Well, this one was a doozy... awesome author Chuck Wendig challenged us to write a 1,000-word Flash fiction about - a real-life event in our past.
And for my story, it meant I'd be going public about a time in my life I haven't actually gone public about before - when I was twenty-four and attending a psychiatric hospital as a day patient, following a mental breakdown.
Obviously I could've picked a million other life moments to write a Flash about... but somehow this one was the one that shouted to me. Possibly because it marked a shift in my thinking - from sort-of-selfish-jerky to slightly-less-selfish-jerky (I hope.) And anyway, how much longer can I pretend like my past never happened without looking like a delusional reality tv star?
Let my crazy times roll...
This week I’ve got my shit together. I picked out coloured pencils that are already sharpened.
You can’t just have a sharpener in Art Therapy – you have to ask the Key Worker for one. How does anyone hurt themselves with a pencil sharpener? I suppose they can’t be too careful in a place full of crazy people. I've been a member for a couple of months now - or maybe longer. It’s hard to remember through the fog of drugs.
“Can you open the windows, please? I can’t breathe.” Oh god. Her again.
She’s there with her escort outside the door, in her sparkly pink headband, plus-size flowery dress and white ankle socks. The man opposite me rolls his eyes, and a wave of sighs ripples across the classroom as she gives Tim the Therapist the rabbit-in-headlights eyes and wobbly lip. “Open the windows,” she says, in her baby-girl voice, “or I can’t breathe.”
This is her third week in Art Therapy, and she does this every time. I've tried guessing her age, but it’s impossible to tell. She dresses like an overgrown eight-year-old and has the voice to match, but her face and body have the bulk and sag of a middle-aged woman. I've never seen her without her escort; everyone from the Secure Unit has one whenever they mix with the day patients. It doesn't always mean they’re violent, but it does mean their problems go deeper than anything a course of therapy can fix.
“It’s winter now,” says Tim, in the sing-song rhythm all the staff use when they think we’re too spaced to understand them. “I think it’ll be too cold in here with all the windows open…”
“I can’t breathe!” Her squeak becomes a squeal and she clutches at her throat.
“You’ll be fine. I’ll leave the door open for you –”
“No! I need the windows open - I can’t breathe. I'm dying!”
She’s not going to give in – we already know that from the last two sessions. Tim sweeps the rest of us with a look of silent apology before shuffling towards the windows, and she waits until every last one is opened before she waddles in and takes her usual place – the desk nearest the door, on the opposite side. I slap my hand over the paper on my table, now flapping in the draught whistling in from outside. Great. The rest of us freeze to death but at least she won’t get blasted by Siberian winds while she’s breathing her special window-oxygen… from the other side of the room.
I pick up a blue pencil and stare down at my paper. What shall I draw this week? The point of Art Therapy, it seems, is to Draw Away Your Pain. Most people depict traumatic events from their past, which they present to Tim to look at and nod sympathetically. I don’t know why anyone would want to see the shit in my soul so I draw in code, hiding the darkness behind pretty colours and generic symbols of how I wish it could've been. Ever the therapist, Tim still treats them like a puzzle to unravel – which, it turns out, is sport for both of us. So… what can I do this week, to really get his brain spinning…?
Dammit, I can’t concentrate. She’s talking to Tim, and her volume switch is apparently stuck at Stage Actor Loud. The man opposite me tuts, his orange pencil grinding a trench into his paper as he glares sideways at her, but she’s oblivious as she carries on telling Tim about her week. I'm not having to struggle to eavesdrop, so I give in to curiosity.
“My mum came to see me this week. She brought me cake. I like cake.”
“That’s nice.” Tim has set phasers to Analyse, with everything she says another puzzle for him to unravel.
“She always brings me cake. Or Sweets. I like sweets as well.”
“Do you miss her?”
“Sometimes. But I can never go back home again. I have to live here forever.”
There’s a grown-up sadness in her little-girl voice that I haven’t heard before. I find myself looking again at her glittery headband and white ankle socks.
How many years has she been locked away?
“I have to live here because of the bad man. He made me like this.” Her lip wobbles, and her eyes have a watery gloss. “The bad man hurt me. He stole my life, and I’ll never get it back.”
The bottom drops out of my heart. Now I understand. She’s not just a Lifer from the secure unit - she’s a person, just like me and everyone else in this world. But she’s also a broken soul, forever frozen in time at the moment the Bad Man tore her world apart. She could've been me. I could've been her. There is no Grand Plan; no karma, no divine retribution. Fate covers his eyes when he picks out his victims.
“Okay, session’s over.” Tim moves to the front table where the boxes of pencils are stacked. “Please leave your work on your table and put your pencils away, and I’ll see you all again next week.”
My gaze darts to the clock. Where did the time go? A whole thirty minutes for a blank piece of paper. No puzzle for Tim today. But I don’t mind. I learned something instead.
She stays at her desk while her escort packs away her pencils for her, watching saucer-eyed as everyone else leaves. As I pass her we make eye contact, and this time I smile at her. She shrinks back, her face crumpling - and for a moment I worry that I’ve done something wrong. But then the corners of her mouth curl upwards and the sun comes out. She has a pretty smile; all dimples and innocence.
I hope I see it again in future Art Therapy sessions. Even if it does mean remembering to bring a coat.