The Heart’s Despair
I wander the long green hall at night, passing rooms
where women are awake, terrified to leave until dawn.
And for those who cry, or even scream, a team of aides
respond to wake them out of nightmares and into
some kind of peace. Needing more sleeping meds
my doc has ordered, I step over mattresses of women
who must be watched so they do not self-harm.
My new roommate is here, tearing at bandages
at her wrists, looking for slow relief. The nurse
hands me Xanax in a small paper cup and some water,
watches me swallow. I leave those who should be safe
in night’s bright light. And I think of my own diagnosis—
bipolar with PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder, and
a touch of DID. Nothing is simple here. I am at the end,
just like every other woman. We want to be well,
we need meds that will rise us above the heart’s despair.
We want to leave this psychiatric hospital, clear of
desperate histories. It frightens us to name our pasts, what
brings us here—childhood sexual abuse and trauma from
fathers, brothers, uncles, friendly next-door neighbors. Family
friends. Mothers, sisters. Each agony differs. Stories crackle
and break daily in Group Therapy. Most are women
with more than one personality. Those who sometimes
are children carry stuffed animals like babies wrapped
in baby blankets. My former roommate
is sometimes a man who dislikes me. Smooth talker he
chain smokes house cigarettes and when done, stubs
the last butt on her cheek, leaves, getting her in trouble.
Punishment ahead. Think of the patient, a former nurse,
who brought a butcher knife to her therapist’s office and
is now here, hundreds of miles from home like me, wonders
what brings her. Speak, speak therapists say but how
well we have been taught to remain silent. We see our
shrinks three times a week. The first day I am a rocky
island, without words. Then I begin to cry. You are not
stone she tells me. You will get better. What is to be
three days turns into weeks until thirty-one days pass.
Yet on the eve of returning home, I do not sleep.
Medication useless, o-so-many watchful hours ahead.
Face it—she’s the kind who pinches hard without warning,
who chases my sister and me through the kitchen, up the stairs,
even into the backyard with the flat wooden back of her hairbrush.
Quick-footed in daylight like a rollercoaster trundling along,
dips, twirls and everyone screaming. Neither one of us
is ever brave enough to yell let me go. Funny woman,
Mother sprays cold water down our backs as we bend over
the basement sink while she washes our hair, and we gulp,
choking in surprise every time, soapy Prell burning our blue eyes.
How she loves a good time. Mostly she’s drunk. Not
the slurry-word kind or the exaggerated movement kind
or even being sentimental. No, she staggers around downstairs,
getting high with male high school students. We peek, safe
halfway down the stairs, at unspeakable things. Shhhh, we whisper
to one another. Once during a shared Halloween party, to our
utter terror Mother leaves her own pals upstairs and suddenly appears
in the basement dressed as a gypsy, drunker than a lord. Stench
of bourbon slips from every pore as she draws close to our guests,
reading palms. We both die a little—from shame, from knowing looks
kids pass around the room. And each night, forgetting to preheat
the oven to bake our TV dinners, still icy beneath gray turkey slabs,
the frozen apple crisp. Mother’s so mean she never bakes
or buys a cookie, prepares a holiday dinner, or does things we glean
most mothers do. We’re our own babysitters, cleaning the house
as instructed. Later she drops us Saturday mornings at dancing school,
roars away in her convertible while other mothers watch and knit
or sew and certainly talk about us, two little misfits. Why
do our parents wait ten and eleven years to create us, married
after three weeks of courtship? Never an explanation about anything.
Our father finally gets it right as a traveling salesman, on the road
and gone Monday through Friday, never leaving a phone number
or location. No need for him to watch her drink into unconsciousness.
That’s our job and we do it well, even burying empty booze bottles
from the trash, so our father won’t leave forever. But finally,
she crashes, brain aneurysm, a year in the hospital, becomes partially
paralyzed, still evil. He begins inching out the door. Do we learn
about love from their battles, the screams and slaps, punches
and angry words cluttering downstairs and leaking underneath
our bedroom doors? Do we ever love the two of them—poisonous
mother and absent father? They’re the rocks and shoals of our childhood.
At last, we take revenge on this woman by despising her and her wrath.
Give her the old fish-eye. She’s mean, our childhood father always says,
meaner than a snake. And then he feeds us to her, bit by bleary-eyed bit.
Virginia Chase Sutton's chapbook, Down River, was recently published. Her second book, What Brings You to Del Amo, won the Morse Poetry Prize, and is being republished by Sundress. Her poems have won the Untermeyer Scholarship for poetry at Bread Loaf, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and the National Poetry Hunt. Sutton's poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Comstock Review, Peacock Journal, Poet Lore, and many other literary publications, journals, and anthologies.