Tonight, I want to share something I wrote maybe a year ago. It’s an excerpt from an expository piece I wrote on my time in a South Carolina psych ward. I don’t expect any trigger warnings in here, but if you’ve been committed before, take some care.
A never integrated with the rest of the ward. She would walk up and down a hall, quietly crying. Perhaps insensitively, most of us were just indignant that she wouldn’t wear a bra or a real shirt and wouldn’t bathe. It was uncomfortable simply to look at her. The rest of us got up at 6:30am, got dressed before they took our vitals, and managed to keep up our hygiene despite the fact that the showers were always cold. (J was convinced that she was in Hell; she’d sneak off to the bathrooms and scald herself with the hot water until a nurse would figure out where she went and drag her out of there by her shirt. No hot water for the rest of us.)
A told me what was wrong one day. She stopped me while I was walking the halls. (Our only means for exercise was walking around in a circle about the ward. They even had a sign: 22 Laps = 1 Mile. I walked three every day.) Her explanation was terribly complicated, and I feel insane relaying it here. Somehow her dead (or not dead?) husband (or boyfriend?) was an angel who took her to visit God, and God told her that she was the worst, ugliest thing He had ever seen. So, the boyfriend took her down to Hell to show her what was in her future, and she willingly ate beetles while she was down there. Therefore, she was clearly a horrible person, irredeemable and damned. Day after day, A wandered the halls crying. None of us stopped her.
We could be terribly cruel, too.
Yikes. There’s a lesson in judgment. You think I could have been any harsher on anyone? (On A, on the institution, on myself?) Granted, the institution was a disgrace, A was unstable, and I was shooting dirty looks at everything in sight. The crisis ward on the sixth floor was quite literally spilling down into the stabilization ward on the fifth floor, so A was hardly the most unnerving company I kept that week. (Yes, they kept me a week. A national holiday on Monday apparently holds up hospital paperwork processing for days.)
But everything A told me was very, very true to her. It’s like she lived constantly in that single moment when you wake up but haven’t realized that the dream isn’t over yet, except hers was a nightmare. And all the rest of us could do was complain that she smelled and didn’t wear underwear.
I think identifying with her or even attempting to understand her would have been too frightening given where we were and how closely we were monitored. But today, I’ve learned well enough to know that no one can be condemned for the demon on their chest they can’t even see never mind shove off. (Portly little fucker, isn’t he?) I look back at those days lapping A over and over again in that circled hallway and wonder why the fuck I thought it was more important to spend that time memorizing “On Something, That Walks Somewhere” by Jonson than to stop more often and listen to her. Here is the poem:
At court I met it, in clothes brave enough,
To be a courtier; and looks grave enough,
To seem a statesman: as I near it came,
It made me a great face; I ask’d the name.
A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh, and blood,
And such from whom let no man hope least good,
For I will do none; and as little ill,
For I will dare none: Good Lord, walk dead still. -Ben Jonson, 1853
So fucking ironic. They who do nothing are the walking dead, i.e. the stuff that makes up the nightmares of the crazies. As one who identifies with the crazies, I proclaim too that my nightmare consists of the Uncommitted, the souls of Canto III of the Inferno:
Questi sciaurati, che mai non fur vivi,
erano ignudi e stimolati molto
da mosconi e da vespe ch’eran ivi.
Elle rigavan lor di sangue il volto,
che, mischiato di lagrime, a’ lor piedi
da fastidiosi vermi era ricolto.
Those wretches, who never were alive, were naked and sorely stung by hornets and wasps that were there; these made their faces stream with blood, which mingled with their tears and was gathered at their feet by loathsome worms. – Dante’s Inferno, Canto III.64-69
They receive worse scorn from Dante than almost any other type of sinner. Permitted neither in Purgatory nor Hell, they belong nowhere.
What the hell does this have to do with mindfulness? Simply this: be mindful of others as well as yourself. What the hell does this have to do with sarcasm? … no bloody clue. I’ll offer A that little bit of respect I didn’t give years ago: I won’t respond to her nightmares with callousness. I hope you won’t, either.
For the Love of Metta,