My fellow patients on the psychiatric unit are certainly an interesting cast of characters. Of course I wonder about their stories, I wonder what combinations of pain and circumstance and bad luck (and maybe good luck too?) have brought them here. And for all of them, I harbor a detached empathy, an impersonal hope that they can find their way back to their lives. Even so, I try as much as possible to avoid interacting with the other patients. Most of the time I lack the energy for superficial conversations. And I lack the imagination required to use small talk as a shield from the reality of our situation, the fact that we’re all here on the psych ward, that the locked unit doors are under video surveillance, that we’re all under the influence of the many multicolored pills we swallow every morning. My personal rainbow is red, white, and yellow.
I avoid the other patients too because many of them seem to have lost appropriate social inhibitions along the way, often spewing rude and abusive comments that I get so tired of deflecting and increasingly less willing to tolerate. I also get so tired of other patients asking my name, mispronouncing it, mispronouncing it again when I correct them, and eventually just inventing their own bastardized version of my three easy syllables because my name is too much effort for them. And finally, I avoid the other patients out of a desperate instinct of self-preservation – it takes all my strength to remain focused on my own therapeutic goals, and I just can’t afford to be distracted by caring too much about anyone else on the unit. They are here for their problems, I am here for mine – I can’t forget that.
Though I intentionally maintain this safe detachment from the other patients, I cannot help but watch them all with involuntary interest. There’s The Watchman, always lurking at the end of the hall where the lights are dimmest, his dark restless eyes seeming always to be fixed on me, the hood of his black sweater drawn up around his face like the cowl of a vigilant monk. And old Abraham Lincoln – the resemblance really is uncanny – who never seems to leave the spindly chair by the courtyard windows, his lanky body folded up like an oversized praying mantis. Sleeping Beauty, who emerges from her room only rarely and wears her hospital gown like an elegant cascading dress, floating through the hallways with a radiant self-absorption and a distended pregnant belly preceding her quiet footsteps. Eyebrows, whose bushy black brows dominate his placid face and create an expression of perpetual confusion, his eyebrows dancing up and down to punctuate each spoken word, each sideways glance, each bite of food. Santa Claws, with his leering eyes and scraggly food-littered beard, his leather Harley Davidson jacket and fingers decked out with silver skulls, hands so grotesquely swollen that the rings are nearly buried by the bulging flesh, his long and fungally discolored toenails scraping the floor like ugly claws. Serene, with coiffed gray hair and deep grooves running down from the corners of her mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy, who complains endlessly about the smell of dust, who marches back and forth across the same few feet of floor holding her diaper in place with both hands, often shouting at nobody in particular, “I just want peace of mind! You have peace of mind! Why can’t I have peace of mind? I used to be a spiritualist, you know. I used to be able to enter the spirt world but I can’t anymore. I just want peace of mind!” (We all ignore her outbursts, no-one here has peace of mind). And there’s The Howler, heard but never seen beyond one brief glimpse of a bare torso twisted across a mattress on the floor of the high-obs room, his chillingly inhuman screams filtering through the corridors at all hours of the day and night.
All of these patients I regard with a carefully cultivated detachment. Except for Cody.* I am drawn to him with a startling and shattering compassion that slices through my cautious distance and makes my heart ache. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is his physical resemblance to my brother – same endearingly disheveled hair, same ice-blue eyes, same roguish youthful handsomeness, same lingering hint of unwashed masculine musk. Perhaps it is my own selfish desire to inhabit such an effortlessly narrow-hipped, broad-chested body, the masculine alignment of his bones and muscles so achingly appealing to my girl-trapped brain.
Or perhaps it is that Cody’s demons are more outwardly obvious than most other patients on the ward. He cannot hide his battles with monsters I can’t even imagine. His blue eyes rarely register the real world around him, focused instead on high invisible shelves that he stretches up to reach, invisible barriers on the floor that he probes carefully with dirty bare feet, invisible companions sitting in the empty chairs beside him. All of his movements are slow and tense and deliberate, coherent only in a separate world the rest of us can’t see. And all these movements are narrated by his ceaseless whispering, too quiet to hear the words themselves, just a soft susurration like butterfly wingbeats. Occasionally he is interrupted from these explorations of his invisible world – quite suddenly his entire body stiffens, his head snaps to the side, his mouth stretches in a soundless scream, and a series of tremors rattle through his rigid slender body until – just as suddenly – his body stills, he blinks, looks around dazedly, and resumes whispering.
Perhaps I am drawn to Cody by a powerful but unfamiliar protective instinct – a parental sort of protectiveness, perhaps, although in my case neither maternal nor paternal – an irrational hope that if I could just fold him in my arms and shield him from the world (real and invisible) then I could somehow absorb his pain and leave him whole. Even if it killed me. I wonder if this is how my parents feel when they watch my struggle with depression. I wonder if I underestimate how hard this might be for them, how strong the instinct to protect and shelter, if this boy I barely know can draw such fierce protectiveness from my cautious heart.
But I think, more than anything, I am drawn by Cody’s smile. I have seen it only once, walking past him in the hallway. He was engaged in a repetitive pulling motion, as though he were dragging something heavy up towards his chest, his whispers seemingly directed at the evidently irksome object. As I walked closer, his hands stilled and his whispers faded and his bright blue eyes met mine – and I could see the crystal clarity suddenly alive behind the blue. The ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth – a tiny crooked smile climbing up and crinkling the corners of his eyes as his head dipped in a respectful nod of recognition. A thready filament of connection hovered between us for a moment – the flash of recognition in his eyes heartbreaking and unmistakable – until suddenly the thread snapped, his eyes dropped downwards, his whispering resumed, and just like that – with all the finality of a guillotine blade – his moment of awareness was abruptly severed.
So now whenever his path crosses mine, I find myself searching his face for that crooked smile, that awareness, that flash of recognition, searching with a desperate selfish reckless caring that takes my breath away. I see you, Cody. I’m here. I know you’re there too. But he remains lost in his world of whispered things.
But he left me one more smile. After breakfast one morning, he shuffled into the dining room two hours late but I’d asked the nurse to save his tray. He attempted to eat at first but quickly lost track of his fork, his gaze drifting off, his whispering more fervent, and began lifting invisible items up off the floor. As he leaned down, the bunching of the muscles in his back was visible through the gap of his hospital gown – hard knobs of vertebrae protruding between the trailing strings he didn’t finish tying – that gap in his gown a green-rimmed sliver of heart-wrenching vulnerability. Then his attention shifted to his paper menu and, slowing picking up a nearby pencil, he began writing. Eventually he abandoned his writing and drifted away – whispering and shuffling – and I could see the scrap of paper he’d left behind. It was a list of names, I’m not sure who they are, scrawled in the overlarge and messy handwriting of a child. Near the bottom, the “r” in Tyler – with unexpected whimsy – was drawn as a stick figure with arms outstretched. Below the names, he wrote two statements: “walking sucks run” and “40 like steves as you say” – not quite nonsense, not quite sense – followed by a pencilled crooked smile. I see you, Cody. I know you’re there too.
*Not his real name.
A perfect smile is more appealing but it’s funny how
My shit is crooked, look at how far I done got without it
I keep my twisted grill, just to show them kids it’s real
We ain’t picture perfect but we worth the picture still
– J Cole (Crooked Smile, 2013)