This story is by Eve Goldstein and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When Constance woke up that morning, she felt the weight of depression that greeted her each day. The effects of the sedative had not worn off yet and she could barely open her eyes. For a few moments, she was disoriented and thought she was in her bed at home. She wondered if she would be able to get up and go to class. Constance tried to roll over on her side to go back to sleep but found that she could not move her arms or legs! Her mind began racing with fear and then Constance remembered where she was: in the isolation room on the locked behavioral health unit. Although it was almost completely dark, she could see the straitjacket that bound her like a mummy and the straps holding her feet in place. Tears flowed off the sides of her cheeks as despair overwhelmed her.
Constance had been in quiet rooms before on other behavioral health wards, but this time was different. The day before, two of the psych technicians dragged her by the arms to this smaller locked section within the larger restricted hospital unit. The isolation room was designated for those who appeared to be an immediate danger to themselves, the other patients, or the hospital staff. Constance had refused to walk there because she knew they were mistaken: she had no intention of harming anyone. Yet her resistance and the frustrated anger she displayed only made them more convinced that she needed to be placed in seclusion.
By the time they got to the door of the isolation room, Constance’s knees were bleeding. When she continued to fight going inside, they called for a nurse and two more psych technicians to help them. Constance saw the long, sharp needle in the nurse’s hand and began to flail her body wildly in an effort to stop them from drugging her. She was no match, however, for the four strong men. They pinned her shoulders and legs down on the bed, pressing hard against her small frame to hold her steady. It did not take long after the injection for her to become unconscious. They placed her in the straitjacket just in case she continued to be belligerent when the sedative wore off.
Constance tried to calm herself down by breathing as deeply as she could. This had always helped her when she was anxious. She felt like a prisoner, mistakenly accused and placed in solitary confinement for punishment. There were no windows in the little room, which was about 10 feet long by 7 feet wide. The bed, no bigger than a normal size twin, was only inches above the tile floor. There was nothing hanging on the white walls.
She started to choke from the tears and then anger began to flare up in her again as Constance recalled the string of events that had led up to this moment. Ironically, she was close to being discharged from the hospital. She was in a progress status meeting with the psychiatrist, the unit social worker, the head nurse, and the lead psych technician, James. The meeting was going as well as could be expected until the end when the psychiatrist said something that triggered Constance’s “fight or flight” response to come to the surface. “We’re going to do our best to keep you out of a hospital,” he told her without emotion. Immediately, she felt the need to defend herself. She had always despised being seen as mentally ill.
“Is that your only goal for me, Doctor?” Constance exclaimed, tears filling her eyes, “You psychiatrists are all the same! You just want to get the patients functioning at a minimal level so you can free up a hospital bed!”
James interrupted Constance, standing as he spoke, “Miss Walker, please calm down.”
“This is my progress status meeting. Why can’t I tell the doctor that I want him to have a bigger vision for me? That I’m more than some diagnosis out of a medical textbook!” Constance cried out, raising her voice.
The head nurse spoke next, also standing, “Miss Walker, you’re starting to exhibit manic symptoms again.”
“I’m not manic! I just want to be seen as a person with potential – not a mental patient!” she yelled with frustration.
“Miss Walker, I’m asking you again,” James warned, stepping closer to Constance, “Please calm down or I will have to remove you from the room.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong! I don’t even belong in this hospital! I’m sad, not sick! My father died! I should be sad! No one has ever allowed me to be sad!”
Constance closed her eyes not wanting to visualize again the rest of what happened. She wondered how long it would take to get out of the hospital now. She had hoped to return in the fall to the University of Pennsylvania where she would continue as a junior studying pre-med. Constance had always dreamed of being a doctor. Despite her struggle with depression and her previous hospitalizations, she was determined to reach that goal. Until now.
Constance had never felt lower in her life and began to question if her dream was possible. “Perhaps I have been fooling myself all this time,” she thought, “Maybe I couldn’t handle the stress of medical school. I used to think I could accomplish anything I wanted to but that was before…before Papa died. Oh, Papa! I wish you were still alive! I miss you so much! You always believed in me. You always told me I would be the greatest doctor to ever graduate from medical school. But I can’t do it! I’m so sorry, Papa! Please forgive me for letting you down.”
Just then, she heard a familiar voice in the darkness, “Okay if I turn on the light, Miss Constellation?” It was the nurse, Linda, coming to check on her. She had nicknamed Constance, “Miss Constellation,” to remind her to reach high with her life goals.
“Sure. But it’s not a pretty sight in here.”
Linda just smiled and softly replied, “What I see is lovely, Miss Constellation. You are a beautiful shining star.”
Constance fought back the tears, unable to receive Linda’s encouragement. She looked away, feeling shame and embarrassment. Linda began to loosen the straps on Constance’s feet and to undo the multiple metal clasps that held her bound in the straitjacket. She gave Constance a towel and soap to wash her tear-stained face and slippers to keep her bare feet from touching the cold tile floor. When she returned from the bathroom, Linda began to clean the abrasions on her knees and quietly asked, “Mind if I tell you a little story?”
“Sure, Linda. If you want to,” Constance said, sighing deeply.
“It’s a story about an acorn whose name was Charles. He lived on his father’s branch in the wood forest and loved his father more than anything. When he was little, his father told him that one day he would become a mighty oak tree. He warned Charles that the sun would get very hot, that there would be rain and the wind would come to see how strong he was. But he encouraged Charles to always remember that in the dark times he would grow and that no matter what, his father would always love him. Well, a tornado came one day and ripped Charles off his father’s branch, carrying him far away to another forest. When he woke up the next morning, there was a squirrel standing over him digging a hole. The squirrel dropped Charles into it and buried him alive! He sat in that darkness for a long time. Charles was ready to give up completely.
But then he remembered his father’s words! That he would grow when it got dark and that he was destined to become a mighty oak tree. Charles decided to believe the words of his father, receiving strength from realizing that he had never been separated from his Papa’s love. Truly, it had always been a part of him. Being a seed underground you can guess what happened, right? His shell broke open and he came up out of that darkness under the ground into the sunlight! Eventually, he did become a mighty oak tree, just like his father said he would.” Linda ended her story and gave Constance, who was now smiling, a big, long hug. Then she went to go get her some breakfast.
It was about six years later, on a bright morning in May that Constance woke up, excited to get out of bed. It was her graduation day from the Georgetown University School of Medicine. She paused for a moment, thinking with anticipation of her psychiatry residency at Medstar Hospital which would be starting soon. “Papa, I did it!” she shouted, laughing joyfully. “You always knew that I could!”