Harley Taff talks about the friendships that got her through therapy & the necessary agonies of starting over.
Three days a week for the next month, I’ll be in this seat at the far end of a gray table that stands atop a gray carpet, surrounded by off-white walls and an asbestos-saturated popcorn ceiling. I sit at the far end because it’s closest to the window, so the few times the sun peeks out of the clouds it will land on my back and remind me that there is a world other than this ever-present gray.
It’s my first day here, and our counselor for the morning session is an older lady who sports a gray blouse. Her gray hair is styled into a bowl cut that looks like a helmet. Her gray eyes narrow at me when I tell her about my substance abuse. Quickly, she launches into a passionate lecture about how even pot can cause schizophrenia, and the small twinge of pain behind my eyebrows that I’ve had since I awoke spreads across my forehead; I am used to migraines by now, so I stare at the gray lady, ignoring the pounding behind my eyes, and I think, Wow, I already hate it here.
It is better than being home alone, though, where I stay within the confines of my room from sunup till sundown. At least I do when I’m not at work, but even then my only companions there are books.
If anything good can come out of this it’s that I’ll remember how to talk to people.
The girl who sits at the other end of the table catches my eye. Her name is Sydney, and she has shaggy, blond hair and a somber-yet-tough face; I can tell she’s been through shit so she’s empathetic, but she will also fight me if need be. I am drawn to the shape of her eyes and the way the brown specks within her blue irises glow. I find my gaze resting on her soft-looking lips, and my face heats up in a blush. First day, and I’ve already formed a crush. I’m honestly not that surprised.
Sydney plays with the zipper of her gray sweater as she volunteers to be the first person to talk, seemingly ready to pave the way for those of us who are new and scared to share. She says she had a really hard time this last week with wanting to self-harm. But she is proud that she didn’t. “Another week clean,” she says, while making a check in the air with her finger.
My forearms itch, and I remember the day-old cuts near my elbows. I wish I could be as strong as she is.
Next to her sits Beck, who is big, bearded, and built like a lumberjack. His forearms are covered in colorful tattoos that partially hide thick and protruding scars, which sit on top of the skin as if they were latex special-effects makeup. Sydney and he seem to know each other. It’s obvious that they’ve been here long before I arrived.
There are only a few other people sitting with us around the gray table: a pasty boy who looks drunk all the time and talks like his tongue is numb, a frail woman with thinning red hair who curls in on herself as if she were waiting for someone to strike, a loud man in his 40s who proudly announces any chance he gets that he’s been sober for seven months, and a young goth girl who has already pulled out a geometric coloring book and a Ziploc full of coloring pencils. There are a few others, whom I only remember as gray, faceless, figures.
We go around the table sharing our check-ins: rate your mood one through 10 — one woman complains that she doesn’t believe in numbers or the power of words — low and high of the last week, and goals for the next week. We don’t share what we wrote down for the frequency of suicidal thoughts (every day), self-harm (frequent), substance use (every day), manic episodes (almost never), depressive episodes (every day), panic / anxiety attacks (frequent).
My heart is racing, anxiously waiting for someone to call me out, to call me a fraud for pretending to be sad, for just wanting attention. I wait for someone to chastise me again like the gray counselor did. I shut myself in, letting the dark thoughts take over, wishing I never let my counselor at home convince me to call this place.
These people aren’t going to help you. They’re just going to ridicule you for the garbage you are … except Sydney, I think. I’m unsure why that thought pops into my head, but I hold on to it.
I share my check-in, but that’s it, even after Sydney talks about her demanding family and alcohol dependency. The first session is where people talk about things that happened in the past week, good and bad. I bite my tongue, my death wishes threatening at the brim of my eyelids. Afterward, we hand our check-in sheets to the counselor, so she can scrutinize us later in private.
Two excruciating hours pass. Two hours of listening to the gray woman aggressively talk about something that I decide to tune out. Instead, I watch the goth girl color a geometric design until it’s break time.
“Who wants to join me for a smoke?” Sydney asks. Her eyes meet mine.
Fuck, I do.
I dig into my backpack somewhat frantically, feeling around for my wax pen as Sydney, Beck, and a few others walk out of the room. Others stay and pull food out of their backpacks and flip out their phones. When I finally feel the cold cylindrical metal, I grasp it and practically fly out of my chair. I follow the group down a long hallway and out two heavy doors. I am blasted with a sheet of cold air, and it snaps me out of my self-loathing bubble, and I breathe in as if I’d been holding my breath the whole time we were in that room. I try to focus on the fresh air, wishing it would find its way into my brain and freeze the toxic death wishes clawing at the inside of my skull. The thick smell of pine amplified by the rain invades my nose. It’s so pungent it makes me sick, and my empty stomach churns. When was the last time I ate, I think. I might have eaten a granola bar yesterday. My abdomen hurts and begs for food.
We walk a few feet down a sidewalk and turn the corner, and I see the smoke pavilion.
It is funny to see how the pavilion seems to be better taken care of than the counseling rooms are. Grand green ivy knots itself in an ancient terrace that covers five long, wooden benches and about six tall ashtrays; they are not the cheap plastic kind, but ornate and made of metal and stone. Hot-pink flowers that seem to glow against the perpetually gray sky sprout in the ivy. The terrace and ivy create a box with a roof and three sides to protect us from the unpredictable fall weather of Portland, Oregon.
I take my place on one of the benches next to two elderly women who are deep in conversation. They each hold a menthol Marlboro cigarette in arthritic swollen fingers.
I’m used to being around cigarette smoke. I have a long history of dating smokers, hanging out in smoke-soaked drag bars, and my brother also recently took up the habit. So the smoke that sticks to the ivy and to my sweater doesn’t bother me.
Sydney sits across from me and tucks her legs underneath her. She pulls out a Backwoods cigar with a filter tip and lights it. She catches me staring. “I like these better than regular cigarettes,” she explains. “They hit smoother. Worth the extra two bucks.”
I nod and smile weakly.
“Want a hit?” she asks, holding the fat, rolled tobacco leaves out to me.
I quickly shake my head no. “I don’t smoke cigarettes,” I say.
Sydney smiles slyly as I take my wax pen full of concentrated THC out of my pocket and take a hit. The effect is immediate and suddenly the strong smell of pine that is making me nauseous is pleasant, and the hunger pangs lessen. The headache drifts away that I’ve had since I woke up. This pen is my only solace in life. I laugh to myself thinking of how ironic this is. I am here to get help with my substance abuse, but the only way I can get through it is to use the substance I am abusing. Maybe it will get easier.
“You’re gonna get schizophrenia,” Sydney teases with a crooked smile.
I smile sheepishly; my heart warms. Teasing is something I think of as affection. My family shows our love for one another by teasing each other relentlessly and so, in turn, I do that to others. Most people take it the wrong way, but Sydney teasing me is like a silent agreement that we are about to be friends.
Out in the smoke pavilion, the tension has lifted. It’s most likely because we are outside, and everyone is getting a fix. The pink flowers, though, seem to coax the walls we put over our hearts to melt and blow away with the breeze.
“So, why are you here?” Sydney asks as if we were in a jail cell together.
My heart skips a beat, not with excitement, but with dread. I don’t know what to say. The image of my counselor typing the Providence Outpatient Services phone number into my cell phone pops into my head. It was hard to talk to the woman on the other end because I couldn’t stop crying. My arms itch again as I remember how I kept scratching the fresh cuts. I pull my sleeves over my hands in shame.
“Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse,” I finally croak out, only picking at the surface of my problems.
Sydney smiles and chuckles softly, “Same, dude. You here by choice?”
I nod, and Beck, who is sitting next to Sydney, sucks on his vape, and after he blows out a cloud, he grunts. “Good on ya,” he cheers with a nod.
“Um,” I whisper, “what about you?”
Beck answers by sliding up his jacket sleeves and showing me his forearms.
“Oh.” I don’t know why I asked, I already knew the answer.
“I’ve attempted suicide three times in the last year,” Beck says nonchalantly. “Each time I called 911 before it was too late. Guess I didn’t really want to die.” Sydney asks him why he did it, and Beck starts to explain how the first time, he was just disowned by his family, the second he was drunk and lonely, the third he was sober, which scared him the most. Attempting suicide while sober, he explained, is true desperation. It’s true pain.
I am in shock listening to Beck tell his story without hesitation. Not as if he’s proud, but as if he isn’t ashamed. He’s not afraid to admit his mistakes.
Stroking his beard, Beck says, “I’m ready to get better.”
When it’s time to go inside, I know I’m way too high, and I reluctantly drag myself back through the two heavy doors, down the echoing hallway, and back into the gray room. Once I sit down in the heated space, the full effect of the THC hits, and my body is heavy and my mind is happy. The tightness in my chest loosens, and I feel as if I can breathe normally. The pain in my joints disappears, and I can sit comfortably. I stay in this moment where I am able to enjoy my body and to ignore the toxic thoughts my mind is constantly producing. Why is using drugs so bad if it makes the pain go away?
We have a different counselor for this session. Time to work on coping skills. Because I’m high, I’m more relaxed and find myself talking. About what, I can’t remember, but the words of my past pain and suffering tumble out of me. The people around the table nod, listening as I talk. I feel different, their empathy wrapping around my shoulders like a blanket. I feel safe. They see my pain and validate me. They believe my story.
Three days a week, for the next month, I color in my adult coloring book (an idea that I stole from the goth girl) full of geometric animals and landscapes, during the three separate two-and-a-half-hour sessions. I anxiously wait for the break when we are allowed to leave the gray room and go to the freeing smoke pavilion where I laugh with Sydney and the others, sharing my wax pen flippantly; I’m not paying for the supplies, anyway. (My boyfriend delighted in spoiling me with drugs, especially pot, and hard liquor.)
The skies have been gray for the last week, but I didn’t really notice because the flowers in the pavilion are still pink, and Sydney begins to sit next to me during our smoke breaks.
“Sydney,” I say.
She turns to look at me. The wind found its way through the ivy and was blowing Sydney’s hair across her face. I resist the urge to reach up and tuck her hair behind her ear. My heart is heavy, and for some reason, I feel that Sydney can help clear some of the weight.
“I’ve been struggling with my identity,” I begin. “Sexual and gender identity, and I don’t know what to do.”
I have never said it out loud, but I can’t stop myself from word vomiting. I can’t tell if it’s because of the weed loosening the knots in my brain or because of the warm way Sydney is looking at me.
“My family is super religious,” I say. As I talk about how I might like girls, but I also don’t feel like a girl, she listens intently, in a way no one has listened before. She smokes her Backwoods cigar and nods while I talk. When I’m done, Sydney stays silent for a while.
“How old are you?” She asks.
She is silent again for a few seconds. “Sometimes, it takes people till they’re 50 to realize their sexual and gender identity. I’m 24, and I guess it’s time I admit to myself that I’m lesbian, but yeah, it’s hard when you have a shitty family breathing down your neck.”
“That’s not encouraging,” I say, laughing weakly.
“Life’s not encouraging,” Sydney says. Then she turns, grabs my hand, and squeezes. She looks into my eyes and says, “But people can be. You can do it, dude.”
Beck asks if he can flirt with me (I say, yes, of course), and he teaches me how to vape. Sydney and I exchange numbers and text during the counseling sessions. A girl opens up about her eating disorder, and I ask several questions, concerned I might have to add “eating disorder” to the already-long list of things wrong with me. The two elderly ladies — who have been there every smoke break gossiping — give me life advice and congratulate me on taking care of my mental health so young, lamenting that they wish they’d done the same.
Our bonding smoke breaks make our time in the gray room a bit easier, but the mood is still depressing. It’s a bleak room full of depressed and damaged people, talking about their traumas, and usually, I find myself leaving more depressed than when I walked in. Everyone in this group is older; I am the youngest one here. Most of them are here by choice, but the goth girl and the numb-tongued boy (who are both close to my age) are forced to be here. Whether they are court-ordered or pressured by their family, I don’t know. All I know is they don’t want to be here, judging by their refusal to take any of the tasks seriously. It’s annoying, but I get why they are acting like that. I was forced to go to therapy, and I pretty much acted the same way. You can’t force a horse to drink.
Today is Sydney’s last day, and while out on the pavilion, she starts to cry. I haven’t seen her cry the whole three weeks I’ve been here with her. I try to comfort her as she weeps and explains that she has nowhere to go but back to her abusive family where they ask too much of her and give nothing back. My heart grows cold, and it feels like all the progress she’s made — we’ve made — over this past month has just been lost. We promise to stay in touch, though we both know that promise will be broken soon, and when we walk out of the doors for the last time together, we hug for the first time.
I drive home to my empty house with an empty pantry and an empty fridge, an empty closet, and an empty bed, and I realize that once I leave the outpatient program, I’m going to be alone again. I’ll go back to working at the empty library where there are only a few souls to talk to, though most are trapped in books. I am heavy with grief, and as soon as I get home, I take a bong rip that is too big and go to sleep till 2 a.m. I wake up and turn on the TV and take another bong rip and another and another till I forget how lonely I am.
I only have one more week left, but I don’t want to do it without Sydney.
But here I am, sitting in the pavilion, sucking on my wax pen, and the flowers don’t seem as pink anymore. Beck tries to cheer me up with another crazy story about his high-school life, but the gray sky is too overbearing to listen. We have the schizophrenia-obsessed counselor all day today because the other counselors are out. I don’t listen to a single word she says.
My heart is broken over a girl I only knew for a month, only getting to see her three days a week. That doesn’t matter, though. We knew each other’s pain and experiences and sorrows. I told her things in that pavilion that I didn’t think I would be able to talk to anyone about. Our short friendship is trapped in those pink flowers, on that wooden bench, in her Backwoods cigar ashes, and I wish dearly I could go back and find it.