By Anna Allen
All hospitals smell the same: alcohol wipes, sugar-free cherry Jell-O, and cheap, plasticky bars of soap. The smell gets caught in my hair every time. This time, instead of dousing my strands in pomegranate shampoo, I ask Anne to shave my head bald.
Anne runs her hands through my reeking hair one last time, says she doesn’t smell anything at all, tears threatening to swan dive from her waterline. When she picks up the razor, I feel no loss. I look like I’m in mourning, like women ages ago, like I have realized my sailor will never come home from war.
I’ve been infantilized for twenty-four days. 5150’ed and 5250’ed. Time is syrupy slow, just drags along, hissing like a leaky balloon. There’s nothing to do but cry and watch Wheel of Fortune.
Medication hours are the most exciting. You never know who’s going to refuse meds. Who’ll hide the powder-blue, itty-bitty pill under their baby-pink, sopping tongue. Who’ll take an injection, legs and arms flailing, rather than admit defeat.
Going insane feels like wearing a too-tight wool sweater in the middle of the Central Valley in early August. Everything is so much much. Everything is not enough. When I’m losing it, my skin buzzes. Buzzes like a bee. I can’t have anyone touching me.
Anne rubs my arm with the tips of her fingers and I jump like she’s throwing flames. She resigns herself to nervously twisting her black, coiled hair into knots. Maybe wishing I were someone else, someone who didn’t lose her mind every few months.
My therapist is always telling me that to screen for maladaptive thoughts, I need to check the evidence to prove that the thought is right. Her intent is to show me that many of my negative thoughts have no proof to back them up. Anne does love me, does want to be with me.
But Anne and I were washing dishes, the night I got home from my most recent hospital stay. She abruptly stopped washing her bowl, turned to me, fear making her eyes as wide as that bowl, and in her honeyed voice, the sweetest voice, asked me,“Is this my life?”
A week post-hospitalization, she asks, “Are you sure you’ve taken your meds?”
Another day: “Baby, are you flushing your meds again?”
Everything about being mentally ill is baby baby baby, sweetheart, darling, you child, you idiot, you poor poor thing.
For the official record, I’m taking the meds. And I’m not drinking caffeine, or staying up past 10:00 PM, or using substances. I’m seeing my therapist and I’m going to group therapy. I’m doing everything right. I’m the perfect bipolar woman.
It’s been 12 years since I was diagnosed. I’ve been living the cleanest lifestyle since. Wake up at 7:00 AM, jog at 7:30; one hardboiled egg and a cup of nonfat yogurt at 8:00 AM, and so on.
Every part of my day is planned. Nothing is supposed to go wrong. Yet eventually, everything will go wrong.
The night I met Anne, I was staying up, out at a bar until 11:00 PM drinking soda water. She had her hair perched on top of her head in two buns. She kissed me first and drove me crazy.
When I woke up the next morning at 4:00 AM, lips still tingling, palms missing skimming her collarbones, I was actually crazy. Completely off my rocker. A few days later, I would attempt to drive my car off the Golden Gate Bridge.
One day, Anne will leave and I will be destroyed.
The day I got out of the psych ward, Anne took me to get the biggest and best slushy we could find. Cotton candy flavored. My throat was raw from screaming every night for twenty-four days; it felt good to have that blue ice shiver down my swollen throat. I was grateful. I took her face in my hand and kissed every inch of it.
“I don’t mean to hurt you so much, you know,” I said. “I never do.”
But I sure do hurt her.
Approximately thirty-six days ago, I yelled down at her, “I’m sure that I can fly! I think I can jump off our roof! I’ll just jump off the roof!” I howled this part, perched on top of our Ikea bookshelf, giving her a preview of the moves I would use when I actually jumped from the roof of our five-story apartment complex. A wild woman now. Full-blown mania. She had chased me around the apartment while I shattered plates and glasses, snapped pencils, kicked and punched holes in the walls, dripping blood in trails.
“Baby.” Her eyes were gathering tears. I’ve never seen anyone look so gutted. “You are killing me.”
I was so far gone, I couldn’t barely hear a word. All I knew was that the plants could talk and I’d like to try smoking.
She visited me every day in the ward. She works 80 hours a week because I can’t work at all. Yet she visited me every day.
Each day she brought me fresh underwear and a new pen. Each day the pen got confiscated. It was about the thought.
Each day when Anne left, I screamed for hours. At the top of my lungs. Werewolf screeches. And when she left, I could see her face in the window, waterfalling tears, mouthing, “I love you so much,” and I promised her in my head that this time was the last time I would do this to her. I promise her in my head the same thing every time.
I put her through this at least four times a year. We’ve been separated by glass windows reinforced by steel bars and locked doors seventeen times. She’s watched me hide pills, try to slit my wrists on the bars holding my hospital bed together, bang my head against the wall, try to make a run for it out of the hospital emergency room seventeen times. She’s heard me scream through the wall from her place in the long visitors’ line seventeen times.
I’ve been hospitalized seventeen times and Anne has been there for every one.
Anna Allen is a queer, Black femme living in Oakland, California. She has read at Get Lit, Litquake, Quiet Lightning, The National Black Arts Conference, and The Break Up Show. She has been published in Sparkle and Blink, The Scriblerus, and littledeathlit. She can be found at https://annaallenwrites.