Whenever people ask me about the time I spent in a psychiatric unit, I talk not about myself, but about Eric. Eric was an eight-year-old orphan that I met in the hospital. From what I could tell, he came to live in what was supposed to be a transitional ward for months, because he had no other choice. There were some parts of Eric’s story that I knew from speaking with him one-on-one and hearing him talk in group therapy, and some from eavesdropping on the night nurses, but most of what I pieced together about his past was gleaned from general psych-ward gossip. Those shadowy details are as follows: Eric was placed in an abusive foster home. He was hurt and sent to the hospital for treatment, where he stayed because he had no family and no place to live besides a hospital for people with healthy bodies and sick minds.
Eric had the shakiest hands. They shook while he ate his cereal and when he took his pills. I didn’t know what he took his medication for or what it was, just like I didn’t know what my pills were and what they were supposed to treat. I took the medicine the doctors gave me because they said it would help me. Did it? On the ward, other people wore their regular clothes—jeans and T-shirts, mostly. Since Eric had no clothing of his own, he stuck out in the hospital gowns he was given to wear—two at a time, tied together so his sides wouldn’t show. He looked different in his floppy hospital socks and lopsided gowns, as out of place as I, the only Chassidic Jew in the ward, felt in my long skirts, tights, and full sleeves.
One night when there were fewer nurses on duty than usual, I lay at the entrance to Eric’s pink room and spoke to him through the door. It was an isolation room, reserved for people who misbehaved, but I don’t remember Eric ever acting out. I just remember him being a child, running around and trying to provoke reactions from everyone, shouting their names and playfully knocking into them. His energy was easily mistaken for illness between hospital walls. That night, I taught him the poem “Jabberwocky,” which we regularly recited together over breakfast. We both loved the silly words in the poem—words that made no sense for the lives that made no sense.
Eric had an old, ratty beanbag dog that he called Clarabelle. She had floppy ears and shiny black plastic eyes that looked as smooth as Eric’s after he took his medication. In group therapy, he talked about Clarabelle as though she were alive. Clarabelle had feelings about what she was served for breakfast. She had vivid, detailed dreams. She got easily offended when she was ignored. He translated Clarabelle’s feelings for us, because, as he explained, she was shy and felt comfortable only around him.
One day, one of the nurses painted whites onto Clarabelle’s black-bead eyes with Wite-Out. It sent Eric into a rage. He began hurling Clarabelle at the wall and clawing at the nurse who’d altered her, demanding that she remove the white paint. The doctors pulled out their clipboards and sent Eric back into his pink room. They gathered around the cameras over the nurses’ station and watched him run around and cry. They all thought there was something wrong with him, but they didn’t understand how much Eric needed Clarabelle. He needed someone to speak through, and Clarabelle was all he had.
Eric didn’t know that he would became my own Clarabelle. I don’t always know how to write about myself, but I always know how to write about him.
I didn’t learn the word rape until I had hurt a body that no longer felt like mine badly enough to be hospitalized. Before that, my parents and school referred to what had happened to me as “the incident.” Sexuality and sexual abuse were not openly discussed in my Chassidic community, and I didn’t understand that rape was about violence, not sex. After a friend I had confided in told a teacher what was going on, the principal at my small high school told me not to “discuss your personal problems with other girls” because, she said, I might “scare” them. I was asked to stay silent, which made me feel ashamed of what had happened. I’m still struggling to find the language with which to talk about it without stirring up that shame. One thing I have found that works for me is finding other people’s stories I can talk through, allowing me to express vulnerable feelings without exposing autobiographical details.
In the most beautiful essay I’ve ever read, “The Death of the Young British Pilot,” Marguerite Duras says, “There should be a writing of non-writing.” Duras had a 20-year-old brother who died in World War II, but she doesn’t write about him—or her grief—directly. As its title suggests, the essay is about the death of a pilot who was buried alone and went unidentified for years. Duras writes about his death as a stand-in for her grief about her own brother, who was buried in a mass grave, and the trauma of death she sees in every village. “The young British pilot was everyone and it was also he alone,” she writes, making it clear that this one pilot and his death represent the entire experience for her: She writes about him instead of everything else, hiding her own pain behind his.
I was introduced to that essay in a class, but I can’t remember what any of my classmates had to say about it; I was too busy scribbling about Eric in the book’s margins. Duras told us her story by not telling it, and that showed me the way to tell my own. I could feel all of my sadness and loneliness reflected in Eric and his ratty beanbag, the only friend he identified with. Duras didn’t know the pilot of her story and never even met him, yet she was able to recognize in him a reflection of her brother and indeed of herself, and thus was able to communicate through him. Do I know Eric? Not very well. But I know that his story gave me the freedom to find mine, and I will always be grateful to him for this.
It might seem as though I’m projecting a lot onto Eric, and I am, but it’s because I recognized something in him that resonated with me deeply: the dazed pain that comes from having doctors prescribe hasty diagnoses and medications to keep you and your feelings contained. I understood how frustrating it was to be treated for sadness without anyone asking why the sadness came about to begin with. I wish that, back then, someone had tried to understand where my nightmares were coming from instead of prescribing medication to dull them. I wish I had been given an explanation and not just a diagnosis.
It was very clear to me that there was nothing “wrong” with Eric—he was only trying to cope with the massive loads of unfairness life had dealt him. I saw him trying to grapple with feeling like he was at fault but not knowing what he had done to be put in the sad place where we met. He was there because he had nowhere else to go. He didn’t belong in a psychiatric ward. I didn’t think I did, either.
I’m not able to put some of my stories into words, and so I don’t. Marguerite Duras didn’t want to talk about the brother who was never properly buried. Just about the British pilot who was. I don’t want to talk about what happened to me, just about an eight-year-old boy who was so sad and lonely that everyone thought there was something wrong with him, even though he was just a little kid who had gone through awful things in his life.
I lay on the ground near the room they kept Eric in, and we recited “Jabberwocky” to each other, moving our tongues around the foreign words and searching for something that tasted familiar. The people in our lives called us “crazy,” but we weren’t. They just didn’t want us to tell our stories, not as they had really happened. ♦