Stories

HIRAETH, by Kerri Caldwell

#literary #Mental health

8 years I’ve been in therapy.
7 years is how long H has been my therapist.
6 years old: the age I was when my mom and I were saved from the hell we’d been living.
5 weeks went by before I was allowed to my see my mom again.
4 months I sat in a chair facing a window, ignoring H while she patiently waited me out.
3 months after my fifteenth birthday my mom told me she was dying.
2 weeks of silence is all I had to say to anyone.
1 year later she was gone.

H

As soon as she’s through my office door, Nora is ripping the headphones from her iPod. I could hear the music blasting when I went to get her from the waiting room. I don’t recognize the song, but I recognize her mood. She throws the headphones on my desk, and I watch as she plugs in the tiny pink piece of technology into the speaker that sits on my desk, just for her. I anticipate the song she chooses, but only silence follows. She remains unmoving as I make my way around my desk and lean against it so that I’m not quite facing her. We’ve done this dance for years now, but it’s the music that plays that will lead the way. After a few minutes I look to her, where she’s watching me. I can read everything on her face, I always have. Even as an angry, hateful nine-year-old, I saw what no one else did. She wasn’t just a file that held details about a child no one would want to read, not when the child’s suffering happened at the hands of her father. All I really need to know about Nora comes from her face. In the beginning, this was the saving grace for both of us. I could see what she wanted to say, but Nora didn’t know how to communicate it. Expressing herself through speaking wasn’t something she was comfortable with, and I realized this about her immediately. It didn’t take long for the two of us to come up with our own language. I’ve never had this connection with any of my patients, not before Nora, and not since.

Today, everything about her screams uncertainty. As safe as Nora feels with me, she will always default to self-doubt. Years of our therapy sessions together, both inside these four walls, and other places we’ve found ourselves, has allowed her to work through an emotion that was once so crippling, Nora would pass out. Today, I am confident she’ll get past this place of uncertainty. Still, knowing that Nora often needs me to make the first move during these silent conversations, I kick off my shoes, pull my hair back, and sit across from her in my desk chair. Tucking my long legs under me, I reach for my phone, searching.

I love my sessions with Nora. She is always my last patient of the day. As a person, I’ve always felt a pull to help others find their way back from whatever derailed them. As a therapist, this almost never happens. There isn’t a lot of satisfaction or reward, or even a sense of accomplishment. With Nora, it’s different. I can reach her, feel her energy, and while I’ve no doubt come to love her, the connection between us still isn’t something I can understand. It goes beyond doctor-patient, to a place I can’t define.

I feel the air around us lighten as I scroll through my ever-growing library of songs. I find what I’m looking for and set my phone on my desk, swiveling my chair in time with the music. Looking away, Nora visibly relaxes. Sitting in one of the chairs, she folds her arms across my desk and rests her chin. It takes seconds for the entire mood inside my office to shift. Calm and peaceful, I close my eyes and let the words speak from my soul to Nora’s. She lets the song play twice before pausing it. Chin still resting on her folded arms, her eyes meet mine.

“A boy likes me.” she whispers. In those four words I hear a thousand that don’t follow.

Nora is 16. Her dark eyes always make you look twice. And I know more than just one boy is crushing on her with that face. Even in her anger, her hurt, or her tears, she’s beautiful. But when that smile comes out, it’s contagious. Everyone only sees that stoic, serious face that is so intriguing. She draws people to her without trying, without wanting to. Her social skills are no longer severely underdeveloped, but this doesn’t mean she’ll ever have the confidence to use them. To others, Nora is quiet, shy, and reserved. To me, she was a broken little girl that’s grown into an adjusted teenager who still can’t quite trust anyone. Her dark, wavy, wild hair matches the chaotic soul inside she desperately tries to control. But just like half a bottle of leave in conditioner tames her wild curls, music tames her wild mind. But it hasn’t cured her. She still has significant social anxiety. A boy crushing on Nora is a waking nightmare for her. I know this can’t be the first time a boy has shown an interest in her, but it seems to be the first time she’s noticed. After witnessing the things her father did to her mother when he wasn’t laying his hands on her, it’s not surprising that Nora avoids these types of relationships at all costs.

“Do you know a lot about him?”

“He’s in every single class I have. He’s not loud.” Loud is Nora’s word for anything that attracts attention. “I don’t want him to like me. I don’t want anyone to like me.” All these years with Nora, and she can still make me fight back tears. But I find comfort in what we’re talking about. This is a normal, teenage girl worry. We aren’t discussing anger issues, or the fact that tomorrow Nora will be sitting with her mom as she goes through another chemo treatment. These are the observations that make for notes I eagerly add to her files. She has too many notes and comments about setbacks.

“We can’t control what others see or feel when they look at us.”

Nora sighs in annoyance, but it makes me smile. She knows what I’m going to say next.
“But we can control our own reactions. Yeah, I know…” she trails off, leaving silence. I let her be, knowing she would tell me in one way or another what was really bothering her. I scroll through the iPod, hoping she’ll speak before I find a song to speak for her. These are the signs I watch out for, that tell me where Nora’s head is, and whether she’s in a good place or lost inside herself.

“What is my reaction supposed to be?”

N O R A

I wish I could feel at ease around other people. I want to be able to laugh with friends. I want to have friends. But whether it’s the classmates I’m currently shutting out, or strangers I can’t evade, ignoring everyone has worked for me for so long. It’s a habit I’m convinced keeps me safe. Everything is different with H, though. The only person I trusted was my mom, and then H came into my life. She wasn’t loud, but she wasn’t soft, either. She was safe and familiar, a stranger that felt like home. It made no sense, but I never questioned it. There were never any questions to ask, just answers I didn’t know I needed.
Of all the answers H has given me over the years, none have been as important as music. Music, for me, is the answer to everything. When the chaos inside of me reaches the point of crippling weight, music sorts out the feelings and emotions that I can’t. And when the words I can’t speak overflow my brain, music is how I release them. It’s how I let my mom and H know I love them, I need them, I’m not okay, I need you to hold me, don’t touch me, but don’t leave me, yesterday was hard, but I’m so happy today, so please stop worrying. I am a mess of contradicting emotions, and music is my translator.

I wonder who I would be today if my past wasn’t so intricately woven into all of my tomorrows. Before I started therapy, I never gave a second thought to my lack of communication. Silence was armor that sometimes kept me safe from angry, violent hands. Silence kept me from saying the wrong words, words I’ve witnessed bring my mom to her knees. They weren’t meant to hurt her. They were meant to save my mom from him.

I never come near to what I want to say. Staying mute is safer than the words I can’t ever seem to get to come out right. The sounds my mother made that night, and the sight of her inconsolable on the floor, used to be a relentless loop inside of my head. It was a constant reminder that something I said caused that amount of pain for the only person in my life that I loved – until H made me see how my silence tortured my mom as much as it did me.

“Nora?” I look up at the sound of my teacher’s voice interrupting my thoughts. Without looking at the time, I know why she’s calling for me. As I gather my things, I wonder how many more times I’ll be doing this.

I don’t have to wonder for long. As I reach the front office, I feel two things before I see H. The first is H herself. I’ve always been able to feel her presence without actually seeing her. She’s hard not to notice, though. It’s difficult to tell what you see first: her towering height, or the bright red hair. Her pale skin, thin frame, and beauty scream “runway model” and not “I make the world a safer place by medicating all your local psychos.”

The second feeling is a crushing weight of panic. It’s not supposed to be her picking me up at this specific time of day.

I freeze where I am for a second, before I’m hyperaware of everyone around me. H has me out of the school doors seconds later, away from the stares, away from the sympathetic looks that are killing me inside. The silence inside of H’s car is too loud, and before I can reach for my iPod, she turns the car on. The song that plays tells me everything. No thought enters my mind without being obliterated by the lyrics singing the truth. There is no chance for the “maybe” or “what if” scenarios to comfort me. Music deals the hard blow with sweet melodies and heavy words.

When we reach the hospital, I want nothing more than the safe confines of my room, where I can be alone. Instead, we walk into a loud room full of beeping, voices, humming machines, and feelings I can’t keep at bay. The room feels claustrophobic with nurses and doctors and their grim faces, rushed movements, and lack of eye contact. The only stillness comes from the bed, where my mom sleeps peacefully. I don’t know what my face looks like, but it must mirror the terror I feel inside because H comes behind me and wraps her arms around me. For a second, as she pulls me to her, I think she’s crying, but it’s not her. It’s not her shaking quietly, not realizing that she’s falling apart. I can’t make my body go to her, can’t move my feet closer to the bed. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not yet. We were supposed to have more time.

I push back against H, desperate to be somewhere where this isn’t happening. She’s solid behind me, though, and the only move she makes is to bend to my ear.

“Just go to her, Nora. She can feel you, and she can hear. Just tell her.” I hear H’s words, but it’s what she presses into my hand that makes sense. I don’t have to look to know what it is, and I grip it like a lifeline as I go to my mom.

She’s dying. It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming, but nothing seems real until you’re crawling into a hospital bed with a body that’s been cold to the touch for too long, and pulling out headphones to listen to a song that leads to goodbye.

She doesn’t move. She’s under layers of blankets. For the last few months, nothing had been able to warm her up. Everything else about her, though, especially her smile, stayed warm. Looking at her now, I panic at suddenly not being able to vividly see her smiling in my head. How could I have lost this already? Before I can be pulled under by this thought, music fills my ears. At first, I think H must’ve set up this iPod, but then I recognize the song. There is only one voice that could sing to me the words my mother can’t speak to me, and for the rest of my life, that voice would be the most significant one that I would associate with the most important person in my life to leave me behind. There would be days to come where the headphones wouldn’t come away from my ears, days where I shut the entire world out so that it was just me, that voice, and my mom. The days will also come, fast and hard, where I won’t be able to hear that voice without feeling like someone lit me on fire. Fire burns and blisters, and it destroys whatever it touches, so that the only proof something existed is because those who once loved them have them safely tucked into a back corner of their minds. Songs will coax them from that dark space and the right lyrics will put them back when it’s too much.

No, this wasn’t from H. This song, these words, came from someone else.

“Mom.” I whisper. But there’s only silence from her. So, I put her song to me on repeat and close my eyes, ignoring the world outside of us. This was all I needed and everything I didn’t want.

H

I watch the scenes unfold. I watch helplessly, frustrated that there is absolutely nothing that I can do. I can’t stop Ruby’s suffering, and the rippled effect it’s created. We’ve all started to feel it, but I’m feeling it on different levels. I watch as her daughter’s therapist. I watch as her daughter’s protector.

I watch as someone I love slips away, faster than I can prepare the other person I love for this very loss. Time spent together as strangers in stressful, sensitive situations brought about trust and a unique bond between the three of us. When Ruby was required to attend therapy sessions she saw another doctor outside of my practice. We thought it was best that Ruby speak to someone who had no association or personal connection with Nora. Ruby had wounds that needed healing, too, pain that existed outside of Nora’s. I never refused Ruby my friendship, though, whether it came to her, or Nora. Months of progress, setbacks, reluctant smiles, emergency sessions, and panicked phone calls made us a family. We ate dinner together once a month, and had movie nights. Girls night out with Ruby was equivalent to my time with Nora; it was something fulfilling in my life. The time I give Nora helps her grow, but what Ruby gave me in those moments when it was just the two of us, two women only a few years apart in age, but living significantly different lives, is impossible to put into words. On a professional level, I understood why Nora needed music to communicate her feelings. But it wasn’t until I got to know Ruby that I was able to truly comprehend this overwhelming emotion on a personal level with Nora. What Ruby unknowingly gave me that particular night was a gift to both me and her daughter.

“How many different ways did you imagine your future?”                   

“An embarrassing amount.” My answer makes Ruby laugh, the darkness surrounding us making it seem louder. We’re at a comfortable place together after nearly two years, but I can feel things starting to shift as we grow closer. Our roles are becoming less “therapist and worried mother of a traumatized child” and more of a friendship between two adult women who still feel like we don’t know what the hell we are doing. “I only ever imagined my future going one way, and I think that’s where I fucked up.” I turn away from the stars to find Ruby watching them like all our answers are somewhere in between them.                             “Because it didn’t go like you thought it would, and now you have no idea what to do?” Ruby smiles before she narrows her eyes at me, asking, “Friend or therapist?” It’s my turn to smile while I roll my eyes and answer, “Friend. Always friend. I thought helping people would be the easiest thing in the world. I never imagined I’d get so invested in someone, and then never know what happened to them. Never know if I helped them enough to stay alive, or to build a better life that made them want to stay alive. It’s not something I’ll ever get used to.”        

    Ruby nods, eyes shining. “All I wanted was a family. A husband, kids, pets, baseball and soccer games, photo albums full of family vacations. All of that boring shit. Instead of being the mom that went on class field trips and made cookies for the bake sale, I became the single mom that rearranges her schedule for court ordered mother-daughter therapy sessions.” Eyes on the stars, she reaches out her hand, and I’m already grabbing it. “I would’ve done anything to save my little girl. So, I locked away that dream and focused on building a new dream, even though I had no idea what that was. I was scared shitless that first year we started therapy. My baby was gone, and I knew I had to do something before I lost her forever.” We’re both staring at a blurry sky, our gripped hands keeping us grounded. “You saved her, Brooke. I will never know how to thank you. But I’ll always keep trying to show you how grateful I am that you love her as fiercely as I do.” For the first time I can’t understand what I’m feeling, and after hours of restless sleep, I finally have the realization that this is exactly what Nora goes through. Taking a cue     from her, I pull up one of her many playlists saved on my laptop. I scan the songs, unsure of what I’m looking for, and settle on putting everything on shuffle. Six songs in, it happens. My head is full of so much that it’s easier to let it go running off out of control. I don’t know how long the song plays before my mind is so empty that I don’t realize my eyes are open, and I’ve been staring at the ceiling. It’s like the words chased away the thoughts that didn’t belong and put the rest in a sequence I could understand. I am momentarily paralyzed at what just happened, overwhelmed at the abrupt absence of being overwhelmed.   

    I play the memories over in my head as I watch my best friend sleeping serenely, when just hours ago I was sure I was watching her die. The sounds of pain that came from her will never leave my memory. I’m grateful Nora hadn’t been here to witness any of that. What she’s getting now is what she needs. Silence, so that she can speak. Silence, so that she can hear. Months ago, Ruby had asked me to help her come up with a playlist for Nora when the time came. What started out as a good-bye turned into something so much more. And what should’ve been another weekly chemo visit has turned into what I’m unable to acknowledge.

Hours go by without incident. Nora is another appendage to Ruby, the two of them lying in the hospital bed, one blissfully unaware and the other far too fragile to be in the center of all of this. I can’t tell if Nora is going through the playlist, or if she’s stuck on one song, but she’s got her headphones in each of their ears. In this moment, we are secluded in this tiny hospital room, with its suffocating lack of light. There are no windows and the dull, colorless walls only reinforce the fact that this room has seen the death of many. I’m afraid to stay how we are, because I know the longer we do, the more pieces Nora will shatter into when the time comes. We’ve skipped over all those preparations for hospice, a time that Nora would’ve been able to adjust at a slower pace, and gone straight to the end instead. The end that comes two days later.

8 agonizing days went by before Nora shed a tear.

7 different times I tried to tell her.

6 songs played on repeat.

5 weeks later she finally listened to something different.

4 days later I finally told her.

3 times she told me she hated me.

2 days in a row I woke up with Nora sleeping on the floor beside my bed.

1 month from now will be the biggest test of our relationship.

N O R A

I never thought the day would come when music would betray me. When I’ve needed it most, when the emotions inside of me have been as contradicting and confusing as ever, music has turned everything into a knotted mess more tangled than my headphones. Some days I listen to the playlist my mom left me from morning until night. Other days, I can’t stand the sight of my iPod. One song leaves me calm, but the next leaves me drowning with doubt about everything. And because I can’t figure out one feeling from the other, I resort to the one I know so well.

I can’t remember the last time I screamed at H. I can’t recall the last time I felt this much anger towards her. I do know the first time I felt hatred towards her because it was just a few days ago. I spoke the words “I hate you” with so much emotion that my throat burned for hours after. It hurt just as much the next two times I shouted it in her face. I can’t face in her the light, so I go to her in the safety of shadows and silence at night. In these quiet moments, I can feel it. That connection with H has never been as strong as it has since I came to stay with her weeks ago. It’s the source of all my confusion, and not one song has come close enough to speak what I can’t make sense of, the words I need H to hear. Thirty-nine words you won’t find in a song keep me company when I can’t sleep, something that is just as torturous.

I’m not angry at her. I’m hurting, I feel lost, and the anchor that has always secured me to earth is giving me the distance I don’t want, but most certainly deserve. And I know the reason H isn’t pushing me is because she’s just as confused. We have a new dance with no music to lead us, leaving us stumbling over each other’s feet, with one of us occasionally knocking the other down.

I’m reminded of those first months when I started seeing H, who was Miss Brooke back then. By the time she got to me, I’d already seen more psychiatrists and psychologists than the years she’d been in practice. It didn’t matter though, for me or for her. She didn’t treat me like I was the damaged, fragile child every other therapist had. And she wasn’t just another doctor I was afraid to talk to. I didn’t know what she was, I just knew I felt comfortable with her, nothing like how I’d felt with all the others. It would take a few years before I would be able to define Miss Brooke, but from that point on, I would always refer to her as “H.” I’ve never shared with her why I call her this, and she’s never asked. I feel like my mom might’ve known, though. I’m not sure why, I just always had the feeling she understood. It was like I suddenly knew how to breathe again, and she knew as much as I did that it was entirely because of H.

I’m on the verge of sleep with memories of times that my mom, H, and I would spend together outside of therapy when the song comes to me.

H

    On that third morning I wake up to an odd feeling. All night I had dreams of the court hearing we are supposed to have in a month, the one that will legally make me Nora’s guardian. It takes a few seconds before I realize that my alarm clock isn’t going off. Instead, music is playing. I sit up, expecting Nora to be on my floor again, but I’m alone. I sit back with a sigh, unsure of whether the knot in my heart is bigger than the one in my stomach. I know I need to be easier on both myself and Nora, considering what we’ve been through. And if I let the psychiatrist in me do her job, I could admit that we are both coping with normal behaviors and emotions. But I am no longer Nora’s therapist.

A brief pause in the music grabs my attention, and I realize that the song is on repeat. I sit up, a piece of paper just within reach on my bed. Just as I turn my head, letting the music fill my ears, my eyes fill with tears with a heartbreaking recognition at what I’m reading.

Hello, good morning, how you do? What makes your rising sun so new?

I could use a fresh beginning, too, all of my regrets are nothing new.

Hello, good morning, how you been? Yesterday left my head kicked in.

I never, never thought that I would fall like that, never knew that I could hurt this bad.

So this is the way that I say I need you

This is the way the I’m learning to breathe, I’m learning to crawl

I’m finding that you and you alone can break my fall.

It’s the very first song Ruby added to Nora’s playlist, the one that gave her the idea to create one in the first place. When I heard the words, sitting alone in my living room later that night, I wanted no more part of this project. How could I? These were the words Nora was going to need because her mother would no longer be around. She was overcoming one betrayal at the hands of one parent and falling headfirst right into another tragedy from the other.

For the first time, I allow myself to cry – the hard, painful kind, a reaction I’ve always had to fight when it came to Nora. But this time is different. This time Nora belongs to me. And the way Ruby and I left this detail unfinished can only be blamed on me now. We talked many times about how to tell Nora that I’d be her legal guardian if Ruby died before her eighteenth birthday. Aside from the legal documents, though, we never could settle on how to tell Nora. It was as if we were sealing Ruby’s fate if we solidified this last detail, and so we foolishly left it unfinished in the only way we could.

To admit this has backfired is the easy way out. Finding a way to apologize in Nora’s language was going to be hard on us both, but I’m the only one that deserves this pain. My first opportunity to protect Nora is a glaringly obvious fuck up on my part. A small part of me holds onto the fact that I know where Nora stands, with a bigger part of me acknowledging that she reached out on her own to show me. I know exactly how to bridge this gap, and then I can let Nora cross it at her own pace. I just need to be patient.

N O R A

    I’ve had my ear up to my wall for an hour, listening for anything to come from H’s room on the other side of our adjoining walls. The only sound is my song to H, playing on repeat. I start to get worried around the same time my neck starts to hurt. I wait another twenty minutes before the tears become too hard to hold back. The ache inside of me is worse than my neck. I let myself fall back onto the floor, where I can still faintly hear the music. I reach for my phone to play something else so I don’t have to listen to it. When I touch the screen to pick a song, a text comes through, and I accidentally open it instead. It’s from H, and it’s something shared from her iTunes. A song I’ve never heard. I wait, letting the magic of this language work its way throughout me, putting my insides together, and feel it settle into the parts that are so hard to control. I listen as I’m told, over and over again, that this is the day. This is the day that my life will surely change. Things will fall into place. Eight times he sings me these words, and eight times I believe him.

I’m so entranced by the song that I don’t even feel H watching me from my door. She joins me on the floor as the song finishes, and takes my hand. Her green eyes are bright, the pale skin on her face flushed. I’ve only seen H cry once or twice, but I always know when she’s sad or upset when there’s color in her face.

“We didn’t know how to tell you.”

I nod.

“We fucked up.”

I laugh.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“This is going to happen again. We can’t help it. But we’ll figure it out, we always have. One day this might feel like home to you, but know that nothing can ever replace your real home…Nora?” I hear H call my name as I run out of my room, looking for a box I had yet to unpack. I find it in the front room, and when I open it, what I’m looking for is sitting on top, waiting to be opened at the perfect moment.

This is the moment. This is the day our lives are going to change. I turn around when I hear her come behind me, my H. I silently hand her the envelope, and watch as she sits down to open it and begins reading. It won’t take her but a minute, and so I wait for her to read those thirty-nine words that have filled the cracks inside of me since the day I met H.

Hiraeth: a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home that maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning for a homely feeling; an expression for the bond you feel to someone or something that feels like home.

H

    I read the words on the paper, not quite understanding. They feel familiar, despite the fact I’ve never heard of this expression. I read them over again, trying to make the connection, trying to understand why-

H. When I look up at Nora she’s patiently standing there, this look on her face I will never forget. When she comes to me, I pull her onto my lap. I’m a blubbering mess, holding Nora tight, as she calmly lets me fall apart. She’s so tiny compared to me, but it feels like she fits perfectly.

“I didn’t know what the word was until years after I met you, but this feeling has been there since that first day. I didn’t know I was homesick until I sat with you in your office. But more than anything, you are my hiraeth because you are my someone that feels like home.”

“An expression for the bond you feel to someone that feels like home.” I whisper. “That’s why you call me H?” My red hair falls over her brown hair when she nods, and I know she’s out of words. I pull her to me even tighter, her head over my heart, both of us content to stay in this moment.

We are finally home.

E P I L O G U E

H

    Later that same night, I find another piece of paper inside the envelope from Nora. As I unfold it, a newspaper clipping falls out, one that I recognize immediately because I have the same one pressed between the pages of my mother’s favorite book. The handwriting in the letter catches my eye.

My dear friend,

    My mom always told me that any sacrifice, any good deed, and any kind act, no matter how small or big, was worth the effort because you didn’t know the impact it could have on someone. It might be all they needed to turn their day around, or it might just be as important as making them want to see the next day. Brooke, what you do matters. Please don’t ever doubt this.

    I know you’re confused about the newspaper article, the one about the woman who was kept on life support for two months so that her baby could live. That woman knew she wouldn’t survive the car accident she’d been in and begged her doctor to save her baby, no matter what. As you know, that doctor kept her promise. That doctor, who was my mother, kept the promise she made to her best friend, who also happened to be my godmother. I was about four when she died, so I don’t remember much about her, the woman who saved her baby. My own mother died before Nora was born, but she made me promise every time she told that story that I would name my first daughter after my godmother. She never knew what became of the baby. The father raised her, and they moved away without a word, days after she was born. The only information she had was the baby’s name, the same as her mother’s.

    I once told you I would risk anything to save Nora. This included taking a chance on a new therapist for her, except that the one I happened to find wasn’t just new, she was hardly experienced. Something about you made me feel safe, though, and I knew my daughter would be safe with you, too.   

    My mom saved the baby of her best friend, who then grew up to save the baby of her own best friend.  I told you I’d never be able to thank you for giving me my little girl back, but I would always keep trying.

    Look at Nora’s birth certificate. You have always been connected to each other, and now she belongs to you.

Your best friend, Ruby

My hands shake as I look through papers and documents, my mind racing as I try to connect all the dots. I’ve been given an overload of information that doesn’t quite make sense. I end up having to look through the stack three times before my fingers graze the paper I want. My eyes dance until I find it, along with the clarity that comes with it. All my questions are answered when I see her name.

Our names.

Eleanor Brooke.    

5+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

The Uncertainty of Being Earnest, by Peter McMillan

#literary #Mental health

Earnest was not your garden variety pessimist. Like his former idol, N., he was not satisfied just complaining. He had to destroy everything he found that was hopeful or good. Hope was an emotion and could not be trusted, and goodness was for the weak who needed directions on how to live. N. had also rejected all religions as variations on the same theme of creating purpose and the evidence to support it. And it wasn’t just the inflamed radicals with deadly political objectives. It was also the ordinary believers who observed Ramadan, Easter, Yom Kippur, Vesak, or Diwali but were otherwise unremarkable. Drawing from a common belief in hope and goodness, they were all misguided.

N.’s problem had been that he was so successful, in his mind, that he lost the fire and enthusiasm that first drove him to demolish these hollow belief systems. Once done, Earnest recalled, N. became bored and turned pessimism against itself. Ironically, N. was converted to his new quest. He constructed his own elaborate philosophy and became guardedly optimistic–hopeful and in tune with goodness. In Earnest’s view, N. had betrayed pessimism.

Earnest vowed to avoid the performative contradictions that had undermined N.’s later philosophy. For that to happen, he had to avoid N.’s mistake of challenging his own beliefs. He had to take as given that critique, destruction and pessimism were the essence of the eternally real. Because it was not belief but instead the very foundation upon which belief was built, it could not be logically removed without self-contradiction. To disconfirm is as much an affirmation as any belief, and pessimism is an attitude towards or belief about something. Yet something persists that is more fundamental than pessimism, and that is doubt. Unlike pessimism, doubt can be infinitely regressed. That was Earnest’s contribution which he felt completed N.’s work.

Theoretical skepticism and practical skepticism were two different things, Earnest discovered. He ended up believing in nothing, not even doubt. He couldn’t be sure that he trusted anything, and so he decided to accept that everything could be confirmed and denied, good and bad, right and wrong, believed and doubted. To live or to die, to love or not to love, to be successful or to fail were equally good and bad. Nothing was fixed. Even his bed might not be his bed, his apartment downtown might not be his apartment and might not even be downtown. Furthermore, nothing was his–not the bicycle, the book collection, the clock on the bedside table, the toothbrush on the bathroom sink. All of these things might not even belong to him. But what was most disturbing was the possibility that his very thoughts were unreal and were not about real things and that they only appeared to be the thoughts of a person who might not even exist.

Earnest felt but stopped thinking. He felt cold, lonely, depressed, and confused, and having no home to go to or identity to fall back on, he wandered the streets and slept where he fell. But this could not last indefinitely, and it didn’t. He was picked up by the police, interrogated, and placed in a psychiatric hospital where thanks to an aggressive chemical intervention regime he discovered a new side of himself–the gullible buffoon.

Cover image: Portrait of Pablo Picasso, by Juan Gris

11+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Jigsaw Puzzle, by David Cannella

#Jigsaw puzzle #Mental health

Jigsaw Puzzle

“I’m just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle before it rains anymore”
-The Rolling Stones

Her close coworkers told her she thinks too much, and her family told her she needed to be medicated. Did she? Maybe she just needed to better implement the coping skills Dr. Richrath had been teaching her. Deep breathing. Pausing.

Either way, Justine sat looking out the rain-blurred window with nothing but her thoughts. She always had her thoughts. The drops tapped the window, a few at a time, annoying her. The grass soaked up the water and turned greener. Everything was green. She’d have to cut the grass when everything dried out. The lawn was getting tall again. She winced at the thought of having to walk up and down her yard pushing four wheels artificially moved by a man-made engine.

The phone rang. She didn’t answer. She never answered unless someone was getting back to her. She picked up her phone to identify the caller. It was her sister, Amber. Amber, the star child of her small family. Amber, with her model looks and engineer temperament. Amber, everyone’s favorite. Not now. She’d call her older sister back later. She knew Amber was checking on her. Checking to see how she was feeling since she had only been home from the hospital for three weeks. Justine was probably another task on a to-do list for Amber’s day. Amber meant well, but how can you have a healthy relationship with someone who is everything you are not and everything you want to be? It simply cannot work.

When Justine called her back, the conversation would probably go like this:

Justine would say, “Hey, I see you called.”

Amber would answer, “Hey, sis. Just calling to see how you are doing.”

“I’m fine. The medication seems to be working. I don’t know. I can never tell.”

“Well, you sound good.”

“It’s an act.”

Amber would start in with, “Now don’t say shit like that. You know what you need to do. Put to use the tools Dr. Richrath has given you to work with. She is a cutting-edge doctor with all kinds of experience in helping people with – you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, how are you? How’s Jason and Ryan?”

“We are good. Listen, I’ve got to run. I’m taking Ryan to soccer practice. We were thinking about having a cookout for Father’s Day a week from Sunday.”

Blah, blah, blah. The perfect sister with her perfect family going to a wet, green soccer practice. How boring. How… typical. Did Amber ever have an original thought in her head, or was she a genetically superior robot who was programmed to do the right thing in every circumstance? Was she human? If so, did she ever struggle with her inherently depraved nature that, like everyone else’s, was absolutely self-centered, or was hers so deranged around being good that she simply did the right thing so that everyone around her would be happy and like her? Did she ever sin? She had never been drunk. Was not once depressed. She even waited to have sex until she married Jason, her perfect husband. Where was her struggle? Where was her shame? Did her compass ever point south?

She pulled the afghan off of her lap, folded it sloppily, and laid it on the chair in the corner. She walked to the couch and sat down as she searched for the remote control. Pushing the on button, she began partaking in her favorite drug. The nonresistant, culturally acceptable, legal form of escapism drew her attention to itself. The images on the screen melted any proactive thoughts she had like butter in a warm pan. She simply stared and suddenly did not feel alone. The man on the screen was talking to her. She listened for five minutes and decided what she was watching was boring. She turned the channel.

“Oh, please love me like before

Stay, stay, stay,

Oh, don’t show me the door

Let me stay, stay, stay”

A cute Latino pinup boy dressed in a white suit and turquoise collarless shirt was crooning lament to his lover. He wanted to stay with her, but she wanted to leave him. Everybody leaves. Everyone left her, and she understood why. Who would share the thoughts in her head on a consistent basis? It was just too much. The thoughts were too much for her, so how could she expect a partner to listen to them as well? She would always be alone.

She turned the channel because the song was making her think. The music was sad, a minor key of desperation in a vast open land of loneliness. The words were pleading, and she knew that feeling all too well. “I don’t know why I did it. Please don’t leave me. I love you,” or, “I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t know why I stole the candy bar from the store. I’m so sorry. I’ll be good. I’ll never do it again. Please don’t ground me. Please don’t punish me.”

The afternoon ticked by in front of the television. Eventually she found a funny movie. She caught it at the beginning, and it took her away, away from herself. She transcended her thoughts as the movie did what all great art does – it relieved Justine’s suffering. The healing power of a story catapulted her out of herself and into the conflict of another. She was comforted as she watched the protagonist face obstacles much larger than she ever would. With each conflict, the main character eventually rose above their circumstances and succeeded in getting what they wanted in the end. What did she want? If she was a character in a story, what would she want? She didn’t know, and at this point of her story, anyone telling it would not know either. Was she ok with not knowing what she wanted? Is it an ambivalence we can all sit in for now?

The alarm on her phone went off. It was time for medications. She stood up and let the blanket on her lap fall to the floor. She was sore from sitting for so long. She stretched, trying to touch the ceiling with the outstretched hands which rested at the end of her arms. She didn’t come close, but she felt better. Hey, maybe life is like that. Maybe you just have to try, and if you don’t succeed like the character in a movie, you will still feel good because you tried.

She trudged, almost uphill, one slow step in front of the other as she made her way to the kitchen. Abilify, Prozac, Lamictal, Alprazolam and Gabapentin were all waiting for her. She fumbled the first orange bottle when she picked it up. It fell, closed, to the floor with a crack. She picked it up, took a small yellow pill out of it and placed it on the counter. Yellow, orange, white, pink, green and yellow again. Who invented the colors of these pills? There were probably hundreds of board meetings about what color the medication should be. You should be able to order your meds in the color you want. “I’ll have a green Abilify, and let’s try pink Xanax today, ok, Gladys?” Her pharmacist was usually Gladys. What a horrible name. She was a nice lady though. On top of her shit.

She picked up the fistful of pills and said what she always did before she swallowed them. “Well, here goes nothing.” The chemicals entered her body and began doing whatever it was they did to her personality, her soul, her natural imprint. Each one changed who she was in a different way. Her snowflake was becoming the same as many others she saw standing in line at the pharmacy. The unresponsive look in the eyes was the first giveaway. No reaction. They just stood and waited as long as they had to, without opinion and with patience. Her chemistry was like theirs now. The doctors and the pharmacists were merely pawns to the pharmaceutical companies who aimed to not only control the population but also give the gift of nothingness to a generation of patients who willingly gave up who they intrinsically were in the name of “getting better.” She thought the business model was brilliant. Convince doctors and patients that the patient is sick and needs a product that may or may not work. A product that they can’t really specifically explain but which has helped some people. They just don’t quite know how it helps. The companies created their customers from dust, and most of them now look dusty. Not quite alive but maybe feeling better. The customer really isn’t sure they are better, but when that phone alarm goes off, they willingly consume the product. All because a doctor told them to. Brilliant!

As her chemicals went to work, Justine returned to the couch. She felt a stab of hunger grumbling in her belly somewhere. She felt too lethargic to cook. She glanced at her picture window and noticed it had no drops on it. The rain had stopped. Now everything was green and peaceful. Alive, but she was dead – the walking, or rather the sitting, dead. She felt her anti-anxiety medication calm her. It reminded her of the hospital just three weeks ago. They fed her all kinds of calming chemicals to get her to sit down and stop spouting off the made-up algebra she was doing in her head that day. She was also speaking most of the equations out of her mouth for the whole world to hear. But that was after the salami store. She was a genius that day. She laughed thinking about it.

At 5:05 her doorbell rang. Her first reaction was “shit!” She considered not answering it, but she found the will to get up after the second ring. One stubborn step after another placed her at the doorknob. She turned it and was startled, confused and curious all at once.


She spent one month in the hospital suffering from a manic episode. One month! She had very good insurance. Health is very important to the American society. It is so important, in fact, that it is just below money, food and oxygen on the list of societal priorities. They got their money, but did she get her health? Did they have the power to give it to her? Band-Aids. They only have the ability to put Band-Aids on her. She would never be completely well.

The day she went to the hospital was a day like any other. She did notice she was performing her morning rituals in record-breaking time. She was actually twenty minutes ahead of the clock when she decided to stop and pray for some reason. She prayed twenty-five Hail Marys. This was something she never did, but it felt as right as the water that cleansed her earlier in the shower.

On her drive to work, she began playing a game with herself. She would pick a number and multiply it by itself until she couldn’t do so anymore. Then the cars around her seemed to be driving much too slow. She turned the radio on and turned it up to eleven. Speed, reaction, twists and turns – her driving was splendid, aware and efficient. Then her thoughts clipped. Portions of this one and then of that. She was sexy; she was full of life. She was a little kid on Christmas morning jumping up and down, on fire from electricity of pure excitement. Dreams would come true. She was smarter than Amber, and so she called her to tell her.

Justine opened with, “You know that I got better grades in math than you did, right?”

Amber said, “Hi, honey, how are you?”

“I’m splufendus! Do you know why?” Justine didn’t pause. “Because I just realized how much smarter I am than you. That’s right, Amber. Smarter. And Billy Dobson told me he would rather feel me up then you because my boobs are nicer.”

“Are you ok, Justine? You sound a bit–”

“You have a great family, but your life sucks, you know. I have options, and nothing but good things are coming my way.”

“Where are you?”

Justine said, “I’m almost at work. Where are you? Oh, let me guess, getting ready to do nothing today because you don’t have to work? Going to go buy lunch meat later?”

“I’m suggesting that you go home and call in sick. I can be at your house in fifteen minutes. Do you remember last time? Honey, please go home.”

“So we can buy lunch meat together? Actually, I could go for some salami. Do you like pepperoni or salami better?”

Amber gave an ultimatum. “If you don’t go home, I’m coming to your office.”

“Pepperoni or salami!?!”

Amber answered tersely, “Salami.”

“Me too. What’s the difference? Hey, do you know what 127×127 is? That’s where I got stuck. Don’t use a calculator. Oh, wait. 16,129. I got it. I got to go.”

Justine lasted twenty minutes at work that morning. Amber, true to her word, showed up and met with Justine’s boss, who called security and then an ambulance. Embarrassing as it was, it needed to be done. Justine was in the throes of pleasure, pain, speed, lightning thoughts and thunderous communication. She was threatening a vendor on the phone when everyone arrived at her desk. The boss wisely evacuated everyone within earshot of Justine’s desk. Surprisingly, when Amber walked up to her and asked her to come and buy lunch meat with her, Justine gathered her belongings and agreed to go. “I really need some salami.”

He was at least six foot seven and weighed close to three hundred muscular pounds as he stood in front of Justine’s door. He was African, not African-American. She could tell when he spoke. All he said was “I cannot stay.” He was wearing an ugly brown corduroy suit with a matching fedora. He had a gold bone nose ring in his nose. He held a small purple velvet box and said, “I am only to give this to you if you promise to do what is instructed inside.” He stopped talking and stared at her, almost willing a yes out of her.

“Wait a second. What is this? I’m not going to agree to something when I don’t know what it is. Who are you?”

“I promise you, and I am a man of my word, that what is written in here is legal, not harmful in any way and will not take you long to obey. Will you obey?”

“Let’s open it.” She wanted to reach for it.

He held it further away from her. “It can only be opened tomorrow morning at seven. Are you willing?”

“Who are you, and why are you here?”

“There is a number to call inside after you have performed what is required.” He set the box at the bottom of Justine’s door. “Remember, you must not open this box until seven tomorrow morning. If you do, please do not call the number tomorrow morning. Remember, you are only fooling yourself if you lie.” He stared at her again, tipped his hat and walked away.

“Wait a minute. Who are you? Whom do you represent? What is your name?”

He stopped with this back to her and said, “Jeptha,” and then he walked away.

“Jeptha, come back! Jeptha!” But he was gone, vanished down the street. He probably had other boxes to deliver.

She picked the box up and closed the front door. It felt warm in her hands. It was made of cardboard and was covered in purple velvet. It was so soft, and yet the cardboard was very sturdy. It had a latch on the front of it. Should she open it? Who was this Jeptha to come to her house on a gray Sunday to interrupt her day of rest?

She gingerly carried the box to her coffee table and set it down. Could she wait until tomorrow at seven? She turned the television off so she could concentrate on what to do. Justine never kept the rules. As a small child, she would do whatever her mother told her not to. This trait could be described as rebellious until she was aged sixteen, and then sad all of the years after that. Jobs were lost, relationships extinguished, dreams changed. She felt entitled and always believed that if someone was challenging her, they most definitely were in the wrong.

She picked the purple box up again, and this time she smelled it. It smelled like crushed velvet. She ran her finger over the top of it. She wanted to know everything about the box if she couldn’t know its contents. She set it down again and played scenarios in her head. This guy was a pervert, and there was something sexual written down on a piece of paper inside. He would arrive ten minutes after she performed the act and would try to take things further with her.

Or her mother was upset that Justine hadn’t been calling her enough, and so she hired this guy to deliver a message that demanded that she call her mother. This was some kind of joke her mother was playing on her. But that didn’t sound like something her mother would do, especially if she perceived that Justine was probably going through a rough time after just being in the hospital. It was not really the time to start playing tricks on people.

Maybe someone from work needed something done and this was an original way to ask. It was a creative way to ask for help, especially since most of her coworkers knew how she hated to help others. That had to be it. This was probably Jenny’s cute way to get her to call an East Coast vendor at 7:00 a.m. She smiled, actually quite proud that she figured out the mystery so quickly. She thought about opening up the box just to get the phone number so she could call it now and brag that she figured it out. She looked once again at the box and spoke to it. “You thought you had me fooled, didn’t you? I am very smart, but I will admit this was a very intriguing game. Someone of lesser intelligence would’ve been consumed by you all night, but not me. I have you all figured out, purple box. Oh, Jenny, you are so cute.”

She picked the box up and placed it on the nightstand in her bedroom where it would wait the next fourteen hours, and then she went into the kitchen and decided she now had the energy to cook herself some dinner. And so she did.


Her alarm rang at 6:30 a.m., and she hit the snooze button for an extra ten minutes of sleep. Ten minutes later, she sat up in bed feeling very refreshed. She had slept well for the first time since she came home from the hospital. She looked over at the purple box and smiled at it as if it was a small child trying to outsmart her. Sun streamed through her bedroom window. The rain of the last few days was finally over. Getting out of bed, she went into the kitchen to brew her coffee and take her medications. She took the purple box with her and set it on the kitchen table.

A few minutes later, as the coffee maker burped and with her stomach full of pills, she returned to the kitchen table. She decided to kill the next few minutes on social media, and before she realized it, it was 6:58 a.m. She got up and poured herself a cup of coffee, mixing it correctly as if she were a chemist, and then she returned to the table.

At 7:00 a.m., she unlatched the box and saw a folded-up piece of paper lying on the purple velvet inside. She reached in and unfolded the piece of paper, smiling at Jenny’s creativity. On the piece of paper was printed one large word with a phone number underneath. The printed word read “SMILE.” Disappointment crossed her face like storm clouds on the horizon. “What the heck? Smile? What does that mean? That’s it? Smile?”

She reached for her phone to call the number and get to the bottom of the stupid trick someone was playing on her. She began dialing the number when Jeptha’s words played in her head. “Call the number after you have performed what is required.” Dammit. She ended her dialing. She had to smile, and yet in her disappointment, she seemed unable to let a genuine smile cross her face. She set the phone down and closed her eyes. After centering herself like Dr. Richrath taught her, she was able to think of something to make her smile. It was her own frustration. It was pretty funny how worked up the little purple box had gotten her. She smiled a big, wide smile, and then at 7:03 a.m., she dialed the number. She heard it connect.

A male voice answered. “Hello?”

“I performed the task in the purple box. Is this Jeptha?”

“Did you open the box before seven this morning?” the man who did not sound like Jeptha asked. “Be honest. It’s ok.”

“I waited until seven.” She gulped her coffee.

“Was it hard to do?”

“I was curious for about half an hour after I received it, but then I thought I knew who sent it and what it was, so I placed it on my nightstand and didn’t think about it the rest of the night.”

“So, thinking you had it figured out quenched your curiosity?”

“Yes. Is this Jeptha?”

“No.”

“Then, who is this?”

“You don’t know me. Did you smile like the paper asked you to?”

“Yes, but it took a few minutes because I was angry after I realized my guess was wrong. Plus, reading the word ‘SMILE’ kind of pissed me off. Anti-climactic.”

“Thank you. Jeptha will be getting in touch with you later today.”

“What? Listen, I don’t want any more participation in the strange game you are playing.”

Click.

The workday was spent looking over her shoulder for a large dark man in an ugly suit. Whenever she received a call on her cell, she answered it. By lunchtime there still was no sign of Jeptha. She decided to take her lunch with her outside so she could sit by the small pond amidst the towering trees and enjoy the sunshine. She had only eaten outside a few times and wondered why. She really enjoyed the quiet, recalibrating peace that nature afforded her. Why didn’t she do this more often? What stopped her?

She found a bench and placed her brown bag on it. The bench was parked a mere ten yards from the water. She was grateful that her company had created this outdoor haven for its workers when this new building was designed. The sun was dry, and only an occasional mild breeze cooled her skin. She sat on the bench and retrieved the food from the bag. As she began to nibble on a sandwich, she noticed a few ripples on top of the water as another breeze whispered by. Birds chirped a slow cadence of ambience and were drowned out by a truck pulling into the loading dock two hundred yards behind her. It coughed black smoke into the air two times, and Justine could smell it. “Thank you,” she sarcastically said out loud.

Her thoughts, which had been silent since she chose to eat outside, now began to ruminate on the purple box. What did it mean? Who sent it to her? Who was Jeptha, and why did he have to be so creepy? What would he bring her today? She focused on the water again and decided she would stop dwelling on the box and enjoy her lunch instead.

Before the truck pulled away, Justine’s sandwich was a near memory. She had also eaten all of her potato chips and was about to bite into her apple when her cell phone rang. She hurriedly reached into her purse and answered it.

“This is Jeptha,” the voice with an accent said after her greeting. “I have placed an item on your doorstep. I am asking you to deliver it for me by tonight at seven. The destination is not far from your house. The address is on the item. Are you able to do this?”

“Not until I get some answers.”

“The answers you are seeking will come in due time. Are you able to do this without them? Time is of the essence.”

“Ok, I will deliver your package even though I don’t understand why you didn’t do it yourself if you took the trouble to come to my house.” She crushed her apple.

“There is a phone number in an envelope on the item. Please call it after the item has been delivered.”

“Is it the same number as before, because I still have it saved in my–”

“Goodbye.” The call ended.

“You’re welcome!” She pulled her mouth away from the phone and raised her voice into it out of frustration. What was she involved with here? Was she delivering drugs? She should have made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with any sort of illegal activities. Could she be held liable because she didn’t express that? What if…. The water caught her vision again. The truck was gone, and the birds were once again audible. The heat from the sun was beginning to moisten her back and cause her to stick to the back of the bench. She finished her apple and placed the core into the brown bag. Looking at her watch, she decided to get back to her desk. She stood up and began walking to the building. On her way, she stopped to place the brown paper bag into a garbage can. As she opened the large glass-and-metal door to reenter the building, the alarm on her phone went off. It signified that it was time to take her medicine. All she could do now was wait.

She raced home within the speed limit and without any other thought in her head aside from the item she was to deliver. She squinted through her sunglasses to make out what was on her porch as she pulled into the driveway. Turning off the engine, she rushed to her door and verified what she saw from the driveway. A medium-sized brown cardboard box sat alone and in the open. After she unlocked the door and set her purse on a nearby chair, she stepped back outside and lifted it. It was only approximately five pounds. She glanced left and right down the block to make sure nobody saw her, and then she brought it inside the house and laid it on her coffee table. She sat on the couch and lowered her head so she was parallel to the box. If she had a magnifying glass, she would have used it. A sigh escaped from her mouth before she picked it up and slightly shook it. The inside revealed nothing more than air. She set it back down and noticed the envelope taped on the top. She pulled the envelope off and opened it. True to Jeptha’s word, the piece of paper contained only an address and a phone number. She folded the paper up and stood to place it in her purse on the chair. With anticipation overtaking her, she decided to deliver the package immediately.


“Next. Number twenty-two,” the man behind the deli counter said.

“I’m number twenty-two,” Justine announced.

“What can I get for you, ma’am?”

“Well, actually, I am here to deliver this package.” She raised the box. “Can I just leave it with you?”

The man’s expression changed to curiosity and concern. “You can leave it with me. I am the owner.”

“Are you expecting me to deliver something?”

The man looked at the two other customers in the store and then leaned close to the counter and whispered, “You’re Justine, right?”

“I am.”

“Ok, I’ll just take the box.” He raised the hairy, beefy arms that protruded from his white butcher’s smock. “Thank you.”

“May I ask what is inside?”

He ignored her question and asked his own. “Can I get you anything else?”

Justine leaned toward the counter and whispered, “Please tell me anything you can. I’d like to know what I am delivering.”

“Does every UPS driver know the contents of the package he delivers?” The man was getting irritated and clearly wanted her to leave.

“I am not–” She cleared her throat and began whispering again. “I am not a UPS driver. Now look, I provided the service for you, and I’d like to know what I am involved in here.”

“Honestly, ma’am, I don’t know what’s inside the box. If I did, I would tell you.”

“So, let’s open it.”

The lady behind Justine in line coughed twice to express her impatience. The man noticed and said, “I am not going to open it. I was only told to expect a package from Justine sometime before seven. I thought you knew what it was. Now, can I get you anything else? I’m getting backed up here.”

“One last question. You said you were told not to open it. Who told you that?”

“Look, I don’t know who you are or what is going on.” He waved her to the side of the store while raising his index finger to the woman behind her, letting her know he would just be one minute. He continued in a whisper. “You probably know more than I do. All I know is that this guy who calls himself Jeptha is suddenly in my life. He gives me tasks to do. I don’t know why I do it. Anyway, this is his box, and I am supposed to hold it for him. That, lady”⎯he paused⎯”is all I honestly know.” He waved her back in line. “Now, can I get you anything else?”

Justine knew he was telling the truth. He was not involved in any way. He was just a pawn like she was. She looked at the meat spread out before her behind the glass and then at him. “I’ll take a pound of salami.” And the lady behind her sighed out loud.

Seven that evening came fast. Justine reached for her phone to make the call, but at exactly seven, it rang. It was Dr. Richrath, and so she decided to take the call and cut her short.

“Good evening, Justine. I don’t normally do this, but I wanted to remind you of our appointment Thursday, and I wanted to check to see how you were doing.” The doctor was concerned.

“Hi, Dr. Richrath. I am doing well, thank you. I’m taking my meds, and I’ll see you Thursday.” Justine was quick and brief.

“Are you sure? You seem agitated.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine. I just need to call someone at seven, and I’m going to be late.”

“I understand. I’ll let you go, then, but remember to meditate quickly with a cleansing breath whenever you are agitated. I’ll let you go, and I’ll see you Thursday.”

“Good night, Doctor, and thank you for the reminder.” Justine ended the call and then dialed the number she was supposed to. It rang three times.

“Yes.” A different man answered.

“This is Justine. I delivered the item to the address on the box.” She was speaking quickly.

“Did you deliver it before seven?”

“Yes. I dropped it off around six.”

“Thank you. It will be some time before you hear from or see Jeptha again, but you will.”

“I’ve done this delivery for you, so will you please answer a couple of questions for me?”

“Good night, Justine.”

And that was that.

The following two days passed as boring, routine days are wont to do. Jeptha was on Justine’s mind. She even had a nightmare that she woke up and he was standing at the foot of her bed. Although she felt centered and able to concentrate clearly on all her work duties, she was waiting – no, hoping – for Jeptha to reappear. She answered every phone call, including this one on Wednesday night:

Justine answered the phone and said, “Hello, sis, what’s up?”

“Nothing. I was just calling about the cookout a week from Sunday. Can you bring some salads and a couple of liters of soda?”

“I can. So, how are you doing? Busy, I bet.”

Amber responded, “We are trying to get the boat ready at the lake house, and it is a major hassle. That thing is a money pit.”

“I love that boat. When are we going to the lake house? I miss Ryan. Oh, and Jason too, just don’t tell him.” Justine laughed.

“Give me a couple of weeks, and then we can spend a weekend up there. So, how are you doing? You sound really good.”

“I’m doing really well. Maybe the meds are working.”

Amber sighed. “Remember what Dr. Richrath said about using the tools she was describing to you. Cleansing breaths, not focusing on negative thoughts, coping with daily challenges and finding something that refreshes you. Are you doing those things along with the medication? Are you doing your best to keep your attention off of yourself and onto others? Do you have goals?”

“I’m doing those things, although it’s kind of being forced on me.”

“Forced? How so? Oh, do you mean work?”

“I’ll tell you more at the cookout. Listen, I’m going to read for a bit before bed, ok? I’ll talk to you at the end of the week.”

“Yes, you’ll talk to me at the end of the week if I call you. You have my number saved in your phone, right?”

Justine knew her sister had a point. “I’m sorry. You’re right. How about if I call you at the end of the week?”

“That would be nice.”


It was Thursday, and the wheels were coming off. Justine forgot to take her meds Wednesday night (damn alarm), and when she woke up Thursday morning, she felt… She felt everything. A lot of everything. Her morning routine was done, and even though she felt like praying a long time, she didn’t. Where was Jeptha? It had been three days. Why hadn’t he appeared? Where was he? She took her medications since her alarm finally decided to go off. She drank more coffee. That last cup was her third. And then, eventually, it was time for work.

Work, work, work. Work drained her. She could not focus. The rain was back. It splattered hopelessness all over the large windows next to her desk. It was hopeless today. She couldn’t concentrate. Coffee. She wanted more coffee.

Lunch came, and she stayed inside to gossip with Jenny and Elise. There were two affairs happening in the office. She knew about it, and now she wanted the details. Talk, talk, talk. She didn’t eat her two salami sandwiches. Lunch was over, and she took her medicine. All the different colors looked so inviting. Why couldn’t they have a flavor? Orange should taste like an orange. Blue could be blueberry. Yellow should be a banana, and green is lime. White could be white grape. Why don’t people think of these things? People are paid good money, and they never earn it. She yawned. She needed more coffee because she couldn’t concentrate. She was a blur. The day was going by so slow. She didn’t want to work. Wait, it was the end of the week. She should call Amber like she promised she would. She also set an alarm to remind her to see Dr. Richrath that night.

Her phone rang at 1:30 p.m. “Hello.”

“This is Jeptha.”

“Finally! Where have you been? What mission do you have for me today, sir? Another special deli run?”

“There is a dog in your backyard right now. When you go home, see if you like the dog. If you do and you want to keep it, call me back at this number by seven tonight. If you do not want the dog, I will provide you with an address to take him to.”

“Wait! Listen! I don’t want you fucking around by my house when I am not there.” She raised her voice loud enough that her coworkers noticed. “I don’t want your fucking dog, Jeptha, and I’m not delivering it anywhere for you.”

“You sound agitated.”

“Stay away from my backyard. The grass needs to be cut, and now there will be dog shit all over the place.”

“Why haven’t you cut your lawn?”

“Listen, I’ll do weird tasks for you, but you must stay out of my personal life. Who are you anyway?” She started screaming. “What are you, jetlagged?”

“I need to go now. Play with the dog. If you like it, please consider it as a gift from me for what you have done for me. Call me by seven.”

“No, you listen!” She stood up and began yelling at her phone, attracting all the attention of those who sat around her. “I’m done with you. You violated my privacy. My lawn needs to be cut, so I don’t want anyone at my house.”

“Justine?” It was her boss, Sandy. “Justine, can I see you for a moment?”

As Justine walked out of the building and toward her car, she made a phone call. “So, I’m going home for the afternoon. Do you want to hang out together? We never see each other.”

Amber sounded concerned. “What do you mean you are off? Are you ok? What’s wrong, Justine?”

“Yes, Sandy asked me to”⎯ she yawned⎯”take the rest of the day off. I think it’s a medication thing. I forgot”⎯she yawned again⎯”to take them last night.”

“But you’ve been taking them today, right?”

“Yes, Doctor Amber. I simply forgot because my alarm didn’t go off. I simply… I don’t know. I think I’m going home to take a nap. I have Dr. Richrath tonight at seven.”

She pulled into her driveway and walked through the front door. She entirely forgot about the dog, and as she lay on her bed, she set her alarm for an hour nap. Just one hour. A barking dog was the last thing she heard.

One hour later, she opened her eyes and rubbed them. She groggily sat up and attempted to remember what time of day it was. A few minutes later, she became recalibrated to her surroundings and remembered what happened at work. A new memory flashed, and it was about the dog. She jumped up and moved briskly to the back of the house and looked into the backyard. No dog. She slid her patio door open, and there was still no dog. She walked into the yard and checked the gate to make sure it hadn’t escaped. The gate was closed, so she walked back into the house and found her phone in her purse. She searched for the number she last spoke to Jeptha on and called it. It rang and rang. Then it just clicked to a dial tone. No voicemail and no answer. She walked into the kitchen and made herself a salami sandwich and began centering herself for her appointment with Dr. Richrath.

She sat in the waiting room, centered and mostly back to her medicated self. A painting of a barn on the wall looked peaceful. She checked her watch. It was 7:05 p.m. The great doctor was late. A moment later, her door clicked and swing open. The thin, modestly dressed doctor appeared. “Justine.” She closed her door behind her, leaving the both of them in the waiting room. “Hold on one second.” She motioned for Justine to sit, and she sat in the chair next to her. “You know that my methods are experiential and experimental, right?”

“I remember something about that from the hospital. My sister was telling me about this too.” Justine wrinkled up her nose in confusion.

“It is very important that you understand I am loyal to you. I, and everyone else in your life, can be trusted. Both those you know and those you don’t.”

“I’m confused. What do you mean?” Justine shook her head as if to dispel a fog.

“Do you believe that your family and I want the best for you?”

“Yes, I do. I’m doing a lot better. Today was just–”

“This is not about that. Let’s go inside.” The doctor stood up and let Justine behind the closed door and into her office.

It was like a surprise party from hell. “What the hell?” The office was scattered with chairs, and seated in them were her sister and Jason, her mother and father, and then she shrieked as she recognized both Jeptha and the deli man.


“Are you ok?” the doctor asked, and she used her hand to invite Justine to sit in an open chair. She did, and the doctor sat next to her. “For our purposes here tonight, I will be the only one talking to you during our appointment. If you have a question for someone, you can ask it, but I will let them know if they should answer you or not. Is that clear?”

“What’s not clear is what the heck is going on here!” She looked at her sister with a shrug of her shoulders and a “what gives” look on her face.

“Let me explain. When you left the hospital and we set up this appointment, I mentioned that your sister had sought out my experiential methods. She basically hired me to work with you. The day you left, I gave you some paperwork to read as homework. It detailed my medicinal protocol and my experiential and experimental methods. Do you remember?”

“I do. I didn’t read it, but I received it.”

“Well, I’m here to report my findings based on our experiment.” The doctor slipped her glasses onto her face and reached for a manila envelope on her desk. “We−” She paused and searched for the correct page. “We decided that, based on your bipolar diagnosis along with secondary anxiety, we needed an aggressive approach. Often people with severe mental illness need stability, routine, goals, peaceful practices and, obviously, medication. But please note that medication alone will often not lead to a more happy and productive life. Although it is a very important ingredient, as we saw today, it is only an ingredient. I have been conducting studies in the area of bipolar management for over twenty-five years, and I believe you experienced the benefits of that work.”

“How so?”

“I introduced Jeptha into your life as an authority figure to command you to do something and set timeliness goals. His arrival in your life helped to focus your thoughts, and you also had a jolt of excitement and anticipation, which is often lacking in the life of a bipolar patient. Did you feel alive?”

“I did.”

“Was it better than watching television?”

“It was. But−” She paused. “Can I ask a question?”

“Sure.”

“Who is the deli man?”

The doctor laughed. “Oh, let me introduce Michael, who played the role of Jeptha–”

Justine interrupted. “Very well, I might add.” They all laughed.

“The deli man is Jack. He really does work at the deli. He’s a successful patient of mine, and he sometimes helps us out when we need someone.”

“Nice to meet you, Jack. Great salami, by the way.” They all laughed again. “So, what is my family doing here?”

“Your sister has been checking in on you. In fact, she was the one who alerted us about the medicine hiccup today. Your mother… well, I’m going to let her speak.”

Justine’s mother’s hands were tightly clenched around a thoroughly used handkerchief. “Now?” she questioned the doctor.

“Yes, go ahead.”

“I’m not fond of any hocus-pocus that is going to confuse you, dear. That is why I haven’t called you much.” She started crying. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been there for you more, but this stuff just confuses me, and I didn’t want−” She was crying harder now. “I didn’t want to mess up what the doctor was doing. I just want what’s best for you. You’re my little girl.” Her husband held her hand tightly and a tear formed in his eye.

“We love you, honey,” her father added.

Justine was tearing up herself. “Ok, doc, enough of this emotional intimacy. What did we learn?”

“Justine, recovery from this disease is like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has to fit. The only problem is that the size of the pieces keep changing and distorting the picture. For example, today the medicine piece changed sizes and we had to deal with that. Each day there will be challenges, but you are very capable of having good days, and recognizing and adjusting on your bad ones.

So, here’s what we know about Justine from our little experiment. You need routine. It is crucial for you to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. You need goals. If you are not striving for something – and you’re a good striver – you fall back into passiveness. Doing things like overeating and television binge-watching, etc. I recommend joining a gym and taking up at least one hobby. You need to meditate daily, and from each session, you will learn how to carry the peace from your session into your day. Finally, you need to care for something. That is why we introduced the dog today.”

“I was going to ask about the dog.” Justine laughed.

“I recommend you get one. You need to care for plants or a dog, and you need to take care of your chores.”

“Like cutting your grass,” Michael quipped, and they all laughed.

“I know, I know,” said Justine, embarrassed.

“I want to continue working with you, and I can promise you there will be no more surprises. We know what we need to know. We just have to act on what we know. Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, can I see the dog”? Justine asked in a little girl voice. “They are so cute.”

“We can bring the dog over,” the doctor confirmed.

“So, I guess I know what I have to do. I just have to do it.” Justine reached for a tissue.

“And we are just starting, so don’t be so hard on yourself. Baby steps with everything except medication. You have to take your medication.”

“I just want to thank everyone for caring so much about me. I know I’m not the most caring person in the world, but I’m going to work on it. I’ll even call you sometimes, Amber! I did today!” Everyone smiled together. “I just have one thing to add. Obviously, Michael, you should never, ever, ever come to my house unannounced. I’m sorry that I bit your head off today.”

“No worries,” said Michael. “That wasn’t you. That was a lack of medication.”

“The problem I’ll have is recognizing what is the real me and what is the medication.”

Lunchtime. A brown bag with two salami sandwiches, a bag of chips, an apple… oh, and a bone. Is there a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than on a blanket at the park with salami and your dog? Justine thinks not.

9+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Jigsaw Puzzle, Part Two, by David Cannella

#Jigsaw puzzle #Mental health

The alarm on her phone went off. It was time for medications. She stood up and let the blanket on her lap fall to the floor. She was sore from sitting for so long. She stretched, trying to touch the ceiling with the outstretched hands which rested at the end of her arms. She didn’t come close, but she felt better. Hey, maybe life is like that. Maybe you just have to try, and if you don’t succeed like the character in a movie, you will still feel good because you tried.

She trudged, almost uphill, one slow step in front of the other as she made her way to the kitchen. Abilify, Prozac, Lamictal, Alprazolam and Gabapentin were all waiting for her. She fumbled the first orange bottle when she picked it up. It fell, closed, to the floor with a crack. She picked it up, took a small yellow pill out of it and placed it on the counter. Yellow, orange, white, pink, green and yellow again. Who invented the colors of these pills? There were probably hundreds of board meetings about what color the medication should be. You should be able to order your meds in the color you want. “I’ll have a green Abilify, and let’s try pink Xanax today, okay, Gladys?” Her pharmacist was usually Gladys. What a horrible name. She was a nice lady though. On top of her shit.

She picked up the fistful of pills and said what she always did before she swallowed them. “Well, here goes nothing.” The chemicals entered her body and began doing whatever it was they did to her personality, her soul, her natural imprint. Each one changed who she was in a different way. Her snowflake was becoming the same as many others she saw standing in line at the pharmacy. The unresponsive look in the eyes was the first giveaway. No reaction. They just stood and waited as long as they had to, without opinion and with patience. Her chemistry was like theirs now. The doctors and the pharmacists were merely pawns to the pharmaceutical companies who aimed to not only control the population but also give the gift of nothingness to a generation of patients who willingly gave up who they intrinsically were in the name of “getting better.” She thought the business model was brilliant. Convince doctors and patients that the patient is sick and needs a product that may or may not work. A product that they can’t really specifically explain but which has helped some people. They just don’t quite know how it helps. The companies created their customers from dust, and most of them now look dusty. Not quite alive but maybe feeling better. The customer really isn’t sure they are better, but when that phone alarm goes off, they willingly consume the product. All because a doctor told them to. Brilliant!

As her chemicals went to work, Justine returned to the couch. She felt a stab of hunger grumbling in her belly somewhere. She felt too lethargic to cook. She glanced at her picture window and noticed it had no drops on it. The rain had stopped. Now everything was green and peaceful. Alive, but she was dead – the walking, or rather the sitting, dead. She felt her anti-anxiety medication calm her. It reminded her of the hospital just three weeks ago. They fed her all kinds of calming chemicals to get her to sit down and stop spouting off the made-up algebra she was doing in her head that day. She was also speaking most of the equations out of her mouth for the whole world to hear. But that was after the salami store. She was a genius that day. She laughed thinking about it.

At 5:05 her doorbell rang. Her first reaction was “shit!” She considered not answering it, but she found the will to get up after the second ring. One stubborn step after another placed her at the doorknob. She turned it and was startled, confused and curious all at once.

8+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Jigsaw Puzzle, Part One, by David Cannella

#Jigsaw puzzle #Mental health

“I’m just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle before it rains anymore”
-The Rolling Stones

Her close coworkers told her she thinks too much, and her family told her she needed to be medicated. Did she? Maybe she just needed to better implement the coping skills Dr. Richrath had been teaching her. Deep breathing. Pausing.

Either way, Justine sat looking out the rain-blurred window with nothing but her thoughts. She always had her thoughts. The drops tapped the window, a few at a time, annoying her. The grass soaked up the water and turned greener. Everything was green. She’d have to cut the grass when everything dried out. The lawn was getting tall again. She winced at the thought of having to walk up and down her yard pushing four wheels artificially moved by a man-made engine.

The phone rang. She didn’t answer. She never answered unless someone was getting back to her. She picked up her phone to identify the caller. It was her sister, Amber. Amber, the star child of her small family. Amber, with her model looks and engineer temperament. Amber, everyone’s favorite. Not now. She’d call her older sister back later. She knew Amber was checking on her. Checking to see how she was feeling since she had only been home from the hospital for three weeks. Justine was probably another task on a to-do list for Amber’s day. Amber meant well, but how can you have a healthy relationship with someone who is everything you are not and everything you want to be? It simply cannot work.

When Justine called her back, the conversation would probably go like this:

Justine would say, “Hey, I see you called.”

Amber would answer, “Hey, sis. Just calling to see how you are doing.”

“I’m fine. The medication seems to be working. I don’t know. I can never tell.”

“Well, you sound good.”

“It’s an act.”

Amber would start in with, “Now don’t say shit like that. You know what you need to do. Put to use the tools Dr. Richrath has given you to work with. She is a cutting-edge doctor with all kinds of experience in helping people with – you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, how are you? How’s Jason and Ryan?”

“We are good. Listen, I’ve got to run. I’m taking Ryan to soccer practice. We were thinking about having a cookout for Father’s Day a week from Sunday.”

Blah, blah, blah. The perfect sister with her perfect family going to a wet, green soccer practice. How boring. How… typical. Did Amber ever have an original thought in her head, or was she a genetically superior robot who was programmed to do the right thing in every circumstance? Was she human? If so, did she ever struggle with her inherently depraved nature that, like everyone else’s, was absolutely self-centered, or was hers so deranged around being good that she simply did the right thing so that everyone around her would be happy and like her? Did she ever sin? She had never been drunk. Was not once depressed. She even waited to have sex until she married Jason, her perfect husband. Where was her struggle? Where was her shame? Did her compass ever point south?

She pulled the afghan off of her lap, folded it sloppily, and laid it on the chair in the corner. She walked to the couch and sat down as she searched for the remote control. Pushing the on button, she began partaking in her favorite drug. The nonresistant, culturally acceptable, legal form of escapism drew her attention to itself. The images on the screen melted any proactive thoughts she had like butter in a warm pan. She simply stared and suddenly did not feel alone. The man on the screen was talking to her. She listened for five minutes and decided what she was watching was boring. She turned the channel.

“Oh, please love me like before

Stay, stay, stay,

Oh, don’t show me the door

Let me stay, stay, stay”

A cute Latino pinup boy dressed in a white suit and turquoise collarless shirt was crooning lament to his lover. He wanted to stay with her, but she wanted to leave him. Everybody leaves. Everyone left her, and she understood why. Who would share the thoughts in her head on a consistent basis? It was just too much. The thoughts were too much for her, so how could she expect a partner to listen to them as well? She would always be alone.

She turned the channel because the song was making her think. The music was sad, a minor key of desperation in a vast open land of loneliness. The words were pleading, and she knew that feeling all too well. “I don’t know why I did it. Please don’t leave me. I love you,” or, “I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t know why I stole the candy bar from the store. I’m so sorry. I’ll be good. I’ll never do it again. Please don’t ground me. Please don’t punish me.”

The afternoon ticked by in front of the television. Eventually she found a funny movie. She caught it at the beginning, and it took her away, away from herself. She transcended her thoughts as the movie did what all great art does – it relieved Justine’s suffering. The healing power of a story catapulted her out of herself and into the conflict of another. She was comforted as she watched the protagonist face obstacles much larger than she ever would. With each conflict, the main character eventually rose above their circumstances and succeeded in getting what they wanted in the end. What did she want? If she was a character in a story, what would she want? She didn’t know, and at this point of her story, anyone telling it would not know either. Was she okay with not knowing what she wanted? Is it an ambivalence we can all sit in for now?

The alarm on her phone went off. It was time for medications.

7+
Send to Kindle
Standard