14 April 2009

I See Math Problems Floating Around

Why, when I entered the mental hospital, did I finally feel sane?

I remember they took away my shoelaces. My favorite American Eagle sweater is now missing its hoodie drawstrings.

You can’t write with a pen. Here, use this, the nurse said.

I was sitting by the bay window after they had taken away all of my
shoelaces and various other objects deemed dangerous in my bag.

I looked down at the stubby pencil, missing an eraser, dull, rounded at the tip.

How am I supposed to write with this? I thought.

We can’t have erasers, a girl sitting by the other bay window said. See that boy over there?

She pointed to a boy, hunkered down into his knees, shaking his feet side to side, shuffling in place, curled into a ball.

He’s a burner. We used to have erasers until he decided to rub them
into his skin. Stupid. I don’t get it. Now I can’t fucking erase
anything. Hey. My names Sarah, by the way. What are you here for? Took
pills? You look like a pill taker, she said, smiling.

What am I here for?

No, no I’m here because I cut myself, I guess. I said.

You guess? Well, do you or not? I took a lot of pills, but you know,
that wasn’t the real problem, I mean, I just drink a lot. And don't
eat. Oh, I mean, I used to drink a lot. We have to practice seeing
ourselves as someone who doesn’t drink or whatever, she said, putting
ellipsis up around “used to” “doesn’t drink” and “whatever.”

Sighing, she stood up and walked down the hall into what I supposed was her room.

Keep the door open all the way, Sarah, said a nurse by the fichus.

Do I or not?

I looked down at my last effort. They had bandaged it when I checked
in. At this point, I’d usually take the band-aide off, keep it from

But I knew I had to keep it on.

What am I doing here?

At night, for an hour, family members could call us.

Hey sweetie. Is everything all right? My dad said into the phone.

Is everything all right? He knows he’s calling me at then mental hospital, right?

Hey. Well, I guess it’s getting better, I said.


My dad continued to make sounds….


I shifted from one foot to the other. My tennis shoes looked silly without shoestrings.

I just don’t understand why you’d want to hurt yourself, sweetie, he finally said.

Well, I said, why did you drink, Dad?

What do you mean?

Why did you drink, when you used to drink?

I didn’t expect a response, so into the silent pause, I continued.

It’s my coping mechanism, I said.

I see. Well, I’m glad you’re getting help.

Thanks, Dad.

Why are you smiling? The girl in the blue hoodie said later that night.

I don’t know, I said, looking up from my journal.

This isn’t the kind of place where people go around smiling, she said.

How old are you? I asked.

Eleven, why? She said, trying to look taller.

No reason, I said.

Why aren’t you in the adult program, she asked?

I don’t know. I’m seventeen. I guess you have to be eighteen to be in the adult program.

God. I know, I’ll be eighteen in two weeks. TWO WEEKS! And I’m stuck
here, said another girl who looked like she hadn’t washed her hair in a
while. She sat down next to us and started pulling out her hair. She
looked up again and said,

I mean, fuck. You know, they get to have smoke breaks and shit. I’m fucking dying for a smoke!

If I hear you curse again, Sarah, you’ll have to leave the common room! A nurse pointed her finger at Sarah and continued,

And stop pulling out your hair…I could write this down, and you know what that means.

The nurse spun around and walked toward the front desk.

Fuck, Sarah said, whispering.

What does that mean? What happens if she writes that down? I said.

It means, the eleven year old said, that she’ll get free time taken away and have to go an hour longer in therapy.

The food here blows, said Sarah.

Like you’d care! Said a boy, sitting down across from us.

Fuck off! Sarah yelled, throwing a pillow at him.

I noticed her frame was tiny.

I could break her in two, I thought. Suddenly, I had the urge to throw up.

The boy caught the pillow, laughed. He had burns spotted over his arms. He stood up, walked away.

What are you doing? Said the eleven year old.

Writing, I said.

I see things, she said.

You do?

Yeah. That’s why I’m here. I see math problems floating around. Give me a math problem! I’ll solve it!

I’m not very good at math, I said.

She’s fucking lying, said Sarah, still pulling at her hair. She’s just got behavioral problems.

The eleven year old looked down at her hands, picked up a pencil and started drawing on a piece of paper.

I can see things, she said, under her breath.

The calm came into the room like a buzzing hive. Around me, the lights
started going in and out, breathing like starfish and gold flakes,
coming down.

Perhaps I’m seeing things, I thought.

I wanted to tell her that I used to see things, too, but I caught myself.

You don’t say things like that in the hospital unless you want to stay longer.

Maybe I do want to stay longer, I thought, smiling.

Later that night, a nurse came in every hour to take my blood pressure.

It’s ok dear. I’m just checking in on you. We have to do this every hour. You’ll get used to it.

The light outside the window seemed neon. The cinder blocks poured into my eyes like a holding pattern.

The nurse took my blood. I watched in a sleepy daze as the red went up the wire.

I’ll only do this at the beginning of the night, she said.

Strange, I thought, that this is so comforting.

I wanted to cry because I was happy she was there, sitting by my bed.

I’m OK. I thought, and went back to sleep.

The showers were cold.

No hot water.

I have to stay here while you shower, said another nurse in the morning.

I’ll stand outside while you dress, she said.

I lied down on the tiles. The cold felt good.

The lines stretch on forever, I thought.

Later that morning, after cereal and orange juice,

No fucking coffee. No cigarettes and no coffee, said Sarah, her razored-hips pushing past me to the cafeteria table,

Later that morning, after cereal and orange juice,

Eleven year old sat next to me on the couch in the common room. We watched the adults stand outside on their cigarette breaks.

I see butterflies, too, she said, so quietly I could barely hear her.

I know, I said.

You see them, too?

No, I said, but that doesn’t mean you don’t.

She looked up, cheeks wet from the tears I didn’t notice.

I don’t want to leave, she said, grabbing hold of my hand.

Me either.

Later that week, at the family therapy session, before they let me go:

Shannon, what do you think you’ll be able to do now, instead of fall back on your old coping mechanism?

The therapist leaned back.

I listed off the usual responses, but secretly I had no idea.

What do you think you’ll do now?

Seven years ago, I would have gone into the bathroom and


Why do you hurt yourself?

Not that the lines go on forever, but that they don’t.

This morning, I woke up and held a pair of tweezers to my palm.

Pushed in.

No, read something, I said aloud to myself at 7 AM.

So, I chose Thomas Kempis:

“When you rise in the morning, think that you will not see evening; and
when evening comes, do not be too certain that you will rise in the
morning….Wise and blessed is he who, during life, strives to be what he
would like to be when death finds him.”

I got down on my hands. I breathed the carpet bugs into my lungs. I said:

No one is this blessed.

I thought about the girl in the hospital, seven years ago, who saw things.

Gather around her, I said. Gather the grass around her and be something solid.

I am something solid, I said, thanks to this.

I pointed into my chest, a pen.

I pointed it into my chest, just a bit more.

The tip almost called out to me.

It almost said, “stop!”

But I knew not to go too far.

I knew to feel through the spirit, not the body.


Why do you hurt yourself?

Sometimes, passing through me, a list of things.

And the lines go on forever.

That’s the point.

Forever, they go on, and through me.

I drove to campus and lost myself in worry.

Why haven’t I written anything?

I texted the man I've never met:

I see visions but don’t even know it.

What visions? He texted back.

Things like how I’m just a long line or how I want to kiss
girls legs or tell everyone I love them.

Too many trying to speak at
once, I texted, but I need one clear vision at a time. It gets jumbled.

Later, at work, while I’m writing about the mental hospital, I read from Dag Hammarskjold’s journal:

During a working day, which is real only in God, the only poetry which
can be real to you is the kind which makes you become real under God;
only then is the poetry real for YOU, the art true. You no longer have
time for—pastimes.

I feel separated, he texted again.

Visions are a licking of the tongue. Or something under the length of
how I feel, floating each morning toward the carpet bugs, singing in my
lungs as I kneel.

Do you see them, too? She asked.

No, I said. But that doesn’t mean you don’t.

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