‘What was it like?’ people sometimes ask me.
It was like a kettle filling up with steam, exploding when boiled. Or like being drunk, blackout drunk, and waking up the next morning, begging people to tell you what happened. Being so joyful that you feel yourself split open. Like a snow globe shaken and put in a blender. But really, it was feeling everything you don’t want to feel. Nobody wants to be told that.
They ask me how I know what’s real.
I say, trust in the most boring thing.
I’ve just moved in with my flatmate, and I know something’s wrong. Not with her. With me.
She’s noticed that I laugh louder, move quicker, do more things than I’ve ever done in the duration of our friendship. And I don’t know what to do. I’ve spoken to my psychiatrist and he says I’m fine, and to go for more walks. I walk plenty.
Then I start having sex with strangers. Grasping. And I’m not going to lie, it feels good. Too good. Better than it’s ever felt.
This month is hot, sweat crawling up my back. We’re pretty sure it’s a heatwave.
I’ve been ill before. Twice. I really don’t want to be ill again.
My body is a faucet, drip drip drip. The water accumulating, building, a slow flood.
I send a message to a local Manchester author, and by some miracle they reply. We meet up for coffee, and I’m convinced she’s hitting on me, even though she’s married to a man. And 75 years old.
The author’s eyes are both icy and warm. She has a blue rinse that reminds me of my grandmother. I start talking about my life and she taps taps taps on the table, she’s bored, so I make a mental note to steer the conversation to something new whenever she does that.
Construction work outside. Hammering, ruining the atmosphere. Not that there’s much atmosphere in a Pret anyway. She keeps telling me I’m so young, but she doesn’t know how many lives I’ve lived, how much ache I’ve seen.
I decline a coffee, because honestly, I feel a buzz already. She asks if she can see some of my work, but I know it’s all shit.
I haven’t been eating properly. Snatches of sandwiches between lecture breaks, a bite of them at least, at most one half. Sleep for tea. No breakfast. On a loop.
The less I eat, the lighter I get, and the lighter I get, the more I feel like I’m air. Floating. Away, away.
I tell my flatmate where I’m going. I kind of expected more of a reaction, it’s pretty far away.
It’s late. The only cheap coach I could get. Pockets are empty. Ten pounds in my bank account.
Drifting in and out of madness.
Have work tomorrow. Know this. Go anyway, don’t call in sick. Gonna get sacked. Oh well.
Hearing voices now. Voice of God, Satan, all that good stuff. Bargaining with myself.
If I count to ten, it will go away.
If I talk to this person, it will go away.
It will go away.
It will go away.
Two days later
My greasy hair hangs limp. All my friends are at least 60 miles away. I don’t really know where I am, or what I’m doing. Skirt brushes my ankles and my shoes are dirty with dried paint. I’ve tried to go home three times but my brain isn’t working properly. I try calling my mum but all she does is shout. Phone announces it’s on low battery as I tell her all sorts of things, intermittently whispering that her house is disgusting. I haven’t been there in years. My voice is not drained of emotion, but like emotion has never flecked it. I try counting.
123 1 2 3
I look in a shop window. Hair flashes bright orange, spiked. It is shaved. Tickled pink, curly, anything I want. Don’t want anything. Legs are thinner than they’ve ever been. I sneeze, and my face falls, splatters onto the pavement. I look down at my melted features, don’t recognise them. I step on the remnants. I don’t want to look at my reflection.
Someone hands me a lunchbox and I can’t read the writing on the label. I have no food to put in it.
The next day
I split open around four thirty. My coach is due in fifteen minutes. Legs moving but I have no control over my body. I’m yelling. I skip each song around thirty seconds in, hearing messages between songs, bridges between hooks, sentences between bridges. The voice of God is an MC.
I feel like a supernova: bottled then scattered on the station floor. I am post-explosion.
REST REST REST
The song shouts at me as I reduce myself to a squat. I can’t rest and I haven’t in days.
A staff member tells me to imagine a big pink bubble around me, which calms me a little. She says they won’t let me on the coach if I carry on. I have no choice. I need to go home.
“Put the hairdryer on,” I demand as I step inside. She complies, and I speak gibberish for the next ten minutes. To her credit, she listens, nods along. She is pretty accepting until I try and follow her to the toilet, convinced she has a microchip in her brain, convinced she is trying to bash it out with a soap dispenser.
There is a deep, gnawing agitation that sits on my collarbones, pressing in every time I go to speak. My flatmate tries to strike up a conversation about putting seeds in her porridge (bless her) but I translate it wrong, my brain crosses the wires, and I think she is trying to poison me. She hasn’t even offered me food. I cry about being dead for ten minutes, and she convinces me that it’s my heartbeat I can hear when I press my wrist.
She advises me to take a breath, step out onto the balcony. Even when I’m in this state, I know it’s a terrible idea. She tries to think of music that will soothe and puts on Smooth Radio. I have a headache.
We make a plan to go to A&E tomorrow morning, because the last thing I need right now is a sleepless night.
I’m alone in a waiting room. My flatmate’s mum has given me a meditation app, and it plays while I stare up at the lights. I’m being beamed up somewhere. I’m leaving. Bye.
Nope, still here. The app is still playing, the disembodied voice oddly calm. It’s encouraging me to stay in my head, relax, mind palaces and all that. I’m trying to get out, escape… something.
The doctor comes back in and says he’s unsure what to do.
“Do your job,” I reply. Blunt, I guess, but true enough.
They decide to take me in, but don’t suggest a plan of action, or put me on the medication I was on the last two times. That would be too efficient.
The next day
They show me to my room. I have no luggage with me, except for a poetry book my flatmate lent me, so I display it on the windowsill. I check my pockets. I’ve brought two red ballet slippers with me. I don’t even know where I’ve gotten them from. The nurse sees and tries not to laugh. I’m surprised she hasn’t seen worse, has experienced enough that she doesn’t find things like this funny. I guess it’s the little things, eh?
My assigned nurse sits with me for a few hours, talks to me about JME, nods politely. I don’t even know what I’m saying.
Paintings line the wall of the hospital. Tigers, sunsets, daisies. Walls are stark white and ceilings are bust. Tuna sandwiches everywhere. Lots of doors that lock.
The hospital almost gives me permission to be crazy. I run, dance, scream, play music, smash my phone, find spray paint in the garden. I have more energy than I’ve ever had in years. It’s like I’m a kid again. Nobody tries to get me to sit down, nobody restrains or sedates me. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing.
I relax for a second. The living room has bookshelves filled with romance novels, classics. I rip a few pages out. One patient is in a wheelchair, and waves at me halfheartedly. I try to smile, but it’s more like a grimace.
I barter with another patient who arrived at the same time as me. Her JD sports bag for my yellow leather, Cath Kidston backpack. I barter with another, get a fake basketball hoodie for two pounds. They don’t tell me what kind of therapy I’ll be having, or what events occur during the days. I later learn there is no therapy, no events, no help, no support. We’re left here to die.
I hit my head on something, and get up, trying not to think about the rest of my stay here.
I sit on the bed and she wheels towards me with an eyeshadow palette. It looks so big compared to her. She chooses the purple, it’s a knock-off chocolate one that belongs to her aunt. Thunder cracks outside the window, but it’s okay because we aren’t going anywhere. She leans towards me, breath tickling my peach fuzz. I close my eyes and she presses onto my eyelid, dragging the brush along my browbone. I move back. The sheet rips.
She stole the Family Circle biscuits I bought for the entire ward when I was allowed to leave for a few hours.
Smooth Radio is playing across the corridor. They always play Smooth Radio on the TVs. Why not get a fucking radio? It’s Paul McCartney. I’ve known her two weeks. Time runs differently here.
I play with a flip phone that I stole from another patient. The buttons make noises and the side lights up when you play music. There are three JME songs on there and I listen, dance in public. No one looks. No one cares.
The only thing that makes me happy now is dancing. I become liquid, I am every shape, even if my memory is death shaped. Focusing around all the times I’ve been ill, not recovery, I can’t even process recovery at this point. I can’t stay still. The pace of grime matches my mood, and I catch the beat, am ahead of the beat, I believe I am breaking the simulation, am Neo, am something more than pitifully sad. I am wrong.
It’s approaching eight. I go into a restaurant, convinced someone is waiting for me. The waiter and the manager aren’t sure what to do. I eat some prawn crackers and ask them to put Nicki Minaj on the TV. They don’t. Koi fish squiggle in the pond. I think about putting Pepsi in there, and I realise I have no money. I look down and realise I’m wearing fishnet tights and a nightie.
The next morning
I twitter to the birds in the communal room’s window, throwing the clothes my flatmate got me out of the gap.
She visited the other day. Realised she couldn’t calm me down. Got stressed. Can’t just let me be.
Some of the clothes land on the roof, some of them don’t. I have two golden egg shakers from town, because they let me out pretty much every day without supervision, and every day I find new ways to make a tit out of myself in public.
It seems like there’s a pattern in my life. I stretch myself to my very limits, until I snap. And part of me never comes back. And each time it happens, more and more of me is lost. This is the longest I’ve been ill for. I do wonder how much of me will come back, if anything, anything at all.
My breath absolutely stinks. I haven’t brushed my teeth in possibly a week. I rinse with water and use copious amounts of gum. I wonder why nobody wants to talk to me. My breath is fire, I reason. People keep away from me because they’re afraid. My skin is dry and blotchy, discoloured at the tops of my legs. Instead of moisturising, I touch my scales, polish them, sharpen them. My shoulder blades jut from my back, small bony wings. I must be a baby dragon then. Twilight fills the hospital room as I scream and imagine a glass of water, at my flat miles away, trembling.
They feel brighter tonight even though my bedsheet is made of paper and my mirror is covered in brown lipstick smears. Time is absent and all of space is in my hospital room.
My flatmate’s parents say “she was such a nice girl” as I turn 4D, become mean and manic and everything I don’t want to be, for the third time.
I imagine pulling a star closer with my grey hoodie string and using it to dust my cheeks. I’m special in the wrong way, wrong in the obvious ways, way too unstable for anything I want, needing things that people are born with.
I know I have to clench my toes when I wait for trains, separate my pills so I don’t look at them all together. I can’t be a cautionary tale, a statistic, a couldhavebeen, “she was so beautiful,” postmortem makeup caking my face. I will live to be ugly and fatter. I swear by it.
I stay up and wish to the ambulance lights for a more boring life, where I can have a job, a boyfriend, kids, see my stomach rise like the sun, inflate like bubblegum, to be in the present, to be a normal girl.
Mid December Christmas Party
There are some Malteser Celebrations left, thank God. I snaffle three or four at once and get a dirty look from a few patients. I get talking to one of them, who says she loves seeing me dance. I don’t know if she’s taking the piss. But I dance anyway.
Someone sets up karaoke, and I give a rather off-key rendition of ‘All Falls Down’. A patient claps along. My friend wheels in late with a disco light. I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
We’re having the Christmas party early because most of us will go home by then. Maybe because they feel sorry for us, maybe because they need to free up beds for the desperate cases. They say I’m getting better.
Yet I’m still hallucinating, still absolutely puddled.
There’s a cake, but it’s carrot cake, so fuck that. I want something different to eat so I go into the kitchen, and there are about ten tuna sandwiches, neatly boxed up. To expect variety would be naïve.
We’re finally allowed in the art room. I’m the only one who wants to go in, but I manage to persuade some of the younger ones. I take a dirty paintbrush and paint a tiger. There’s already a tiger hung up, someone says. Fuck off, I reply.
I still have bruises from the day before yesterday.
Someone decides to change the TV from Smooth Radio to a programme about a stalker who is in a psychiatric unit. One of the characters is on the same medication as me, and I watch as he goes into graphic detail about his crimes. Makes me feel better about myself, to be honest.
“I’ll miss you,” one of the patients says. “Keep dancing.”
I smile, and this time, it feels genuine.
The patient shows me a picture of Katy Perry in a cone bra, and for once, my brain doesn’t get its wires crossed.
I sit in the hall and pull drawings out of the backpack my Nan got me last Christmas.
‘They’re interesting,” my mum says. “Like Picasso or something.” I ignore her.
She’s cut her hair. It doesn’t suit her.
I’m cold. I’d like to say someone else stole my scarf, but I’m pretty sure I threw it out of the window.
I think about the nurses who force me to take my medication at night, and whether I’ll remember when I’m on my own. I know I’m not well but I want to go home.
The tunnel is time itself, stretched, encompassing, dream-like. My mother does not look at me for two hours, happy music tinkling on the radio. I want to pretend, so I stay silent. I close my eyes and wonder if I’d have gotten more presents if I’d spent Christmas on the ward.
Nobody asks me how I am anymore. They think I’m fine, and to some extent, I am.
I get a job at the local supermarket, and every day, without fail, I take the bus and sit in the seat closest to the driver. That’s when my memories are the worst. Remember dodgeball? Being pelted with those rubber balls, surrounding you, no chance of escape? Yeah, like that.
I try counting to ten, but that reminded me of before. I tap my knees three times and that distracts me enough. It’s not so bad when I’m at work. I can focus on stacking the shelves just right. Until the manager tells me to hurry up. Can’t win.
It’s not necessarily the hospital, or the before, or the blank nights I can’t remember. It’s the embarrassing things, the things I said without a filter, the times I was on leave to the hospital. What did I say? Who did I interact with? I can’t tell for sure, but they come back in drops.
Before bed, when I’m exhausted from work, I think about everything I can remember. I don’t feel very comfortable in my brain right now. I flinch and fidget, the sheet snapping off one corner of the mattress. It’s not quite night terrors. More like evening inconveniences.
Nobody asks me how I am anymore. They think I’m fine, and I’m a great liar.
Haven’t left my bed in about a week. I would say I’m starting to smell, but that was true about three days ago.
I binge-watch Channel 4 panel shows. The only thing that makes me laugh and distracts me nowadays. I chuckle to myself, slowly building my life back up from absolute rock bottom.
I don’t think I’ve washed up in a week. Longer. My flatmate pokes her head in and says it’s “really not okay,” which is code for “get your fucking act together.” When I still don’t move, she comes and sits on my bed and asks if she can bring some breakfast in.
I accept. Feeling full is a luxury I’ve never afforded myself, even when I was well.
Greg Davies insults someone on my laptop screen. I turn it off, grab my towel, and get in the shower. I don’t look at my body, and how it’s changed after a year of constant abuse. The water circles me like a good hug. Clean.
I’m sat in my dad’s garden as his friend goes into detail about her new job. She’s a nurse or something. My dad calls her patients ‘window lickers’ and they laugh.
Stories poured from wine, stifled burps, laughter tinkling against the glass.
My dad doesn’t mention that I was a patient. That he only visited me once even though he lived nearby, that he never once asked how I was. He likes to be normal. If I could be that, I would be. I can’t.
“You look so much better, love,” he says.
I want to say thank you. But I don’t.
“You don’t know how pretty you are,” my dad’s girlfriend says.
Dad fidgets with the barbecue, nearly burning his shirt. We all laugh politely.
“There was one patient who was rubbing himself in his shit. I said, you hold him down, I’ll clean the walls,” she finishes, more serious this time.
I wonder if I’d been her patient, whether she’d be telling my dad about the girl who was all bone. The girl with the mullet, who never stopped dancing. The one who wore ballet slippers and fishnets. Who kept hitting her head, complaining of bruises. I wonder if she would’ve cared, or if I’d be just another story to tell at parties.
My flatmate drags me to an open mic she’s wanted to go to all year. I’m sure she has plenty of friends to go with. She wants to go with me.
We both perform. Hers is amazing, and lots of people come up to her afterwards and tell her how brilliant she is. I do a little poem about necklaces which gets halfhearted applause and a compliment from an older man with a staring problem. I don’t really care though. It’s the first time I’ve performed in years, and the fact I did it without fucking up feels huge to me.
We meet up with some old friends at a karaoke bar. They confront me gently for cutting them off.
Some of them do duets, and I record like a proud mum. There are pictures of baby dinosaurs on the walls, must be a theme or something, and I’m reminded of my hospital body. Scaled, shaking, newly born. I can leave that behind, look at the wall, and just see it for what it is. I never thought I’d be able to do that again.
“You wouldn’t have wanted to see me like that,” I say.
“You didn’t give us the chance to decide that for ourselves,” one of them replies.
I don’t fidget a lot, which I owe to the comfy chairs. Finally feeling, for a moment, in my body, and present. I don’t drink because I’m not ready for that loss of control yet. I need to learn how to control myself first. Baby steps.
I started uni again and deferred pretty much straight away. It sounds pathetic, but the social anxiety of queueing and making small talk was enough to launch me into a small crisis which results in a panicked email at 3AM saying “I can’t do this” with a little poem at the end. They replied with a form, and to be honest, I felt a little offended.
I’m no longer a student. Academic achievement meant everything to me, and I fucked that up. Got a job, fucked that up. Friendships? Well, they’re on the mend, but for a while I’d fucked those up too. And don’t get me started on my parents. I’m pretty sure they’re scared of me. And it hurts.
A leaf falls outside a dentist’s office, where I am graffitiing the wall. First of September.
Someone asked me out on a date. I said no, but I started wondering what that would be like.
A spontaneous trip to Edinburgh, singing our childhood songs in the car, which would vastly differ and start arguments. Going to all the cute gay libraries which seem to have expanded in number. Falling asleep in a deep chair. Spilling coffee on my white dress, but not caring because I’m having such a good time. Having a good time. For once, not being so numbingly scared that I’m afraid to do stuff. Doing stuff in their car. Sand between fingers, underneath my rings. Kissing their neck between bookshelves. Crying when alone. From relief.
Next time someone asks me on a date, I’ll say yes, excited for what that will be like.
It’s nice being giddy and not manic.
I can shop now, ride trams.
Death Stranding has just been released, and my flatmate keeps banging on about it. I bought her some sort of special edition. I know nothing about games. The bright colours and movement make me feel sick. I fork out forty quid, even though I’ve just been sacked for having too much time off and I’m on Universal Credit now. I’ve been saving for months to make this a special Christmas.
The city is washed in lights, hung above my head, in a tacky glow. Cinnamon wafts from somewhere, mixed with clove and the distinctive smell of burrito. Little blobs of snow frost my cheeks. The stars are shy, blushing pale yellow beams. I have a little flashback, but it’s not a bad one.
I call my mum and she answers with a curt “what?” I tell her Merry Christmas. She says I’m stupid, says she’s gonna see me in a week, what’s the point in saying it now? I can’t say I love you, because I’m not sure if I mean it yet, I think.
I wonder if my parents feel the same.
I look back at my most vulnerable, unlikeable, raw, angry, snapping, borderline horrible moments. And I cringe. And it’s easy to become that forever. Never face change or move on.
There will always be a small part of that in me, resting on my ribcage. But I can choose to be more than that, as a slow becoming of something, if not better, something else, at least.
I close my eyes and shiver in my too-tight coat. I fasten the buttons.
Instead of a flashback, this time I flash forward.
Blossoms. Boob tubes. Spring. No longer feeling like a ball of gas. Googling ‘serendipity’ every time I feel it. Sun cream. Sunsets. Squinting. Seasons I will live to see. I will live. I will. I’ll make it. I promise. I think.
About the Author:
Kayleigh Jayshree (she/they) is a writer from the UK. They were recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Feature image by Bankim Desai/Unsplash