Excerpt: 'Salt', by Rebecca Jessen

Public domain image from pixabay.com.


I know now, there are some songs I will never listen to again. I’ve spent the afternoon at the beach, fighting waves of nausea, and the relentless urge to swim out and not return.

This morning I attempted to break up with my girlfriend of six years, but she refused to take me seriously because I’ve started on new antidepressants. I convinced her to let me go for a drive to clear my head. When I left I was calm and smiling.

“I’ll be okay,” I assured her repeatedly. “When I come back we’ll sort it out.”

I reversed the car out of the garage and even blew a kiss goodbye.

It’s Saturday. The roads are sparse and good music is playing on the radio. I drive to the beach. It is not a proper beach in the traditional sense. There are no lifeguards. There is, however, a vast body of water that stretches to the horizon and beyond.

I walk along the path that hugs the rocks and water below. Nausea threatens, rising quickly up my throat. I sit on the edge of the path and look out to sea. Last year the psychologist I was seeing told me to be near water for its calming effect. I don’t imagine this is what she meant. For weeks I have pictured myself here, an image so unshakeable it haunted me daily. Now I am here, skirting dangerously close to my limit.

When the nausea becomes overwhelming I drive across suburbs to a shopping centre carpark. Sitting in the car with the radio on, I wait for hours for this high to wane. Police circle the carpark twice; I think they are looking for me.

I take the long way home and park the car in the garage, turning the lights off but keeping the radio on. ‘November Rain’ is playing. My window is rolled down slightly to let in the crisp night air, which is tainted by the distinctly metallic smell of a hot car settling. It is some time before my girlfriend finds me.

Throughout the next twenty-four hours I find I am in the most frightening state. I am completely unknown to myself. The realisation of this—and the advice of a close friend—helps me find the clarity of mind the next day to drive myself to the Emergency Department. I park in the short-term lot and walk into Emergency. I’m going to find someone to talk to about my new medication, which has turned me inside out. I have no idea what can happen inside this building if you utter the word “suicidal” to someone who has the power to lock you up.

The nurse looks at me and then with her eyes still fixed she reaches across the desk and picks up the phone. I can’t make out what she is saying between the glass so I look over at my girlfriend and flash her a grin.

“Make sure you stay with her at all times,” the admitting nurse says to my girlfriend after we’re through the first glass door. She directs us towards a curtained off area.

After ten minutes a different nurse, one with candy blue hair, comes over and introduces herself. She has a checklist.

“So, what’s going on?” she asks. “What brought you here?”

I relay my story to her: how these new antidepressants have made me feel worse, even suicidal. I want to say that I was okay before this new medication, but it is not true. Days before I had begun taking it I’d had a similar episode, only slightly less severe. The new medication has amplified things, made them too hard to ignore and now I have ended up here. I want to tell her all of this, but I don’t.

The nurse scribbles notes. “Do you have a suicide plan?” she asks in what seems a bored tone.

“Yes,” I reply, stifling a laugh. My girlfriend shoots me a look and I try to compose myself.

“Have you tried to harm yourself?” the nurse asks.

“Kind of.”

She looks down at my wrist. “You might need a tetanus shot,” she says, and gathers up her papers. “Someone from mental health will be down to see you soon. It might be a while: they’re super busy tonight.”

I don’t realise what is actually happening because I am too frantic at the thought of getting a tetanus shot. “Aren’t those for people who’ve been bitten by a dog?” I say to my girlfriend. She rubs my shoulder.

I study all the signs and posters in sight until there is nothing left to look at. I begin to drift in and out of sleep. I make a comment about the slow pace of the fast-response Emergency area we are in. I wonder if they’ve put me here so I don’t freak out the people in the waiting room. My girlfriend makes a joke about needing her beauty sleep, that she’ll break up with me if I’m not seen by midnight.

Midnight comes and goes and no one stops by my cubicle. After another hour the psychiatrist arrives, juggling folders and paperwork. I wonder how anyone can be alert at such an hour.

We don’t know at the time that her expression of concern is taken as consent to lock me up.

“Which one of you is Rebecca?” she asks.

“Me,” I say, half raising my hand.

She turns to my girlfriend. “Would you mind going to get a drink while I have a little chat with Rebecca?”

My girlfriend looks at me and I nod. She squeezes my hand and leaves. The psychiatrist closes the curtains around us and settles into the chair beside me, pen poised. She asks questions and writes furiously in her notebook in strangely slanted script. I have to turn my head a certain way to read it.

I know how these things pan out. Within seconds she’ll have formed an opinion of me and I already know what that opinion will be. Sometimes when answering her questions I have to stop mid-sentence and trace back to where I began. She notices this and writes “Vague!” in her notebook. I pull a face.

“Rebecca, are you finding it hard to concentrate on what we’re talking about right now?”

I nod.

“You are experiencing what we call ‘poverty of thought.’”

I lose track of the conversation for a moment, contemplating this phrase.

“You’re showing signs of suicide ideation and I’m worried about your safety right now. Are you prepared to be admitted into hospital tonight?”

“Like, to stay?”


I hesitate. “Do I have to?”

“If you don’t come voluntarily I will have to regulate you.”

I don’t quite know what this means, but I gather it has something to do with the kicking and screaming often associated with being institutionalised. I’m alert enough to know it’s in my best interest to comply.

“I think you are suffering from clinical depression, and from what you’ve told me, you have been for a very long time,” she says in a voice that is kinder than before. “There are people here who can give you the help you need.”

I nod, becoming more agreeable.

The psychiatrist leaves me momentarily to find my girlfriend. I scan the room and consider running. They return, the psychiatrist explaining the situation to my girlfriend, and asking her whether she’s been concerned about my safety.

“Yes, very concerned,” my girlfriend says, making eye contact with me.

We don’t know at the time that her expression of concern is taken as consent to lock me up.

“If what you say is true, Rebecca,” says the psychiatrist, “that the only thing that stopped you from going into the water last night was the sea air making you nauseated, then I’m very worried. I believe you are a real danger to yourself. I need to keep you safe tonight.”

She gives me a moment to say goodbye to my girlfriend. I hand her the car key and parking ticket. She hugs me goodbye, casually enough to let me think I won’t be gone long. I’m smiling and I don’t know why.

“Do many situations make you anxious?” the psychiatrist asks, ushering me into the lift.

“Most,” I reply.

I avoid my reflection in the mirror, afraid of seeing my widened eyes. We exit the lift underground and I’m led through a dark tunnel that runs beneath the hospital. I look around constantly, overstimulated.

The psychiatrist turns to me curiously, noticing this. “There’s a lot to look at, isn’t there?” she laughs.

“Yeah,” I say, grinning.

We walk past a series of childish underwater murals. Bright-eyed fish leer at me.

“So, you were just going to go to the beach and swim out?” she asks. “Then what?”

“Then…” I pause and shrug. “Drown, I guess.” I am alarmed at the casual tone of my voice.

The psychiatrist opens one last door and we are in the west wing of the Mental Health Unit. The lights are all off inside; long corridors loom into darkness. We stop outside the nurses’ station and the psychiatrist turns to me.

“Now, you’re not going to run away, are you?” she asks.

“No,” I shake my head and smile.

Despite my earlier tiredness, by the time I’m admitted at 1:30am the desire for sleep has escaped. A nurse walks me to my room. She asks to check my bag and takes my antidepressants. She leaves. The room is bare, like a cheap motel room minus the TV and sharp objects. I am grateful for the privacy, at least.

Rebecca Jessen’s verse novel, Gap, will be released by UQP in September 2014.

‘Salt’ appears in The Lifted Brow #22.