At discharge, I am given three items: an appointment card with the follow-up psychiatrist and a reusable tote bag with Behavioral Health Center emblazoned across the front, in which is my cell phone. The appointment card is handed to me by the nurse. She slides the bag across the table, as though my personal items are now — suddenly — none of her business.
I haven’t had a moment or an inch of my skin to myself since my parents dumped me here three weeks ago. They watch you closely, as should be expected. Most of us are committed because we’re dangerous to ourselves or to others. We can’t be trusted with forks or knives. Only spoons. No bed sheets left unattended. No writing implements. So many common items can be turned into weapons of self-harm. I tried to crack a joke about points for creativity in group the other day, but no one laughed. They keep us sedate. It’s like a sleeping spell has been cast on everyone who walks through the heavily secured doors. We’re all asleep on the inside. Our minds dulled and muted like an overcast sky. It’s comfortable, easy. No swinging feelings and rapid fire thoughts. No brain like a fucking switch board all lit up and beeping.
My parents sit on either side of me as the nurse goes through her routine. They look attentive, but I know that they are also asleep on the inside. I clutch the bag in my lap eager to take out my phone and see the screen light up. We leave the building in silence, my mom leading the way and my Dad hanging back close to me, resting a hand on my shoulder as we wind through one secure door after another.
Outside, the sun feels like an assault. It’s so bright my eyes snap shut. I squeeze them tight to keep out the light, and then slowly allow them to open. My parents are already at the car, standing on either side and looking back at me as I squint into the morning. I remember to breathe, and so I take a breath. It’s something I learned this time. It sounds idiotic, learning to breathe. I thought the class would be a glorious waste of time, but I actually liked it. I felt less asleep when I was breathing.
My parents are still watching me from either side of the car, treading the water of my mental state. They don’t know what to say or do. I look calm on the outside, but inside there could be a storm. I reach inside my bag and take out my phone. Everything else I came here with I’m wearing. I throw the bag away, as I always do. It’s become part of my discharge ritual. Throw the stupid fucking reusable bag away and walk to the car. When my parents see me slowly making my way across the bright parking lot, they open their doors almost in unison and slide into their leather seats.
At home, I survey each room, looking for something to be different. But it isn’t. It’s always perfectly the same. Each vase in the same place, each rug vacuumed in the same direction, each glinting framed picture sitting at the same angle, each mirror winking at me in the same way. The effect both amazes and disturbs me. The order is at once comforting and then terrifying. My parents take their posts: my Mother in the kitchen mumbling into the phone and my Dad in front of the television. I climb the stairs to my bedroom, which is the one room that is not the same.
My Mom had the maid clean all evidence of me out of the room. I mean, my things are here. My posters and books and collection of trophies from when I was an athlete, but the mess is gone. Every fiber of my rug stands at attention. The duvet is freshly washed and ironed. There’s a new potted plant on the window sill. It looks too green, like it’s been painted. I pick it up, put my cheek against the leaves. Plastic.
I stand in the middle of my room and breathe deeply. In through the nose, out through the mouth. The air is cold. I drink it in. It smells like lavender and mint. Everything is in perfect order. Clean. Subtle. Plush. Light pours in through my bedroom window. I live a good life. I know. I’ve been told. I should be happy. That’s what my mother is always saying. But I’m not. Something isn’t right.
I sit in the chair at my vanity. The mirror sparkles. I look into my own eyes to see if someone is alive in there. I look at the 22-yea- old woman. Is that who I am? She looks dead. Pale and thin. Her eyes. I lean in closer, pull my eyelids wide so I can get a good look at my eyeballs. They are glassy, like the mirror, and lifeless. I slap myself hard across the face. It stings and I do it again. I need to feel something and these meds are interfering. They are like a heavy blanket covering everything that’s real and alive inside me. When they wear off, it will come roaring back. I’ll fight it. I always do, but it eventually wins. It’s too strong for me. No one understands how hard I fight.
I open the drawer of my vanity and run my fingers across the neatly categorized collection of cosmetics. My mother did this. She buys me makeup that I never wear. The colors are all too bright and loud, like a parade. I pick up a lipstick called Siren. It’s red. I can see it twirling and flashing, glossy. Flirtatious.
It’s not me, this color. It’s who my Mom wants me to be. I twist the tube until half of the lipstick is out and write on the mirror: I am Allison. My penmanship is so neat that I’ve been told it looks like a font. My mother walks in just as I finish my declarative statement with a period.
Allison, what are you doing? She asks, crossing the room in slow graceful steps and stopping behind me. She looks at me in the mirror. My red handwriting and our reflections creating a tableau. I don’t say anything, but I do remember to breathe. I breathe. She grabs a hand full of tissues and wipes the mirror clean.
“Mom, I’m sick.”
“Ally, honey. You’re fine. You just need to take your medications like I’ve been telling you. Like we’ve all been telling you.”
I blink at her. I breathe.
“Mom. It’s too much.”
I lose my train of thought. It’s worming and slipping through my hands.
“The medicine doesn’t work,” I say.
“Nonsense, Ally. How could you know? You hardly stay with it.”
Either she doesn’t know what it feels like to be dead inside or she doesn’t know what it feels like to feel. I can’t tell which.
“I don’t trust it,” I say.
“Don’t trust it? It’s safe, sweetie. It’s fine. Just take it.”
“I don’t trust that it can help me.”
She sighs. This is where she gives up on me. I’ve seen it so many times. She drops her head a little, then it bobs back up and she forces a smile.
“I need you to take your medicine. Okay?”
“You’re such a pretty girl,” she says, standing behind me and stroking my hair until it’s one smooth drape down my back.
When she leaves the room, I shake my hair loose from her combing and pick up the lipstick. I write in letters so large they fill the entire mirror:
My name is Allison and I’m sick.
I sit back in the chair and look at myself through the red letters. I breathe. I feel the weight of my body against the chair. I feel my body. I feel. I see myself. My crazy. My nut job. My fucking insanity. My loose screw. My death wish. My struggle. I see me. I am. I am Allison and I am sick. I can’t be fixed with a pill or a makeover. I can’t be scrubbed clean and made perfect. I am Allison and I am sick, and I want to remember this.
I don’t know how to remember. I’m afraid that when the riot that lives inside of me wakes up, I’ll forget that it’s not all of me. I’ll forget that there is more. The house is quiet. I hear the cold air shushing through the vent in my bedroom and the quickening of my heart beat as the fear of forgetting who I really am sets in. I’ve only just come home, not just from the hospital but also to myself, and I don’t want to leave again.
I wonder if it’s entirely up to me. If, maybe, being me is a constantly unfolding gamble. I can’t know what comes next, but I can find my way back here to this chair, to this mirror, to this body, and this breath. No matter how much I wander, I can come back to me, to my ever-presence. To Allison, who is sick, and finally at home.