I spent the summer that I turned sixteen in the adult ward of a mental hospital—my nose pressed in between insensitive metal bars and up against rusty wire mesh that separated me from the end-of-summer rains. I found that smell so comforting—the smell of the earth surrendering its freedom to grow unrestrained, unchecked; the smell of life being carried away by the dispassionate hand of the autumnal winds. I was so terribly lonely, and I ached for a friend.
My mother, in an angry rage had placed me in the hospital. Chasing after me with her high-heeled shoes, china dishes, canned food, and a belt, my mother had determined to beat me. I had interrupted her while she was watching a video and because of my untimely decision, I would pay. I ran to my brother’s room upstairs, crawled out the window and onto the roof to hide from her. Knowing full well my plan of avoidance, my mother then called the police telling them that I was preparing to jump off the roof. Shortly thereafter, I was handcuffed, pulled off the roof, and taken in for examination—as, ironically, I was considered a danger to myself.
The adult mental ward in the hospital is—not surprisingly—a miserable place. All activities are supervised—including showers. As a teenager, even now as an adult, I have found such monitoring humiliating. Ultimately, I had no means of escape, solace, or privacy.
No means, that is, until I had found the stack of abandoned books hidden behind disorderly piles of pamphlets on obsessive-compulsive disorder and drug abuse. Indeed, in that stack of abused and forgotten books—with covers curled in a permanent-fetal position because of mildew and neglect—I found my avenue to freedom. Lucy Snow from Charlotte Bronte’s Villette sat with me in that window as the rain continued to fall. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne from Anne of Green Gables helped me outside that window to play in the rain below. And Marguerite, from Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, took me on such escapades through the streets of revolutionary France that I soon forgot how I was being watched—and, instead, directed all of my attention on the perilous journey Marguerite takes in order to reunite with her husband.
So caught up was I in my reading that I was surprised when a new occupant of the ward—a girl of my age—joined me at the window to tell me how much she loved Charlotte Bronte. A devotee of both the novel and character Jane Eyre, my new friend, Amanda, soon shared with me her own stories that had brought her to the adult mental ward. Feeling friendless and despondent, Amanda had attempted an overdose on sleeping pills. When her parents found her, she was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped—a procedure which narrowly saved her life. Both Amanda and I needed someone to hear our stories, someone to share stories with.
The power of our stories—both fictional and real—cemented a lasting friendship. Each of us has stories to share, stories that must be heard. Such stories help us to survive, to develop relationships, to look for beauty and joy when our surroundings seem so dismal and unpromising. The stories that we tell have the gift of healing. That we must continue to share our stories with one another I most certainly believe.
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