“Let’s try again,” said the small, serious man beside you. His voice sounded kind – maybe too kind – as if he were making a special effort to protect your feelings. “How many weeks are there in a year?”
The consultation room felt empty, its only furnishings a wooden table, two chairs, and a dented, gray metal bookcase with well-worn magazines stacked on its shelves. An old-fashioned window with lead-lined panes let in dim light. Outside the glass, a thick safety-screen smudged the view of a hazy, late summer sky.
“Could I please have a minute to think about it?”
You moved your chair, straightened your hair, checked the pencil, looked out the window and around the room.
* * *
You had been at the Psychiatric Institute (“we call it PI,” a social worker explained) only a few weeks; your new ward was 6-South. This was the female serious-but-not-hopeless ward. If you had been hopeless, you would have been locked up on the eighth floor where they did drug experiments and lobotomies. Or they might have shipped you to one of the state hospitals, probably Rockland. According to patients who had relatives there, Rockland was huge, packed full of scary, truly crazy people, managed by mean, overworked nurses, and staffed by doctors who spoke only Romanian. Being shipped to Rockland was many patients’ worst fear. You had spent more than two years in a private hospital before the transfer to PI; for you, Rockland would be the end of the line. There were good reasons to be afraid.
6-South had all kinds of patients, none of them scary. There was a beautiful concert pianist, a woman who worked in publishing, and a stockbroker. There was a prostitute and an anesthesiologist. There was a nurse who became addicted from handling too many pills and a teenager whose parents were psychoanalysts. There were even identical twins who traded off which one was so sick she had to be hospitalized. They never came in at the same time.
A few patients were students like you, without jobs or careers. One had been in the honors program at her college and made perfect scores on her SATs. Another came from a special boarding school for gifted teens. You were twenty and hadn’t finished high school yet. You tried not to think about that.
* * *
Weeks in a year?
The room’s ceiling slipped lower; its walls began to shrink. You couldn’t take a deep breath. The buzzing in your ears grew louder. On borrowed time already, you couldn’t afford to blow it now. Psychological testing at the other hospital had gone all right. This shouldn’t have been so hard.
The psychologist’s round head and birdie face – shiny, dark eyes broadly spaced behind an elegant patrician nose – leaned over the collar of his white shirt, just above the knot of his thin, striped tie. Your eyes followed the tie’s pattern: against a sky blue background, delicate royal-blue lines ran beside broader burgundy ones as they emerged from beneath his collar and reappeared in a different direction on the front of the knot. You could imagine the path of those stripes where they looped inside the knot, before they appeared again, multiplying diagonally down the long ends that hung at the center edge of his shirt. The tie moved in and out with his breath.
He cleared his throat. Startled, you jerked upright in your chair and stared him straight in the eye, feigning poise, trying to remember where you were.
“Would you mind repeating that?” You prayed he hadn’t noticed your lapse.
“How many weeks are there in a year?” he said.
Weeks in a year . . . Weeks in a year? . . . Your muscles tightened. The room’s air thickened into fog, rank with the smell of unwashed crazies. Rockland loomed outside the door.
You’d have felt ashamed if you hadn’t been so desperate. The girl who less than three years earlier had been president of her high school’s National Honor Society now couldn’t say how many weeks were in a year. Come on! You pleaded with your brain. You have to know this.
You held your breath, your body absolutely still.
After several seconds, as if by a miracle, the fog lifted. A solution appeared before you. There were seven days in a week and three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. All you had to do was divide them and you’d get the weeks. Okay, so . . . seven into thirty-six goes five and uh . . .
* * *
You had spent a lot of time in institutions by then. From the beginning, when your parents first brought you to a psychiatric hospital as a desperate, suicidal teenager, the doctors decided you were schizophrenic. Despite your insisting that you weren’t mentally ill, and pleading with your parents not to leave you there, they admitted you. You did acknowledge deep sinfulness, a condition which called for your death, you explained, not hospitalization. No one tried to understand why you thought that way. It just proved their point: you were crazy.
In the hospital they started shock treatments right away. “It’s what we do for schizophrenia,” they said. Almost three years and countless shock treatments later, when you still hadn’t improved, they blamed stubbornness: you had resisted their treatment. You weren’t surprised when they gave up.
As it turned out, you got another chance. Your mother’s best friend from grammar school had become the Lt. Governor’s wife, so your parents were able to pull strings and have you transferred to P.I., a university hospital. “It’s good news,” they told you.
* * *
The tester looked bored. You were taking too long.
“Just a second,” you said, holding up a finger to say, Wait.
So then the seven goes into sixty-five . . . is it four? Okay, you had it. You puffed up a little in your chair. “There are fifty-four weeks in a year,” you announced quietly, although part of you wanted to shout it so loud your lungs would turn inside out.
The psychologist stared, eyes wide open over his beak, but without expression. He wrote down your answer as if nothing was wrong.
Good. That was close.
That night you cringed when your cubicle mate told you the answer was really fifty-two. After lights out you cried. You worried the psychologist thought you were stupid. Does that go with schizophrenia? Maybe you should have explained to him about the shock treatments – that it made people forget everything. Mental illness or lack of intelligence might not have been the main reason you answered wrong. But, it was too late for explanations, way too late. You were already twenty. Life was passing you by, and there was nothing you could do about it. Death may have been the best choice, after all.
* * *
Ensconced in my worn recliner in a corner of the den, I’m careful not to unsettle the purring calico cat draped across my forearms while I type therapy notes on my laptop. This used to be my son’s room. The floor’s jade green shag carpet has faded to dusty grass, but on a sunny day the Marimeko print curtains still glow as brightly as when I made them, almost thirty-five years ago. Psychology books and photos of grandchildren have replaced kites and model ships on the walls’ makeshift wooden shelves.
Writing about a young patient, suicidal with guilt from childhood abuse, takes me back to PI. I see you – alone, frightened, not knowing the answer. Why couldn’t someone have realized that your preoccupations with sinfulness and death were symptoms of molestation, not schizophrenia? We doctors understand that now.
Today, instead of narrowing for a sarcastic attack, my eyes fill with tears. I want to put my arms around you, hold you close. I let my head fall against the back of the chair; my breath stops. I’m remembering the terror: you were convinced that you’d be exiled to a dungeon forever.
In the end, no one shipped you to Rockland. You were discharged the day before you turned twenty-three. And life did carry you forward, if by an irregular route. There were many challenges: controlling your self-destructive impulses, for instance – no more scratching your face or bashing your head against walls, no burning holes in your arms and legs with cigarettes. There was getting into college, and pushing for that internship after graduate school. Sometimes you failed. Your first try was often rejected. But you – I – persisted. What those early psychiatrists condemned as stubbornness others praised as determination later.
Still, academic and professional accomplishments by themselves don’t undo that kind of profound emotional alienation from oneself. Moving from a separate you and me to I has taken decades.
* * *
Reaching for a tissue to wipe my cheeks, I disturb the cat. She gives me an injured look and stands as if to leave. “Please, don’t go,” I beg. “I’m sorry.” After a long, haughty pause she replants herself on my arms, then resumes purring. Tears flood my face and run down my chin.
* * *
I wish I could have comforted you with the forecast of a rich and satisfying life. I wish I could have assured you that you’d become a person you could accept, even take pride in, but I didn’t know it then. When I was young, I hated you. I blamed you for your secret shame and gloated when you failed. “You got what you deserved, bitch,” I said. “Miss Fancy Pants isn’t so smart after all.” It was less humiliating to gloat – to take charge of my denigration – than to feel terrified and powerless. I became a righteous judge, dispensing devastating judgements, because the alternative I feared was nonexistence – absolute nothingness.
I can’t say exactly when I allowed you into the space I considered me. It took years to feel secure enough to want to get to know you, then more time to appreciate you as a worthwhile part of who I am. Even with extensive psychotherapy, there were more instances than I could count when I had made it up the wobbly ladder from loathing or despair to within reach of forgiveness and understanding, only to find myself sliding downward, so I’d have to begin anew. Yet, I see now that as I climbed, and slid, and climbed again, hope was evolving into trust. Love takes longer.
Annita Sawyer is a psychologist in practice for over thirty years and a member of the clinical faculty at Yale. She has been a Wesleyan Writers Conference Fellow and a Bread Loaf Scholar. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, VCCA, Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale, and Hambidge Center for the Arts. Her nonfiction has appeared in professional and literary journals, won prizes, and been included among Notables in Best American Essays. Her first book, Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir, was selected by Lee Gutkind for the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards nonfiction grand prize and is forthcoming in June 2015.
Read an interview with Annita here.