There’s a knock. I open my door a crack to see Glen standing there.
“Ellen, you’re up. Come on with me.” I open the door a bit more, turn around and scan the room. “There’s no need to bring anything.”
Glen is on staff at Benjamin Rush Hospital. I’ve seen him around, but haven’t had direct contact with him before now. He seems okay. I have no reason to distrust him.
He walks and I follow down the battleship-gray hall. We pass unmarked door after door. Each comes at me like mile-markers on the highway when I’m going eighty. We dead-end at one last door. Glen reaches into his shirt pocket, pulls out a key, and unlocks it. There’s a second inner door, screened at the upper half.
Where are we? For a moment I’m a five-year-old again on the first day of school, bristling with excitement at the unknown, until I get pricked by the skepticism of my forty-year-old self.
“Follow me, Ellen.”
This is the blue room. I’ve overheard whispers about an isolated place where you can ‘let it all hang out.’ The room reminds me of my elementary school gymnasium, but it’s about a quarter the size. Small rectangular cloudy-paned windows border the high ceiling and industrial lights are cocooned in metal caging. My eyes tear from the smell of Lysol. The room has no furniture, no basketball hoops or bleachers. Everywhere I look—the floors, walls and beams are covered with blue mats—gym mats. I think about days in elementary school when I woke some mornings sick to my stomach from the night before with my father, sure I’d throw up on the blue vinyl, but knew I couldn’t get out of jumping jacks.
In front of me stands a display rack holding an array of baseball bats, some metal, some wooden. One has worn writing stamped into the white ash. The bat is similar to one I’ve seen before in a Cooperstown shop, a Louisville Slugger.
“Go ahead, Ellen,” Glen begins, “Try one on for size.”
I reach for the slugger and wrap my hands around the grip. I manage an abbreviated swing.
“If it’s too heavy, we can try another.”
“No, I want the slugger. I’ve always wondered how heavy they are, how they feel.” I’m determined to make the bat work, energized by the challenge.
He hands me a helmet. “You want it snug, not pinching. Here, take these … knee and elbow pads.”
“I’m not going to need those.”
“All right, we’ll see how you do. I won’t make you wear them. You’re on your own. Just tap the screen if you want to come out. If not, I’ll come get you when your time’s up.”
I nod. The door shuts behind me.
Everywhere I look I see cobalt blue. I wrap my fingers around the handle of the slugger, each finger assigned a position on the worn bat. Now, I have to concentrate as in fifth grade when I could hear them yell, “Come on, El, we need a homer,” except that here no baseball is being pitched my way.
My first hit only delivers a thud to the cushioned mat. The bat is a leaden extension of my clenched hands. My shoulders hurt, my muscles burn, but I swing and swing again—boosted by my dogged challenge to connect the barrel-end with the mat.
My body loosens up after a few swings. The bat quickly becomes irrepressible and wild. I club the blank wall, now wallpapered with the likeness of my father. I spin and utter my first words—as low as a whispered lullaby, but soon sentences rage, “I hate you, fuck you, damn you.” No one roars back. I’m the only one yelling, thundering angry words in harmonious rage with the bat as each of my assaults wallop the wall. On and on, I beat the blue sheathed walls.
Like a wind that swells to hurl a tornado at innocent streets, my anger isn’t premeditated, but has consequences just the same. I’ve been angry before, but never like this. I imagine pointed devil’s ears emerging at the top of my head. I don’t think being angry makes other people evil, but anger is a new feeling for me. My skin is screaming. Is my new way of living going to be to hurt, to cry, to bleed anger? Evil anger is luring me to his side.
Until now, I’ve farmed happy moods. “Yes, I’d love to do that. Of course, I wouldn’t mind. Don’t be silly.” Pleased to do. Pleased to endure.
Only a few weeks before picking up my slugger, at forty, I’d been admitted to Benjamin Rush Hospital in Syracuse. This bland brick building is a hospital. I’ve worked in hospitals as an occupational therapist, and this isn’t one. There’s no emergency room, no gift shop and no sink or toilet in each patient room. There’s a lounge—not for visiting families—but a place for the admitted to congregate between group sessions. Socialization isn’t exactly forbidden, but I overhear patients being warned, “This is no time to become emotionally involved with anyone. You must be healthy, not depressed, not addicted for at least a year before you even think about a romantic relationship.”
I’ve entered this thirty-day program to overcome anorexia. Passive suicide they say. I’m admitted to the psychiatric hospital I’ve been avoiding when months earlier I survived heart arrhythmias that led to four days in cardiac intensive care. Doctors surrounded me. Above the hospital bed, a lamp—an interrogation lamp?—to bring to light the searing truth.
“I’ve had patients die with better labs than yours,” my therapist, Dr. White told me in our first session.
I wonder if he chants the same words to other eating disorder patients. His words are sour and coarse. I feel like he’s forced the words down my throat like the bar of Palmolive my mother jammed between my tongue and palate before spinning the slimy bar. The soap washed away my tendency to repeat bad words. I didn’t want that bar of soap then and I don’t want to hear I’m sick now—not physically, not mentally. But today, here I am in the blue room, an inpatient, after outpatient therapy didn’t work.
I lift the bat over my head in decided attack, like a caveman with his club ready to beat his opposition.
What is my opposition? Nothing in front of me. No one prepared to pounce. But I swing that bat and can feel a surge of strength bullet from my wrists through to my shoulder. Whoosh, the slugger arcs through the still air.
What now? Who’s watching me? I’m embarrassed to think someone might see me without a smile on my face. What do they think of me—that I’m not the good girl, the happy girl, the one who never causes trouble?
A frown. A silent sob. I slump to the floor.
Fuck you, damn you. Daddy, what did I do to make you hate me? I didn’t do anything. I was an innocent little girl. Look at me—here, in this place, when I should be home with my sons. I want to die. I’m too tired.
Give up? No. I draw in a breath. The inhalation releases my fixed lips and fills my lungs. My chest broadens, and I rise like an inflatable Santa on a snow-covered lawn. I grab my slugger and swing. Whack. With each strike, I feel my energy crack the blue like a lightning strike. I no longer think of those behind the mirror, watching me like detectives on a T.V. show, witnessing incriminating words.
I pick up the bat and with both hands wrapped around the handle, I raise the Louisville over my head. I swing as my muscles cheer me on and deliver a blow to the wall. Over and over, cursing at my father, losing my inhibition, my embarrassment and my apologetic self.
Before the blue room, I always took flight, by foot or dissociation. This is a place where I learn that anger and fight are sometimes good. Benjamin Rush is my boxing ring, my spring training. I learn to fight. Not really with a bat, not with weapons nor harmful words. I learn to fight with my gut, with the hair at the back of my neck that bristles when my instincts tell me not to trust, to take a few steps back from manipulation, to retreat, or never to go back at all.
The morning after my two hours in the blue room, I’m exhausted from something I’ve never felt. A physical release. I’ve let go and feel anger—virgin anger.
My arms ache, my back aches, my heart still aches, but I feel different, better. I never go back to the blue room. I finish inpatient therapy and leave the Louisville Slugger for the next virgin.