from Promising Young Women
(forthcoming October 2012 from Dorothy, a publishing project)
You won’t believe me that there was a woman on the ward named Bliss, but it’s true. All of this is true. Anyway.
I knew I was not like the rest of them, not really, because I couldn’t stand pain. Like when I had my ears pierced and, in the middle of it, jumped out of the chair. The attendant had to redo the procedure so I ended up with two piercings, next to each other. Which I guess wasn’t so bad. But some of the other patients were scarred in a way I didn’t know you could be.
Self-Mutilation or Hurting Yourself or Cutting or whatever they call it now existed on a sort of hierarchical continuum across the ward. There were those who would never do it—could not even imagine it—who would look in judgment or disgust or disbelief at women like Liv, who was the ultimate Destroyer. (Though these same women might be anorexic or heroin-addicted. Still.) In between this sort of prudish type and Liv was just about everyone else. There were the Copycats, the Drama Queens, and the Destroyers.
Everyone went around checking out everyone else’s scars.
Destroyers were not slicing their arms or digging screws into their legs for attention. Destroyers were usually already pretty much dead inside and so the cuts were an attempt to feel something.
Dexter Silverman was obsessed with Destroyers.
Dexter Silverman was a tall, brooding, extremely handsome psychiatrist/playwright who visited the ward as a consultant, maybe one or two days a week.
The thing about Dexter: he was only interested in the most damaged among us. We knew this. He’d spend hours with Liv, or Emily, the literary southern belle with two graduate degrees and multiple personalities. Everyone watched Emily return from her sessions with Dexter, her face moving in all ways as she walked down the hall by his side (she had to be escorted everywhere), laughing and flirting. Emily told Rose that she adored Dexter, that they could talk about Milton and Wordsworth, and Rose listened and said it was nice they’d made a connection, but no one was really jealous because everyone knew that Dexter was using her as a case study for a character in one of his plays, which sure enough was produced Off-Broadway some years later.
I was pretty sure I’d rather be really dead than to be that kind of dead. I guess I was more like a Drama Queen though I wouldn’t admit it. Drama Queens could feel, but, as Roger liked to say, we felt too much. The world was too close was how Madeline put it.
“It is disgusting, that closeness,” Madeline said, one of her first days in. It made me like her, though I tried hard not to identify with any other patient. Especially the new ones.
Drama Queens weren’t regular cutters—they were mostly too vain and still too concerned with appearances (despite having landed in a psych ward) to get so disfigured. But they used it when they needed it. It was a sort of weapon they saved for a rainy day, for a moment. Drama Queens could cut till it hurt but they tended to do it not so that they could feel, but so they could stop feeling. It directed the attention, the focus, outward. They became the object, and that, as most people know, relieves subjectivity. At least for a little while it does. All eyes on the woman/the object/the scar. There’s comfort there.
Bliss Bowman was something of an aberration on the ward. Everything about Bliss Bowman was contained. She was perpetually tan and somehow always maintained her crisp short blond haircut. She wore tennis skirts and tight little sundresses that revealed thick tan legs, always punctuated by white Keds. She smoked Virginia Slims. She was from Greenwich; she would be sure to tell you. She would talk with the aides, and often laugh, but when she laughed her mouth only opened so far and the rest of her face didn’t move.
Copycats were not cutters at all. They were embarrassing really. Copycats were susceptible. Easily influenced. For them it came down to peer pressure. They wanted to fit in no matter what, even on a psych ward. Copycats were culture sluts Dread would say, soaking up the limited culture of our Hotel-on-the-Hudson. They’d take whatever drugs were offered, exhibit whatever pathologies seemed appropriate. They admired the Destroyers—so full up as they were with various forms of self-loathing—but really deep down they didn’t want to be destroyed. What they really wished was to be reinvented, reborn.
The patient has an obsessive need to be born over and over again.
Supposedly Roger said this about Bliss in a Grand Rounds session. She was the case study that week. Afterward, she came back to the ward and told us all about it, proudly.
“Yeah, whatever,” Lucy Algrave said, rolling her eyes.
The first time Liv saw Bliss’s arms, the little cuts she’d made, she took a drag on her cigarette and sneered baby cat scratcher with a tone of such heavy disgust it made me squirm. Liv was totally scary. But Bliss, with the misguided susceptibility of a mental patient, looked up to Liv as a younger sister might. She had no idea that Liv mocked and despised her. To me, this was the real tragedy. What Bliss didn’t know. What Liv did know. That we were all locked up there together, like it meant something. All of those days.
Bliss’s mother was on the ward a lot, visiting. She was always scolding Bliss. That’s what I remembered, later.
“Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say.
No one thought Bliss thought she was pretty. Though she was, in fact.
I was not a Destroyer and would never be though I had nearly acquiesced to Dread’s plans for the two of us. This followed me around. Roger reminded me of it often. He’s the one who said I was a Drama Queen. But he used the word histrionic.
My father laughed: “Well, she is an actress!”
The other thing about Bliss: her name really was Bliss. We weren’t sure if we should believe her but somebody got up the nerve to ask. She was still new then, the youngest patient to a psych ward for the seriously sad. How did she come to have a name like Bliss? Was she baptized that way? Was it a joke? What did it mean?
Bliss just shrugged and said something like, Don’t ask me. As if she couldn’t remember. Or hadn’t bothered to ask.
There was such sadness about Bliss, so no one was really bothered by the way she seemed to look down on some of the others: Madeline with her fingers down her throat, Emily with her various personalities. Emily who, we all knew, would never leave. Emily who had become a part of the place. Emily whose father raped her lying face down in his work shed, Emily who still ate nails, liked the taste of nails, couldn’t help herself.
I used to walk by Bliss’s room and catch her arranging her many tiny glass figurines on the shelves of her room. She would spend hours arranging the figurines and, because our rooms didn’t have doors, I often stood there watching her. No one was allowed to have glass, but for Bliss an odd exception was made. She needed the figurines, needed to arrange the figurines, needed to be contained.
The allusion to Tennessee Williams was so heavy, so obvious, that no one spoke of it. Maybe Roger spoke of it in that Grand Rounds session. It was the kind of detail he savored.
When I moved onto the ward, Madeline told me that Roger told her that she should give herself pleasure. They expected it of us, locked up there so long, full up with complicated and monstrous desire. But of course that wouldn’t be enough (it is never enough)—pleasuring ourselves in our rooms without doors—and so we fell in love with each other.
I suppose they knew this would happen, too.
But no one fell in love with Bliss. I remember thinking this the night of Bliss’s going away party. None of us knew why she was being discharged. But it was true. The ceremony, heavy with pathos, had become routine: a Carvell ice cream cake, music on the boom box, and a sheet with markers for us to note our various good wishes. A sheet stamped: ROCKLAND STATE PSYCHIATRIC INSTITUTE. All of our lame salutations: Bye, Bliss! We’ll miss you! Take care! Brian with his Bible verses and then: You can do it, Bliss!
It was all so stupid.
It was a few days after Bliss was discharged that Roger gathered us in the activity room. The dry-erase board was still propped up on the table. At the top was written, “The Pros and Cons of Capital Punishment.” It was left from Paul’s “It’s Debatable!” activity group, which I found excruciating.
Roger sat in front of the dry-erase board. He asked all of us, his patients, to move closer to him. He looked like he’d been crying, which took a minute to register since there was never anything remotely off-balance about Roger. It was like the first time I saw my dad cry—at my grandma’s funeral—and realized that he was human in a way I’d known but hadn’t understood before as a problem. Which it is for everyone. Being human, I mean.
“Bliss died last night,” Roger told us.
He closed his mouth quickly and started nodding and then shook his head. It looked sort of spastic.
“I needed to tell all of you.”
Roger told us that Bliss, who had been discharged to her home on Friday, had hung herself in her bedroom that Sunday.
Any of the irony that earlier had us laughing over the incongruity of her name was gone. There was nothing ironic about death. It just so totally sucked. Even in a place where pretty much everything sucked.
Tracy Berg whimpered a little.
No one asked Roger if he felt responsible.
No one asked why she’d been discharged, but some of us wondered. Couldn’t they tell? But we knew it wasn’t Roger’s fault, when it came down to it. We knew he could only do so much. For any of us.
I’d been in six months before I got privileges. There were different kinds. Local Ground Privileges was only slightly less pathetic than Building Privileges.
Building Privileges meant that a patient could walk around the building.
It wasn’t clear where one was meant to walk since most of the other floors contained locked wards—for the schizophrenics or the eating disordered or the children or the so fucked up they didn’t even have a name for it.
There were only a few areas open to explore. The library on the twelfth floor, for example. That was my favorite. It was a psychiatric library, and all of the texts were medical, including the ones that had been written about the S.S. Roger. This was where I first proffered a copy of a book about the ward. I saw the charts that noted what made a patient more or less likely to succeed. I read about the “unexpected failures.”
According to the book the “unexpected failures” were those attractive, intelligent, promising young women who had, against all expectation, offed themselves in the years post-discharge.
I knew I shouldn’t be reading but I couldn’t stop. I read for clues to my own prognosis. It didn’t look good.
Beyond the one-room library, which at least had computer access, a Building-Privileged patient might explore the vending machines of the outpatient research lab on the eighth floor. Or the cafeteria in the basement. There was also the front stairway. This is where I generally hung out, especially if the weather was okay. Just a place to sit on a bench and look out to a world where everyone seemed to have something to do and somewhere to go, where everyone had a plan to their day, a certain busyness and focus I’d relinquished, for reasons I couldn’t always remember.
Local Grounds Privileges extended around the greater Washington Heights medical campus area. Which meant that mostly I would go to the computer lab in the other office building, or to the park in between hospital buildings—a park that had been donated by the family of some patient who’d died long ago. I’d watch teenagers make out on the grass. They were always there, this one couple. I wasn’t sure why they chose this park. The girl looked to be about twelve and the boy not more than fifteen.
There was a woman in black who always seemed to be there, too. She had a way of staring at the young lovers that gave me the creeps.
Whenever I saw her there, sitting on a bench—not reading or eating or doing anything, really—I’d think of Chekhov.
“Why do you wear black all the time?”
“I’m in mourning for my life.”
I didn’t tell Roger this, but I had the weird feeling that I’d known this was going to happen to Bliss. When I’d said goodbye that Friday, I’d seen it all. A vision. Saw her hanging from a rafter in the ceiling. She’d used her dad’s belt.
Maybe it was at her goodbye party. As I signed her card: goodbye and good luck! knowing luck had nothing to do with it.
It was a day that the woman was not there and the lovers were preoccupied as usual that I decided to try it. I picked up a stick without really thinking of what I was going to do and began scraping my arm.
The weird thing was that pretty soon I couldn’t feel my arm. The more I scraped the less I could feel. I scratched and scraped down into it. It still didn’t hurt and I wondered if I existed. I dug the stick deeply into the cut. I wondered if I could reach bones, if I had bones. I watched the blood gather like dark fruit. I was relieved to see blood. It affirmed something. My upper arm was raw, mangled. I couldn’t stop looking at it, wondering if it belonged to me. I heard the sound of a train underground. I heard traffic from Broadway. I had the feeling that I’d forgotten something I meant to do.
I practiced saying, “I’m in mourning for my life.”
Roger wouldn’t laugh. But it was true, I would tell Roger, who would reduce my meaning to clinical terms, who would add this to my chart.
I was in mourning for something, anyway.
In a letter, I told Dread that I understood something. How they do it. It’s the kind of thing that looks a lot worse than it feels, I wrote.
It’s not for me, he wrote back.
I hid the wound under my sweatshirt. The next morning I woke up in pain. I could feel my arm again, which was a relief. I remembered that I had a body, though I wasn’t sure what that meant anymore.
It was infected. Roger said I’d regressed and took away my privileges. He said I wasn’t ready to be on my own.
“That’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay to want to stay here, on the ward, where it’s safe. It’s okay that you are not ready for freedom.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said.
“What did you mean then?”
“You’re still very sick,” he said. “I thought you were getting better. I thought you weren’t sick anymore.”
I’ll never forget that. How it felt. What he could say and how it became true. A new kind of truth.
“Would a healthy person do this to herself?”
“Yes. No. I guess.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.”