It’s a luxury to obsessively check my phone, so I do. Feel embarrassed when people point this out to me. “You take more selfies than anyone I’ve ever met,” S says. I am not aware of my selfie consumption until she points it out. Fresh out of the hospital, excited to wear makeup again, I am flush with selfie-taking power. I feel beautiful. No one can take that away from me.
In the hospital, the girl behind me in the snack line says: “I bet you get real cute, get your eyebrows done, put makeup on and shit.”
Think immediately: “Is there something wrong with my eyebrows?”
So I mentally compare myself to every white woman I meet. Ones I see on the street. Rate them in order of thinness, whiteness, attractiveness. Wonder, would my boyfriend want to be with them more than he wants to be with me? I recognize that this thought pattern is unhealthy, yet I can’t stop myself from doing it. It’s a compulsion. It brings me a sick satisfaction. I am sick.
I read on Instagram: My intrusive thoughts have now become everyone’s problem because I have decided to turn them into art.
My psychiatric medication causes me to gain ten, then twenty pounds. It happens slowly, and coincides with the pandemic. My boyfriend, who I have only seen twice in a year and a half (we are long distance) insists I look the same. I tell him he’s just forgotten what my body looks like.
I have forgotten what my body looks like.
Out of the hospital, some things don’t line up. Wearing shoes feels weird. I am in love with using my computer. When I turned my phone back on after six days of radio silence, I had thirty-eight missed text messages. I respond to each one slowly, taking my time, letting people know I am still alive. One message, to my boyfriend (who wasn’t yet my boyfriend), reads: “Guess where I’ve been?”
Every time B says he loves me, I compulsively ask him: “is something wrong?”
Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. My psychiatrist tells me things will not always be easy. I ask him if things will always be this hard. Two years later, crushed by depression on all sides and listening to my boyfriend obsessively talk about suicide, I plot my life in terms of warning signs. Cut here, says the instructions on the piece of furniture I assemble for my new apartment. I wish people came with packing instructions.
Post on my Instagram story: “Does my fat ass make my ass look fat?”
B says that it is unethical to bring people into this world, and that the natural state of human existence is suffering. I know he believes this. “Might as well shoot yourself in the head with a Colt,” he says. I give him my personal philosophy: “I think we should just try to create as little misery as possible and try to do as much good as possible. Live our little lives, do our little jobs. My job is writer. I do my little job, and I live my little life with you, and I’m happy.
“That’s just my personal philosophy,” I tell him. “You don’t have to subscribe to it.”
“No, that makes a lot of sense,” he says.
In the hospital, they take everything away from you. Your phone, your clothes, your notebook with all your friends’ phone numbers meticulously written down in it, your books, everything that you could possibly want to hold onto. They took my rings, the ones I never take off. I had pale bands on my fingers from where they used to be. They didn’t take my bra, because it didn’t have an underwire in it. I wore the same underwear for three days, because it took them that long to clear my belongings through the system. There were no shower curtains, just mats that you could kind of pull closed so the nurses could still do their checks and make sure you hadn’t killed yourself in the fifteen minutes since the last check.
When you get out, they give everything back in a big paper bag. You put yourself back together, piece by piece. You put your clothes back on, your shoes. You piece your life back together. You’ve likely made a mess of it. They don’t help you with this part. It’s up to you to get back on your feet, and make yourself into the person you want to be. I’m still working on that part.
Examining my face in the mirror for signs of aging. Recently people have been accurately guessing my age. But the guy at the bodega, where I go to buy beer, tells me I look thirteen. Sixteen I could handle, but thirteen? I show him my ID, disgruntled. He can’t be more than nineteen. I stop going to this bodega.
Post on Instagram: What does the CDC recommend I do with all this ass?
I worry about things that are possible, but unlikely. Like someone pushing me off a subway platform. It could happen, but probably won’t. I worry about being struck by lightning twice. I tell my boyfriend he can’t kill himself, because I would never recover.
“I know,” he says, and he sounds resigned as he says it, like he was really planning on doing it, and I’m just this pesky thing that’s standing in his way. I’ll be as annoying as possible, if it keeps him going.
I’m desperate, but what I really am is desperate.
Now that I am better, people expect me to have learned something from my experience. I am supposed to have made conclusions and gotten life lessons. There’s this myth that going through trauma makes you a better person. This is not true. Sometimes trauma is just that—trauma. What I’ve learned from being hospitalized is that I really, really don’t like hospitals.
If you are still relatively lucid in the hospital, it is a very unpleasant place to be. Actually, even if you are not relatively lucid in the hospital, it is a very unpleasant place to be. No books unless someone brings them to you, and the TV only plays what the nurses deem “appropriate” content, which, for me, was many hours of local NY news, a succession of terribly boring movies, and once, fantastically, a whole day of Law And Order: SVU. I didn’t have any concept of time because there was only one analog clock and I can’t really read analog, being a Generation Z’er, and dinner was served at 4:30 p.m., completely messing up my sense of when evening was.
We paced the circular halls of the ward in between meals. “We’re like lions pacing between feedings,” F joked. I laughed at that, but there was some truth to it. Those of us who had our heads together sat in the dayroom and talked about our lives on the outside. Everyone wanted out. Out was like a drug, and we all wanted it. The only windows in the place stared out into an air shaft.
I still have nightmares that I am trapped in a confined space and I cannot get out. Hospital anxiety dreams. In these dreams, I am in long hallways and I run and run, but I can’t find the exit. I started having these dreams in the hospital. “I’m fine,” I tell the doctors over and over. “I don’t need to be here.” But they don’t listen. They keep me in cages. It’s been two years, and I still feel uncomfortable in doctor’s offices. I am still afraid that I will be caught, and they won’t let me go.
Anne Sexton, writing on her own hospitalization for Bipolar Disorder: “Once I was beautiful / Now I am myself.” I think of this line often during my stay.
I meet with a friend who I met on the ward for drinks a year after we are both released, and I tell him: “You’ve never seen what I really look like—you know, with makeup and real clothes on.”
“You mean you didn’t look your best while staying in a psychiatric hospital?” he jokes. “I’m shocked.”
People talk about their hospitalizations. No one ever talks about the after. The first time I was alone in my room again, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I got dressed. I went out for the night. I didn’t know how to be around people, didn’t know what to do with the beer in my hand. I had only been gone six days. Six days was long enough for me to completely forget how to function in normal society.
I learned to function again. The adjustment period was short. It felt normal again quickly. I flew to Scotland two weeks after I got out, then returned and started teaching undergraduate Creative Writing, went back to graduate school, and generally got back to the business of life. My undergraduate students had no idea that I had been on a psych ward less than a month prior. To them, I was their slightly off beat professor, prone to asking them questions like “Does truth exist?” and rousing them to debate. But it made the question: “How was your winter break?” a little awkward.
This is the after. Two years, a handful of medication changes, a new/old relationship, the support of family and friends, lots of therapy, writing every day and I am not the same person. I am not better in the sense that everything is great now. As my psychiatrist says, life is not always going to be easy. I’m better than I was. That’s all I can ask for.
So in the meantime I count the amount of times B says he loves me. I worry that he’ll find someone easier to love, easier to deal with, someone who doesn’t have so many skeletons stuffed in her closet. But he promises me that if I ever go to the dark place again, he’ll come down there with flashlights. He’s not the type of person who makes promises. And when he slips into a depression himself, I do everything in my power to keep his head above water, because that’s what best friends do. We make bad jokes over the phone and his laugh is the only thing I need in this life. If I could drink it I would. Bottle it up and sell it on the side of the road.
Seen on Instagram: I can live without you, but I’d rather not.
Joanna Acevedo (she/they) is the Pushcart nominated author of the poetry collection The Pathophysiology of Longing (Black Centipede Press, 2020) and the short story collection Unsaid Things (Flexible Press, 2021). Her work has been seen across the web and in print, including in Hobart Pulp, Digging Press, and the Write Launch. She reads poetry for Frontier Poetry, is a Guest Editor at the Masters Review, is Associate Poetry Editor at West Trade Review, and received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021. She is supported by Creatives Rebuild New York: Guaranteed Income For Artists.