Choke

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Zoë Hooley

“I’ll be locking up your possessions. In a few days we’ll see about putting you back in your own clothes. Cell phones are not permitted on the unit; get out any numbers you may need. There are payphones in the common area that you can use after breakfast and before dinner. There are walk-throughs every fifteen minutesfor your safety.” The monotony of the nurse’s voice showed that she had given this speech countless times. “Do you have any questions?”

I mutely shook my head. I did have a question: Could I get out of here? But I already knew the answer. We sat in a tiny room, just big enough for two chairs and an old metal desk that looked as worn as I felt.

“Before I take you to your room, I need to do a skin check.”

“A what?”

“I need to check for any existing marks or wounds. If you can stand up?” she coaxed, clicking her pen.

I rose and reluctantly lifted my hospital gown as she dutifully noted my scars on the genderless diagram on her clipboard, a personal paint-by-number. She scribbled a mark for the bird tattoo on my ribs, the scar from the mole I’d had removed from my arm when I was fifteen, the birthmark on my left calf.

“Turn around.”

I complied, feeling a twinge of shame as she marked down the phoenix tattoo I’d gotten three years earlier, after I’d almost killed myself. (The first time, my planned defenestration. Not to be confused with when I almost killed myself this time.) Wings spread wide in flight, as if about to soar off my shoulder, it symbolized how suffering begets rebirth. Where was resurrection now? I felt nothing but the flat pile of ashes, smelled nothing but smolder.

“All done,” she said with a reassuring smile.

The nurse took me down the hall, past the many whiteboards affixed to doorways like placards. She paused at one with a vacancy and wrote in my namemy first name, the one only my grandma calls mealong with the names of my assigned nurse and social worker.

“I’ll give you a few minutes to get settled,” she said, gesturing toward the bed and nightstand that together occupied half of the room; a curtain separated them from an identical arrangement on the other side. The built-in furniture reminded me of the dorms in college, the ones in the old residence hall. “I’ll check on when the doctor will see you.”

I sat tentatively on the bed, numbness and emotion vying for dominance. They’d been playing tug-of-war for the last several days, but I could feel that emotion was going to win this one. Which is to say, I could feel. Anxiety and fear and frustration bumped into each other in my stomach, looking for a way out. I searched in the paper grocery-turned-duffel bag I’d used to carry my things from the downstairs crisis unit, rummaging for my journal and a pencil. Pens, for reasons as inscrutable as my breakdown, were considered potential weapons and weren’t allowed.

I was interrupted as a short, middle-aged woman with a wide face and wider smile shuffled into the room on the blue socks that everyone wore in the unit. I was sniffing back my tears as she noticed me sitting on the bed.

“Are you in my room?”

I nodded shyly, not trusting that my voice would be clear of tears.

“I’m Cynthia.” Her guilelessness and my self-doubt did a tango around the room.

“Hi, Cynthia.”

“We’re watching TV.” It was an assumption more than an invitation. Of course everyone wants to watch TV.

“I think I have to wait for the nurse.”

“Oh, okay.” She started to leave the room, then turned back. “I’ve got grapes.”

A grin punctured my numbness. “I’m okay.”

***

Five days ago, I’d been rushed to the ER with a dangerously high blood alcohol level.

A break up on the heels of a move on the heels of a job-change—to think about it made my head spin and my stomach ache. So I tried not to.

I came home from work to my Chicago apartment, empty except for Raymond, the beta fish, who wasn’t much of a conversationalist. I started drinkingjust to take the edge off. But the edge was deep and jagged and I slipped into it. Alcohol was a recent addition to my strategies for quelling my chronic, throbbing anxiety. Running too much, cleaning too long (and then cleaning again), eating too little: I’d tried my hand at them all. But none had been able to stop the pulsing dread more than whiskey. A lightweight, I quickly outpaced myself, and by the time my roommate got home, I was breathing threats—wishes, perhaps—of suicide.

“I slapped you. I’m sorry,” she told me later. “I wanted you to snap out of it.” But I’d already snapped.

***

The ambulance clattered and howled through the streets of Chicago, me in its belly. They wouldn’t let my roommate ride in the ambulance; they wouldn’t let me leave the hospital. Involuntary commitment is called “C&P” in Illinois: Certificate and Petition. As much as I petitioned, they wouldn’t let me leave.

I spent the next several days in the crisis unit, waiting for an open bed in the psychiatric ward six floors above. They answered the phone by saying, “Crisis.” It was the ward’s official greeting. Emergencies were standard.

My first morning upstairs in the psych unit, they woke me at 6:10 a.m. to take blood. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes as the nurse rubbed an alcohol swab on my forearm.

“There will be a little poke,” she narrated as she lifted the needle. I barely noticed, my drowsiness serving as an anesthetic.

“That wasn’t so bad, huh?” she said cheerily, removing the tourniquet. I smiled absently as she gathered her supplies and left the room, calling, “Breakfast will be up soon!” as she departed.

I caught sight of myself in the mirror as I made my way to the bathroom. My curly hair looked as if it had been practicing gymnastics all night, and my eyes had a glassy pre-coffee blankness. The baggy blue hospital gown drifted around me as if it wasn’t sure what to do, either. I hesitated for a moment, listless, before impulsively burrowing in my bag for my lipstick, dabbing on the color quickly and decisively. I nodded at my reflection before heading down the hallway to the dining room.

My eyes scanned the three rows of tables with all the certainty of a new kid who’d just walked into an unfamiliar cafeteria. On the far side of the room, Cynthia was motioning to me. When she caught my eye, she patted a spot beside her at the table. I angled my way there. When I sat down, she introduced me to her neighbor.

“This is Zoë. She’s my new roommate.” I tried to focus, to absorb their names, but my brain was such a tangle, and nothing sunk in. Bill? Marsha? Or was it Martha?

We groggily waited in silence for the staff to distribute the food. Our meals came up to the unit in a big capsule of molded plastic, which made a sound like the opening bay doors of a spaceship when they unlatched it. The trays were covered with plastic domes resembling flying saucers, orbited by tiny satellites of orange juice and reduced-sodium margarine.

I scooted the breakfast sausage to the outskirts of my plate. They remembered I was a vegetarian about 45 percent of the time. No matter: they had sent coffee. I slurped it as eagerly and gingerly as if it were real coffee—from one of the upscale boutiques in the Gold Coast that I passed every day on my way to work—and not bland, burnt Folgers.

As I sipped, my gaze roamed around the room. The other patients were trading items from their trays like baseball cards.

“Ronald, you can have my juice.”

“Anyone want my biscuit?”

“Give your jam to Gina, she always likes it.”

The patients whose medication made them prone to dizziness wore yellow socks—bright yellow—cluing in the staff to the fact that they were unstable. But weren’t we all? Wasn’t that why we were in the psych ward?

Later, I lay in my bed, trying to clear space in my head for sleep. I wondered if my brother was trying to get ahold of me. I wondered how I would explain my absence to my boss. I had called into work, earlier that day, and made as vague an excuse for my hospitalization as I could muster. Brian answered the phone. We call him The Beast. After I’d broken up with my boyfriend, Brian offered to beat him up. (He then went on to relate tales of all the people he’d beaten up alreadythere were many.) Brian sounded so scared, saying he was worried sick about me. Why hadn’t I called? He spoke quickly and nervously, like a child. I was one of Brian’s favorites, the only girl in the back stock crew. He’d chosen me because he thought me capable and strong. But here I was in the psych ward. Regret and shame frayed the edges of my thoughts.

Feet could be heard making their way down the tiled hallway.

“Just a safety check.” Came a cheerful voice from the doorway. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Cynthia piped up from the far side of the room. “I’m gonna choke her when you leave though,” she said around giggles.

Stillness returned to the room after the nurse left.

“I wasn’t really going to choke you, you know,” Cynthia said from the darkness on the other side of the curtain.

***

Three days later, my gathered things—a drawing by my friend’s three-year-old, sent to cheer me; the wilting flowers my friend Joseph had brought; the social worker’s card—jutted out of the grocery bag, now torn at one corner from use.

Cynthia had left the day before. I had suggested that maybe we could swap addresses and write. It’s what I’d learned to say to departing cabinmates at summer camp.

“I’m not too good with words,” she hedged, taking the pencil. Her face wrinkled with concentration, the paper wrinkling under her measured hand, she made up with force what she lacked in finesse. I slipped the address into my journal alongside other valuables: a pressed flower, my prescription for antidepressants.

“Would you help me fill this out?” Cynthia asked, holding out a form. I nodded quickly—too quickly—eager to jump over any gap where embarrassment might insert itself. I read the questions to her slowly, slipping into the voice my mother used for story time.

***

The next day, I answered the questions for myself:

It would take days and weeks and years before I could use “health” to classify my emotional state, but I could hear in the distance the rustle of wings. A plume from the pyre, the phoenix flies.

* * * * *

Zoë Hooley is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.

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