[The Knife, 1,893 words, Genre: Mental Health]
* Image courtesy of Martin Rumsby
It had a black plastic handle, there was no grip along the handle, along it, it ran smooth. It had a serrated edge that was used for cutting and with a small curve it ran along for about four inches where it came to a point. That was it, the knife. How I had come into possession of the knife remained a mystery, a further mystery was how I had come into the hospital ward itself. Everything had been a haze, the last few days that is. I had been doped up on valium and every moment seemed to pass from one to the next.
I remembered talking to a few people. Visitors. Family and friends that cared about me. The knife couldn’t have come from one of the other patients. It had to come from one of them. Why had they given me the knife? What were they expecting me to do with the knife? To those who knew me, they all knew the reason for my admission into the psychiatric ward. I had found myself in a deep roll of depression and in amongst that depression had begun to cut myself. It wasn’t noticed at first. But over time, for each day, I would chalk up a new strike up along my forearm. The cuts weren’t that deep. Nothing that required urgent medical attention. But they were enough to let myself bleed.
Somebody had reported the incident, or rather incidents, to a psychiatric evaluation team. They had come to see me in my home and then it had been decided that I should be taken to this place for treatment. I had acted out, screaming and throwing furniture around my apartment when they had decided to do that. And then had to be sedated and dragged to the hospital. My arms had been a long list of cuts up along my forearm before anybody had decided to do anything about it. It seemed that the world had grown weary of this sort of behaviour.
I had now been in the hospital for several days. I had been sedated for the majority of it. And now I was in possession of a knife. Not the one from my home, but someone, someone had given it to me. They seemed to be delivering the message for me to finish the job. To end it, to slash my wrists and get it over and done with.
It seemed that the world was like that now. It hadn’t always been like that. But it seemed that the world and the people in it were growing weary of these sorts of things. I was in one of the rooms on the ward, locked up with another inpatient and they had just turned the lights out. I could hear the other inpatient mumbling to himself. Something that I couldn’t make out. It was indecipherable at first and holding the knife I looked from out under the bed sheets across the room to where he sat. He sat on the side of his bed, in his boxer shorts and wearing a white singlet.
He had a lighter in his hand and was lighting a cigarette. “They don’t bloody well let you smoke in these places anymore, this is about the only chance I get to have a cigarette.” He looked over at me with the tip of his cigarette blazing in the darkness. “I saw him give you the knife.”
“Saw who give me what?”
“It was the security guard, none of the nurses were present when he did it. You were drugged up and half out of it. I guess it’s payback for punching him in the head when you were admitted.”
I held on to the knife, using my thumb to feel its sharp tip. The other inpatient blew smoke out of his mouth after inhaling his cigarette, the smoke was lit up briefly by the moonlight that shone in through the window and then dispersed, disappearing into the darkness. For a while there was silence. Neither one of us said anything. He just kept on smoking his cigarette there in the cover of darkness as I watched, gripping onto the knife more tightly like a comfort toy.
“I’ll explain something to you. In case you haven’t figured it out already,” the other patient explained, “You’re the scapegoat of society now. Because you have a mental illness, everyone that you talk to, everyone you find yourself in contact with… They will all blame you for all of their problems. Anything that happens. It will be your fault. Because everyone else is perfect and there’s something wrong with you. The doctors and psychiatrists have confirmed the fact, so there’s no point in arguing with it anymore. Whenever something goes wrong and it always will, it will be your fault.”
“I’m in here because I’m depressed and because I cut myself…”
“Yes, there was probably a reason why you were depressed. You were probably bullied or never socially integrated well. Anybody who comes in here has some sort of problem, because the truth of it is that nobody’s perfect and everybody has something wrong with them. You will either be isolated from the rest of society and nobody will have anything to do with you. Either that, or if you attempt to rejoin society in any meaningful way people will blame you for even the smallest thing that goes wrong in a situation, regardless of whether or not it is your fault or not. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you will make errors and it will be your fault. But because this institution, the mental health system, has declared that you have a mental illness. It will always be your fault. People will blame you and ignore their own duty of responsibility. Nobody will take anything you say or do seriously. You have been marked out as a scapegoat of society. People need you so they can keep on ignoring their own faults, so they can tell themselves that they are perfect.”
I held the knife now, clutching the plastic grip in both hands like a teddy bear. He kept on smoking his cigarette, blowing out smoke into the moonlight. What he was saying… It didn’t help. I was already depressed and now he was forcing me to confront the stigma of mental illness. “How do I get around it?”
“You can’t.” He blew out some more smoke and finished his cigarette. Stubbing it out on the window sill and hiding the cigarette butt in his pocket. “But what you have to deal with is that knife. The guy who gave you that knife is one of society’s perfect people. I mean, you punched him in the head. He has a right to be angry. But you have to deal with the fact with how he and the rest of society now view you.”
“How do they view me?”
“As a burden on the rest of society. To them you’re not the scapegoat, society has been using people like you and me in this way for so long now that they are fully convinced that you are the problem. In the past, they’ve attempted to sterilize people like you and I so that we couldn’t breed. They would cut our skulls open while we were still alive so that they could examine our brains. To people like you and me who understand it, you’re the scapegoat or the whipping boy that people blame for their problems. To other people, you are the problem. Do you understand?”
“Are you saying that there’s nothing wrong with me?”
“Of course, there’s something wrong with you. Normal people don’t cut themselves. But you, cutting yourself is a symptom of your accumulated life experience. People bullying you, women rejecting you, people shifting the blame onto you, using you as a figure of ridicule or objectification so they don’t have to confront their own internal problems. For one reason or another, you didn’t blend in, didn’t integrate. It all has its pressures. And those pressures culminated in the act of you cutting yourself.”
“Well, what can I do about it?” I asked.
“There’s nothing you can do about it.” The other man, the other patient then lay down and pulled the blankets of his bed around him and rested his head. “Get rid of the knife and try and get some sleep.”
I went to the bathroom to relieve myself, taking the knife with me. My head was full of thoughts of what the other patient had said to me. The sheer weight and magnitude of it. It was a life sentence. I thought about it, even if I didn’t have a mental illness. The stigma that was associated with the mental illness would be a problem in itself.
I relieved myself in the toilet and then flushed it. The white ceramic walls and the light that bounced off them gave everything a look of sterility. The smell of the bathroom that had been cleaned every day, smelling of bleach, everything in the vicinity looking so sterile and clean. I took the knife with me to the wash basin to wash my hands. The knife dropped down the sink and clattered up against the ceramics, making the sound of steel against its surface. I looked into the mirror, above the basin, to stare at my own reflection. My eyes were red and I had stubble from a few days without shaving.
In those moments, staring at my own reflection, I looked at the events of my life for what they really were. A series of mistakes and errors that were never forgiven. A boy who had never been popular enough, who others viewed as worthless and having nothing to offer the world. Who was denied the rites of passage into adulthood because of how others viewed him. Who escaped into drug abuse, seeking the solace and companionship of others like him, those rejected and scorned. I saw it all. Society needed people like me, so that they could secure their own position in the social hierarchy of society. There was the upper class, the middle class, the lower class and somewhere below that existed the mentally ill. Those who were forced into extreme isolation as a result of the constant competition that was the human race. And those who were mentally ill would always be replaced by a new generation as a symptom of society’s functioning as a whole. Mentally ill people committing suicide or death by overdose, being consistently replaced by each successive generation by a society filled with individuals who had a deep seeded need to feel superior to those around them. It all accumulated in a pit in my stomach, this feeling. This feeling that I could not wash away. And internally I heard the voice of the other patient, repeated over and over again, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it.’
And then I grabbed the knife and in one swift motion stabbed at the corners of my eye. Getting right behind the eyeball and then plucked it out. My eye was bleeding and my eyeball, hanging on by the optic nerve, dangled above my face.
And then I began to scream and howl. Dropping the knife onto the floor that clattered, but could not be heard above my screams.