Another excerpt from my novel, Sunnygrove.
Autumn sits in therapy with Dr. Schrader, both talking about her current tumultuous feelings and slowly coming to the realization that all is not right with Sunnygrove Wellness Center.
Shortly thereafter, her plunge into darkness begins.
Dr. Schrader turned the apple around and around in his hands, as if searching for imperfections.
A Granny Smith, it seemed to glow like a tinted light bulb in the sunlight. He looked up at Autumn and set it down on the armrest of the chair. “Would you like one? As you can see, we have plenty of apples here. Many kinds, too. Red delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Rome, Braeburn, Granny Smith; yes, all kinds.”
Though his eyes remained jovial, there was a subtle tautness in his voice. She figured he was having one of “those days,” or maybe she was.
“No, I'm okay.” she answered. Her stomach had been roiling all day, due to nervousness or the medication, or a combination of both.
“Yeah, I'm sure."
She hugged her knees tightly and inhaled, but it was shallow, hard to take in. Everything about the hospital was surreal and inconsistent; suffocating one moment, relaxing the next. It was strangely comforting knowing they would be there to protect her from herself it ever came to that, which it wouldn't. At the very same time such a notion sickened her even more.
She hated who she was, hated the very concept of being a “patient.” It was a stain that would never come out, another reason for people to hate and shun her. Maybe she could hide it, but not forever, and not from those who would be eager to use it to their advantage.
She realized the doctor hadn't said anything for a while, far from his usual chatty self. He was fiddling with the apple again, appearing as if he might eat it before putting it down again, then giving it another look over, then leaving it alone. He seemed restless.
Autumn usually hated these kinds of silences, and that meant having to fill it with inane babble, which made her seem even more like a weirdo. She tried not to stand out or seem strange, but in the act of trying drew attention to it.
She stared out the window, desiring the smell of fresh air so much it was painful. They would let her go outside soon, wouldn't they?
Dr. Schrader crunched into the apple and the sound was surprisingly loud. It startled her more than it should have, and he grinned through a mouthful of green. “Delicious!” he exclaimed, and if there had been any tension on his end, it was gone now.
“And for your information, an apple a day doesn't really keep the doctor away. At least not this one. You wouldn't want to keep me away, would you?”
“No,” she said, and allowed herself a small smile.
“Some people would,” he explained, then gave an exaggerated, almost comical shrug, biting into the apple again. “Where are my manners? I shouldn't talk with my mouth full. It's rude. Whoops, there I go again. Sorry.”
There was another silence as he finished chewing, then finally: “All right, today we're going to begin with your social anxiety. From what you and your parents have told me, low self esteem is responsible for a lot of this. But how long has it been going on? Were you always afraid to look people in the eye or talk to them?”
“Not always,” she said, and thought back for a moment. “I was always kinda shy, though.”
“I figured you were. But when did simple shyness transform into fear?”
“When I was 9 I started going to a private school, Chadwick Academy. I didn't want to go, but my parents said it was better than public school. I missed my friends, and...well, I don't know if they missed me that much, because as soon as I stopped going to the same school as them, they didn't call me or stop by. A couple did, but most didn't.”
“And you became very lonely, hmm?”
She nodded, pushing her brown bangs out of her eyes. “So I tried to make new friends. It was hard.”
“It often is,” he agreed.
“They didn't like me from the start. I didn't belong. I tried, you know, just to fit in and appease them, but that didn't help. They didn't like me, and even when I wasn't the 'new kid' anymore I never felt wanted. It wasn't like before.”
“Growing up is one of the hardest things, isn't it?” He closed his eyes for a moment, looking wistful.
“Yeah.” Autumn noticed a small red bump on her arm, and had the urge to pick at it, a nervous habit she'd had ever since she was little, but recently it had gotten worse.
“Not so much growing up,” he mused, opening his eyes, “as coming to terms with the awful things that happen, the way people tend to treat each other. Everyone goes through that stage where they feel like a stranger—even to themselves. Some grow out of it, some don't. Some bullies stop being bullies, others take it with them to adulthood and make everything a whole lot worse for anyone else.
She nodded, staring off into space. Was it normal for a psychiatrist to make little speeches like this?
“Don't do that, Autumn.” He suddenly pointed to her arm. She hadn't made herself bleed, but it was close.
“Don't hurt yourself, even in small ways.” His eyes were piercing and though the concern in them was evident, she couldn't stand it. It made her want to cry. She wanted someone to care but some nagging voice always made her question if it was fake, if everything everyone said that seemed nice was actually a lie. Did she even deserve to be cared about?
“How long have you been skin-picking?” he asked.
“I don't know.”
“You don't know? It's usually a semi-conscious reaction to stress, but you seem to realize that you're doing it. It can also qualify as a form of self harm; very unhealthy.”
“Guess so,” she said, and wished she hadn't said anything at all. Outside, the trees thrashed in the wind, like an angry mob demanding blood.
“Do you ever feel the urge to punish yourself?”
Why did he have to ask her this?
Because he's a psychiatrist, dummy. He has to.
She stared at the small welt her fingernail had made, and thought, insanely, that this was the beginning of a molt. She was a bird, willing herself to grow wings, encouraging the growth that would allow her, eventually, to fly. Pain and cataclysm were conduits for change. By sloughing away the useless downy softness, she could harden herself with pain and become a girl who did not cry at the slightest things, who did not care what people thought of her. She would never be a bird of prey, and perhaps never be part of a flock, but she would endure the winds and the cold as easily as any, and most importantly, be free.
She shook her head vigorously, as if to cast out this bizarre inner dialogue.
“You okay?” Dr. Schrader studied her perhaps with the same intensity he studied his insects on the wall. Butterflies that would never take wing again, black beetles like disabled machines, preying mantises frozen in mid-strike.
When she didn't immediately answer, he wondered, “what are you thinking about?”
Fly away, little fledgling.
He chomped his apple again, and it was suddenly a gross sound. Ever since she walked into this place, she felt like something was chewing on her. In some crawlspace of awareness, an unseen maw masticated thoughts, made them convoluted and rambling and strange. Not her thoughts, at least not fully. She'd read ghost stories and some reflected on the reasons why places and people were haunted, because suffering was always in flight, and even when you weren't looking, it sailed and ruffled the feathers of those who still, after all these years of hopeless longing, could not fly.
You'll never be free. You're pathetic.
“Stop it, just shut up,” she said, rubbing her temples to ward off an approaching headache and shaking her head, knowing she looked like a freak again. Then she realized that those words had been spoken aloud. She forced herself meet his eyes. “I'm...I'm sorry. I wasn't talking to you.”
“Who were you talking to?”
“Do you ever hear any voices?”
“No!” Then, embarrassed, she repeated in a calmer tone. “No. Just thoughts.”
“Invasive thoughts?” he probed, and this time she did wish he would shut up, even if he was just trying to help.
“If you don't mind me asking, what do they say?”
Both unwilling and unable to translate the weirdness going through her mind, she kept silent, and he waited. He was good at waiting. This alone enticed a need to say something; anything.
Instead of answering the question, she told him, “I don't like Sunnygrove, Dr. Schrader. There's something wrong with it. And now there's even more wrong with me since I've come here.”
“You can't blame it on a place or external force. The only way to get better is to accept and understand that you have problems, which is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Autumn knew there was something he was not saying, an undercurrent beneath the assurances. Or maybe he was right; there was more wrong with her than mere depression and anxiety, and she had just bought herself a one way ticket to Loonyland. Her headache worsened, and the fluttering of her heart was an alarm bell, announcing the death of whatever calm she had managed to cultivate. An anxiety attack was coming.
“What's wrong with me, Dr. Schrader? Am I going crazy?”
“You're dealing with a lot of stress lately,” he explained. “You're feeling especially vulnerable, and thus more likely to doubt your sanity.”
“I don't know if I can trust myself.” she said, almost too low to be heard.
“Why is that?” His voice was soft, almost caressing.
“I see things here. But mostly, I feel them.” Admitting this was only making it worse, was only going to seal the deal, but it felt good to tell someone, to explain.
“What do you feel?”
She couldn't even trust herself to answer, until he prodded, “I know what you're worrying about. You think that if you tell me, it will prolong your stay here. Not so. Everyone is capable of hallucinating, regardless of whether or not they have a mental illness. All minds are flawed, even mine.” He smiled, and that opened the door. It always did.
“I'm scared of this place. I'm scared of what it might do to me if I stay here for too long. Like I'll become crazy as time goes on, and then I won't be able to leave.”
“You know that's not true,” he declared.
Autumn didn't reply. She stared at the walls, as if they would suddenly disgorge their secrets before her eyes. It was never as simple as that. These things always hid from you, messing with you from afar; bullies of the mind.
She remembered harsh whispers, furtive glances in the hallway, notes passed and pleas for kinship ignored. Friends were never really friends; only shadows. Soon they didn't even try to pretend they weren't talking about her, that they didn't despise this weak, bookish girl enough to want to make her run away and not come back. Maybe Dr. Schrader was right; they really were trying to drive her over the edge. What would they think now, if they knew she had ended up at a mental institution?
Wellness Center, a stray thought corrected, almost smugly.
Same thing. It's all the same. I'm screwed up. I'm—
—“Autumn, just talk to me, okay? Tell me what's going through your head right now,” Dr. Schrader persisted, and that was all it took to get her in tears again.
The tears burned as they came, caustic on her skin.
“I'm such a baby.”
“Putting yourself down so harshly is irrational too.”
“No need to apologize. Be honest here; do you ever actually talk with your parents about these issues? Not just the bullying at school, but everything else.”
“Not really,” she admitted. “I don't want to burden them.”
“You think telling them about your problems would burden them?” He raised his eyebrows with incredulity. “But they're your parents.”
“I know they care about me. They've done a lot for me.”
“But you still don't feel as if they hear you.” Dr. Schrader clucked his tongue as if to say, shame, shame.
“I begged them not to take me here,” she whispered, and he looked up with a sudden intensity that gave her pause. “I.... told them I'd be good, that I'm not crazy. They know I'm not crazy...I hope...I guess they just think that sending me here would do me good, like summer camp or something. It's because of my grades, because the teachers told them I had 'emotional disturbances' and couldn't handle coming to class.”
She was subliminally aware that her hand had gone back to that same bump, scratching and picking, and Dr. Schrader admonished her again. “Uh uh. Don't.”
Anguish stabbed at her like splinters, and the tears continued to burn. Accompanying this was the absurdly horrifying mental image of someone whose cheeks had been worn away down to smooth wet muscle and possibly bone by their own acid tears. Stop showing me these things, please. It's horrible.
“I hate this.” she told him. “I hate all of this. I want to go home. I'll be better off if I can just get out of here and go home. This place is no good for me.”
He shook his head, and the splinters sank deeper. “You're too fragile to go home right now.”
“I hate myself,” Autumn said bitterly, and as much as she wanted to hold the words in, they flew out without control, as thick with anger as misery. “So stupid and weak, saying things I shouldn't say, always at the wrong time, always so people won't misunderstand me, only they do, all the time. Maybe they're right. Maybe I should just...go.”
Curling into a ball on the sofa, she pressed her face against her legs and wept.
“The self-loathing goes deeper than I thought,” he said. “But you must understand that your judgment is clouded by emotion. This bullying you've been on the receiving end of as well as other physiological and psychological factors—this is the result of that, not a reflection of your worth. You're not stupid or weak, Autumn. You just believe you are.”
She didn't reply, just tried to sink into the dark and to wash herself away, yet another stain.
“And what do you mean by 'go?'”
She didn't have the will to answer him, could only whimper.
“I fear you'll harm yourself.”
“No,” she protested, but it was weak, unconvincing.
I'm digging myself deeper. I'm never getting out of here at this rate. Stupid, stupid.
“Are you going to try and hurt yourself?” His voice sounded strange, muffled. Was there compassion in it, or was it just a tape playing itself over and over?
“Don't have the guts,” Autumn replied, and surprising both of them, sat up and laughed. It was a dry, abrading chuckle, utterly humorless, disturbing even to her. “Too weak, even for that. Don't worry, Dr. Schrader. I don't want to go. I want to....”
Something crashed against the window, a loud, meaty ffwump.
They both looked up and saw a bird as it slid down the glass, brown and tan wings like knives against the cold sky, beak opened wide as if to scream. Fragile bones broken from the collision, it still wasn't dead. It was only there for a moment but to Autumn the bird's fall happened in slow motion. Little black claws groped for purchase which couldn't be found, at least not in this world, the eyes glittered with fear but also with dark triumph, and as it disappeared from sight she knew that Sunnygrove had grown a mouth and swallowed it up.
Just like it'll do to me.
Fly away, little fledgling. Before it's too late for you.
Autumn remembered leaving Dr. Schrader's office, but what had happened during the rest of the session was a complete mystery to her. After the bird and the weird reoccurring thought, nothing.
Schrader had ushered her gently out of the room, his hand a steadying guide, hovering without quite touching her, and he said something about 150 milligrams of something. It was hard to hear because her ears were ringing.
She could feel wings aching to grow and as she walked unsteadily down the hall to meet two waiting nurses, it was all she could do not to start picking again. They wouldn't like that. They would categorize her as a self-harmer, and she would never get out of here.
In her room, they gave her pills in a paper cup and a carton of apple juice. She swallowed every bit of it without asking why, and though she wanted to sleep, they told her she had to go somewhere.
She didn't ask where, but there was something so final about that mysterious “somewhere.”
Moving through the halls was like moving through the molasses-thick spaces of certain dreams. Every step sluggish, unsure, every noise stifled, everything she saw blurry at some points, but painfully stark in others. Staff members smiled as if they knew her well, as if they were family and every skeleton in every closet was wonderfully transparent to them and they didn't judge you for it because madness lives in everyone.
She felt like a ghost, drifting. The nurses were ghosts too and when they left her in a small, unassuming waiting room she had already forgotten what their faces looked like. Did they even have faces? Did she?
Autumn didn't feel right. She wondered if the bird was still alive, if beautiful things ever truly died or simply disappeared. Maybe, through some benign fluke, it had managed to right itself and take to the skies again.
Maybe she would too. Dr. Schrader seemed to think so.
Her head throbbed but already she could feel their medicine taking the edge off at the cost of mental clarity. Funny, how little blue pills could do that. Like magic.
Why was she in a waiting room? Hadn't she been waiting long enough? Is that all some people did in their life, just sit and wait? When did it end?
It was an empty room and the lights were making a humming sound and that was weird, because today was a clear day; windy but not cloudy, perfect for walking trails or having picnics or maybe just sitting alone while everyone else tittered and whispered amongst themselves, enjoying the pain of the outsider.
It was almost as if they were hungry for your suffering, and hung around you just to watch you break.
Autumn didn't want those awful words to ring true, but they still held up. And there was subtext to it now, something that might explain what was happening, why she couldn't remember what else had happened in that office.
They never just came out and said it, but she was a prisoner. Everyone here was a prisoner; even if they had admitted themselves voluntarily, even if they were just visiting someone else, even if they worked here. Every single person, unconsciously or otherwise, felt the cool embrace of its shackles around them. It even felt nice at first, made you feel safe and wanted and connected to something strong, but when it began reeling you in, you knew it wasn't nice.
The bird knew. Here was the same concept; things flew, then fell and shattered, and people like Schrader were responsible for picking up the pieces. What life had been reduced to was a few little blue pills in a cup every day and piles of broken shards. And pain, which some found more nourishing than any nectar.
Autumn didn't know where any of this was coming from. Thoughts looped chaotically, hard to scrutinize or track. She felt as though she were serving as an outlet for something, a surrogate.
Suddenly it was very dark. Pitch black, smothering. In the absence of stimuli, the brain created retinal phantoms, an abstract puppet show with weird, frightening imagery instead of whimsical puppets. Her hands clutched the wooden armrests of the chair as if this were some roller coaster and she was going to be thrown off at any moment.
She giggled to herself. It really wasn't funny, but she was feeling funny, and it was a helpless, nervous sort of laugh.
“Hey, who turned out the lights?” she asked, and no one answered.
The darkness showed her leering, transforming faces that caved in on themselves and melted like wax. It showed her dancing figures in some masquerade ball that held no mirth or merriment because it was fake, all of it, so disgusting and fake. Underneath sequined masks, flesh and gristle slid off bone, choice cuts that (in)human monsters would nibble. Beneath smatterings of lies, everyone was red and raw and vulnerable.
They hate me because I don't pretend I'm perfect.
Something brushed against the top of her foot, something small and cold. She took her legs off the floor and hugged them, straining to make out any definite shape in the gloom, but there was nothing to see but transient phantoms, a morbid waltz of images and notions, turning and never stopping.
“Why did you leave me in here? Where did everyone go? Someone, come back. N-nurse?” Her voice broke, and like a door being shut, refused to let any more words through. The silence was sleek and purposeful, forcing her to come up with something to fill the emptiness with.
Something lighted on her cheek and she swatted at a swollen, jittering body, and the scream was like a bubble that didn't pop. Darkness ate it up, made it nonexistent, just like the bird.
Even in daylight darkness was everywhere, seething in the smallest crevices, pouring thickly through bloodstreams, through restless psyches that after all these years, still refused to get well.
Fly away, little fledgling.
Or with us you'll stay.