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powerless

A short story
By Natasha Tracy
Her hair was wild, unencumbered, reaching in all directions at once. She painted it

blueberry, raspberry or cherry blossom because it made her smile and laugh. Its

unruly curls refused to be tied down by mere elastics or metal clips, almost

eschewing the dregs of such convention. Each day it was a new creation. It

streaked, it pointed, it twirled, it curved, it shined and glinted in sunlight.

But laying there, on a metal gurney clad with thin, green sheets, her hair was

crestfallen, flat and dull. It was tied back and out of the way of the doctors. Now

forced into submission, it was impossible to see its beauty.

Renee and I met two years ago when she drew me across the room in a

coffee shop. I thought she must have been very important to be working away on a

laptop in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, but as it happened, she was a writer,

stealing glances at me over her screen. Later she told me she found it inconceivable

that a girl with my beauty had been there alone. She charmed me out of my shell

with bubbling chatter of beauty, travel and the seals sunning themselves in front of

us. We echoed each other’s smiles and laughter as we closed down the coffee shop

together. She was achingly brilliant and witty and I raced to catch up with her

ideas. I giggled and pondered and fascinated over the paths her mind took, from

the sublime to the ridiculous, to the philosophical and to the unfathomable.

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By the time we had spent a full day together eating a picnic of brie and

strawberries on a rocky cliff, pretending to fly with our arms outstretched into the

wind and sipping perfect lattes across a stone-top table, I knew she was like no one

I had ever known. She seemed to chart new courses even just weaving from a

barista stand to the counter burdened with six kinds of sugar. Sometimes she tried

it backwards, or blindfolded, just for fun.

Behind her eyes were mysteries, riddles and secrets to be discovered.

Forming the apples of her cheeks there were pink contradictions and pulling at the

corners of her lips, puzzles. Enchantment flashed across her skin. I was drawn to

her. Mercilessly.

She reached her hand out to me and I approached the gurney to clasp it.

There were streaks down each side of her face where tears had fallen, dried and

then fallen again. She tried hard to blink away fresh tears and screw a smile into

place.

“I’m going to be fine,” she said, trying to sound convincing.

I didn’t know what to say to her. I wasn’t going to be in the room. I wasn’t

going to apply the electrodes. I wasn’t going to manage her anesthesia. I wasn’t

going to be beside her for the pain of waking up.

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I tried to reassure her with a smile, weak as it was.

She kissed my hand, pulled me close, grabbed a fist of hair at the back of my

head and kissed me in a way that reminded me of who was still inside her.

“I love you,” she said, the water pooling at the corners of her eyes now

refusing to be blinked away.

“I love you too,” I said, aware of the two doctors and two nurses watching

our last moment before I was ushered out of the room.

A nurse told me to go upstairs and get a real coffee. It was going to be a

while before Renee would be awake.

The tables at the hospital-embedded Starbucks were inlayed with tile. Little

black and white checks in a metal frame, designed to be used indoors and out. I ran

my finger along the grout and thought about our lattes over grey stone tables.

Renee had told the barista not to make formal crema art on top; she liked to use the

white and caramel swirls as a creative Rorschach test, or treat it like tea leaves,

telling our future. Looking into our lattes, I didn’t see what would happen next, but

I think she did.

The day after we’d met I was naked in her bed. Naked in her bed in a pair of

inky-black leather restraints posing for the camera. How she knew that was what I

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wanted I’ll never know. I had never been with a woman before. I had never been in

restraints before. I had never been photographed, milky flesh against stiff leather,

before. And somehow, right then, it was the most right thing in the world. She had

seen a curve and an edge in me that I didn’t know was there.

And then my heart belonged to her. It wasn’t that she was older and wiser,

although she was; it wasn’t that I had lost my virginity to her, although I had; it

wasn’t that she slayed me with wit and humor, although she did; it was that she

was a pulsating, shining, swirling, enigmatic, force of nature. It was that being near

her resulted in me wanting to be near her more. She was a drug of passion and

effervescence.

The rest of the summer we played at lovemaking and held each other’s hand

as we stumbled along the rocks at the beach. Her hair grew wilder in the winds

blowing in from the sea, and her eyes reflected the orange and pink glints from the

water at sunset.

It had been two hours and no one had called me to tell me that Renee was

awake. Two hours seemed like a long time for a procedure that only took minutes.

I started to pace between the brown leather ottomans scattered across the waiting

room next to the Starbucks. My latte started to churn in my stomach, waiting. I

glanced at others waiting for their loved ones too: there was an old man with grey

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hair and a cane leaning to his left that looked more like he should have been in a

bed in the hospital rather than in a waiting room, there was a woman in her 40’s

with two deep-set crevices in her forehead where the worry for her sick child had

set up camp, and a couple in their 60’s holding hands, their two grey heads of hair

blending together as one, their faces contented as if they were on a park bench

feeding the pigeons together. None of these people were waiting to hear about their

loved one undergoing shock therapy. There wasn’t enough terror across their faces.

I paced and clucked quietly and sickly remembering the information from

the doctor-provided pamphlet. The first set of treatments is called an index series.

It’s usually eight to twelve treatments under complete anesthesia. It isn’t called

shock therapy anymore: it’s called electro-convulsive therapy. Doctors refer to it

as ECT. Renee said it was to try and make you forget the fact that it still involves

zapping your brain with electricity and invoking a seizure. No three letter acronym

could be expected to do that much.

I sat down knowing that my pacing was bothering the others stuck in their

own holding patterns. The last few months had been impossible for Renee. All the

colours and streaks of light around her darkened and life itself seemed to want to

kill her from within. Her brain used to fly from shiny to impossible to erudite

subjects, it now only lobbed from darkness to irrational, to suicidal tactics. Over

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and over I heard her tell me that she didn’t want to live. Over and over I heard her

talk about how much pain she was in. Over and over I watched her cry, scream,

beg and bleed. She was her own mirror image. Hopelessness deadened her eyes,

flattened her features and danger laden her skin. She carved nothing matters into

the flesh of her thigh with a hunting knife. There was nothing I could do to stop

her.

It had happened before, she said, many times before. But I had only seen her

this time. This horrible, destructive, disempowering, desolate time.

I got up to pace again, but the tiny shift in the old man’s gaze asked me not

to. Instead I walked across the room to the elevators and poked at the down button

until the doors opened. The elevator sunk to the brick-lined basement where an

ECT room was stuck in a corner. The fact that shock-therapy happened at all

seemed to be a secret that the hospital wanted to keep. I walked into the smaller

waiting room, reserved for people waiting to go into ECT; no leather or tiled tables

would be found there, just petrified chairs and plastic faces.

The only people in the room were another patient and her mother. The girl

looked to be 25 and had long, flat ropes of dark hair dropping from each side of her

head. She wore hospital-issued pajamas that billowed from her sunken frame. Her

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face was stiff with despair; her eyes didn’t even seem to blink. This emaciated girl

was dying right in front of me. Her mother couldn’t do anything but worry.

The nurse walked crisply in from the left and I realized I had been staring.

“Hello Jane,” she said brightly, “Renee is awake. We just had to give her

some medication for the pain. You can see her soon. Come through and sit here.”

Another waiting room. Smaller still. This one with a paper-covered table,

chairs, a mini-fridge and a coffee-maker. The patients were given food after

treatments as they couldn’t eat beforehand. I looked at the limp plates of plastic-

wrapped fruit and the individual portions of cereal. There were Fruit Loops and

Lucky Charms: nutrition-free food provided by the hospital. I wondered if they

thought nutrition for the suicidal didn’t matter.

When they brought her in she needed to be held upright by a nurse and her

stainless steel I.V. pole. Somehow they had crushed her body to match her

diseased mind and even that had gotten worse. She was shrouded in confusion and

complained of pain. I poured her some decaf coffee into a plastic cup designed to

be sturdy enough to go through an industrial dishwasher, but light enough not to

hurt anyone it might be thrown at. I unwrapped the plastic from a paper plate of

tepid fruit. I poured milk into the paper bowl containing the Lucky Charms. When

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prodded, she picked up pieces of food and put them in her mouth, seemingly

without comprehension of why she should bother. Eating made her pain worse.

I opened my mouth to offer comfort, or at least words, but sounds would

only come out in fits and starts. I didn’t know what to say to her. I couldn’t find

words to reach through her pain. She asked for more pain pills.

I took her back to her apartment and tucked her into bed so she could sleep

off the anesthesia, medication and pain. I waited in her living room, going through

her floor-to-ceiling bookcases trying to find something I read. I couldn’t find

anything. The books had titles I couldn’t understand and some weren’t even in

English. I brushed her cat, getting orange fur all over Renee’s red couch. I tried to

wipe it off, but no matter what I did, dissonant orange hair remained.

When she reappeared from her bedroom a slight hue had returned to her face

and she summoned the strength to force a smile. I still didn’t know what to say to

her but even in her deadened state she filled in the gaps explaining she wasn’t

hungry. She got herself a glass of water.

“Is there anything I can get for you? Anything at all?” I asked, almost

plaintively.

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“No,” she said flatly, “I’m fine.” She couldn’t hide the hopelessness in her

eyes.

I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her after that.

I drove home that night colourless and barren. Feeling blunted. Feeling

broken. Feeling death.

As I closed my apartment door behind me I started to cry. Waterfalls of

sorrow, pain, loss, hopelessness and uselessness flowed over my cheeks, down my

chin and dripped onto my chest. An amorphous, wet spot formed on my white shirt

and I couldn’t make it stop getting bigger. It got wider and wider. I slunk down the

wall and knelt on the floor. I was helpless to stop the brackish cavalcade. I was

incapable of moving from the floor. I was helpless to save my shirt.

***

Renee called the next day and left a voicemail message saying that she was

thinking a bit more clearly now and she thanked me for going with her for her first

appointment. Some tone had returned to her voice and she made a joke about just

sticking her finger in an electrical socket next time. I smiled lightly knowing she

left that joke there just for me, to convince me that she was OK, to make sure I was

OK.

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Images of Renee flashed across my mind all that day, and into the next, into

the next week, and into the one after that.

But I never could think of a thing to say to the girl who was once

unimaginable, reverberating, Technicolor swirls and now was a brittle shell

unconvincingly lying about being OK. I never returned her call. I never returned

any of her calls.

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning mental health writer with a damaged brain


and a mind striving to deal with it. She writes technical articles, creative nonfiction
and fiction and is known for devastating authenticity and occasional controversy.
You can find Natasha:
 Writing Breaking Bipolar for HealthyPlace.com
 Writing at http://natashatracy.com
 @natasha_tracy on Twitter
 Natasha.tracy.writer on Facebook

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