And that was our introduction, because in a psych ward, friendships are reverse-engineered; you start with the deep stuff and get to the shallow stuff later.
Anita worked in finance. I was in graduate school for poetry. Our first day together, we shared a blanket on the couch in the common room, called ourselves feral shelter cats (“It’s a metaphor,” we assured the nurses), applied mental health criteria to saints and celebrities, and laughed until we forgot why we were laughing.
“Did you two come in together?” a patient asked.
“We just met,” I said.
The patient turned up the television to drown out our laughter.
Anita said, “I asked them if they put us together because I’m supposed to learn from you.”
I laughed harder. “What did they say?”
More than four years later, Anita and I are still friends. And at the risk of sounding sentimental, she has learned from me, and I from her. When it feels as if entire universes exist between the real world and me, I call Anita, because I know she has felt that way, too. But at the hospital, the staff discouraged us from getting too close.
“No touching!” the nurse scolded after seeing Anita lean her shoulder against mine. Anita had thought it would relax me, and it did until the nurse yelled. Another nurse discouraged patients from sharing phone numbers and email addresses.
“It’s not like anyone stays in touch anyway,” another patient said. For a year, this patient had worked on the ward. Now she was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy.
“Anita and I will keep in touch,” I said.
“No, you won’t,” the staffer-turned-patient said. “No one ever does.”
I almost believed her. This was my sixth hospitalization, and I hadn’t yet sustained a friendship with a former patient. Several times I had tried. The first week would start strong, but then the chemistry would fizzle just as my brain chemistry seemed to fizzle.
Medicated, I missed mania. I idealized mania, focusing only on its good qualities: self-confidence, unbridled enthusiasm, quick thinking. Medicated, I felt dull. I would only disappoint. But this friendship felt too important to lose.
I warned Anita of the potential setbacks: “Even when we forget words or feel groggy and boring, we still have to talk.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We will.”
A week later, the doctors released her from the hospital. It felt like a breakup that neither person wanted.