CW: trauma, suicide, self-harm, brief mentions of drug use, and domestic abuse
ABANDON HOPE! | Nonfiction
a shaky chuckle colors your voice. your eyes sweep over the six-or-so strangers seated around you, then sink to the sheet of paper in your hands. you clear your throat and straighten the page; it rattles like a snake.
“i don’t know if i did this right, um… well, for emotions, i’ve got an eight for sadness. six for fear. five for shame, two for anger, one for joy. and then, no unsafe behavior or using, except for my prescriptions, which — i don’t think those count. i haven’t learned any coping skills here just yet, so that’s blank for now.”
“Very good, Sarah.” mark is a guy in his forties who looks like he’d be better off teaching yoga. wiry limbs, leathery skin. even now, the name makes you cringe, but you offer him a little smile, feeling like a kindergartner who’s answered correctly. “But —”
and just like that, the smile falls away.
“You skipped over your urges.”
“…do i have to share that…?”
“That’s the protocol, yes.”
deep breath, now.
you peek down at the columns on the left-hand side of the paper.
“drugs, zero. suicide, s-six. self-harm, two.”
nobody else has given a number higher than three.
“A six for suicide?” mark leans forward. “Do you have a plan?”
you close your eyes and call up the woods off hopkins, a half hour’s walk away from your house. you find your favorite spruce tree and arrange yourself at its foot: slumped and crumpled, a few hours shy of twenty years old. empty orange bottles scatter beside you, by way of explanation. the bugs are out in full force tonight — spirits of summer, singing you to sleep.
“Okay. Something to talk about when we meet for your eval. Thank you.” he sits back. his voice has a way of meandering into plateaus, the way yours might if you were reeling off items in a list that ended with the word whatever. “I get that it can be uncomfortable to share, but we have to tell on ourselves, you know. That’s the whole point of these check-ins, the whole point of this program. Now…”
slowly, the white walls and fluorescent lights of the hospital settle back into place around you. you pull your feet onto your chair and hug your legs to your chest. if you really listen, you can still hear the cicadas.
“uh.” your throat goes dry. you glance around the office and rub your left arm through the flannel. “i — okay? okay…”
you unbutton your sleeve and roll it up as far as it’ll go. your heart tightens, fist-like.
that day, you were rummaging through the totes that held your extra supplies, trying to find something. a sock, maybe. instead, you unearthed a pair of scissors, buried deep beneath layers of unworn clothes.
your roommate had hidden everything else with a blade, but he didn’t know about these.
they were fitted for a grade schooler, with purple rubber around the handles. you didn’t think they would be sharp enough. leave it to you to test that theory. you remember watching the cuts redden in the mirror, fuckfuckfuck burning hot in your mouth.
the scars stare back at you. five pale tally marks in the skin of your upper arm.
“i have some on my back, too. by my shoulders.”
“I see,” mark murmurs.
you yank the sleeve back down.
“it’s as if… the world is a minefield,” you tell him — halting, faltering, struggling to pick your way along a rocky slope. “i can’t go five minutes without running into something that reminds me of…”
yesterday, your mom offered gnocchi for dinner and it felt as though she’d slapped you. you can’t look at a car that’s too blue without getting squirrelly and peering around for the plates, just to make sure they’re not from wisconsin. play any one of twelve or so songs — yacht, stepdad, lemon demon, even shit you used to love — and you’ll start sobbing as if on command.
“You’re lying to yourself,” mark says suddenly.
he leans closer and steeples his fingers; you counter the motion, scooting deeper into your chair, toeing it a couple inches further away.
“There’s no minefield. You’re not going to step into one of your triggers and lose a leg. It isn’t actually that dangerous, you understand?”
“i-it was just a metaphor. i’m a poet, i do that. it helps me convey what it’s like.”
“But it’s also a narrative, see? A story you tell yourself — and it’s only making things worse for you.” he sounds desperately near to boredom. “We call those schemas, or life traps.”
something inside you wilts and smolders. your attention wanders over to the books on mark’s desk; the one on top is titled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… And It’s All Small Stuff. sticky notes on his bulletin board read LET THOUGHTS BE THOUGHTS and IT’S OKAY NOT TO BE OKAY.
“I’d like to give you a questionnaire later this week, Sarah. Schema therapy may do you a lot of good. In the meantime, I want you to meditate for eight to ten minutes every day. Sit up straight, focus on your breath, and try to be an observer to your thoughts, rather than a participant. Can you do that for me?”
you nod, still avoiding eye contact. your chair swivels gently from side to side.
your ribs are too small for your lungs. breathing hurts if you do it too deeply. and even if it didn’t, leaving you alone with yourself is bound to take you places you’d rather not go.
you’d like to tell him as much, but you don’t.
mark raps his knuckles on the wall behind him.
ABANDON HOPE!, the whiteboard declares.
you and your groupmates exchange uncertain looks.
“So, hope. Why abandon it?” his half-lidded eyes sweep across the room. “Because hope is an illusion — a form of helplessness. It’s an excuse to wish our lives were different, instead of being okay with the here and now.”
he turns and scrawls along the board with a black expo marker, adding words and arrows to the central phrase. his patent leather shoes squeal against the tile with every movement. you grit your teeth, reach into your bag, and fish out a wad of magnetic putty.
“Mind you, the popular concepts of happiness and suffering are illusions, too. Yet, we live in servitude to these imaginary ideas, and that’s where we get stuck. If all we do is work towards an unattainable goalpost, then where does it end?”
the putty stretches and squashes between your fingers. it smells like the lithium they’ve got you swallowing. the woman beside you points at it, a question unspoken in her expression; you nod and tear off a piece for her to fidget with.
“It ends with gratitude and acceptance. Life is change; life is loss; everything dies, and nothing stays the same. You may be in pain right now, but you’ll be in pain for the rest of your lives, too, won’t you? Get used to it. Learn to be okay with it.”
the sermon-lecture-speech drones on in your ears. you try to cling to the sour scent of the putty — the feel of it molding to the warmth of your hands — but you find yourself drifting. back to the woods. wouldn’t it be nice if it were raining? a warm drizzle slips through the canopy, thinning the vomit that drips from your mouth. the forest sighs and drinks it in.
you fucked up real bad, kid. everyone leaves, you know. maybe it’s time you left, too.
when you think the word okay, it’s in mark’s voice.
“Any questions? I’d like to go around and hear what everyone is thinking.”
you come up for air, blinking reality back from the reverie.
he starts with the woman at the other end of the semicircle. she’s a widow around seventy who reminds you of a weeping willow. sometimes she stands and props herself up against the wall; it’s easier on her back.
“I never looked at it that way,” she says. the words crinkle halfheartedly in her throat. “Something to think about, I guess.”
mark moves on to the next patient. she was hospitalized after her latest suicide attempt. the psych ward wouldn’t let her leave until she agreed to electroshock therapy, and she’s had trouble remembering things ever since. a counselor called her out for using her phone, so now she takes notes by hand.
she nods silently down at her lap, pressing the heel of her hand to her temple.
next is a middle-aged dad with a kind face and a beer belly. every day at check-in and check-out, he speaks of his daily walks with his dog as if they were a holy sacrament. opiates took him into a coma that nearly killed him. he lost his home, his wife, his kids; soon he’ll lose his father, too. you keep meaning to ask his dog’s name.
“I almost get it,” he begins, squinting at the whiteboard, “but there’s one thing that gets me. How are we supposed to find stuff to be grateful for? I mean… look at us. We’ve all got a reason to be here.”
“Are you grateful for this program?” mark asks smoothly.
“I think so. Yeah.”
“Then shouldn’t you be grateful for the things that brought you here? Your anxiety, your depression — you wouldn’t be here without them. It’s all connected, isn’t it?”
the girl who sits next to him has slipped out of the room, so mark turns to your neighbor. she gives you back the lump of putty, and you thank her with a smile.
she’s a black woman in her thirties or forties — the only person of color in the group. it’s her second day and you haven’t been able to speak to her much, but at lunch, she mentioned that she takes klonopin in the morning to stave off her panic attacks, and her pills are almost gone. she wasn’t here yesterday. the math is disconcerting: if she’s absent again, she’ll be kicked out.
“I can’t be grateful for what was done to me,” she says, her voice quavering.
“Ask yourself if that’s serving you,” mark persists. “Sometimes, thankfulness and forgiveness are the keys to healing.”
“I will never be able to say that I am grateful for my husband’s abuse. Never. I’m… I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
she stands and hurries out the door.
mark looks to you, and you glare back — eyes narrowed, nostrils flared.
that fucking name.
“with all due respect, mark.” you want to spit dragonfire, but you temper it. what comes out is ice. “different philosophies work for different people, and this one is too nihilistic for me. hope is what keeps me going. it pushes me to be better.”
“You like to fight,” he notes.
“hell, yeah, i like to fight.”
“And how is that working out for you?”
“it’s the reason i’m still alive.”
he pauses and picks his chin up an inch. you hear him huff under his breath, and you think of the way your cat does that when she’s trying to hide a clumsy mistake.
tonight, you’ll take a good, long look at the spotify mix you’ve been working on (songs to die to) before shaking your head and deleting it.
when you graduate from the program in a couple weeks’ time, your groupmates will take turns hugging you goodbye. one will press a handwritten card into your hand.
you will turn twenty on the living room couch, peering up at the skylight. it won’t be raining, but there will be cicadas.
s/e wasik is an emerging writer who loves free-verse and wild things. Currently, s/e is living in Vermont as a hungry vulture and a student of Champlain College, where they expect to have earned a Bachelor’s in Professional Writing by 2020. Their work has appeared in Tilde and LEVITATE.