A Space for Becoming

By

On Christmas day we watched Home Alone. There’s a moment when Catherine O’Hara’s character, as Kevin’s mom, tries to level with an indifferent airport employee. In the manner of a fanatic she says: “Christmas is supposed to be the season of perpetual hope!” I looked around, wondering how our ward of mentally ill patients voluntarily and involuntarily hospitalized in late December had responded to this scene.

During my stay, I would come to rethink why my body felt the way it did. Before, I’d considered the body as the apocryphal site of abjection. I quantified the pain my body was putting me through, and I was generous in articulating my illness because I had begun to trust my instincts toward chronic pain, as affect and struggle.

 

 

Not only was I reading the writing of women who were ill and why they had been made that way, I also empathized. Zeal characterized the steady rate of those afternoon readings, while I reserved my nights for recovery, e.g. full blown hysteria.

In other words, I was interested in sustaining a practice of illness. Decreation, as I understood from the writings of Anne Carson and Chris Kraus, is the sick woman’s project. She transforms herself out of a place of pain by proposing annihilation.

Put in such a way. As to feel undone.

 

 

Lyric functions similarly. A refusal to become. When I read poetry I find myself drawn to disobedience. Irregularity with a purpose. Women who write to spite the impossibility of living. Girls who write to embrace the monster incubating in their bellies. Monsters writing through the psychosis they call tenderness.

I write to spite myself. Labor activates spite. Labor: the embarrassment of knowing how loudly you are breathing. So you continue breathing.

With much difficulty I sat down to write poems that were rejected by publications, essays that were left incomplete or had no conclusion. I salvaged what worked and shaped them into alternate visions of a cyborg text. I dreamt in serial television episodes. One night, so wrapped up in melodrama, I struck the man who was my then-lover because I’d temporarily lost the ability to distinguish dream from reality. I woke up from a dream simulating a social interaction we’d had that night—

I could not sustain this pain. How does anyone? There eventually came a morning when I said, “I have to go to the hospital.” The only thing left was to do it: give yourself up. To what? Where will the body fit when it feels rejected by space itself?

 

 

As the first snow of the year fell, I arrived at Mass General. I did not know where to go so I asked a receptionist. I lowered my voice, trying to be discrete: “I am looking to voluntarily hospitalize myself—” “The Volunteer Department is just down the hall.”

I stopped. She smiled. Our misunderstanding was complete. She continued, “I’m sure if you visit the psychiatric department inside down the hall someone will be able to take down your contact information and availability.”

Overwhelmed, I had to say the thing I hadn’t wanted to say. “What do you mean volunteer? I’m not looking to volunteer my time. I’m trying—need—to hospitalize myself.”

She apologized, and redirected me to the opposite end of the lobby.

 

 

Hospitalization is a weird experience. Dystopic. On the edge of it all. Between poles of wellness and illness, it forces you into a passive subject position, one from which you will articulate your illness even as you are understood to be a total liar. You have to think about what your words communicate and the meanings they unintentionally convey because they are always taken at face value. The way narrative underwrites the suffering body and operates against you. The way you’re pushed to retrieve a narrative anyway. The way you learn when to reveal one detail or another, or better yet: to default to the serial number printed on your white wristband. This number, a lot of times, supersedes your voice. Many of the impossibly dreadful truths about identity and passage manifest in that plastic wristband, namely that having a voice is a privilege and not a right.

So you swallow words. You insist on what you know as your narrative, the only narrative. You write down your friends’ numbers before your phone is taken away but you take too long and are led into an adjacent room. Take off your clothes. Show me your wrist.

You are dizzy. Wanting everything is okay. Stop and go. Transported by stretcher from one hospital to another, your feet do not touch the ground until you are released into the care of the nighttime staff at a behavioral care center located on the fifth floor of a children’s hospital. Colors have been blurry all day. You take your clothes off again to be checked for scars. Your blood pressure is low. Eyes runny with smeared eyeliner. You answer questions about your diet, your education, your sexuality, your family, your body, your flaws.

You’re almost better off telling everyone “I am a purple cactus” than “I am hurt.”

 

 

How the location shifts.

How the work is reoriented. I made up sentences like

I built the bridge and then had it demolished. More than sadness, I felt angry. When lives are at stake and you’re being petty.

or

This is how the ill body capitulates to desire.

 

 

My conflict with institutionalization wasn’t that I was a serial number standing in for a psychiatric patient; rather, by virtue of committing myself to such an institution, with its particular system of care, I had been assumed incapable not simply of caring for myself but of mattering. [How to say no convincingly.

I am fine. I am doing well. Fine, thank you. Yes please. No, thank you. How are you?

All I could think about was how much I wanted to prove my sanity to them. It was such a useless game, like fighting for human status in the eyes of hungry wolves who are terrifying not because they are wolves but because they must satisfy their hunger, and you understand this need all too well.]

This despair I have always known and kept close was diagnosed as the manifestation of psychosis. Major depression showing overlaps with bipolar disorder. I was not surprised. In the months prior to my hospitalization, I had begun to experience episodes; night after night I heard voices that pinned my body to the bed. Distressed, I couldn’t move, or I’d be afraid to move. Shackled by invisible weights, I’d scream and cry myself to sleep. In September, just past sunrise, I imagined a slogan, set ablaze in neon lights, that went something like I WANT A BODY THAT IS NOT MADE FROM A BODY. I was in the process of getting ready for work and all I could think about was how heavy I felt, how the heaviness began in my chest and made its way to my ears. My ears popped. I wanted to die. Pain, I remember thinking, is tyranny without form.

 

 

At the center, the floor was quiet. Most of the staff was on vacation. On the night of my intake, I met my psychiatrist, who told me he would have to transfer my case to someone else as he was moving out of state. The following morning, I met a new psychiatrist for the first and last time. I wasn’t told then, but they left that very day for the holidays. My case manager became a social worker who, though well-meaning, did not have the authority to prescribe medication, explain the specifics of my intake, or discharge me.

For a while I paced the halls. I walked in and out of the dining room, which offered the most sunlight. I finished my avocado coloring sheet while my roommate read in silence. I gave my avocado highly arched brows, contour, blush, overdrawn lips. Blue paint and a beauty mark. She’s a campy queen. My roommate and I both spoke in soft high-pitched registers. We’d both studied literature in college. She was reading Brideshead Revisited; I had just finished Garments Against Women, which I soon lent her. We watched another woman fold paper cranes; once discharged she would sew them in the shape of a wreath.

 

 

By the fourth morning, I was no longer worried that there was no doctor to see me. My attitude toward illness changed. I had been dulled. Monstrosity, once desirable, seemed abject. What had meant the whole world now scarcely mattered. I was often tired and spent the majority of my days attending to this exhaustion. I requested a journal and, when I could, wrote about what it means to lose yourself having been told no you cannot. Profoundly, the institutional NO registers. It pierces through what is left of your capacity. I named the journal “The Manifesto of Hysterical Women” as an apologia for the ways our psyches are collectively brutalized and repressed. I wanted to get out so badly, I’d documented every frustration with being legally held and medically unattended. The limbo of Christmas. The limbo of having only the ability to speak for myself. My friends said they were proud of me for seeking help but never did I feel more stubborn, insistent, that I was not brave but captive to a complicated monster of paid hospital care and infirmary and as such accountable to a legal system though less so to an emotional or psychic one. I had to ask myself: Did I actually want to be here?

Question 1: Where else will you go?

Question 2: How will you continue?

 

 

I tried to accept the numbing of my senses as a sign of recovery. During our group therapy session I said I was calm. And it is true, I think, that calmness can embody a kind of numbness while projecting serenity, which is grace. Grace is encountering an old friend while purchasing allergy medicine at the drugstore in a dream. The dream is not real but you mention the encounter to them one day and they do not correct you. The feeling grows intimate, like someone in love.

 

 

In the journal I wrote:

I exorcised you from my body. Here it is: a quarter to 11 am. We are scheduled for a walk, then lunch. I want to meet my psychiatric team and be done with it.

I cannot go for a walk because I have not had my doctor sign off my level II privilege, which allows me outside on walks… But I have no doctor so inside I stay. A nurse says I am anxious. Do I look that way? Group therapy conjures a diseased calm, sea water masked by toxic film. Once more I undo the disappointment of having hoped. I’m sure I could walk tomorrow. I want to walk outside and keep walking. By the bay, the sea.

You look nothing like you sound. On the phone your voice shrinks, timid, dragging. You felt small and I noticed. My palm against the receiver—the operator says I have to restart the call. So I revise. In another reality we are together, and the TV is on in the background. I have you in my arms, the silence of companionship. We do not have to say anything.

Who was I writing to? For whom will this be legible? Even now I am unsure. Yet I have no doubt of the conviction behind these words, that I am my body and every good and evil deed it is capable of producing.

 

 

Colors fold inward. The muted pink plastic mugs we fill with water. The stale beige walls and wooden railing. As I spoke to the man who was my then-lover, cradling the phone receiver, I found myself listing the attributes of the room. It made the room spin because there were only so many objects to identify. What the psychiatric ward does is stock itself excessively and exclusively in accessories that do not contain a teleology. In other words there is no end to the activities here because their design precludes any chance of an ending. When you finish coloring a Halloween cat you are given an ornate snowflake, or else you move on to connect-the-dots. Supplying an abundance of endless activities sustains a status quo, a safety net of static relations. To maintain this balance, one need only participate. You draw or sit or watch TV.

Surrounded by bland colors, I fixated on the fluorescent lights, which I thought decadent. Their unyielding light fueled afternoons of leisure. Who am I kidding? The lights were dimmed just enough for me to stare directly, and when I was not staring at ceiling lights I was asleep. I’d been prescribed a sleeping pill that knocked me out for the weekend. When the nurse woke me up on Sunday night to have me take the medicine I refused and fell back asleep.

Sleep seemed like a prime way to resist the unit’s schedule, which never changed and maintained the constant anticipation of a teenage house party. I wanted to rebel, and was willing to do so, even against the condition of my frail disposition, my so-called safety. As it turned out, my actions threatened my liability. When I told the on-call doctor what the pill had done and that I no longer wanted to take it, he calmly advised against this. Doing so would hinder my desire to be discharged before the New Year. He would have to leave a note in my file for the social worker, who’d then have to corroborate the incident with the nurses and the nutritionist I was seeing and my psychiatrists who did not know who I was beyond a seasonal tragedy.

Did a nurse inform you it was time for your medication?

Did you refuse the medication?

If so, you will consent to resisting medical orders.

He said I had three options: to continue, to increase my dosage, or to resist medical attention. I continued.

 

 

How do you know when you have recovered? I washed my body twice over with a shower gel that smelled like strawberry-flavored Jolly Rancher.

I did not dwell on this thought for long, and my structured way of living continued. I marked time by meals and my progress by how little I ate. You don’t realize how time is supposed to work otherwise. It is elusive, opaque. On afternoons when I was disassociated from my surroundings I would sit on the unplugged heater in my room. I looked out the window where I’d watch cars and ambulances pull up to the hospital’s front entrance. Beyond this was a parking structure. I passed hours listening to the hum of the fan in my room. Every so often a nurse entered the room to inform me of a call.

I remember being mostly amazed at the interaction itself, the simple existence of phone calls. That however temporary we could come together. I was lucky to receive phone calls, and I was learning that conversation guided by the kinship of love, rather than that of blood or obligation, is a kind of healing practice.

Becoming is the space between now and here, but: it does not always have to be terrifying. It can be fulfilling, even intimate. Outside, the world was bright; sunshine refracted off the glossy snow of the previous night. Winter is a state of being.

***

Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.


Catherine Chen is the author of the chapbook Manifesto, or: Hysteria (Big Lucks) and the forthcoming artist book Other Monsters of Love (Container). Their writing has appeared in Slate, The Rumpus, Apogee, Nat. Brut, among others. A 2019 Poets House Fellow, their work has been supported by Millay Colony, Lambda Literary, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Art Farm. More from this author →