KR OnlineNonfictionTranslation

I Once Thought That Normalcy Would Come Like Rain or Wind and Charm Me into Submission

Translated from Hebrew by Oded Even Or

To Ido

The one year, four months and five days I spent, hospitalized, in the locked juvenile ward of a psychiatric hospital were a textual catastrophe.

• •

Sometimes I walk in the early hours of morning or late at night in the city, and a stranger nods at me or pauses, extends his hands for a hug, stops to chat. We exchange a few words. What have you been up to? What do you do now? Then we go on our separate ways. One night last summer, I was with a friend when I ran into someone on the corner of Har Sinai Alley and Allenby Street. We were on our way to one of the spots which, had I the power to go back in time, I would have told my sixteen-year-old self, who didn’t know when she’d kiss for the first time (wait another month or two, I’d have told her, and then add: make sure to forget all this) that she’d visit often, so often that she’d grow sick of it. (I didn’t go to the park where small groups of high-schoolers gathered at the beginning of the last decade to get drunk—actually, perhaps I wasn’t invited). In any case, once every week or two a not-altogether-familiar man on the corner of Allenby and Har Sinai smiles at me, and I smile back. We exchange (this will be, it was promised, the hour of grace) looks, and when he passes us by I tell my friend, I don’t know who that was, but I’m pretty sure we slept together. The sensation of vertigo in meeting a stranger in the city can be likened perhaps only to the sensation of vertigo I used to feel in Jerusalem some years before, when every once in a while I would run into a familiar face; it wasn’t attached to any specific memory, but I was hit with a strong certainty that we were once hospitalized together—even worse, that the stranger was a nurse, a psychologist, or a volunteer at the ward where I was once hospitalized.

• •

There was one girl who used to shout that an incessant voice in her head was ordering her to kill herself. Another said her father raped her (no one believed her). Behind the bars of the smoking balcony we one-upped each other: How much did you manage to suffer in your fifteen years? How much did you, in seventeen?

• •

I had documented the entire period: Notebooks upon notebooks and then computer files were filled with stories, thoughts, translations of poems, plays, letters (those I sent and those that I knew, even while writing them, that I would never send), parts of dreams (I walk alone in the woods . . . my sister is on fire), everything that happened to me and everything that I wanted to happen was documented in hundreds of pages, most of which I haven’t even glanced at since. What was also documented, of course, was my behavior, the behavior of all of us: at the end of every shift—three times a day—the nurses filled out detailed reports on our conduct. All those useless words! In a column titled “Why didn’t you just do what you were told?” published by the London Review of Books in 2015, Jenny Diski describes how, when she went in and out of psychiatric hospitals in her teens and twenties, she was told that she was “difficult.” “‘Difficult’,” she writes, “was how the lay population described what the psychiatrists called ‘disturbed’.” (“You have a deeply disturbed soul,” the chief resident in the ward said every time I begged him to let me go, and for years later I believed him). But the goodbye letters I left behind on the first Friday of August 2005 (to the chief resident, to my psychologist, to the art therapist, to one nurse I especially liked, to the group of boys and girls I would never see again) actually reveal a serenity that the thirty-one-year-old Maayan can only envy: based on them, it appears that after nearly a year and a half at the hospital, my nineteen-year-old self became accustomed to the house rules. After all, “it turned out that ‘doing what I was told’ was not so much following orders,” notes Diski, but rather, “it was some innate understanding of how the world was supposed to work and conforming to it.” I’m almost tempted to ignore now what I’ve learned about myself and about the world in the years since my release and declare that that girl has learned to accustom herself to the rules of the world as well, but I stop myself.

• •

This was not the first time I was committed—the summer before, between eleventh and twelfth grade, I spent rapidly gaining weight at the children and youth’s psych ward of a Jerusalem hospital, a ward I remember as not wholly unpleasant and where I resided for nearly four months in the company of moderately anorexic girls and prepubescent Haredi boys who went psychotic at their elite yeshivas—another kind of textual catastrophe—and it wasn’t the last. But when I was released, on the first Friday of August 2005, exactly three weeks before my nineteenth birthday, I turned my back on the chief resident, my psychologist, the art therapists, the nursing staff, the hospital “men” (the term for muscular hospital helpers who were called in whenever one of us became unruly and had to be restrained—if you keep it up we’ll call the men, stop this right now or we’ll call the men, were oft-repeated expressions in that ward), and also to a quite tight-knit gang of boys and girls, all between the ages of fourteen and twenty with whom I operated an array of love-hate relationships for nearly a year and a half. I vowed never to see any of them again.

• •

But for the first weeks in the hospital I was dazed by the awesomeness of my triumph: miserable as I was, my taste for adventure wasn’t dulled. A stint at a psychiatric hospital, to which the most complicated cases are sent, would suit my troubled soul, I believed at the time. However, reality required some effort in order to match my romantic imagination. The ward was filthy; molded plastic cups were used alternately for drinking and as ash trays; boys and girls fought on the balcony while others marched, stunned with medication, to and fro in the hall. Our only connection to the world was the pay phone, which we were allowed to use only at certain hours. Like any other heterotopy, ours too had rules, and they were enforced meticulously.

• •

The hospital was a place where emotions could be let out in their raw state without embarrassment. That was the most significant (in fact, the only) benefit of staying there. For the first time since early childhood I could weep aloud, and for the first two or three weeks, every time I wept I did so with loud abandon, a behavior that turned out to be far less pleasurable than I had imagined. One Friday morning my mother and my younger siblings came to visit, and though I can’t now remember why the visit wasn’t a successful one, I asked them to go and leave me in peace. Once they left, I fell on my bed and erupted in loud, desperate, and dramatic tears. In the hospital no one cared much when you cried like this.

• •

In a piece titled “Instructions on How to Cry” Cortázar explains the attributes of weeping that “doesn’t turn into a big commotion nor proves an affront to the smile with its parallel and dull similarity” (translated by Paul Blackburn, New Directions, 1999). The hospital, of course, was where one ended up after all the big commotions were over. One way or the other, my wails must have echoed through the hall. One boy stepped into my room and sat on the edge of my bed, gently resting his hand for a moment on my trembling shoulder, wanting to console me. I kept crying, and he asked if I wanted him to stay; no, I said, covering my face with my hair. I want to be alone now. When I recuperated and went out to the communal balcony again, I found him there smoking, and he smiled at me. I apologized (outside the hospital I was quite proud of my manners), and we talked. He said: “If we were on the outside I would have asked you out.” I said, “Yeah?” and he responded, “Yeah,” and I laughed, “Yeah?” and he laughed back, “Yeah,” and, to this day, that’s the only thing he ever said to me that I remember verbatim, even though I went straight to his place three weeks later on my first afternoon-long vacation from the hospital, and even though we had already found unsupervised corners in the hospital where we could kiss and hold each other’s hands without being scolded, and even though after he was released and I was released we moved in together and adopted two cats and planned to never leave each other’s side, and even though we broke up and even though we didn’t keep in touch and even though I visited his parents’ house again one recent summer ten years later to console them; the strange words of the beginning (“If we were on the outside, I would have asked you out”) are the only thing I have left of him.

• •

I broke the oath that I had made on the day of my release on that very same day because I had met my boyfriend in that ward, and immediately after unpacking my suitcase and the big bag with which I had left the hospital, I called him. He had been out for about a year and had been waiting for me. Later, I started college. At the end of that first year we moved in together. We took in a kitten, and then another one. I loved him with all my heart. I thought one day we’d have kids together (love, I thought, will certainly fill my future). I did get pregnant a few months later, but we were too young, and he went with me to the clinic and sat patiently in the waiting room until I woke up, and then he took me home. It was during finals. The night before the operation I rested his hand on my flat belly and asked, “What should we name it?” We laughed. A year later we broke up. I gathered my records and books from our apartment and moved to a different street. If so, another love will fill my future, I told myself.

• •

I once thought that normalcy would come like rain or wind and charm me into submission. I also thought that one thing would lead to another and then to another; a college degree to a marriage, to kids, to happiness, to a home, to achievements. I thought that as the years went by it would be possible to wipe out what was not completely normal before then. But the hour of grace has passed (of course) and will not return: if I could talk to the girl I was then, I would have certainly advised her to pick someplace else to spend the time between ages seventeen-and-a-half to nineteen. (I would have also used the opportunity to recommend a different academic course and perhaps reprimand her for her awful taste in men). I can imagine myself now whispering it very quietly in her ear, pulling away for a moment, then adding: never forget it.

• •

In order to leave the ward, a nurse unlocked the first door and then closed it, unlocked the second door, and shut that one, too. Even today, more than twelve years after my discharge, few of my belongings are as precious to me as my house keys.