What You Remember Versus What Was

 This past November I traveled to Springfield Illinois where I went to high school.  It was my first time back in nearly 30 years. I remember myself as a sad sad girl, a limp rag doll of a girl who feels trapped and victimized by her circumstances. But instead I found that memory is a tricky player, keeping some bits, discarding others.

St. John's Hospital, Springfield, IL

St. John’s Hospital, Springfield, IL

What I do remember is sitting under a big Oak tree in Washington Park with over-the-counter sleeping pills in hand. I am 17 years old and afraid. Afraid that dying maybe isn’t the answer; so I take only about half of the package. Mostly I want to sleep a long long time and wake up when everything is better. Or different. But after only an hour or so I come to bleary-eyed and hazy-brained and re-enter the same waking nightmare. The next day I am admitted to 10 West, the inpatient psychiatric unit at St. John’s hospital in Springfield Illinois.

While I was in Springfield I retrieved copies of the St. John’s inpatient medical record from 1982. I expected to find doctor assessments of my state of mind but the 30 or so pages were primarily the day to day nursing record. Boy was I surprised with the surly, moody, sarcastic 17 year old girl that sprung up on those pages! Honestly, it was a breath of fresh air. I was still alive and kicking and not just lying there like a rag doll staring blankly at the ceiling tiles and wall paint. That would come later when that girl is beaten out of me and all that is left is my limp, defeated wrapper.

I like the young girl better, even with all her mistaken ideas, negative assumptions and hostile attacks on people trying to help. One of my favorite notes, dated Nov. 1 at 1900 hours (7 pm) begins:

Up at desk filling out menu when writer [nurse writing the note] asks her how she was doing, she replied rather sarcastically “Oh just great”.

That one makes me laugh. I am in a fucking mental hospital lady, how do you think I am?? Two points for me! None for stupid nurse. Classic teenager.

The note continues:

Admitted something was bothering her but stated “I don’t want to talk about it.”

003By the time I am 26 years old and for years to follow I will talk endlessly to almost anyone who will listen, but only after I read that note do I remember the reticence I once felt. The way I saw it, no amount of talking would change the fact that my parents found no joy in my being alive or stop them from acting out their demons on me. “The parents” as I would later take to calling them or singly “the mother” or “the father” made me feel like a thing grimly endured and my basic needs begrudgingly filled. Would talking change that? I didn’t see how. Moreover, the people trying to talk with me are adults just like the parents. Frankly I didn’t trust any of them. It would take another 8 years to find clinicians who would gain my trust enough to get me talking. Not that talk alone will ever fill the void or make me whole, but finding someone to trust is a good start.

Another note dated October 24 at 2020 hours is written after I return from a pass with my parents, a time always fraught with crying, curling up on my bed, or hostile attacks aimed at anyone who comes near. The note written by B. Smith states

Returned from pass accompanied by father. Attitude appears indifferent and in poor spirits. Inquired about early return “Do you think I would stay that long with them?” “I couldn’t find any drugs.” When asked about seriousness of statement [says] “damn right”; looked at the writer as though waiting for a reaction. Poor eye contact during 1:1, underlying hostility.”

What I am saying is – “Lady my parents are like your worst nightmare and I would be crazy to hang out with them more than necessary unless I am high, insanely high. And plus you’re stupid for not knowing such an obvious thing.” Somebody should write a de-coding manual “Cryptic Communications of the Disturbed Teenager.”

Conversely, something I do remember – learning to play pool from a fellow patient– is barely recorded at all. I think he had strange ideas – like the TV was talking to him or the CIA was after him – but put him in front of a pool table and that guy could play. He was in his 30s, of medium height with a thin build and light colored hair. I left that hospital and for years I could nearly hustle people in pool, the bank shots he taught me never failed to wow and intimidate. He showed me where to hit the cue ball for different shots, the angles for bank shots, how to put spin on the ball to control its direction and set up your next shot, even how to jump a ball when another ball is blocking your shot. I was a pretty good student but an unpredictable player; often making fancy bank shots the whole length of the table but missing a simple straight forward one into the corner pocket. But all the record notes is that occasionally I am in the “east lounge playing pool” or just “playing pool.”

Oh yeah I am playing pool, drowning in an unseen ocean without a light.

And the magical door that opens to green rolling hills, rainbows and birdsong is nowhere in sight.

So what’s a little sarcasm and petulance between friends? If it gets you to the perfect bank shot, or your perfect cue angle, then after the next break maybe, just maybe, you will sink your ball hard in the corner and it will be followed by a satisfying bang and swish. You can bet I am counting on it. I am remembering even as I forget, while I move onto the next game. I am not drowning but swimming now, like a dolphin learning it has wings. If you listen closely a bird is singing on the hills that surround my now holding ocean. It is not all good, but I am good now. And now is all good.

1800 hrs March 2014.


Artwork By Anna Caroline Jennings: