That night in the hospital, I text Nikki at 2am; I want to be better or dead and I don’t care which one. I’m hooked into an IV drip inserted just above an infected burn on one arm, stitches in the other, my right foot streaked with yellow and purple from hitting it with a sledgehammer, and I’m throwing up everything I’ve ever eaten. I’m a fucking mess.
The next day, though, I realise I don’t mean it. Nikki comes to visit, and partway through the conversation, I roll my head back on the pillow, pressing my eyes closed.
I can’t believe I’m here again.
This is the last time, she says, resolute, and it hits me like a lightning bolt. The last time? No. No! I have the urge to somehow clasp this experience to my chest, like a toddler with a favourite toy, and refuse to let her pry it away. The idea of never being in a blood-stained emergency room bed again is frightening. I hate the nausea, the urine samples, the doctors on rounds talking about me as though I’m sitting right there, and I need it. It’s routine. Familiar. I don’t really want to be dead, but maybe I don’t really want to be better, either.
The last couple of days have been like some kind of weird movie directed by Tim Burton where an attachment-disordered client’s dreams come to life. In very concrete, solid ways, Nikki has manifested all the care, support and concern that we want from our therapists. Met all of those primal needs. Touch. Food. Clothing. She’s been a mother.
When I call her and tell her I’m freaking out, she asks me if I want her to come over. I’m hesitant (isn’t that…weird?), but I know little Rea will never stop yelling at me if I pass up this opportunity to have her at home with me, so I decide yes, please can you come? And she does. She sits in my chair and she comments on the art on my walls and reads the titles on my bookshelf aloud to herself. It is incredibly uncomfortable and everything I’ve ever wanted, all at once.
She falls into the situation sideways, because she does home sessions as a part of her normal practice, and she can’t predict that I’ll panic and take an overdose, but it ends up being a pretty literal rescuer scenario.
(Have you done something?
A nod, eyes fixed on the bedspread. Fear coiled in my stomach. Dread.
What have you done? Gentle.
Have you taken something?
What have you taken?
Just Panadol. Quiet.
How many? Distress, but not surprise.
I only had 20.
That’s not ‘only’. You know that’s a lot. We need to go in.
I don’t want to.
I know you don’t. You can die from that, and I won’t let that happen. There’s no chance. Firm. There might be tears in her eyes, but I only look up at her for a second, so I’m not sure.
I’m so fucking stupid. A whisper.
Oh, Rea. A beat. I’m glad you told me.
A long pause.
Don’t be mad at me. Little Rea, crying.
I’m not mad at you. Tender.
You should be. But I don’t want you to be.)
Instead of calling an ambulance, she takes me to her car, and drives me. She seems to be fighting herself at every stage; first she says she’ll walk me (it’s five minutes from my apartment), then she realises she needs to move her car and says she’ll drop me off. Then she’ll just park in the five-minute drop-off zone and get me checked in, then she says she’ll stay until eight and goes out to move her car into parking. At half past, when she finally tells me she has to go, she still seems hesitant.
I don’t want to leave you, she says, and I bite back I want you to stay.
I’m okay, I say instead.
Before she comes to my apartment, she calls the psychiatric hospital, and organises an appointment for me with the intake coordinator the next day at 12pm. She’ll pick me up from home at 11.30, she says.
(I can take myself.
You don’t have to.)
Even after the overdose, the drama, the inconvenience, she’s still planning to take me. She’ll pick me up from the hospital, but call her in the morning if anything changes, okay? It turns out, though, that the hospital refuses to discharge me in time because I have toxic levels of paracetamol in my blood, and she can’t drive me the following day [today] because it’s her day off and she’s caring for her son.
(If you really cared you’d get a babysitter, I think mutinously, then I’m horrified that the thought would even cross my mind. How did I become an entitled monster so quickly?)
She touches me to comfort me, to gently get my attention, and I soak it in.
(A couple of months ago I told her a story about my mother, and she said That reminds me of the time I tried to give you a hug, and the amount you repelled…it was like I’d burnt you, or given you an electric shock. You were practically up against the wall, like this, and she mimes flattening her arms out straight against the wall.)
When she arrives at my apartment, I’ve just finished hastily wiping up the blood from the bathroom floor, and I thrust the kitten at her to try to distract her from the bloody towel I’m pressing to my arm. It doesn’t work.
Is it time for a hug? she asks, sympathetic, and she’s already standing close, and I can’t even remember how it happens, but we’re hugging. It’s fuzzy now, but I think her cheek is pressed against mine. Eventually she draws back, because I’m never going to.
At the hospital in the waiting room, I slump against the wall half-conscious, and when she wants to talk to me, she puts a hand on my knee instead of saying my name. Both times she says goodbye, she puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes gently. It’s another barrier down between us.
(I want her to hold my hand when the doctor’s poking around in my arm trying to find a vein, but I notice the still-tacky blood smeared across my palm and fingers, and I’m afraid she’ll be disgusted but feel obligated to do it anyway. So I don’t ask. But she doesn’t flinch at anything, not at my apartment when I reach for the kitten and accidentally drop the towel covering the fresh gashes –
Don’t be sorry. It’s not like I don’t already know this is what happens.
– and not when the doctor peels back the covering over the open, infected third-degree burn on my forearm.)
The food is the thing that most strikes at the desperate orphan in me. When she comes to my apartment, she brings a tub of fruit salad and yoghurt, because she’s worried I haven’t been eating. Later, at the hospital, when my hands are on my stomach and I’m breathing through the nausea, she thinks it’ll get better if I eat and wants to go out and buy me something.
Having someone tend to physical needs is enormously meaningful for me, especially since my mother is so scornful of me for daring to eat. The next day, when she comes to visit for an hour with a bag of food, it isn’t even just the gesture of bringing sustenance that floods me with feeling; it’s the caretaking in the detail of it.
[This is what’s in the bag:
A salad with chicken on top, and a little plastic pig full of salad dressing: earlier in the day she texts to tell me she’s making me a salad, and asks whether I eat chicken.
A snap-lock bag full of Vita-Weat biscuits, and an equal number of roughly-sliced pieces of cheese wrapped in clingfilm, with a little jar of chutney to put on the cheese.
A tub full of grapes.
A pack of wet wipes, because I’d told her that I felt and smelled like a rotting animal.
A singlet of hers, to replace my bloodstained tshirt; it smells like her, and I immediately decide I’ll never wear it because I don’t want to have to wash it.]
That’s the kind of bag only a mom could pack for you. Right?
She asks whether my cats need to be fed, and mentions that she’d thought about going to my apartment and picking up my laptop for me; when I tell her that a friend has fed the kittens for me, she seems almost…disappointed? After she’s gone, when I try to organise payment for the hour she was with me, she absolutely refuses. It was my choice, she says.
Of course, there’s a major problem with the illusion that Nikki is my mother – it’s an illusion. And the bubble has to pop.
The psychiatrist comes over to tell me I’m being discharged, then adds And we’ve talked to your psychologist and told her that next time she has to call an ambulance, and being in your home wasn’t appropriate.
[The psychiatrist doesn’t like me.]
I’m on fire while I walk home. When I step in the front door of my building, I think I should kill myself. I feel intensely distressed, chaotic, frightened, shamed. I feel like I did something terrible, that I trapped Nikki by overdosing even though I knew she was coming. You got Nikki in trouble, you stupid bitch. She’s going to hate you now. She’s going to wish she never helped you.
I need to text Nikki to ask her about logistics for the possible private hospital admission, but I feel intensely guilty for contacting her, afraid that I’m coming off as needy, that she’ll see the messages and regret that she reached out to me, think Oh dear, she really is desperate, poor thing. I feel sure that the responses she texts back are as deliberately brief and uninvolved as possible, intended to put distance between us.
And I desperately need her. My brain is an oxytocin junkie. It wants more, and it’s not satisfied with little hits. A text message isn’t enough now that I’ve had a hug and a home visit and a little bag of biscuits and cheese slices. I want to talk to her on the phone, to hear her voice. I don’t want somebody else to drive me to the hospital; I want her, and I’m deliberately slow about making the arrangements, hoping that if the admission gets put off to tomorrow she’ll offer to take me. The night I’m in the hospital, I almost don’t contact Carol and ask her to come sit with me, because I’m afraid it’ll make Nikki think I don’t need her. I’ve never felt this needy. I’ve never had to pace and bite my fingernails to hold myself back from picking up my phone.
I imagine sending out an internal rescue mission for the old me, and it makes me smile, at least. You. Yes, you, the teenage part with the bad hairstyle. Go find me the part that hates talking on the phone and bring her back here, on the double. And somebody get rid of this whimpering child part!
I’m aware that Nikki and I are playing out patterns that have existed for over a decade. I don’t know how, but somehow I make people want to mother me. Take care of me. Rescue me. And I don’t know why; why have I spent over ten years seeking out and soaking in love from maternal figures but resoundingly rejecting any care from my own?
There’s a lot to explore and to understand in this dynamic. But I don’t think Nikki will bring it up on her own, and I don’t want to. Talking about it will take it away, and I don’t want it to go away.
I have no idea how this is going to pan out. Nikki might panic at her level of involvement, terminate and run like hell. But whatever happens, I’m going to get through it.