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.
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.
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