What do you see?

A face.

What kind of face?

A man’s face. Dark and shadowed. His eyes are closed.

What about here? What do you see?

A seascape. Underwater. I can see fishes and mermaids. Seahorses. Kelp swaying in the underwater breeze.

You have quite a way with language, do you know that?

Yes, I know that.

Here’s a picture. Can you tell me a story about the picture?

I examine it closely. It shows a little boy looking out what appears to be a kitchen door to the yard of a house.

“He wants to go out and be in the sun, but he’s not allowed.”

“Why is he not allowed?”

“He’s being punished.”

I am taking a set of diagnostic tests, Rorshachs and others, that are required from every new arrival to the ward. The person administering the tests is a nice young woman who has introduced herself as Margaret. We are in a very small room just off the OT room. The room contains two chairs, the desk behind which Margaret sits, three bookshelves crammed with varying psychology tests, and nothing else. The chairs are hard and unforgiving.

“Why is he being punished?”

“I… He doesn’t know. Sometimes you just don’t know why you have to be punished. It just happens to you. Maybe it’s something in the way you smell. Maybe you have a smell that other people notice but you can’t. But it means you can’t go out among other people without being hurt.”

“So maybe he’s not being punished. Maybe he’s protecting himself.”

I think it’s a leading statement and I’m sure that’s not kosher, but I answer anyway. I know all about the sick ways some people protect themselves. “Maybe.”

“What about this picture? Can you tell me about this?”

A man and a woman standing in an intimate embrace. My throat closes up and I shake my head. “I don’t know.”

“Try, Katie. Anything. The first thing that pops into your head.”

“She’s thinking he doesn’t know anything about her. How can he be embracing her when he doesn’t know anything about her? He thinks he knows everything, but he doesn’t. And when she tried to tell him, he doesn’t listen.”

“That’s an awful lot from someone who said a minute ago that she didn’t know.”

I could tell her more than that. I could tell her what the pain is like when everyone supposes things about you, things that have nothing to do with you. I could tell her how shut out it makes you feel. Shut out of your body, shut out of your experience. Shut out of the company of others. How you always seem to be playing a role that fits in with what they think of you, until your real self is lost.
I don’t say any of that and she turns to another picture.

(A little less than a year from now I will be taking the same tests, in the same room, with the same person administering them. She will ask me what I see and I will tell her I see nothing. I will tell her that I remember what I saw last year and I will repeat it if it makes her happy. But now the images have no meaning. They’re just ink on paper and I have nothing left inside me to turn them into anything else.)

Later that night, during visiting hours, my mom comes to see me. After the usual small talk (the tomatoes are getting ripe; the cats are fine) she informs me that she and my father are taking a vacation to Canada. In fact, they’re leaving the next day. They’ll spend a few days in Calgary and then travel to Banff.

I feel that I should be surprised at this—their willingness to go off on vacation while I’m here in the hospital—but the truth is, I am not much. I wonder if they’ve had this trip planned all summer. I wonder if they had been planning to take me. When I think of it, I am glad I am here and not obligated to go. Not obligated to spend two weeks in stuffy hotel rooms shared with my parents, doing things they want to do and never what I might find interesting.

My whole life has been like that. Everything revolves around my parents’ wishes. I can’t count the number of times I mentioned wanting to go somewhere—to the Bob-Lo amusement park on an Island in the Detroit River, to a concert or play—only to be told, “Oh Katie, don’t be so selfish. You know your father wouldn’t enjoy that.” It’s the same response I get when I question my parents’ religion, question the necessity of going to church every Sunday. Why, I wonder, if God is everywhere, do we have to go to a specific place at a specific time to worship Him? Doesn’t he know whether we are good or bad without that?

“Oh Katie, don’t be so selfish. You know how disappointed your father would be if you didn’t go.”

Which always gives me the feeling that going to church is not something we do for the glory of the Almighty, but so that my father has guaranteed audience for his over-intellectual sermons.

Something must show on my face, because my mother’s lips compress into that flat, disapproving line with which I am so familiar.

“There’s nothing we can do for you here,” she says. “I don’t see why we should have to give up our vacation because you’re in this place.” This Place, spoken with veiled resentment, as if I were living in a wild commune or whorehouse. “Besides, you won’t even let your father visit.”

That’s true. For some reason unknown even to myself I have told the staff that I don’t want to see my father, only my mother. Maybe it’s that I, for once in my life, want to be free of his constant complaining. He’s been in ill health since childhood and takes every chance to let everyone know it. Every day is so crowded with his bad knees and his trouble getting around that there is no room for me to breathe. It makes me feel constantly sick at my stomach. The worst of it is that I have always been told to suffer in silence, whenever anything was bothering me. I wonder why my father is allowed to complain and I am not. I couldn’t take it if he came on the ward and started his usual mantra about how no one knows pain but him.

Still, I think my parents should be more concerned that I’m here, more involved in my treatment. Isn’t there supposed to be family therapy? Yes, there is. Not that I can imagine my parents taking part in it. They’re perfectly comfortable with the idea that all my problems stem from some inner flaw. They don’t want to look at their part in my sickness. In their eyes, they have no part in it at all.

“I’ve spoken with your doctors. They say you won’t even be allowed off the ward for at least another week. We’ll be back by then. When you get a pass, Vicki can pick you up and take you home and stay with you until we get back.”

Well, that’s a switch, anyway. I wonder what Vicki has done to put her in my mother’s good graces; before my hospitalization she would never have trusted us in the house by ourselves. She’d think we were partying and having wild sex, and who knows? We might be. But maybe Vicki’s part in getting me to the hospital has softened my mother, made her see my friend in a better light.

More small talk and then it is time for her to go. I receive the usual dry peck on the cheek and assurance of her love for me. The visitors are herded out the door. Gayle opens up the kitchen and the usual evening conviviality returns to the common room. I sit at my table thinking of love and wondering if love is what has brought me here. A strange, twisted kind of love. My inability to accept it and all the strings that come with it. Some people seem able to subvert themselves for love. They can ignore the hurtful things others do in the name of that great emotion, turn themselves into someone else. I have never been able to. I want it all. I want to be loved for who I am, not for some role I play. I want love without the pain. Is that even possible? I look around at the others on the ward and think not. Ginny has pretended her husband is a perfect partner for years, and still she is here. JoAnne and Annie have never questioned their families’ behaviour and still they are here. Perhaps I am better off, in that I am no good at denial.

But still, I am here.

Later, Claire will explain to me the differences between conditional and unconditional love. Conditional love, she will tell me, is what most people practice. “I love you if you do such and such.” If you look a certain way. If you fit my expectations. If you don’t make waves in the relationship or upset my plans.

But unconditional love is what most people want. Claire says it’s like the love of a mother for a child: you love a person just because. They don’t have to be any certain way to earn your affection.

I wonder how many mothers actually have unconditional love for their children. My mother always claimed to. But I experienced her love as a cold, hard and brittle thing: difficult to earn, easy to shatter. I think most, if not all, of the others on the ward have experienced the same, if not from their mothers then from other significant people in their lives.

Love always needs a scapegoat. Love goes hand in hand with blame. It asks you to be what you’re not and punishes you when you can’t by turning its face away (I think of the boy in the picture I saw that afternoon, wanting to be in the sun and unable to go through the door).

Sometimes I think there has been so little real love in my life that I don’t miss it. My parents have always been surprised when I’ve tried to show it, like the time when I was twelve or so that I started giving them goodnight kisses because I thought a loving daughter should. I sensed their discomfort so deeply that after a week I stopped. My family has never been one that approves of any of love’s physical manifestations.

Then there are times, like now, that I know the absence of love does not make a person crave it any less. Just as your body can know what food it needs without ever having tasted it, your soul can know it needs love with only the concept to go by.

If the silence between us were not so deep, there are so many questions I would have asked my mother that night. But questions imply criticism; criticism is the mark of anger, and anger destroys what little claim to love I have.

So I never asked her the thing preying most on my mind:

“How can you go off and leave me alone in this place?”

I know it is not love that has brought me to this place. Love or lack of it. That may have been the excuse I used, the night when I cut myself. But the truth is, I could have had love, or some semblance of it. The truth is, I brought myself here. Because there were things I wanted more than love.

I go to the nurse’s station and ask for a sleeping pill. After I take it, I go to bed and cry myself into unconsciousness.

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