Have You Ever Seen Such a Sight in Your Life

Roberta Payne Click to read more...

Roberta Payne is a retired (most recently from the University of Denver) teacher of Italian and Latin and a nationally known speaker on the subject of schizophrenia.  She has translated four volumes of poetry from the Italian and currently teaches Greek and Latin privately, when she is not working on various memoirs.  Her work has appeared in Gettysburg Review and Narrative Magazine.

“Sicko! Weirdo!”

A moment of silence. Then the young woman started over.

She was in the observation room, to the north of the day room. It was where they put the worst patients when they first came in, people who screamed and shouted, or who had tried to kill themselves.  Her yelling continued. I could hear it while I washed my face, went to eat breakfast, and then sat with the others in the day room. No one could read the paper for all her loud desperation, “Sicko!  Weirdo!” We didn’t know what to think, and I could feel the embarrassment in the room.  We glanced sideways at each others’ eyes.

I watched people coming and going from the little room. At first there had been only the nighttime M.D. and the nighttime nurses, because she had been admitted just past midnight. Later the psychiatrist, Dr. Scotland, visited her; and the day nurses filed in and out. I wondered if they were trying to comfort her, or if they were just dispassionately observing, or if they were drugging her.

Then the rest of us were called to group.  Held in a large room at the end of the hall, morning group was usually devoted to pointless accusations by patients about staff and breakfast food, as well as the “events” of the previous night, like a patient’s noisy outburst, or the unpleasantness of the orderly’s flashlight checks. That day we could think of nothing to say — we just sat there and squirmed and listened to that yelling.  We were annoyed by her, and lacked any compassion.  Some of the old ladies muttered about her, “I wonder if she came in here on drugs,” and “I don’t know what she’s been up to, and it makes me nervous.” But eventually the yelling petered out.  We spent the rest of the morning, after group, in little circles in the day room, chatting, doing our assigned household tasks (mine was caring for the many plants), and being forced by the occupational therapist to exercise and then to make stupid things in crafts class that we could keep if we wanted.  That day, since it was fall, we made little corn-husk dolls.  I am an artist, so I found folding corn husks into doll shapes less offensive than the exercising.The day room was shining white, an enamel white, as were the halls, the group room, and our bedrooms.  It seemed to me that they should have painted them a soothing pastel.  Back when I was in the observation room myself, weeks before, the sheer gleam of the white began to shimmer.  It overwhelmed me, and I retreated far away, into the blackness of my mind, which expanded to welcome the Evil Ones.  They had traveled from the farthest galaxy in the universe, surrounded by ultimate blackness, 200 billion light-years away.  They slid right into my mind and curled up.  But each day, the medicine the nurses gave me made the Evil Ones slip out, one by one, and recede back, farther and farther, toward their own galaxy.  In the perversity of psychosis, I missed them, and I would have traveled outward from my black brain toward the surface of my skin, out to follow them; but the medications prevented my voyage.  I hated the medicine Dr. Scotland had prescribed as much as I was grateful for it.

After a while, I was put out with the other people.  I began to notice my fellow patients and the nurses, to chat with them, to learn their names.  Eventually I even made a friend — the young woman.

***

She was brought in to lunch. She had to be led. Not because she was drugged, but because she was blind. She tap, tap, tapped her way down the hall, measuring its length and width with her cane so that she would know them for the stay that was ahead. She had a big smile.

She was put at the head of the table. She didn’t wear sunglasses, and seemed to have control over her eyes, like she’d gone to a really good school for the blind, that had taken care of every detail. This young woman looked stunningly like Liberace, with the same high, thick, black hair and sweetened smile. She was about thirty, like me.  I could not take my own eyes off her. Blindness has always stabbed me in the heart: I know for a fact that the eyes are the major escape route from the blackness.  I would rather be dead than blind.  Well, maybe she would, too.  Maybe, I thought, that’s why she’s here.

Her name was Faith.

She was an expert at the table. She patted her food softly with her fingertips to determine what were meat, vegetables, noodles, and so forth. Faith buttered her own roll. “No thank you, I don’t need any help at all.  I know how to pour cream into coffee, just the right amount – watch me!”   All the while, she was thoroughly tidy, leaving no stain, no crumb.

I was mesmerized.

***

She was led to the group room for our afternoon session. The nurse pointed things out to her – “The bay windows are here, notice how they jut out,” and “The most comfortable couches are on this side of the room.”  A low, circular coffee table covered with magazines sat in the middle of the room – “Be careful, it’s quite wide.”  The sweetened, Liberace smile never left her face.

Tall, ruddy Dr. Scotland said to the group, “This is Faith.  She joined the ward early this morning.  Faith, would you like to say a few words about yourself and why you are here?”

Her voice was low, articulated, and melodious – I was reminded that the sound of a voice would naturally mean more to her, not seeing, than to us.  “I have three small children.  Two are in elementary school.  My younger son is still at home with me. I care for my children, keep my house, and cook the meals.”

Patients looked at each other, amazed.

But she wasn’t through.  “I’m a graduate of Drake University, I’ve been to Europe, and I can water-ski.” All of a sudden, she started yelling again, building up a crescendo to “Sicko!  Weirdo!”

Then silence. She put her head down low and grasped her stick in front of her like a pillar.

The rest of us turned to reciting our respective trivia and to bickering.

***

Days are almost identical there, until you leave. I do not remember which days I learned what about Faith. Over meals at the long table and during day trips in the van and free time in the day room (where Faith knitted as she talked) we became close friends, although she only gradually got beyond the sharing of facts. She had so many facts.

For instance, Faith baked bread. Although blind, she measured the margarine, the sugar, the flour, all the little ingredients, stirred them, greased the right-sized pan, somehow preheated the oven to the correct temperature, timed the bread, tested it to determine if it was done, took it out of the oven without getting burned, and, amazingly, cleaned and tidied her kitchen afterward. She had learned to use a Braille cookbook at the school for the blind in Des Moines, where she had spent her youth.

Faith never stopped talking about her blindness. I wondered if it was always the fact in every blind person’s existence.  It was in hers.

“I’m an only child,” she said.  “My parents were quite old when I was born. They’ve told me over and over how long they’d hoped for a child.”  She was premature and had barely survived.  She had exchanged her sight for her life. I wondered inwardly if she had actually been able to see for the first day or two or three of her life, before her retinas failed, and God had not allowed her to remember it.

One day as I passed her room, I saw she was sitting on the edge of her perfectly made bed. I went in, said hello, and glanced around. Her clothes were color-coordinated by Braille code stickers and hung on the hooks near the sink. Faith was reading a huge, white Braille book — it was Psalms, she said, smiling up at me.  “No, you’re not interrupting,” she added.  I sat down on her bed beside her, and we got to talking almost immediately about her parents.  She seemed more concerned with them than she was with her husband, who’d just left her and — she had shrieked — molested their daughter.  I thought, she must be very ill to be so disordered about her priorities.  So I sat back and listened, to try to make sense of her tale.  “After I was born and I was blind, my parents devoted their lives to me.  They’ve given me every advantage possible. I’ve even had private ballet lessons.”  She wore a magnificent ring, an opal surrounded by diamonds, on her right hand, a gift from them. “They still live next door to me.”

She was angry at them, very angry.  She wanted her freedom, but they would not leave her alone. “My parents are worried about what’s going to happen to me when they’re dead.   Well, they are old, and my husband has left me.”  Faith wanted only to be away from her parents.  “I said I’d move here to Ames, but they said they would move too!  What do you think of my becoming a court reporter?  That way I could support myself.”  I pointed out the long schooling and transportation logistics involved.  What else could she do?  In the time I knew her, she returned again and again to this, the central dilemma of her life: how to gain freedom, how to be in control.

***

Faith went to morning and afternoon groups on her own, although one or another of us would often remind her when she was approaching the big, round coffee table, or one of the old ladies would say, “Oh, come sit by me, dear, there’s an empty place right here by me.” She would nestle in and sit there with her head held high, giving one the impression she, too, could see. She was inevitably the center of the group. Each session was the same: Faith would start it with an angry remark seemingly out of the blue, like “My mother criticizes the way I vacuum, and she checks the tops of my picture frames to see if I’ve dusted properly!”

Dr. Scotland said, “Do you think that’s really true, Faith?”

“They’re monsters!”

“You’re thirty years old: do you think your mother is really a monster?”

Faith would turn to stone, head held high, with that sweetened smile.

I looked around: judging from their expressions, I didn’t think anyone believed the business about the tops of the picture frames, or that parents like hers could be so awful.
Then each session Dr. Scotland would stare at her sternly, and say, “I’m told you refuse to take your medications.”

“Yes, that’s true.  I want to be in control.”

She would be silent for the rest of group.

***

The locked psychiatric ward was the top floor of the four-story hospital.  On the ground floor was a gift shop.  The corridors of the little hospital were hung with paintings by local artists, all for sale.  I was allowed to leave the ward in order to look at the paintings, perhaps because the staff knew I was an artist and seeing them would somehow be therapeutic.  The gift shop itself was fun, too, with its figurines, dried flower arrangements, and little boxes of toiletries.

One day Faith asked the head nurse if she could go with me, to hear descriptions of watercolors and engravings and to learn what was in the gift shop.  When she got permission, we left the ward and worked our way through the pictures, from floor to floor.  It was a pleasure to describe precisely what I saw.  Faith liked the pictures, but loved the gift shop.  She came alive as she walked among all the people: an enthusiasm presented itself in her that I had not previously witnessed.  After carefully touching things all over the room, she struck up an animated conversation with the director of the gift shop, who was amazed at Faith’s ability to maneuver the narrow aisles of merchandise and become acquainted with the gifts.  They stood at the cashier’s counter, and all of a sudden an excited Faith said, “I can do that!  I could volunteer here as a cashier.  It would be easy to learn the register, and to scan the things people wanted to buy!’

“Yes, you know, I think you could,” the director said.  “Do you think you’d like to volunteer here?”

“I could, as soon as I’m discharged and back home.  My mother could drive me here so that I could be a cashier.  Imagine that: a cashier!  Maybe I could turn it into a real job eventually…”

They exchanged contact information as I stood there dumbfounded.  The mother she so resented was to drive her here so that she could have one more accomplishment.  No, to seize upon a serendipitous chance to eventually become self-sufficient.  She would take any chance at anything to achieve self-sufficiency.  She would never stop.  She couldn’t stop.

***

I was well enough by then to have passes for walks in the neighborhood, and Faith was allowed to go along with me. It was fall in the Midwest, a harvest of leaves on the ground to shuffle through, and exciting air all by itself worth being in Iowa for. Faith tapped through the wanton piles of leaves. “Oh, tell me their colors,” she said.  She picked some up herself and examined their textures, smells, and shapes. She asked me to describe the houses, children, and dogs and cats we passed.

On one of these walks she told me a little about her husband, whose name I forgot many years ago. Art had been a theme of their lives together. “We met at Drake, in my Introduction to Art class.”  (“The only really hard part was the color wheel,” Faith added; incredibly, she had received a “B” in the course.)  “We were so in love.  When we were first married, on our kitchen table he cut out big cardboard letters of your alphabet for me to hold and feel with my fingertips.”  He had been there with her when a teacher of the blind had taught her, working with crayon on an easel, about perspective and hence far-off depth–such a profound, joyous discovery, the next best thing to seeing with her eyes. I thought back to when I’d been able to see into the farthest depths of the universe, to find a galaxy on its most remote edge.  But I hadn’t really seen it, or seen the Evil Ones — not with my eyes.  I’d realized them in the blackness, been palpably aware of them.  Faith’s mind, on the other hand, had formed – while she held crayon to easel — an actual image: a house in perspective, a horse at the far end of a fenced meadow, an airplane landing on a runway.

Now her nine-year-old daughter was, she said, in art therapy to draw her feelings about her father molesting her. “It is the most dreadful thing in the world!” shrieked Faith in the middle of the sidewalk, “Sicko!  Weirdo!”

***

One day she began to talk about her husband in our morning group; but Dr. Scotland, oddly, chose that moment to change tactics.  “I will hear no more from you until you begin taking your medications,” he announced. It was almost showdown time.  But instead, he looked at her for a long moment, turned his head to the old woman I shared my room with, and asked her how she felt. “I’m glad to say,” she began, “that I’m feeling a little better.  It’s the pills you’re giving me.  I am so grateful to you.”

But all of us really wanted to know about the new young man in the room.  Physically, he was unremarkable – tall, thin, tan-haired.  He’d been brought in about midnight, by two policemen.  He’d just stood there without making a sound.  Then he spent the night on a cot in the nurses’ station.  He was a freshman from the local university, overwhelmed by what had happened to his roommate. That roommate had considered himself a coward because he was afraid of heights and had decided to take up sky diving to defeat his fear. He’d actually gone up in the small plane but had not been able to jump. Humiliated, he decided to cure himself once and for all of his fear by climbing through the window of their dorm room onto the foot-wide ledge outside it. He either slipped or lost his balance and fell fourteen stories.  We’d seen the story on the news the night before.

His stunned roommate was the boy in group with us.  He sort of told us this story, but Dr. Scotland helped him out a lot.  Afterwards, he just sat silently.  When group was over, he stayed in the room, lost in thought. The staff let him be.  Eventually he moved into the day room, where he settled into a big armchair and thought.  We would glance at him as we went about our business.   His expression went from lost and old, to strained and hard, to the softness of a college student who’d seen horror.  He thought his way out to where he could see and hear and touch again, and know that the people around him were alive.  He spent the day with us; then after a long, quiet talk with Dr. Scotland the next morning, he left with his parents.

Looking back after all these years, I wonder (hypothetically, of course) whether Faith would choose to see, if by that it was meant she could see only what that young man saw.  Is seeing hell better than seeing nothing?

I suspect knowing her choice wouldn’t be broadly useful – except for understanding better what she was like – because probably the choice would vary from person to person.

***

Like everybody else there, Faith had to have a small task on the ward. “Since you love all the plants so much, take my job, and I’ll clean the snack closet every day,” I volunteered. Faith watered beautifully, like gardeners who examine the soil with their fingers. She knew many of the plants by name. I wondered if somewhere, from her color-wheel days, Faith had any notion of their combinations of green and yellow and brown shades.

Our daily friendship included chats in my room when my roommate was gone. Sitting on my bed, Faith confided, “I can’t tell you how dreadful it is raising small children when you’re blind — the children make fun of you, hide from you, run away from you, taunt you.  They probably even make faces.  I was desperate when I found out I was pregnant with my third child.  And, I suppose, that’s when my troubles really began.”

Faith’s troubles.  It was always Faith’s troubles.  The only other person in her life she seemed at all concerned about was her daughter.  She didn’t ask about or comment on the troubles of any of us.  Suddenly, I realized that she hadn’t had any reaction to the story of the young man whose roommate had fallen off the dormitory ledge.  Of course, the reason was right there – Faith was on her own ledge, and she couldn’t see, in any sense of the word, hands reaching out to save her.

***

The occupational therapist announced at breakfast that we would all be going to Des Moines to see the Botanical Gardens that afternoon.  Faith and I were excited – “More plants for us!” we exclaimed together. It was a grand fall afternoon to be driving through farmland. On the trip in the van, Faith had me describe the houses, barns, cows, cornfields, silos, tractors, white fences, all the richness and general prosperity, all the way to Des Moines.

For a splendid moment, in the Botanical Gardens, Faith was on her own.  She touched plants, rolled both long and round leaves between her fingers, examined smooth and fibrous stems, and smelled all the variously colored flowers. I stared at Faith rather than at the plants. Then I bent over and became absorbed in watching the school of little blue fish in the moat beyond the front row of plants.

Suddenly, I heard that familiar pressed yelling, but this time it was, “Help me! Oh help me!” I got up and ran to her. At the second turn of the pebbled path, she had come upon the cactus garden. Then she had gotten down on her knees to examine the bed of miniature cacti in the front. She had touched them, and the tiny spines had become imbedded in the fingertips of both her hands. She turned to me like a child to her mother, tears in her eyes, moaning softly. I held her fingers, looked closely.  The spines were microscopic — I could see them no better than Faith. I had touched this kind of cactus myself once, years before, and I still remembered the pain of the invisible spines imbedded everywhere on the undersides of my fingers.

In the lavatory, we washed her fingers over and over, which helped a bit.  But Faith still moaned – she was in terrible shape.  She had no reserves, none, for even the most inconsequential pain. She rested her head on my shoulder on the return trip; but after we got back, she did not leave her room for the rest of the day.  The times I passed by, I saw her at the sink, washing her hands.

***

The next morning’s group was, it turned out, showdown time for Faith. At first we talked for a few moments about the feeble suicide attempt with aspirins of an adolescent who’d just come in; and then Dr. Scotland asked Faith outright, “Why are you here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why are you here?”

The old ladies looked at each other, frightened.  The adolescent who’d taken the aspirins was confused and looked down at his feet.

“Why won’t you take your medications?” Dr. Scotland pressed on.

Faith turned stately: “I will NOT relinquish control of my mind.”

“If you don’t take your medications, you’re going to have to leave.”

Faith began to smile like Liberace.

***

At lunch, she was no longer at the head of the table.  Her parents had been called, and they had come to get her.

I went to Dr. Scotland with a heavy heart. “If only I could have said something.” I stared at the floor.

He surprised me by peeking out of his sternness. “She probably wouldn’t have heard you through her anguish,” he replied.

I had not thought of that.

“But why does she need medications?” I asked him.  She’s not like me, with creatures inside her head.  And she’s not like somebody who’s going 90 miles an hour.”

“Thank you for your opinion.”

He left, and I felt like kicking a chair.

***

Three days later Faith was back at the table when I went to lunch. “My father,” she explained after we hugged, “tried to treat me with Valium — he’s a retired doctor.   But my body started turning numb.”

In afternoon group Dr. Scotland told her immediately that, if she still refused to take her medication, he was going to send her to the state mental hospital.

“It’s going to take you a long time to get well without medication,” he said. “They’re prepared to keep you there for a long time.”

Faith was silent, but terrified. She just sat there, staring straight ahead.

***

Days passed, and Dr. Scotland eased up on her in group — I guess she did start taking her medications. Faith was pretty well gone from everyone then – the old ladies, the nurses, Dr. Scotland.  She had nothing to say to me except, “I’m going to be just fine now, you wait and see!”  Then she’d give me her Liberace smile and tap, tap away down the hall.   She spent her time in her room, with her Bible. She was there almost every minute she was not required to be somewhere else, reading with her fingertips, reading, late into the night, no lights on in her room.

***

One morning Dr. Scotland took me aside before breakfast and said, “I want to praise you for your compliance with treatment.  I realize you were ambivalent at first.”  I didn’t know if he understood that, if I’d had a real choice in the matter, at the beginning I would rather have followed the Evil Ones homeward to their galaxy.  But now, thanks to my medications, the Evil Ones had been stripped of their power, didn’t even appear to me, except in the vaguest of memory.

Soon after that I was discharged.

***

My lasting image of Faith is a woman broken and still fighting on the ground, unable to rise to defend herself except by mustering failed tactics, the only ones she knew.  Her life proved, tragically, that it was not enough to be best at everything.  She could not accept that she’d gotten as much control of her life as she ever could or would.  Faith was courageous, competitive, heroic.  She deserved more than being just medicated, if in fact she needed pills at all.  She deserved long, quiet talks with someone of wisdom who could mop away her vast tears.

***

Faith and I exchanged addresses, of course, and phone numbers.  She called me in hysteria from her house six months after I left the ward.  There was no gist to what she said, and I could not find any of the words she needed to hear.   After that, we never got in touch again.  The fact is, I have never heard of a long friendship coming from such a place.

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