Trigger warning: This essay discusses suicidal ideation.
By Summer Krafft
He stood there, the oddness of a boy turned statue, at the end of the hallway. The light filtering through the window outlined his silhouette as he stared through the glass. It was the only window in the place.
Sometimes I say I don’t remember getting there, but it’s not true. What is true is that sometimes I cannot bear to tell it. The doctors said what they could to make it plain: suicidal ideations. They wanted it to seem as if I could explain my being there in two words, as if it were simple.
I think a better way of saying it is that I dreamt of making a blood masterpiece with the sharp kiss of knives against my snow skin. Which is another way of saying I already knew how to dry-swallow a handful of little chemical marbles. Which is another way of saying I was not afraid of drowning; it seemed just like the returning to a before-birth, to a time of not being.
I guess that’s how I got there, to Heritage Oaks Adolescent Psychiatric Facility. The place with the stark white walls and impossibly long hallway lined with doorways –no actual doors– two patients inside each of them, a large window overlooking a dumpster at the end. The place that smelled of Lysol, Jello, unwashed teens, and dried blood. The place where there was always someone crying or screaming or begging to go home, echoing like childhood lost. A place where I ended and began.
My memory of this place is anchored in the people: Maddy, who was fifteen and hospitalized there for her fourth suicide attempt. Elaine, the biggest and meanest twelve-year-old I’ve ever seen who just kept singing ‘This is the Song that Never Ends.” Xenia, who was both the prettiest and the saddest of all of us, who would sneak into the room of the boy who liked to punch holes in the walls. Stacey, my roommate, who stared at me while I tried to sleep and did not speak and had the habit of ripping off her bra and flinging it across the room when she got upset. Jason, who was there because his mother thought he was going to kill his sister. When I asked him if she was right, he gritted his teeth, jaw flexing like a small murder, averted his eyes, and shook his head no. I couldn’t tell if he was about to cry. I didn’t have the energy to be scared of him. I was there for my own momentum hurling me towards death. I was there because no one who loved me could trust me to be alone with my own hands.
I cannot remember a single moment from Heritage Oaks without one of the other patients in it. It’s as if I was never alone in that place –like I never changed or shit or showered. Which I know I did, but I cannot remember it. That probably had something to do with my five prescriptions doled out in little paper cups every morning and night: Seroquel XR, Cymbalta, Clonazepam, Abilify, and Atenolol. I didn’t actually agree to those either. I just didn’t have the energy to keep fighting.
The truth is I also truly never quite had it in me to destroy my mother with my own escape, which is why it never went past suicidal ideations to suicide attempt. I loved her too much to end her with ending myself, which is exactly what would have happened. I loved her enough to stay even when I didn’t love myself.
When the unit was in chaos, which it usually was, with someone screaming and someone punching walls and someone rocking back and forth in a ball on the floor and someone rubbing their tits on the cute male nurse and Stacey laughing hysterically, running up and down the hall, I would hum some pitchy tune like ‘Blue Moon’ to myself and whoever was near enough to me to hear it. That was usually Jason. They were sad songs, yes, melodies that sounded like eulogies, but he smiled. The only other music in that place was “This is the Song that Never Ends,” which had the power to push us all a little closer to suicide or multiple homicide. The nurses looked at me like I was some small miracle. I don’t know if they’d ever heard singing in that place before.
I cannot tell you the earthquake that happened in my gut when I watched Maddy collapse, nearer to the end of a self than anyone I’d ever seen, and a nurse stood by to make sure I did not hug her. I was not allowed to offer her that kind of comfort. She was crying like a child. So, I knelt next to the heap of her on the floor and hummed one of the tunes I knew she liked. It was something by Johnny Cash, the only sound I knew of for childhood. It’s amazing how quickly two broken girls can bond, and how strong that bond remains years after our separate healings.
Jason was the first patient to speak to me in the hospital. I had awoken out of my half-sleep to the wordless Stacey having flooded the floor of our room with the shower and then disappeared. I walked out into the hallway with my soggy-socked feet, not knowing where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do or how this had suddenly become my life. I walked down the hallway in the opposite direction of the window, and found what I would learn was called the ‘day room.’ It was lined with dingy chairs and couches and had a TV mounted on the wall, blaring VH1 music videos. When I walked in, I did not see anyone, so I just found a corner of a couch and curled up like an orphaned animal, waiting for someone to find me and tell me what was supposed to happen. I laid my head on the arm of the couch and closed my eyes.
“You’re new?” I heard from next to me, and looked over, startled, to see no one. Then I looked down, and saw a wisp of a boy lounging in a bean bag with his curly brown ponytail I hadn’t noticed was right next to the couch.
“Yeah,” was all I could manage.
“I’m Jason,” he said, and I stuck my hand out to shake his, offering my name in return. He flinched, the way I had never seen a boy flinch, and said “We’re not allowed to touch in here.”
I do not remember those five days in order. I don’t even know that I actually lived them as time naturally progresses, from morning to afternoon to evening to sleep. I can only tell you that the pills make everything feel like late night or early morning, a constant battle to keep your eyes open and keep your shit together so that, eventually, they’d let you out. My initial three day stay had already been extended to five.
I only know that on my fourth day, the evening before I was to be released back into the world and responsibility, I saw him. Jason. He stood there, the oddness of a boy turned statue, at the end of the hallway. The light filtering through the window outlined his silhouette as he stared through the glass. It was the only window in the place.
I was at the other end of the hallway, but I knew it was his anger that made him still. I also knew I was the only person there that he liked talking to –hard boys like that usually only soften for one reason. I walked to him, my socked feet padding all the way down the fake hardwood of the hallway. I reached him, finding his eyes unblinking, fixed on something outside and below the world of the hospital we were contained to. His jaw was clenched, the boy not having enough body fat to disguise the rigid muscle protruding. His hands were balled into fists, knuckles gone to white stones.
“Hey,” I said softly, edging my body close to his. I knew there were no nurses watching. He did not respond. Not even a twitch. Not even a blink. “Talk to me,” I whispered.
“I’m not human,” he managed. I knew very little of the boy’s story, but I believed he had just as much love in him as he had rage –like me. I reached my hand out, small and puffy and pale, always looking like a child’s, and took his. He furrowed his brow.
“Can you feel that?” I asked him. He looked at me, not understanding, but also no longer angry. “I’m human, right? And I’m touching you. If you can feel me, then you’re human too.” And I saw something switch in him. I had only meant to help him, to bring him out of his head and into a moment, but I felt something switch in me too. I hadn’t been touched by anyone but my mother, her hugging me like she was afraid it might be the last time on her half an hour weekend visitations. I could feel that she was afraid I would find a way to end in the place that was supposed to save me from that. But Jason was just as flawed as I was. When he looked at me, it was not with fear of what might live or want to die within me. With him, it was just skin on skin, not the skin of the supposedly-well against the skin of the ill. There is some small magic in rule breaking. There is some small magic in touch. There is some small magic in finding something that makes you want to be saved, even for a moment. In one of the biggest wounds of my life, it was a moment of this beauty: this boy, his hand.
Summer Krafft is a writer, performer, events coordinator, and arts educator findinding ways to heal through writing about love, rage, forgiveness, and the body.