An autumn day, twenty years ago, I sat watching the old poplars outside my window sway in the wind. I had just turned eighteen. The poplars grew outside the hospital building, outside the psychiatric ward where I was locked up, against my will, because I was considered a danger to myself.
A failed suicide attempt brought me here. A carefully planned and well-prepared attempt that averted from the script at the last moment. A mere coincidence wrecked the plan, although I no longer think of it as a coincidence, no more than I consider the attempt failed.
I sat by the window for hours, in silence, my gaze locked on the trees and their movements in the wind. The rustle of the leaves, the sturdy branches heaving. It was a stormy day.
The string used for pulling the blinds was replaced with a crank. The wall sockets were secured. No mirror above the sink. Every ten minutes, 24 hours a day, someone opened the door and peeked in, to make sure I wasn’t about to make a noose out of my bed sheets.
They were overdoing it, the surveillance thing. It was over. I had tried and failed, and now it was over. I wasn’t dramatically inclined and had no plans for trying again. I had no plans at all. I had renounced everything, life and my place in it, when I made that decision, and now I was a woman without a future. It would take me many years to see the blessing in that.
There and then it was no blessing. It was a vacuum.
It was the end of a struggle that had lasted for so long I could no longer remember any other life. It was the emptiness that remained after all that I had been, believed in, and held on to had turned to dust. It was the wounds that had healed badly or not at all. The phantom pains from parts of me that had not survived, from a childhood in some ways lost. That I – finally – could no longer escape from.
I was lonely, the way facing your own death will leave you.
In the cupboard next to my bed lay a pile of clothes that someone – Mom? I forget – had brought. Next to them were two greasy paper bags, one with vanilla buns and one with arrack truffles. Someone who knew they were my favourites had sent them. I survived on those buns. If I wanted lunch and dinner I had to step outside my room and walk to the dining room, along with the others. I avoided that.
There is a reason this ward was locked. Many of those in here were … well, crazy. Like the woman who walked the corridors carrying a bucket, into which she regularly threw up. The one who howled all through the night. He who packed his suitcase every afternoon and sat by the exit waiting to be picked up, by God knows whom.
A few were there for other reasons. Like me. We never spoke but sometimes our eyes met in the corridors and a silent question was exchanged. You too?
I don’t think I’ve ever met such deep compassion as in those quick glances.
On my night table I had a framed photo of my little brothers, only children back then, dressed in cowboy suits and serious faces. Beside them two books. A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway, and Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. After a few days I managed to bring my attention away from the trees and pick one of them up. I ploughed through Hemingway as efficiently as he writes. It left no impression.
Then I opened Anna Karenina.
It’s a long read and I was grateful for that. I rested in Tolstoy’s words, the way I rested in the movement of the trees outside the window. It was not an escape from. On the contrary, it was close, so very close. It was connection at a time when all connection had become impossible.
Anna Karenina’s downward tumble was in every way different from mine. Her circumstances and perspective as well. The only thing we had in common, really, was the name, and maybe a certain inability to follow the rules. (Maybe our humanity as well. And our vulnerability. And our desperate longing.)
She did not make it. Anna Karenina’s path ended in a confused suicide. And however much I understood her feeling that there was no other way, I saw that she was wrong. (That I was wrong.)
It didn’t make anything easier. It didn’t heal my wounds. But it was true, and true I could trust. Even lean against, ever so little.
The power of the written word was not new to me. Without books I’m not sure I would have survived those first eighteen years of my life. Literature was my medicine, my escape, and my rest, all through growing up. But never did it matter more than during those days with Anna Karenina.
My love of literature and of words has been cooler of late. Or I thought so, but really it has just changed. I don’t read like before. Don’t read the same books. I love what I love with more intensity and at the same time care less about the whole thing. About the business of books. About the books themselves, actually.
Love the process. Love when writing becomes pure meditation. Love when the words come out just right. Those rare occasions when they help us connect. When your words become mine and mine become yours, and we are not alone anymore.
I don’t know what could ever be more important than that.