Silence is Not an Option

By Madison Catrett

My eyes dart from the white walls to the white coat to the white man staring at me, waiting on a reply. Two nurses stand behind him, ready to tie the crazy girl to her bed if she makes the wrong move, if she says the wrong words.

He asks me again, “Madison, why are you here? We cannot help you if we don’t know what led you to this point.”

I am still. I am silent. But my mind races. I think of last night, the policeman handcuffing me and putting me in the back of his car. Of his futile attempts to comfort me: this is normal procedure. I think of the ER nurse who immediately took my hair tie and the strings in my gym shorts. I think of my peers who saw me taken out of our dorm on a gurney on the second Saturday morning of our first semester.

I remember my senior year, my father’s text: you are selfish and no one can love you; my mom yelling at me to take my stuff and leave. I remember age thirteen: the first time my step-dad hit me; ten of my mom’s pills in my hand. I remember year after year of lying on my bathroom floor, often with a knife in hand, cold metal pressed against my wrist.

My rapid memory spiral stops suddenly:

It’s night, and I walk through the city-streets alone. There’s this tug on my body, forcing my feet forward. I walk, and I walk, and I find myself in front of an abandoned warehouse. Inside, it’s dark, but light from streetlamps leaks through the broken windows. My eyes adjust, and I make out a silhouette on the other side of the room. As I come closer, I notice that the shadow is a body hanging from the vaulted ceilings. The body swings from left, to right, to left. Standing less than five feet away, I look up. It’s a girl around my age, eleven or so. At first, all I notice are the popped blood vessels around her eyes, her clenched fists, and the smell of feces. When I step closer, I see her scattered freckles, her cold blue eyes, the slope of her nose.

And I realize — she is me.

For a few weeks after the nightmare, I came close to telling my mother and sister about the dream, but the words always got trapped behind a smile and an I’m fine. I didn’t want to worry my younger sister, and I knew mom would brush it off as a silly, meaningless dream. But a catharsis emerged; my English teacher, Mrs. Brooks, gave us a journal prompt: write about a dream you had. I turned to my wide-ruled composition book and shared the secret of my nightmare.

Only a few days passed, but for a sixth grader, the days felt like months. I arrived every day, hoping my journal would be returned. I’d linger in her classroom after the bell rang, waiting for her to ask me if I was okay. She finally returned my journal, and I soaked in her red-penned comments. I don’t remember her exact words, but she commended my creativity, my ability to create suspense and fear.

She never talked to me about the dream. She asked no questions. But I continued to share the nightmare of my life with her. She’d give us prompts, like write a fairy tale. I’d give her pages of a girl who lived in a home where magic created a picture-perfect image from the outside, but the inside of the house revealed a girl abused by her step-father and neglected by her mother. In the story, the girl asks her fairy godmother to step in, to give her advice or to take her away from the home. But the girl’s pleas get lost; the godmother just praises her for her extensive vocabulary, her emotional storytelling, her creativity.

My journal became a trophy; I yearned for Mrs. Brooks’ praises. In every English class after, I reveled in the compliments of my teachers, and I took pride in my voice. Teacher after teacher praised me. One after the other nominated me for awards. But none stopped and asked if I was okay. None stopped and asked if my words were truth or fiction.  For a while, I stopped writing. What good was my voice if it didn’t convey my need for help?

My psychiatrist continues: “If you don’t talk to us, we can’t help you. We need to hear your story. We need to understand.”

My eyes meet his, and I say, “I need a pencil and paper.” The nurse brings me one of those golf pencils with a dull point and a blank, white sheet of copy paper. And I write.