Wind rustles through the trees sounding like hula skirts. A blue cotton candy sky pops above the evergreens that form a fortress at the back of our yard. Near where I sit on our back porch, a giant old oak and shiny magnolia tree offer additional privacy, their limbs reaching out to each other as if beckoning for a hug. The crepe myrtles buffer us from the neighbors, dripping shocks of white and fuchsia blooms. A black faux-wrought-iron fence runs the perimeter of the back of our house and extends enough to give the dogs room to run, but not at full speed.
We’ve been in Tennessee for a little over two years. Wherever my husband Rick, our two sons and I have lived, I’ve found a spot where I gravitate to. In South Carolina it was a screened porch. Our home in North Carolina had a nook in the kitchen banked with windows. Here, the porch serves as my retreat where I read, write, meditate, or pray.
This morning in my corner of the universe choruses of insect and bird chirps swell the air. My radio plays light jazz. Dude, our Jack Russell, sleeps in a patch of sun on the wooden planks near my feet. Shadows from the trees form lattice-work on the grass.
The porch floor sits four feet above the ground. Below me are hostas, monkey grass, and rose bushes. They are encroaching on one another, siblings fighting for attention. A robin perches on the fence, surveying, while a yellow Tiger swallow flits around the plantings, bobbing about, without alighting on anything like it’s got too many options.
This sanctuary has not always been so serene. It was a prison when Rick locked the fence gate, his attempt to keep me at home during a long bout of mania. I paced, listening for the airplanes overhead while plotting my escape. I was sure they were full of people I knew, coming to rescue me. “Rescue” was a theme in my ping-ponging thoughts. I believed that a former professor was living in my son’s closet. He was there to save me.
When my aunt came to help, I gave her tokens for him believing she also knew of his location upstairs. One time I pressed a red bandanna into her hands, another time it was two silver heart-shaped, Brighton earrings. “You know who to give this to,” I instructed.
I don’t know the exact moment when I turned the corner into madness. Perhaps it was when I heard larger-than-life bird song or spied John the Baptist and other Biblical figures at the end of our cul-de-sac. Rick was initially concerned when, after a job interview for a marketing position at a cat shelter, I was asked by the director to email a few fund-raising ideas. I turned in ten pages of rambling single-spaced text. In bed at night I whispered a plan where cats could be introduced to prisoner rehabilitation programs just like dogs that needed training.
Next, I became convinced the Obamas had moved in across the street, and prepared a welcome basket for them. When we ordered pizza one night I told our sons there was poison in the Sierra Mist. I read to my aunt from a book about local wildflowers. Pointing to each picture, I announced all of the flora and fauna were mine.
When Rick decided he and my aunt could no longer keep me safe at home, I was hospitalized. As an attendant whisked me up the elevator I said to her, “You know, you have a lot of arm waddle.” A new sanctuary awaited me consisting of a round table in the corner of the day room. From my perch I gazed out the window looking for clues about why I was in the hospital. I didn’t want to be there, but I no longer trusted my husband. I was fearful of where else he might put me if I came home.
In the hospital I colored, listened to music, and wrote letters to everyone I could think of including that professor. But this wasn’t the same as our back porch at home. It lacked privacy. Other patients hovered near me to assess my drawings or to have someone to cry next to. I couldn’t hear insects chatter or the wind. Instead there was just the chronic drone of institutional lighting and air punctuated by the occasional crackle of speakers igniting sharp demands for assistance when a patient needed restrained or was having a seizure.
Rather than just having Rick to answer to I had a whole staff. I wasn’t always happy with what they had to say or the way I was treated. One technician confiscated my rosary; a nurse threatened a shot when I balked at ingesting yet another a dose of Lorazepam. My doctor walked in on me in the bathroom once when I had just started dressing after my shower. Was he in such a hurry to complete rounds that he needed to do that, or was he hoping to catch a glimpse of something?
One morning I had a fit in my room, cursing and kicking a chair. My doctor and the nurses heard it all the way down the hallway at the nurses’ desk. My doctor laughed and said, “Well, maybe tomorrow will be a better day.”
While I sat in the corner, I often witnessed the hunter green Eurovan we traded in six years ago in another state, as it circled the parking lot. The vehicle even had a large soccer-ball sticker on the back window, further evidence it was our old van. Soccer is our sons’ sport. I couldn’t discern whether the driver was there to help save me or whether he was a spy; I only knew he was luring me somehow.
I wasn’t the only patient plagued with this way of thinking. Once I showed Olive a picture I drew of two fish. I told her the blue fish was Jonah and the pink one was Mary.
“Shh!” she hissed while snatching the paper from me; “Never use names!” Another time when I told her about the professor at home in the closet upstairs, she said, “Honey, don’t tell anyone, but I got two husbands too. The worthless one is in Kansas right now doing a book-signing.”
As the days wore on, my paranoia abated, but by then I believed the tapioca pudding offered after evening group was something to look forward to. I had been in asylum so long I ran out of space above my desk for all the cards and drawings from my sons, or other family and friends who sent mail.
Early spring rains blanketed the building. We rarely went outside anymore to sit on the bench at the tiny concrete pad entombed by the hospital walls. I grew edgy with each new influx of patients and the mass releases of others. The fluctuating population was a reminder that I had been there the longest. Even Olive had gone home. Our oldest son, then age twelve, was permitted to visit, but he’d only come once to see me. That day he left upset because I had lashed out at his Dad, my husband, the man who stuck me in the hospital. As the days disappeared, I felt like a caged tiger aching for her cubs.
The rain persisted. I begged a nurse to take me outside, saying I was suffocating. She allowed me to stand in the doorway to the courtyard. Drops pricked my face as I gulped in fresh air. I scanned around the edges of the concrete for pebbles. I had a routine of picking them up and shoving them into my pockets to send my sons in their letters. Tiny rocks were all I had to give. But I was ushered inside after less than a minute.
Fatigue, indifference to food, waking up early feeling as though I’d wept in my sleep were all signs I was slipping into depression.
My new quiet way convinced the doctors and staff I was well enough to go home. Upon my release when I walked outside for the first time the parking lot looked huge like it might swallow me. I blinked. My eyes had trouble adjusting to the gift of sunlight.
When I passed through the garage into our kitchen the space felt foreign to me, like someone had come in and painted it while I was away. My desk appeared smaller than I remembered. I fumbled over using my computer, forgetting passwords and log-ins. I was horrified to read some of the emails I had dispersed while manic: A poem about my menstrual cycle went to our sons’ soccer coach. A mass email with an essay attached spanning the topics of the show CSI, President Obama and angels. It had made so much sense to me at the time, I thought it was full of brilliant epiphanies. I saw now that it wasn’t. There were also multiple emails to my former professor. I cringed with embarrassment. I sat on the back porch, waiting for happy. But happy didn’t come.
Instead I sank further, slumping in porch furniture on the back deck or sleeping for hours. When I reached out to my friends by calling them on the phone, I really had nothing to say.
The tinkering of psychotropic medication jolted my system, causing side effects like my hair to start falling out. I was also passing dark, amber-colored urine. It took several attempts with different meds and varying dosages of them to lift the heavy black veil of despair. And even with that, the sadness lingered for several weeks, fading only with time like a bad bruise.
Now, some eighteen months later, Rick and I sit out back in the evenings. We like it when it is breezy and cool. Strings of lights crisscross the ceiling, casting a comforting glow. A cherub knick-knack rests her chubby face on a book seeming to protect the words within. Maybe, she is watching over us too. I listen for sounds of our sons cutting through the yard by dusk on their way home from playing. They are starting to trust that it’s the real me waiting for them at home.
I’m trying to trust that this version of me will stay, that she will not swing too high or too low again.
The trees in the wind seem to whisper, hush, hush. I do not mention the imprisonment or hospitalization and neither does my husband. Instead, we talk about the stuff of life— our sons, the dogs, his job, my writing. We study wildlife always hoping to see a Carolina bluebird, the messenger of joy. We wait for butterflies as if they are sacred promises.
I hardly ever notice the drone of airplanes, circling above.