By Alanna Dougherty
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I sat at my desk, peering out the window at the snow. Winter fell upon the grounds of the St. Dymphna Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, turning the already chilly halls to freezing. Looking past the tiny wires that crisscrossed inside the glass, my eyes focused upon a tiny brown wren fluttering its wings on a branch outside my window. I remembered hearing stories about the wren as a child; the Celtic folklore and how it betrayed St. Stephen in hiding. What a strange little bird. So small, yet so treacherous. It started to sing at such an annoying volume that I had to leave the solitude of my bedroom and join the ranks of pathetic souls hanging around the common area.
Lexi bounced over to me, wispy blonde hair flying behind her, a thick sweater dress hanging from her tiny frame.
“Ally!” She yelled, making the nurse on duty jump in her seat. “Cigarette?” She smiled at me and pulled a pack of menthols from her pocket.
“Sure.” I followed her to the smoking room; the only good thing about this place was that they let us smoke inside during the winter. The room stank of old cigarettes and the plastic-covered couches were cracked and discolored from years of shoddy maintenance. The ashtrays, always overflowing, left burn marks and stains on the coffee table.
“God, that nurse is so stupid!” Lexi laughed and took a drag, falling back into her seat. “Every time I’m in there, she says how proud of me she is for my ‘progress.’ She thinks if your teeth aren’t falling out then you’re totally fine.” She leaned forward again and tapped her cigarette over the ashtray with her bony finger. “The not gaining, though. It’s getting damn hard to hide.”
Lexi was my closest friend in the ward. She was only nineteen but seemed even older than me. And she really knew her way around the place. A veteran of St. Dymphna’s, she’d been in and out of here since age fourteen. Always the same with her: anorexia, bulimia, and pissing off her mother, a wealthy divorcé who liked the house empty for her constant parade of young boyfriends. But Lexi liked it here; she did whatever she wanted and used the ward as her own personal playground where she reigned as queen. “Plus,” she would say, “there’s not a place on earth you’ll find better drugs.”
“Hello, ladies.” Mike, another friend, and repeat-visitor, strolled into the room and plopped down on the couch beside Lexi. As the ward’s beloved and only dealer, he knew everyone and where to get anything. Running a hand through his mass of kinky brown curls, he turned to bum a cigarette from Lexi, passing her a tiny bag of white powder. “Remember,” he said wagging a finger in her face, “‘When snow’s in your nose, you catch a cold in your brain.’ Allen Ginsberg said that.”
“Thanks a bunch, Donnie Darko. I totally need your advice.” Lexi rolled her eyes and slid the bag into her pocket.
“Anytime, doll. I can even teach you how to put food in your mouth if ya’ like.”
Lexi put out her cigarette and crossed her arms. “Oh, go talk to your imaginary friends.” Mike just smiled at me, content with the knowledge that no matter how she felt about him, she depended on him for her habit. Everyone here depended on someone or something. We kept our own cages at St. Dymphna; we kept our own cages everywhere.
Carlos, the head counselor, stuck his head in the door and told us to hurry up, group was in five minutes. With a collective groan, we gathered our things and made our way over to the TV room where they held group therapy every morning at nine o’clock and every afternoon at 2:30. Uncomfortable vinyl couches—faded black or blue and cracked so the stuffing poked out—lined the perimeter of the room.
Lexi and I always sat on a love seat in the corner where we could see everyone but not close enough for anyone to bother us. I liked it because I could see out the window all the way to the mountains. Carlos stood by the white dry-erase board and talked at us. Somewhere along the way, we’d lost Mike and I scanned faces as the rest of our ward filed in. He eventually scurried inside, flushed and smiling, and sat down on the couch closest to me.
“Thank you for finally joining us, Michael,” Carlos said in the New York/Puerto Rican accent that he only used when speaking to us patients. I couldn’t take him seriously ever since I’d heard him use his put-on “white” voice when talking to the doctors and the rest of the staff. I wondered how he spoke to his family and friends—what he sounded like when he wasn’t a caricature of himself. “Okay, okay. Settle down, hermanos. Today,” he said addressing the rest of the group, “we’re going to discuss the mistakes we made to get us here, the mistakes that are keeping us here, and how we can avoid these mistakes in the future.”
Megan Dawson—the most irritating girl in the ward with some personality disorder that made her a nine-year-old stuck in a twenty-six-year-old’s body—shot her hand up, squirming in her seat.
“Well, like, for me, it was like…” She prattled on for what felt like an hour. Lexi elbowed me in my side and rolled her eyes again. I felt kind of bad for the girl. Actually, I felt bad for a lot of the people here. They weren’t all crazy; some had real issues, but the rest of us just screwed up.
Carlos made us take out our journals and write what we did to land ourselves in the hospital. “If you want,” he said, “you can share with the group, but you don’t have to.” He looked at me. Carlos always tried to get me talking, especially in group. No one knew why I was here. Not even Lexi.
The vodka turned on me, I wrote.
After group, Lexi and I scoured the bookcase in the common area for any trace of a good read. They kept almost everything worthwhile off the shelves. Our only options were every Chicken Soup for the Soul ever published (in case you weren’t depressed enough already), a million copies of the Bible (again, depressing with the added bonus of Hell-fire), and selected volumes of Nancy Drew mysteries as well as The Wizard of Oz (because apparently we were, in fact, starring in the sequel to Girl, Interrupted).
“Ughh!” Lexi groaned as she fell into a nearby armchair. “That’s it, I’m done. There’s nothing to read.”
“I’ve got a book you ladies might find interesting,” Mike said, suddenly appearing behind us, waving my journal around in his hand.
“What the Hell, Mike?!” I jumped up and ripped my journal from his grasp. “How’d you even get this?” I shuffled through the pages hoping to not find any incriminating prose.
“Come on, Ally. Nobody cares that you’re a drunk. Lexi’s a cokehead but she’s not all uptight about it.”
“Wait, you want some coke, Al?” Lexi couldn’t hear us over the sound of breaking off her split ends and her self-centeredness.
“I’m not a drunk!” I yelled. “Why are you reading my journal and how did you even get it? It was locked in my room!”
“One of the orderlies likes codeine, it wasn’t hard. But you haven’t ever told us how you got here and that’s not cool. You could’ve been a cop. Or a murderer. So I investigated and here we are.”
“Yeah, why haven’t you told us anyway?” Lexi stopped playing with her hair for a moment and looked at me. “It can’t be that bad. I mean, you’re, like, not too weird. Just kinda weird.”
“Would you even have cared if I told you?” I asked.
They simultaneously replied.
MIKE: “Of course!”
LEXI: “Probably not.”
“So what’s the deal? You haven’t even written the story here. Although, there’s a ton of stuff about Lex and me.” Mike pointed to my notebook and before I could blink, Lexi snatched it away from me.
“Oooh, what did you write about me?” Lexi skimmed the pages looking for her name. “It betters not be bad or we’re not friends anymore. For real.” She stopped for a moment and glared at me. Then went back to reading.
“There’s nothing too bad. Except the poetry,” Mike told her. “Just the daily rundown and weepy bullshit about wanting to go home.”
“Wow, screw you.” I slumped back into a chair and looked up at the ceiling, defeated.
“No wonder you’re always pissed after your private therapy sessions; all psychologists have a boner for punishing alcoholics ‘cause they’re daddies drank too much when they were kids and beat them.” Mike did the pretend-crying-thing, rubbing his eyes with balled fists and frowning. He perched on the arm of my chair. “Awre dey mean to you?” he asked in baby-talk.
“I’m not an alcoholic. It was just a screwed up night, that’s all.”
“Do you want to drink right now?” Mike looked at me with his eyebrows raised. I couldn’t tell if he was judging me.
Uhhh, yeah, obviously! I thought. But you can’t really tell people that. This was why Lexi lied to everyone all the time. Not to me, though, because I didn’t judge her. She believed that people who have the nerve to tell you “what your problem is” didn’t deserve the truth, let alone her respect. She would say, “If you don’t love my bulimia, you don’t really love me.”
“Jesus, let it go,” Lexi said, putting down my journal to scold Mike. “Who the Hell cares, anyway? I’d love a drink right now. Does that make me an alcoholic?”
“That’s not the point!” Mike stood up and threw his arms in the air, angry that we couldn’t understand why he was doing this. “Ladies, what do we do at night to a puppy that can’t be trusted to be good and not tear the house apart?” Lexi and I looked at each other, confused.
“You don’t mean… beating it, right?” I asked, unsure where he was going with this.
“No! Christ, look: we put the puppy in a cage. We lock the puppy in his cage every night until he understands how to be a good dog. Now, the puppy is still a dog; it still might piss and shit around the house, it still wants to eat your shoes and knock over the trash can, and it still wants to be a dog because it is a dog. But now it’s trained. It knows not to show its owners its true wildness. It knows to bark when told and it knows to give you its paw when asked. But like I said, a dog is a dog. No matter how obedient, it’s still a dog.”
“Okay, and…?” I was still confused. I never even owned a dog.
“You’ve been here for so long because you’re the puppy that still eats shoes and shits in the house. You need to start speaking when they say speak and giving them your paw when they tell you to.”
“So, what, I have to play the game?”
“Yes! Finally, yes!! You need to admit you have a problem, even if you think you don’t, and start talking to these therapists. Otherwise, you’re never ‘gonna get out of here.”
“Then how come I’m still here?” Lexi asked.
Mike walked up to Lexi and patted her head. “Because, sweetheart, you’re a lost cause.”
One of the therapists called Lexi away for her private session, so Mike and I headed to the smoking room.
“I still can’t believe you read my journal.”
“How could I not? You’re one giant catacomb full of mysteries and nicotine.” He was smirking and slyly moved closer to me as he spread his arms out on the couch. “Everything about you interests me.”
I rolled my eyes and pushed him away. “Whatever. You’re really trying to get me out of here, huh?” I asked half-laughing.
“Well that’s what you want, right?” He smiled, “You could always stay here in Never Neverland with me, though. Won’t have to grow up or face the real world and there’s always Tinkerbell flying around with coke and fairy dust.”
“Ha! I don’t know… being bossed around by a tiny nineteen-year-old for the rest of my life? That’s pretty scary.”
“But not as scary as living your life, apparently.”
“Excuse me?” I turned to see his face, now smeared with spiteful condescension.
“You heard me, Al. You’d rather stay locked up bullshitting with me and Lexi than go out and face the real world.”
“What do you—” I began, but he hopped up from the couch and started again.
“You don’t wanna leave! It’s easy here. You get your meals cooked for you and your laundry done, and you get to go around spouting off about how you’re a ‘true artist’ because you spent a few lousy months in a luxury mental hospital. You can sit back and take it easy in here while life goes on outside and you don’t have to deal with your parents or college or anything your spoiled little head doesn’t wanna acknowledge as reality. You get to hide inside these cold white halls instead of having to make excuses to yourself and everybody else for why you’re not accomplishing a goddamn thing!
“You need to get the fuck out of here, Ally. You need to stop with this scared-little-girl bullshit and grow up! You wanna be a writer? SO GO WRITE! Quit talking about it and go do it! Go out there and write everything you experience. Write it down for the world to read. Because, babe, you owe at least that much. You owe it, not just to yourself, but to us. You owe it to girls like Lexi who are lost, who’ll never get better and the only chance they have is living in their own lies and the stories in books. You owe it to me and everyone else who loves you.
“And I do love you, Al. I really do. But you don’t belong here. You belong in the stars or on Mount Olympus!” Mike finally collapsed into the couch and his smile returned as he looked at me. “And if in ten or fifteen years from now I’m not reading your New York Times bestselling novels or watching you on ‘Charlie Rose’ (depending on how long he’s got left), you can guarantee I’m gonna come find you and kick your ass for letting us all down.”
Mike stood up and walked to the door, but stopped one last time to face me. “It’s time to make your decision: are you gonna hide here with us lunatics? Or are you gonna buck up and take control of your life?”
With that, he left, and I was alone for the first time since the two approached me months before.
“Ally?” A nurse poked her head in to call me for my therapy session. “He’s ready to see you now.”
I rose from the couch and walked into the office.
“Hello, Miss Donnelly, how are—”
“I think I’m ready to talk now.”
Alanna Dougherty is an English major from Harrisburg, PA. She loves reading, writing, sewing and crafts, painting and drawing, and watching funny TV shows. She has published two poems in The Burg and is currently working on a novel.