Rachel Johnson

“Flight” – Part I

Early morning light strains through the plexiglass windows at Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Basin psych hospital. Sunrays strikes clay-white tile walls that shimmer like a wedding veil. Tiles’ pattern, with bands of pale caulk between them, creates a lattice. Every detail, every color, every texture, and sound, is magnified. It’s painful most of the time, but, right now, it’s surreal, like a pointillist painting, but all in white.

It’s difficult to track the seconds and hours, each one is suspended and then lost. Checks every fifteen-minute checks, three meals a day, with three to four snacks in between, and a group session helped provide a sense of structure, numbing predictability, which Bobbi needed.

Heavy weight of the white, knitted blanket barely keeps her warm, as she lay in bed, immobilized by exhaustion. She draws her knees up so she can insert both hands between them.  Frigid air from the vent above her bed sweeps over her exposed nose and forehead. Dark brown hair lays over her cheeks, covering her ears so, at least, they’re warm.

She’s wide awake, waiting for the living mass across from her to get up and get out. She needs a hot shower. She takes two or three a day, they make her feel real. Sting of water pulls her back into her body.

BEPAJR. BEPAJR. BEPAJRBEPAJRBEPAJR. Her thoughts are murky and reciting the string of letters gives her a handhold. Ativan really screws with her “cognitive processing” as the psychiatrist, PA, Patrick Allen, calls it. She’s surprised she’s conscious. It’s the bad, agitated mania; without the meds, it would otherwise keep her awake days on end, frantic and exhausted, desperately needing rest.

Norma, her roommate wakes, groaning in the twin bed across from her. Her moan is distorted and long, straggling through the air like her lank strawberry-blonde hair. The nightstand separates them. An imaginary barrier which she never crosses. She whispers, “Bobbi?”

Bobbi ignores her. Norma’s leaving today and she wants to rub it in.

Norma, in tight green scrubs, shuffles awkwardly around Bobbi’s bed, giving it a wide berth.

Under the blanket, Bobbi shifts in similar scrubs, papery rustle of it loud. It catches the angles of her bones, bunches under her tits. They even took away her bra because it had an underwire. Any person determined enough to wrench out the underwire from their bra should be allowed to hurt themselves, although she couldn’t imagine how that would be performed.

A flush signals that Norma will be leaving soon, to hang out in the common room with the T.V. She follows a strict schedule. Norma reminds Bobbi why she should avoid mid-life and middle-class suburban life. Norma’s an injury attorney with severe generalized anxiety disorder. It took its toll, resulting in a nervous breakdown. Hence, why she’s here on a seventy-two-hour hold. Norma had told her all when she was admitted three days ago, trying to be friends, not knowing that you’re not supposed to cultivate relationships with other patients or fraternize with them. This is Bobbi’s third go-around, so she should know. Although, to be honest, she never listens, never obeys. That’s why she’s here again.

The fraternizing doesn’t apply to her, but she shouldn’t be screwing BE, Benjamin Elliot. She calls him Benjamin for short. A sweet, dirty-blond guy with a stunning crooked grin, coarse hands, whose mouth and skin tasted like menthol cigarettes.

Bobbi convinces herself to get up. It takes monumental effort. As she arranges the bed, a nurse opens the door to check in on her. Fifteen-minute checks around the clock. The nurse nods at her, a smile distorting his face, and closes the door behind him. As she’s peeling the booties off her feet and pulling the shirt over her head, Benjamin opens the door and shuts it behind him.

Sunlight does him justice. He’s smiling, lazing over to the bed to stand in front of her. His eyes are glazed. A rich hazel green. Not blue. Nothing matters, except the impulses that hijack her. She gives into it; rationality and guilt are suspended. They have less than fifteen minutes before the tech comes. Benjamin tugs the scrubs off her hips. His rough hands make her feel real, human. His body against hers, and the orgasm that follows, affirms that she exists in the world. He’s a tether that brings her back to herself.

On their way to breakfast, they pause in her room’s doorway. She gives Benjamin’s hand one last squeeze, but he holds onto hers. Beneath the faded blue of his T-shirt, the wings of his collarbones rise and fall with each shallow breath like the beating of a crow’s wings. Not quite panic. Desperation. She’s as much his anchor as he is hers. If she could protect him, she would. But they can’t protect themselves from their own selves, much less each other. They can only offer each other comfort, kindness. He’s like her. Warped by the same shit, the same illness. Bipolar disorder. He looks down at her, smiling, but it’s tense. She steps closer to press her hip against his thigh, to reassure him.

Jackson’s hand on Bobbi’s thigh as they sit on their second-floor apartment stairs, sharing a cigarette. She’s seated one step above him, and he sits between her legs. It’s cooler in the building’s shadow and she watches the distortions in the air, July heat radiating off the sidewalk below. Monsoon season is delayed. Love the ordinariness of the moment and Jackson’s reassuring presence. Prop her elbow on his shoulder and hand him the cigarette. As he turns to take it between his fingers, his blue eyes glint brittle and bright like midnight. He smiles at the engagement ring on her finger, which he gave her that morning as they lay in bed together. 

Benjamin’s hand grips hers. He now recognizes when she starts dissociating. Knows how to bring her back. Memory recedes.

At the end of the hall, seated at the nurses’ station some thirty feet away, PA sips motor oil slick coffee, writing notes. Don’t know how he can stand the coffee they serve here; it could scour an oven. Patrick Allen’s dark head lifts. He notices them. He puts away his pen, tucking his notes into his white coat pocket, and rises to come around the counter.

Benjamin squeezes her hand and releases it. He heads down the hall towards the cafeteria and nods at Patrick as he passes him. Patrick reciprocates. His long strides bring him to her door. She smiles weakly.

Patrick runs his hand through his stiff brown hair in a habitual motion, unsettling it. He asks, “How are you doing today, Bobbi?”

He’s come to check up on her, as he’s done every morning for the past two weeks since she was admitted. Although Patrick, one of three psychiatrists here on a rotating schedule, is only a few years older than her, maybe thirty-five, he’s a kid, when all’s said and done. He’s a good one, though. Idealistic, sincere. Really thinks he can save them by being earnest. He monitors the isolated patients, the high-risk suicidal ones, and checks up on the schizophrenic guy, Paul, mumbling inside the bare, locked room at the opposite end of the hallway, with a viewing glass that allows everyone to see him.

“Why do you always ask a question that forces me to lie?”

He answers, resisting a laugh, “Well, you could just be honest. What’s the point if you can’t be?”

She shrugs.

They’re familiar with each other. He helped treat her the last time, nine months ago when she had her last hypomanic episode. It lasted four weeks and they released her after a thirty-day stint. She was in the depressed phase of the fucking disorder for the past eight months, until stress triggered the hypomania. Not the good, energizing euphoric kind, but the bad, mixed hypomania. She’ll be high and up but depressed at the same time. Not the usual bipolar manic-depressive crap they stereotype in movies.

It’s compulsive, hard to control, the nature of it. Dangerous if she’s considering suicide. At least when she’s just depressed, she’s too lethargic and lacks the motivation to follow through with the death thoughts.

Patrick waits for her to come back to herself. His brown eyes are kind, observant. He motions for her to follow him to his office, adjacent to the nurses’ station. She shakes her head, gesturing towards the courtyard between the nurses’ station and the cafeteria. He gives in. She ducks into her room and grabs a blanket to wear around her shoulders, clenching the ends together in her fist.

He leads the way, his thin shoulder blades surfacing beneath the white coat with his swaying arms. Once outside in the brisk September air, she huddles in the blanket, and clenches her jaw to keep it from chattering. Under the flimsy fabric of her scrubs, Benjamin’s boxers and undershirt keep her warm.

Patrick stands awkwardly against the stucco wall, waiting for her to start the conversation.

She waits him out.

In a neutral, clinical tone, he says, “I can only give you advice, Bobbi. But you’re the one who has to decide if you want to take it. You already know you should refrain from relationships with other patients. It doesn’t help what you’re going through. Actually, it can exacerbate it.”

“Yeah, how so? And don’t use that psych language with me. I’m a real person.”

He smiles, “Okay, not a lab rat then.” He relaxes, shoulders dropping, and his hands move to sides. “The relationship is going to end, and that sort of distress…,” he corrects his language, “that’s going to hurt you. It’ll make what you’re experiencing worse.”

“It’s not a relationship,” she says. He should know that hypersexuality is one of the markers of bipolar, along with compulsive behaviors and lack of inhibitions. That’s only part of the reason though because she wanted Benjamin when she first saw him.

“Yes, but you’ll get used to him and you’ll miss him when he leaves. He’s only here on a thirty-day and that ends next week.”

She huffs a response, “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Okay. Tell me about what got you here. What happened?”

Jackson’s weight lifts off her and it’s terrible, the light from the bright, bare bulb behind him. A scathing, white light that bleeds across her vision, like the blood that has dripped into her eye. Her teeth clamping down on his shoulder. Edges of the world are tinted in red, with a blinding whiteness at its core. Her skin feels as if it’s been turned inside out, It’s raw and damp. Rough carpet beneath her body scrapes her, so she doesn’t move. Throat too sore, so she doesn’t cry. Only feel grief. Need to sink into the carpet, through the floor, and into the frozen ground. She can rest then. 

BEPAJR. BEPAJRBEPAJR. BenjaminEadenPatrickAllenJacksonRiley. B-E-N-J-A…She shakes her head, trying to dispel the memory. “Next question.”

“It’s important we talk about it, whatever it was. I don’t have enough details to go from, other than the EMT’s report, from when they admitted you at the emergency room.”

She answers, “Please, don’t push it. I can’t…right now. Can’t process it.” It is holding on, trying to lead her away. Beneath the blanket, she digs her fingernails into her sternum, the pain yanking her back.

“All right, I won’t ask again today. But I want you to try to see this place, your time here, as an opportunity to come to terms with what happened. You’re in a safe environment, with support.”

She nods, but she’s not agreeing with him. Focus on the hunger pangs twisting her stomach.

Patrick finally feels the cold, crossing his arms over his chest and hugging himself loosely. He squints at the sun that is slowly crawling higher into the sky behind her. It’s a looming presence behind her shoulder. His eyes are large, deep set, and heavy-lidded so that he always looks intent and thoughtful. “And how’s the derealization?”

“There you go again, with the psych language,” Bobbi responds. “It alternates between not feeling like the world is real and the world being painfully too real, like… hyper-realism.”

“How often is that happening?”

She shrugs. “Within the same day, usually. It’s like my mind can only put up with hyper-reality for only so long. By midday it copes by taking me out of it. There’s a shift, I can actually feel it when it happens. Almost like vertigo. Then there’s the tunnel vision, the nausea, and I don’t feel real. I question everything, the way I experience reality. It’s as if the world has gone flat and I’m in a fishbowl, everything’s distorted, and then I get panic attacks because I don’t recognize myself in this new world.”

“You know that the world hasn’t changed, right? Only how you perceive it. You can use your intellect to reason your way out of the panic, to reorient yourself to reality. You can use mindfulness, your coping methods, to minimize the depersonalization.”

He’s unaware he’s slipped into the psych jargon again. She doesn’t point it out this time. Even though she bugs him about it, she understands exactly what he’s saying. She did her research and read the textbooks on bipolar disorder for professionals. Not that diluted self-help crap for patients and their families.

She sighs. “Something you doctors forget—Crazy isn’t rational. And I can’t use those techniques, coping methods, whatever…all of that doesn’t work anymore. It used to help before, but it’s like trying to take a skill you’ve learned and expecting that you’re still able to have the same results in a new situation.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like when you learn how to swim in a chlorine swimming pool, right? And then you try to swim in an ocean, there’s a huge change. The world, swimming in an ocean with its tides, depths of moving water and currents and all that, it’s a different experience. You only know how to swim in a swimming pool, so you need to relearn how to swim in this new context. You understand?

He nods. “So, the skills aren’t generalizable, although they do, to some degree, transfer. But they’re not as effective as they used to be?”

“Exactly. See? I knew you didn’t get your degree out of a Cracker Jack box.”

He laughs, then looks around. Through the plexiglass we see the vague outline of someone walking past, down the hall. She wonders if it’s Benjamin.

Sun burns Bobbi’s neck, so she pulls the blanket up to her ears and shifts her weight back and forth because her legs are starting to go numb. She doesn’t want to go inside though. This little round courtyard, only thirty feet across with two stunted oak trees, spots of grass and gravel, and two metal benches, is a haven. The times that she can stand to be around people, she spends it smoking the wood-chip shavings that pass as cigarettes, the ones the techs pass out twice a day at breaktime. She’s tired of being prodded, being analyzed, so she goes on the offensive. She says, “You shouldn’t be too nice to me. You’re not supposed to see us as human beings, remember? Isn’t that some sort of unspoken rule around here? Isn’t that one of your ‘coping methods’?”

“That’s not true,” he answers, matter of fact. “Let’s get back to you.”

“How long am I gonna be here this time?”

He frowns and uncrosses his arms. “Right now, we’re looking at a thirty-day, but that could be extended to a ninety-day. However long it takes to keep you safe.”

She thinks he means to be reassuring.

“I was supposed to get married, you know? At the end of the month. That’s a week and a half away and it’s been two weeks since I got here. Jackson’s gonna have to postpone it if he’s still waiting.”

“Have you called him?”

She shakes her head. They’re allowed five-minute phone calls, but no visits. The patients are all too vulnerable, too susceptible. For most of them, it’s their families and lovers that helped get them here.

She moves to the wall beside Patrick and leans against it, hard stucco poking at her back. She keeps her head down. Even so, the sun’s glare hurts. She shuts her eyes and concentrates on the dark network of veins against a backdrop of red. Inside of her lids. A cloud, a shadow, passes over the sun and red dims to gray.

Continued in “Flight” – Part II

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About the Author

Rachel Johnson is an indigenous, androgynous poet/writer from the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. She lives with chronic pain, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder, among other disabilities. Her writing and poetry have been published (or are forthcoming) in The Dine Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature, Anti-Heroin Chic, Writers Resist, and Prairie Schooner.