There's More Than One Way to Lose a Child—And Get Her Back
We arrive the next morning at 11:50, 10 minutes before visiting hours are to begin. We wait in the lobby: gray linoleum floor, Van Gogh sunflowers on the walls. "We're here to see our daughter," I tell the attendant on duty.
We wait, standing, until the elevator disgorges a sturdily built woman, keys hanging from a leather cord around her neck. "Sally can't have visitors today," she informs us. "She's too agitated. She needs time to calm down."
"But we were promised we'd be able to see her…" I feel myself enter a delayed, almost frozen zone. We've entrusted her to the wrong people, we don't know what they're doing to her, they don't want us to know…
She stands with her legs planted firmly, arms crossed over her keys, the guard right behind her, in family-management mode, ready for a scene.
"Then let us speak with the doctor."
"I'll see what I can do. It's a holiday weekend, a lot of the staff are off."
I sit down, stunned, the guard watching me out of the corner of his eye. Finally, the doctor comes down, late 40s, with the vague air of futility that I would come to recognize in many psychiatrists who have been at it for a while. "She's in isolation. What we call the Quiet Room. Staff looks in on her every 15 minutes. It's for her own good." Appearing to wince at the cliché, he sits down next to us on the edge of a chair, less officious than sad, an old hand at delivering bad news. "As soon as she works through her current phase, she'll be permitted to join the other patients. That may require a few days or only a couple of hours. I wish I could be more exact."
Permitted. Required. The language of punishment. Of custodianship. My heart sinks.
I ask for the chance to see her. "Just to look at her," I explain, "to assure ourselves she's okay."
"I'm sorry, policy won't allow it." He shrugs ambiguously, lowers his eyes. "You may find this hard to believe, but you're doing the right thing. The only thing. Sally's a young girl. People can take advantage of her in her current state. If she were my daughter, I'd be giving her the exact same treatment."
He moves toward the elevator, detaching himself from our despair—clinical, not cruel, an act of self-preservation. "Eventually, the medication will start doing what it's supposed to do," he says.
The days pass. We are a silent force in Sally's room. I tell myself that a kind of stasis has been struck. Sally has not grown worse, she is in abeyance, in a "holding environment" as the psychologist Donald Winnicott called it, safely confined. Watching her in the straitjacket of her medication, I sometimes can't tell if she is awake, and wonder if the two states are indistinguishable to her as well. She is in no-man's-land, I think, what the Buddhists call bardo, the state between the death of one incarnation and the birth of the next, where the "disembodied mind" hovers, neither here nor on the other side.
A rare breeze passes through the room, and Sally says that the air is "tickling" her like "a feather." Her languor lifts, and then returns with its downward tow. She digs her fists in her eyes, smiles apropos of nothing, and then treats me to a fresh vituperative burst. Just when her mania appears to be definitively routed, it mounts a new potent charge. At such moments, she seems to be clinging to it as to her very being. I imagine the mania as a separate living thing within her, a gnome, like Rumpelstiltskin, wily and insistent. It speaks to her in a whisper, promising riches, deviously finding a way to escalate and live on.