know. I don't know why no one ever loves me. Maybe I'm too old to be here, to start over. I want to go home."
"Maybe you're too old to go home. You need a lot of things, reassurances, that Leon can't give you. He has problems of his own. I can be with you for a while and reassure you."
"Maybe we can play chess again."
"Maybe we can talk again."
I played chess with Leon the next night and lost, but he told me I had a good middle game going and that's usually the difficult part. It's important to learn the rules because it's easy to make a fatal mistake in the middle game.
"I don't have the killer instinct for the end game," I said.
Dr. Dennis returned and I told him about the difference between Elias and Leon.
"They stand for different things; they're a dichotomy between integrity and decadence, permanence and temporality, ambition and indolence, life and death. Elias's leaving seems to cancel that choice for me. I'm depressed by that loss."
"You allow yourself to be close to so few people that their departure seems devastating."
"I have to be careful whom I become dependent on."
"You care a lot for Elias."
"But I think there is more to your relationship with Leon than his being a substitute."
"Yes. He represents my choice, really, to ease. I'm not laying blame on them or judgment as people. They are both parts of my personality, always in conflict."
"That's interesting, and true, I think."
"I've only got the one option now."
"I think there may be more. You didn't expect Leon's option until recently. You knew Elias was going to leave. Also, the restrictions on that relationship, which never really was one."
"How do you know?" I lashed out angrily.
"That's what you've said."
"It's true, I guess. I don't know. I know we're close. I don't know how he feels."
"I'm interested in how you see it."
"You should be interested in how it is. I'm usually wrong."
There was to be a going-away party for Elias in the living room Friday night. I had offered to help with the planning and decorations and food.
That morning before I left to go shopping, a call came from an old high school friend from home. He told me he was on his way to Boston and that my mother had given him directions to Riggs and my number. He was just up the street at the Red Lion and could he come over.
I invited him to run errands with me and then in the afternoon, I gave him a tour of Stockbridge and the workshop, the greenhouse and Residence Hall. I introduced him to the patients I knew and invited him to come back to the Hall at eight for the festivities.
Dressed in brown suede boots, a long brown gabardine skirt and a pale pink cotton sweater, I stopped by Leon's room at 7:30 to wake him up. The room was dark and musty. The fern on the sink was brown and I threw it in the waste basket. He got up and swallowed two Dexedrine he had taken from another patient's room. I left him getting ready and went downstairs.
"Phillip, this is Elias. It's his party. He's leaving. He's moving up in the world."
"So what do you think of Riggs, from what you've seen?" Elias asked him.
"Yes?" I asked.
"Why are your parents still paying for you?"
"What's the other question?"
"How do people fuck around here? Oh, and here's one more. Where's that pool table I saw earlier?"
Leon, walking up in time to hear the question, pointed downstairs and whispered to me, "As long as I have to tell my mother to send money because I lost it all gambling, it might as well be true."
At the end of an hour, Leon had won $30 from Phillip. "Evidence of a misspent youth at the BelMar Pool Hall," Phillip grumbled.
We went upstairs as the party continued. "He's handsome. Is Phillip her boyfriend from home?" Leon told me he had been asked.
"Just a friend."
"Is she serious about him?"
"She's serious about me."
"How do you feel?"
"I'm serious about her, too."
I laughed when he told me that. I pointed to Elias, Phillip and Leon and said, "All my men."
"Wench!" Leon replied.
Polaroids were taken. Elias asked for one of me at the party. I laughed and refused. We occasionally engaged in idle conversation until the party wound down. He repeated his request for the photograph but I didn't want any reminders of him or me.
"Have a good life," I told him. "Send me a postcard from Chartres."
"If not from there, from somewhere you'd like. Take care. I'll see you," he said as I began to climb the stairs.
"Yes, see you."
I'll see you in my dreams.
"I think you're going to get well before I do and want other things," Leon said. When I denied it, he suggested we put in for a prime double room with a fireplace on the third floor. "Or get married. I have a trust fund. We could live well for a while."
"You make it sound like a business transaction: how to con our parents."
"Haven't you heard of a man wanting to spend money on, take care of a woman?"
"Maybe we just need more to do during the days, so we'll be glad to be together at night."
I talked to Dr. Dennis about money and the strings I saw attached to commitments.
"What do most marriages involve? A woman is taken care of financially. You rebel at that and yet you want to be taken care of. What about your need to be financially self-sufficient?"
"If I left with Leon, it would be destructive, and yet I'm pulled to that now."
"I don't see either of you ready to leave now. Your self-perceptions and thoughts are not systematized enough to be psychotic, but they aren't normal and will continue to plague you until you work them out. Do you see Leon sicker than you are?"
"Perhaps you could get him to stay at Riggs."
"Our relationship doesn't work that way."
"I think I can understand that."
"I guess we've both been manipulated enough. I'd leave if he left," I said.
"I think your chances of a satisfactory relationship will increase the longer you stay in therapy here."
One afternoon at the liquor store downtown, I bought a gallon jug of Gallo Red Rose wine and asked that it be double-bagged. My hopes of not running into anyone were dashed as Otto came down the steps of the workshop just as I passed.
"Hi," I said. "I've been meaning... I just can't... paint now. There are other things that I have to do."
"There are many outlets," he said smiling. "You will see your way clear."
Giving me a chance to pass in front of him, he turned and walked away.
I kept the wine in my closet and sipped on it during the rest of the afternoon and evening. Around midnight, I went downstairs. Leon was sitting with a group. I asked Curt for coffee and started crying in the kitchen. We talked about our mutual avoidance of the past month or so.
He said he was aware of me always: knew of me and Leon and didn't want to interfere, that I didn't need his help as before. I began crying loudly that that was wrong, that that is when people need the most help, when they are getting well, trying to get attention in healthier ways.
"But what happens? They are left alone!" I cried.
"You haven't been left alone. People come by your room."
"Not like before. I don't understand why my relationship with Leon makes my relationship with you and Arlene and Peg suffer. It wasn't easy to become close to you. I wanted to be special."
"You have a way of becoming special to people."
"But it wasn't easy! I fought for it! And I won't give it up easily!"
"I feel that if we never talked again," said Curt. "We would be close—that you needed me once and..."
"I need you now, Curt!"
"Well, I don't know what's happened to make you so frantic. For one thing, I think you've been drinking. It's all right. Maybe it'll help you to get these feelings out."
Leon told me later that they'd been able to hear me crying out in the front hall and that comments had been made about my continuing need for attention.
Friday, March 28th, sitting in the Red Lion downstairs drinking, we decided to leave Riggs for Washington D.C. the following Monday.
"New England," he said, "is overrated. So's Riggs. We'll find other hospitals. This isn't the last or best. I'm ready to go back for a while. Regroup. Score some dope."
I accused him of leaving me out of his projections. "And it is the last hospital for me. I know it. This is the last for my insurance. What happens to me then? Say something nice."
"Tomorrow is another day."
Sunday morning at breakfast I sat down with my friends. A graying woman wearing glasses and a blue nubby suit was speaking to other patients in a monotone voice at an adjoining table.
"Who's that? New patient?" I asked.
"Constance. She's taking her medications because her parents are coming to pick her up. Insurance problems."
I stared in amazement, "No!"
"Yes. Quite a change, huh? Makes you wonder why they ever made her come here."
Early Monday morning I carried my bags to the downstairs landing to find a group of people standing around. Curt was talking with the Medical Director. Molly told me that around 4 AM, Curt found a patient in his car with a hose in it connected to the exhaust pipe and the motor running. He was dead when Curt found him.
The nurses had known he was suicidal and having a rough time and he was on suicide watch, but he had managed to slip out between rounds. I heard Curt saying, "I just keep hearing that engine running. I don't think I'll ever get that sound out of my head."
Leon and I had early sign-out meetings with our therapists. Dr. Dennis asked me to reconsider leaving. He asked me if I were running away from him because I was angry at him. He asked if I thought the relationship would work.
But I was tired of questions.
I handed him a card on which I had written a quotation from one of my books.
"If I am ready not to see you, it means I am ready for anything."
"You're getting like my mother. I love you, but you make me sick," he said after a month.
"You are sick, and I can't do this anymore," I said.
April 29, 1975
Driving home, I realize as I pass the Florida state line that I am leaving the privileged, rarefied air of Austen Riggs for the real world.
The radio begins playing a 30-second excerpt from the song "White Christmas" that signals the start of the emergency evacuation of some 7,000 American civilians and South Vietnamese from Saigon.
No more Good Times in the TV room. This is reality. We are all going home.
And I have unfinished business.
I want to go home and start from the beginning. I am now their age when they were my parents and they did the best they could and I am doing the best I can. I forgive them for what they did and did not do.
We're bound by blood and the past, but we can do things differently.
Yes. I believe we can.
"How was the drive home?"
"Long. I made it."
"I'm glad you're safe. How's Florida?"
"Hot as bejesus. Where are you?"
"Coming off Ritalin with booze."
"Have you been to Residence Hall?"
"Yes. I talked with the Medical Director. She said the doctors and nurses voted and agreed to take us back after the two-week grace period."
"That's good for you."
"It's as if I'd never left. I'm back, but it's not the same without you. You won't be back?
"It's not the same..."
"That's right," I said finally. "Nothing will ever be the same again."