The Courage of the Stars

You taught me the courage of stars before you left
How light carries on endlessly, even after death
With shortness of breath, you explained the infinite
How rare and beautiful it is to even exist

- Sleeping at Last, Saturn

A white t-shirt, a pair of jeans, and black Converse tennis shoes. That's what I'm wearing when I'm admitted to the hospital. I have my phone, my car keys, and my wallet in my hand. There is an overnight bag slung over my shoulder.

Karen, a psych tech who has worked at the hospital for years, immediately starts taking things. The phone, keys, and wallet are the first to go. I'm prepared for that. I hand them over and watch as she opens my wallet.

"How's your son?" She asks, making small talk as she sorts through the contents. She has a clipboard and on it she writes down what she finds.

$27 cash
$0.18 coins
library card
2 mastercards 
misc. business cards

"He's good. He has his first car. It's a little nerve wracking."

She looks up at me.

"I can imagine. How old is he now?"

"He just turned twenty."

"Wow." She says, shaking her head in slow disbelief.

"Yeah. Everyone's right when they say it goes by fast." I smile and look down at my shoes.

She's going to take them, too. They have laces and we can't wear shoes that have laces. I know how it goes. What we can and can't have. I've been here before. Many times.

My son was nine years old the first time I was admitted to this hospital.
I don't exhale until she mentions him. My son.

These past few months, I have learned to breathe while holding my breathe at the same time. I have invisible gills now. My chest will hurt. My throat will hurt. I'll begin to get lightheaded. And I'll walk around like that for hours, until I realize I can't remember the last time I inhaled.

How's my son. That's what Karen asked me.

That's right.

I am more than just me and more than just this pain. I am a mother.

I breathe again.

Karen puts the cards and cash back into my wallet and pushes her clipboard over to me. I need to sign off that she's inventoried my property correctly. I scribble my signature, pressing hard because the form is in duplicate.

"I'm so sorry about John," Karen says, quietly.

I don't look up but my hand freezes, I haven't yet written the date beside my signature and the pen now hovers in the air just above the paper.

A little over a year ago, life had gotten stressful. I was pushing myself too hard. I was crying more and eating less. It was John who noticed that I might be in trouble. He and I were fighting more often. I was more sensitive to his words and the words of others.

"Chelise. Please. I don't know what to do for you," he finally said.

I knew what to do. I knew, because over the years, one of the finest mental health care teams that exists has assembled around me. I knew, because I'd nearly died before, and because I'd come back to life before, too. I knew. My eating disorder hadn't fully taken over, a year ago. Not like now. But I was flirting with it then. I've learned that it's always better to get help earlier, rather than later.

John drove me to the hospital that summer, and he visited me each of the five days I was there. We'd play cards or I'd read him silly things I'd written in my journal.

We played Scrabble, a lot. I'd boast that he was in trouble, that I was going to win. He always won. Always.

Karen had met John several times. She knew who he was.

I know that John's name is now in my charts. There is information in my charts about the suicide of my mother. It will always be there. Now, there is information in my charts about the suicide of John, too. It will always be there.

Yes, I have one of the finest mental health care teams that exists. They know what is forever written on my heart, and they know that they need to put it in my chart. They know, if they can't keep track of the ways my heart has been forever broken - then, when I am lost, they won't be able to keep track of me.

I finish dating the paper in front of me and I reach up to cover my face with my hands.

"Me too," I say. "I'm sorry about John, too."

I take in a gulp of air. I can feel it right away - the holding of my breath. It's beginning again. 

I brace for the words that are coming next. Because I've heard them so many times.

He really loved you. He really loved you. He really loved you. 

I brace for those words because I'm tired of them. I know he loved me.

So, I brace for the reminder. I lower my hands and stare at Karen blankly. Waiting.

But, she has seen me like this before. Hiding behind blankness. She has watched me take those quick gasping gulps of air, many times. Ten years ago, eight years ago, five years ago. Again and again. She knows. When I'm gulping like that, I'm not swallowing air. No. What I am swallowing are all the mistakes I've made. I'm swallowing my mother's death. Now I'm swallowing John's death too. I'm swallowing how little my love can do to save myself or to save anyone else.

I'm swallowing how much I hate myself.

Karen knows.

She doesn't say the words I brace for, though. She doesn't remind me that John loved me.

"I know, Chelise," she begins, "you loved him very much."

I exhale.

Then she says something else too.

"You two loved each other, very very much."

I lean over and I can feel myself inhaling and exhaling and I can feel myself crying.

He really loved you. I've grown to hate those words. They are so lonely. John was never alone in his love for me. I loved him too.

We loved each other, very very much.
"I'm going to have to take that," Karen says, referring to my overnight bag. "It's shift change. and I don't have time to inventory its contents. You'll have to wait until night shift is here."

"Ok. Will Jake be here?" I ask.

"Yep. He's here already. He knows you're here too," Karen says, smiling.

Jake's the night shift charge nurse. And, always, he's my personal nurse in the hospital. For years now. He's the one I go to when I need water or tea. He's the one I talk to when I'm overwhelmed or panicking. He's the one.

My doctor, also for years now, has been the head of the inpatient psychiatric unit at the hospital. He's my doctor in the hospital, and outside of the hospital, too.

And Jake is my nurse while he also oversees all of the other nurses on the unit.

My treatment team consists of the top of the top.

It's because I'm so screwed up, I sometimes tell people.

I ended up with the best staff, because no one else knew what to do with me.
It will be six o'clock in half an hour. Dinner trays will be delivered.

I pace back and forth in my room. The anxiety distracts me from my misery for a moment. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe not. It's irrelevant. I can't stop dinner from coming, and I can't take anxiety meds in order to get through the meal.

I'm a drug addict. A decade ago, anxiety medication completely unravelled what little recovery I'd had. The first few times I was hospitalized for eating disorder treatment, it was nearly impossible to get me to agree to eat anything. I could only eat if medication had morphed my anxiety into a low buzz. A hum in the back of my mind, but not a rock in my throat. On drugs, I could begin to eat once again.

But, when I got out of the hospital, I continued taking the pills. I ran through one prescription and then another. Soon enough, I was taking them all day long, every day.

Then, four years ago, I intentionally overdosed on those pills.

I almost died. Well, I did die. But, I was resuscitated in an ambulance. Had the ambulance arrived five minutes later than it did, I'd likely not be alive today. Mine was a miracle of minutes.

I was in a coma for a week and hospitalized for a month. When I got out of the hospital, I threw myself into recovery. I went to day treatment every day for months. I went to meetings at night. I talked to people who were doing the thing I could not figure out how to do. I cried with them and prayed with them. I learned how to let other people save my life when I couldn't do it alone.

I haven't taken any anxiety medication since. Not one single pill. Not once. I can't.

I'm a drug addict in recovery.

I thought that coming back from that overdose four years ago was the hardest thing I'd ever have to do.

I thought that going into eating disorder treatment a year ago with nary an anxiety medication to help me get through the eating, was the second hardest thing I'd ever have to do.

Coming into the hospital this time though, my eating disorder has been active for months.

And I'm not looking for my own will to live, I'm trying to figure out how to go backwards and give my will to live to someone else.

Everything feels impossible.

I pace and pace and pace. My addiction is clearly noted in my charts. I won't be able to get a Xanax, even if I beg for one.

And soon, dinner trays will be here.
It's the elephant in my mind. I don't want to think about having to eat, but each minute passing brings dinner closer. I need to do something to distract myself. Anything.

I can't remember how to play solitaire with cards. I'm supposed to lay how many cards across? And how many cards in each column?

I decide I'll play Scrabble with myself instead.

I play my side. Then I play his side.

Then I play my side.

Then I play his side.

I win.

"I told you I was going to win," I say under my breath.
"Hey, there," says Jake. I hadn't noticed him walk over. I look up and he tilts his head and smiles.

"Hey," I say back.

I like Jake. He's always calm, even in the midst of the psych hospital storms that are often raging around him.

Once, years ago, I was panicking and hid behind a piano they used to have in the eating disorder unit's day room. Jake was the one who found me. He sat on the floor across from me talked to me about my favorite movies. He told me about the flowers that his wife had just planted in their garden. He reminded me that there was a world outside of the hospital. A world that was waiting for me to return.

I like Jake because, even when I was curled up in a ball hiding behind a piano, he knew how to remind me that I was still a person with a life that wanted me back.
"Your hair is longer," he notices.

"It's been a year." I say, looking back down. I've decided to play a second game of Scrabble and I'm pulling tiles from the small black bag that houses them.

Jake sits down at the table, across from me.

"Am I taking someone's seat?" He asks looking around.

"No." I say, simply.

"Hmm. Are you playing with a ghost?"

I look back up at him, but I don't say anything.

"I'm sorry about John." He says, quietly.

"I know, Jake. Everyone's sorry about John."

He sits with me until I put down my first word. Just two letters. N-O.

"Dinner will be here soon," he says as he stands again.

"Why are you reminding me?" I grumble.

"Is there anything I can get you until then?"

"Maybe a shot of tequila."

"I'm not sure that's on your meal plan," he says, smiling.

And then I remember something.

"You guys still have my overnight bag," I remind him.

"We'll check it after dinner. Ok?"

"Ok." I say.  Jake turns and begins to walk away.

"Jake?" I call after him.

He turns and looks back.

"It's cold in here. There's a sweater in my bag. Can you bring me the sweater?"
People tell me I am brave. I never know what they are talking about. What have I done that is so brave?

Lived in the midst of great grief? My cells are embedded with genetic memory telling them that the reason I exist is in order to exist. That has nothing to do with me.

Lived through childhood trauma? I have always carried the impact of that. I've never been able to set it completely down.

Am I brave for having lived at all?

I've barely lived. It was a miracle that brought me this far.

A miracle.

Sometimes though, in this hospital, for a brief moment I understand what it means to be brave.

It is not the monster of heartbreak or grief that requires the most courage from me.

It's sitting in front a plate of food, when I know that every bite is going to taste like shame.
I didn't want to see it. I couldn't see it. I just wanted to disappear. That's all. I didn't want anyone else to see it. I didn't want my son to see it. I wanted to hide it away. All of it. Who I was. What had happened. What was still happening.

I didn't want to see it. I couldn't see it. I just wanted to disappear.

A few days before I went into treatment, my son took a picture of me. I was fuzzy. I was in motion. But it was the funniest thing. In the picture, I was disappearing. 

July 7, 2017

I stared and stared at that picture.

I still couldn't see me. But I could see someone who wanted to be gone. 

I didn't want to go into the hospital. I hate the hospital. I hate inpatient treatment. The rules, the regimen, the food. The being watched like a hawk.

I didn't want any of it.

I tried outpatient day treatment. It wasn't working. I kept arguing with my treatment team. I was fine. I looked fine. I was going to be fine. Could they please just do something to make me feel a little less pain, so that eating would be easier?

I couldn't see it.

They knew that a picture had been part of why I'd come back into day treatment. They thought that maybe pictures would help me see the thing I refused to see.

We took pictures.  I stared and stared.

July 10, 2017

July 17, 2017

I saw someone in trouble. But I still didn't see me.

Give me some time. Let me continue to come into day treatment. I don't want to go into the hospital. Let me try harder. I'll try harder. I promised them. 

I promised myself.
The week before John died, seemingly out of the blue, he said, "Chelise, you are a survivor. You are are going to survive. You can make it through anything."

I snapped at him: "What are you talking about? Where did that come from? You aren't thinking about suicide are you? Are you!?"

He was quiet for a moment.

"No more than usual." He said.

"Promise me that you won't try to hurt yourself, John. Promise me! Promise me that you'll get help if you are thinking about killing yourself. Ok?"

"Yeah. Ok, ok. I promise."

He promised me.
This is how it goes:

You have to be seated with the rest of the patients before anyone can start eating. You all begin eating at the same time. You have exactly thirty minutes to finish a meal. No more. No less. You cannot leave the table if you finish before others at the table. A staff person sits at the table with you the entire time. Watching.

You have to eat everything on your tray. Everything. You cannot leave significant crumbs, or significant sauce. You have to scoop it up or scrape it up and eat it. There cannot be a sip of milk left in your carton. There cannot be a drop of juice left in your cup. You cannot substitute one thing for another.

You cannot wear a baggy shirt to the table if it has long sleeves. You cannot have a blanket or towel on your lap.

You cannot cut up your food into more than two halves. Nothing more. You can't nibble. You must take reasonable sized bites.

You cannot burp loudly, gag, or cry while eating.

You cannot discuss how your food tastes or eating or calories or body weight or body sizes. Not while at the table.

Every rule has to do with what you can't do. Sometimes it seems like the only thing you are allowed to do, is the one thing you don't want.

When the trays are delivered, I shuffle into the dining room, looking at my feet. I sit where I am supposed to sit. I stare at the tray that I don't want to see. My tray has a lid on it. I don't know what's under the lid.

Maybe it will be one lettuce leaf. Maybe it will be one lettuce leaf and a sugar free jello. Maybe it will be one lettuce leaf, a sugar free jello, and two saltines. Maybe it will be the same thing I'd been having for dinner for months now.

I take a deep breath in. I can feel a tear on my cheek. Another deep breath. You can cry all day long in this shitty place, but not at the dining table.

"Chelise, you wanted this?" Jake's voice says, from behind me.

I turn. He has the sweater I'd asked for in his hand.

I reach out for it.

"It's awfully big," he says.

"It's... it's not mine." I say quietly, taking it from him. I lay it down on my lap.

The table monitor is sitting across from me and he speaks up. "She can't have that at the table. She can't have that on her lap," he says.

As if Jake doesn't know the protocol.

"Yes she can." Jake says, and he's the charge nurse. He's the one who's in charge.

So, I eat my first dinner in the hospital that night with a fork in one hand, and with the other hand laying on top of John's sweater.

I found the courage to eat that night, by laying my hand on top of the memory of John's love for me, and the memory of our love for each other.

My journey to begin eating again had to do with understanding what John believed about me.

That I was going to find a way to survive.