A Former Gifted Kid Walks into a Psych Ward

The first time I noticed that something was wrong was in the middle of an Abnormal Psychology lecture. I found myself zoning out and fixating on the scraggly gray carpet. As mentions of acetylcholine and stress responses flew past my ears and through my fingers, all I could think of was how sharp the broken chair next to me looked. How warm my skin felt. How loud the traffic was outside. How apparent my inner monologue was becoming. 

I’m awfully observant today! I think as I waltz out of the lecture hall in a delusion. I took notes! I went to all 4 of my back-to-back classes today! Good job, Erin!  

It’s snowing, briefly. I place my ice-cold fingers into my pocket and struggle to put on a Cranberries song. I putter my way across the busy road and find myself lingering (haha) in the crosswalk for a little too long.  

That’s funny: free tuition, right? Can I calculate the velocity of that Ford Escape coming towards me at 45 miles per hour? How far would I fly? Seems like a problem I just saw in my math class. I still have math homework. I have a lot to do today. I should probably feed myself. I think I have rugby today. I miss my dad. I feel horrible. I feel wrong. Something is wrong. I am so flawed in so many ways that there is not enough paper in the world to tell you how much. I just- 

A frat boy in a hurry brake checks my shoulder and spills his coffee all over the median. Macchiato flows into my snow boots. “Shit. My bad,” he mumbles as he crushes his Starbucks cup into jumbled plastic. I smile at him. “All good,” I say. The coffee seeps into my shoes and I am catapulted back to where I am. The pavement looks awfully poetic today. Thank you, unidentified Sigma Chi, for a fantastic start to the afternoon. 

Wait: therapy first. Where am I going? Right. Elevator. Turn. Couch. Office. Door. Chair. Breathe. I’m a frequent flier in this office. I find shelter in the eucalyptus hurricane that stings your nose when you walk in and the plethora of feng-shui plants that glitter the office. The secretary knows me by name. I coop myself up here every Wednesday at 2:00pm.  

I swing my backpack off and look at the powdered sugar snow dazing across the window. Like flashcards, I study each car that goes by. They seem to go slower than normal. I have a test tomorrow. I miss my mom. I feel horrible. I shouldn’t feel horrible because people have it worse. I need to read 4 chapters for American Politics by tomorrow or I’ll fall behind. I don’t fall behind. I hear my therapist enter the room. She shuts the door and sits in the squishy chair parallel to mine. I sink into the leather and inhale. My gaze does not leave the snow. The cars. The noise.  

“How’s this week been?” my therapist asks, launching me out of my thought storm. She leans forward and her glasses slip down her forehead. I smirk a little and debate on being honest. 

Words fall out of my mouth. 

“But that’s normal, right?”s tumble out of my esophagus.  

“It’s okay, though, because…”s twist out of my lungs.  

I fixate on the sound of the cars and the lead of the pencil she’s holding.  

The chair is sharp. I am sharp. I am a pleasure to have in class. I never cut class.  

My therapist raises her eyebrows and begins to scribble faster than I’ve ever seen. The snowfall becomes angrier, and I feel my face burn. 

Why am I making her do her job? I’ve always prided myself on being a model client.   

I immediately begin to backtrack.  

“Well, I don’t really want to. My life is really good. I shouldn’t feel like that. I don’t feel like that, actually. I just think about the traffic a lot now, and I notice how sharp things are. It’s okay, though. I just do something else to ignore it. I’ll be fine—” 

“You gotta call your mom, Erin,” she interjects.  

In my head, I begin drafting an email to my Criminology professor sending my firmest apologies that I won’t be in lecture tomorrow.  

The second time I noticed that something was wrong was when I saw the back of the ER. It smells grossly sterile, with a swirl of latex and vodka-scented hand sanitizer greeting me as a blood pressure cuff squeezes onto my arm. Things feel muted. My stuffed animal hammerhead shark that I’ve had since I was 6 is glued to my hands that itch to move. I play guitar chords on his dorsal fin in an effort to shut up the music in my cerebral cortex: with every minute, it becomes increasingly more discordant. C major. E minor. F major. The ER nurse unwraps the blood pressure cuff from my arm.  

“How long have you been feeling these thoughts to harm yourself?” he asks me, his eyes darting quizzically.  

I notice a hole in my sweatpants and pick at it. I begin to make excuses. I hear myself say “a long time” and then I won’t shut up. I cringe at the fact that I’m troubling this emergency room doctor with my issues. Everything melts together, and the hospital mobilizes around me. An ER doctor takes away my shark and asks me to put the bracelets I wear every day into a manila envelope. He presents me with a pair of scrubs in my favorite color: orange, aggressive.  

This’ll really bring out my eyes, I think, as I give a half-hearted wave to my mom through the narrow glass window. Her face appears sullen and frightened. She had no idea. I had no idea. 

The adults talk and all I can think about is how badly I want my shark back. They lead me to a dark room lined with crunchy paper and what feels like 80 pairs of medical eyes watching me. I curl up on the bed and thank God when the nurse takes my blood. The needle stings: the sharp pain is a relief from the TV static floating through my body. I feel the monster in my brain smirk at a successful injury, and I see a drop of blood leak out of my skin. Vasculogenic formation is fascinating. When am I going to take my Abnormal Psych exam on the biology of the brain? 

We wait in this mesocosm for hours. I eat ice with my hands like a child in the nurse’s office. My grandma speaks in hushed tones to the ER doctor, who speaks in hushed tones back. Everyone watches me like I’m the new puppy on Christmas who’s about to take a fat bite of the couch. I am delusional with exhaustion and all I can think of is the hard plastic of my hospital band pressing on the veins of my wrist.  

I joke. No one laughs.  

Friends is on the TV. Phoebe Buffay and the 90’s audience behind the camera cackle loudly. My mom does not. Night continues and the world turns outside. The edge of the hospital band is sharp and I am reminded of its state with every second that passes.  

This feels nice. I’ve never seen Friends before. What do my friends think? 

States away, people I love are doing their homework in the library with empty coffee cups to their left. Sleeping next to their boyfriends as a YouTube video drones on the TV. Eating bad chicken nuggets from the dining hall. Double checking their phones. Pouring wine. Discussing. Sleeping. Waiting. Wondering.  

I read the back of a nitrile glove box and chew on my ice. The cold distracts me from the heat of my wrists and the burn of my thoughts. Paper crinkles under me and my every move is announced to the hallway. 

Erin, what are you doing here? People are dying. You don’t need to be here. You’re going to have so many missing assignments. Tell them you’re okay and go home.  

We continue to watch Friends for what feels like decades until a gentle voice tells me they’re ready for me to come upstairs. My mom squeezes my hand. I try to muster up a bit of a grin. Written in my teeth, the lines of my smile identical to hers, my dad’s nose, my dark circles, and my chapped lips are the words “I AM SO SORRY FOR DOING THIS TO YOU.” 

I am led away by two nurses who make small talk. One is a tall, large man wearing a scrub cap dancing with cartoon giraffes; the other is a tall, large woman with a teddy bear keychain hanging from her lanyard. My 5’11” self feels swamped by these two bodyguards. I shake my ice cup down the hallway.  I explain to them that I’m a psych major and they both smile.  

Maybe one day I’ll wear blue scrubs instead of orange. 

A woman down the hallway screams for pain meds, and we enter the fortress. The female nurse leads me to a small, dimly lit room where another medical professional greets me with a smile. As far as I’m concerned, we are the only ones awake in the entire world.  

“So, Erin, tell me what’s been going on,” she says. It is 3:35am. The door shuts behind me.  

That’s the question of the day, isn’t it? 

I catch myself grinning a bit in the reflection of the nurse’s computer. I am garbled, physically and emotionally. My hair is flying in 85 directions, and I can’t help but notice that the bags under my eyes seem far more purple than before. My pumpkin orange scrubs feel cold, unfamiliar. The chair I’m in feels cold, unfamiliar. My brain feels cold, unfamiliar. The nurse takes her ruby-painted pointer finger and slides a snack pack with hummus and pretzels across the table to me. From a tiny can, she fills a tiny cup with weakly fizzling ginger ale. She scoots it next to the pretzels, and the plastic makes an ugly squeak against the table. A peace offering.  

I don’t know where to start, and I hear myself begin to speak.  

“Umm… well, we went to New York City when I was in middle school. I was 12, I think. Yeah, that sounds right. It was the last big family vacation we had before my dad died. Yeah, I know. Thanks. He had cancer. I know. It was hard. Yeah. Umm. I had a panic attack there because I thought I was going to get kidnapped. I didn’t tell anyone, no. I started having panic attacks in high school. Well, formally. It was probably more like, uh, 6 years old. Yeah. I’ve always been worried. Depressed? I don’t know. Probably the same time. Got bad when my dad died, yeah. And then when my great uncle died. And then when my best friend in high school died in a car accident. Yeah, I know. It’s okay. You don’t have to apologize. I feel tired, that’s all. I just need to work harder. It’s just laziness. Yeah. It’s nothing that big, really. I’m tired all the time, and everyone hates me and I miss my parents and I will never succeed and my friends think I’m annoying and I think about cars and knives and love and essays and I feel and I feel and I feel and I feel and I feel and I feel and I feel…” 

My cup is empty. My face feels sticky from crying. The only thoughts I have are about my arteries and how disappointed my grandpa was when I got waitlisted at the University of Michigan.  

I mumble into my sleeve, “That was a lot. I’m sorry.” 

The nurse chuckles. “You’re on a psychiatric unit, honey. Nothing here is a lot.”  

She tosses my ginger ale cup into the trash to my right and begins to type on her computer. I notice that the door behind her is missing a doorknob, and that the pens in the cup beside her are made of bendy plastic.  

Everything here is soft. You’re being too soft. Tell her you’re fine to leave and that you were exaggerating. Get in the car. Take the shortcut back home. 

She begins to get up from the chair. “Let’s get you to bed. You’ve gone through a lot today. You’re safe. I promise.” she says.

Another nurse ushers me through another heavy door and into a darkened hallway. I hear soft beeps and the hum of fluorescent lights. As my vision adjusts, I see a quasi-living room tucked in front of a buzzing nurse’s station. Two women quietly laugh with each other as they flip through notes and adjust their stethoscopes. I see identical corridors running north and south down the unit. The nurse leads me to the right and squeaks a naked door open; a tiny room greets me. Thin linens, unbreakable. Bed corners, dull. Window, bright. Bathroom door, made of a velcroed gymnastics mat? A folder announcing TREATMENT PLAN, BREAKFAST MENU, GROUP SCHEDULE, PLEASE FILL OUT THIS FORM TO REQUEST A NICOTINE PATCH. Tiny soap. Tiny lotion. A pink plastic tub to replace my backpack. A red dollar-store notebook (purged of its metal spine, of course) to replace my computer. The nurse’s voice fades to a singsong, far away. 

“I’ll let you settle in.”  

I tuck myself into bed and stare at the ceiling. The room is quiet and loud. I think of my dorm room. Of the twisted pile of laundry I still have to do that is eating at the corner of my closet. Of how terrified my sister looked when I fought, flew, and froze in the doorway and insisted to our mom that I would not be okay if we didn’t go to the hospital now. How my grandma told me that I was blowing things out of proportion. Of how the knife block on the kitchen table behind her kept tapping me on the shoulder as she spoke. Of my how my dog knocked his head against my shins and curled up at my feet as I sobbed in my kitchen. Of the car ride. Of the assignments. Of how disappointed I was in myself and now I’m wearing scrubs and skipping class and giving up and taking the easy way out and I just wish I could 

I never slept well in hotels, anyway. 

I fade in and out of being. I stir as a soft knock bellows through the room. Another lieutenant in the horde of nurses pokes his head through the door.  

“Checks! Sorry if I startled you. Welcome. I’m just here to make sure you’re safe,” he whispers. He has kind eyes and is wearing green clogs. Despite the angry thoughts peppering my frontal cortex, I feel a twinge of calm for the first time in weeks. 

The first time I noticed that something was right was my first day on the unit. My body, still pouting about the time zone difference, barely awake and reeling with depression, lurched to the large shelf containing everyone’s breakfast. I filled out the menu late last night: and it showed. My plastic tray contained a charcuterie of cream cheese without an accompanying bagel, pineapple chunks, mystery yogurt, bare pancakes, a fried egg, 3 instant hot chocolate packets, and a singular piece of bacon. I smile a bit at the disarray and go to find a seat like I’m in a high school coming of age movie. I feel pairs of eyes on me. A manic pixie dream girl who’s got gross hair and an intense sense of self-hatred; I wonder what her story is? I silently chew on my bacon as the news rolls across the TV. My brain has not stopped its barrage.  

I see a figure approach me. I hear, “What’s your name?”  

A woman sits at my table and scoots her chair towards me. Her eyes dart in every direction and her collarbone is decorated with cursive. Anna, it says, in faded blue-black ink. Her hair is tied into a waterfalling bun, and she is wearing a I <3 NEW YORK hoodie. Her smile is warm, and I can tell she’s the mother hen of this disjointed group. More words fall out of my mouth. She tells me it’s her ninth time on the unit and that I can use her conditioner if I need. She points out the cast of orange-clad characters around us like she’s Damien in Mean Girls.  

A girl with bandages covering the length of her wrists pushes a blue crayon into a coloring book and picks at a piece of toast. An old man, balding, furiously scribbles in a notebook with the wires ripped out. He seems to be writing at 250 words per minute, and a crumble of paper linings begins to accumulate next to his untouched cereal. A woman my mom’s age sits crisscross applesauce in her chair and is doing a puzzle with a guy my age, who is demolishing his omelet and collecting corner pieces. A man with shoulder length hair in the corner silently eats an apple.  

We all wear the same scrubs and I still feel out of place. I look at the clock on the wall and picture what class I should be in at this moment.  

My new friend senses my discomfort. She floats over to a large bin, filled with broken crayons, and surveys a stack of papers to its right. She bites her lip pensively and plucks a page out. Explosively, she grabs a fistful of crayons from the bin, sending a broken cerulean vaulting under the TV stand and a dandelion yellow dangerously close to her coffee cup. She presents me with her spoils: now sitting next to my breakfast tray is a cartoon turkey juxtaposed with inflated letters: GIVE THANKS! 

She stirs a fourth sugar into her coffee and sighs. “Kid, you’re going places. Heal yourself now, though, and get the fuck back to changing the world.” I smirk a little into my orange juice and thank her.  

I watch the news. 55 and sunny today. Gusts are up to 3mph; a mild day, perfect for a walk downtown or a visit to the park…  

The hospital band on my wrist still announces its presence to every millisecond of my cognition. Every soft corner, unbreakable object, shoe with removed laces, and chair with a rocking bottom seems like a challenge. I try to focus on the weather instead of the cranial poison reverberating in my skull. Reluctantly, I begin to outline the grinning turkey in front of me with a disintegrating orange crayon. I find myself coloring for an hour straight.  

The morning is presidential, in a way. I am ushered in and out of rooms, introducing myself and my issues to what feels like thousands. They give me knowing smiles and tell me that I need to stop being so hard on myself. That’s why I’m wearing grippy socks, Janice. One social worker leads me to a windowed meeting space, closes the door, and says four words:  

“Why are you here?”  

She has incredibly gentle eyes, neat braids that flow down her back, and she smells like my therapist’s office. My stream of consciousness falls to the floor.  

1. I am overreacting but  

2. I feel like I want to die. Sometimes. A lot. However,  

3. I have to stay on top of my schedule, so I get into grad school and  

4. That’s why I had a panic attack when I got a B on that test because 

5. Falling behind is unacceptable and I need to stop being dramatic. That being said,  

6. My wrists are warm, and my dad died on Father’s Day.  

She begins to write. She stops abruptly, puts her pen down, and shuts her notebook. 

“Honey, you know exactly what’s going on. You’ve pushed yourself to your limit,” she says, leaning forward. “You’re here for a reason: to get better. You’ve gone through a lot, and it shows. You’ve been doing a great job, but you finally prioritized YOU over everything else. And you’re still doing a great job. Why do you keep contradicting yourself? It’s your life, sweetheart. Also, Bs will get you into grad school. Trust me.” She sits back up. She pens a few notes.  

I pause and gaze at the sun rays blaring through the window. I see cars on the highway outside, gliding along the interstate on the route I took every day in high school. Their automotive breath wafts behind them and enters the ozone layer.  

In this moment, I feel the hand belonging to 15 years of private catholic education begin to loosen its grip from my temporal lobe.  

I am back in high school. My plaid skirt is splotched with tears and my hair is knotted. An ugly pile of eraser shavings litters my desk and obscures a paper entitled IB MATHEMATICS: INTERNAL ASSESSMENT. I hear my grandparents discussing me through the air vents while I careen myself into a panic disorder.  

“The cousins got into Boston College. Why doesn’t she try to go somewhere better?” 

“She should be pursuing medicine.”  

“She should’ve gotten into Michigan.” 

A ribbon of fire settles at the bottom of my diaphragm and my vision blurs. My stomach threatens to spill its entire contents and I think about the first time I saw my dad cry. I pound the desk as hard as I can. A guttural sound leaves my throat as I collapse onto my paper, sending eraser shavings and bits of pencil lead jumping onto the floor. Air fails my lungs. I hate it I hate them I hate you I hate me I wish I could just  

I put myself onto the ground and wail like a child. The room crashes around me in the style of 12-point font, Times New Roman, double-spaced. My mom comes in and scoops my head into her lap.  

I cried for hours. I didn’t eat for two days. It was because I got a B on a paper.  

It’s your life, sweetheart.   

“I guess I never thought of that before.” I hear myself say, tears springing to my eyes.  

For the first time in months, they are not sad.  

We discuss my future, short and long term. I tell her about my aspirations and the way that I like to cook my eggs. I cry about my sisters. My mom. My brother. The fact that I cannot save them. A Bob’s Burgers episode I watched last week that made me laugh. How that same day I didn’t get out of bed until the sun had gone down. What my aunt said to me yesterday.  

“Your dad didn’t have a choice, and you do. You need to stay alive for him.”   

How fucking angry that made me feel. How badly, in that moment, I wanted to do it to prove a point. How I think it’s funny that I live in Wisconsin now. That Who’s on Third has the best cheese curds in Milwaukee, as far as I’m concerned. When I found out my friend died in a car crash. The way that I screamed until my voice was gone and how my sister brought me a Gatorade after. How I never learned to French braid. A paper I wrote in Developmental Psychology. How I like to play guitar and taught myself freshman year of high school. How I think I suck at it, though. Religion. Politics. God. Love. I spill my guts out onto the floor in front of this social worker. She picks them up and tucks them into her pocket. She tells me that she’s excited to speak to me again. She leaves. 

Through the window, the hospital presents me with a concrete parking lot. I turn around and shut the door, much to the dismay of the hospital band pressing against my cephalic veins. 

I wander for a bit and decide to take a shower. I stroll back to my room and shut myself in my soft bathroom. I fold my scrubs, place them neatly onto the floor, and glance at the most confusing showerhead I’ve ever seen. I frown. A week ago, my biggest concern was my internship. A week later, I can’t figure out how to turn on a stupid anti-suicide shower. I mess with it for a bit and ice-cold water thunders out of the wall. I step under the flow and freeze my skin. It feels nice, in a twisted way. My teeth chatter and I chuckle to myself.  

Where even am I right now? 

Afterward, I curl up on my tiny bed in my tiny room, tinying myself. My hair is wet from the shower and feels coarse. I struggle to keep my soft red notebook open; water drops dangle from my curls and onto the paper. They blur the ink. My most recent entry now reads “Bs will get you into grape school.” I scribble thoughts and anger and poetry for the rest of the day. I eat my dinner in silence while I vomit my brain onto notebook paper. I fall asleep with my journal smashed against my face. 

The next day, I eat breakfast. I take a nap. I put my flannel on and enter the common room. I eat lunch with new friends. We compare ex-boyfriends. I color. I take another nap. It is methodical. 

9-9:50, Police & Society. 10-10:50, Nature of Mathematics. 11-11:50, American Politics. 12-12:50, Abnormal Psychology.  

I do a puzzle. I take another nap because I can. I enter the common room. I call my mom, and her voice on the other line sounds exhausted. I tell her the food here isn’t bad. I tell her I think I’m fitting in. After we talk and the phone line goes dead, I try to send her a message telepathically: I’m sorry. I love you. The coat of guilt I wear is incredibly heavy, pressing against every inch of my skin. 

I go to group therapy, and we play the Wordle. An amalgam of individuals, all wearing orange, put away their suicidal ideations for 10 minutes and dissolve into an English practicum.  

“It can’t be TOUGH. It was TOUGH the other day. Also, we don’t have those vowels.” 

“I still think it’s SMART.” 

“Dude, where the fuck did you get SMART from?” 

“Try NEVER.” 

“We can’t put E there. It’s yellow up there, see?” 

“This shit’s crazy, dude! I can’t want to do this when I get out of here.”  

“Have we tried anything with an H?” 

The room erupts in cheers when we get it on the last guess; ironically enough for me, the word is DRIVE.  

A piece of pizza from the dining hall. Therapy 2-3.  

I reenter the common room. The balding cereal man is watching Jurassic Park, which I feel is an interesting movie choice for a psychiatric unit. His writing thunderstorm has slowed to a soft rain, and his glasses are balanced precariously on the top of his head. His legs are crossed; as dinosaurs scream on the television, he is serene. I ask him what he’s writing. He glances up at me and places his thumb into his notebook, shutting it quietly. “Gargoyles are real, and I’m going to prove it to everyone,” he says.  

I spend the rest of the afternoon coloring turkeys and listening to his cognition. As he scribbles his manifesto, I hear about the time he did LSD in Canada and saw billions of ants in his driveway. About his wife who passed away who he sees in robins and Lou Reed records. About how he thinks organized religion is horseshit, but how Jesus is his best friend. About how his favorite dessert is chocolate pudding because he can feel every bite.  

Library from 3-6:30. 

I am in awe of him. I listen to him until the dinner cart is rolled into our space. I laugh with the others over lukewarm hospital pizza, and we gossip like we’re children at summer camp. We have chocolate pudding and exchange favorite songs. We discuss discharge dates and who we miss outside. Characters trickle back into their rooms as the sun dips, and I color for another hour.  

Work from 6:30-9:30. 

I realize that I feel present for the first time in five years. 

Maybe I will be home for Thanksgiving. 

The second time I noticed that something was right was when my psychiatrist entered my room for the first time. It is my third morning on the ward, and I had just finished breakfast. I am coloring a paper full of swirls for a new friend, and a cup of orange juice is dangerously balanced in between my legs. With every spiral and crayon that I pick up, I continue to ponder the epithelial layer of my wrists.   

“Ms. Erin?” he says, his voice lilting with a slight Indian accent. He has incredibly kind eyes, brown in the same shade as my dad’s. He is holding a tiny cup with a small blue pill in it. I didn’t hear him come in, and his voice startles me so bad that juice flies across the room. It lands into my Crocs. 

“Shit. My bad.” I say as my face flushes. I remember the frat boy on Wisconsin Avenue. I pray to God that the psychiatrist doesn’t find a single DSM-5 criterion in the growing citrus puddle. 

He smiles. “All good.” 

He explains that they’re switching my meds, and that the ‘unknown anxiety disorder’ that my first therapist diagnosed me with was, actually, four different disorders.  

It’s real. 

I set my crayon, apricot and peeling at the sides, onto the bed.  

I feel a surge of relief, nausea, suicide, and happiness.  

You weren’t making it up.  

“You are showing acute symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder…”  

8 years old, 4th grade. I am in the far stall of the bathroom in the gym hallway. My feet are perched on the toilet seat, and I am shaking. Tears and sweat drench my shirt. My heartbeat is crazed. While playing dodgeball in gym class, I convinced myself that my house had burned down with my entire family in it. I run to the nurse’s office and tell her that my stomach hurts. She does not understand why I am crying so hard.  

10 years old, 6th grade. I am at home, sobbing silently at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night. I watch my dad’s oxygen machine and hold my breath along with it. I obsessively count each inhale and exhale. I tell myself that if I do not watch it, it will shut off. His life is in my hands, and I do not sleep the entire night. I do not understand why I am crying so hard.  

“as well as major depressive disorder…”  

13 years old, 8th grade. I am in the parking lot of St. John XXIII. I am screaming, sobbing. My uncles clasp my shoulders. The hearse carrying my father is disappearing down the highway and I scream until I can no longer see it. As I crumple onto the pavement, I wonder who will walk me down the aisle. It was a beautiful day outside, and I could not feel.  

17 years old, 11th grade. I am walking into the sanctuary of a funeral home. I am dry heaving, sobbing. My friends clasp my shoulders and I clasp theirs. Our best friend is at the front of the room, surrounded by flowers, in a permanent exhale. She is wearing bracelets that we all made together. Her mom sits at the back of the room, crumpled in silence. It was a beautiful day outside, and I could not feel.  

“and posttraumatic stress disorder.”  

I am clutching my dad’s cold hands. It is 3 in the morning, and my mom is on the phone with the paramedics. I see his claddagh ring embracing his right ring finger in a hug and I realize that things will never be normal again. It is Father’s Day. 

I am holding my phone. It is 3 in the afternoon, and my mom is on the phone with my best friends’ moms. I see my dad’s claddagh ring embracing my right ring finger in a hug and I hear the words “There’s been an accident.” It is Earth Day.  

I am in a funeral home, three times over.  

I am in a hospital, three times over.  

“Oh, okay.” I hear myself say. “Bummer.”  

The psychiatrist laughs. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard a response like that!” He begins to explain dosages, side effects, and when I should take my meds.  

I take the blue pill with a sip of water. The psychiatrist gives me a thumbs up and leaves the room. Upon the click of the door, silence permeates the room. 

Within every gyrus and sulcus in my brain, something settles.  

I hear my abnormal psychology teacher’s voice echoing: It takes around 5 to 8 weeks to feel the full effects of any psychotropic medication.  

“You’re overreacting, again.” the right side of my brain announces. “Medications won’t change the fact that people hate you. You’re not trying hard enough.” It picks up its phone to send another pissed off text to the veins in my forearms.  

The left side of my brain crosses its legs and sighs. It responds, “Who told you that?” 

My cerebellum cocks its head like a dog hearing the word W-A-L-K.  

“We can do that?” it questions. 

“I never thought of it that way,” says my reticular formation, sipping its coffee.  

I finish coloring the last swirl. A tear rolls down my face. 

I sign the bottom of the page: ERIN WAS HERE. 

After group and dinner, for the second and last time that week, the social worker with braids ushers me into the windowed meeting room. She is smiling. “You’re doing better. I can tell,” she says. I smile back, and it’s genuine. For the last 72 hours, I surrounded myself with Crayola, words, and softness. I experienced the first real break of my entire life. With each upwards scrunch of my face, my amygdala lights in a way that silences the cars, the flashcards, the college decisions, and my bloodstream. As I glance again to the parking lot, I think about what I will write my final American Politics paper on. The thought does not gnaw, but leaps into my lap like a kitten. It is a feeling that is foreign but beautiful. The car I picture is not flying towards me down Wisconsin Avenue. It slows down, picks me up, and brings me to my childhood best friend’s house.  

“I think you’re on track to go home tomorrow, Erin.” the social worker says.  

As she rises to leave, she gives me one last look.  

“I’m proud of you.”  

That night, I wake to screaming and banging on the wall, something to the tune of: 

GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE NOW I WILL BASH MY HEAD AGAINST THIS FUCKING WINDOW IF YOU DON’T GIVE ME SOMETHING TO SLEEP FUCK YOU BITCH I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL KILL MYSELF RIGHT NOW IF YOU KEEP TALKING TO ME 

I see swifts of movement outside of my door. A woman with wide eyes is being escorted down the hallway by the same nurses who welcomed me to the unit. The teddy bear keychain on the woman nurse’s lanyard swings wildly as she struggles to stay upright. The agitated woman drops her shoulder rugby-style into my door and slams her hand on the window. Our eyes meet and she screams again. She rapidly disappears. Her protests echo throughout the hallway until there is sickly silence. My shoulders are hunched, and I am a statue.  

My roommate, who arrived in the evening, pokes her head out of the covers and swings herself to a sitting position.  

“You okay, sweetheart?” she whispers. She sounds like my mom.  

“Been better.” I whisper back. The nurse with green clogs comes in to check on us, and leaves in a hurry. My heart continues to beat through my ribcage. In a circle around my bed, every person who’s ever raised their voice at me peers into my widened pupils. I begin to spiral again. 

You can’t leave Write a 250 word reflection in response to Plath’s Lady Lazarus by 11:59pm on November 27th You can’t go back you won’t make it give up There are too many cars There’s been an accident Read Chapters 6-7 and make 5 comments Things are unsafe They don’t care You don’t care you suck Too sharp it’s not going to get better you won’t make it Everything is too hard I’m just tired Complete modules 3-5 online and read pages 230-345 I am made of love but too much of it–  

I catapult myself off the bed and beeline to the door. I trip a little as my socks stick to the floor, and my cardiovascular system throws itself into an ugly overdrive. My lungs are concrete. Bouncing in my skull are the woman’s screams. The chair in my lecture hall. My sister. Every “We regret to inform you”.  

I creak the door open as my skin radiates. I linger at the spot where the woman was: a slight handprint is etched upon the window of my door. My blood rushes and I feel sick. The hum of the fluorescents matches the hum of my negative cognitions and I trickle over to the nurse’s station in a hazy stumble.  

The two nurses who laughed over paperwork on the day of my arrival sit in the same chairs and point at a dimly lit phone. The one on the left clasps her hand over her mouth, shaking with laughter. The one on the right rubs her eyes and whispers something else into her colleague’s ear: they rock their heads backwards and hit each other amidst silent hysterics. As I shuffle toward them, I feel bad for interrupting the fun. They see me: their faces become serious. 

“You doing alright, sweetheart?” the one on the left says, swiftly putting her phone away. I feel like a four-year-old, post-nightmare, perched at the foot of her parents’ bed.  

“She was yelling,” I squeak out. “I think I’m having a panic attack?”  

I gasp, and the last part of my sentence is sucked back into my esophagus. I put myself onto the ground to prevent the roof from caving in. The air around me is thick and I feel as if I am inhaling tomato soup instead of oxygen. My head pounds. I slam my hands against my eyes to stop them from welling with inadvertent tears.  

“Sorry.” I choke out as water streams down my face.  

“Oh, honey,” I hear from a voice that seems miles away. I feel like a tornado, chained to the cold corridor floor.  

The on-the-left nurse approaches me with a tiny cup of water. Her lanyards clank together as she sits down next to me in crisscross applesauce. She folds her hands onto her lap. 

“Breathe, love.” she says. “That was really scary, right? It’s okay to feel scared. You’re safe. I’m here for you. Breathe, breathe, breathe.” She scoots the water cup towards my socked foot. She takes a long inhale.  

“Listen to my breath,” she whispers. My integumentary system feels too hot, and I claw at my face to stop the tears from leaking out of my eyes. I try to follow her breath, and my every exhale is a geriatric rattle. Everything is seismic, and I shut my eyes as hard as I can to throw myself back to Earth. I clasp my scrub pants. The nurse continues to breathe with me.  

Minutes pass. The heat becomes cold. Hell freezes over, and a sinking feeling of disappointment flows through my blood.  

“I was going to go home tomorrow,” I say, quietly. I pinch the cup near my knee, raise it to my lips, and take a sip.  

Way to go, Erin. 

I picture my family at Thanksgiving dinner. They circle the dinner table, chatting politely and feuding over who’s going to split the wishbone. The air outside is crisp and refreshing, and the leaves from our oak trees litter the yard. My uncles laugh, and the noise booms throughout the room. Wine flows. Mashed potatoes are dropped onto the ground, accompanied by “NO! PICK THAT UP!”s and two Shih Tzus brawling to grab a bite. Everything appears normal; my mom stares at an empty chair across from her.  

It takes around 5 to 8 weeks to feel the full effects of any psychotropic medication. 

I stare at the floor.  

“Erin, love, your discharge papers were already signed,” the nurse says. “Your last report of wanting to harm yourself was two days ago, right? You’ve got new meds. New perspective. A treatment plan. People you love waiting for you to come home. A want to get better that you’ve SHOWN, love. Having a panic attack because some lady tried to break into your room is valid. Things happen, honey. You’re going to see your mom tomorrow. Breathe.”  

We sit on the ground for another 5 minutes. I make polite conversation. She indulges me.  

Once I feel the firefighters in my respiratory system finally peeling away from the block, post-extinguishing, I begin to stand up.  

“Thank you,” I say. My voice had returned.  

“Have a good night, Erin,” the nurse says, returning to her post beside on-the-right nurse. As I refill my water cup, I see her take out her phone again and slide it over to her coworker, who covers her mouth as a grin spills onto her face. I smile, too. Though my face feels crusty and my head hurts, it’s genuine. 

The next morning feels like the last day of school before summer. I wake up with a foreign feeling in my stomach and my frontal lobe: joy.  

My plastic breakfast tray, emblazoned with plastic wrap and my NAME/DOB, looks quite different than it did 3 mornings ago: instead of a cacophony of condiments and bread, it now contains a box of Cheerios (teeny-tiny, no sharp edges), a carton of milk (elementary-style with a smiling cow on the side), a bowl of pineapple chunks (which, randomly, became a quick favorite after it appeared with my first meal), a bagel (remembered, this time around) and cream cheese (with a partner, this time around). I savor every bite and don’t think of the blood beneath my skin. 

The girl with bandages on her wrists now sits to my left. She is pouring creamer into her coffee and laughing at the woman with the collarbone tattoo, who just spilled yogurt down the front of her shirt. 

The balding old man, still writing at 100 miles per hour, questions me about my knowledge of 80s alternative rock, socialism, and quantum physics over a banana and orange juice. 

The woman, my mom’s age, starts a new puzzle with the guy my age, who continues to eat his eggs like it’s his last meal on earth.  

The man with shoulder length hair, sitting slightly closer, silently eats an apple.  

We all wear orange. Around that mismatch of a breakfast table, I feel like I belong.  

Is it messed up that I’m going to miss it here?  

I attend my last group. Our task is to write a list of 10 little things that we think are beautiful.  

10 GREAT THINGS 

  1. When I listen to Alison by Elvis Costello in the car with my mom, and how she always starts singing at the line “I’m not gonna get too sentimental like those other sticky valentines”. She always belts the rest of the song.  
  2. The gelato at Lollapalooza. 
  3. When my dad took me to see the first midnight screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. I was the youngest kid there by a landslide. It was a school night. 
  4. When the sun hits the clouds just right, and sun beams appear like it’s the final reckoning. It’s usually 2:30pm on a Tuesday.  
  5. When I met my college friends’ parents for the first time. We bonded over Dave Matthews Band. We all sang together. I realized, over tacos, that I would love these people for the rest of my life. 
  6. The art museum scene in Ferris Bueller. 
  7. When I was the next person in line to get my high school diploma. My hands shook and my teeth were chattering with how excited I was. It was electric.  
  8. The way that my elderly dog always sleeps at the foot of my bed when I come home from college. He waits at the top of the stairs if I am up late. 
  9. When we set off fireworks in my backyard on the night of my dad’s funeral. Every person I ever loved was there. It was the worst and best day of my life. 
  10. The phrase “I love you. I’m glad I exist.”  

I tuck this paper into the front of my red notebook, whose spine is now squished with wear and tear. As I exit the windowed meeting room for the last time, my favorite social worker approaches me. Her smile is wide. 

“You gotta call your mom, Erin,” she says. “Time for you to get out of here.” 

Everything blurs around me as I prepare to leave. I say goodbyes and hand out several of my finished coloring pages to new friends. I thank my nurses. I disassemble my tiny room. I slip the tiny toiletries into my scrub pockets and crumple my drawings, words, and cognitions into the plastic bag that they gave me upon arrival. They return my regular life to me in a manila envelope.  

As I turn to leave, pink plastic tub in hand, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It’s made of weird plastic, carnival funhouse-style, and it garbles my facial features as I walk by.  

My hair is still equally a mess as it was when I arrived. My dark circles are still, you guessed it, dark. My nose is my dad’s. My mouth is my own. I wave my hand in front of my reflection, which warps into the mirror. I am now all squiggles.  

I repeat this a few times and burst out laughing.   

Ok, so, let’s not do that. They might try to keep you for another week. 

The same two nurses who escorted me upstairs the first night approach my room. Teddy Bear Keychain grins and waves me over.  

“Ready?” 

“Yup.” 

We go through the heavy doors that greeted me, reeling with self-hatred, three days ago. We wind around a labyrinth of hallways and elevators and floors. My skin hums with excitement as we descend, further and further. With every step that I take, I feel myself getting closer to sunlight. My medulla oblongata cheers as I approach the waiting room.  

My mom is sitting on her phone playing Candy Crush.  

We lock eyes.  

I’m sorry. I love you. 

I run and hug her tighter than ever before. We sway for what feels like hours and crunch each other’s ribs. The relief is contagious, and I admire her. Her eyes are filled with strength and instant coffee. The nurses voice their goodbyes and depart. 

My mom takes my hand and interlocks her fingers with mine. She leads me towards the automatic doors like it’s my first day of kindergarten. She squeezes my palm rhythmically as we float past the rest of the hospital, which buzzes and beeps with excitement and concern.  

We approach the double doors and I step outside. I see the patch of grass that I threw up on in third grade after withdrawing from anesthesia, post-tonsil removal surgery. I am overjoyed to see rows and rows of cars. The pavement is welcoming. The concrete sings. I feel the sun permeate my skin barrier in a way I’ve never felt before. I feel, and I feel, and I feel. It is euphoric. 

As my mom and I meander our way through the parking lot, I become aware. 

I want to graduate. I want to spend my senior year drenched in beer and friends and research opportunities. I want an honors cord and late wine nights. I want to throw my graduation cap as high as I can on a beautiful day in May and hug my friends, who also made it. I want to move to the East Coast just because. I want my mom to see me get my master’s degree. I want to buy her a tiny house on a lake somewhere where the loudness of the world disappears into boat wakes and margaritas. I want to give her the peace she never got. I want her to breathe. I want my siblings to have their third sister. I want them to meet their soulmates and give embarrassing speeches at their weddings. I want to get my PhD. I want to help people for the rest of my life, on my own terms. I want to get another tattoo. I want to learn Polish. I want a decrepit looking dog whose tongue dangles out of the side of his mouth. I want him to adore me and no one else. I want to be loved by someone in the way that I love others. I want to meet the love of my life and kiss them in the middle of a snowstorm. I want to do all the puzzles in the world with them and slow dance in our kitchen in the middle of the night. I want a gigantic wedding whose afterparty is talked about for years to come. I want a daughter named Elenore. I want her middle name to be O’Neill, the same as mine. I want to watch her change the world. I want to teach my kids how to detangle their curls and to grow up knowing that they will always be loved. I want to own a house full of plants and friends and laughter and love. I want a huge backyard. I want a fat orange cat who curls up at the foot of my bed and is annoyed by my children. I want to watch my friends get married and sob my eyes out as they dance with their husbands and wives. I want to be a bridesmaid, ten times over. I want my friends’ kids to be my kids’ friends. I want to visit my daughter on Parent’s Weekend and tell her about our college house. I want to see her graduate and do it all over again. I want to write something that moves people. I want to learn ballroom dance. I want to take up oil painting. I want to start my own private practice. I want to get so old and wrinkly that people say “Wow, she’s really still kicking?” I want to spoil my grandchildren. I want to live in the Chicago suburbs with my best friends a fifteen-minute drive away and the love of my life three inches from my forehead. I want to kiss the Blarney Stone and scream from the side of an Irish mountainside: I AM ALIVE!!!!!!! 

I want to live.  

I will.


Erin Burke is a junior studying Psychology with minors in Criminology/Law Studies and Law and Society. This piece rose out of a very difficult time in her life while struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. A few months later, on the other side of rock bottom and in a medicated and much more stable outlook, she found myself itching to write about how she felt. It made her feel more real, and helped her to love both sides of herself: the hurting side and the healing side. Erin hopes you enjoy reading!