When I catch sight of my stitches in periphery, I think they are hairs growing out of my wrist, like black wiry hairs growing out of a mole or on the jaw lines of women. Then I think of Marie, whose name I thought was Murray at first because of the black hairs on her face and her body like a sack of Christmas toys. She’s practically catatonic and the nurses have given up trying to make her speak. I do not like to look at her. Today’s goals: write in my journal, learn new coping skills, do not look at Marie.
We have to set these goals every morning; it’s more difficult than it sounds. We’re all of us sitting around in our sock feet looking sad and horse-faced, shuffling in socks because they have taken away our shoelaces, making our shoes useless. I had to cut the drawstring from my sweatpants, so I’m sitting in our morning meeting, one hand useless because it’s holding up my pants, the other ugly with black hairs blossoming from the base of it, and I am running out of goals. After three or four days, all of your goals are used up. Goal: get out of this place where the trashcans are lined with paper bags instead of plastic. The lucky ones are the people getting ECT. They aren’t here in the morning.
ECT is all the rage right now, in the same way that a good pair of boots or thick-framed glasses are. What ECT signifies is electroconvulsive therapy, or People Getting Shocked in the Brain. They use if for acute depression, which is being sad all of the time. They also use it for mania, which is being crazy. It didn’t work for Sylvia Plath, but people here think it will work for them and the Surgeon General says that it’s effective. Nothing else has worked for these people, and they think the shocks will work, even though it makes them tired and dry-mouthed and causes memory loss. One morning, a woman forgot what she was doing in this place after her shock treatment. She completely forgot that she had chewed and swallowed the contents of a bottle of Prozac. She is seventy-something, eating full bottles of Prozac. Jesus.
So it’s morning and we’ve eaten and we’ve had our break for cigarettes (goal: only smoke four cigarettes today,) which isn’t even fun anymore because my new medicine makes them not taste good, and the van is here to pick up the ones who get ECT, who don’t get to eat breakfast in case they throw up while they’re under, or something. William who’s brilliant and who gets ECT two or three times a week has been here for almost a month, which is a long time to live without shoelaces, shaving your face in front of a nurse and a ward full of crazy people, drinking decaffeinated coffee. He’s been here two weeks so today he’s getting shocked bilaterally, which means they put nodes on both sides of your head instead of just one. This practice is apparently safe, but I am worried. William is nice and we play Scrabble together and color in pictures like we are in kindergarten again, or maybe daycare. It is kind of like daycare for adults except that instead of pacifiers, we get sedatives. When William comes back, he does not know my name. He remembers eventually, when I tell him.
There’s a doctor here too, shoelaceless, who never says much, he’s so tired from his ECT. He’s handsome and went to a good school and wears round tortoise shell eyeglasses. I watch him eat fast, like a hungry dog, like the nurses will take it away if he doesn’t hurry. Maybe he is right. He sits next to me in art therapy when we make boxes to put our worries in. I think I will fill mine with wishes. Or sedatives. Sarah sits in the corner mumbling and folding the corners of her box the wrong way. When the therapist comes over to help, Sarah shuts up and looks scared. I do not understand.
Lunch. The woman to my left can tell me how many calories are in every item on her tray and mine. I’m not sure I actually want to know. She only eats the whites of her hardboiled eggs and puts vinegar on her salad instead of real dressing. We half a dessert and I get all of the whipped cream. Still, she isn’t as bad as my roommate who doesn’t get to come to the cafeteria with me and this woman and William and the rest of us. She sits in the unit with the nurses and Sarah and the patients on Q15, which means they have to be checked on every fifteen minutes, which means they cannot leave the unit. She eats Cheerios and fruit and not really anything else. Later, I can tell whether or not she has thrown up in our bathroom. She doesn’t really look like someone who’d eat that way, with her buzzed hair and her construction boots, but I guess that doesn’t matter. She gets to come outside after lunch and smoke cigarettes with us. Goal: only smoke five cigarettes today. At bedtime they give us our sedatives. I put mine in my worry box and cannot fall asleep.
The morning after sedative number eight goes in to the worry box, Sarah has a fit. Since I have been here, I’ve played twelve games of scrabble, been to forty-eight groups, including music therapy where we pick a song from a list and get to listen to it (I choose Cat Stevens,) smoked one pack of cigarettes, and had zero cups of real coffee. The handsome doctor has left. He did not say goodbye. We think he went AMA, which is against medical advice. I miss him. I would have liked to hug him goodbye. Goodbye is the only time you get to touch another person here. I miss touch.
So Sarah is out in the hall cursing at the nurses and screaming that she is not paranoid. I think maybe she had a bad meeting with her doctor. I also think she is definitely paranoid. She kicks and curses and thrashes around when they take her to her room but they get her quiet and I don’t see her all day. Later than night, while I’m on the phone, they wheel her out strapped down to a stretcher. She is smiling broadly with her cane in one hand and a potted plant in the other. I wonder where she is going.
The next morning I have a meeting with my doctor. I’m not responding to treatment. Why don’t we try something new? I kick and scream. I do not want to go. It’s more of a requirement than a suggestion, though, so I’m skipping breakfast and climbing into the dark green van and bumping up the road to the hospital where they do the ECT. A nurse in bright red scrubs pulls my hair back and puts gel on one of my temples. On my right temple. Lying on the table, shaking and waiting with a node on my temple, I hear the doctor count to three and the last thing I see in the back of my mind is footprints falling into the smoothest sand.