I'm so cold I feel it down to the bones,
sitting in the dining hall trembling
over my cup of tea. A huge Christmas
tree twinkles merrily beside me in red, blue, silver, pink and gold.
Patients huddle together outside to talk,
but I'm forbidden to join them,
trapped inside the ward on a category four.
They're all strangers to me, I've spoken to no one.
Smoking their cigarettes in faded pajamas,
looking tired and worn down,
lips twisting into smiles as the smoke
curls down into their lungs.
Nurses find me hiding from evil spirits in the cupboard.
They let me stay inside, safe until the panic stops and
the shadows disappear, give me blankets
to stay warm, until they take me by the hand and lead me out.
Two psychiatrists come to speak with me
While insects pour from my lips
And satellites speak of the death of stars
The voices scream at me
But I talk.
They want me to trust them
They want me to stay alive.
A nurse takes six canisters of my blood,
a deep frothy red. It pours out of my
veins as she stares uneasily at the
scars on my wrists. "We have to monitor
your blood and your white cell count
once you've been put on clozapine." She
says. She pulls the needle out and tapes
cotton wool over my vein to stop the
bleeding. I'm bleeding inwardly.
A week of my life is lost somewhere
the soft blur of unconsciousness
and the whirr of machines
and ventillators keeping me alive.
I fall effortlessly into a coma
breathing to a lullaby of machines and tubes
that quiet whirr of a heart beating
I sleep, dreamless
while butterflies beat the air
A fluttering pulse
so soft and restless now
against those caged wings
My throat still hurts from where the breathing tube
nestled into my oesophagus while I slept,
coma deep without dreaming.
A girl sits on the floor in front of the medication room, crying.
Tiny scars litter her forearms, pink as the blush
in her cheeks. but the skin on her
wrists is as smooth as silk. She asks
for valium in a trembling voice.
Steph has silver stars of piercings over
her face like a night sky. She laughs
about ECT ruining her memory,
and tells me not to be offended if anyone forgets
my name, or to worry if I forget theirs.
"Ahh, ECT," another patient says, "It's the best excuse."
They all laugh,
exhaling smoke and smiling like Cheshire cats.
A pretty young girl with coffee-coloured
skin bends to light a cigarette.
The curve of her spine shows through her
blue and black flannelette shirt.
Around her slender wrists hands an ED recovery bracelet,
familiar red beads with a silver butterfly.
Annalise says her mother was anorexic,
and so she was born premature with an
Her brother was born with complications too.
She talks a little of an unhappy childhood
and flicks her cigarette.
She says she only smokes in hospital.
Nat says "My ex tells me where the
nearest cliff is to throw myself off
whenever I ask him for money."
The others are horrified.
"That's terrible," another patient says.
"No one should ever joke about suicide."
"Yeah, I know. Of course, I say it right back
to him whenever he asks me for anything."
Kel talks about her lithium toxicity.
"They told me the next step was dialysis.
They had four drips in me, my kidneys were shutting down.
They said I was dying. But I was trying to kill
myself, so I was a little bit excited.
Renae laughs. "Go out with a bang."
At night, through the window shutters, I
can see Alice crying and Mel sitting
beside her, softly wiping her tears away
with her thumbs and stroking her hair so
gently. It's beautiful and I turn and go
back to my room.
We sit outside in the dark while the
dining room is being repainted. I shiver
with cold while Kim talks about her
struggle with bulimia. "I would go to
the store, buy all of this food, unpack
in and eat it all. Then I'd go to the
shower, and throw it up. Then back to
the store to buy more, come back and do
the same. It was so out of control."
Annalise talks wistfully of her visa card.
"My dad confiscated it." She sighs.
I ask her if that's because she'll get manic
and start spending like crazy.
"No," she laughs, "it's punishment for stealing his car."
"Were you manic?"
"Yep. My license is on probation now."
We swap stories about the stupid things
we've done when the mania comes.
One night in hospital, a nurse finds me
crying in my room. It's freezing cold
and I feel so suicidal. She persuades me
to lie down again in the warmth, but I'm
too agitated to fall into sleep. I cry
that no one can help me, that I'll hear
voices and hallucinate terrifying things
forever, that I don't want to live.
"Does your doctor know you hear voices?"
She asks softly.
"And what did they diagnose you with?"
"Bipolar I with psychosis." I shudder.
"And an eating disorder?" She prompts gently.
I wipe away my tears feeling hollow.
"No. I'm just small."
A psychiatric nurse reads through the
notes in my chart while I cry and pace
the room. Her voice is gentle with
kindness and distress, as if she's
addressing a frightened animal.
"Mood swings and psychosis. You poor
little thing, that must be so hard."
I can barely speak. I can feel the
fabric of my being tearing apart and I
want to howl. The voices scream in my
head, and I'm bleeding from somewhere in
"It's all right." She says softly. "I
can't imagine how hard this is. But we
can help you. You have to believe that.
We can help you."
A patient sits across from me, rubbing
at his beard and flicking a cigarette. A
red tattoo marks his muscled forearm,
shaped like a stamp. "INSANE" it says,
proclaimed like a badge of honour.
The scent of their cigarettes cloaks my
skin, and I wonder daily if there is a
shroud of smoke in my lungs; a lazy grey
cloud whisper-sweet, curling over my
tongue, gently filling my mouth in place
A psych nurse follows me outside with
morning meds. I swallow in front of all
the others, no one blinking an eyelid at
the ritual. The nurse doesn't bother to
check under my tongue like in the other
hospitals. She just takes the plastic
medicine cup back and goes, and I come
back to the conversation.
One of the ana girls carries a soft
round pillow with her everywhere, plush
blue. It follows her through every
doorway, every moment spent in therapy.
A faithful companion so she's never
alone. And I think that it must be
because it's hard to sit on bone.
Kel's spine shows through translucent
flesh like a string of pearls. Her arms
are pale bone cloaked with skin, soft as
breathing. Featherlight limbs move in
She talks, laughs, smiles easily. But I
wonder at her mind; moving restlessly
and desperate underneath the mask.
Emma laughs about a patient that took
some seroquel last night, and fell back
straight into the garden, out for the
count. And we all smile ruefully about
the "seroquel stumble" and the "seroquel stupor".
I go into the patient lounge and find an
elderly woman staring at the T.V. Her
eyes are half-mast and her mouth is open
from the medication. Silence of the Lambs is playing,
and I can't change the channel.
The old woman is staring, and I
hope it won't give her nightmares.
She moans softly when the gunfire rings out
and the killer coughs up blood.
Vic throws his dinner tray and it
smashes into the carpet food and
broken shards litter the ground.
The nurses raise their voices in stern
warnings to him. "Come away from the
window. Vic! Come and get some PRN."
"What did you do? For godssakes."
"Will someone pick this up with me?"
"Vic, will you please get off the floor
and help me pick this up?"
Vic is kneeling on the floor, his face a
twisted mask of pain.
The nurses go in and shut the door.
we celebrate Christmas in my cramped
hospital room, with smiles pasted on and
wrapping paper crushed in our hands.
There are patients with their doors
open, lying unmoving in their beds, a
visitor with a baby girl on her hip in a
lavender dress. Nurses walking the
hallways with notepads and blood
I find myself watching cricket on T.V.
for the first time in my life, just to
fill the endless hours in the ward.
Another patient twitches and mumbles
incoherently at the carpet and the T,V,
and we waste time lazily, one, two,
The alarm to room 108 is tripped, and a
nurse calls out "can I have some
assistance here? It's Jen she looks as
though she might have collapsed."
A wheelchair is rushed by me in the
hallways, the alarm is silenced, and all
is quiet again.
In the patient lounge, we all gather
around to crowd the T.V. A man talks
softly about his anxiety, and asks Helen
if she suffers from it too
"No, but I did a long time ago." She says.
"I have schizophrenia. I've received 115 death
threats in my time." She murmurs.
Jaden dresses in drag, red wig and
tights and jacket with a black lace bra
peaking over a red dress. He fans
himself delicately with a black lace
fan. A cigarette hangs between his blood
red lips, smoke curling effortlessly
over pale, lightly rouged cheeks.
He idly blows smoke rings that curl
up to his mascared lashes. "Oh, I've
been beaten before," he says, "I've been
beaten, flogged, before."
Jaden talks about dressing in drag in
the city on Halloween, "I was mistaken
for a street girl, a prostitute."
"As soon as they heard my voice
though, they drove away. Guess it means
I passed." He laughs again. "I'll take
that as a compliment."
Jaden's first day on a new drug he has
to be carried to bed. Ben lifts his thin
frame easily, but takes him to the wrong
room. The nurses are angry at him for
"manhandling other patients."
I drink unsweetened tea and sit and
listen to the talk in the late afternoon
at the smokers' corner in the
psychiatric ward. I half sleep, as
familiar and comfortable as before.
Steph talks with a friend on the phone,
her voice gentle and husky from
cigarettes. "Oh please sweetie, don't
burn yourself any more. Just because
someone in your family doesn't
understand, it doesn't mean that no one
understands. Do you think another stint
in here would help?"
And I think of all the lonely broken
hearts in here and out.
"I wish I could fix everything for you."
I'm given another antipsychotic
injection; the psychiatric nurse chats
nervously as her fingers flick the
plastic. She lowers the needle to my
thigh, and the sting is almost invisible
but I welcome it like a lover or a long
lost friend. She pushed the syringe cap
down, down, down and releases the drug
into my veins.
A nurse, Dolly, sees the handwritten
scraps littering a corner of my room and
asks what I'm writing. I tell her it's
poetry and expect nothing more to be
said. She asks if it's poetry about my
"disease". I uneasily say yes, and more
questions follow. She says if I want to
become a psychologist, I have to stop
doing "silly things" in slightly broken
English. "Like harming yourself and
suicide, you nearly died." She says. She tells
me I'm doing better but that my eye
contact is "terrible", "not good for a
psychologist." I try to explain about
people changing when I look at them,
about seeing their eyes change to huge
black pools, and their mouths warp and
distort. Maybe she's right, maybe I'll
never become a good psychologist because
I'm too sick myself.
My knees feel weak and the world sways.
I fall, smacking my chin on the desk as
I collapse and nurses rush to me, crowds
of them leaning in as my clouded eyes
blink to take in the light again.
They tell me I've fainted and rush to help me stand up.
I'm given water as they
measure my vital signs and blood
pressure and help me to a soft grey
chair, I wait there until my heart beat
is better and I'm allowed to go away.
The nurses arrive for my daily room
search, and as I stand, I collapse
again, falling against the cupboard and
smashing my head into the wood.
They take my blood pressure, and my heart
The doctor tells me what happened before
I overdosed. He says before I lost
consciousness, and before the ICU, a
nurse found me on the floor, looking
wired, and gave me some PRN, thinking it
would calm me down, not knowing what I'd
already swallowed. Then he found the
little bag with a few stray pills
slipping out of it into the white sink,
and he realised what was happening, what
I'd done. The doctor says that the nurse
was so afraid that he'd "killed" me;
that the final pill to send me into
death was given by his own hand. He was
scared that they wouldn't save me in
time, as I fell into unconsciousness,
and slipped quietly into a coma, my head
heavy, playing hide and seek in the
"I believe in aliens, only because I met
one. I believe in entities, psychic
energy and power and misuse of the
power. I'm still a Christian though. I'm
going to roll another cigarette." Words
rush from her mouth and tumble over each
other. Later, she comes back.
"But it was real though, the alien. It really
happened. I've met one alien in my life.
Only one. It wasn't a hallucination."
She pauses and starts talking about
Chinese New Year. "We wrote down all of
our thoughts, fears, sins and regrets
and we put them in envelopes an set then
alight in the forest, blessed the ashes,
the north east south and west in the
I go outside to the smoker's garden, and
with shock I meet Amy; a former nurse at
the RBH. She remembers me before I can
place her face. "Ruby! It's Amy.
You were in the Royal Brisbane.
I was one of your nurses in lock-up.
It's a bit awkward meeting here, now that I'm
having mental problems too. One year you
were really sick in lock-up, hearing
voices and hallucinating and stuff, then
they transferred you to a different
floor. Not a good floor for girls, G floor.
Then you were back again the next year."
Her voice is slurred from the medication.
"What have they got you on, you look so much better."
I tell her about the change to clozapine.
"Doesn't it make you sleepy?" She slurs.
"You were so ill." We talk until she gets up
to go, stumbling away.
I see the worst sufferer of anorexia; a
day patient at the hospital. She is
death walking, the outside of her
skeletal form shows through, taking
flight like a scared bird. Her heartbeat
is almost visible under the caged bones.
Her skin is pale white and bruised and
her hair is feathery and strange, clear
that it's falling out. She will not
survive. She looks at me with hollowed
eyes, and we smile painfully at each
other while she leaves. Her look is one
of someone haunted. My eyes rest on
those agonising hips, her bluish lips,
the curve of her spine, bones like a
harp leading down to the marrow, sorrow
etched into every tone. She is
everything; a beautiful tragedy mouthed
in the dark, stark with pain.