The Support Group
cw: hospitalization and psychosis
He is young, nineteen or twenty?
Black braids in need of tending,
thin, trembling a little, one leg bobbing up and down –
anxiety or akathisia maybe.
His story of lingering psychotic symptoms
resurrects memories for me –
whispers, clangings, trapezoidal rooms in flux,
throbbing, plate-size germs on the walls of the shower,
glistening black eyes in snowmen’s faces watching me, always watching me.
Why had I volunteered to lead the group?
What was I thinking?
Yes, I was stable, had good coping skills but still –
I would have nightmares tonight.
Yes, I know what that’s like, I say.
I don’t know how long it will last.
For me, it was about two years.
He looks at me, wide dark pupils trimmed with brown.
I look him in the eyes, don’t smile.
He looks down, makes a fist, nods slowly,
closes his eyes, sighs.
Ok, he says, Ok.
My brain is oxidized –
rusted, eroded, damaged.
Disconcerted by street signs,
undone by crowded spaces,
my hands shake too hard to hold a fork.
I fight a dry, distant despair,
utterly unlike the terrifying rollercoaster
of anguish and exultation
that came before.
Doctors prescribe medication
to bludgeon my illness into submission;
therapists offer group sessions,
cognitive strategies, affirmations –
as if these tools could banish
the enormous swoops and swings of my moods.
Play the game or be labeled non-compliant (sinful).
So I take my meds,
reframe my life,
carry popsicle sticks inscribed with handy sayings.
Act as if, It is what it is, Feelings are not facts.
Like Pollyanna worshipping at the altar of false gods,
I am certain my future will be bright.
Ward 5 is busy even at 3 am.
I am not the only patient
pacing the darkened hallway.
I veer off near the nurse’s station,
its light glaring out into the dimness –
the only thing shining in the night –
silently shouting a warning:
LOCKED DOORS AHEAD,
TURN BACK NOW.
It will be six days before I sleep through the night.
Until then the light directs my slippered feet
away, away, away.
Nude Bathing in the
Mineral Baths Open
to the Public
It’s been a deliberate choice –
to expose my history, my mental illness –
to share not-exactly-secrets
but hidden things, often obscured by clothes,
age, healing, education, recent accomplishments,
obscured perhaps by complicit silence.
Some may have preferred discretion.
Others may think it wasn’t wise or considerate of me
to share so much, to expose the underpinnings of the present
with such brutal candor.
To soften the blows, I have inserted the rare moments
of levity that came my way.
Be grateful; I was.
I decline to accept accolades for bravery.
I have been given gifts – healing, words, skill –
and feel compelled to tell my tale.
I would have given everything
to know I was not the only one;
believe sharing pain gives it meaning;
know courage is contagious;
am certain I cannot thrive in a closet of any size or color.
I have stepped from the shadows,
left that questionable shelter behind,
to bathe naked in mineral baths open to the public.
Released from the need to hide,
I am free.
PATRICIA WENTZEL lives in Sacramento, California at the confluence of two rivers and a messy, satisfying life. She identifies with communities that include those living with disabilities, both physical and behavioral health, as well as being a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community for nearly 50 years. She is an active advocate in her community in the area of social justice with an emphasis on the intersection between the carceral system and behavioral health and the needs of those who are unhoused, all within the context of historical and current systemic racism. She is also an active member of her Unitarian Universalist congregation, which places an emphasis on social justice as a way to bring healing to the world. She sits on her County Mental Health Board and the MHSA Steering Committee in Sacramento and works for NAMI Sacramento. She has been previously published in Right Hand Pointing, The Monterey Review, Intima: a Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), The Light Ekphrastic and others. She has work forthcoming in Inverted Syntax (finalist for the Sublingua Prize for Poetry) and The Tule Review.