The rest of me, p.1
The Rest of Me
Copyright 2013 by Matthew Farrington
When you are locked away from the rest of the world and forced to submit to revelations and their monstrous inclination towards transparency, revealing what is weak and diseased underneath, what you have protected with your mind and body at all costs seems that much more valuable.
I have been told that I need to articulate something if I want it to go away. To do that I must acknowledge that it exists. It means more than exposure, more than simple recognition. To face and name a demon ultimately means exorcising it not only from my psyche but then, by definition, releasing it. To expose it to the light of day would not render it useless, only alter its function. It would no longer protect, but would be free to goad and tease and ultimately seek some sort of revenge for my betrayal. If it left me I would no longer be comforted by its terrible protection, its talent for suppression. I would become its victim.
Demons are hungry creatures; they feed on anger, regret and pain. They can smother but they can also prevent those who would seek their destruction from reaching in too far, the willing caretakers and blind faithful who think that they understand what is necessary to tame them or kill them outright. A demon continues to feed on what you bring and you feel unable to cut off its head by denying a constant stream of raw, unabridged emotion to the rest of its body. My demons have always been happy where there is no chance of discovery. When you grieve everything you have ever done, every decision you have ever made, all your days end the same way. The things that haunt me are the same things that comfort me. The pictures that I see in my mind as I fall asleep each night were painted a long time ago. I sleep better when I can see them clearly, when I know where they are.
It seems strange to be thinking about demons in a hospital that is full of them. They all seem accessible to me here, out in the open. Stranger still if you consider where I am: The St. Catherine Psychiatric Hospital in Middleton, Wisconsin. The place was built by nuns decades ago and is staffed now by well-meaning doctors, nurses and orderlies who tell me that what is comfortable and familiar must be exorcised if I want to leave. They say that I must give up what I know protects me if I want to be free.
I am sitting in a comfortably overstuffed chair, facing the large window at the back of the day room. Glassman has not yet come for me. When he does, he will ask me, paternalistically, with what I think is sincerity, if I am comfortable, if I feel safe. He will take me from the comfort of this chair to his office, where I will sit across from him in a straight-backed, wooden desk chair for an hour or more, answering questions, mulling over for the one-hundredth time this week what it might feel like to finally kill someone. My daily chats with Dr. Glassman have brought forth an alarming number of confessions about myself and my family. Most recently the idea of violence has moved to center stage. I am not so much surprised as I am relieved by bringing that particular line of thought out into the open. The idea has held comfort for me for many years so it seems natural to finally say it out loud in an environment that makes it impossible to bring the action itself to fruition. I can bring the idea out into the open here without surprises and without shame.
Glassman is running late. He is with Shirley, the woman who thinks several of her twenty-some cats have been trying to kill her. Shirley has become convinced that her cats have the power to shoot their whiskers from their faces at bullet speed and that the tips of those whiskers are poisonous. To defend herself she began hanging the cats by their necks from the Linden tree in her back yard, overcome I suppose by the desire to both destroy and possess her enemies. No one noticed until she had successfully hanged three and the stench reached a neighbor’s window. Shirley was brought to St. Catherine’s the day after I was admitted. I did not meet her right away. They kept her in her room for a few days. I’ve only spoken to her once, when she told me about the cats. I asked her if there were any more animals to watch out for, dogs or goats or anything and she started to cry so I walked away. I imagined what the three dead cats must have looked like nestled among the small white blossoms of the tree. If they hadn’t been hanging from their necks tied with clothesline it might have been a nice pastoral scene, three calicos up a tree, at least before she eviscerated the first one, letting its entrails spill onto her lawn in a stagnant and unattractive heap.
I was thinking of Shirley’s cats when I noticed that no one had bothered to mow the lawn around the old cemetery. There were only seven markers, indicating where the only nuns to die in this place were buried more than sixty years ago. The small plot is overgrown with blue-stem grass and the sedge seems to have taken over. No one cared for the plot on any regular basis. The nuns all died in a flu epidemic during a particularly harsh winter during the depression. The practice of the order was to bury their members wherever they died instead of in the cemetery at the motherhouse in Green Bay. The bodies of these nuns were kept in an out building, I think for several months, until the ground thawed and could be prepared for them here. Apparently there had been talk over the years of exhumation and relocation, re-burying them all in the larger, sanctified cemetery on the sister’s property up north. Nothing ever came of it. So here they lay, forgotten remnants of a past that now seems almost imaginary; their rotted corpses a testimony to a way of life that also seems, at least in the recent past, to be rotting away. They have spent more than sixty years laying here, cold in the ground, their clothing and way of life, and even the way of their death, illustrating the abstract but quite palpable ideas behind a strict and unyielding theological impasse: how to serve the world you purport to be evil and filled with sin and destruction; a world whose temptations, its very life, you eschew. A world quite capable of adding to the madness you live with every day rather than limiting it. It seems fitting that they remain here, where they worked and sacrificed themselves to the madness of others. Here where they died, liberated finally from the misery of caring for the miserable.
There is a larger cemetery, a better kept one, of about two dozen graves, far from the small one, that lies on the other side of the hospital grounds. These are the graves of the few patients who died while under the care of the sisters when this place still belonged to them. Psychiatric care being what it was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, actually getting better and being released back into society was not always a part of the plan. Patients could be stuck in a private hospital like this, or one of the more depressing institutions run by the state, for years at a time. For much of modern history mental illness was neither well understood nor well treated. Patients often died in hospitals like this and if their families did not have the means or the inclination to ship the bodies of their loved ones back to wherever they came from, the sisters buried them on the property. Marie told me all of this when she took me out for a walk my first week here. She was herself educated in a college run by the same community so she was familiar with their history. I asked who would be cruel enough to make people spend eternity in a mental hospital. She only shrugged and said, “Sometimes it’s easier for people to pretend something unpleasant isn’t there.”
I am interested in the graves I think because they seem to give me some measure of comfort. Like Shirley’s cats in the trees I think of a grave as something I can possess that could never be taken from me. I look forward to being in mine. I have never found the exact measure of courage required to put myself there but I am indeed looking forward to the day when I don’t have to do anything but lay there. The dead hold no fascination for me. It is only that I anticipate being among them. I am jealous of people in graves. Whatever sorrow visited them in life, whatever torment they suffered, is gone. Freedom from the involuntary work of my mind is not an experience I have ever had so
Looking out the window now I am thinking not so much about death as I am about what my life has come to. I have been at St. Catherine’s for three weeks and while I can say that my experiences here have been unlike any other I’ve had in my life I still do not see the point of it all. My daily sessions with Dr. Glassman aside, I cannot say that I am all that interested in what is going on around me. Shirley provides some distraction of course. Her madness is at least colorful. The other patients are garden-variety depressives and neurotics as far as I can tell. There is a young girl whose mania includes walking into fashionable department stores and knocking over mannequins, removing their arms and then beating said mannequins over the head. She believes the mannequins denigrate the human form and are capable of great evil. I am not sure that I disagree but her parents certainly did, as did the
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