Susan Bartlett Foot speaking on Unitarians Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions 1946-1954

In this video, Susan Bartlett Foote, a professor emerita in the School of Publich Health in Minnesota speaks about her book “The Crusade For Forgotten Souls – Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954”, University of Minnesota Press, 2018.   She tells the story  about how Unitarians in Minnesota helped to reform the mental institutions in Minnesota.  May we take pride and learn from the fortitude and dedication of our Unitarian forbears how to make a difference in issues of mental health.

Click on the link below to watch Susan give a lecture and show pictures from her book, and answer questions after the lecture. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15ymyVVucgw&feature=youtu.be

We wish to express gratitude to Graham Bell who recorded and produced the video.

Survey of UUs on Mental Health Issues

The mission of the UU Mental Health Network (UUMHN) is to promote inclusion of people affected by mental health issues in the life and work of our congregations and in the society at large.  We all know these times are profoundly difficult for many people emotionally for a number of reasons: the pandemic, racial issues, political issues, global warming… 

We will be having a strategy session in November to discuss our priorities for working on the most important issues.  We are seeking to learn what we can do as the UUMHN to support both individuals and congregations in this time of uncertainty, fear and stress, so as to best focus our efforts to carry out our mission. 

We have developed a survey which we will use to determine how to understand the emotional needs of UUs so we can prioritize our work.  


Please take the survey using the link below using this link: https://forms.gle/4wspcsKAxbGx6UQc6

Please take the survey before November 1.

We would like your help in distributing it. Please share broadly to as many Unitarian Universalists as possible before November 1. 

We will share results on our website (www.uumentalhealth.org) when the survey is complete.

Writing provides a healing journey

By Alice Holstein

Several months ago I finished writing a series of 19 essays that I named “Seeker: Claiming a Spiritual Not Religious Path.”

It was intended for the group of people popularly labeled “the nones,” the 27% of the population who are uninterested in formal religion.

They nonetheless claim to be spiritual, pursuing that through being in nature, practices such as meditation or yoga, family activities and social justice projects.

One third of them believe in God; one third believe in some kind of “force” and one third are humanist, agnostic or none of the above. They are of all ages, and lots of them are young.

My essays, which I thought might be a book, were aimed at helping this audience address such questions as “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “How do I live a life of meaning?” There is evidence that the “nones” do lack ways to create meaning in their lives.

As a lifelong “seeker,” I had asked these questions and more as I pursued an eclectic path toward a well-rounded spirituality. I also thought of my essays as “wisdom tales,” gathered from more than 75 years of living through some unusual experiences.

A few of my essay titles are “What Time Shall I Meet Your Plane?” about being there for a person when there is no one else to help solve a crisis, “Seeing Elizabeth Home,” about my companioning a beloved friend to her death, one of the most important things I have done in my life.

“Learning to Grieve With Elisabeth Kubler-Ross” was about coming to terms with my experience as a Vietnam-era veteran, 16 years after I left the service. Being a briefing officer for B-52 operations left indelible marks that I buried until her workshop.

I submitted the essays to an editor with big publishing house experience. He pronounced my writing style as lively and readable but that the work did not constitute enough essays for a book. He added that it probably would not interest a general public.

Although I was disappointed, I was not crushed; I knew the essays were distinctly personal and that one publishing avenue might have to be self-publishing. I am at the point, however, of being unwilling to undertake that learning curve or spend the money. Maybe I will change my mind.

What I am left with is the realization that ultimately, as an elder, I answered those questions of meaning and purpose for myself. Doing so has been a distinctly worthwhile endeavor.

Writing a “life review” is an exercise commonly suggested for elders; this was not exactly that, but it served the larger purpose of integrating many of my beliefs, lessons and stories within myself.

Such an integrating function is worthwhile in and of itself. In addition, I had hours and hours of writing pleasure, including the hours and hours of editing that good writing requires.

It is thus that I recommend all those who say, “I could/should write a book, or I want to leave my stories to others,” to go ahead and undertake the task. Who knows — you might even decide to self-publish, or perhaps make an inexpensive booklet of prime stories.

What matters most, however, is that you ask the questions, “Who am I?” or “Who have I been?” “Why was I here at all?” “How did I live a life of meaning?”

It seems to me that these are COVID-19 type issues. We have all been plunged into a dark night of the soul where we likely ponder such things. Our isolation and disruption of the normal may be a time to address these core questions.

There is a well-known saying that writers write for themselves. I know that truth from my previous publications.

If you have no writing skill, then make some notes and practice telling your stories.

The point is to put some preparation into the exercise. Rambling is not enjoyable to others.

The process of reflection, the clarity that comes only from writing, or gathering and honing our material, is a healing exercise.

Doing it can make us more whole and content, more complete as a human being, regardless of the audience or lack thereof, regardless of the so-called outward “success” of having distilled your personal story.

Your life is valuable and it is up to you to claim it, if only for yourself.

Alice Holstein, Ed.D., is a spiritual companioning practitioner, author and speaker in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She is at aholstein at centurytel.net

This article appeared in the LaCross Tribune on August 9, 2020

New Jersey – Stigma Free

By Carol McGough

In May 2011 the Hudson County affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness joined with town officials to declare Hoboken, New Jersey stigma free. This first stigma free zone in the country sought to raise awareness of mental illness and to encourage people to seek help and treatment. In the intervening years, the entire state has embraced the stigma free initiative, including municipalities, schools, and houses of worship

 In Bergen County, the most populous in the state, 69/70 municipalities have joined the initiative with proclamations, seminars, workshops and toolkits dedicated to advocacy and education.

The Codey Fund, founded by our former governor, has led the campaign, with funding for educational resources. In addition, the governor travels the state speaking to groups about mental health, with special emphasis on teenage suicide. A number of colleges and universities in the state are active in the stigma free movement as a result of the governor’s activism.

Through their pastoral care team, Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, New Jersey conducts stigma free activities, including interfaith roundtables and publishes the Stigma Free Zone (SFZ) News, founded by CUC member Cynthia Chazen. First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, Fanwood, NJ, hosted a task force with Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services and the city of Plainfield to declare the city stigma free in 2017. Members of the Plainfield congregation serve as stigma free zone ambassadors throughout the city.

 FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:

 City of Plainfield stigma free website www.werstigma-free.org

To receive the Stigma Free Zone News, email cynchazen@gmail.com

https://www.co.bergen.nj.us/images/Departments__Services/Health_Services/Mental_Health/FINALStigmaFreeToolkit.pdf

https://morriscountystigmafree.org/toolkit

www.codeyfund.org

 

 

 

Mental Health Wellness Tips for Quarantine

Sharing these tips from Dr. Eileen Feliciano, a doctoral level Psychologist in NYS with a Psy.D. in the specialties of School and Clinical Psychology.

After having thirty-one sessions this week with patients where the singular focus was COVID-19 and how to cope, I decided to consolidate my advice and make a list that I hope is helpful to all. I can’t control a lot of what is going on right now, but I can contribute this.

MENTAL HEALTH WELLNESS TIPS FOR QUARANTINE

  1. Stick to a routine. Go to sleep and wake up at a reasonable time, write a schedule that is varied and includes time for work as well as self-care.
  2. Dress for the social life you want, not the social life you have. Get showered and dressed in comfortable clothes, wash your face, brush your teeth. Take the time to do a bath or a facial. Put on some bright colors. It is amazing how our dress can impact our mood.
  3. Get out at least once a day, for at least thirty minutes. If you are concerned of contact, try first thing in the morning, or later in the evening, and try less traveled streets and avenues. If you are high risk or living with those who are high risk, open the windows and blast the fan. It is amazing how much fresh air can do for spirits.
  4. Find some time to move each day, again daily for at least thirty minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable going outside, there are many YouTube videos that offer free movement classes, and if all else fails, turn on the music and have a dance party!
  5. Reach out to others, you guessed it, at least once daily for thirty minutes. Try to do FaceTime, Skype, phone calls, texting—connect with other people to seek and provide support. Don’t forget to do this for your children as well. Set up virtual playdates with friends daily via FaceTime, Facebook Messenger Kids, Zoom, etc—your kids miss their friends, too!
  6. Stay hydrated and eat well. This one may seem obvious, but stress and eating often don’t mix well, and we find ourselves over-indulging, forgetting to eat, and avoiding food. Drink plenty of water, eat some good and nutritious foods, and challenge yourself to learn how to cook something new!
  7. Develop a self-care toolkit. This can look different for everyone. A lot of successful self-care strategies involve a sensory component (seven senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (comforting pressure). An idea for each: a soft blanket or stuffed animal, a hot chocolate, photos of vacations, comforting music, lavender or eucalyptus oil, a small swing or rocking chair, a weighted blanket. A journal, an inspirational book, or a mandala coloring book is wonderful, bubbles to blow or blowing watercolor on paper through a straw are visually appealing as well as work on controlled breath. Mint gum, Listerine strips, ginger ale, frozen Starburst, ice packs, and cold are also good for anxiety regulation. For children, it is great to help them create a self-regulation comfort box (often a shoe-box or bin they can decorate) that they can use on the ready for first-aid when overwhelmed.
  8. Spend extra time playing with children. Children will rarely communicate how they are feeling, but will often make a bid for attention and communication through play. Don’t be surprised to see therapeutic themes of illness, doctor visits, and isolation play through. Understand that play is cathartic and helpful for children—it is how they process their world and problem solve, and there’s a lot they are seeing and experiencing in the now.
  9. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a wide berth. A lot of cooped up time can bring out the worst in everyone. Each person will have moments when they will not be at their best. It is important to move with grace through blowups, to not show up to every argument you are invited to, and to not hold grudges and continue disagreements. Everyone is doing the best they can to make it through this.
  10. Everyone find their own retreat space. Space is at a premium, particularly with city living. It is important that people think through their own separate space for work and for relaxation. For children, help them identify a place where they can go to retreat when stressed. You can make this place cozy by using blankets, pillows, cushions, scarves, beanbags, tents, and “forts”. It is good to know that even when we are on top of each other, we have our own special place to go to be alone.
  11. Expect behavioral issues in children, and respond gently. We are all struggling with disruption in routine, none more than children, who rely on routines constructed by others to make them feel safe and to know what comes next. Expect increased anxiety, worries and fears, nightmares, difficulty separating or sleeping, testing limits, and meltdowns. Do not introduce major behavioral plans or consequences at this time—hold stable and focus on emotional connection.
  12. Focus on safety and attachment. We are going to be living for a bit with the unprecedented demand of meeting all work deadlines, homeschooling children, running a sterile household, and making a whole lot of entertainment in confinement. We can get wrapped up in meeting expectations in all domains, but we must remember that these are scary and unpredictable times for children. Focus on strengthening the connection through time spent following their lead, through physical touch, through play, through therapeutic books, and via verbal reassurances that you will be there for them in this time.
  13. Lower expectations and practice radical self-acceptance. This idea is connected with #12. We are doing too many things in this moment, under fear and stress. This does not make a formula for excellence. Instead, give yourself what psychologists call “radical self acceptance”: accepting everything about yourself, your current situation, and your life without question, blame, or pushback. You cannot fail at this—there is no roadmap, no precedent for this, and we are all truly doing the best we can in an impossible situation.
  14. Limit social media and COVID conversation, especially around children. One can find tons of information on COVID-19 to consume, and it changes minute to minute. The information is often sensationalized, negatively skewed, and alarmist. Find a few trusted sources that you can check in with consistently, limit it to a few times a day, and set a time limit for yourself on how much you consume (again 30 minutes tops, 2-3 times daily). Keep news and alarming conversations out of earshot from children—they see and hear everything, and can become very frightened by what they hear.
  15. Notice the good in the world, the helpers. There is a lot of scary, negative, and overwhelming information to take in regarding this pandemic. There are also a ton of stories of people sacrificing, donating, and supporting one another in miraculous ways. It is important to counter-balance the heavy information with the hopeful information.
  16. Help others. Find ways, big and small, to give back to others. Support restaurants, offer to grocery shop, check in with elderly neighbors, write psychological wellness tips for others—helping others gives us a sense of agency when things seem out of control.
  17. 17. Find something you can control, and control the heck out of it. In moments of big uncertainty and overwhelm, control your little corner of the world. Organize your bookshelf, purge your closet, put together that furniture, group your toys. It helps to anchor and ground us when the bigger things are chaotic.
  18. Find a long-term project to dive into. Now is the time to learn how to play the keyboard, put together a huge jigsaw puzzle, start a 15 hour game of Risk, paint a picture, read the Harry Potter series, binge watch an 8-season show, crochet a blanket, solve a Rubix cube, or develop a new town in Animal Crossing. Find something that will keep you busy, distracted, and engaged to take breaks from what is going on in the outside world.
  19. Engage in repetitive movements and left-right movements. Research has shown that repetitive movement (knitting, coloring, painting, clay sculpting, jump roping etc) especially left-right movement (running, drumming, skating, hopping) can be effective at self-soothing and maintaining self-regulation in moments of distress.
  20. Find an expressive art and go for it. Our emotional brain is very receptive to the creative arts, and it is a direct portal for release of feeling. Find something that is creative (sculpting, drawing, dancing, music, singing, playing) and give it your all. See how relieved you can feel. It is a very effective way of helping kids to emote and communicate as well!
  21. Find lightness and humor in each day. There is a lot to be worried about, and with good reason. Counterbalance this heaviness with something funny each day: cat videos on YouTube, a stand-up show on Netflix, a funny movie—we all need a little comedic relief in our day, every day.
  22. Reach out for help—your team is there for you. If you have a therapist or psychiatrist, they are available to you, even at a distance. Keep up your medications and your therapy sessions the best you can. If you are having difficulty coping, seek out help for the first time. There are mental health people on the ready to help you through this crisis. Your children’s teachers and related service providers will do anything within their power to help, especially for those parents tasked with the difficult task of being a whole treatment team to their child with special challenges. Seek support groups of fellow home-schoolers, parents, and neighbors to feel connected. There is help and support out there, any time of the day—although we are physically distant, we can always connect virtually.
  23. “Chunk” your quarantine, take it moment by moment. We have no road map for this. We don’t know what this will look like in 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month from now. Often, when I work with patients who have anxiety around overwhelming issues, I suggest that they engage in a strategy called “chunking”—focusing on whatever bite-sized piece of a challenge that feels manageable. Whether that be 5 minutes, a day, or a week at a time—find what feels doable for you, and set a time stamp for how far ahead in the future you will let yourself worry. Take each chunk one at a time, and move through stress in pieces.
  24. Remind yourself daily that this is temporary. It seems in the midst of this quarantine that it will never end. It is terrifying to think of the road stretching ahead of us. Please take time to remind yourself that although this is very scary and difficult, and will go on for an undetermined amount of time, it is a season of life and it will pass. We will return to feeing free, safe, busy, and connected in the days ahead.
  25. Find the lesson. This whole crisis can seem sad, senseless, and at times, avoidable. When psychologists work with trauma, a key feature to helping someone work through said trauma is to help them find their agency, the potential positive outcomes they can effect, the meaning and construction that can come out of destruction. What can each of us learn here, in big and small ways, from this crisis? What needs to change in ourselves, our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world?

 

UU Mental Health Network Receives Non-profit Status

We are delighted to announce that we received word from the Internal Revenue Service that our application for 501 (c)(3) non-profit status has been approved. This means that donations to the UU Mental Health Network are tax exempt. We will be putting a “Donate” button on our website to facilitate these interactions.

I Am Our Faith, As Is Everyone

By Henry Katzman, Unitarian Universalist Mental Health Network Board Member

The divinity of my experience is inarguable, as it is inarguable in all. To deny the “Worth and Dignity” of anyone based on the divergence of mind, is sacrilegious to our faith. Unitarian Universalism is a faith of devotional welcoming, claiming inclusivity of “All Creeds.” But I ask, can radical inclusivity exist when those we deem mentally ill are wrapped in a blanket of savior-like protection.

Within our congregations some feel the need to save, heal and ultimately perpetuate an idealism of health so undefinable we categorize it by what it is not. My illness (a word I’ve beginning to reject), has indisputably brought suffering in my life; changing my concurrent perspective. My “illness” although not all my conception of self, is part of who and why I am.

To be “cured” of my chronic condition is admittedly impossible and after years within the medical realm of invasive treatment, the consensus that this is true stands. So, I ask, how can I be faithful in a world where I am told my reality is one that is delusional, in contrast to what I experience? How can I be faithful, when those who, deemed sane, fix me and tell me what my faith ought to be.

Naturally I believe in my own divinity “created in their image” and as a theist, I believe that to hold true for all creation. To try to save me from my own divinity seems to defeat the purpose of acknowledging such. Marginalizing differential experience in the Unitarian Universalist faith must be looked upon and fought as if it is (and it very well may be) antithetical to the seven Principles and the six Sources.

I spread this condemnation of saviorhood to all peoples that are asked to assimilate to the “just and logical.” I have witnessed this in our siblings of faith facing other marginalizations. Often our community asks, “Change so we, may be feel at ease, unchallenged in our sense of self.” When directing this at those who are neurodivergent, not only is this adjustment asked, but an impossible task of moral consideration and reconciliation is imposed. For the “healthy” assume the experience of the unhealthy by knowing what it is not.

The divinity of my experience is inarguable. Truly I find myself challenged by my faithful communities, but because of my faith in right relations and the intrinsic power of systemic change, I stay. The divinity of my experience is inarguable, as is the divinity of others, knowing that intention to protect comes from an intention to progress towards what others see as “health”.

Along my journey I have learned that intention cannot always be trusted. Instead I trust in the divine source of creation, asking them for trust. Trust that I am human, not a patient who must be eradicated or a sad story to weep for. I trust that I am created in their image; that although I suffer, uniquely, I have been exposed to unique lessons that transcend the marginalization of staying in community that asks for me to colonize my experience.

I once thought that I was too ill to live and now I think I am too ill to die. The faith of Unitarian Universalism is mine; I claim a spot in the circle of life, with dignity afforded to my fellow worshipers. I love our faith; I feel anger towards our faith; I feel everything towards our faith. The dialectics flow, but what I do know is this: I am our faith, as is everyone.

I am Severely Mentally Ill, and I am Unitarian Universalist.

Bedlam: The Film and the Book

Psychiatrist and award-winning documentarian Kenneth Rosenberg sheds light on the mental-health-care crisis in the United States.

In 1946, Life magazine published an exposé: “BEDLAM 1946: Most of the U.S.  Mental Hospitals Are a Shame and Disgrace.” It focused on how mental hospitals had devolved into places of horror.  The article helped to shift public opinion away from institutionalization in favor of outpatient care.  Further, in 1948 the movie The Snake Pit starring Olivia de Haviland showed some terrifying scenes in a large mental institution.  The movie led to some states instituting reforms to their mental hospital systems, and added to the atmosphere of public opinion that led eventually to these institutions being closed.  The ultimate result of the closures is shown in this movie and book by Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg.  Hopefully the reaction to the book and movie will lead to a better end result for people in mental health crisis and their families.  As the publicity for the book and movie explain:

When Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg trained as a psychiatrist in the late 1980s, the state mental hospitals, which had reached peak occupancy in the 1950s, were being closed at an alarming rate, with many patients having nowhere to go. There has never been a more important time for this conversation, as one in five adults–40 million Americans–experiences mental illness each year. Today, the largest mental institution in the United States is the Los Angeles County Jail, and the last refuge for many of the 20,000 mentally ill people living on the streets of Los Angeles is L.A. County Hospital. There, Dr. Rosenberg begins his chronicle of what it means to be mentally ill in America today, integrating his own moving story of how the system failed his sister, Merle, who had schizophrenia. As he says, “I have come to see that my family’s tragedy, my family’s shame, is America’s great secret.”

The book has been made into a documentary. The film version of Bedlam follows the poignant stories of people grappling with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other chronic psychiatric conditions. Impossible to mask when untreated, their symptoms shove them into the path of police officers, ER doctors and nurses, lawyers, and prison guards. Shooting over the course of five years, Rosenberg takes us inside Los Angeles County’s overwhelmed and vastly under-resourced psych ER, a nearby jail warehousing thousands of psychiatric patients, and the homes — and homeless encampments — of people suffering from severe mental illness, where silence and shame often worsen the suffering.

Dr. Rosenberg gives readers and viewers an inside look at the historical, political, and economic forces that have resulted in the greatest social crisis of the twenty-first century. The culmination of a seven-year inquiry, Bedlam is not only a rallying cry for change, but also a guide for how we move forward with care and compassion, with resources that have never before been compiled, including legal advice, practical solutions for parents and loved ones, help finding community support, and information on therapeutic options.

 

Does Social Media Have Responsibilities?

The shooting in Santa Clarita, California, rocked the town after a 16-year-old shot five students, including himself, killing two students and the shooter succumbing to his injuries. Many are asking why, was he mentally ill? According to a press conference, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Padilla, he presumed the student was mentally ill, though no evidence proved this. Once again, a murderer is assumed to be mentally ill.
 
Why?
 
There are assumptions made when a person commits a mass shooting that they are mentally ill, but, according to the Secret Service,
 
[A]round half of mass attacks in 2017 and 2018 appeared to be motivated by grievances, or perceived wrongs, related to home, work or another personal sphere. Grievances were more commonly cited than any other motive, including mental illness — which the agency said was a motivating factor in 14% of incidents in 2017 and 19% in 2018. Other motivating factors included ideology, such as white supremacy and anti-Semitism, and an attempt to achieve fame.
 
So when someone shoots up a place of worship, school, a park, or even a gathering, more times than not, the culprit is more likely motivated by hate than being ill when the media shows people running out of a theater or off-campus or yes, a post office. Also, after the attack on 9/11, the 19 hijackers were terrorists and not depressed. One has to ask when a person flies a plane into a building, is that terrorism or is the person crazy? If a white male were to shoot up a Black congregation, is that person a terrorist or mentally ill?
 

Our President said that it’s the ill who kill and not the gun. If that’s the case, why the cut in social services? Why does Congress, who ask for thought and prayers after a massacre, refuse to raise taxes to pay for mental health services? Why must we, who do suffer, be grouped with those who are either religious extremists or a proponent of hate? Because mental health isn’t imperative.

If I were to write on Facebook that I will (blank) the President, the secret service, and every law enforcement agency would be knocking on my door. No one would have to report me as the social media software will find the keywords and point to the I.P. address where I am, and the authorities will visit me. Even if I were to write a threat on a blog that no one has access to, that too could be discovered.
 
But, consider the situation where someone is considering suicide and writes about it online. The expectation is for the writer to seek help, or if the person is on Facebook, Twitter, etc., then a friend could contact the person, or even 911 to prevent someone from harming themselves. The technology is there; these same social media groups have written software to detect certain words associated with terrorism so that they can be red-flagged.  If this were done for suicide, then social media organizations would step in, create an algorithm to find keywords associated with suicide, and report their findings to the proper law enforcement agencies.  The appropriate agency can visit the writer and possibly stop a bad situation from getting worse, and maybe save a person’s life.
 
When someone is depressed and is willing to harm themselves, a therapist, or even a family member can call for help. Still, if their pain is silent, then there could be a social media safety feature that could prevent a suicide.  Social media software,  with technology which can read words at the speed of light, might be the only entity to prevent a suicide.
 
Your thoughts?

You Were an Interesting Case, poetry by Ellie White

 

About the author: Ellie White holds an MFA from Old Dominion University. She writes poetry and nonfiction. She has won an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, and has been nominated for both Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Breakwater Review, SLANT, The Columbia Review, Foundry and many other journals. Ellie’s second chapbook, Drift, was recently published by Dancing Girl Press. Her first full-length collection will be released by Unsolicited Press on December 31st, 2019. She is a social media editor and reader for Muzzle Magazine. Ellie currently rents a basement in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia.  To read more of her work, visit her website: elliewhitewrites.com

Ellie White,  is a relative of current UU Mental Health Network board member, Erin White. 

Content Warning:  This poem discusses the experience of being hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital.  

You Were an Interesting Case

i. Going In

The day you looked Death in the face and told it
to fuck all the way off,
a pretty counselor walked beside you through the student center.
The police kindly kept their distance until you arrived
at the car, where the older one helped you fasten your seatbelt
across the gray plastic seat. It was so low,
you barely had to scrunch down.
At the hospital, a nurse took your vitals, and then led you
through a series of push-button doors.
On opening, each one leaned awkwardly away from its partner.
The nurse left you in the observation area and after a while,
the counselor left, too.
A new nurse came and drew your blood. Then, a different one came
with pizza and French fries. The dessert, of course,
was unidentifiable and your roommate laughed at it when he popped by
to say hello. The food nurse wanted a urine sample.
Though you’d never been arrested,
the bathroom reminded you of jail. The steel toilet was smeared
with shit. The handicap rails sported brown handprints.
You thought it best not to complain.
Like a good student, you answered every question, called your family, even emailed
your study partner. Angry and rejected, Death looked on.
You both cried a little bit.
Eventually, you were taken upstairs.

 

ii The Red Woman

Long before Death came into the picture, she was there. The Red Woman: a pure and vivacious rage. On a long and drunken walk home last April, she slipped into your shoe like a pebble from the riverbank. Your mind slid into her like a warm bath. She said Break the mirror. Punch the wall. and your body obeyed. The next morning, you could only finger the bruises as you watched the coffee brew. Summer was a blur. She’d show up, sometimes empty-handed, sometimes with a bottle of cheap Pinot, and the world was only corners. Only knives, and walls, and mirrors, and morning after morning with dried blood and Mr. Coffee. You didn’t bother with band aids or explanations. In late July, you finally let her move in, even got a new tattoo to mark the occasion: a keyhole on your ribs, so she could see out. But when she invited Death into your bed last night, you knew they both had to go. You didn’t know she was here at the hospital until a disheveled woman in a blue nightgown wandered into your supposedly safe room at 5 a.m. Under a blanket that reeked of sour spit, greasy scalps, and piss, you pretended to be asleep. She muttered White bitches. Why are all these white bitches lying in these beds? Just lying. I will set this whole place on fire. I’ll burn every last one of these white bitches up.     

 

iii. Humor

In the event you should like to make a joke,
ask to borrow the red marker. Use it to carefully color in
the letters on your milk carton. Try to imagine you are climbing
the hills of the M, or perhaps they are sand dunes,
or snow drifts. You haven’t been outside
in four days. It’s meditation hour,
so the television screen in the activity room is taunting you
with piney forests, austere mountain lakes, fields of wildflowers, and random deer.
The accompanying music is of the “serene” variety
usually reserved for acupuncturist’s offices.
Speaking of needles, you got this milk carton from an addict.
He drinks at least three milks with every meal,
but has no teeth so it’s hard to tell if he’s absorbing the calcium.
In his honor, and the Red Woman’s too, if you’re being honest, you add
a festive drop of blood just beneath
the straddled legs of the K. You show it first
to the friendly old man who almost killed his brother-in-law last week.
You tell him Hey look, it’s milk for vampires.
Then, you turn to the bearded woman coloring a butterfly who recently mistook her chest
for a knife block and say Got any Kotex?
I think the K sprung a leak.
On the screen, an unidentifiable farm animal (goat? sheep?) grazes
near the base of an oak tree. Behind it, gray mountains rise
like the constant prayers of the pregnant sex worker sitting one table over.
Nobody laughs. It’s not that kind of joke.

 

iv. Valium/Atarax

The Lord doesn’t speak to you like he did to your cousin. Instead, you watch from the flooded floor of the shower room as the Red Woman slithers aboard the dark ship, the one that carried Tennyson’s good King Arthur away. She is a serpent with an apple in her belly. Or maybe she is a ghost like the king. The king is still here somewhere, though poor Sir Bedivere has long since gone home to his grief. The Red Woman rocks with the ship; the night and the water indistinguishable from sleep. She once said she was heartless, so you lent her yours. She returned it seemingly intact save for a single splinter, bright and growing like winter’s dawn. In the galley, the Red Woman taps her foot on a rotting floor, and somehow, this translates as a pulse. She begins to dance a waltz, her bare blue feet finding every corner, brown toenails snapping off one by one, and your mind becomes the air in a car speeding past a country graveyard, prickly and full of gasps.  

 

v. Diagnosis and Discharge

Praise the three wise doctors,
for they have given it a name,
and that name has been fruitful
and multiplied. Now, there’s a word
for the days you spent drifting in and out
on the couch, binge-watching BBC period dramas
and forgetting to eat. A word
for the first two weeks of every quarter
in junior year when you never stopped.
Best of all, a pair of words for the intolerable sharpness,
the screaming thoughts and tapping fingers,
the toe-stubbing agony of sitting through lecture classes.
With this new vocabulary came little white pills,
each one a pure and perfect prayer to stop
the swinging. This is what they sent you home with.
Your mother met you on the other side of the doors,
and you let her hug you, let her see
her youngest and most difficult child
still intact. Your apartment looked like it did
five days ago. True to their nature, the cats purred
as they wound their steadfast and thready love around your feet.
The nose ring they made you take out
slid back in with minimal fuss.
You took a long shower,
conditioned your hair, put on nice deodorant.
You’d missed yourself too much to put on clothes,
so you crawled into bed naked. While you lay there
watching Girl, Interrupted and realizing no one
would believe any of this happened,
Death and the Red Woman sat in your kitchen.

* This poem originally appeared in Barely South Review