“My classmates are filing out of the front doors of the school, while the bell I dread every day rings, and I sit on the sunbaked front steps. None of them acknowledge me. They are rushing out of school to summers filled with friendship and freedom while I dread the car that comes to pick me up and deliver me to another two hours of emptying my brain to professionals of everything they consider ‘toxic.'”
My classmates are filing out of the front doors of the school, while the bell I dread every day rings, and I sit on the sunbaked front steps. None of them acknowledge me. They are rushing out of school to summers filled with friendship and freedom while I dread the car that comes to pick me up and deliver me to another two hours of emptying my brain to professionals of everything they consider “toxic.” They want me to be normal, and they continue to repeat that as if I believe it is something that I’m not. Every day, I take pills upon pills that are supposed to calm me down and pick me up at the same time so that I run on a wavelength they think will match everyone else’s. The doctors tell my parents that I am not trying, that I don’t seem to want to get any better. My parents think this couldn’t possibly be true because they don’t believe that I cannot see what everyone else thinks is the matter with me.
In the car, my mother tells me how good this vacation will be, how it will give me a chance to relax and a break from what she thinks is so stressful. While she talks, I think about how the summer will give me far too much time to think. After a while, she decides there is no way she can get me to reply, and she matches my silence for the rest of the ride. There is no such thing as a comfortable silence between us. The absence of words between my mother and me only ever means she is wishing she could read my mind and fill it with her own thoughts. As I leave, she shouts out a message to encourage me to share, which simply reminds me that none of them understand me and that all of them want me to change. She thinks that watching her sister go to therapy prepared her to send me into this room, but she’s wrong. If she had really been prepared for this, she would understand how much better it would be if I never went.
The room is always stifling. They think that I will be more comfortable if I can see the sun streaming through the windows, and they think the soft, white furniture and the bright walls with colorful paintings will inspire me to be as bright as the sun and as colorful as the bowl of fruit hanging behind the smiling lady. The questions are always the same. The doctors whose names I never bother to learn before they trade me off always want to start the same way.
“Tell me about yourself.”
They say that as if they are doing me a favor and giving me an easy way to begin. They present this as a statement and not a question, and they listen through my answer, trying to find somewhere to interject and give their opinions which they think they can fix me with. But I am smarter than them. I have been for a while. I know what I am supposed to say, how to talk in circles so that I have all the power. I know how to present all my unrelated issues as the basis of what is wrong with me so that they waste their precious time fixing a problem that I discovered yesterday, that wouldn’t have bothered me tomorrow. Sometimes, I forget the circles and simply list facts that they cannot dissect so we can sit in a standstill and wait for the other to break first. I never break first. Every once in a while, I start to feel bad that my parents spend so much of the money they care so much about on trying to make sure I am okay, but then I remember that they haven’t bothered to find out whether I already am okay. I can confuse the doctor easily, more easily than almost anything else I do, but I can’t seem to convince my parents that nothing is wrong. So I begin listing the facts they think will add up to me and create who I am.
“My name is Elizabeth Morgan. I just finished the ninth grade. My favorite color is gray. I have two dogs named Salt and Pepper. I run track, I write poetry, and the only bad grade I have ever gotten was in my sixth-grade Spanish class when I threw up during my oral presentation.”
I decide that’s all the information she needs, and I lean forward and sigh as if I am about to tell her how this all makes me feel, as if I am about to do her entire job for her and diagnose myself, and then I sit back and watch as her smile turns into a look of bafflement and disbelief. She didn’t think that what the other doctors said was true. She was hoping she would be the one to crack me open and make me see what the other doctors saw that made them pump me with pills. The next question is the same as it has always been.
“So why do you think you’re here?”
This question was hard to answer at first. I couldn’t figure out how to explain that I didn’t belong here without sounding like an insecure teenager that simply felt out of place. I’ve discovered the best way to get someone to stop asking you questions whose answers you don’t want to think about is by questioning their purpose in the conversation. I refuse to move to answer the questions I have heard a thousand times that have been presented as an innovative way to discover what is wrong with me, so I sit in the same position that shows just how bored I am by all her attempts.
I answer, “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to tell me?”
Sometimes, they think I am joking, but they tend to figure it out quickly. Sometimes, they think that I don’t understand how therapy works, and they launch into long-winded lectures on how this room is a safe space and how they’re simply there to guide me to discoveries about myself. Those always give me a nice chance for a nap. This doctor isn’t any different. She laughs as if I have said something funny and not as if I have said the only honest thing I will say the whole time. Moving on, she tries to ask me how I feel about the approaching summer. I give her the response I know that she is expecting, and she sounds like a broken record of my mother, explaining how good this break will be. Eventually, she lets me leave. She doesn’t seem quite as defeated as I’ve come to expect, and I wonder if she’ll last longer than the last doctor who decided he couldn’t help me either. Another silent car ride, and I’m finally home.
Dinner is not a particularly pleasant event in my house. My parents have conversations with their eyes, thinking that if they don’t make any sound, I couldn’t possibly hear what they’re saying. While they do this, I try to find something to fill the stretch of empty time lying in front of me. Once I leave the table, they give up on their silent conversations, and I once again listen as they try to decode what could possibly be happening in my head. My mother whispers about a sister she stopped mentioning to me once it became clear I might have ended up with the same problems everyone thought she used to have.
“I’m worried about her, you know. She seems so much like my sister right before, well, you know what happened. We can’t let that happen to her. She’ll never be able to move past it.”
My father has never seemed comforting to me, but he manages to calm down my mother as I walk back to my room. Once I’m there, I begin to wonder more about this woman I’ve only heard of in passing. “Aunt” is not a term I have ever used before to describe this woman who used to be in my mother’s life. I have never met her, and everything I have heard about her is composed of my mother’s desire to convince me how important it is that I do not let things get as far as her sister did.
Back in my room, I decide I need a plan, a way to escape the routine they designed to help me which can only be making me worse. My aunt will take me in, I’m sure of it, and she won’t tell anyone where I am because she understands me. Everyone thought she was sick, and I know by the way they talk about it in the past tense she has to have proved them wrong. If I can just get to her, she won’t let them bring me back to this. The only problem is I don’t know where she lives. But that can be solved, and having a goal helps me feel focused. When I don’t have a goal, I feel like I’m drifting. Like I can’t move unless I’m moved by someone else, and no one ever sends me where I want to go.
It won’t be easy to find out where she lives. My mother hasn’t talked about her openly in two years, and even before she stopped being mentioned completely, my mother only ever told me how troubled she was. But my mother has a weakness. She believes so thoroughly that I will one day see in myself what she wants to change that she will believe anything I say as long as I show her that I am trying. And so, I set my plan in motion.
It is easy to convince the doctor that I’ve finally changed, finally seen the light from which all the others refused to give me shade, and that I am finally prepared to use their help. I ask her whether she thinks it would help me if I could talk to someone outside of this room, someone who has lived through what I am feeling and isn’t being paid to try and fix me. I know it’s only a matter of time before my mother cracks and sends me to her sister. I have given her just enough hope for me that she’ll think even her sister can’t drag me down. Later, my mother is helping me pack. She can’t hide the fact that she is nervous, but she tries to, saying she’s simply going to miss me.
The door to my aunt’s apartment is gray. My mother drove away ten minutes ago, explaining that she couldn’t possibly see her sister again, even after all this time. I haven’t rung the doorbell yet, and a second later, I don’t need to. The door swings open, and a woman steps out. She is small, like my mother. I am bigger, but standing in front of her shrinks me. There are a thousand colors in the clothes on her body, and her shoes are missing. It looks like a costume, but makes me feel like, in my gray t-shirt and black pants, I’m the one wearing a disguise. I can’t tell if she’s happy to see me, and I am shocked by how little she reminds me of myself. Seeing her makes me realize how many expectations I had for how she would be. When I had imagined her, it was always as if I were talking to a mirror image of myself who simply had the power I didn’t. When she ushers me into the living room and sits across from me, I am shocked by how familiar it feels until I notice the oranges sitting in a basket on the piano behind her. I want to believe she will help me the way that I want to be helped, but I am afraid she will help me in the way everyone else has been trying to.
Instantly, I know she is wondering why I could possibly be here. We have never talked before, and she doesn’t understand why I think she can help me. I’ve never been much for small talk. Or if you’ve heard my mom speak recently, I just don’t know how to communicate anymore. So I’m instantly uncomfortable when she starts in on all the questions she has about my life. Her first question surprises me.
“Are you glad to be out of school?”
I don’t know how this question is supposed to help me, so I don’t bother responding. She tries again, this time it’s a question I can answer. A question about facts.
“What grade are you in?”
“Tenth,” I reply quickly, and she seems surprised by the sound of my voice. Her questions don’t seem to be getting more helpful as she continues. She asks about the drive — fine –, and how my father is doing — fine –, how school is — horrible –, how my friends are — nonexistent –, what I like to do in my free time — not much. She doesn’t ask any questions about me for a long time. Finally though, she breaks, although the question confuses me as much as the others.
Her next question is too familiar, the same as it always is. “So, why are you here?”
I am shocked that she does not understand why I can’t answer that question, I can’t lie to her like I can lie to the doctors, but right now, I can’t see how they’re different. I want to leave, but of course, that would be too easy. I don’t know why I expected this to be simple; nothing has ever worked exactly the way I wanted. Whenever I think I have reached something, life has a cruel way of telling me to be careful what you wish for. I’m no longer sure why I am here; it has become glaringly obvious that she will not do what I need her to, but I have no other answer for her.
“Because you’re the only one who can help me. You understand what they’re putting me through. And you can save me from it.”
Once the words have left my mouth, I can see that she will not help me. Her head shakes. Then, almost as if she is not aware she has already denied me of her help, she speaks.
“I can’t save you from this. You don’t need saving.”
Already, I think that I have figured her out. So I am not surprised. She doesn’t want to help me, she thinks that I should suffer through what she had to. She is not what I imagined. I have not cried since my days when scraping my knees on the playground seemed like the end of the world, but by the time I remember what the burning sensation behind my eyes mean, the droplets are threatening to spill over. I cannot believe how much I allowed myself to believe someone would be able to help me. Then she shocks me again.
“But I will help you. You may not believe anymore that I understand you, but I do.”
She is more complicated than I thought. We don’t talk anymore after that. There doesn’t seem to be anything left to say.
Later, I sleep. The room I am in is too colorful. It reminds me of a vacation, and vacations are a time when I am left by myself for far too long. The walls are yellow, and the blankets on the bed are a myriad of colors that I am sure are the reason I am having trouble breathing. Turning off the lights does not help. The colors are still everywhere, and so I close my eyes and hope they will go away.
In the morning, my aunt makes breakfast. I pretend that I have taken my pills, and we sit at the table, and she does not try to make conversation. Tonight, my mother will pick me up, and I will forget my aunt, and I will go back to knowing there is nobody who can help me.
“You know they think they’re helping you.”
It feels as though she can read my thoughts, but she sounds too much like my doctors for me to want to believe that.
“But they aren’t, and they’re not changing anything. I don’t need help. Their version of help is making everything worse.”
I surprise myself with these words. They are the closest I have come to admitting something could be wrong, and I can’t believe they have come from me. My aunt looks at me sadly, like she is remembering.
“Do you remember why they sent you to the first doctor?”
No one has ever asked me this question. This is one I must answer. This is a question about facts, and I cannot lie about facts.
“My mother was scared.”
She flinches at the mention of my mother, like she forgot that I came from a part of her past.
“My friends stopped talking to me, and she didn’t understand why I was not upset. She didn’t understand why I did not try to make other friends and started coming home from school to spend all my time alone. She thought that I needed professional help because I wouldn’t talk to anyone else.”
I haven’t thought about that day in a long time, the day all my friends decided I was no longer worth talking to, and then a few weeks later, when my mother decided that ignoring everyone meant something was wrong. I didn’t seem to know how horrible those days would make my life. I know that I am angry now — that much has been clear for a long time — but I do not remember being angry then.
The first doctor I met was nice. She was the first one to ask me the questions. Before I crafted my perfect answers and before I learned that she wasn’t trying to help. I was not angry when I went home that day. I didn’t feel anything when I went home that day. Just as it had been for the past few weeks. My mother was not too happy when I came home, and my father didn’t bother to look up from his paper. He was not worried then. It was still only my mother’s job to worry then. She had wanted me to talk, and I had just wanted to sleep.
A week later, my mother sent me to another appointment. “We’re going to try someone better today.” I realize now that those were the last weeks she expected me to come back the way I was before. A new doctor entered the room and asked me the same questions. Another person had left, and still, I did not care. The new doctor lasted two months. In the beginning, he had understood when I did not want to talk. Later, he had tried to explain to me why I was there, and I had refused to acknowledge it. He had given up. And the pattern continued. Somewhere in the middle, the doctors had decided questions would not be enough and had all written me prescriptions for pills that were supposed to do the same job, only this time I wouldn’t have been able to fight it.
I want to know why my aunt was sent to her first doctor. I want to know whether she was angry. I want to find my connection to her again because if everyone else can still see it, it has to still be there. She breaks through my thoughts, and it surprises me. I am not used to being surprised, and this weekend hasn’t given me a chance to get back on my feet.
“It’s ok that you had a few bad days, you know. Bad days are ok. Once they start stringing together for so long that you can’t remember the good ones, that’s when it becomes a problem.”
I want to know if she remembers the good days now.
She does. She tells me she does.
Suddenly, I want to remember my good days. I want to laugh again and be happy when someone new talks to me, but that still all seems so far away.
“We should have a good day.”
I don’t know what she means by that, but I know that whatever she does can only help. I have been hovering over rock bottom for a long time now, but I’ve been refusing to look down and see how close I am. Anything we do can only help.
She takes me to an art studio. It is filled with people, which should make me nervous, especially when they all turn to look at us, but I can tell that they will not force me to talk. My aunt seems to know everybody. Every time we turn around, there is someone else waiting to ask her how she’s been and to show her what they’re making. Their laughter sounds too harsh, too foreign. Some of them glance at me, and when my aunt notices how tense I am, she distracts them. After a while, it seems like she has greeted everyone, and she makes her way to the middle of the room where an easel stands. She places something on the easel, and I notice the painting she was working on when I went to bed. It’s a room with yellow walls. There are a thousand colors in the painting, and in the corner, there is a dark spot. A girl in black sits in the corner and looks like she is fighting the room, fighting for her dark spot to grow, but the room is winning.
I decide I want to see what everyone else is creating. The room is filled with people who want to talk, they want to explain what they are creating, and this feels safe to me. So I listen as everyone manages to show themselves through their paintings and their drawings and their sculptures. All of them show a battle, a flower breaking through a barren wasteland, the sun breaking through a dark night over a city. Sometimes, the dark side is winning, and sometimes, both sides are equally frozen, like the artist isn’t sure which side is fighting harder. These are the ones I understand.
By noon, my aunt has finished her painting, and everyone in the studio has stopped working. They all wait for each other, like there is a protocol and they all know how this goes. So I follow along as we walk as a group, a noisy group filled with laughter, down the street and into a cafe. The waitress smiles as we walk in and hands me a menu. Everyone’s food starts arriving as I look through. Eventually, we’re all eating and talking, and I find myself smiling. Their laughter doesn’t sound so harsh anymore, and a few times, I find myself joining in. By the time we leave the cafe, we’ve been talking for two hours, and yet, I have the most energy I’ve had in months. In the studio, my aunt leaves her painting and makes her rounds to say goodbye. I don’t think I am ready to leave, but she drags me home.
I expect to feel different in her apartment. I expect the colors to be suffocating again, but they seem lighter now. I don’t want to go home tonight, to a room filled with gray and void of all color.
“You can’t stay here, you know. You can’t hide here and pretend you’re getting better. You need to go home.”
I know she is right, but I’m scared. I haven’t felt anything in a long time, and now I am feeling everything too much and too fast and it’s okay here because it’s new here, but I know that when I go home, it will be too much.
“How do I stop being scared?” I need her to tell me, I need to know that she did it so that I know I can.
“You don’t.” I think I stop breathing for a minute. “You have to let the fear help you. If everything gets easy, there isn’t a fight anymore, and it’s too easy to let everything take over.”
That night, it’s hard to say goodbye. She won’t talk to my mother. It’s too hard for her to remember how little my mother understood her. I understand, so I say goodbye in her living room. Behind her, there is a basket of oranges, but there are also paintings. In the corner, they are dark and scary, but directly behind her, they are full of light. I am not sure which ones I am afraid of.
When I say goodbye to my aunt, I’m not sure when I’ll see her again. She hugs me goodbye, and then she straightens up and clears her throat.
“You know your mother ruined my life. She doesn’t understand us at all. For your sake, I hope she doesn’t mess up so badly with you.”
She sounds so sure when she says this, as if she still knows my mother and she knows that it can’t be avoided. But she hasn’t talked to her for over fifteen years, and I can’t believe she is still acting like everything that happened between them was yesterday and that there is no way my mother could have changed. It shocks me that I feel so protective of my mother even though I thought she was so horrible for what she did to her sister. At that moment, I realize I don’t even know what she did to her sister.
I’ve never bothered to ask my mother why it was so hard for her to see parts of her sister in me. I realize that my aunt has never bothered to ask why my mother had such a hard time when she was getting help and that my mother has never bothered to understand her story either. I realize that my mother wasn’t the only one pushing off the blame and responsibility of the destruction of their relationship.
Every little comment my aunt has made about my mother seems to add up, and I know I’ve heard more bad things about my mother this weekend than I ever did about my aunt. As the gray door closes behind me when I walk out, I know that it is closing for good. That I have gotten what I needed from my aunt and that she faced my mother through me in the only way she could have. We don’t need each other anymore.
The car ride home is quiet. It’s no longer a bad kind of quiet. My mother and I are finally realizing that we both need to change. When we are almost home, my mother tells me she thinks that I should start therapy again. I do not yell like I would before. I understand now. I tell her that I can’t take pills anymore. She understands now.
Things are not different at home. Dinner is still quiet, but my parents are no longer talking about me silently. We are all apologizing with our eyes.
In my room, there are cans on the floor. They are filled with yellow paint, and for the first time since I scraped my knees on the playground, I let myself cry.