“I was wondering when you’d ask,” Margaret’s shrink replied.

Margaret sat across from her, squinting against the light. The office had a window that looked out on the Public Gardens, and Margaret always had to blink more that usual at these appointments. An optometrist had told her it might be a tic, but Margaret knew she blinked so she didn’t have to see the truth about the world, and it couldn’t see her. Dr. Forsythe smiled, and looked her in the eye.

“Are you sure?”

Exhausted, Margaret nodded. Why not?

"...Margaret knew she blinked so she didn’t have to see the truth about the world, and it couldn’t see her."

Margaret had asked for a med reduction. Not that she really wanted it- she was feeling quite… what was the word? Tentative. Not fragile exactly, but nearly. Her job was getting to her. It wasn’t that the job was bad. In fact it was the best job she’d ever had. But she’d felt chained to her desk from the beginning, and totally drained. When she closed her eyes, all she saw was the computer wedged into the point of her corner cubicle, as though she were typing in the prow of a ship, sailing into a dead end.

Margaret wanted to change her life, so instead of quitting her job, she asked for the med reduction.

“I was wondering when you’d ask,” Dr. Forsythe said.

Margaret looked up at her, surprised. Dr. Forsythe had a kind voice and a soft way about her. She looked pleased.  Margaret didn’t want to disappoint her.

At first Margaret didn’t notice that much had changed. It was only that she felt a bit unhappier than she had, but she chalked it up to the fact that with a decrease in medication, she was bound to experience emotions more truly. The meds had made her mind smooth and pea-soupy.  

It was harder to cope at work. The grey walls separating her from Pauline and Laura closed in on her, muffling everything. Margaret felt her spirit dwindling in their shadow. When Laura poked her head around the wall to say a reassuring “hi”, it was almost worse than if she’d just ignored her.  Margaret blinked so much that it was like watching her life on an old movie projector.

Next week, Margaret figured, she would have to quit her job.  She thought about it as she walked to her friend Alice’s house, through the tree-lined, north end neighbourhood. It was a gorgeous summer evening and there was something going on in the sports field a few blocks away. She heard the children squealing and a loudspeaker blasting unfamiliar music, into the deepening sky.

Alice was dying. When Margaret let herself in, there were people everywhere, stroking Alice’s feet and hands, hanging out in the kitchen. Alice’s eyes were open and her breath rattled through her. Every so often someone would close Alice’s eyelids and open them again, so that her eyes would not become dry.

Margaret felt a gush of tears, just as everyone else had, the first time they saw Alice this way. Margaret sat beside the head of the hospital bed and took Alice’s hand and started rambling. “

Do you remember you gave me that filing cabinet? It’s the heaviest thing I own,” Margaret said. “The first time  we had brunch with Cassie, you made scallops. I think that’s the first time Cassie had scallops.”

Margaret reminded Alice of the photos she took of her, in Needham Park, sitting on a low-hanging branch of an old tree. Alice was an amazing photographer.  It occurred to Margaret that she would like to take a photo of Alice, now that she was disappearing from this life - but she knew it would never do.

Margaret told Alice not to worry about her children. They were smart and strong, she said. They will be fine. You can let go, Alice, when you’re ready.

When darkness came, fireworks punctuated the night sky over the sports field.  Margaret gave Alice’s hand a final tug and set off down the street to the bus stop. When she got there, she sat on the curb because there was no bench, and held her head in her hands.

Alice died that night.

Margaret couldn’t stop thinking about her. They had never been as close as Cassie and Alice were, but Margaret loved her nonetheless. She, Cassie and Alice had called themselves the three wise women, and in their wisdom, when Alice was unemployed, they ate enormous brunches at each other’s home to keep their spirits up. That was a long time ago. Alice had found a job, then the lung cancer was discovered last year, and there were no more brunches. Instead there were chemo dates.

On Monday, Margaret quit her job with two weeks notice. She wasn’t sure how she would get through the next few days. On Tuesday she called Dora in HR and cried, saying she couldn’t come in. Dora listened, but Margaret couldn’t tell if she was sympathetic or not. So Margaret went to work, and the blinking was bad but the worst thing was how everyone looked at her, with what she thought was pity and amazement.  There was bottomless grey inside her, and her mind was dark and steep. Slippery and black, like a coal face.

It was no good. Margaret couldn’t think her way out of this. Head bent over her keyboard, eyes closed. Her boss was whispering urgently to Laura, neither of them looking up at her when she said goodbye. She took a bus to the cooperative where her friend Mina worked. She was going there because there was nowhere else she could go. Mina offered to take Margaret to the hospital. Margaret didn’t want to go, but Mina pushed and Margaret didn’t push back. What difference did it make? Margaret felt the same way she had felt with her doctor when they discussed the med reduction. Weak.   

Margaret didn’t hate the hospital like some people did. She’d been a patient there a few times before, and had always had good care.  It was where she took herself when she felt there were no other options, when her illness had backed her into a corner and there was no escape.

What she minded was that it was a kind of failure that brought her there. A failure to trust her gut, a failure to cope, a failure to bring her own mind under control. Margaret still looked at it that way, despite all her shrink’s work to make her think differently. 

As she sat on her bed in her room on the short stay unit, Margaret prayed. She asked ferverently that God would make her well. The illness made her brittle, inflexible, and sharpened the world to a terrible point. Her mind was a trap that she had fallen into, like an animal into a pit covered with brush.

She didn’t think she would improve, and that was the worst of it. Despite all the praying she didn’t think she could find her way out. She cut her neck and wrists with a piece of glass she broke from a jar, but was too afraid of pain to push deep enough for it to be lethal. Something in her told her to cut out her right eye, to show God that she was serious, but her courage didn’t stretch that far.

The nurses cleaned her up. No one said an unkind word to her, although clearly she was a coward.  She remembered the way Alice died, at home with the people she loved around her, her eyes open.

Margaret spent three weeks on short stay. At the end she was wobbly and pale, but in the doctor’s eyes, better than when she entered hospital. Margaret felt no hope but she was glad to leave.  At home she was distressed and demoralized but eventually, patient. She remembered being here before, in this space. Somehow, despite everything she felt and thought, she held on to the notion that her mind would mend itself, the way the cuts to her neck had
healed. There would be scars, but they wouldn’t hurt anymore.

"Somehow she healed and somehow she forgot how hard it had been, the way the body forgets its pain."

Margaret went for walks and took baths. She knitted and prayed. It took all her courage to go shopping at the Farmer’s Market, to meet with friends. She blinked her way through it all, and somehow, things got better.  Somehow she healed and somehow she forgot how hard it had been, the way the body forgets its pain.

Maybe her shrink was right. “The brain gets sick,” said Dr. Forsythe at her first appointment after getting out of the hospital “The brain heals itself. With a little help from some very good drugs. You don’t have to blame yourself. ”

Margaret closed her eyes. Dr. Forsythe planted her feet, in her serious shoes, and leaned forward.

“And you don’t have to blame me.” Margaret’s eyes popped open.

“I don’t,” she lied.

Dr. Forsythe smiled.

“Where there’s blame,” she said, “there’s usually enough to go around. And I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry that you ended up back in the hospital, that you had to go through that.”

Dr. Forsythe looked sad, and tired. “I really am.”

Months later, Margaret stood on the snowy dock at the waterfront, watching the seagulls circle an updraft.  The sun grazed her forehead and she put her hand up to shade her eyes.  Pulling a camera from her pocket she snapped a shot of a gull overhead, its wings buoyed by winds she could not see.

The gull was dark against the sun, which surrounded it like a halo.  It’s wings tipped slightly, off balance, but it soon righted itself, like a tightrope walker. Alice, Margaret thought. Thanks for letting me take your picture. The gull cried and wheeled away, into the vast blue field of air.  

 About Anna Quon

Anna is an accomplished freelance/creative writer and writing workshop facilitator. She lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  She is passionate about many things, especially writing. It is through her writing, and her volunteer work with community organizations, that Anna honours the lives of people who, like her, are living with mental illness.

 In 2008, Anna received the Inspiring Lives Award from the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. In 2009, Anna published her first novle titled Migration Songs which was shortlisted for the Dartmouth Book Award.

Visit Anna's web site: www.neeto.ca/wordsthatwork/