Essays

Astronauts


When things fall to pieces, everyone wants to believe friends can be called upon. There are times–pregnancy, cancer, divorce–where pain is time-limited and in these instances friends will step in, knowing their efforts have an endpoint: four or five visits, trips to the grocery store, casseroles, rides to chemo. And then, finally, there is a baby or death or a new relationship to clinch the toil. What do friends do when the misery has no known conclusion? When their friendship requires the patience of a saint? In this situation, the sufferer is lucky to have one great friend: a Winston Churchill to England, a Martin Luther King Jr. to African Americans. Someone whose herculean devotion is not shaken even by the possibility that the crisis may never end.

I spent most of the summer protected from weather and loneliness and a sprawling, chaotic pile of bills. I was in three mental hospitals, shuffled between them, strapped to stretchers because I was correctly considered an escape risk. I knew inside my glass shard-filled brain that I needed to be kept safe from myself, but I missed freedom like I was a prisoner on death row. I wanted to sit on the couch with my dog–who was staying with a neighbor–and drink my own strong coffee rather than the rusty swill we were permitted at 6 am from the giant metal urn in the kitchen, adding to it tiny cups of creamer that require no refrigeration. The shower was always strong, I didn’t have to remember anything like taking my medication or showing up for appointments or not eating because I would be having anesthesia before my electroshock therapy treatment at 6 am. Everything was done for me and to me. In return, I could do nothing that mimicked my previous life but listen to Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples once I had signed up for a boom box after quiet hours ended. (I am a Jewish girl but I have discovered that Jesus in music represents what matters most: a friend invested with superpowers who is at my disposal and in whose beneficent face I see my salvation.)

Now I am home. I seem to have one friend of this caliber–and who can ask for more–an ex-lover. I’ve known her since I was 22. She came from California to help me clean up my property which was littered with the antiques from my abandoned shop, transported by careless kids who broke much of the glass, and then further neglected by me who left them in the rain for weeks, even months because I was too dispirited and weak to lift them and haul them into the sheds on my two acres. I hadn’t really cleaned the property in years. I had especially neglected anything which resembled a storage area, often tossing things into any available space–there were fewer and fewer of these–and just stepping on them if I needed to get past. There was evidence of a proliferation of mice everywhere in the house and little gritty piles of unknown content in the window jambs and under the furniture. And the laundry room was barely passable–since this was the easiest place to throw cardboard boxes from my excessive online purchases.

When i was in the hospital I couldn’t bear that I had abandoned Pluto, my 9-pound JRT. Now we are reunited. I spend more time with her than I do with anyone else, than I do alone even–which is a comforting realization. She is extraordinary company. This morning as I write this, finally able to write anything at all, things having recently turned a corner, she lies beside me on the couch, calm despite furious lightning and thunder outside and a virile assailing of rain upon the metal roof. Most dogs would be cowering under the furniture or shaking in a corner. But Pluto has seen me unconscious on the bed with a plastic bag over my head, breathing the sort of breaths reserved for the uncooperatively extant. She sat on my chest diligently, as if she knew this was her charge, and when a friend showed up unexpectedly, Pluto barked as if a gang of hoodlums had gained entry because she knew it was paramount she protect me in this moment–whether from myself or intrusion was not important. Dogs don’t distinguish such things; they just know their devotion is limitless and that their work never ends. I feel grateful to her as I have never felt to another being because I remember the stress in the tilt of her head when i sent her off to stay with the neighbor, thinking I was voluntarily signing up for help. But suicide renders all things involuntary. One is considered incapable of making a reasonable choice.

I have always had a lot of friends, had people to lunch with, people to get drunk with, almost never bought my own pot because people equipped me. Now they’ve all gone away, not entirely of their own volition. All of this darkness and suffering has left me feeling the way I imagine astronauts feel: craving the company of other astronauts, those who have been stranded in the stratosphere where hardly anyone has ever been or felt compelled to go. Others who have eaten freeze-dried food and not cared because of the tastelessness that has invaded the insides of their mouths. Others who know what it’s like to sleep upside down while floating and never have a moment alone or a space outside where you can just walk around. Or sunshine or a long dirt road with purple flowers on the sides. They want to talk to people who know about breathing stale air day after day after day after day and still believing there is something normal to return to.

6 thoughts on “Astronauts

  1. Hilary,
    Your words continue to be powerful – as are you. I appreciate your willingness and courage to share your story to bring about a smidgen of understanding of what it might be like to suffer from such debilitating mental illness.

    My hope for you, and Pluto, is you will find peace and comfort, and that one – or many – true people in your lives to make every day remarkable. Don’t give up hope.
    When I participate in the NAMI walk this year, I will be walking for one more person.

    take care my friend,
    e

  2. Trite, I know, but thank you for sharing this. It sounds scary and lonely. I am blessed to have always breathed fresh air. I have been sheltered, through no effort of my own, from depression and suicide. Having always lived in my rarefied atmosphere, I don’t know how to help those who aren’t in it. What can someone who has never suffered do to help? Does your ex-lover know how firsthand how you felt or is she just a more empathetic clean-air breather? I have to admit, depression scares me. I feel so helpless in its presence. I suspect that helplessness would be magnified a hundred-fold for the one suffering. Thanks for opening a window into this dark room. It’s a window I would rather walk past, but I would like to learn how to help open it, how to get that desperately needed fresh air into a stale room. Best , Baxter

    • No apology necessary of course. You are blessed… I wrote this, in part, for people just like you, in hopes of opening eyes if you know what I mean. Sometimes those suffering the most are walking among us but we can’t see what we didn’t know exists. I want people to know this exists. So your response is truly gratifying. Thank you.

      Hilary

  3. I always wanted to be an astronaut. The weightlessness and distance from home. Alas, I don’t qualify. Not good enough at math or taking risks. O well, maybe an aluminum canned ham camper qualifies as a space ship, or maybe shuttle.In any case, here’s hoping. I am compelled to go. Miss you, barb

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