Posted by: scintillatingspeck | November 16, 2012

Pine boughs.

Frequently, these days, I stumble across an image, an idle thought, or a turn of phrase that suddenly catapults me back in time to some event that happened to me years ago.  These vivid jolts of memory seem to be happening a lot more often.  It’s not quite my life flashing before my eyes, but a slower, piecemeal experience.  I wonder what unconscious gears are turning, guiding me to these particular memories?

I was driving down Bridge Road in Florence yesterday, in a hurry to pick up Lily from her art class.  That’s when I saw them, really saw them: the majestic white pines next to the road, their trunks solid and rooted, their branches against the sky.

I think of the eastern white pine as my totem tree.  To me it’s a symbol of escape from the prison of everyday life, the prison of my own mind, and the prison of institutional structure.  I associate it with running deep into the woods, away from the civilized madness and towards my own wild, primeval self.  As a child, I would play in the woods by myself, creating my own world populated with imaginary friends, and one of my most cherished activities was to make myself a bed of pine boughs and lie in it, inhaling that sweet scent of pine needles, getting the resin on my hands, gazing up through the branches, feeling held and sheltered by the tall pines directly above.  I sorely needed to be held in that way.

The memory that leaped forth with startling clarity as I drove down Bridge Road, though, did not take place in the woods.

When I was 17 years old, I was placed in a psychiatric hospital for being severely depressed and on the brink of suicide.  There’s no doubt that my internment in that setting kept me from killing myself, and for that I’m grateful.  I’m not as grateful for the slew of pharmaceuticals I was prescribed, with often horrifying side effects, nor grateful for the operating paradigm of conventional psychiatry, with its excessive focus on tinkering with brain chemicals and identifying “mental illness” as an individual problem rather than a problem of civilization.

The hospital was an odd place to be, which felt entirely appropriate, as it matched my inner sense that everything in the world was odd, that I would never be able to adjust to the expectations around me, that I didn’t want to adjust to what felt like an insane set-up in this culture.  I lived for about six weeks on a unit with other “disturbed” teenagers, constantly watched, tested (my tests, apparently, always yielded the basic information that I was “exceptionally intelligent but severely depressed,” what a shock), lined up to take meds several times per day, subjected to sleep deprivation for EEGs, shuttled off to attend individual therapy and group therapy, encouraged to sit in the lounge area to watch the movie “The Breakfast Club” for the nineteenth time.  I wore the same long, black dress day after day until I was told I had to wear different clothes.  I didn’t want to eat.  I remember my distraught mother bringing me an elaborate spread of food one day during visiting hours, and I couldn’t touch it; it was unbearable; I wanted to shrivel up and blow away.  I was sure I had broken my mother’s heart.  There was a hallway, and a lounge, and bedrooms for the teenagers, and a nursing station, and a “quiet room” if anyone freaked out (an entirely empty room except for a bed, with a locked door, where I spent a fair amount of quality time) and all of the exit doors to the unit were locked, and there were special screens on the windows so that nobody could escape.

Despite all this lock-down and many practices that I found objectionable, it was not an entirely heartless place.  The other teenagers, for example; I loved them.  We were very present to each other.  Many of the psychiatrists and psychologists and nurses and mental health counselors were genuinely caring people, even if I found their methodologies misguided.  There was one counselor, however, who surprised me with his brilliance one day.  His name was John.  I don’t remember his last name.  I wish I did because I wish I could find him and thank him.

One day I was sitting by the window, staring outside.  It was time for a check-in; I asked John if I could keep sitting by the window during the check-in, and he said yes.  He asked me why it was important to me.  I said I need to see the pine trees.  I’m locked in here, I’m literally locked in here, the way I’m locked inside my own head.  I can’t get away from this.  I can’t bear it.  I’m stuck in a life I don’t want.  The whole world is crazy.  I just wish I could lie under the pine trees.  I don’t know how I’ll ever get out.  My eyes filled with tears.  He heard me, he did.  His eyes filled with tears too.

The next day, when he returned to the unit, he came to me with a gift.  He brought me pine boughs.  He said, “Since you can’t go outside to the pine trees yourself, I thought I would bring these inside for you.”

I have them, still.

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