Threnody: Closest to Heaven – Chapter 3

May 12, 2010 at 12:58 am (Threnody: Closest to Heaven)

–          CHAPTER THREE –

Professor Danielle Stroyd was away, they told me when I asked to see the doctor in charge of my case. She would be back in three days and would be delighted to see me.

I sincerely doubted that last statement, but I let them say it. I saw their feelings in their eyes, not even veiled – they were discomfited by my blunt words and my awareness of exactly what everything around me meant, and they were uneasy by my abrupt recovery. I suppose it had to be a shock, seeing a total vegetable suddenly become aware and demanding within a couple of days. I have no idea how long I had been ill for, or what exactly had happened to me – they refused to tell me.

I asked for the registrar on call, but I was told that he’d already come and seen that I was in stable health and should wait for the Professor now unless there were any burning issues. I looked up at the little blue-capped bottle still connected to my IV tubes, and thought that there was a burning issue, but the layers of meaning behind the wording were not lost on me. The only person who would agree to change anything according to my demands was the Professor, and no registrar would now do it, after whatever little episode it was I had had most recently – that I could not even recall clearly.

I had three days to burn away in a starched hospital bed with blue-papered walls around me, looking at the blankly azure sky. The smell of aseptic hospital was beginning to make me feel sickened to my very core, and it was getting increasingly hard to take my mind off it.

I was Auriel Denevier. I was twenty-one years old and I was a third year medical student. I knew my postcode was GA7 3AE, my pin number was 8539 and my phone number was 0794 8990 034 – but I still had no idea why I was in a psychiatric ward (there was no question that this was indeed where I was, since the nurses all wore tags with Specialist Psychiatry Nurse on their blouses). It took me a while before I could look at that label without flinching and wanting to run away from this place. When I tried to remember my past, I came up with a lot of foggy and painful almost-memories… but nothing concrete came back to me. My present was clearer to me – I knew that I lived in a student house and over the holidays stayed at my cousin’s. From this, I could only deduce that I… had no closer family to return to. But this thought frightened me because it sparked no memories at all, and surely if it was true, it would trigger something.

It took me ages to sleep that night because I had been confined to my room, doing nothing, for the entire day. My thoughts circled vengefully around my head and would not leave me – there were questions, questions, questions, nagging at me, some mocking me, some simply making me feel like shouting for answers from someone, anyone. It did not make much difference that I was allowed to walk around in my room, and down the corridor to the common room where there was no one other than me and the nurse who would accompany me – what was the point in pacing about in this artificial world that was not even designed to look real? I was simply biding my time there, and the longer it took me to become fully myself, the more time I was going to be made to waste in there.

There was the little bottle of benzodiazepine that I was being given on drip. As I lay there in the night, gazing up at it framed against the star-speckled midnight blue of the sky, it glinted faintly in the light that spilled from the corridor through the tiny slit of my ajar door. Oh yes, there was this bottle, indeed.

I was not me. And here was one thing that I knew changed me. The solution was simple. I had to come off them, or I would never be myself. I had been trying for long enough now that I knew I should have all my faculties back had it been possible for me to do so – the only logical conclusion was that something was preventing me from it. And there was only one thing: the benzodiazepine.

One bottle lasted eight hours, and the nurses would always change it regularly. There was no way I could get even a couple of minutes of reprieve – they were like clockwork, briskly popping up when it needed to be renewed. And I knew that only the Professor would take me off it– with whatever illness had taken me over, since my conversation with the registrar, it was unlikely I could convince anyone that I’d be safe without it… and registrars needed to be assured that things were safe before they took an initiative. When in doubt, leave it to your superior. I knew the ways the system operated.

And so I lay there passively, passionately hating that bottle of benzodiazepine with every inch of me, going over and over exactly how I would convince the Professor that I needed to come off it. I knew it was a vicious circle, though: I could only be taken off it if I could convince them I was fully myself, and I could only be myself if I was taken off it. Oh, the bitter irony of it was not lost on me.

__

I don’t know why it took me a full twenty-four hours to recover, but somehow it did. When I woke up the next morning (the second morning in a row that I was lucid), I knew that I was finally myself. The Auriel of the previous day, who had lain in bed thinking ceaselessly about the inescapability of her situation… that was not me.

It was a coolly-lit morning for 7:57AM in spring. My eyes glanced over the digital clock that was on the table that served as tray when it was needed – then went automatically to the little bottle latched onto me via the IV lines. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and exhaled slowly. Something felt different – my head felt clearer, lighter, as if someone had opened the shutters of an old stuffy room and cast some freshness into it. I’m Auriel.

I sat up, my limbs heavy and achy, taking some time to comply with me. It took more effort than I would have liked it to, and I leaned forwards to rest my elbows momentarily on my up-drawn knees, reflecting on the plan of action I should adopt.

Because this, now, was me. I needed a plan of action. And I would find one.

I steadfastly drew back the covers, taking care not to disturb the needle that was still persistently fastened to the back of my hand, and I swung my legs over the side of my bed, pausing briefly to reflect on the familiarity of the green pyjama trousers I wore. I definitely knew those – which indicated that… someone had brought them for me? So I was known to be here, in this hospital? But by whom?

I bit my lip and forced myself to breathe steadily. One breath in… count three seconds, then exhale. Two more seconds… Breathe in…

Giving in to the panic that resided deep within me would just take me back to the wreck I had been over the past few days – and I could absolutely not afford another such set-back. I needed to get the hell out of where I was. And for that… I needed to fully assess my surroundings.

I eased myself off the bed, wincing as my bare feet touched the cold vinyl of the floor. My left foot hurt faintly, as if I had hurt it recently, but I ignored this and padded to where a pair of black flat shoes was neatly stowed. Yesterday, they had not meant much to me, but now I recognised them – these were my placement shoes, complete with scratch on the front of the right one from where I had stubbed my foot against the pavement while walking to town one Saturday. I felt a very strong shiver grip me, and my teeth started to chatter – I snapped my jaw shut forcefully and closed my eyes briefly.

No one would pick my placement shoes to take to a hospital. They would have brought my slippers – big, clumsy things, that I wore because I had the tendency to bump my feet into furniture and doors, and needed that extra bit of protection for my toes. I had already broken one – as I opened my eyes again and gazed downwards, I could see it, still faintly crooked to one side. No, the only person who would choose my placement shoes was… myself. They were my most decent simple pair of shoes. I tried to reason myself, told myself that slippers would be inside the small white-painted wardrobe to my right – but even as I desperately caught hold of the doorknob and yanked the wardrobe open, I knew that one thing it would not contain was slippers.

I was right. I stood there in utter silence, confronted by a line onto which two dresses and a coat were hung, accompanied by four empty hangers. On the shelf above, there was a black backpack – the way it lay flat told me it was empty – and a neat pile formed by two t-shirts and sleek blackness. I reached out, touched this glossy black fabric: trousers, neatly folded. That was right, those were my size 26 trousers, that never needed ironing.

I stepped back with a choked sound that sounded a bit like the sort of thing one might hear from a duck being squashed.

Pyjamas, more than one t-shirt and dress… Those things told me that this stay in the hospital was planned – not as long as I had been in for, because there were not enough clothes for that – but certainly planned. I felt pain bloom on the side of my head, and realised I was pulling on my hair with one hand. I pulled harder, blinking away the tears. The choice of shoes told me that I was the one who had brought these clothes with me. By logical deduction… I was the one who had planned this?

‘We’re getting out of here,’ I whispered, angrily blinking. My gaze landed on the back of my left hand and I saw the needle and tube there. ‘Oh!’ I let go of my hair and reached towards my left hand… and then paused.

No. I could not afford to give in to spontaneity and panic again. Think. I had to convince them I was good to get out of here. And somewhere along the line, I had to learn what the precious hell was wrong with me that I had chosen to come here to a psychiatric hospital for a temporary stay. Or maybe I had not come to a psychiatric unit, but been transferred here? I felt some faint stirring of hope deep within me, but I knew that I was clutching at thin straws.

It still brought me back to the same question: what had led me to… make the decisions I seemed to have made recently?

I reached at the back of the shelf and pulled out a pair of black ribbed socks and pulled them on, slipping my feet into the placement shoes – they were completely noiseless, so I might as well put them on instead of dirtying my socks. My hair swung forwards as I bent over, and I scowled in spite of myself. I hated having my hair loose except for when I was in bed. I pushed it back with my fingers, looking vainly around the room for a hairbrush. There was a mirror above the table to my left, and I shifted a few steps to place myself in front of it, to assess the state of catastrophe my hair would be in.

I flinched when my reflection appeared within the frames of the mirror, but it was not my hair that caused the immediate reaction.

I looked like me – I was familiar. That should have been a relief, but it only served to tease at that flutter of unease within my chest: it was as if I was seeing a photograph I had studied for hours until I knew it off by heart… but did not really know who the person within the photograph was. This was exactly the feeling that hit me. I was staring at a very familiar shell, which I knew down to the three spots on the right cheek and the dent in the thin chin. But all I knew of what was inside of this shell was what I could glean from the expression reflected back at me by the perfect square of the mirror.

Under the rumpled squirrel’s nest of dark hair, a pair of too-wide eyes stared back at me – they bordered on the classical thyrotoxic appearance, so widely were they opened. My eyebrows had done a funny squiggly thing to make me look almost comically shocked – and my jaw hung slightly slackly, making my face even more asymmetrical than I knew it to usually be. I was all lopsided – even my hair seemed to be favouring the right side of my head. I must have slept on my left cheek.

I looked completely clueless, and frustrated by this fact.

‘Oh, that hair was never made for a fashion show,’ I heard myself mutter.

Of course, the hair. I was supposed to be making it more presentable. I searched the room again for anything to help me in that direction, but the table surfaces of the room were all bare, except for a half-full glass of water and a compact digital clock on the moveable tray. There was also a yellow sharps bin in the corner of the table now in front of me.

What use was a sharps bin when one had dishevelled hair to take care of?

I dragged my fingers through my unruly mane again and decided to give the room a proper inspection – there had to be something here that would help me, in some way, get closer to leaving this place, even if there was nothing to assist me in taming my hair. I towed the stand that hosted my saline bag behind me, cautious not to make it squeak or hit any furniture, certain that the slightest noise would bring a nurse to check on me. I had noticed they seem to be particularly on edge, dropping in on me far more frequently than was warranted. I suppose they did have some grounds – I was a miraculously recuperated ex-vegetable.

I gave the room three thorough checks, making sure I went over every detail – or lack thereof. There was a regular bin in the small en suite toilet that opened off the left of my bed, but it was empty when I opened it cautiously – it must have been emptied while I slept. The nurses always threw the empty saline bags in there, along with all the regular waste that went into the big bins. Apart from the needles they used to flush out the saline, of course – that went into the sharps bin. I flicked its cover back dispassionately, peering into it just for the sake of completing my inspection of the room. There were a few plasters in it, and two needles. Little black caps at the bottom of the bin told me they were 22g needles – the finer needles.

I drew back with a sigh of frustration – none of this was helpful to me. I was just like a prisoner in a dungeon who resorted to counting the bricks in the wall across him. I was rehashing useless details – needle sizes were not about to help me in my predicament. The room might as well have been as bare as a medieval dungeon. I decided to give call my search off for now, and returned slowly to my bed, reflecting on my situation.

If only I could get rid of the benzodiazepine, I would be so much more myself. I would… I would be able to look at myself in a mirror and know the girl therein. Professor Danielle Stroyd was going to be taking a good look at me in a couple more days’ time, and if this was the best I could offer her, I had to admit, I would have to fight tooth and nail to get her to acknowledge that I was fit to be released.

My head hurt already. It was 8:11AM and I felt as if I had been up doing mental acrobatics for hours already, while in fact, all I had been doing was assessing needle sizes and…

HOLYMOTHEROFSNAKES.

Needles – used to flush saline through the cannula in my wrist. My eyes trailed up to the little blue bottle of medication with sudden feverish eagerness. It was one of those that they latched onto the tube there, with an opening that was too small for its contents to simply be poured out… but that could be aspirated out by means of a needle.

Trembling, I got to my feet and reached up, fingers clammy on the smooth, cool little bottle. It was barely the length of my little finger, and was almost full – I had had it changed at 6:00AM, so it had only had two hours to begin emptying itself. I closed my eyes to try to steady my breath, and let go of it, having seen what I wanted. Its opening was indeed simply slipped onto the end of the IV drip – if I pulled it off, I could draw out the medication with one of the needles in the sharps bin, and… and replace it with water. I couldn’t just leave it empty – that would be far too obvious.

I was unsteady on my feet as I padded over to the sharps bin again and bent over it, the sight of the two used bare needles greeting me – a glint of cold steel within the sickeningly yellow plastic bin. My training made me hesitate to reach inside and attempt to retrieve one – the opening of the bin was small, and once I put my hand to it, I’d be fumbling blindly inside. I had absolutely no wish to risk getting stabbed.

Cautious not to make any noise, I tilted the bin over and gave it a gentle swill, to edge its contents closer to the opening. There was a loud caustic roll of plastic on plastic from within it, and I winced, eyes darting to the door. I counted to five before carefully giving the bin a little shake again. There was a tinkle, and the black discarded top that had belonged to the needle fell out and rolled onto the white painted surface of the table. I paused and looked inside the bin – one of the needles was right on the edge. It was still attached to a syringe, which was what was keeping it inside. I bit my lip and shook the bin again.

It took a few more tries before the other black top came out… and then one of the needles slipped out, rolling onto the table to come to a rest, glinting accusingly at me.

I knew I had to be quick – if a nurse walked in on me at this point, I was completely doomed. I fetched the glass of water and laid it on the table. With a deftness that belied my nervousness, I unlatched the little blue bottle from its place, and held it in front of me in my left hand. Carefully, painstakingly, I eased the tip of the needle within it, and then prepared to aspirate the medication out.

It was at that precise point that I remembered that benzodiazepines caused dependency if used for a significant length of time. I cursed under my breath. I must have been on them for… more than a week. More than enough time for a dependency to set in – benzodiazepines did not waste time. I stood there, poised with a needle within the incriminating bottle, and dared not draw out its contents. If I went into withdrawal, they would find me out.

I made my decision in a split-second. I aspirated half of the bottle out, and withdrew the needle, ejecting the tiny amount of liquid into the sharps bin, knowing that this amount was negligible enough that it would not be noticed within the bin.

Half… surely I would be fine if I titrated the dose down to half. With shaking hands, I put the needle into my plastic cup of water and drew in some water, completing the transfer into the bottle within a few more seconds. I emptied the rest of the water back into the glass, and, with the utmost care, resheathed the needle with one of the black plastic caps that had rolled out of the bin earlier. As much as I hated the thought of keeping a needle around, I dared not put it back within the bin, for fear that they would empty the bin or realise that it was unwise to leave such a thing within a psychiatric patient’s room. I put the medication bottle back in its place, tidied up the contents of the bin, and slipped the needle within the folds of the t-shirts in the wardrobe. It was a lousy hiding place, but I was not spoilt for choices. They might check the backpack to see what belongings I had with me, but hopefully no one would bother riffling through my two t-shirts.

And finally, I sat myself back onto my bed, and tried to compose my thoughts. But it was hard, because for the first time since I had regained my senses… I was aware of one thing. Escape.

It was not so far, now.

____


Of course, my luck would have it that I had made a serious mistake. Drawing out only half the benzodiazepines had been clever of me, but by the end of the day, I realised that it had not been clever enough. Dimly, I had the feeling that I’d learnt that short-acting benzos could cause withdrawal after twenty-four hours, but as was the case with me, I was clearly not typical.

I felt like twisting the head off every nurse’s neck, by late evening. I had also titrated out half of the next bottle of benzodiazepine of the day, this time squeezing out the incriminating few cubic millimetres into the sink of the en suite bathroom. Maybe if the symptoms had hit me by midday, when my little bottle of medication was renewed, I would have reviewed there and then the wisdom of halving the benzodiazepines.

But it hit me only half-way through the second bottle – and that was when I realised I was in an unfortunate and laudable mess. I had been accounted stable for the past day, I suppose, for the nurses did not seem to be popping in as regularly as I remembered them to. But every four to five hours, they appeared, little mechanical clockwork birds garbed in blue, to politely offer me a cup of tea, and soup for lunch.  I had been left with old worn bestsellers for my entertainment – I did not even bother touching them. I dimly remembered reading Jeffrey Archer when I was ten and coming to the conclusion that only evil, thoroughly corrupt people undressed and partook in sexual activities, while decent people fertilised themselves fully clothed. A Jeffrey Archer novel, nowadays, might amuse me for every bit of fifteen minutes.

And as the day went on, of course, what I wanted to do to the Jeffrey Archer novels should probably not even be dwelled on. I felt no great kindness towards any object, animate or not, that was sharing my vicinity – and the longer the time we spent together, the more ill-disposed I felt towards said object.

I don’t know if the nurses noticed anything. But I was literally had to grit my teeth to… remain sane in their presence. I started to wish I had been a smiling sort of person – smiles masked a great deal. I had a feeling that a time of drug withdrawal was not the best to try out a smile on the nurses, though, so I was forced to keep my eyes fixed on the pages of Sidney Sheldon’s The Stars Shine Down, pretending to be reading, and hoping that when I did look up, my eyes were not glazed and my pupils were not too obviously dilated. For maybe the first time ever, I was glad that I had plain dark eyes that hid dilated pupils accordingly – it was possible that, unless the nurses suspected me of somehow getting rid of the benzodiazepine, I might get away completely with that one sign of the withdrawal that I couldn’t do anything at all about.

That, of course, was what I innocently believed at six in the evening. By the time another hour had passed, I was woefully disillusioned. Clearly I was not tailored to human standards, since I was by then in full-blast withdrawal, instead of being granted twenty-four hours, as I was sure my textbook had said. I could not stop shivering, teeth clenched, hands clammy, and I was most definitely a nervous wreck. Sidney Sheldon was really starting to get to me. I couldn’t focus on the yellowed pages, nor could I even think coherently.

In little incoherence-tinged bribes and pieces, my thoughts told me that this was definitely not good. If the nurses noticed what was going on, the as-yet-unseen Professor Danielle Stroyd was going to decide that my dose of benzodiazepine was not enough… and would have it increase. The alternative was even more unpleasant. If I was found out – I thought of the incriminating needle nestled in between my clothes and shivered some more – it was possible that I would have to stay in hospital even longer.

I was down to pure stubbornness. Me versus withdrawal. Silently, trying to stop my teeth from chattering out loud, I crossed my arms and set to out-sit the long night.

Fate clearly wanted to lend a hand to the benzodiazepines. I have always maintained that fate, like women, has hormonal days too – and today was clearly an oestrogen day. My ears, which I was positive could now pick up the sound of a pin dropping, heard a male voice in the distance of the corridor… and footsteps.

Fecund patriarchal cataclysms. I was as far out of luck as a human being could possibly be.

It was the registrar, spick and span under my resentful glare. I glanced at that name badge on his shirt pocket, in vain hopes that it might somehow have downgraded him since I had last seen him, but the word Registrar leaped out at me, blurry and bizarrely coloured. My eyes were not adjusting well to changes from close to longer distance. Dr Meisland was not followed by a nurse this time – this was not a ward round.

I remained in stoic silence, trying to find the right balance between unclenching my teeth and not shivering. I expected him to be unnerved by my lack of a smile, but either the nurses had informed him that smiling was a rarity for me, or he was not as easily fazed as I had thought him to be.

He stepped into the room and said in, politely, ‘Good evening, Miss Auriel. I was on the ward and heard you are making good progress, so I thought I would make a social call to see how things are going.’

This man had the devil’s own timing. I waited until he had drawn up the chair next to the bedside before I spoke. ‘For the sake of confidentiality, are you not supposed to close the door?’ My voice sounded stiff but steady.

I had the satisfaction of seeing something fleeting cross his features as he straightened up, one hand still on the chair, and the other holding his paper clipboard. He glanced at the door then looked back my way and said, with distinctly forced courtesy, this time, ‘There is nobody around on this wing of the ward other than the auxiliary nurse, but certainly, I shall do so if you wish me to.’

I remained silent, which of course left him with the choice of either defying me and sitting down, or complying and closing the door. I knew which one he would decide on – but some part of me wanted him to acknowledge very clearly that I retained control of this situation. I might be on a ward, officially on a medication I did not wish to receive, but I was still in control of what was done to me. Especially now, it was important I asserted that.

He gave me a couple of seconds, before realising from my unchanging expression that I was not going to say any more on the matter. His steps echoed peculiarly in my ears when he crossed the room to the door again, closed it with an incongruously loud click, and returned to the chair, seating himself in it with a rustle of formal trousers and shirt.

‘How have you felt these past couple of days, Miss Auriel?’ His grey eyes seemed to fasten steadfastly on mine. I wondered uneasily what he was seeing.

‘I was told you had established my health was stable and had no further wish to drop in, Dr Meisland,’ I informed him.

‘Ah, I run Professor Stroyd’s clinic while she is away, so I am busier than I would like to be, sometimes,’ he said, with a slight smile that, I guessed, was aimed to obtain a response in kind from me. ‘Nevertheless, you did greatly improve since we last spoke and I felt things were stable, at the very least. How would you say you feel, compared to that last time we spoke?’

Terrible. ‘The same,’ I lied, smoothly. ‘When will you take me off the benzodiazepines?’ It was worth a try.

He did actually look at me consideringly, lips faintly pursed for a moment. It was still fairly light in the room, despite the late evening hour, since it was spring. I could make out the bed and myself reflected in his grey eyes, and started to pray that he could not see nearly as much in my own eyes. The window, to which he had his back, was just across me, and would undoubtedly cast even better light on my face.

‘To be honest with you…’ he began, then stopped to take a deep breath and let it out in an audible huff. ‘I don’t know how much of this you recall, Miss Auriel, but you were rather unwell for three days after we spoke – nothing surprising in itself, given that you’d been pretty much inanimate prior to that – but it’s been decided that you do need the anxiolytics to keep your condition stable, until Professor Stroyd decides otherwise. So I’m afraid it’s not in my hands at this stage.’ There was a short pause. I met his gaze and tried to blink in a natural way. ‘I do believe the nurses have told you this already.’

‘They did,’ I replied, ‘but I thought I stood to lose nothing by asking you.’

There was the tiniest of pauses. It was around this point that I noticed his freckles seemed to be bright green and shimmering slightly. I wanted to look away but forced myself to pretend nothing was wrong, even though the window behind him was casting a glare in my eyes and making things worse.

‘Are you feeling hot?’ he asked, in an unchanged tone.

The sweating. ‘A little,’ I replied in my best icy voice. ‘The heating is on and the windows don’t open.’ I made an effort to make it sound accusatory.

There was a faint glint in his grey eyes as he leaned slightly forwards and said, perfectly deadpan, ‘Dilated pupils. Very interesting. How did you manage it?’

I put a frown on my face. ‘What?’

‘You’re distinctly suppressing shivers. You’ve got a light sheen of sweat on your skin. Your pupils are dilated – I could use my torch, if you wish me to, but I can see your irises quite clearly from where I am. At the dose of benzos you’re on, this is not the dependency. It can only be that your dose has been decreased, somehow. I’m impressed… and curious as to how you managed it.’ He ended his speech with as little emotion as he had betrayed throughout this conversation.

There were no words to describe how I was feeling. I briefly contemplated murdering him, but realised that this would quite possibly put me in an even worse situation than the one I was currently in. The windows truly did not open… and even if they did, I couldn’t quite hope that throwing his dead body out of my window would do much for my innocence. This struck me as being singularly regretful – wrapping my hands around his cricothyroid cartilage and cervical vertebra would have felt rather rewarding, in that moment.

‘I told you they don’t work well on me,’ I said, poker-faced, not to be outdone.

He sighed. ‘The thing is, Miss Auriel, I am not in a position where I’m able to prescribe injections on you, and the only person who can do this is currently away. So let’s compromise on this. I’ll have your dose titrated to three-quarters of what it was… but in return, you do not meddle with it. Does this sound fair to you?’

It did, actually, especially given that everything around me was unnaturally tinged with green and yellow and purple, by now, but I was not going to concede defeat. ‘Does this make any difference? When I’m reviewed by the consultant, I will be prescribed injections, whether I want them or not, won’t I? So if nobody is willing to listen to my wishes, why should I listen to anybody’s?’ A muscle twitched in his cheek, and I continued, emboldened. ‘Besides, what could you do? You have no means of stopping me from doing whatever I did. And surely you realise that I could agree with you… and still “meddle with it”.’

He shifted in his chair and leaned forwards so that his elbows rested on his knees. ‘There are definitely options at my disposal. I can have you moved to a higher observation ward. That would solve all the problems.’

‘Why offer me a compromise when you can easily do things a foolproof way?’

He smiled. ‘You’re interesting. I suspect that if you’re profoundly miserable, you’ll make much slower progress. My job here finishes in a month’s time. I’d quite frankly rather see some progress from you, in that time, that hang around the same unchanging thing for a month. What was it you said earlier – “I stand to lose nothing” by this compromise.’

I clenched my hands on the pages of the Sidney Sheldon novel I was still holding in my lap. ‘And are you even allowed to take such a risk, knowing that I am uncooperative? What will that be documented as in my notes, for your superior to read?’

He blinked. He hadn’t foreseen I might try to force things my way. Part of me wondered how he could have expected that I would meekly say ‘yes, sir’ at his offer. The other part reflected on the fact that he probably saw very little lucid scheming in his line of work. And moreover… the green and purple spots on his face were really distracting me. There were also little neon green caterpillars crawling across the book in my hands, at the periphery of my vision – tendrils of withdrawal chlorophyll.

‘I’ll simply state that I decided to make this move over your very strong insistence that you did not want the medication, and I believed that such a step would be less detrimental to your health than moving you to a high observation ward,’ he said, eventually, his hands holding his clipboard in a position that was now subtly defensive.

This was exactly what I wanted to hear. If he wrote that, with no mention of having found me meddling with my infusion, then I needn’t worry about the grave repercussions that his discovery could have made. If he was willing to not report this… we had a deal. I was impressed that he was still making this offer. If I had been him, I would have decided at this point that this girl was quite likely to use this situation to manipulate more things out of him. Of course, I stood to lose as much by it as he did, but if I later on threatened to reveal to his supervisor that he had lied about such a serious matter… his career would take a serious hit. It would have been enough to make me pause.

Luckily, though, it seemed that I hadn’t quite unnerved him that much. I preferred to tell myself that than consider the alternative: that he had an ulterior motive to what he was doing. You’re interesting, he had said. What could possibly be so medically interesting about me that it was worth risking a career for? Involuntarily, I flinched inwardly. No, this was a line of thought best avoided for now.

Especially given that I still didn’t remember why on earth I was in this place. Was I even supposed to remember? I felt an almost irresistible urge to try dissecting Dr Jonathan Meisland’s brain and see if the neuronal tissue would contain the facts I desperately needed.

‘If you are willing to take that risk, then I’ll agree to the three-quarters dose,’ I said, making it sound like I was throwing down the gauntlet. ‘And you should bear in mind that I may be lying to you and might still tamper with the bottle later on.’

He sighed. ‘You’re not doing to make this easy, are you?’

I would have smiled if I hadn’t been feeling rather insane courtesy of the benzodiazepine withdrawal, so I settled for politely saying, ‘I’m merely being truthful and making sure you realise what you’re doing.’ If he was the kind of person he seemed to be… me agreeing too easily would make him suspicious and possibly back out.

‘How very nice of you,’ he said, dryly. ‘It would be nice if you could give me a passable mini-mental state examination score, too, to make it seem even more legit on paper.’

He was being sarcastic (or maybe not – it was hard to tell with that unchangingly frank upturned face) but I was serious when I replied. ‘Sure, why not?’

‘Ah,’ he said, shifting his clipboard. ‘That sounds like considerable progress. Your full name, please?’

‘Auriel Denevier.’

He made no mention of the French intonation on the name. ‘Date of birth?’

‘13th of December 1996.’ I continued on, because I knew that assessment as well as he did, ‘My address is 12A Thorpe Street, Gainsborough, postcode GA7 3AE. Do you want my phone number as well?’

There was a faintly speculative expression on his face. ‘No, that will do. I’m curious as to how far you’d get on the next part of this.’ I scowled, because he had rightly surmised that I still didn’t know what I was doing in this place. He went on, ‘What is today’s day and date?’

‘I know it’s a Tuesday because the nurse said so this morning, but to be perfectly honest with you, I’ve been in a hospital for god knows how many days, and some of the time I’ve not even been conscious, and nobody had the courtesy to tell me what day or date we were, so I consider it rather good going of me, already, to have a bearing on the day.’ I let go of my book and folded my arms across my chest, to make myself even more confrontational.

‘That’s absolutely true, and I’d expect no different from you,’ he said, amiably. ‘Do you know what the year is?’

‘2018. Anno Domini,’ I added for good measure.

‘And where are you at this moment?’

I sighed inwardly – here it was. ‘In a detached room on a psychiatric ward in the city hospital, in Gainsborough, the UK, the planet earth, the Milky Way Galaxy.’ I paused. ‘And before you ask me the question, allow me to ask you: why am I here?’

My words had a similar effect on him as if I had just confided in him something he’d suspected all along and was satisfied to hear confessed. He sat back in the white-painted chair and crossed his legs, putting the clipboard down on them. I wasn’t sure if this pause before replying to my question was deliberate or not, but in any case, it worked to frustrate me. His closed-off expression, however, already told me that I wasn’t going to learn the facts from him right now.

‘Professor Stroyd decided that, if you don’t recall this on your own, she would tell you herself on her return. There are details she knows that I’m not aware of, Miss Auriel, so it’s for the best, I assure you. She’s been handling your case right from the start, whereas I only came in when – I mean, recently.’ The faintest of winces crossed his face – that had been a slip.

When what happened?

‘In any case,’ he continued, a little hurriedly – had my face betrayed something? – ‘you may still recall it for yourself. After all, a few days ago, you couldn’t even remember your name fully.’

There were a number of things that chilled me about this conversation, and although I was too terrified to confront them, and I realised that he was not going to tell me anything, no matter how much I bullied him, there were things that… it was time I said. They really needed to learn to lie better… or not lie at all.

‘You know what?’ I kept my voice calm, otherwise he might decide I was mad and recant his decision to decrease my dose of benzodiazepine. ‘This is such a poor act. Clearly something went wrong with whatever you guys were meant to be doing – otherwise you wouldn’t be dancing around your words trying to pretend I am recovering… but that I’m so interesting you dropped by for a social call. You make it sound as if there is a very positive outlook in wait for me, but you clearly have no idea, do you? In fact, judging by the whole hush-hush approach you’ve taken, and by the way the nurses freak out about whatever I do, I’d say that whatever you did on me failed very badly.’ I paused, because his face had gone a strange greyish colour which I doubted was due to my withdrawal. I made myself sound pleasant as I went on, ‘I’m sure I signed papers to acknowledge risks, but really, don’t you think that I’m being treated inappropriately? I am not mad nor cognitively limited. I’m struggling to remember things because you guys made me this way. I don’t wish to rot here for a few weeks while Professor Stroyd cruises around on holiday. I expect to be explained what exactly you wrecked, as soon as possible, and allowed to return home. This place is boring. I don’t like Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer. They’re so last century.’

He made a sound that could have been a weak laugh, but caught himself rapidly. I don’t think I have ever seen a redhead look as pale as he did at that moment – even his lips were white. I felt a little bit sorry for him. A very little bit. My guess was clearly, regrettably, spot-on.

‘I’ll tell her that.’ He sounded defeated. ‘What books would you rather have? The nurses could bring you something else from the store.’

‘I want,’ I said, pleased he asked, ‘Patrick Rothfuss’ latest book – it should be out by now – and Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower.’

My request was scandalous enough that he looked mildly outraged. ‘I… I’m pretty sure you realise that a hospital stock won’t have those. We only have the bestsellers that people have donated to us.’

I shrugged. ‘In that case, you’d better get Professor Stroyd along here rather quickly.’

He did actually laugh, this time, although there was no mirth in the sound. ‘You know what? The nurses are right. You are unnerving. I’ll tell Professor Stroyd to come to see you as soon as she’s back. I don’t think we could cope with you much longer, anyway. I’ll get some benzodiazepine and change the dose on your drug chart, now – but I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with bestsellers. We do have Dan Brown.’

‘No, thank you,’ I said, immediately. ‘I won’t even touch Dan Brown’s books with a ten-foot pole. Or any sort of pole, really. But I’ll appreciate the change in the medication dose. Until Thursday, when Professor Stroyd returns.’

He got to his feet rather hurriedly – I must have made him regret the social visit – and reached for the drug chart, writing for a few seconds, then left to get a new benzodiazepine bottle.

I reflected in his absence that even if my plans had failed… at least I had been a good enough bluffer to push the right buttons to get things moving. Although… I did not like a lot of things about what had just happened. I felt like a gambler who needed to win a certain sum, desperately… but was staking their last coins. Things were spinning too fast, too.

He returned with a little blue bottle identical to the ones I had acquainted myself intimately with, lately, and went about changing the bottles on my drip. ‘I take it you’ll verify the dose on the bottle when I’m gone,’ he said, conversationally.

‘Of course! I may even decrease this bottle’s dose, too,’ I said, cheerily.

He gave me a blank scowl. ‘You’re having fun, aren’t you? Do you enjoy bullying people around and making them uneasy?’

‘Well…’ I tried to find a politically correct way of phrasing myself. ‘I suppose I have the choice between enjoying it and regretting it.’

He tutted. ‘Harsh! There. This is sorted. I have a research day tomorrow, so in all likelihood I will next see you when Professor Danielle Stroyd is back. Please be kind to the nurses in the meantime. I’ll be telling them I’ve just decreased your medication and that they should keep an eye on you for withdrawal symptoms, too. I thought I should add that.’

I didn’t mind that. I wasn’t going to consider giving myself more neon spots in my vision for the next twenty-four hours, anyway… by which time, I really might as well wait for Professor Stroyd.

As Dr Jonathan Meisland left, though, I wondered if I was really that eager to talk to Professor Danielle Stroyd. I wiped my palms on the covers, and this time the cold sweat was not from the withdrawal.

 

CHAPTER THREE –

Professor Danielle Stroyd was away, they told me when I asked to see the doctor in charge of my case. She would be back in three days and would be delighted to see me.

I sincerely doubted that last statement, but I let them say it. I saw their feelings in their eyes, not even veiled – they were discomfited by my blunt words and my awareness of exactly what everything around me meant, and they were uneasy by my abrupt recovery. I suppose it had to be a shock, seeing a total vegetable suddenly become aware and demanding within a couple of days. I have no idea how long I had been ill for, or what exactly had happened to me – they refused to tell me.

I asked for the registrar on call, but I was told that he’d already come and seen that I was in stable health and should wait for the Professor now unless there were any burning issues. I looked up at the little blue-capped bottle still connected to my IV tubes, and thought that there was a burning issue, but the layers of meaning behind the wording were not lost on me. The only person who would agree to change anything according to my demands was the Professor, and no registrar would now do it, after whatever little episode it was I had had most recently – that I could not even recall clearly.

I had three days to burn away in a starched hospital bed with blue-papered walls around me, looking at the blankly azure sky. The smell of aseptic hospital was beginning to make me feel sickened to my very core, and it was getting increasingly hard to take my mind off it.

I was Auriel Denevier. I was twenty-one years old and I was a third year medical student. I knew my postcode was GA7 3AE, my pin number was 8539 and my phone number was 0794 8990 034 – but I still had no idea why I was in a psychiatric ward (there was no question that this was indeed where I was, since the nurses all wore tags with Specialist Psychiatry Nurse on their blouses). It took me a while before I could look at that label without flinching and wanting to run away from this place. When I tried to remember my past, I came up with a lot of foggy and painful almost-memories… but nothing concrete came back to me. My present was clearer to me – I knew that I lived in a student house and over the holidays stayed at my cousin’s. From this, I could only deduce that I… had no closer family to return to. But this thought frightened me because it sparked no memories at all, and surely if it was true, it would trigger something.

It took me ages to sleep that night because I had been confined to my room, doing nothing, for the entire day. My thoughts circled vengefully around my head and would not leave me – there were questions, questions, questions, nagging at me, some mocking me, some simply making me feel like shouting for answers from someone, anyone. It did not make much difference that I was allowed to walk around in my room, and down the corridor to the common room where there was no one other than me and the nurse who would accompany me – what was the point in pacing about in this artificial world that was not even designed to look real? I was simply biding my time there, and the longer it took me to become fully myself, the more time I was going to be made to waste in there.

There was the little bottle of benzodiazepine that I was being given on drip. As I lay there in the night, gazing up at it framed against the star-speckled midnight blue of the sky, it glinted faintly in the light that spilled from the corridor through the tiny slit of my ajar door. Oh yes, there was this bottle, indeed.

I was not me. And here was one thing that I knew changed me. The solution was simple. I had to come off them, or I would never be myself. I had been trying for long enough now that I knew I should have all my faculties back had it been possible for me to do so – the only logical conclusion was that something was preventing me from it. And there was only one thing: the benzodiazepine.

One bottle lasted eight hours, and the nurses would always change it regularly. There was no way I could get even a couple of minutes of reprieve – they were like clockwork, briskly popping up when it needed to be renewed. And I knew that only the Professor would take me off it– with whatever illness had taken me over, since my conversation with the registrar, it was unlikely I could convince anyone that I’d be safe without it… and registrars needed to be assured that things were safe before they took an initiative. When in doubt, leave it to your superior. I knew the ways the system operated.

And so I lay there passively, passionately hating that bottle of benzodiazepine with every inch of me, going over and over exactly how I would convince the Professor that I needed to come off it. I knew it was a vicious circle, though: I could only be taken off it if I could convince them I was fully myself, and I could only be myself if I was taken off it. Oh, the bitter irony of it was not lost on me.

__

I don’t know why it took me a full twenty-four hours to recover, but somehow it did. When I woke up the next morning (the second morning in a row that I was lucid), I knew that I was finally myself. The Auriel of the previous day, who had lain in bed thinking ceaselessly about the inescapability of her situation… that was not me.

It was a coolly-lit morning for 7:57AM in spring. My eyes glanced over the digital clock that was on the table that served as tray when it was needed – then went automatically to the little bottle latched onto me via the IV lines. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and exhaled slowly. Something felt different – my head felt clearer, lighter, as if someone had opened the shutters of an old stuffy room and cast some freshness into it. I’m Arthelie.

I sat up, my limbs heavy and achy, taking some time to comply with me. It took more effort than I would have liked it to, and I leaned forwards to rest my elbows momentarily on my up-drawn knees, reflecting on the plan of action I should adopt.

Because this, now, was me. I needed a plan of action. And I would find one.

I steadfastly drew back the covers, taking care not to disturb the needle that was still persistently fastened to the back of my hand, and I swung my legs over the side of my bed, pausing briefly to reflect on the familiarity of the green pyjama trousers I wore. I definitely knew those – which indicated that… someone had brought them for me? So I was known to be here, in this hospital? But by whom?

I bit my lip and forced myself to breathe steadily. One breath in… count three seconds, then exhale. Two more seconds… Breathe in…

Giving in to the panic that resided deep within me would just take me back to the wreck I had been over the past few days – and I could absolutely not afford another such set-back. I needed to get the hell out of where I was. And for that… I needed to fully assess my surroundings.

I eased myself off the bed, wincing as my bare feet touched the cold vinyl of the floor. My left foot hurt faintly, as if I had hurt it recently, but I ignored this and padded to where a pair of black flat shoes was neatly stowed. Yesterday, they had not meant much to me, but now I recognised them – these were my placement shoes, complete with scratch on the front of the right one from where I had stubbed my foot against the pavement while walking to town one Saturday. I felt a very strong shiver grip me, and my teeth started to chatter – I snapped my jaw shut forcefully and closed my eyes briefly.

No one would pick my placement shoes to take to a hospital. They would have brought my slippers – big, clumsy things, that I wore because I had the tendency to bump my feet into furniture and doors, and needed that extra bit of protection for my toes. I had already broken one – as I opened my eyes again and gazed downwards, I could see it, still faintly crooked to one side. No, the only person who would choose my placement shoes was… myself. They were my most decent simple pair of shoes. I tried to reason myself, told myself that slippers would be inside the small white-painted wardrobe to my right – but even as I desperately caught hold of the doorknob and yanked the wardrobe open, I knew that one thing it would not contain was slippers.

I was right. I stood there in utter silence, confronted by a line onto which two dresses and a coat were hung, accompanied by four empty hangers. On the shelf above, there was a black backpack – the way it lay flat told me it was empty – and a neat pile formed by two t-shirts and sleek blackness. I reached out, touched this glossy black fabric: trousers, neatly folded. That was right, those were my size 26 trousers, that never needed ironing.

I stepped back with a choked sound that sounded a bit like the sort of thing one might hear from a duck being squashed.

Pyjamas, more than one t-shirt and dress… Those things told me that this stay in the hospital was planned – not as long as I had been in for, because there were not enough clothes for that – but certainly planned. I felt pain bloom on the side of my head, and realised I was pulling on my hair with one hand. I pulled harder, blinking away the tears. The choice of shoes told me that I was the one who had brought these clothes with me. By logical deduction… I was the one who had planned this?

‘We’re getting out of here,’ I whispered, angrily blinking. My gaze landed on the back of my left hand and I saw the needle and tube there. ‘Oh!’ I let go of my hair and reached towards my left hand… and then paused.

No. I could not afford to give in to spontaneity and panic again. Think. I had to convince them I was good to get out of here. And somewhere along the line, I had to learn what the precious hell was wrong with me that I had chosen to come here to a psychiatric hospital for a temporary stay. Or maybe I had not come to a psychiatric unit, but been transferred here? I felt some faint stirring of hope deep within me, but I knew that I was clutching at thin straws.

It still brought me back to the same question: what had led me to… make the decisions I seemed to have made recently?

I reached at the back of the shelf and pulled out a pair of black ribbed socks and pulled them on, slipping my feet into the placement shoes – they were completely noiseless, so I might as well put them on instead of dirtying my socks. My hair swung forwards as I bent over, and I scowled in spite of myself. I hated having my hair loose except for when I was in bed. I pushed it back with my fingers, looking vainly around the room for a hairbrush. There was a mirror above the table to my left, and I shifted a few steps to place myself in front of it, to assess the state of catastrophe my hair would be in.

I flinched when my reflection appeared within the frames of the mirror, but it was not my hair that caused the immediate reaction.

I looked like me – I was familiar. That should have been a relief, but it only served to tease at that flutter of unease within my chest: it was as if I was seeing a photograph I had studied for hours until I knew it off by heart… but did not really know who the person within the photograph was. This was exactly the feeling that hit me. I was staring at a very familiar shell, which I knew down to the three spots on the right cheek and the dent in the thin chin. But all I knew of what was inside of this shell was what I could glean from the expression reflected back at me by the perfect square of the mirror.

Under the rumpled squirrel’s nest of dark hair, a pair of too-wide eyes stared back at me – they bordered on the classical thyrotoxic appearance, so widely were they opened. My eyebrows had done a funny squiggly thing to make me look almost comically shocked – and my jaw hung slightly slackly, making my face even more asymmetrical than I knew it to usually be. I was all lopsided – even my hair seemed to be favouring the right side of my head. I must have slept on my left cheek.

I looked completely clueless, and frustrated by this fact.

‘Oh, that hair was never made for a fashion show,’ I heard myself mutter.

Of course, the hair. I was supposed to be making it more presentable. I searched the room again for anything to help me in that direction, but the table surfaces of the room were all bare, except for a half-full glass of water and a compact digital clock on the moveable tray. There was also a yellow sharps bin in the corner of the table now in front of me.

What use was a sharps bin when one had dishevelled hair to take care of?

I dragged my fingers through my unruly mane again and decided to give the room a proper inspection – there had to be something here that would help me, in some way, get closer to leaving this place, even if there was nothing to assist me in taming my hair. I towed the stand that hosted my saline bag behind me, cautious not to make it squeak or hit any furniture, certain that the slightest noise would bring a nurse to check on me. I had noticed they seem to be particularly on edge, dropping in on me far more frequently than was warranted. I suppose they did have some grounds – I was a miraculously recuperated ex-vegetable.

I gave the room three thorough checks, making sure I went over every detail – or lack thereof. There was a regular bin in the small en suite toilet that opened off the left of my bed, but it was empty when I opened it cautiously – it must have been emptied while I slept. The nurses always threw the empty saline bags in there, along with all the regular waste that went into the big bins. Apart from the needles they used to flush out the saline, of course – that went into the sharps bin. I flicked its cover back dispassionately, peering into it just for the sake of completing my inspection of the room. There were a few plasters in it, and two needles. Little black caps at the bottom of the bin told me they were 22g needles – the finer needles.

I drew back with a sigh of frustration – none of this was helpful to me. I was just like a prisoner in a dungeon who resorted to counting the bricks in the wall across him. I was rehashing useless details – needle sizes were not about to help me in my predicament. The room might as well have been as bare as a medieval dungeon. I decided to give call my search off for now, and returned slowly to my bed, reflecting on my situation.

If only I could get rid of the benzodiazepine, I would be so much more myself. I would… I would be able to look at myself in a mirror and know the girl therein. Professor Danielle Stroyd was going to be taking a good look at me in a couple more days’ time, and if this was the best I could offer her, I had to admit, I would have to fight tooth and nail to get her to acknowledge that I was fit to be released.

My head hurt already. It was 8:11AM and I felt as if I had been up doing mental acrobatics for hours already, while in fact, all I had been doing was assessing needle sizes and…

HOLYMOTHEROFSNAKES.

Needles – used to flush saline through the cannula in my wrist. My eyes trailed up to the little blue bottle of medication with sudden feverish eagerness. It was one of those that they latched onto the tube there, with an opening that was too small for its contents to simply be poured out… but that could be aspirated out by means of a needle.

Trembling, I got to my feet and reached up, fingers clammy on the smooth, cool little bottle. It was barely the length of my little finger, and was almost full – I had had it changed at 6:00AM, so it had only had two hours to begin emptying itself. I closed my eyes to try to steady my breath, and let go of it, having seen what I wanted. Its opening was indeed simply slipped onto the end of the IV drip – if I pulled it off, I could draw out the medication with one of the needles in the sharps bin, and… and replace it with water. I couldn’t just leave it empty – that would be far too obvious.

I was unsteady on my feet as I padded over to the sharps bin again and bent over it, the sight of the two used bare needles greeting me – a glint of cold steel within the sickeningly yellow plastic bin. My training made me hesitate to reach inside and attempt to retrieve one – the opening of the bin was small, and once I put my hand to it, I’d be fumbling blindly inside. I had absolutely no wish to risk getting stabbed.

Cautious not to make any noise, I tilted the bin over and gave it a gentle swill, to edge its contents closer to the opening. There was a loud caustic roll of plastic on plastic from within it, and I winced, eyes darting to the door. I counted to five before carefully giving the bin a little shake again. There was a tinkle, and the black discarded top that had belonged to the needle fell out and rolled onto the white painted surface of the table. I paused and looked inside the bin – one of the needles was right on the edge. It was still attached to a syringe, which was what was keeping it inside. I bit my lip and shook the bin again.

It took a few more tries before the other black top came out… and then one of the needles slipped out, rolling onto the table to come to a rest, glinting accusingly at me.

I knew I had to be quick – if a nurse walked in on me at this point, I was completely doomed. I fetched the glass of water and laid it on the table. With a deftness that belied my nervousness, I unlatched the little blue bottle from its place, and held it in front of me in my left hand. Carefully, painstakingly, I eased the tip of the needle within it, and then prepared to aspirate the medication out.

It was at that precise point that I remembered that benzodiazepines caused dependency if used for a significant length of time. I cursed under my breath. I must have been on them for… more than a week. More than enough time for a dependency to set in – benzodiazepines did not waste time. I stood there, poised with a needle within the incriminating bottle, and dared not draw out its contents. If I went into withdrawal, they would find me out.

I made my decision in a split-second. I aspirated half of the bottle out, and withdrew the needle, ejecting the tiny amount of liquid into the sharps bin, knowing that this amount was negligible enough that it would not be noticed within the bin.

Half… surely I would be fine if I titrated the dose down to half. With shaking hands, I put the needle into my plastic cup of water and drew in some water, completing the transfer into the bottle within a few more seconds. I emptied the rest of the water back into the glass, and, with the utmost care, resheathed the needle with one of the black plastic caps that had rolled out of the bin earlier. As much as I hated the thought of keeping a needle around, I dared not put it back within the bin, for fear that they would empty the bin or realise that it was unwise to leave such a thing within a psychiatric patient’s room. I put the medication bottle back in its place, tidied up the contents of the bin, and slipped the needle within the folds of the t-shirts in the wardrobe. It was a lousy hiding place, but I was not spoilt for choices. They might check the backpack to see what belongings I had with me, but hopefully no one would bother riffling through my two t-shirts.

And finally, I sat myself back onto my bed, and tried to compose my thoughts. But it was hard, because for the first time since I had regained my senses… I was aware of one thing. Escape.

It was not so far, now.

(to be continued)

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