2014, October, close to Halloween: A brain-shaking blow to my left-temple, then one to my right.
It was a bad episode, unexpected; I hadn’t been in a hospital for bipolar disorder since 1997. The last thing I remember before coming to at Mt. Sinai was lying on my belly on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by five cops, enormous from my vantage point. They talked among themselves and on their radios, ignoring me. Finally, they cuffed me behind my back; I begged them to tell me what I had done, but I was not worth a word.
I don’t remember my first two days at Mount Sinai; when I did come to, they were giving me Haldol, which gave me horrible dyskinesia, an unbearable restlessness in the legs, arms, and mouth. I did not realize that the incorrect medication was the cause of my discomfort; I thought this was part of my episode, and didn’t tell the doctors as they rushed by, trying to avoid the patients.
How did I get into the empty room with the orderly?
It was night. He led me into the room. He told me to sit down on the bed. He then drew his arm back and gave me two powerful, calculated blows with the palm of his hand against my temples, first left, then right. Something practiced about the beating, as though he knew this would leave no marks, only unconsciousness or concussion. I remained conscious. I saw a thick jagged scar on the length of his arm, from inches below his armpit to inches below the elbow crease, stitched broadly.
“Lie down,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I quietly replied. He left, and I lay my head on a bare pillow, and wished, willed myself to die.
I would see the orderly often on the ward. I had no clothing and the hospital uniform stretched in embarrassing gaps across my obese form. And the Haldol was causing horrible twitching, a torture of restless limbs. Could I have imagined the beating? No.
I approached a nurse to ask his name. Before I could say a word, she exclaimed, “You are not the same person that came in! You were horrible.”
This is your fault, the staff seemed to say; not sick, murmured the walls, bad. What was his name? I was afraid to ask.
He took my blood pressure, even gave me meds. “You were horrible, inhuman, bad,” his co-workers said. Yes, people like you should be beaten, thrown to the floor, cuffed. We are saints who love the damaged like you.
Indeed, I was subhuman in my uniform and with my twitching limbs. I did something to the orderly, that was it! I finally got the courage to ask him.
“You spilt on my shirt.”
Emboldened, I asked him about the scar. He laughed wildly and said he was crazy when young. From Queens or Qatar? What planet do such men come from?
A few days later on the ward, a senior psychiatrist who knew I was a writer asked me to speak to her students about Otto Kernberg’s borderline personality diagnosis, ordinarily a favorite subject of mine. “They don’t know,” she said, pointing to the residents.
I haltingly tried to describe Kernberg’s theory of introjects in the borderline personality, cornerstone of that useless and damning label; all the “borderline” needs to do is to treat her addictions, food, drugs, sex, codependence, and the “instability” and “psychotic episodes” disappear. But I was too conscious of my ill-fitting uniform, and mumbled an excuse; the residents were deprived of their show, the patient who has read psychology.
When I was released, I related the events surrounding my beating to two therapists at the Karen Horney Clinic, later, to two residents at Payne Whitney. They stared into space, smiled, changed the subject. Because I am mentally ill, I don’t have perceptions, sensations, memories. More, their silence seemed to say, because I am mentally ill I can be abused, beaten with impunity, and my caregivers don’t have to care. I must have medication and this treatment is paid for by my insurance, so I let it go. But it comes back, often.
I have tried to forget this episode, go along with the clinicians who ignore a patient being beaten, and cannot. Fat and mentally ill, I have evoked new heights of condescension from mental health workers who find it easier to talk of mechanics, medication up or down, calories to consume. Meanwhile, Long Scar and his ilk continue to offer their “treatments” in mental hospitals everywhere. Some have said, and will continue to say, that people like me had it coming. All I can do is breathe, rest, and speak my truth until someone listens.
Larissa Shmailo is an American poet, novelist, translator, and critic. Her poetry collections are Medusa’s Country, #specialcharacters, In Paran, the chapbook A Cure for Suicide, and the e-book Fib Sequence; her latest novel is Patient Women. Shmailo’s work has appeared in Plume, the Brooklyn Rail, Fulcrum, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, the Journal of Poetics Research, Drunken Boat, Barrow Street, and the anthologies Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, Words for the Wedding, Contemporary Russian Poetry, Resist Much/Obey Little: Poems for the Inaugural, Verde que te quiero verde: Poems after Garcia Lorca, and many others. Shmailo is the original English-language translator of the world's first performance piece, Victory over the Sun by Alexei Kruchenych. Shmailo also edited the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and has been a translator on the Russian Bible for the American Bible Society. Please see more about Shmailo at her website at www.larissashmailo.com and on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larissa_Shmailo.