Chapter Nineteen: Playing the Part

Written Winter 2011

In the months following my five-year high school reunion in the summer of 2006, I drifted about in a sea of indistinguishable days. Amidst this aimlessness, I somehow managed to find myself in a psychiatrist’s office on the floor of an inpatient psychiatric unit at a top Boston hospital. I knew this doctor from my time as a student in the Medical Anthropology department at Harvard, as he had audited one or two of the graduate classes I’d signed up for my senior year. I’d learned that he was particularly interested in the relationship between culture and mental illness, a topic that fascinated me, and somehow I found the wherewithal to ask him for a research position at the hospital. He accepted, and I felt a slight glimmer of excitement realizing that I now had something to wake up for a few mornings a week. Little did this doctor know that the young woman he’d just hired was on more psychiatric medications than some of his own patients, or that she felt more in common with the individuals in hospital johnnies than with those in scrubs or jackets and bowties.

By this time, my life had become a broken record, skipping over and over, day after day, without progressing forward, without growth. Each morning I awoke to the unbearable realization that I was trapped in my life, and each evening ended with the numbing oblivion of alcohol, which, after a decade of the occasional binge, had insidiously become what I saw as the ‘solution’ to my despair—although the despair never changed when I drank, I no longer cared that it encompassed me. With this pattern of living now deeply ingrained in the fabric of who I was, my world continued to get smaller and smaller, darker and darker, my vision of the future more and more narrow.

On the mornings I was expected at the hospital, I would pull myself out of bed, the fog of the previous night’s drink pushing heavily on my shoulders, and will my legs to transport me to the closet, the bathroom, the hallway, each lifeless stump dragging one after the other down the stairs and out the door. On these walks through the gardens and past the fountains of Boston Common, the sun should have been warm on my shoulders, the promise of a new day raising the corners of my mouth into a slight smile. I should have looked at the countless baby carriages and young mothers, dogs in tow and coffees in hand, and felt happiness for them and the exciting new chapter of their lives. I should have seen the businessmen with their briefcases and rolled up newspapers shuffling across the Common to their offices and thought fondly of my father as he was doing the same thing in Manhattan.

Instead, the sunlight blinded me, forcing me to squint my eyes, retreat into myself and put up a defensive wall against everything healthy and vibrant. I felt the poison of profound jealousy towards those young mothers course through my veins, baffled at how it was possible that they were only a few years older than me but had their lives together enough to bring a child into the world. I hated those businessmen, perplexed at how they could have had enough determination to cultivate careers for themselves that required responsibility, accountability, and strength. The chirping birds screamed in my ears and the contentedly smiling strangers walking past glared at me like plastic dolls.

Anything and everything that might have communicated even the slightest hint of happiness or enjoyment to a ‘normal’ person felt fake and foreign to me. How could I ever, in a million years, raise another human being when I was barely living myself? How could it ever be possible for me to find passion for a career, or anything, for that matter? It was as though the rest of the world had been given a manual to life and I had somehow missed it. An alien from a foreign universe, I had been dropped down into an utterly baffling environment without any of the skills required to live in it successfully.

Hypnotized by these thoughts each and every morning, I’d snap back to reality twenty minutes later at the glass doors of the hospital, ID-badge clipped to my sweater, hiding behind the clean-cut look of a cardigan and work slacks and falsely confident stride, and at once I’d be entrusted with the power to magically unlock doors that housed those in too much emotional pain to be safe with themselves. The squeak of my shoes, step after step, down the long, glossy hallways allowed me to focus on my feet, keeping my eyes from the line of sight of the doctors and nurses who crowded my path. I couldn’t bear to catch their gaze, for I was nothing but a fraud, an imposter of a put-together twenty-something girl with the future glistening ahead of her.

By the time I’d reach the hospital wing that housed the acute inpatient psychiatric unit each of these mornings, I’d have built up a reserve of emotional energy large enough to take me up the elevator and to the locked doors. Swipe card in hand, I’d flash it in front of the electronic lock, its magical beep and click tricking me into thinking I was legitimate enough to enter the locked ward as anything but a patient. With the snap of a finger, I was on the other side, appearing well and emotionally whole to those around me, circling in and out of the nurses’ station with my notebook, checking patient records to seek out qualifying candidates for the research study on first episode psychosis I was assigned to work on.

It was as though I was playing the part of the girl I was once destined to be, responsible, accountable, high-achieving, organized and committed to a career. I knew in my gut that this would always be a costume, never my true skin. As time went on, I could no longer deny the fact that the only eyes whose gaze I felt comfortable meeting were those of the patients I was interviewing as they told me about their experiences with psychosis and what eventually brought them to the hospital. After fighting my hardest to be the accountable and reliable researcher the doctors expected me to be, I left the position, too tired to pretend anymore, and feeling too guilty about swiping myself on and off a unit whose equivalent I had a feeling I’d be visiting in the near future.