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Avery M. Guess

The Patient’s Complaint

Anything I say will be held against me. This complaint for instance. You’ll label me non-compliant for complaining. I may be held. There are restraints for that. Medicine. Jackets. Rooms. But I swear, I’m only moving two letters around. I-A-N-T. A-I-N-T. The beginning’s still the same. C-O-M-P-L. As in complementary: things that go well together. Complimentary: words we use when we think someone has done well or if we like their choice of clothing. I’m a fan of jackets, but I’m afraid I can’t compliment yours. Bright white doesn’t complement my skin tone. One of the boxes the nurse ticked off about me when I checked into the hospital was unkempt. And it’s true. I could not keep up.

Non compos mentis. Not of sound mind. Non-compl-iant. Non-compl-aint. Ain’t. I’m sounding ignorant. But I’m not. I just can’t think fast right now. My brain has thickened to gravy. I can’t swim through the thoughts to get to the other side. The other side has left the building. I can’t leave the building. There are locks and checks and double checks. And there’s fresh air outside, anyway, on the 12 foot by 12 foot enclosed patio with the two picnic benches and the thirty-odd patients filtering in and out to smoke and remind themselves that there is a world beyond the 15-minute checks at night and the compulsory classes on managing anger or sadness or your shoes without their laces. Wouldn’t want us to try anything. Wouldn’t want us to be non-compliant.

And if you do. If you, say, try to hang yourself with your bed sheets knotted and tied to the bathroom door, push both beds against the door to the room, while I am off on the patio smoking, expect me to feel guilty I wasn’t there to stop you. Expect me to scream for a nurse when I get to the door I can’t open all the way and see your face purpling above the white sheets tied tight around your neck. Expect boxes to be ticked off. Expect to be moved to a ward with one-on-one observation. Expect to be labeled non-compliant. But don’t expect me to complain or follow your lead.

My complaints have not made it past my gravy-thick brain to my mouth, my voice. I’m voiceless. My speech: retarded. My affect: flat. Blunted. There is no there, there. I’ve disappeared. I couldn’t complain even if I wanted to, but I don’t. Want to, that is. Because I’ve done this before. I know the quickest way out is to be compliant. Take what’s offered. Pills. Therapy. Even though they don’t work. Haven’t ever worked. The cure is an illusion. The hospital is an allusion. Each state a different hospital. Each hospital the same state. The same staff. The same game. You want to leave? Be compliant. Don’t complain.


The Patient Talks of Electroshock and Lobster

Lobster is all I remember about Pop-Pop’s electroshock at the hospital on South Beach. He was given lobster on the ward and liked it. I didn’t visit him there, didn’t see him gorge on that sweet meat after his calculated convulsions. But lobster is what I heard a decade later when the doctor suggested electroconvulsive therapy as a way to pierce depression’s seal on my skin. This was no child’s play, no white glue poured over fingers, set dry, and peeled off slow. No delight in a fingerprint’s lingering kiss. No thrill in traversing the stifling layers, my tongue made thick with language I could not speak. What the doctor suggested would not do. All I could think about was Pop-Pop and the lobster. Until the lobster became the ECT machine became the lobster, and I pictured my skin angry like a lobster’s tail post-boil. Now, lobsters can be shocked to death. The CrustaStun can knock a lobster out in .3 seconds, kill it in less than 10. More humane than boiling, the device shortens the lobster’s suffering by minutes. If my depression could have been disappeared that fast, I would have said yes. Yes to the current to lighten my mood. Yes to the lobster.  


Avery M. Guess is an MFA candidate in poetry at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a poetry editor at Revolution House. Her poem “Attempts at Flight” was named a finalist in Yemassee’s 2012 Pocataligo Poetry Contest. She was awarded an Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women in 2010 and recently was a featured poet at the Holler Poets Series in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Rivertown Reading Series in Paducah, Kentucky. Her poems appear in or are forthcoming from Accents Publishing’s Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems, Appalachian Heritage, Still, The Chaffey Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and other fine journals.