Essay: The Thing With Feathers by Mike Byrne

Photo by Andraz Lazic

I learned that belts and shoestrings were prohibited. For shaving, I had to be supplied a razor with blades so dull that it would require an act of God to break skin. A “ward assistant” hovered silently over my shoulder throughout the entire procedure. During my time in the psych ward, I thought about killing myself more than I ever had before. There were constant reminders: suicide-resistant linen, stainless steel mirrors, and toilets with no hinged seats. Door handles were outfitted with pressure sensors to detect whether a ligature had been tied to them.

I learned that a “ligature” is a catchall term for things with which you can use to strangle yourself. There are a few other meanings for “ligature,” like when two letters are combined into a single character, like in the Latin spelling of amœba or the millennial spelling of bæ. It’s also the name of the device that holds a reed to the mouthpiece of a woodwind. So, “ligature” may be the single thing that connects suicidals, typographers, and clarinetists, which, might I add, has the potential to be a great “X, Y, and Z” walk into a bar joke.”

I learned how to knit a patch from an elderly woman named Darlene. It was quite easy once I got the hang of it—knit once, purl once, knit once, purl once, and on. Darlene told me that she was there because she made the ill-advised decision to quit taking her Lithium. I asked why. She said that she was feeling fine and thought that she had gotten over her bipolar disorder. I said, “But you were feeling fine because of the medication. That’s like quitting beta-blockers because your blood pressure is stable.” She laughed and responded, “Yeah, well, that’s why I stopped taking those too.”

I learned how to speak candidly about my condition. Conversations with other patients were coarse, as there was no need to stage any acts of normalcy. We all knew we were broken.

I learned that I still had my friend Jesse’s phone number memorized. I called him, using one of the three public phones in the ward, wiping it down before pressing it against my ear. The receiver’s cord was only about nine inches—another safeguard—so I couldn’t lean back or get comfortable. Instead, I just pressed my forehead against the wall. I dialed, hesitating before punching in the last number. Jesse said, “Hello?” I tried to explain calmly where I was and why I was here, dancing around the word “suicidal.” He didn’t know what to say, which was fine, and asked if he could come visit. I told him not to worry about it and that I would see him soon. I hung up the phone, wishing that I accepted his offer.

I learned that my father doesn’t know what magazines I like to read. Visiting hours were from six to eight each night, and every evening at exactly six, he would bring me a black and white cookie, a bottle of lemonade, and a recent copy of Game Informer. As a kid, I read the magazine voraciously, but hadn’t picked up an issue in ten years. In fact, I hadn’t played a video game in ten years, but I felt too guilty to correct him. So every night, since there was nothing else to do, I learned about the photorealistic graphics technology that was being implemented, new console hardware specifications, and major controversies, like how Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 wouldn’t include a single player campaign mode, whatever any of that meant.

I learned that even people with fine intentions could strip me of my humanity. We were deposited in the basement of a hospital. There was no access to natural light, no indication of existence outside those walls. Without the ability to glance out a window or at least notice that the sun’s glow around the shades was fading, time suddenly became disorienting. Plus, I lost the chance to utter sacred banalities like, “Wow, it sure is getting dark early,” or “Looks like it might rain today.” For those seven days, I remained faceless. With so many patients moving in and out of the ward, doctors, nurses, and orderlies rarely remembered my name. I haunted the linoleum-tiled hallways, occupying my time with little mental games like “How many ceiling panels are in the entire ward?” or “What’s the average interval between indecipherable shouts from the senile man’s room?”

I learned that even at the bottom of some desolate pit, I could find some grace in my peers. A woman named Ann’s face peeked out of the blanket she constantly kept wrapped around herself. Her skin was wrinkled and dotted with liver spots, aged more harshly by the use of a multitude of drugs. Her voice was little more than a croak and every day she wore the same cheap gown she was admitted in. She had no one on the outside to bring her any hospital-approved clothing. I was inclined to avoid her, but one day we ended up being the only two people in the TV room. With neither of us particularly interested in watching yet another episode of Deal or No Deal, we got to talking about our lives. She told me about the husband who ran off with another woman and the kids who stopped speaking to her after her last failed attempt at getting clean. I told her about the failed college courses and the heartbreak, slightly embarrassed that my conditions were decidedly less dramatic. She remained quiet for a moment, and then said, “You’ve got the most valuable thing on your side, kid. You’ve got time. What I wouldn’t fucking give for some of that.”

“What if I can’t be fixed though? What if this is just who I am forever?”

She looked down and smiled, not in a condescending way, but like she felt some tinge of recognition in my query. Her eyes met mine and I noticed how blue they were.

“I know,” she said. “I had that exact same thought when I was in my 20s. I believed it. That’s what fucked me. You’ve got life in you still, though. I see you every day and you’re smiling and talking with the other people here. Laughing. You just have to fight. Fight the hardest fucking fight you’ll ever go through.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes.

“You do drugs?”

I shook my head.

“Drink?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

She laughed. “Kid, you’re smart, I’m not worried about you. I know you’re worried about you, but I’m not. You’ll figure it out. Hope is the thing with fucking feathers. You’re just molting.”

Having grown up in the suburbs of New Jersey, Mike Byrne has recently escaped the residential ennui by hopping across the Hudson. In New York City, Mike is currently making the ill-advised decision of studying English and  creative Writing at Fordham University. Suffering from a variety of neuroses, Mike writes in order to try and make sense of the world.

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