by Brandyce Ingram
All your shit is taken and you can hear it being rifled through but you can’t see which items are being stolen, tossed, or sorted and, if the latter, what categories they’re using to sort them. You wonder if they’ll jack your baby ring, the only physical object still connecting you to your family and the idea that someone may care about you in the outside world. The tips of the gold rhombus-y pendant are sharp and god knows what you could do with that—why, you could certainly hurt yourself, you think, the pointed gold edges would be sharp enough to excavate a central vein in your wrist or scratch your eyes out.
A woman in an early 00’s office-chic matching outfit sits you down on a red IKEA loveseat and crosses her legs, dangling a low, blocky heel in front of the glass coffee table, manicured with fake stargazer lilies and spiritual growth magazines.
She asks you why you’re here.
“Because I’m tired of being sick,” you say.
“Sick? How so?” She’s baiting you. Don’t trust her. You cross your legs in the opposite direction and bounce a foot.
“Shouldn’t you know?”
She clears her throat. “What exactly, in your words, do you think is wrong with you?”
You think. She blinks at you then lowers her gaze to the lilies, dumb and pretty.
“I can’t love,” you speak the words as if you’re reading the name of an album, each word capitalized. You shift to cross your legs at your ankles, all demure and shit. Act weak.
“Love?” she repeats, the same plain tone you used. “You’re here because you can’t love whom?”
You want to correct her “whom” to “who” but you don’t because she won’t learn anyway. She won’t even remember this. You’re just another wack-job who has checked themselves into a swanky rehab center in Carlsbad because you don’t know what else to do but you know you’re sick and tired of your sick and tired life alone. At least, here, you’ll be surrounded by others who are just as sick and tired as you. You’ll trade stories of being bad and fantasies of binging when you get out, which will always seem like a ridiculous amount of time. You’ll swap stories about how shitty the food is and how underqualified these people are to handle your specific set of neuroses and comorbid symptoms. You’re so unique, it’s no wonder you feel so alone.
“Anyone,” you say, which is the truth.
She lifts her chin with a slight purse of the lips and writes a line of words on the yellow pad on her lap. Who still uses yellow pads? For what you’re paying, they should be able to afford more than a few iPads or something.
You notice the fake lilies are real and that makes more sense to you. You hope they’re just as generous with the food budget.
“What about you? Would you say you are incapable of loving yourself?”
You nod, staring at the furry tendrils shooting out from the center of the lilies. You can’t remember if it’s called the pistil or stamen but think it’s probably the pistil since you remember making a connection between the P in pistil and the P in penis because they both stick out. You wonder: if that’s the dick, where’s the pussy? “Love and abuse look a lot alike for me. Bad parents and all that, yaknow.” You shoot her some finger guns and half-smile at your own bitterness.
“Well, now that’s something we can work on.”
“What?” Your parents?
“Self-love.” You wish.
“Oh.” Starvation brings you clarity and you mentally chew on that clarity like a fucking rotten tooth.
“Do you want to be here?” she asks.
“I checked myself in,” you say. “I’m paying a shit ton of money to be here.”
You give your credit card number, your old health insurance card which hasn’t been active in 4 years, and your entire fucking wallet because they ask for it, and didn’t you know it was supposed to be searched, stolen, and/or sorted with the rest of your stuff. Can’t have you running around with twenty-four bucks cash now can they? You might try something; you might bribe one of the nurses or orderlies or some other patient who is sick and tired of being sick and tired and will be more than happy to accept twenty-four dollars to suffocate you under a couch cushion.
She shows you your room, which also has lilies, and you notice a copy of The Little Prince on the wicker bedstand. Your bed feels like the hood of a car and the bathroom door bears two locks and one keypad between them. The door is shut and there’s a sign that reads, “ask permission during quiet time,” and they tell you it’s because they have to record your bowel movements. You try to make sense of that.
Your room is shared with another girl who is the human embodiment of a string bean with the personality of a sock. Her name is April and you’re not surprised to learn that her name is April. Only dumb people are named after months. You’re named after a spirit. There’s a stark difference. You’d never associate with any April in the real world.
Your fellow patients all seem like people you’d meet in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s. They’re normal people with normal jobs just trying to be normal so they can play out whatever story they’ve set up for themselves. You pity them; they’ll never get better and you feel better knowing you’re not a lost cause like these other fucks.
Your nurse reminds you of the first nanny you ever had who made the best cornbread you’ve ever eaten. She’s big-chested and deep-voiced and comforting. She smells like cinnamon and orange peels.
On day two, she wakes you up at 4:45 AM and tells you to strip down. You’re getting weighed and you’re pissed off about being woken up (despite the fact that you were wide awake anyway because withdrawal from weed, blow, and bulimia is a bitch) to get fucking weighed as if your relationship to gravity has anything to do with anything at 4:45 AM.
Susannah, the strawberry blonde waif from Georgia with the face of a sickle moon, has a panic attack at the breakfast table over the noise of forks touching plates. It’s fair, it’s an annoying sound; however, it doesn’t warrant her being dragged outside and seemingly scolded by the house director, who, fun fact, isn’t even a psychologist but the former manager of a chain restaurant. You wonder if they gave her something because she looks hollow—even happy—when she comes back in. You wish you could be happy and hollow right now. Later, when she’s moved to the intensive outpatient therapy home, she’ll write you a note that says you are such a light, keep on shining!! The extra exclamation mark means it’s bullshit but you keep the note anyway because you want a reminder of how much this place reminds you of preschool.
You can’t shit and for the first nine days. On day ten, you drop a few bunny balls worth of poo and the nurse takes a peek after you exit, then writes it down on a chart that’s tacked to the wall for all to see. You notice that April has not shat in two days and you’re jealous but also feel some kind of mastery over her due to those little bunny balls.
You start to smoke a cigarette every time they offer you a ciggie break, which is every hour. You talk to other girls about how much the food sucks and listen to how Natalie, the one with husky-blue eyes and PJ Harvey lips, has been to sixteen different rehab centers and knows her rights as a patient—especially as a paying patient. You listen to Natalie because she clearly knows her shit and they should absolutely not be force-feeding you off-brand frozen lasagna.
You don’t finish your off-brand frozen lasagna and you’re presented with a meal replacement shake, which you don’t sip fast enough, prompting some other nurse with a crinkly voice to say, “you’re getting another one if you don’t suck it down.” You chug it.
When you meet with your therapist not very often, your therapist does nothing but nod.
Your afternoons are spent cutting images out of old National Geographic magazines and gluing them to construction paper. You puzzle together letters to say affirmations like YOUR HEART MATTERS and IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS and SELF LOVE IS LOVE and AUTHENTICITY and LET GO. While you’re remembering that a little glue goes a long way, Sam, the lesbian who used to be a pole-jumping champion of Temecula valley, slides closer to you and tells you that you are the human embodiment of art and she wants to draw you—can she draw you? You’re flattered and genuinely uncomfortable. You wonder if she’ll draw your pit hair and fat fucking face as it is or with cheekbones, which you haven’t seen since you arrived, you’re so bloated you’re concerned you’re actually fat now. All your affirmations are bullshit.
Your guitar is missing a string because the fat one on the bottom might be used for self-strangulation. They’ve taken your book of Bob Marley tabs anyway (for “drug references” even though you’re not here for drugs alone). You play and sing what you remember, along with some Tom Waits songs and shit by the Misfits.
Your face is the Michelin man and you feel like there’s a puffer fish in your stomach that grows larger, spikier, and more persistent with every meal, snack, and sip of water. You have to drink one hundred ounces of water every day or you’re punished with a meal-replacement shake.
You’re able to shit but only once every few days and it feels like giving birth to a steel beam. You develop an appreciation for pears for getting you closer to regular bowel movements.
Your armpit hair is now longer than your actual hair because you don’t have razor privileges and don’t care to ask anybody about getting them. You’ll be out of here soon, anyway.
You finally get an outing “privilege” to leave the house and, out of several chain restaurant options in the closest strip mall, you choose Starbucks. As one of the cool nurses drops you off, you fantasize about hiding out in the Safeway across the street for the next week like Natalie Portman in that very American movie, minus the kid. You hate kids; kids destroy lives.
As discussed with your psychologist and nutritionist, you’re going to get a grande soy cappuccino and a cake pop. They give you the exact amount of cash you need and you are to bring the receipt back as proof. You get an americano instead, keep the change, and, when the barista’s behind the blocky steaming vestibule, snag a ten-pack of instant coffee sachets to sneak back in your panties. Upon your return, they search you, and when they’re almost done, you shift your leg and a sachet falls out of your crotch. Damn. Natalie said she was going to mix the sachets into the decaf coffee they allow us and now every girl in there is going to be pissed that you’re the reason they don’t have caffeine. You’re a bad friend.
You’re fucking done with this shit by day fifteen but you journal about how you have to hold on because your fake psychologist nodded her head and had that look in her eye that said you poor, sick sick child, you’d kill yourself if it weren’t for this place. You need this place.
All you want is to drive your car anywhere. Plus, there are a few buds of weed in the glove compartment you saved exactly for the purpose of getting high as fuck after being sober for a stretch.
You check yourself out against the advice of your “team.” You have your phone again and your sister calls to tell you she’s proud of you. You put The Little Prince into your bag, wrapped up in the jeans you never wore because why would you—they don’t stretch, you’re too swollen, and you had no reason to wear anything other than sweatpants.
You say goodbye to the other girls, even the annoying new one who has a split tongue like a snake and won’t stop talking about Skrillex. Sam slips you a note that says she loves you and she’ll see you on the outside, lover. Natalie looks you in the eye and you nod because you will abide by the agreement and toss some extra strength Nyquil over the back fence for her to fetch and get drunk off of during the last cigarette of the day (you do this immediately to get it over with). You wonder why Natalie held such power over you. Your psychologist pats you on the shoulder and says you’ll do just fine, it was a pleasure, and you know her naive hope is standard procedure.
Later that day, you’re stoned on the beach about to drive to the nearest pizza restaurant and choke down the whole thing only to puke it back up as proof of your agency. You make a mental note to read The Little Prince, which you never do. It’s a kid’s book; you’re not a kid anymore.
Brandyce Ingram is a writer, tutor, and jazz-head in Austin, TX. Her work has appeared in High Shelf Press, Sand Hills Lit Mag, OxMag, An Evening with Emily Dickinson (Wingless Dreamer), and elsewhere. She is currently researching 20th-century lunatic asylums.