Need a Light?
Depression, like the grief that fuels it, is about waiting. So are psych wards. Waiting to be evaluated. Waiting to be admitted. Waiting for a bed. Waiting for meds. Waiting for meds to kick in. Waiting for a shower. Waiting for meals. Waiting for visiting hours to begin and to end. Waiting for the smoke room to open and to close.
The smoking room was just off the dining room. A wall of windows so smokers were never out of sight from the staff. The door was kept tightly locked except for the designated times. Smoking was permitted the last twenty minutes of every hour from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm. The attendant, after unlocking the door, lit the cigarette of the first person to enter. Everyone else had to bum a light, and sometimes a smoke from a fellow patient.
At 18, I was just a baby; a few months younger I would have been admitted to the adolescent unit. I wasn’t only the youngest patient on the floor at the time, I was also the only rookie. I didn’t know the rules. Like you could bring a portable CD player, but not CDs because they were sharp and could be used to harm yourself or others. Or that I should have brought sandals because they take the laces from your shoes. Or that the wooden stool in the corner of the smoke room wasn’t meant to be sat on.
When I walked into the smoke room for the first time just before lights out, I headed to the wooden stool in the corner because it was the farthest away from others. I was scared of everything and everyone, and just wanted to finally inhale a Marlboro again.
A commanding yet calming voice from the opposite corner spoke, “No one sits on Jesse’s stool.”
I looked over to see a middle-aged woman wearing a long white nightgown and brown sandals with thick gray socks. Her hair was slicked back into a ponytail that hung past her waist.
“Need a light?” she asked in a way that sounded like an invitation.
I nodded my head affirmatively and walked toward her. When I got to her I wasn’t sure how this worked. My face must have shown my confusion.
“Lean in,” she instructed like a patient teacher, “put your cigarette in your mouth and puff it against mine.”
It took a few awkward tries but it worked. I took a seat two chairs over from her. The room was quickly filling up with smokers and with those who came in just for the company and conversation. I kept looking to the wooden stool in the corner wondering why every other seat in the room was a cushioned chair except that one. And who is Jesse? My internal wonderings were interrupted by loud burps, screaming, cussing, swearing, people talking about being discharged, why they liked or disliked their doctor, and arguing and bantering back and forth with themselves and with each other. A young man started crying hysterically. Another man threated him if he didn’t shut up. The noise level rising. My anxiety increasing with every drag along with the tension. And then the woman who gave me a light stood up on her chair and putting two fingers in her mouth let out a whistle like I’d never heard before. Immediately the room went silent and everyone looked in her direction.
“Peace!” she proclaimed, pressing her pointer finger against her dry, cracked, nicotine stained lips, “Everyone be still.” And just like that the room did go still. People calmed down. The young man stopped crying. Who is this woman and how did she calm the storm that was brewing?
The next morning as breakfast trays were distributed I learned her name was Johnnie. I also learned she was a bit of a regular on the 7th floor and had been for years, especially around the holidays. I was admitted on the 21st, the longest, most obscure night of the year. The lack of light had been slowly killing me. Not wanting to spend another Christmas alone or work another day in a shoe store, with my boss coaching me on how to get customers to buy extra laces, I made a dangerous decision.
The smoke room’s windows were mostly internal, showing that view of the dining room. But there was that one small window in the corner with extra thick unbreakable glass facing the outside world. When I looked out while puffing away on my Marlboros I saw the life I so desperately wanted to leave behind. The losses. The failures. The heartaches. The mistakes. The shame. The bell tower of the church where I was baptized as a baby and where I went on Christmas Eve for candle light services with my grandparents. What normally brought deep grief now stirred just a flicker of hope inside me.
Movies depict psych wards as more exciting than they actually are. Due to the holidays, staffing was low. Therapy, programs, and classes were on hold. Craft time was eliminated from the budget. The only art supplies were those donated, meaning cheap crayons that smelled like old vegetables and coloring books that were already colored. Recreation time consisted of an exhilarating round of chair volleyball. By my second full day, half the patients had been discharged to be home for Christmas. Those of us left had nowhere to go, or had families that didn’t want us home until the New Year. Or were court ordered to stay.
I passed the time by sleeping, which wasn’t hard to do with all the meds in my system. I came out for meals and smoking. Christmas Eve morning it started snowing and as the white blanket covered the ground below, tears and memories covered my entire existence. I took those pills to avoid being alone with my grief any longer, and now here I was alone in a psych ward for Christmas. Wearing tennis shoes with no laces. Envious of people with ugly brown sandals. Loneliness and despair in such a confined space is a different type of wilderness.
I skipped dinner. A little while later, I noticed a figure in my door way. It was Johnnie. “I’m not allowed to come in, but I thought you might need some good news.”
“Good news?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, someone else is coming and you might want to meet them. Because it’s Christmas Eve and there’s a just a few of us left, the smoke room is gonna be open until lights out.”
I slipped on my lace-less shoes and shuffled down the hall. The attendant on duty had brought his stereo. Christmas music filled the air along with the thick layer of smoke. The wooden stool, right under the only outside window, still empty. A few carols and several cigarettes in, I inquired about the stool.
“Is Jesse still here?” I asked. “I haven’t met them yet.”
“Oh, Jesse is never here and is always here.” Johnnie began. “Jesse was one of the first to smoke in this room. They came and went from the 7th floor for years. That stool holds their memory and legacy, which is why no one can sit there. Jesse’s demons were our demons. Jesse’s hopes remain ours, too.”
In an indescribable way I suddenly didn’t feel so alone anymore. I felt connected to something bigger and deeper than myself, my own pain, or my own longings.
The smoke room went silent, while only for minutes it felt like generations had passed. The small group of us gathered turned off the overhead lights and walked over to the window. The world aglow with cigarette embers and fading street lights. I felt the same warmth I felt as a child standing between my grandparents on Christmas Eve, holding a lit candle, wax dripping on my fingertips, singing Silent Night at the end of the church service. Jesse’s stool like an altar, holding our prayers for peace, hope, love, and joy. Through a cloud of smoke, I was surrounded by my grandmother’s presence. The first time I hadn’t missed her since she died.
Overhead through the hospital intercom system music chimed into the smoke room, the lullaby they played whenever a baby is born. In her angelic, untuned voice, Johnnie sang like a professional cantor, “Blessed be the One who does wonderous things.”
I never got a chance to ask Johnnie about who she said was coming to the smoke room. Sometimes I wonder if it was Jesse? Or my grandmother? Or maybe she somehow knew in advance about the baby? Either way, I had been waiting for all three.
I came to the hospital waiting to die.
I left waiting to live.
I’ve spent every Christmas since waiting to experience love like I did that night.
Rebecca Wilson, while now a resident of Florida, is a proud Michigander with roots in Flint and a heart still in Detroit. She is a poet and storyteller whose writings weave together her life experiences with scripture and spirituality, justice and wholeness. Rebecca founded 10 Camels, where her gifts for writing, teaching, preaching, and speaking are turning words into water for a thirsty world. When she’s not working or writing, she can be found wandering on a beach or near a river with her rescue pup Ruby.