Where They Would Be Safe, They Perish
When I met Viesia, she was twenty-one years old and described herself as a “working writer and artist.” She was in the midst of developing a performance piece with her mother about how her mental breakdown at age twelve (brought to life here in “Where They Would Be Safe, They Perish”) affected both her mother and herself, and their relationship.
Viesia told me she had received many diagnoses since her breakdown nine years earlier but found them all to be limited, since they didn’t reflect the range or complexity of what she lived with. She said she generally disliked diagnoses, because she felt they addressed only the negative aspects of mental illness. As she explained, “I consider my experiences to be both my greatest wound and my greatest strength.”
Even though she had bad periods, when depression and anxiety kept her from doing all that she wanted to do, Viesia told me she was still “much better functioning” than she’d once been. At the time of our meeting, she had been practicing impulse control for many years and had recently begun practicing Tai Chai and Chi Gung, which were enabling her to develop “self-containment” and feel less like she was “spiraling out of control.” She was hoping to find ways to help empower young people in the mental-health system, whom she described as “doubly disempowered” — they were, she believed “too young and too crazy to have a say in the decisions that affect their own lives.”
Viesia excerpted “Where They Would Be Safe, They Perish” from a work in progress that she began when she was sixteen.
In dedication to my stepfather,
I am relieved to see no bars on the windows. But I’m wondering when Nurse Ratchet is going to turn up. The guy who does show up is not scary. He’s a big man, nice in a bland way. I listen to him as he gives me his mini-tour on the way to the unit.
He takes me through the courtyard where the trees and yellowish-brown grass are as bare and sterile as the hospital buildings. I miss the lushness of the woods around my home.
The pink-walled corridor leading to the cafeteria is decorated with framed prints of famous paintings that some hospital committee had deemed comforting to the patient’s eye: Turner’s sea, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Monet’s garden.
The cafeteria itself has all the characteristics of a big and nice normal cafeteria. I will not mind eating here. Then the staff person tells me that the kids eat on the unit and are only allowed in the cafeteria under special circumstances.
When we arrive at the unit, we go through two locked doors. Here the corridor doesn’t even try to look light and cheerful; its gray carpets, gray walls. Spying into rooms with open doors, I see that they don’t even have mirrors or lamps like the rooms on the adult wards. The staff person tells me that the children’s rooms need to be as indestructible as possible or the kids will destroy them.
Next, we enter a room where there are rows of chairs in front of a TV screen covered by some material I have never seen before. He tells me it is plexiglass and that one of the kids broke their last TV in a fit of rage. He introduces me to the two kids in there. Annie, a mousy girl with stringy brown hair who is a year younger than me, and Zeke, who is four and looks like an angel with his gold hair and big gray eyes. Before he leaves, the staff person tells me the rest of the kids are away on a field trip to a nearby playground.
I sit there talking fitfully until a doctor comes and takes me away to ask me a few questions. She brings me to another room, where I sit and she stands over me with a notebook in hand. I feel a bit like Viewilla from my daydreams when she was being interrogated at Auschwitz. Not that she herself is scary — she is an ordinary woman with short hair, a round tense face that is closed to emotion.
She starts to grill me with her questions.
“Do you hear voices?”
“Yes, I’m not deaf.”
“Do you see things?”
“Yes, I’m not blind.”
I’m wondering what kind of questions these are until I guess from her expression that I have not understood what she means. She means voices there is no reason for, voices that tell me to do strange things. She means seeing things that aren’t there, hallucinations, flashbacks. I answer, “No,” in relief. That was one thing that was not wrong with me.
She leaves me alone in the room. A little black girl comes in with beaded pigtails and sits on the couch across from mine and entertains herself by fidgeting. . . .
Finally, it is bedtime. The nurse changes my bandage and tells me I am on suicide precautions. She shows me the room I’m to sleep in. A bare room. The other bedrooms have wooden bureaus. This room has a metal-frame bed with no sheets (I could always strangle myself with sheets and pillowcases), a blanket, and a pillow. The room has screened windows and an open door, so that I can be watched while sleeping.
As I lie there curled up in the scratchy wool blanket, I wonder how in one day I have gone from my full messy room in a beautiful old red Victorian house to this bare room in this ugly building.
I do not know why yesterday when Mother was brooding a few rooms away in the living room and playing the piano, I had, in the kitchen, taken a match and lit it, placed it over my wrist, and watched it burn slowly, sensuously my tender skin.
Yesterday I had known that Deborah in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden had burnt herself with cigarette butts, and it had given her comfort. I felt so much like Deborah that I thought it would work with me, too. And it did make me feel better, so I kept on doing it.
It was interesting to see the colors and texture of my skin change, all the minute transformations that kept my fascinated eyes captive. Soon I could peel off a layer of skin and underneath was pink and mushy, and soon my mother came in and asked what the burnt smell was, had I burnt something? And I, with my burnt skin hidden in my pocket, reassured her that nothing was wrong or burnt. She left and I realized how stupid I had been. I decided to do it sitting on the porch steps and allow the burnt smell to waft away with the wind. I paced to and fro from the kitchen to porch, chanting about how I rejoiced in the relief and wonder of my burning skin. But soon she called to me and said she wanted to take a walk around the block with me. I fluttered about, cleaning up all possible traces or clues to my activity and called back, “I’m coming.” We walked down the street arm in arm, my wrist hidden in my pocket, in the late summer evening’s light. A few doors down a woman was gardening. My mother likes fellow gardeners, so we stopped to chat with her.
When we came home, burning myself again didn’t seem right. Though the burning had made me feel better, the feeling was wearing off. I searched the kitchen with my eyes, desperate for another way to make myself feel better. I didn’t want to cut myself yet. My skin was too normal. I wanted it red and swollen. Then I knew what I wanted; I would beat my leg and then cut it. I went outside, picked out a sufficient stick and walked up the block until I came to a ratty old box of a car with a black metal post in front of it. I sat on the car and beat myself, though never hard enough to satisfy myself completely. Finally, I did get adequate results. I went back into the kitchen, sat down at the table, and cut myself. But I still wasn’t getting the relief I needed. I was only getting more frenzied and desperate. Burning had worked, why wasn’t this? I went back to cutting with increased vigor. Then my stepfather entered with a horrified look and wrestled the knife from my hands.
It is morning, and I wake to the feeling of rough wool irritating my skin and a face watching me through the open door. I stumble out of bed, rubbing at my eyes. Sock footed, in a T-shirt and long johns, I’m escorted to the room where they are storing my clothing. The shoelaces have been removed from my shoes, the string waistband from my canary-yellow sweatpants; I’m allowed no zippers, nothing sharp. I’m escorted back to the room that for the moment serves as mine. They close the door behind me just long enough for me to change. The staff person watches through the window in the door and keeps the other kids from spying a look. All my camping experience has taught me how to change without revealing much of anything. I use this expertise well. When I am finished, I’m escorted to the TV room to wait for breakfast. I am shown to my assigned seat. The staff member appointed to this room oversees all the kids watching the morning cartoons. I’m glad not to be alone in having my every moment and movement scrutinized. But when am I going to be able to pace?
Breakfast is in the dining room, served on a bunch of fake wooden tables with assigned seats. I sit across from Zeke. Next to Zeke sits a lively Hispanic seven year old, Junior, who likes to laugh and eat sugared cereal. He seems to like me and does his best to make me laugh. The first tentative giggles escape from my mouth as I eat my Bisquick pancakes dipped in sugar syrup with my hands, licking the stickiness off my fingers. Across from me, Zeke and Junior have a contest as to who can make the funniest and then the scariest face. Zeke wins. When he rolls his eyes, he is a child mocking and imitating (far too accurately) an adult’s gesture of resigned disdainful exasperation. I find it heartbreakingly eloquent. Then his mobile face changes from a too-old-for-his-years tortured grimace back to a child’s face as he pretends to be various animals. I decide that being here isn’t so bad. . . .
Hours later I am in the once-a-week community meeting led by the head-honcho psychiatrist himself. He had an (I’m sure he thought brilliant) idea that we all would get to know each other better if we went around the room declaring our favorite ice cream flavor. Maybe his criteria is that if Kid A and Kid B both love mint-chocolate ice cream, they will become instant friends. Did he, did I, learn anything more about the kids upon determining that Zeke likes Rocky Road, while Annie prefers black raspberry?
Besides being a pompous condescending idiot, he reminds me of a tombstone. There is a quality about his face that is a memorial to his own death, probably long ago, before my birth. Yet he presumes to help me. Me, with my tortured nerves scraped raw, yes, but I’m alive. I haven’t died without even being aware of it. He has, so it is easy enough for him to presume he can help me. He can’t grasp that he is worse off than I am and that I can help him more than he can help me. Even from the throes of the abyss. I just don’t want to.
It is obvious he doesn’t have the least amount of understanding or compassion for us kids. He doesn’t have any desire to help us. He does it because he thinks he can. He does it for his ego. I only wish he could help us. He is awkward, though he tries to mask it. He doesn’t know how to make himself sympathetic to kids. So he klutzes from one posture (that he deceives himself into believing is effective) to another.
I sit there getting sicker every moment, waiting for it to end so he’ll go away. The best way he can help me is to keep away from me.
When the meeting ends, I break out into applause and inform the nearest staff person that since I have no reason to go to unit meetings, I am not going to go to them.
Because I refuse to go to all unit meetings, they force me to spend half an hour in the quiet room and then 45 minutes in one seat during the meeting times, unable to pace, read, write, or do art work. All I can do is fidget and vocalize, chant and create my own symphonies of animal sounds. Still, nothing can compel me to go to the unit meetings. I prefer boredom. Boredom isn’t so bad after you get used to it. Observing the staff’s reactions to my boredom-induced idiosyncratic behavior is rather amusing.
As I sit on the slightly rough sky-blue carpet in front of the jigsaw puzzle I am working on, I begin to long for my room. It is so much prettier. But I love working on this jigsaw puzzle. It has dolls all lined up in rows and lots of visual contrast, all the different colors and patterns of the dresses, the variety in the faces and hands. This jigsaw puzzle is keeping me sane for the moment. Occasionally, other kids come over and help for a few moments, and I always welcome the help and companionship, but I am the only one who needs to work on it constantly.
As I work on my puzzle, I think of my room where I’d be sitting on a comfortable chair at my real wood table that is painted a beautiful royal blue. I miss my table but not as much as I miss my blue metal bunk bed with my books scattered all over the mattress and its view out and over the back-porch roof. I could lie in my bed and gaze out my window at my tree during the day when the sky peeking through the leaves is so beautiful. Or at night, I’d trace abstract shapes and primitive nudes in the random placement of limbs and branches. In winter, I’d lull myself by watching the snow pattering on my roof for hours.
A couple months later, I find myself sitting in the comfortable chair in the social worker’s office as they decide on my treatment plan. They decide that I am going home and that everyone will encourage and reassure me that I am doing a good job of coping, making friends. I sit there silent even though I feel decisions that they are making about my life aren’t the right ones. My muteness has decided that I don’t know anything about me, or what is best for me, and the doctors do.
I sit and my eyes dart like a cornered animal. The muteness has overpowered my throat and my jaw stays clamped shut. I can’t say what so much of me is clamoring to say. I’m dead certain that the ones older than I, the male ones, the self-assured ones, know what is best for me. Even though inside it doesn’t feel right and my heart is pumping dread as well as blood throughout my body.
I’m losing. The tide is against me. This is a battle I can’t win. Ninety-five pounds of flesh fighting uphill against gale winds that do their best to batter me down further into the abyss. Winds sweep parts of me away, where they blow around and then come back to hit me like bullets out of a slingshot.
I am at home upstairs, pacing in frustration. The imperfections of my writing leave me with tears running down my face. I can’t make it. I can’t bear it. I don’t have the will. Even the strength of despair at my own imminent failure/destruction can’t hold me any longer.
I run to the kitchen and frantically search for a suitable knife. The first one I find only slits me. That is not relief, that is only mockery. I don’t want a little slit with its trickling of blood. It isn’t a brook I’m freeing from inside of me, it is a goddamn flood and it needs to come pouring out of a big cut. I find a big sharp butcher knife I know will work. Yes, little by little, it is slowly working.
Then my mother interrupts me, but it hasn’t been enough, the flood hasn’t left my body. I desperately fight her; we wrestle, spilling blood all over the linoleum floor. She manages to get the knife away from me. We are both crying. She is going to take me to the hospital. I don’t have to worry about making it any more. Shock begins to settle in, its own form of relief, and I like it. Maybe when I wake up the flood will have abated.
In the emergency room I’m waited on quickly, after my mother tells them it is a psychiatric emergency and I have to be committed because I cut myself with a big knife. They tell me I am going to need stitches as they wheel me away, barely awake, in a portable bed. They wake me up to put my leg to sleep and I’m told it might prick a little. I wonder why they bother. I’m too sleepy to mind, and besides, it didn’t hurt when I cut myself up, so why should it hurt when they stitch me up. They give me the shot and I fall back asleep.
I am awakened because they want to move me out of the emergency-room area to the psychiatric nurse-on-call’s room. I curl up in the white crocheted blanket the nurse gave me and go to sleep on the examining table. I wake up a long time later. My father is here as well as my mother, quietly discussing which hospital they are going to send me to. The choice is between Suffolk and another hospital, Gaebler. I don’t want Gaebler. I don’t know Gaebler. I at least know Suffolk, I was safe there. I am mute with this raw fear of mine. But it must be clear on my face, because my parents argue harder for Suffolk. Finally, the nurse agrees when she realizes we all want Suffolk, Suffolk is known. But she insists that I should be driven in an ambulance, and my mother insists on riding with me. This is the first time I have ridden inside an ambulance. I am not scared, but I don’t know what it will be like in there, so it is good to know that she will be there with me.
They thankfully don’t strap me into the bed but allow me to sit up sideways. My mother and I look at paintings in the Russian art book my stepfather Ed brought for us. Both of us get carsick on the crazy ride, with the ambulance lights blaring, the vehicle lurching every which way because the jerk driver is hurry hurry.
We arrive at the hospital. I am in better shape than I was the first time I was admitted, because I am not in the least bit scared or even apprehensive. I am slightly indifferent and convinced that the mad house is where she who is fated for madness belongs.
We meet up with my father and Ed, enter the back way, and I am checked in. I absentmindedly fidget and cling to my mother’s hand. My parents persuade the staff to allow us to take one last walk outside. I am happy about that because I need it and them. Today we are united as a family in a way I didn’t believe possible, and I feel close to them all and that gives me strength.
All my walls have crumbled. All pretensions are gone. My only obligation is to fall apart, cry, feel, pace, paint, write, and experience what it is like to hit rock bottom of the abyss.
As soon as I know the territory far too well, I will slowly claw my way out of here. And my parents will help me. They will come and visit as often as possible. They will hold me when I cry, pace with me, take my phone calls, listen to me read my poem over the phone or in person, look at my artwork, bring me postcards, make tapes for me to listen to, bring me books to read.
I am open, vulnerable. I can no longer afford to be closed. I am open to every gale-force wind that wants to rend me apart. I am open to all emotions that float through me. My depression will simmer and then slowly boil away.
Demon Self-Portrait by Viesia Novosielski
Looking Back at the Abyss by Viesia Novosielski
Linda Hillyer, compiler and editor of Listen to Our Stories
logo art by Adiyana Paramita
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