There’s something frenetic about the exchanges mentally ill people have with each other. Talking to a fellow rehab inmate is like a first date in reverse— a kind of spiritual Benjamin Button-ing. You break the ice with your suicide attempts, past assaults, and $500,000 heroin overdoses, milking professions of love from each other with coke-talk abandon. Scratch an addict and every time, you’ll find the still-wet paint of incommunicable loneliness. The other patients in the facility almost frothed at the mouth with it. In the so-called “butt hut”— a Tiki-style, gender-segregated shelter shared by trick-turning heroin addicts and Quaalude-popping housewives alike— we smoked, swore and sweated out the sins too unpalatable for AA in the Sonoran desert heat.
“I was molested by my brother.” “My father called the police on me after I punched him in the face.” “I roofied a girl and found out she got raped later.” Followed by a shrug and a drag on one of two cigarettes that she flawlessly toggled between her lips.
Here, shame was the vein we probed and sincerity, the high we craved.
Romantic liaisons were frowned upon but expected, and in that vertiginous dimension that fell somewhere between interrogation room, church confessional, and Ayahuascan ritual, almost any interaction with another patient could feel sexual. It was easy to see which patients had paired off with each other— the sweet, guilelessly sexy heroin addict seemed a natural complement to the barefoot, lumbersexual, “gratefulrecovering” alcoholic. After listening to me read at the weekly talent show, my friend— a puckish Jew fond of origami—walked up to me and told me that if I weren’t a lesbian, he’d “fuck me for my poetry.” I suspect that, given the chance, a lot of us would have fucked each other for any number of reasons besides poetry. We weren’t thirsty for just alcohol.
I made friends with a queer alcoholic woman in her thirties named Lena who openly expressed her disapproval of “rehabcest,” as we called it. I felt no physical attraction to her— that was reserved for another patient named Helen, a perpetually tweaked-looking anorexic cum alcoholic.
I was drawn to Helen from the moment I met her. She reminded me of my first girl crush, with a kind of grey-scale, contusive beauty that cast a blush of pressed-flower whimsy on her eccentricities. A combination of benzos and anti-psychotics left her both lymphatic and bug-eyed, and she brushed her brilliant white teeth so often that the enamel on them had begun to recede. We had a lot in common: obsessive compulsive disorder, an aversion to social situations, a habit of eating leviathan salads to mask our eating disorders. It was from Helen that I learned how to fidget. I couldn’t tell if it was a holdover from her anorexia (to burn calories) or a complication from detox, but she just wouldn’t. Sit. Still. I picked up her fidgeting the way the other girls at the facility picked up smoking, thinking I could corner a little of her manic pixie dust by association. I thought I might have a chance with her until she met Keith, a gruff, knit hat-wearing Oakland native with a snuff habit and a fiancée with borderline personality disorder.
“You don’t seem borderline,” Keith remarked one afternoon, when we sneaked off to vape in a protective cove of jumping cacti off the athletic track. I shrugged, unsure myself, as I watched a fleet of gnats alight on one of my thighs, commando-ing their way through a thatch of hair I couldn’t quite manage to shave off with the regulation electric razors. He’d meant it as a compliment.
There was something between Lena and me, though. I’d never met anyone who was so free with her (external) scars: unlike other cutters, she refused to camouflage them with rungs of strategically layered bracelets. I’d never seen someone’s pain so clearly and matter-of-factly spelled out on her body. They had the musty dignity of restored antiquities: a cuneiform of trauma incised on the tablets of her forearms. We ate dinner together almost every night, and when I wasn’t shadowing Helen on one of her anorexia-fueled laps around the compound, I was watching the kaleidoscope of the desert sunset spin with Lena on the athletic track. It was like every Georgia O’Keeffe painting I had ever seen, pulsing with a psychedelia that recalled Bourbon Street on a Friday night. I thought that if I could be osmosed into that palette, a Brigadoon of sanity would await me on the other side.
On these walks, she told me about her father, who molested and abused her throughout her childhood, and the obliviousness or complicity of her mother, who walked in on them and never once mentioned it. I told Lena everything— about the ex-girlfriend who said she’d felt like she was raping me when we had sex, my intrusive thoughts, the guy at the strip club who had, in the same breath, touched me up and told me I was “better than that.”
But these moments certainly couldn’t compare with a trauma like Lena’s. I told her this. I also told my roommate, Jessica, a borderline 19-year-old with an evocative cast on her left wrist and a 24-hour nurse on her tail. Jessica was the real deal among borderlines: a rape victim, a cutter and an attempted suicide, and so it surprised me when she told me, “Pain is pain.”
“Yeah, you were abused,” Lena assured me. Abused, abused, abused, that meal ticket of a word— an antidote that, if imbibed too slowly, too reflectively, could turn on you and charge you with your own laundry list of evils.
Because of her scars, I believed her.
Some people like to anthropomorphize their mental illness. Often, colors are invoked. Winston Churchill famously referred to his depression as his “black dog.” Tennessee Williams, in The Night of the Iguana, calls it “the blue devil,” and Capote’s Holly Golightly, “the mean reds.” Others prefer to think of it as an abusive (that word again) live-in lover; still others, as a stray cat they can’t get rid of or an obnoxious relative overstaying his welcome. But really, its motivations are much more pedestrian: it just wants you dead, and the more insipid the method, the better. Mrs. Peacock in the billiard room with subpar nutritional habits; Colonel Mustard in the bedroom with neglected personal hygiene.
Sometimes it can be persuaded to make a kind of Scheherazadian exchange: if you throw up your dinner, you can live another night. But if it can’t kill you physically, it will settle for smoking your spirit out, filing your personhood down to scrap through the recital of mindless phrases— evil. Disgusting. You deserve to die. You fat bitch— and the endless performance of sinecures without purpose: cutting, restricting, vomiting. If repetition, as the poet Nikki Finney says, is holy, then the rites and mantras of depression are a sort of anti-prayer. The act of repeating them— rather than enduing them with meaning— erases it. We are the workhorse nuns to depression’s dumpy old pope, spending hours each day bleaching the crotches of his underpants and scrubbing the rings out of his collars.
So why was I in what more or less amounted to a mental institution— or, as my sister liked to call it, “Fancy-Ass Psycho Spa?” No psychotic meltdowns, no prior history of hospitalization. (Though it was true that this wasn’t my first rodeo. In 2012 I was effectively bullied into an outpatient program for five years of cyclical anorexia and bulimia.) I’d tried every SSRI under the sun, to no avail. So what was my damage? I had apparently agreed, in the fugue state of intake, to a round of psychological testing, but the findings were not quite as salacious as I had hoped. I tested out of the water for alcohol dependency, OCD, and major depression, but also scored reasonably high on the rubrics for avoidant personality disorder and dependent personality disorder, with— more intriguingly— a garnish of schizotypal and self-defeating (“masochistic,” as the psychiatrist explained rakishly) secondary traits. Though I had recently been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (otherwise known as “that thing Winona Ryder had in ‘Girl, Interrupted’), I scored only a modest eighty-or-so percent in the borderline department, which was further graded on a curve to reflect the mood that had prompted me to check myself into rehab in the first place. So apart from being a sad sack of a lush in her early twenties with an eccentric affect, misanthropic tendencies and a— possibly sexually exciting?— yen for self-sabotage, it seemed there was absolutely nothing wrong with me.
I also knew in my heart of hearts that— despite my dedication to my craft, or perhaps even the occasional flash of brilliance— I wasn’t a real alcoholic. I paid homage to alcoholism. I was the cruise ship pianist of self-destruction. It didn’t matter if I wore a hospital bracelet; they could sense my nouveau dysfunction from a mile away. Because I was cripplingly shy and smoked less than the other girls, I rapidly gained a reputation of being “sweet” among my fellow patients (or “clients,” as they insisted on calling us). I had never had a DUI, an overdose, or a liver condition. You find out early on in rehab that not all are created equal. Most of us spend at least a week in what’s known not-so-affectionately as The Tank, detoxing; I had stayed there only one night. All of this led to me feeling— if I’m going to be honest— a tad smug, like a person capable of writing some satirical, clinically self-aware piece of autobiography, breathlessly captioned A Memoir of Madness. I didn’t have to be a good crazy—I could just be a fun crazy, a clever crazy.
Pain, it seemed, was relative, and abuse was just a word.
One day a new ancillary— enigmatically titled “PAIN REGULATION”— appeared on my schedule. “Pain regulation” turned out to be a private meeting with Matt, the petite, one-earringed, entrepreneurial gay man who led a lecture series about the power of neuroplasticity (which ended, of course, with a product placement of his website and book). I never fail to find self-promotional types intriguing— I’m pathologically drawn to the vain and overconfident. For someone who often looks at people as Rubik’s cubes to solve, these are the true nine-by-nines.
First, Matt asked me to picture the Eiffel Tower. I did so, recalling the way it looked when I saw it up close on a study abroad excursion: ugly, Brobdingnagian, more exoskeletal than I had anticipated. “Now,” he said, “Is that the Eiffel Tower?”
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s try something else. I want you to picture your mother.”
Immediately I conjured up an impressionistic vision of my mother before her brain aneurysm in 2009: a floss of red hair, a whiff of her musky, nauseating perfume; the filmy, eye-popping blouses she wore to work, the rosacea on her cheeks. He asked me, again, if that was my mother, and once again I replied, “No.” Of course not. This pixelated graphic was a liberal interpretation of the text, a portrait of a woman who had ceased to exist the second she was wheeled into the ICU.
“Let’s try one more,” he said. “Now I want you to picture yourself.”
“Me” was a little more difficult— almost painful— to summon to the fore. I wasn’t so much a picture as a cat’s cradle of warped radio signals, constellating into a static of shameful memories and neuroses.
Matt asked— more gently this time— “Is that you?”
It was a neat gimmick. I’d already learned the game, but nonetheless, I was a little shocked.
My friend Millie surprised me with a copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This was as good as contraband in an inpatient facility like this one: we weren’t allowed to read any book that did not fall under the umbrella of a “recovery-related title,” and I was so starved for fiction that it might as well have been drugs.
The Secret Garden is, in many ways, an apt metaphor for “recovery” as an idea: a young boy is confined to bed for his whole life on the presumption that he will turn out to be humpbacked like his father. It soon becomes clear that his illness, powered by his father’s neglect, is more or less a product of his own imagination. Through a combination of the fresh English air, the company of friends and the “magic” of tending to a once-dormant garden, he’s restored completely to health: the Victorian iteration of take more vitamins and drink water and spend more time outdoors.
I say it’s an apt metaphor for recovery as an idea. Recovery is a druidic cult in and of itself, rattling its own pouch of dry pods in its wizened fist, insisting they can be planted in the ground and bear fruit one day if only you are patient enough, if you put in the work, if you can imagine a life worth living.
If only you were abused. If only you are a good crazy.
It’s strange to be what people call “out of the woods.” When I think of the woods, fairy tales come to mind. My favorite fairy tale archetype— incidentally artsy, millennial feminist that I am— is, of course, the witch. It used to be the closed door that brought the sorceress out of me: the secret rituals of my eating disorder, or sequestering myself in my room to write poems for hours. Being a witch is very much in vogue these days, especially among young queer women with mental illness. But it soon became clear to me as I neared the end that, in order to “get well,” it would be necessary for me to leave my little forest lair, my substrate of diagnoses winged to me by magpie psychiatrists.
What lies beyond the woods and the princely thrall of fairy tales? Reality: lacking the tincture of strange brews, splayed like a fallen giant. In the process of recovery, there may be some parts of yourself that you will never be able to recover; it’s less a question of salvaging what remains of the wrecked ship of yourself than it is of desperately hoarding the rations you will need to survive on the raft to “functional.” The desert island of “real life” to which you are rowing is one, at first, of such banality that it could knock the wind out of you: no hidey-holes, no psychic blanket forts, no secret potions brewed behind the bathroom door.
So I left rehab: that Seussian crucible where you are expected to tumble out the other side, hide branded with the Sneetch-stars of life lessons learned. My insurance only covered three weeks and though my parents would have footed the bill for another week, I declined the offer. I moved to Austin. My relationship with my sister fell apart. I switched apartments. I hopped from one dead-end entry-level job to the next. I crashed my car. I got a girlfriend. But mostly— for the first time— I started taking my meds.
There was the steep drop, and then there was … here. I had no recollection of how’d come to be here. Sanity, once within my grasp, felt like madness: the world was so sharply defined as to be almost cartoonish. My brain— old paper-pusher that it is— doesn’t get out much. One of the byproducts of having OCD is that life on the periphery of your myopic delusions seems endlessly new, putty-fresh and deliciously pliable. You spend so much time navigating that inner life-and-death landscape of trick locks, dead-end corridors and gnashing sprockets that you don’t see much of the world outside, which— thanks to the antipsychotics— now took on much severer dimensions. It reminded me of the summer I took mushrooms at a county fair and paid money to feed the butterflies in a traveling conservatory: their legs seemed long and black as cigarette holders. I could see all the way down to the bottom of a world that was suddenly as cool and clear as a glass of water, and this frightened as much as it thrilled me.
I had never felt such a thumbscrew clarity, not even while in the maenadic grip of the purest, vilest hangover. No— I didn’t feel it. I drank it, as it decanted off the tongue of some inexhaustibly drooling beast. My body opened for it like the mouth of a baby bird. Slowly, my antipsychotics crystallized around the burning house in my gut, snow-doming every thought and feeling in stillness. I could shake myself and impassively watch the “bad thoughts” fall like ash.
No one ever told you that being normal made you feel extraordinary— like an X-Man. The world, I thought giddily, nonsensically, is my meat market. I was as alive, as multi-dimensional as a twelve-pointed die rattling in a wooden cup, and all because of a pill with an absurd name that was so tiny I could swallow it without water.
But it’s too much, at times, to be asked to live in a world that never felt like yours in the first place.
I stopped taking my meds and once I did, depression was waiting for me; already it was oozing under my door, pooling around me the way nails pool around a handprint in a pin-art toy. Elastic deadness, I called it. But this time, I had no rags to plug the drafts. I tried, without much heart, to take up some of my old pastimes: binge-drinking, bad sex, puking up my dinner.
I am not a good crazy, and often I don’t take my meds.
But pain is pain.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about sane people, it’s that they love that quote by Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
This is the reality of madness they can accept: crazy people who can, and do, create or produce Things at the expense of their own lives. The Punch-and-Judy crazies. It’s not enough to make snow angels in the ash. They need to watch you burn.
I used to make such live theater of my life.
But these days, the witch takes her meds, and she says many dull and commonplace things. She says: Recovery isn’t linear. She says: Relapse is part of recovery. She says: The struggle is every day. These words do not foment with the same sort of delirious, invocative energy of the old chants: IdeservetodieIhatemyselfsomeonepleasekillme. Say those magic words and death will storm in guns a’blazing. Say: But-I’m-really-trying-to-work-on-myself-this-year–and-I-feel-like-I’ve-turned-a-corner–and-honestly-I’m-so-much-better-than-I-was
… and those hair-trigger spirits will fall silent; the hell-hounds that once panted for you will turn away, embarrassed.
I may no longer be burning a candle at both ends, but I’m still trapped inside the burning house.
“The only people for me are the mad ones…”
I’m still one of the mad ones, but I’m not for you. You can’t touch the flames licking the underside of my brand new skin. I am out of the woods.
Wellness is not the absence of crisis. The phrase pops into my head as I pace back and forth in front of my apartment, hyperventilating because even though I’m “better,” panic attacks are still part of my weekly routine. It has the vaguely suspect consonance of psychodrivel— the compulsively repeatable quality of a Neo-Wiccan spell-book. I enjoy its book-ended sibilants, its reverbs and tensions. I’m synesthetic, so it’s the sound and shape of the words that concern me— not their meaning. I’ve had to re-learn how to use words, like a stroke victim, kinesthetically: how to leach their essence through sensory experience. I suck the juice from them the way that, as a kid with mild pica, I greedily gummed the metallic tang from the monkey bars on the playground.
Wellness is not the absence of crisis. It’s a good line. It has the cadence of truth.
I have my own unorthodox methods for retaining sanity. One of them is to think of myself as a character in a southern Gothic novel: not loveable, perhaps, but viscerally compelling, like a scab or a flea. A cog in the wheel of redemption. Necessary. It’s easier to be necessary than loved.
That’s another good line.
But that’s what recovery is, isn’t it? A good line. So the witch takes her meds. She brews her potions. She hums spells from a different book— softly, under her breath, until they sound true.
by Kat Black
Kat Black taught English as a Second Language for two years in Shanghai, China, before leaving to pursue a Master’s in Journalism. Her work has appeared in the poetry journals Sinister Wisdom and Skin to Skin. After placing in the 2013 Robin Becker Chapbook Contest, her chapbook The Paper God was published in 2017 by Seven Kitchens Press. Originally from southern California, she currently lives in London, UK.
About the Artwork
The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.