Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Matthew Newton
“It’s terrible here at night,” Sesha said. She was sitting across the table from me in the psychiatric ward at Forbes Regional Hospital, dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, her make-up washed away. We were alone in the day room, late November casting long rectangles of sunlight across the white tile floor. Behind us was a darkened television set, mounted on a metal support arm that reached out from the wall; puzzles and board games were stacked high on a nearby shelf.
It was Thanksgiving 1992. I was fifteen years old and in the tenth grade. Sesha was fourteen. Out in the hallway, prepackaged meals of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce—all shrink-wrapped on plastic trays filed neatly in a stainless steel cart—were being delivered to patients. A male orderly in scrubs lumbered down the corridor, wheeling the cart from room to room, the unmistakable scent of hospital food strong in the air. Sesha still didn’t have much of an appetite, so we sat and talked while the other patients ate quietly in their rooms.
“What do you mean by ‘terrible’?” I asked, worried.
“That guy at the desk? Scott? He hits on all the girls here,” she said. “But he waits until late at night. He’s a pervert.” Her ponytail had come loose, so she removed the elastic band that had held it in place, and for a moment her auburn-colored hair fell to her shoulders.
“He thinks he’s attractive or something—it’s weird,” Sesha said, pulling her hair into a tight new ponytail.
“Has he hit on you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, as if I were a fool for asking. “But don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to sleep with him.”
The thought hadn’t even entered my mind. At least, not until she planted it there. It was a practice she had mastered in the three months since our first kiss: sowing seeds of doubt at any opportunity. But even though I was aware of the ways she often tried to manipulate a situation, the line between fantasy and reality remained impossibly hard to determine.
Sesha and I had been together only since late August, but we had known each other for more than a year. We met in ninth grade art class, a general curriculum course taught by a woman who was rumored to have been a Playboy centerfold in the 1960s. Sesha flirted with me from the first day of class, touching my arm when we talked and whispering to me between the teacher’s lessons. We shared a similar sense of humor, dry and sarcastic, and easily fell in together. That she was smart and attractive only helped to magnify my self-consciousness each time we talked.
Sesha was from a multiracial family, part white and part Indian. Her dark, shoulder-length hair she often gathered and pulled to one side of her neck—usually the side opposite from where I sat—as she worked, exposing her full profile so I could see her lips and neckline, the curve of her jaw and the silver hoops in her pierced ears. She exuded a confidence I had never seen before, a confidence that would later evolve into a strange power over me.
I couldn’t tell if Sesha was lying about Scott, a middle-aged man with dark, close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses. His particular role on the ward was unclear, but he seemed to be an administrator, someone with a background in therapy, perhaps, who had taken on the role of staff manager. My only interactions with him were when I signed in at the front desk before each visit. He had been pleasant in our limited encounters. Was he capable of making sexual advances toward a teenage girl?
“Tell me what I should do,” I said. “I can help.” My mother, who was reading a book in the waiting room outside the ward, had been doing her best to advocate for Sesha; I figured if any of this were true, maybe she could help. What worried me, of course, was Sesha’s tendency to exaggerate. Her desire to place herself at the center of the drama, whether real or imagined, was an aspect of her personality I’d never quite understood, especially considering that her life was chaotic enough on its own. Six days earlier, that chaos had pushed her into the psychiatric ward at Forbes—a move that turned out to be less the signal of an unsettled mind than a measure to establish a safe distance from her father.
“I can’t go home tonight,” Sesha had said. “He’ll kill me.” A strict Indian man, her father’s temper and authority loomed like a monolith over her family’s household. We were in my bedroom at my parents’ house when she said this. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving, and Sesha had ridden home with me on the bus after school. Her deep brown eyes welled with tears as she talked, mascara running in inky-black dots against her olive cheeks. In her right hand was a copy of her report card. She had received two Ds for the semester: one in science, the other in gym. She cut each class regularly, often meeting me under a quiet stairwell we had found in one of the school’s back hallways, where we would fool around or daydream about the future. Other times, it was to smoke pot on the hiking trail behind the school with some of the stoners she knew.
To Sesha’s father, a report card with failing grades was unacceptable. It didn’t fit with his image of his daughter or the distinct ideas he had for her future. As she explained it, her father expected she would graduate at the top of her class, go on to a respected four-year university—somewhere like Case Western Reserve—and then consider her options for graduate school. The details got murkier after that, but there was often talk, however serious or not, of an arranged marriage with a young man from another Indian family. It was a daunting vision. But the fact that her father had no idea of what was actually going on in her life—and what he might do if he found out—seemed to scare her the most.
“I don’t know how to explain this to him,” Sesha said, holding up her report card. Her voice was fragile, breaking apart a little at the end of each word. She was sitting on the blue carpet in my bedroom, her knees tucked tight to her chest, her back against the closet door. A miniature Chicago Bulls basketball hoop, a gift from my parents when I was in junior high, hung several feet above her head at the top of the door.
It was strange to see Sesha so upset. The only times she ever showed signs of fear were when her father came up in conversation. Though he worked long hours as a nuclear physicist at a nearby research facility, his presence in her life was constant and pervasive. Pleasing him was not necessarily something she wanted to do, but it was an obligation that colored many of her decisions. Given his own accomplished career, Sesha’s father expected academic excellence from each of his four children—three daughters and a son—and his discipline often turned physical when he was disappointed with them.
A year earlier, before we were dating but when we spent hours on the phone after school each day, Sesha had told me that her father once pushed Abeer, her younger brother, down a flight of stairs. The fall was violent and left her brother, who was in grade school at the time, with a broken arm. Sesha couldn’t remember what it was that had set her father off, but that was the point. His reactions were as unpredictable as his temper.
Since I had never met or even seen Sesha’s father, except in photographs, a certain kind of mystery surrounded him. The framed pictures in her house revealed a short, dark-skinned man with tinted glasses and a crown of thinning black hair. It was intentional, of course, that we had never met. He forbade any of his three daughters from having a boyfriend. Sesha’s mother, however, a timid but pleasant American woman, was far more lenient. Unlike her husband, she was well aware that each of her three daughters secretly had boyfriends. When I would visit Sesha after school, her mother was particularly nice to me. She would make us food and tell bad jokes as we sat around the kitchen table. I would help her carry groceries from the trunk of her Pontiac LeMans, or play video games with Abeer. It all felt extremely normal. But there was always the knowledge that the fun was temporary, a welcome but finite lull before Sesha’s father returned home.
“I’m afraid what I might do if I go home tonight,” Sesha said, wiping away tears as she looked up at me from the bedroom floor, her eyes searching, it seemed, for some sort of reaction.
“What’s that mean?” I asked, hearing a familiar tone of frustration in my voice. I wanted Sesha to be clear about what it was she was hinting at, to just come out and say it.
“You really don’t know?” she asked, sounding irritated. “Never mind then.”
I knew she was threatening suicide, or at least some type of harm to herself, if she had to go home and face her father. But I also questioned how serious she was, knowing the pleasure she took in helping a situation unravel. The last thing I wanted was to further agitate her. But I also didn’t want to play along. I had done so in the past. Not with threats of suicide, but with other issues just as serious.
Earlier that year, Sesha had told me that a varsity soccer player had raped her at a party when she was a freshman. Her account of what the boy had done was matter-of-fact, almost emotionless, and caught me by surprise. Learning that someone had done this to her drove me into a rage. The next day I confronted the boy in a hallway at school, asking him bluntly what had happened at that party. A fight broke out. Teachers quickly intervened and separated us, and as they dragged us to the principal’s office, the boy laughed at me for believing Sesha’s story, telling me I was too gullible. At the time, I ignored him. I was in the right, I assumed, because why would Sesha lie about such an awful experience? But as the months wore on, I began to question her stories and her reasons for telling them. Our relationship had proven that I was one of the few people Sesha trusted—her confidence in me often revealed in quiet, intimate moments. But that didn’t deter her from lying to me when it was convenient. So many of our conversations were like falling down a rabbit hole, the truth so obscured it seemed impossible to set any of it right in my head.
I sat on the floor next to Sesha and held her hand. The house was warm, but her fingers felt cold.
“You don’t know him,” she said about her father, her voice soft again. She reminded me that it was impossible for me to know how he would react. She was right.
Out in the kitchen, my grandmother was checking on a pot roast she had put in the oven several hours earlier. The smells of seasoned meat and roasted potatoes reminded me of when she used to cook for my sister and me when we were little, before I had problems that couldn’t be solved.
I looked at Sesha. Her eyes were red, the skin above and below her lashes tender at the edges, but she wasn’t crying anymore. Before I could say anything, she interrupted.
“I’m not going home,” she said. “I’ll kill myself if I do.”
“It’s probably just playful flirting,” Sesha said when I pressed her about Scott. “You shouldn’t worry.” We were walking laps around the outer edges of the ward, watching the clock as 8 p.m. approached and visiting hours came to a close.
“You would tell me if you needed me to do something, right?” I asked as we stopped outside her hospital room.
“I’m fine,” she said, softening a bit. “It’s okay here.”
We said goodbye for the night. I kissed her and we hugged for what felt like several minutes. After all she’d told me since I arrived, I was afraid to leave. But I couldn’t stay any longer, either. “Visiting hours are over for the evening,” a voice boomed from the small circular speakers in the ceiling. “Please remember to sign out at the front desk and wait for a staff member to buzz you out.”
I signed the log, scrawling my signature next to the date and time of my visit. On my way out of the ward I looked over my shoulder and saw Scott standing there motionless, his eyes fixed on the exit.
Out in the waiting room I found my mother sitting on a couch near a bank of vending machines. The other chairs and small couches were all empty; rows of fluorescent tube lights hummed loudly overhead. She looked tired but smiled when she saw me.
“How is she?” my mother asked, tucking the paperback that she had been reading into her purse.
“Okay, I guess,” I said, rubbing my eyes, which felt heavy and dry. It was hard to hide how tired I felt. My mother’s face fell a little when she noticed, a look of pity more than anything else. The last few days had been like trying to sleep through a fever. I felt uncomfortable when I was with Sesha and out of place with my parents, as if I were living in an alternate reality. I wanted to hug my mother but I didn’t. The space between us felt too heavy.
“She’s in a better mood than yesterday,” I added, keeping Sesha’s story about Scott to myself. “Still not eating much though.”
“Hospital food is the pits,” she said, smiling a bit. “Don’t worry, she’s gonna bounce back.”
I was grateful for my mother’s support, but I could tell it was a struggle for her to stay positive. Besides my relationship with Sesha, the last year had been difficult for our family. Since my freshman year, my mood and state of mind had started to shift. I spent more time by myself; I slept long hours and was impossible to wake in the mornings; and I was regularly acting out of character, reacting with fits of anger and nearly constant irritability to everyone around me. But the most dramatic changes were a number of compulsive and increasingly odd behaviors: constantly checking door locks, washing my hands excessively, and counting every footstep. I developed an irrational and overwhelming concern that any word I spoke would offend someone. It was maddening.
My erratic behavior and the severity of my new habits had my parents concerned. So, after months of resisting, I finally agreed to an evaluation at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC). Sesha was committed to the psych ward at Forbes just two weeks before my evaluation, when I would be formally diagnosed with severe clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It proved that my parents’ fears were not unfounded. Something was wrong with me.
“This is more than you can fix,” my mother said, referring to Sesha and her problems with her father. “The best you can do is to be there for her, be a good listener.”
It was Thanksgiving night. We were seated at the lunch counter in a Denny’s, set amidst the suburban sprawl near the hospital, finishing our dinners. On my mother’s plate was a hot turkey sandwich, half eaten and the gravy now cold. Crumbs from a BLT dotted my plate, the inedible crusts discarded in a tidy semicircle. Our receipt, which the waitress had set down in a wet ring left by my water glass, lay on the counter. I picked up the soggy piece of paper and handed it to my mother, who looked at my hands, dry and irritated from too much washing.
“Dad can take you to the hospital tomorrow, if you want,” she said as we stood up and walked to the cash register. She rifled through her purse as she talked, searching for her wallet.
I wondered what version of Sesha I might see the next day. Would she be rational and kind, like she’d been in the final minutes before we said goodbye? Or would she be spiteful, talking in half-truths that left my brain in knots?
I would learn much later that my parents, particularly my mother, had deep concerns about Sesha’s influence on me. In the notes from my initial evaluation at WPIC, the clinician wrote: “Matt’s mother reports that he may speak to his girlfriend on the phone 6-7 times per night, and she is concerned that he feels responsible for her psychological well-being. Mrs. Newton also stated the concern that somehow Matt’s girlfriend would push him into a joint suicide.”
My mother smiled as she handed the bill and her credit card to the man behind the cash register.
“Was everything OK tonight?” he asked, a pleasant look on his face.
“Yes,” my mother said. “Everything was fine.”
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Matthew Newton is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.