In November 2008 I put myself in the hospital in New York, Weill Cornell/ Payne Whitney, because I was very, very sick. It went beyond wanting to die — I quite literally thought I was already dead. It’s a kind of psychosis that can accompany severe clinical depression, and though it’s not at all common, it’s known. It’s called the Cotard Delusion, and one day I’ll write about it. I’ve had it twice in my life.
But while I was in the hospital, I wrote a LOT. A lot. Luckily I dumped it all in a private blog and I just came across it. This story is chilling, as you’ll see at the end.
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My first morning at breakfast, a very tall blind woman was escorted into the dining room for breakfast. Her blue eyes were strange: one was milky, and the other had a very sharp circle cut out of the blue iris, just outside the pupil. She didn’t wear dark glasses. She had a very strong accent, which I initially thought was German, a very deep and rich voice, and she was beautiful. Her messy hair was piled up on the back of her head into what must have been a twist of some kind, several days before. It was gray, but with reddish-colored ends, so she used to color it. Her skin was translucent, and her features were fine and beautiful. Her lips were full. Though she had a stick, as she called it, she didn’t use it as blind people do, tapping in front of themselves left and right. She just held it upright like a scepter, and held the arm of anyone who escorted her.
She sat at the breakfast table and announced, “Derek. I vant vaffles. And hot cho-co-lat.” None of the staff responded, though it seemed they were preparing her food. Of course she was blind and couldn’t see that, so a minute later she’d repeat, “Derek. Can I please have some vaffles and hot cho-co-lat.” No response, request repeated a minute later, exactly the same. Finally the staff became irritated with her and snapped at her – “Helen, you have to wait and be patient.”
So she’d pick up her vaffle with her fingers and eat it, no butter or syrup: a bite of vaffle then a drink of her hot chocolate. A bite of waffle, a drink of hot chocolate. When she finished, staff would escort her back to her room and she wouldn’t be seen until the next meal. Lunch was always baked eggplant. Dinner was always baked eggplant. And breakfast was always vaffles and hot cho-co-lat. It wasn’t that they only served those things to her – it’s that those were the foods she always asked for. Demanded. The rest of us had to eat whatever was being served, but Helen ate only these things. If she was not eating, she was left in her room.
One evening she appeared in the doorway of her room and said, “Would someone help me make a call?” None of the patients moved, and few people even looked up. The staff didn’t respond in any way at all. So finally, I stood up and went to her, offering to help. We walked over to the phone, I dialed the number and waited while she completed her call, then escorted her back to her room.
I don’t remember how it began, but it became our evening habit that I would walk her around the unit until she tired. She asked my name, and though I said Lori she called me Lora. With her accent, the r sounded like a d. She would come to her door and bellow, “Lora! Lora!” The unit was very small, so our walk was just a square – a short hallway, a small sitting area in the back, overlooking the East River and the FDR, then back up the opposite short hallway, and then across the front sitting area. While we walked, we talked. The insane girl would race past us, up and down with manic speed, and as we rounded the corner the tiny, fat Jewish man who had a 24-hour guard would blow his shofar.
I learned that Helen was from Russia, and she believed that was why the staff hated her. I asked her where in Russia and she snapped at me, she didn’t want to talk about that because she’s an American. I apologized, and said that I’m from Texas, and then she started talking about her childhood in Russia. Her mother was an actress in Russia, I remember that. She was curious about me, and asked me why I was there, which led to long conversations. She scolded me for wanting to be dead. She asked me how I came to NY. She never smiled, but she was very friendly and warm. She said she was there because she’d just become blind, a year before, due to cataracts and glaucoma and something else, and all surgical options were exhausted. She said she was stagnant, warehoused. I couldn’t disagree with her, which broke my heart.
The last couple of nights she opened up more to me, and wanted to lie on the couch in the back sitting area with her head in my lap. She didn’t want me to stroke her head – she said it made her feel like a pet. But she seemed to want to be touched, and to have real contact. So I sat at the end of the couch and allowed her to put her head in my lap, and I lay my hand on her shoulder. The last night, she lay on her side with her head in my lap, curled up in a loose ball, and she pulled my hand into her chest and held it there the whole time.
She asked me what I look like, so I tried to describe myself. Then I also told her the story of my tattoos, and this absolutely gorgeous smile spread across her face. She said, “Lora, you are so silly. This is a silly thing you have done, vy did you do this silly thing.” She teased me, and it was wonderful, a light and touching moment.
She said the staff was going to transfer her to the state hospital and she said, with her deep-voiced Russian drama, “Lora, I vill perish. Lora, I vill perish.” I looked into her eyes and had no response. What could I say?
Finally I asked her the obvious question: “Helen, why are you here, on the psych ward, instead of in a hospital for blind people where you could learn how to navigate the world?” She said it was her punishment, because when she lived in France she made her living telling fortunes and reading cards. She was very religious, and believed that this part of her life was as it should be, given by God, as punishment. Then she said, almost in passing, “They said I poured bleach into my eyes, can you imagine such a thing?”