A fiction piece about the beauty and tragedy of mental illness.
by Alex Natalian
My mornings begin with a glimpse of the rising sun. These are special moments, and I greet the day as she first gazes across the deep earth. The world is alive. My friends complain these early morning wanderings might be better spent studying my books and learning my trade, that I might get higher grades if I stopped gloating at the sun like some idiot who wants to go blind. But they say this half-jestingly. They understand I am different.
Today I get up late. The psychiatric unit is on the second floor. There isn’t enough time to see my patients before morning report. But it doesn’t matter. It never does when I’m happy. Things work themselves out.
“Good morning, Doctor,” whispers a voice from the distance.
I smile and nod. I am not a doctor yet. But this time I am not the patient either. It’s a strange freedom. Fingertips of enlightened emotion brush my cheeks in a flipflappity manner. Christ, I’m even making up words.
The psychiatric ward is filled with a dozen people like me. Their faces shine with meaning. I understand them: how do I explain it, the colors? The very splendor of life and light and emotion that my books call a false impression of reality. What is mental illness? Why is reality defined by the norm, while my realities, with the swirls of bipolar sensation, are swept aside with the diagnosis of “disease?”
“Doctor, Mr. Fernandez is looking for you.”
“Absolutely,” I say, not bothering to correct. “My dear, dear nurse, I’ll be there as fast as a horse winning the races. He’s a character, Mr. Fernandez, a character fit for a novel of many pages…” It doesn’t stop there. I recite a few phrases from the Iliad and end the statement with a joke.
The nurse raises an eyebrow. “Lots of energy, ya think?”
I’ve said too much. In books this is called pressured speech. That makes sense. I am pressed, pressured, properly improper. I am theatrical. My ideas flap and fly across the film. My mind is filled with a thousand pages of ideas and philosophies and early morning wanderings with tea and a wondering plea of glee. I discuss my stories with the likes of Aristotle and Descartes. I share an understanding with the gods (like most young and idealistic people), and someday my efforts shall improve the world. Sorry for the mouthful. It had to be said.
Anyway, I am almost a doctor.
Mr. Fernandez is a tall man. “The worms are still inside me.”
“Sometimes the only difference between the doctor and patient is a name tag.” It’s a random statement. It seems right.
“Yeah.” He isn’t impressed, but my mind is aflame. I see symbolism. I see meaning. I am struggling to keep my words under control.
“My brain went weird,” he says. “They tell me it’s a disease.”
“Is it really a disease?”
“I rack my brain thinking about it.”
Ha! Welcome, oh lively Lilypad, welcome to the world of mental disease! I bite my tongue and listen.
Mr. Fernandez isn’t embarrassed by his oddities. Nor does he see them as odd. He describes an entourage of voices that plays at his ears and lunges at his brain with a frightening power. “And there’s a demon. Lives behind the fridge. It’s there all the time. I don’t know why my brain would make me see things like that. I’m not sick. I got worms, and I see things from other dimensions. So what?”
Dimensions, dimensions, the gaze of a million dimensions.
Okay. I’m a medical student. I should redirect him. I should talk medications. Thorazine, Thioridazine, Trileptal, Trazodone… I should talk the usual talk-talk of a doctor-doctor. I need to do these things: this is a sick man, and I am his student-doctor. But in that moment we’re comrades, each trying to make sense of our own realities. What tragedy! What a magnificent gift! We share a silent handshake.
There’s an announcement overhead. Medications are available, and I get in line.
“Here are your pills, Doctor,” the nurse says.
I don’t correct her. Instead I take the pills and offer a theatrical bow. It’s what I do. Life is grand. Everyone needs to know this. Among these people reality makes sense.
A seaforth, silly, soppy sense.
Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be a doctor again.
“Which of my feelings are me? Which of the me’s is me?
The wild, impulsive, chaotic, energetic, and crazy one?
Or the shy, withdrawn, desperate, suicidal, doomed, and tired one?
Probably a bit of both, hopefully much that is neither.”
-Kay Redfield Jamison
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