My mother grabs my arm and hustles me into the bathroom, sits me on the toilet seat. There is the sound of running water and then she is scrubbing my legs with a damp washcloth, not gently. Some of the cuts start to bleed again and she presses the washcloth against them, a fierce displeasure on her face as if their presence is a personal affront.
“Do you want me to take you to the hospital? Is that what you want?” She makes it sound like a threat.
Next I am sitting in the front seat of my mother’s car. The engine is running, but my mother is not there. I imagine she is talking to my father, telling him what has happened in the whispers they always use when discussing me. My mother appears, shifts the car into gear, and we back down the driveway.
It’s a long way to the hospital. I don’t remember the drive. I don’t remember sitting in the waiting room or being bandaged up, thick gauze wound around my shins and calves like greaves, or maybe more like the rags a medieval beggar would use to shut out the cold. They do nothing for the cold inside me. It seems I have been cold forever. When I remember this time, everything seems covered in ice, even when I know the scenes passing before my eyes are from June or July.
The hospital staff tells my mother that I need to speak with the staff psychiatrist. He isn’t there and they won’t call him in because my suicide attempt, if that’s what it was, wasn’t serious. So my mother takes me home. We’ll go back to the hospital tomorrow.
I try to sleep and can’t. At four in the morning, I get up and write in my journal, but I don’t say anything except that I am sitting at the table in the breakfast room waiting for it to be time to go back to the hospital. I have not changed my clothes from the day before. There is no blood on my shorts, so I don’t care.
My next clear memory is of sitting in a yellow plastic chair in the emergency room, my lower legs swathed in gauze. People are looking at me strangely and I have an almost unbearable compulsion to do something really weird, like start screaming or taking my clothes off. Before I can act, someone calls my name and leads me back into a cubicle to wait for the doctor. Pretty soon the door opens and he enters, a short round man with curly dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Between the two, gold-rimmed glasses reflect the harsh fluorescent lights overhead. It disturbs me that I can’t see his eyes.
“Hi, Katie, I’m Dr. Rosenberg.” He sounds almost jolly, like a young Santa Claus, and this strikes me as odd, considering the situation that has brought me here. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
I shrug. “I cut myself up.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“I just…it just happens, sometimes. It’s something I do.”
“Were you trying to kill yourself?”
I consider this very carefully. I want to give the answer that will make him listen.
I also want to tell the truth, however.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
As I see it, the desire to kill myself, or lack thereof, doesn’t really matter. The way I misuse my body frightens and appalls me; it seems a terribly wrong thing for a sixteen-year-old girl to be doing. I can’t say any of that. I have already learned that saying too much of what I really think or expressing too much of what I really feel is a dangerous practice.
“Well,” he says, “you didn’t do any real damage. I think we’ll go ahead and send you home.”
Looking back now I wonder if that response was calculated to get some kind of rise out of me. If that was the case, it worked.
“Send me home?” I scream at him. “And then what? What happens when I do this again? What if the next time I do kill myself? Is that what it will take before someone listens to me?”
Now I am standing in a wide, grey-tiled corridor. I seem to have arrived here without any transition. I am hugging myself and shivering; the corridor is air-conditioned and my cut-offs and thin tank top are not enough. I can feel the goose bumps on my arms.
The corridor ahead is blocked by a set of salmon coloured double doors like those that divide hotel banquet rooms from the kitchens beyond. The man with me leans over and presses a button on an intercom set into the wall beside the doors. He is tall, craggy and blond, in his late twenties perhaps; wearing jeans and a flannel shirt he looks like an elongated Robert Redford playing the Marlboro Man.
“It’s Chuck,” he says into the intercom.
I lean against the wall and fiddle with the plastic bracelet on my left wrist. The bracelet identifies me as “Schmidt, Katherine P.” Beneath my name it bears the legend, “Dr. Rosenberg, 3rd floor, Psych.”
There is a buzzing sound. Chuck pushes the doors open and leads me through. The corridor ahead looks remarkably like the one we have just left: grey tile and stark white walls with heavy doors leading to darkened rooms on either side.
“We’ll just get you settled in,” Chuck tells me. “Dinner’s over and most of the folks are in the common room or with visitors, so you’ll have some time.”
He ushers me through a door on the main corridor, just opposite the nurses’ station. Beyond the door is a big room with four beds in it. Beside each bed is a nightstand. Three of the nightstands are obviously in use; the beds to which they belong are made up with varying degrees of neatness and skill. I sit on the fourth bed, the one that has recently been made up with crisp, hospital efficiency. The bedspread is thin, cream chenille, soft under my fingers.
After a time, Chuck goes out, leaving the door open behind him. I hear him talking to someone at the nurses’ station. The low murmur of voices is comforting, like hearing your parents talking in the next room when you are sick, and knowing you are safe.
I crawl under the covers fully dressed. Pretty soon a loudspeaker announces that visiting hours will be over in ten minutes. I hear footsteps coming down the hall, voices saying, “goodbye,” and “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I hear the buzzing sound of the door at the end of the hall opening and closing, over and over again.
This is how I first came to the locked ward. At the time I didn’t know that those locked doors would dominate my life for the next two years.