We are delighted to post a story written by Amna AlHashemi that is all about the darker side of “pride” though, rather than the usual positive image. Enjoy!
The heat engulfs me like a wave, and surrounds me with its power. I stand there and stare at the big white building facing me. The words “Psychiatric Hospital” flash contrastingly in black, demanding attention. I close my eyes to focus on the heat and how uncomfortable it feels. Comfort is a clear-cut feeling, and it’s something I know. Something real that I can be sure of.
My family will kill me if they find out I’m not really at my friend’s house. But this is important and it’s something I have to do, even if my family will oppose it.
I remember, vaguely, the first time I came to this place. My family brought my older sister here, after they couldn’t find a way to “fix her”. Four years ago, I was standing in the same spot; waiting outside with my nanny while my parents checked my older sister in. After they came back, my parents walked straight to the car without a word to me, and I followed. We all turned our backs to my sister, and went back home. Just like that.
I force myself forward towards the gates, hanging on to the last bit of courage that helped fuel my drive over to the hospital.
“Can I help you?” the receptionist from behind the information desk greets me with a flat expression.
“Um,” I hesitate and look around for a second, searching for the right words. “I’m here to visit someone.”
“And who will you be visiting?” her gaze is piercing, and I suddenly feel like I’m back in school, being evaluated by my teacher.
“My, uh, my sister. Her name is Fatma Abdullah. I’m Maryam, her younger sister.”
“All right,” she turns automatically to the side of the desk and hands me a paper form. “Just fill this visitors form out real quick while I track her down in the system. Oh, and I’ll need your ID.”
I have no reason to be nervous, but suddenly I am afraid. Calm down, I tell myself firmly. I’m not doing anything wrong. That’s the whole point of this visit; I want to do something right for a change.
It was too hard for us to deal with, we had no idea what to do, and we could feel my sister slipping away from reality. She was completely insane, and we were afraid. Because of that, my family thought locking my sister up in a psychiatric hospital and abandoning her took care of the problem. No one ever talked about her, because as long as we don’t discuss the issue- it doesn’t exist. What happened to her stays in the psychiatric ward, and we’re finally free from her burden. She was hurting our family’s pride, you see, and our reputation was at stake.
“What would people say about us?”
“She was always so perfect. She’s not the same Fatma anymore.”
“She’s crazy, I can’t even talk to her now!”
“They’re going to blame us, it always becomes the parent’s fault.”
“No one will marry into our family…”
“I can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard!”
“She can’t be fixed. She’s sick, and we can’t help her.”
“Why us? Why should we keep suffering like this? We didn’t choose for this to happen!”
“I say we take her away, to someone who can help her.”
So our family decided to hide her somewhere far, and her secret was hidden behind closed doors. Doors that must never be opened, never even be spoken of.
Up until today, when I decided to reorganize my priorities.
I sigh audibly, and the receptionist’s head snaps up towards me. I get up hastily and quickly hand her back my form.
She takes it silently, and hands me back my I.D.
After a few minutes, I walk into a doctor’s office and sit facing the person who has, for the past four years, been taking care of my sister. I was told it’s necessary for me to meet with her first, before seeing my sister. She smiles softly to me, and introduces herself as Dr. Sara, the psychologist in charge of my sister’s therapy. I don’t really understand the difference between psychology and psychiatry, but I don’t ask for an explanation.
She doesn’t ask me to explain our family’s situation though, which I appreciate.
“So, just before you meet Fatma again, I want to ask you if you know what her condition is exactly?” her tone is just as soft as her facial features, and I wonder if she was born with it or if she developed it after dealing with patients.
“She has…delusions?” I can see from her reaction I don’t understand the situation as well as I thought I do. Figures.
“She does have delusions, that’s true, but that’s not all of the story. Fatma, your sister, has schizophrenia,” she pauses for a second and waits for my reaction. I don’t respond. “Have you heard of that disorder?”
I didn’t know that’s what Fatma has; I thought she was just delirious. All I’ve heard is schizophrenics are crazy lunatics who’ve completely lost their minds, but instead I say, “I don’t know much about it.”
So she launches into a brief explanation of the disorder, of the symptoms, the different types, and the treatment. My nervousness increases as I listen to her, and it feels like her explanation goes on for hours. I was only able to catch bits and pieces, things like “disturbances in thinking” “delusions and hallucinations”, “unorganized speech and behavior pattern”, “no filter over thoughts or words”, and more.
By the time she is done I am so overwhelmed I can’t even remember half the information she told me. In fact, I think about running back home.
“Oh, I could talk about this forever!” she laughs at herself and then leans forward, placing her elbows on her desk. “Do you have anything you want to ask me?”
There’s so much I want to ask, so much that I feel clueless about, but instead I blurt out, “Is there any cure?” I already know the answer, it’s obvious, but I still have to ask.
Dr. Sara looks down for a second, exhales deeply, and then glances back at me. I think I see pity in her eyes, pity for me. “Unfortunately, there isn’t any real cure. But patients with schizophrenia can improve with treatment, both through medicine and therapeutic sessions.”
A strange feeling falls upon me, and my shoulders slump downwards as if I’m carrying a heavy rock on my shoulders. It takes me a second to put a name to it, but as soon as I do, I feel myself sink into the emotion. I feel ashamed, embarrassed, and disgusted with how useless I am. I can’t even help my own sister. This whole attempt was useless.
I thought Dr. Sara was done speaking, but she takes on a warmer tone and adds, “There are many other things that can help patients with psychological disorders improve, Maryam. Things like family, friends, and social support.” I look up to see her smiling softly, almost proudly, at me. “People can be much more powerful than the world’s most effective medication. It’s why I chose to be a psychologist, rather than a psychiatrist.”
So that’s the difference between the two fields.
I smile back at her, and feel the heavy weight on my shoulders become lighter. Dr. Sara stands up and gestures for me to follow.
I walk behind her, and try to push back the fear and anxiety that was taking over me.
Too soon, we’ve reached my sister’s room.
Dr. Sara turns to me, and points at the door. “She’s right through here. I heard her singing today, so she must be in a good mood.” She chuckles, pats me on the shoulder, and looks me straight in the eye. “Don’t worry! Remember, it’s not as bad as you think.” She then knocks on the door instead of me, and walks away.
This is it. I can do this. Even if it’s hard, even if it seems impossible, even if it scares me to death, I still want to do this. I’m trying to turn back towards what our pride pushed away, I’m trying to reach out to what we all pretended didn’t exist, and I’m trying to uncover what we imprisoned behind closed doors.
I’m trying to be with my sister again.
With that final thought, I place a shaky hand on the door handle, and push the door open.
The first thing I notice is the partition dividing the room into two different parts. On one side, there’s a bed, a bedside table, a small closet and other normal furniture found in a mundane hospital room. On the other side, all I see is color. Light and dark colors, harmonious and contrasting, paintings and drawings, and other art tools I am not familiar with are laid out everywhere. Compared to the first side, this side of the room is full of life.
And then I see her. She’s sitting on the side of the bed, facing the window, with long black hair hanging down her back. She turns back towards me, slowly, and stares at me expectantly. I freeze in my spot, not knowing what to say. Now that I’m here, all my plans and ideas seem to float out of my head. I’m too busy remembering every memory I repressed of her, every part of our past I was told to forget.
Suddenly she gets up, and moves towards me urgently. I step back, surprised and nervous about her sudden movement, and bump into the door behind me. She’s much closer now, with a serious look in her face. As soon as she’s directly in front of me, she raises her arm, and I flinch back as she waves her hand above my head and around me, as if swatting a fly away.
“Leave her alone, she’s my visitor.” She says as she continues to swat and wave her hand. She suddenly stops, looking satisfied, and looks straight at me. “Sorry about that. They’re normally harmless, and they like me, but they’re not very nice to other people.”
I am too shocked to say anything. I have no idea what to do next, but then she tells me to “come on in” and she moves back towards the bed. She sits on it, cross-legged, and smiles politely at me. “Don’t worry, they won’t bother you. They only speak to me, because I’m the chosen one.”
Under normal circumstances, I would be laughing out loud at how absurd this situation is. This may all be in Fatma’s head, but it’s very real to her.
She seems to be waiting for me to respond, so I nod reluctantly at her. This is all happening too fast, and I don’t know what to do.
I don’t think she recognizes me. A small part of me expected her not to, but the reality of the fact still hurts. Disappointment cascades through me, swift and strong. I will myself to withstand it, for I’ve come too far to turn back now.
I must have made her nervous somehow, because she then looks down and starts to tug on her bed sheets. “You’re scared of me, aren’t you? I’m sorry, it’s just that I don’t get many visitors.” She laughs a short, awkward laugh, but keeps her eyes fixated on her hands. “I’m not good with people.”
I snap myself out of my daze, and say the first thought that crosses my mind. “I’m not very good with people, either.” She looks up then, and we both stare at each other for a second before laughing. It feels good to laugh, and I feel relieved about my choice of words.
Feeling braver now, I move closer to her and stand in the middle of the room. “So, those people you talked about…”
“Oh, the Others?”
“What about them?”
“Can you, like, see them?” I try to sound as casual as I possibly can.
“Not always,” she smiles at me, and for a minute I am struck by how beautiful she still looks. She was always the pretty one. “But I can always hear them, in here.” She pokes her temple twice with her index finger.
We are silent for a couple of minutes; Fatma’s eyes are curiously scanning the scenes outside the window while I keep my gaze on her.
Fatma inherited my mother’s beauty, a feature that made her the pride of the family’s women. However, her change in mentality brought a new image as well. She looks thinner than I expected her to be, her face more sunken than it was the last time I saw her. I realize she let her hair grow; she used to keep trimming it at shoulder’s length. It’s messy and a little out of place, the complete opposite of her old hairstyle. Even her nails are longer than normal. She used to care so much about keeping them short, neat and clean. I wonder how much of this change was caused by that same pride that surrounded her when she was younger.
She flinches suddenly, shuts her eyes and covers the side of her head with one hand. My heart beats faster in my chest, like a warning siren.
“Is something wrong?” I ask as softly as possible, worried about what the wrong tone could do to her.
“Yes, it’s just them. The Others. They don’t like you being here,” she places her hand back on her lap and gives her head a light shake. “They’re worried you’re going to take me away from them. They say you’re dangerous.”
“If-if you’re uncomfortable, I can just leave.” I make a move towards the door, but she holds up a hand and protests.
“No, no, don’t worry about it! Here,” she moves towards me and takes my hand, “I’ll show you something.”
She steps behind the partition, pulling me alongside her, and we move into the colorful side of the room.
“They won’t bother you here, it’s the only place they don’t enter.” She turns back to me, and smiles broadly. “It’s my special place, my art has magical powers that keeps evil away.”
“Are the voic-, I mean, are the Others evil?”
Fatma looks back at me quickly. “Oh, no, they’re not evil. They’re vey good to me actually, always there for me when I need them.” She turns around in a full circle, slowly, and then stops as she faces the window again. “They keep me from being lonely,” she adds in a sad tone.
At her words, guilt pierces through me, like a white-hot blade twisting my insides. Anger follows the guilt, and I curse my family for abadonening her, for hiding her away, and for considering the family’s pride to be more important. My sister deserves better than this, she deserves to grow up someplace where she can be accepted and understood, not repressed and imprisoned. She didn’t choose to be this way, either.
Tears sting my eyes, and I wipe at them furiously.
“Your art is beautiful,” I tell Fatma, and she thanks me happily. Her work really is magnificent. Fatma was always interested in Art, and she wanted to take it up in university, but the family “upper heads” didn’t agree to it. They wanted her to follow in the family business.
That is, up until the first year of university, when Fatma couldn’t hide her symptoms any longer, and we ultimately casted her out of the family.
“The doctors here encourage me working on my art. They say it’s important for therapy.” She traces a finger along one of the bigger paintings in the room, a beautiful picture of a person’s silhouette highlighted by sunset. “And I like it. It makes me happy.”
She moves towards the edge of the room and takes out a set of watercolors, a brush, and paper. I stand at the edge of the partition watching her, and we don’t exchange any more words as Fatma delves into her artwork.
I realize it’s about time I get going, so I turn towards the door. “Bye, Fatma.” I mumble softly, trying not to disturb her focus.
She must have heard me though, because she replies just as I reach the door.
“Bye bye, Maryam.”
Her words freeze me into place, and I think for a second that I must have imagined it. But then I turn around and I see her standing, waving to me, with the same smile she used to give me in the past.
She does remember me, after all. She must have known who I was all along.
I wave to her quickly, smile back, and leave before she gets the chance to see the tears that I can’t hold back any longer. I lean on the wall outside in the hallway, and press my face into my palms.
Dr. Sara’s words play over in my head. It’s not as bad as you think.
Fatma is still my sister; no matter how many voices she has in her head, or what kind of chemical is missing in her brain. I don’t know why this happened to her, or what will happen in the future, but there’s one thing I know for sure.
I will be here for her, even if I am imprisoned behind closed doors too.
Author: Amna AlHashemi
2 thoughts on “Behind Closed Doors”
Amna, you are great with words! This is truly amazing and has a great message behind it. Also, I am so happy with how well-researched it is! You truly captured the illness and made it come to life. I also felt like crying at the end. You put so much emotion into this and the fact that you chose two sisters instead of, let’s say, lovers or friends makes the emotions so much stronger because there is nothing more important than family. You highlighted different issues at the same time. I’m so proud of you! I will be sharing this with my friends for sure. I’d love to see more of your work in the future.
Thank you so much, Muna!! ;-; Yes, I wanted to send a message through this piece, and I’m glad to see it reached :’) I really appreciate your comment, it means so much to me. InshAllah I’ll work on better things in the future!