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In the Psych Ward Having Deleted the Best Thing I’ve Ever Written photo

On the drive from our apartment to the emergency room, you take Fullerton through DePaul’s campus. The silence between us makes sense, but without even your usual pop punk to pad it, it feels intolerable. I say, just to say something, that it’s “eerie” to pass my freshman year dorm building. There’s no sound of your body shifting beside me to look. Into the glass, in my same monotone, I issue a lame revision: “‘Ironic’ might be a better word.” I’m always doing that, editing my speech in real time, not really improving anything.

It’s a Sunday morning two months into a national shutdown, and DePaul’s quad, where I used to meet up with other students to pawn off my Vyvanse prescription, is vacant. I imagine it as the abandoned set of a hilarious, touching coming-of-age film, because I still haven’t outgrown the fantasy that my life is not only significant but playing out in front of a crowd of deeply affected observers. One block down, all the lights are off inside the two-story Whole Foods. Sometimes, after class, I used to steal from the hot bar and use a fake ID to buy Stella Artois, my go-to beer–I thought it made me sound mature, talking about having “a Stella.” Just past the Whole Foods is the train station. I used to take the purple line all the way north to Evanston to visit my old boyfriend at Northwestern. When he hooked up with his lab partner, I stayed in bed for a week and failed all my finals. I count backwards–it was half a decade ago now that I dropped out and moved back in with my parents down south. The stab to my gut feels too sharp to be psychosomatic when the pattern makes itself apparent.

Inside the emergency room lobby, I stand behind a rope separating me from the receptionist’s desk and squint away white tile under fluorescent light. You loiter outside the entrance, shuffling in place in your striped shirt like a forlorn Peanuts character. A clock on the wall says 7-something AM. A sticker underneath my sneaker reminds me to stay six feet away from others, but the lobby is so empty it looks fake, like I lack the imagination to populate my nightmare. Every other time I’ve found myself in the ER, victim to car accident or ear infection, I’ve waited long enough among the truly damned to doubt my own affliction. Now I am outnumbered by medical personnel, and they are all looking at me expectantly.

The receptionist asks why I’m here. For some reason I am surprised by the question, as if this stranger should be able to tell I want to die by looking at me. Sheepishly I begin to stammer out psychiatric diagnoses. I suppose I believe I’m offering keywords to be plugged into a computer that will match me to the correct wing. The receptionist, used to heart attacks and gunshot wounds, seems unimpressed by my list of acronyms. She leans over and whispers something to a woman in scrubs, who whispers something to a man in scrubs, who fits a plastic bracelet to my wrist and beckons for me to follow. Their game of telephone sends me into a small panic, providing expression to what will no doubt be noted in my chart as a flat affect. I hadn’t expected to be admitted right away. I thought I’d have to sign something first saying I didn’t want my autonomy anymore and the hospital could have it. Miming urgency through glass, I motion you inside, where we say goodbye and embrace. The hug does not feel tender. It feels like a formality on your part, and begging on mine. I hold on just long enough to rid myself of any remaining self-respect, then remind you to bring me my toiletry bag, pill box, and a book to read. You take down the receptionist’s phone number.

I follow the man in scrubs down a corridor and into a small room separated from the rest of the floor by a plastic curtain. A serious-looking woman opens the curtain and introduces herself as a nurse, and I am changed out of my nightgown into a hospital gown. It is hard to tell, after the fact, if I undressed and dressed myself or if it was done for me, the way my mom used to take my pajamas off and shimmy school clothes over my head while I was still half asleep. The serious nurse gives me a pair of socks with grippy patches on the soles. I surrender my shoes to her open palm. She inventories the rest of my belongings with a precision that seems unreasonable, writing down a description of every card in my wallet and separating a single broken cigarette into a plastic bag labeled “BIOHAZARD.Watching gloved hands sift through a purse full of loose pills and candy wrappers, I offer, “Sorry about all the crap,” but the heat in my cheeks doesn’t come. In a place like this you either lose your shame or put it somewhere for later, maybe in one of those plastic bags. The serious nurse doesn’t respond to my apology, asking instead, “Are any of these valuables?” I shake my head no, of course not.

She guides me to a hospital bed on the main floor, where I lie down and leave my body for a bit. Two nurses with sympathetic faces lure me back into lucidity by repeating the receptionist’s question: “Why are you here?” Sleep deprived and not entirely sober, I slur my speech as I attempt to summarize the night before, using vocabulary from my psych classes like “emotional volatilityto explain how I ended up straddling the railing of our third-floor balcony. I try to tell them that I wrote the best thing I’ve ever written and it was good and now it is gone. Eventually I give up on that and say, “I think I just lost it a little.” I repeat the same story to at least five other people throughout the next half hour, worded so differently each time I worry I’ve lied to all of them. When it is time for blood I close my eyes and feel my right hand go numb, and then there are three plastic vials full of red and I try not to think about how the red was just inside me. The bandaid is barely on before two security guards arrive to escort me to a place called the interview room. They’re friendly enough, but with one on each side I feel like a prisoner, and I fantasize about making a break for it and being tackled and handcuffed. In the interview room a woman types on a keyboard while I tell the story of how I “lost it a little,” and when I am finished she says, “Your ex-boyfriend sounds like kind of a jerk.”

Back in bed one of the sympathetic-faced nurses swabs my nostrils to test for COVID. She tells me, as the cotton closes in on my brain, “No one else has ever laughed while I did this.” To my right lies a worthy match for my delirium—a verbally unresponsive man who has shit his pants to the open frustration of his attending nurses. I gather that he is a regular from the way they speak about the pants-shitting, like servers might complain about a bad tipper who comes in every week. In the bed in front of me, there is a woman about my age with better hair. She struggles, silently and with eyes shut, against a team of six staff members. One of them repeats the word “catatonic” as they all work together to put her skinny wrists in restraints and inject a sedative to stop her banging her head against the railing. Watching the mute pair of patients I feel a mix of pity and pride in my comparative level of functioning, and in this way I discover I still have some shame left. As the young woman loses consciousness, someone reads off a list of DSM diagnoses: “Major depression, autism spectrum disorder, eating disorder not otherwise specified…”

By now I’ve been in limbo long enough. I sit up and scan the room with rubbed-raw eyes, barefaced except for a floral face mask, pathetically clutching the stuffed raccoon-bear thing you suggested I bring. The animal, a Valentine’s gift from you, is in turn clutching a heart that says, simply, “Love.” One of the nurses notices my unease and hurries over with an update that it will be anywhere from one to six hours before I get medical clearance to be moved to the psychiatric unit. I accept my uncertain fate and manage something like a nap, drooling through my mask, until someone wakes me for lunch. Lunch is a styrofoam box containing a cold chicken breast, a perfectly spherical scoop of mashed potatoes, cubed carrots, and no salt. Over the last five months I’ve shrunk myself down on a punishing, perfect diet, but there is no illusion of control left to cling to, so I finish the sad meal and wash it down with the boxed glucose bomb that is a “cranberry juice cocktail drink.” I forget that I am considered a danger to myself until I ask to use the restroom and a nurse insists on accompanying me inside. I have done things less dignified than this, I think while she watches me piss.

After another nap I am wordlessly wheeled to a different wing like a crated animal. My cot is parked in a dim, windowless purgatory with three or four other patients who look drugged or bored out of their minds. Someone straps velcro around my arm and informs me that my blood pressure is low. The proposed solution is to sip from a large plastic mug. There’s a pink bendy straw inside, as if I’m a child who needs to be tricked into drinking water, and I decide there are two types of people in the world: those who see a pink bendy straw as an indignity, and those who see it as a small reprieve from suffering. I’m trying to figure out which type I am when I realize there’s a third type of person I can’t relate to at all—one who doesn’t frame mundanities in terms of dignity or suffering.

At 3:30 PM we are served what seems to be a second lunch: pot roast, more mashed potatoes and carrots, and two sugar cookies. The food is pleasantly lukewarm this time. In between bites, I text my parents a mostly honest synopsis of my situation and tell them not to worry. Almost immediately I get a call from my dad, which I let go to voicemail. I use my last percentage of charge to inform someone I’ve been exchanging messages with on Tinder that I will probably “drop off the face of the earth” for a few days. My phone dies before I can read his response. Two EMTs, a smiley man and a severe woman, arrive to announce they will be strapping me onto a gurney and taking me via ambulance to a different hospital where there is an open bed. Their plan sounds expensive, and it’s the first I’m hearing that the current place has no room for me, but people with death wishes have no bargaining power, so I climb on the gurney.

The grinning man rides with me in the back of the ambulance and tries to make me feel comfortable with questions about where I’m from (“Kentucky”), what I did for work before I got laid off because of the pandemic (“paralegal”), and what I do for fun (“umm”). He asks why I’m here, a question I hope to never hear again anywhere I go. I try to explain that I wrote the best thing I’ve ever written and it was good and now it is gone because I accidentally deleted it. He says I can always write more and volunteers some canned encouragement like “Don’t give up” and “Keep doing what makes you happy” before clarifying that he’d been asking why I moved back to Chicago. I think of, but don’t mention, you as one of my reasons.

At the new hospital the EMTs roll me through a hallway into an elevator and around a corner to the psychiatric unit. A nurse confiscates my phone and raccoon-bear. “Teddy has to go.” A circus of medical personnel asks me to relay Why I’m Here, my goals for treatment, whether I’ve been abused (not exactly”), if I feel safe at home. I am asked if I’ve been in an inpatient facility before, a question I’ve been dreading, because it forces me to unearth yet another rock bottom: “When I was 15, my parents checked me in somewhere for breaking glass and trying to jump off a ledge.” Someone transcribes this information onto a clipboard. Someone else points past old scars on my wrist to question a fresher, redder mark. “Cooking,” I explain. I sign a piece of paper saying I am voluntarily committing myself and am told I will most likely be discharged in three to five days, which I know means one week minimum. For the final step in my initiation ceremony, a nurse has me change out of the printed blue hospital gown I was wearing into a solid blue one. She instructs me to drop my underwear to my feet to prove I am not hiding drugs or razor blades inside the most intimate parts of my body. Satisfied, she leads me to my room. “Your roommate is Katarina. She’s your age. She likes to read.”

When I enter I see no such Katarina. The room is gray and bare except for two plastic nightstands, two beds that look smaller than twin-sized, and two cubbies built into the wall for storage. On the bed assigned to me there are some folded up sheets and a towel. I have not cried since last night and do not expect to now, but when the nurse leaves I wail into the towel with such fervor my face prickles and one of the other staff members knocks and asks if I need anything, and I say no because I cannot ask him to make me not feel 15. He leaves the door cracked and me to blink idiotically at blank walls and fake wood with rounded edges, wondering which too-safe, unnaturally neutral surrounding will stick, the way powder-scented deodorant still smells like the last time I was committed.

I will never be able to rewrite the best thing I’ve ever written because, for one, I’m not sure I’d survive writing it a second time. I will never be able to rewrite it because I will never again be most of a bottle of wine deep into my notes app, just far enough gone to believe I’d written the best thing, and to clumsily select and backspace all of it, after learning you told someone else that you’ve never really loved anyone but her, that you had tried but failed to replicate that feeling, and that what you had with me was just “primal satisfaction.”

The best thing I’ve ever written was about glass, and not breaking glass, and God, and not knowing God. It was about never having known God, not even as a child using stubby fingers to sign the cross or count off sins inside a confessional. It was about knowing only the dull gray-blue of Sunday morning coming from the attic window we’d cracked open when the AC broke, and the bloated shape of a pigeon studding the sill. It was about inviting the bird in with my eyes, begging for distraction, and watching it leave. It was about exaggerating sobs in the hope you’d hear through the wall and the whir of the box fan, knowing three years had taught you to tune out the sound. The best thing I’ve ever written was about being told I look most beautiful asleep in the passenger seat, and feeling ugly as sin seeing the same line used on someone else. It was about saying goodnight to a stranger on an app I’d installed when you ended it “for real this time,” and waiting for you to join me in the bed we still shared and make me forget ugliness.

I will never be able to rewrite the best thing I’ve ever written because it never existed, not really, not the way I remember it now. It was something in between prose and poetry, but in my mind it was more than either. It was a spiritual correction of the spine after a life spent hunched in pain; it was the feeling suffering had meaning coded into it all along and finally here was the key. Now it is gone, preserving my delusion in its perfect absence. Now I can blame it, the way I blame you.

The best thing I’ve ever written was about suffering, that much is true. But my suffering is not your sin to answer for, because mine has always been, and I have always lied down to let it in. The best thing I’ve ever written was about that familiar dread without end, the sinister feeling that slinks ever closer in aloneness, the phantom that can chase a person onto a ledge or halfway over a balcony railing. But if I’m being honest, I have only ever invited it closer.

The best thing I’ve ever written was about glass, and not breaking glass, and gripping our headboard to restrain myself from breaking glass. It was about rocking and sobbing until I couldn’t see, and screaming “Godand “please, and not caring if our roommates heard because any noise that could leave my body was better than the sound of glass breaking, another heartbreak turned hysterical, another seduction by my own sadness. It was about looking at all the dirty cups and jars lined up on the dresser and wanting to break them but not breaking them, because I am not 15, sifting through my life for sharp edges to write about, coaxing destruction out of its corner and calling it circumstance.

The best thing I’ve ever written was good and it is gone and it is only good because it is gone, and I am 24 and the glass is broken, and dinner time in the psych ward is 5:30 PM and from 7 to 9 PM I can use the phone in the hallway to call my parents, but I dial your number first to remind you to bring me a book to read.