In the Key of Be
By Lena Hubin
Publisher: Chatnoir Press
Publication Date: April 2, 2018
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Lena Hubin is a straight-A college senior when she lands in a psych ward. After her release, psychotherapy, illicit drugs, and sex distract her from her chronic anxiety--but none yields lasting relief. Despite teaching abroad, marrying, earning a masters and adopting two children, she remains haunted by anxiety. In her fifties, Lena returns with her family to the U.S., anticipating peace of mind. But when her son struggles with alcoholism, she feels her sanity swirling down the drain like the liquor she would dump--if she could find it. In a quest to help him, the author starts a journey that will change her life for good.
The Loony Bin
“…I saw the words just crawl up off the page like they were alive!”
I sat in Dr. Rubin’s small office on the fourth floor of Luther Hospital, reliving for him the incident in my apartment two nights earlier, when I hadn’t been able to wrestle meaning from a sociology text paragraph. The little black words had rebelled, marching into the air like a trail of ants. I shuddered. “I’ve just started the school year, and I think I’m going insane!”
“What else happened?” the doctor asked.
“What do you mean, ‘what else’? Isn’t that enough? I saw the words parade off the page in front of me. I’m seeing things. There’s something wrong with my mind!”
This hospital psychiatrist was my last hope. Back in school, I’d begun sinking like a leaky rowboat. No one could bale me out of my sudden madness: not my old boyfriend Andy; not John, the campus minister with UCM; not Dr. White, the college shrink. I’d panicked.
But Dr. Rubin wasn’t helping. He sat like a bent scarecrow, studying the papers scattered over his desk. “Your admittance info mentions another incident.” His small eyes squinted at me through wire-rimmed glasses.
“Well, if it’s there, why do I have to tell it again? I’ve already explained all this to two people here.”
“I’d like you to describe it for me personally, if you don’t mind.” The doc opened a desk drawer and took out a pipe.
His equanimity set me on edge. “Please, can’t you just read it in the report?”
His bony old hand shook as he struck a match and lit the pipe. “Tell me what else happened, Eileen.” He leaned back with a lop-sided smile and puffed. “Take your time.”
“Too much time’s already been taken! You must have the results of all those tests I took. What else do you need?” I’d waded through the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Thematic Apperception Test, some muddy Rorschachs where I saw Jesus throwing stones. Shouldn’t this top-of-the-line shrink know what to do with me by now? I was frantic.
But I was trapped, nowhere to turn. As smoke from his pipe swirled, I droned out the rest: “Yesterday at the end of conducting lab, Dr. Byrne put on a record of this Mozart music and made us stand and direct it. The jumpy beat scared me. I wanted to cover my ears and run away.” My voice quavered. “And the others were taking it so damn seriously, everybody holding up the stupid little sticks in their hands like puppets, and I felt so out of it, I could hardly hold the stick up. It scared me.”
“And then?” The doddering doctor’s head leaned back, his lips pursed around the pipe stem.
“Dr Byrne came up behind me and took hold of my elbow and said, ‘It’s simple 4/4 time,’ like I was some idiot, and he started pushing my arm back and forth….” Anxiety rose in my stomach. “Him touching my arm like that, it made me feel nauseous, like I was gonna pass out. I sat back and hung my head down so I wouldn’t faint.”
More puffs on the pipe. “And you didn’t faint.”
“No…, the bell rang, and I went out to the hallway and found Andy—that’s my old boyfriend. He felt my forehead and said, ‘You’re prob’ly coming down with something.’ Then he just picked up his French horn and went into his practice room.”
“But you continued to feel anxious.” His eyes followed the smoke drifting upward. I was sick of his pipe, of the smell. I was also dying for a cigarette, but having been told smoking was only allowed in the day room, I’d left my pack in my room.
“I couldn’t stand it any more. I knew something was wrong. I rushed over to see John, that’s the UCM minister, and told him what was happening to my mind. And about Roger, this strange guy I spent the summer with—then he asked me if Roger could’ve slipped me a drug, but I know he didn’t; we just drank beer. Then John got me an appointment with Dr. White, this campus shrink, and—”
“I know Dr. White. He’s a good psychologist.” Puff, puff on the pipe.
“Well, he didn’t help me. He just gave me tissues and told me to cry it out.”
“So you were frustrated.”
“And then he said maybe I was overtired. He told me to go home and sleep as long as I could, and I slept sixteen hours straight—but it didn’t help. Nothing helps!”
“But you went back to Dr. White….” Dr. Rubin peered at a paper in front of him, his pipe poised in a quaking hand.
“Yeah, yesterday afternoon. There was nothing else to do! He said if I felt that bad, I could come here. So I went home and packed my suitcase and took a taxi, and here I am.” I drew in a sharp breath. “I committed myself!” I sagged into the back of my chair.
“And here you are.” His voice was dead-calm. “How do you feel right now?”
“I’m just sick of all this. I want it to go away!” I wrestled back tears.
“What are you sick of, exactly? What do you want to go away?” He still sucked at the pipe.
I sat up straight and leveled it at him: “All those other people out there, normal people, I feel like they’re in a different world, and I’m set apart—I can’t connect. It’s like I’m trapped in some kind of bubble, looking at everything from the inside out, stuck in here like one of those paperweight bugs in acrylic. Nothing outside makes sense!” I leaned back, and my voice pitch rose with a finale: “I had a 3.94 grade point last semester, for Godsake, and now I can’t even read! I can’t play piano. I can’t do anything! I’m just floating inside this damned, eerie bubble and I can’t get out!”
Tears stung my eyes. I began to sniffle; then I was gasping out faltering breaths. I let my head fall into my arms on Dr. Rubin’s desk and dissolved into racking sobs.
When I felt the doctor’s light touch on the back of my shoulder, I stopped crying. “You will get through this, Eileen. It will take some time and effort, but we’ll help you, and you’ll get well.”
I could have been a little kid with her parent telling her the monsters weren’t real. The doctor’s pipe bowl rapped against the glass ashtray. I opened my bleary eyes to see him shaking where he stood, bent like a question mark, beside his desk. He smiled gently at me and beckoned with his pipe stem toward the open door.
Dr. Rubin lied. I’d been in the fourth-floor loony bin for over a week and was not getting better. In fact, I felt worse: anxious, bored, and useless, incapable of any normal thought or action. My mother came to visit. “We’re worried. We don’t really understand why you’re here.” I didn’t either; I couldn’t explain. I didn’t want to talk to her. Her teachers’ insurance was footing the bill, but I just wanted her to go away.
“Do you ever think of killing yourself?” Dr. Goldberg asked one day. He was the psychologist of my “team,” the team of him and Dr. Rubin.
“Why should I? I’m dead already.”
“You are clinically depressed,” he said. “Your test results are clear. And these are not unusual feelings for depression. Try to be patient. With some weeks of therapy and medication you’ll feel much better.”
“Some weeks! I can’t stand this for weeks. Send me to Mendota if you want. I might as well sit there in the state asylum in a rocking chair for the rest of my life.”
Dr. Goldberg jotted something on his clipboard. Then he smiled at me. “Let’s meet again in a couple of days, shall we? It must be almost time for dinner.”
Days on the fourth floor comprised a tedious litany. At 7 a.m. a breakfast cart rattled in, jarring me awake. I pulled myself up in bed and downed the orange juice, sloppy oatmeal, and limp toast. I pulled on clothes and sidled into the dayroom for a smoke, avoiding the eyes of a couple of loonies in there already playing cards. I trudged down the hall to a padded bench by the wall in a cavernous waiting area with a nurses’ station as the hub. I sat there fidgeting, hoping for a shrink to summon me for a session; meetings with the docs were haphazard, as far as I could tell. When I finally did get called I felt as if I’d won the lottery. I popped off the bench, salivating for the boredom displacement that was in store, an hour of attention focused on the hapless blob that was me.
Mostly I sat idle, staring at the dull green walls, at patients and nurses and doctors and orderlies who drifted through and chatted with folks for a spell and then moved on.
Back in my room at noon for lunch, alone by my request, I’d maw down whatever amorphous vegetables, starch, meat, and pudding or jello they served up, then dread the arrival of the prim, gray-haired lady at the door with her perky voice: “Coming to OT today?” Under doctors’ orders to take part in Occupational Therapy, I’d drag myself off my bed and trail her to a room with other patients at a long table, where I strung hundreds of beads, length after length, into necklaces no one would ever wear.
Group therapy met after OT, but I begged off. “I don’t want to talk with other crazy people,” I told Dr. Goldberg. “What’s the point? The problem’s in my head.” He didn’t make me go. Except to smoke, I avoided the dayroom, too, where the TV blared soap operas and people sat around playing gin rummy. Instead, I lay on my bed and stared at nothing for as long as I could stand it. Then I returned to the nurses’ station, and like a dog anticipating its master’s return, awaited a doctor’s call which rarely came.
In my room again at 5:00, I ate the entire crappy supper; feeding my face was something to do. Then I shuffled back to the waiting room.
The tedium-drenched days were as leaden as the skies outside my window, which threatened to drop their heavy load of winter any day. But after supper, as dusk fell into darkness, I perked up. In this best part of my day, I could revel in the anticipation of escape into hours of sweet, dead unconsciousness: sleep, my bosom buddy, the only prolonged relief from the anxious, aching dullness of my waking days.
One afternoon the orderlies herded squirmy patients across a road to a gaping public gymnasium, where they lined us up in teams on the slick wood floor. I stood where they planted me. A large rubber ball was suddenly in motion, people racing around me in pursuit. An orderly had barked out an explanation of the game—but I couldn’t concentrate enough to get it, and this filled me with terror. I kicked at the ball when it came near me—but I just wanted to vanish. A blur of patients scuffled past and shoved at me; sides changed up and an orderly snapped, “Eileen! Other side!” I winced, loped past where he was pointing, slunk down by a wall, and sat there in a shriveled heap until the game was over and I could shamble back to safety in the psych ward.
The next day when the nurse came in with my meds in the little white paper cup, I whined, “The afternoons are killing me. I just lie around waiting for dinner. It’s pointless. Can’t you give me something after lunch to let me sleep?”
Besides the Thorazine and whatever other pills they dished out to me three times a day, Dr. Rubin prescribed an afternoon sleeping pill. I sank into blissful nothingness, dead again, for a few more hours each day.
Lena Hubin has been writing since she was a young kid growing up on a small Wisconsin dairy farm. She has had essays and articles published in ISS Newslinks, The International Educator, Midwest Living, and The Sun. For four years she wrote quarterly book reviews for In Recovery Magazine. She has a masters degree in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno. Lena writes, plays piano, teaches, and works for social justice in Prescott, Arizona, where she lives with her husband, dog, and cat.
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