the healing muse

Volume 8, 2008


Annita Sawyer

February 1963

            It’s six o’clock and dark. In the observation dorm, most of the patients are still asleep. I’m lying in bed with a thermometer sticking out of my mouth, wishing I could find some way to skip today. The nurse who woke me up to take my temperature is back. She removes the thermometer, then jabs a needle into my shoulder. It hurts like crazy. The shot—“to dry up the saliva”—is one of the worst parts of this whole experience, although there are so many worst parts I wouldn’t say it’s the absolute worst. For a teenager I’m fairly good at handling pain. In some ways pain even helps. But not now.
            “Follow me,” the nurse whispers. She leads me from the dormitory into the treatment room. There, a nurse’s aide waits with the wet sheet and the gurney, a narrow sort of bed or padded table on wheels. My body anticipates what’s coming: I’m trembling.
            In this windowless room I take off my pajamas and stand naked until the nurse tells me to climb onto the table. I hold my thoughts very still, as if nothing is happening. As if I’m not here. “Now,” she says, nodding at the gurney, and I lie down on the damp sheet. It feels like rough canvas against my skin. The nurse and the aide wrap the sheet around me—they follow the same set of steps each time. I’m lifted back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth, and then suddenly they’re done: I’m lying flat, completely packed. Enveloped in wet cloth, my body turns freezing cold. Great shudders run through me in teeth-chattering waves. For a while, the shaking takes all of my attention—until I notice that I’m no longer cold. Gradually the waves subside. The trembling inside remains.
            I’m wrapped tight in this wet pack all the way up to my shoulders. I can’t move my arms or my legs. I can wiggle my toes and my fingers, and I do this nonstop. There is a huge energy building within my body and no place for it to go. I wiggle faster.
            Soon the nurse rolls my gurney out of the treatment room and into the long, low hallway leading to the room where they shock people. They’ve started the wet pack routine with someone else. I think it’s Allison. As I’m rolled down the hall, I pass someone I recognize from the gym. It’s the old English lady who shouts, “Jolly good” whenever her birdie flies over the badminton net. That’s all she ever says, “Jolly good.”
            She plays badminton with a younger woman who looks closer to my mother’s age. I think the two badminton ladies are from the senile ward. That ward smells of urine, dirty clothes, and fake rose cologne. Old women wander around talking to themselves. I know this because I used to live on one of the dormitories in the large main house and had to walk through the senile ward when I’d go to see the medical doctor. I don’t live there anymore.
            The ward I live on now is in a new concrete building on a different part of the hospital grounds. It feels like a basement, although if you look out through the windows you can see that it’s not. Plain, dark wood furniture sits in rooms with pale blue walls, worn linoleum floors, and lights that shine too bright. The ceilings are low, the angles sharp. Nurses use keys to open the windows. I’m here because I was too upset to stay at home. When I came back, they said I had to be watched.
            I’ve moved home and back at least two, maybe three, times. Shock treatment has erased most of my memory, so I can’t say exactly. It began when I was seventeen, about two and a half years ago. I improve for a while, and they let me go home. Short visits at first, then to spend a longer time. But something always happens to me, and I end up worse. Gradually all I can think about is how loathsome I am.
            This ward is where they put people who want to kill themselves. People like me who know they’re such a blot on humanity that they need to be eliminated. I haven’t yet found words to explain what it’s like to know you’re someone that vile; I still can’t make the doctors understand. That’s why I’m getting shock treatment again: they think it will make me talk.
            My gurney proceeds past the few patients who are allowed to wear their own clothes. They’re sitting on benches placed down one side of the hallway. I don’t know any of them. Next are a couple of the old women who can walk, and then patients from the unrestricted wards, who are allowed to keep on their pajamas and bathrobes. Some of these people look familiar, but I can’t really say who they are. I might have been one of them when I was here before. I just don’t know.
            Finally we come to the line where the patients on gurneys wait. The nurse parks me at the end. I’m number four. She pushes my bed against the wall and leaves.
            A wisp of hair is tickling my left cheek. I twist my lips, stretching them around to the side, as I try to blow it off. My ankles ache from wiggling my toes; I try to shake out my legs, but they don’t budge. I stop trying.
            Here’s where it turns really bad. The waiting.
            I hate shock treatment. I hate being stripped naked and wrapped up in this cold wet pack. I hate lying in the hallway like some animal at the zoo. I hate knowing I’ll have a headache and feel sick to my stomach afterward. But as I wait, and wait, and wait, hate gives way to terror. I’m smart enough to know that if you’re shooting electricity through someone’s brain and you measure it wrong, you electrocute them.
            Dying won’t be so bad, I say to myself. Isn’t that what you want? But this doesn’t quell the fear. Clean up the earth. Get rid of yourself. Go! But I can’t make the pounding blood slow or the icy waves leave the top of my stomach, heaving right under my heart.
            The line moves slowly, methodically forward. I dread what’s coming, not knowing if this will be the time that I die. I’d almost choose death, just to get it over with.
            The last person in front of me has been wheeled into the room. I’m next. A nurse emerges and walks over to my gurney. It’s my turn.
            In a daze I note the familiar steps: I’m lifted from the gurney onto the table where they do the shock. They make sure I’m strapped tight across my chest, so I don’t fall off. The nurse puts a greenish jelly on both sides of my forehead, up by my ears. For a moment, I’m annoyed that she’s messing up my hair. Then come the wires. I look up to see faces high above me. These are the men who will hold me down. I have to open my mouth for the fat tongue depressor that’s supposed to keep me from swallowing my tongue when the seizure occurs. I put my entire soul into my eyes and plead with them to spare me, but they don’t see anything.
            I don’t think they intend to hurt me, but I know that if they make a mistake, they might kill me. The room turns into an intense white light. I’m filled with burning ice. Then blackness.

             I rub my hand through the hair near my face. This hair feels stiff and brittle. Pieces of dry jelly break off, some in flakes, some in little chunks. My skin itches and my head hurts. I feel both hunger and a deep aversion to food of any sort. I’ll allow nothing to go into my mouth; at least I’m certain of that. I’m bone-tired; it’s hard for me to see. How I’ve come to my old plastic-covered chair in the day room I can’t recall, but it doesn’t matter. My focus is on my fingers in my hair, each flat, thin strand coated stiff with dried jelly that needs to be rubbed off. Because it itches. Because it is there. Because there is nothing else to think or to do.

            Preparing me for bed, the nurses’ aide unlocks the bathroom and waits for me while I get ready. As I look into the mirror to brush my teeth, I can see pieces of my hair sticking out on the sides of my head, near the top. I’ve learned to know my face in the distorting reflection of the stainless steel sheet mounted on the wall in this bathroom. Yet, even with the distortions, I’m embarrassed by the odd angles of my hair. And the now yellowish patches of old jelly showing here and there. I thought I would have removed them all by now.

            Even at night the stiff strands crinkle between my head and the hard pillow. More itching. More flakes. The telltale dandruff of the girl who gets shock treatment, the girl who is loathsome, the girl who won’t talk.

Return to Table of Contents, Volume 8, 2008.

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