By Ali Mariani
Written in memory of a dear friend, Natasha, who passed in November of 2014.
While I am sitting in the lobby waiting for visiting hours to start, I close my eyes and try practicing some “mild” meditation— what better place to start than a psychiatric hospital, right? (I’ve always had great timing.) I start to get a little sleepy and then wonder if the nice man at the front desk will be concerned about me. “Miss, would you like me to take your ID now? You still have about nine minutes until visiting hours start.” His words are sobering— they bring me back to where I am, where my feet are, and what I am about to do. “Sure,” I say calmly. I hand over my license and, in return, he gives me a hospital ID with some scribbled numbers and letters. I clip it on my coat— the hospital is cold, and I don’t want to take my coat off. I want to remember that I don’t plan on staying here long, too.
He clicks open the door and I walk past the first elevator— to the second one at the end of the hallway— following directions— reveling in the ease that I find in following directions. It’s funny— I have always hated following directions, have always thought that I am incapable of following them. But, today, I am grateful for them. A woman makes a light-hearted joke on the elevator, and I am greatly appreciative for the people who can find ease in situations like this, probably because I have never been one of them.
Before I can sign in, she comes up and gives me a huge hug. It is really great to see her, my friend. She is happy, energetic, and seems the same as the last time I saw her, months ago. She asks me how I am, the way that friends do when they haven’t seen each other in a while. And even though I feel funny about answering that question, given the obvious situation we are in, I do. I enjoy being able to give her a sense of normalcy. We take a seat in the unit lobby. She tells me what happened— how if the cops came 15 minutes later, she would be dead. She tells me how angry she was when they found her. She tells me that when she first got in here, all she wanted to do was get out of here and do it again— successfully, this time.
She pauses, and the old me would have asked something like, “But are you okay now?” and instead I choose a much easier, low-stakes question: “How’s the food here?” I know, immediately after I say it, how it might appear— that I am avoiding the heavy stuff, that I am scared of the heavy stuff. The truth is that I am not scared of it. In fact, that’s the stuff I know best. I could sit here and talk about how difficult life is, how painful it can be. How much work it takes and how much it SUCKS sometimes. How our pasts can haunt us for a lifetime. That is a place I know all too well.
I ask her about the food, for many reasons. Because it can be a relief to talk about something commonplace. I asked her about food because somewhere I learned that these types of commonplace questions are important in times of crisis— they help someone to focus on answering a question. I ask her about the food because I am, in part, curious.
She tells me she’s been eating a lot of pears and makes a light-hearted joke about how healthy she is in here. We both laugh whole-heartedly. I am happy to be able to laugh with her, to be able to give her that. I wonder when the last time she laughed like that was.
She asks me how I am doing, about the guy that I was seeing. I laugh so hard that she is interested in something so unimportant. I tell her honestly that life isn’t easy— and it isn’t easy. I don’t lie to her even though part of me thinks I should. I say, though, that there is always something to be hopeful for. She is quiet. Unspoken, we both know that she doesn’t believe this.
“That’s my ex-boyfriend, Rich” she says, looking forward at the gangly-looking young gentleman signing in at the front desk. He is surprisingly charming and normal— my first thought was, “why did she ever pass this dude up?” I am even swept away a little by how charming he is, with his British accent and soft speech. He says he brought smoothies and nuts for her— what a gentleman— smoothies and nuts in the psych ward!
We all sit together for a few minutes— my friend, the guy that she used to date, and me. She talks about her roommates, how they hear voices and snore loudly. We look around at the décor, noticing these cheesy adhesive quotes on the walls in the lobby. She points to one, saying, “That’s my favorite.” I agree. The quote is stuck the wall behind the main counter and reads: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
My friend passed away several months after this visit. She struggled with mental health challenges. She was one of the brightest and most beautiful human beings that I have had the pleasure of knowing.
Only looking back do I understand what it really means to “take yourself lightly.” It means that I won’t forget about this friend, who passed away last November. It means I will remember her and celebrate her in my life and the work that I do. It means that I will also live a life of joy, light, and hope. It means that parts of life can be heavy and emotional, but we move forward. It means that all of our existence ought not be heavy and emotional. It means that we can all be free when we continue to stay honest with others and ourselves.