CONNECT THE DOTS
By Alex Clark-McGlenn
Author’s Note: The names of those involved in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.
10:40pm February 23rd
I’m just home when Jessie calls me into the living room. I park my bicycle in the nook between the wall and the chest. The floor is littered with charging cords from the Xbox controllers. A sitcom with a laugh track is on the TV, but the volume’s so low I can only hear the laughter, not the jokes. Beer cans litter the table and some are balanced on the windowsills as well. The carpet under my feet is soft, but thick with dirt and dust.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“So I’ve been going through some stuff, and I think I get it and I want to tell you,” Jessie says from her place on the couch.
“I figured out George is my tiger. You know George. He like, in the bamboo, and I was at the zen garden and I’ve gone there twice in two days and there was this lady doing garden stuff and I sat on a stone bench and just couldn’t stop crying, you know?
“So I—like, went there today and got her number and called her today to ask her if I’m crazy, and she said no—but if I’m not that means Kayla was murdered, I think, you know? So today I went to the police station today, because, like, Josh didn’t postpone the funeral like he said he was going to so I could go to it, and why would he do that unless she was actually killed. I mean, I don’t think her family has a history of cancer—so, like, that doesn’t make any sense. So I think, it is all this stuff that totally makes sense.”
“What did the police say?” I ask.
“Like, asked me if I had done any drugs. I told them I was pretty high, you know, because pot is the only thing that makes sense—like life.”
In the dim light of the room her pockmarks and acne look like polka dots across her face. I don’t know what she’s talking about—I don’t understand the tiger or how George is one, I don’t understand why she’d think Kayla had been murdered, I don’t know why she sits on the couch day after day smoking pot and passing out in front of the television. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. Not yet. But I hope she gets better.
~Sometimes people with schizophrenia seem perfectly fine until they talk about what they are really thinking. . .*
10:37am April 12th
When I come down the stairs nursing a hangover, Jessie is sitting at the edge of the green reclining chair in the corner of the living room. There are shadows under her eyes and her brow is creased with worry. Her hair is pulled to one side, revealing the short bristle of where she shaved it. She clutches her pipe and brings it to her lips. She inhales and rocks back and forth. Her shoulders crash in toward her chest like waves. She doesn’t say anything and neither do I. Her eyes are empty, turned inward to a place I can’t see.
~Some people who abuse drugs show symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia.*
2:19pm April 13th
“I think you need to go to the hospital,” says Don.
Outside, the sky is gunmetal. Lousy rain has been coming down all day. There’s
nothing she can do about it. She is so comfortable on the couch with it’s sagging cushions.
Don speaks slowly and deliberately. “I don’t think we can help you here and maybe you should go to the hospital.”
That’s the place they’d pill you up right and good, toss you in a room and leave you to cook like some of Don’s chili, but it was your own mind that was the stew.
“I don’t want to go there,” Jessie says.
“I mean, you need professional—”
“I’m not fucking going, Don.” Jessie pulls Nebula, closer on the couch. With a finger she traces the dots on her dogs body, then connects them, as if drawing the lines.
Don tries to talk, but now a fire has been sparked inside Jessie. It licks her throat and wants to escape. It is hot down in the pit of her.
“I don’t need that fucking shit. I’m dealing with stuff—I’m—” she can’t speak anymore, she can’t tell him what is happening because if she does then the thought is in the open and everyone might know it. If the police don’t believe that Kayla was murdered, what can she do?
She pushes Nebula off the couch and gets up and walks out the front door. Don doesn’t follow her.
~”Voices” are the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia. . .*
3:19am April 14th
I wake to screaming.
I enjoy waking to the bright light of day. But it isn’t day. Outside my windows I only see the light of streetlamps. Another scream comes. My brain can’t catch up with what I already know—what I don’t want to believe—in my heart.
~Symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions usually start between ages 16 and 30. . .*
3:22am April 14th
I’m wide awake in bed, naked and scared. In the room below I hear Jessie scream. I hear the front door open and I know she is on the porch, looking out on the dark, empty street. I can make out her words now.
“Get out of my head!” she screams to the night. Then silence. My ears strain for a moment, but nothing. Then. . .
“I fucking hate everyone!”
I get up and pull on pajamas. I’m afraid to turn on the light. I imagine she’s taken every knife from the kitchen and something terrible is about to happen—I imagine she’s violent and that she’s bought a gun without telling anyone. I open my computer. Downstairs I hear her scream. This one is of pain, no words attached. My phone buzzes.
Don Gossman: DUde, are you hering this?
His room borders Jessie’s.
Yes, are you talking with her.
Don Gossman: I’m nt going out there by myself.
Okay. I just need to write down a number.
I search and jot down the number for the crisis line.
Don Gossman: Yes.
I stand and at the same time I hear Jessie yell from below me, “Make it stop!”
~People with the disorder may hear voices other people don’t hear. . .*
3:23am April 14th
Don and I stand in the living room as Jessie turns around. She jumps, and places a hand over her mouth. She is wrapped in a polka dot blanket of blue and white. There are no knives.
“It’s okay,” says Don.
“We’re just hanging out,” I say.
“I don’t have the key,” she says, as though we had asked for it. “Kayla has it.”
“What key?” I ask.
“Unless—Nebula,” Jessie’s spotted mutt stands near the piano—it is scattered with sheet music.
“Nebula,” she says. “You have to find Kayla in The Void and get the key.”
Nebula walks past me and jumps onto the couch and settles in. I take a step back from Jessie and sit down on the piano bench. Don is standing near me, his hands at his sides.
Jessie stares at Nebula. “Yes,” she says—a pause. “Yes. When Kayla was murdered she took it.” she waits for a response again. Nebula stares back at Jessie.
“You’re the only one who can find her,” Jessie says.
“Jessie,” I say, and she turns to me. “The dog isn’t saying anything.”
“But I have to burn it,” says Jessie.
“Burn what?” asks Don.
“If I had the key—”
“I think we should go to bed,” I say.
“But will I wake up?” asks Jessie.
“Yes,” says Don.
“But if we go into The Void we might not get back,” she says.
“Jessie,” I ask, “do you want to speak to someone who can help you?”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes,” she pleads.
I pull my phone from my pocket. I dial the number for the crisis line and it rings. A man picks up and I explain the situation to him.
“You can give her the phone,” he says.
Jessie has always seemed aloof to me. She has always struck me as someone who’s mind doesn’t move quite as fast as you’d expect. I’ve not known her well—she was a friend’s girlfriend for a time, then his ex, now his friend. But when I go into Jessie’s room and see her wringing her hands and wrapped in the blue and white polka dot blanket it strikes me that she is her own person. She is independent and strong and lost, and nobody is looking out for her but us. Her friends, Paul and Cassey, stopped coming around a few weeks ago—and that means Don and I are the only ones left.
“Here,” I tell her, handing out my phone “It’s for you.”
~People with positive symptoms often ‘lose touch’ with reality. . .*
12:34pm April 14th
I pick Don up on the corner of Prospect and Division next to my favorite coffee shop. He wears his sideways hat and Chrome cycling bag regardless of the fact he doesn’t cycle much.
Visiting hours for Jessie are between 1pm and 3pm.
“I’ve done this before,” says Don.
I drive away from the brick buildings of downtown and zig-zag through the residential neighborhood nicknamed Letterhood because all the street names are letters.
“One of my good friends from high school,” he says.
“Took him to the hospital?” I ask.
“Just like this—but suicidal. More aware. It was harder in some ways,” he says.
“Aware he needed help?”
“Yeah. He basically begged me to take him,” says Don. “I hate having friends that go crazy. But I love them so much.”
I nod. We have to help them, but where does our responsibility end?
~It can be difficult to know how to respond to someone with schizophrenia who makes strange or clearly false statements.*
1:01pm April 14th
The door to the psych ward is white. There are no windows. It doesn’t open from our side. There is a phone on the wall nearby and Don picks it up. He gives our names to whomever is on the other end. A moment later the door opens and we are led into the ward. Jessie is lying in a bed in the second room, curled up with soft blankets around her.
“Hi, Jessie,” I say.
Her eyes are open and she says hello back, but it’s a whisper.
There are two chairs beside the bed. Don takes the one closer to Jessie. I’m handed a clipboard with some papers on it—an affidavit—by a social worker. I’m to record the events of that early morning. I don’t have a problem doing this. It isn’t stuff you forget real fast—watching someone cross the thin line of insanity.
As I write, Jessie looks at us with worry. Don reaches through the dimness of the room and tries to take Jessie’s hand in his. Her face folds into itself like a crushed paper crane. He just brushes her fingertips before she pulls away and begins to cry. Sanity is a precipice between these two friends; he can reach across—through the murky room, but their minds are far apart.
~Because the causes of schizophrenia are still unknown, treatments focus on eliminating the symptoms of the disease.*
1:00pm April 17th
Jessie is wearing an off-white tank top polka dotted with stains and sweat. It reveals most of her tattoos. Her hair is pulled up so that the shaved sides of her head are visible. The dark shadows under her eyes are deeper, and she still holds the glazed, far away look of a person who doesn’t understand what is happening.
I’ve never been a witness before and I have the sensation of my heart moving my entire body with its thundering beats. I can hear my pulse. Feel it in my chest. Nerves make my bladder tighten and I wish I had gone to the restroom before stepping into this suffocating conference closet.
I wave to Jessie and she waves back. Tears roll down her cheeks and she clamps a hand over her mouth. I take a seat in a padded chair. To my right is the judge and a police officer, the law. To the left, the prosecuting and defending attorneys. I am at one end of the long table, Jessie at the other. She is a poor woman, trapped between the law, her own sanity, and the system that’s suppose to help.
The judge asks me to raise my right hand.
“Do you testify that the statements you give this afternoon are the truth?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
Jessie is no longer crying, she is looking at the table with a clear gaze, not a blink tarnishes it. I am scared for her because she doesn’t know why she is here and I do, and I am about to tell her, for the first time, what happened on a night she can’t remember.
~Many people with schizophrenia can lead rewarding and meaningful lives in their communities.*
1:07pm April 17th
The prosecutor and defender are women—but I’m not aware of what they look like. I’m only aware of the question.
“Leading up to the early morning of April 14th, did Jessie demonstrate paranoid behavior?”
“Yes,” I say.
“She was convinced her friend, Kayla, had been murdered.”
The prosecutor jots notes on a form with a pencil. The defender does also.
“Is Kayla deceased?”
“I’ve never met her. She lived in Salt Lake City, I think.”
“Okay,” says the prosecutor, making more notes.
“And on the night in question did Jessie seem paranoid to you?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“In what way?”
“She was afraid to sleep. She was concerned about not existing if she fell asleep.”
“Did she say anything notable while on the phone?”
Across from me, Jessie is in tears again, her face red, her eyes scrunched into tight slits and I know the words I am about to say are going to keep her in the hospital for another two weeks, but I am not lying, I am just reporting what I heard her say.
“She said she could hear people’s emotions locally and universally,” I say.
“When you brought her to the hospital was she aware of what was going on?”
“I don’t think so. She asked multiple times if Kayla was going to meet us there. But I don’t think Jessie knew where we were going.”
~Treatments include antipsychotic medications and various psychosocial treatments.*
10:17am April 21st
The voice comes from downstairs. It belongs to a woman.
I climb from bed and pick my pajamas off the floor. I grab up a shirt and, as I make for the ladder, pull it on. “I’ll be right down.”
Downstairs I am embarrassed to see Jessie’s mother, Luise, standing in the kitchen with the counter tops forested by beer cans. Luise is as slight as Jessie herself.
“I’m just here to pick up Jessie’s keys,” says Luise.
“Oh, Okay. Do you know where they are?” I ask.
“Yes—she’s getting out tomorrow and she needs to get into the house.”
That sends a jolt of surprise up my spine. A shock within my stomach.
“She’s getting out tomorrow?” I ask.
“She’s been taking her medication, but she’s really unhappy.”
“She’s angry at Don and you for taking her there.”
“We didn’t know what else to do.”
“She doesn’t know if she can trust you.”
I follow Luise into the living room. On the coffee table is Jessie’s glass pipe. I never want to see her hold it again.
“We couldn’t help her.”
“I just don’t know if putting her on medication is the answer.”
“I don’t know either, but we couldn’t help her.”
“Well, she’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Thanks for everything, Alex. I know you only did what you thought was best,”
“I did,” I say.
~If patients stop taking their medication or stop going to follow-up appointments, their symptoms will likely return.*
1:37pm April 22nd
In the dim light of the attic several boxes are half full of clothes. The blue tubs I filled with my collection of books are already downstairs, stored under the ladder that leads to my bedroom. I grab a stray book off the ground and a small piece of paper falls from between its pages. I bend down and pick it up. The paper is a thick weight–for painting or drawing. On the other side is a pen sketch of a quill and inkwell. Jessie drew it for me months ago, when I was thinking about getting a tattoo.
I play back the course of events in my head. The reasons I feel forced to move. It wasn’t so many months ago that Jessie had been more of a friend to me than Don. She wasn’t smoking pot then. She’d applied for a job at the post office, volunteered at the alternative library, she drew this sketch for me, and she’d told me how clear headed she was while not smoking. As close as we were then, as likeminded, I see now the divergent paths that came between us. And looking at this drawing, this symbol of a time when Jessie made sense and the world made sense to Jessie, I can feel the thinness of reality. As if I might reach out a hand to a space with no focal point, and tear a hole with my fingers—a hole that opens onto a larger world, a place of knowing, where everything would make sense and I’d understand why and how Jessie lost her way.
I’m so lost in thought I don’t hear the door open and close—but I hear the voice.
“Is Alex here?” Jessie asks from the kitchen below.
I hesitate for just a moment. Could I pretend I’m not here? If she comes up could I pretend I didn’t hear her?
“Hey,” I say back.
“I’m home,” she says.
I go down the ladder into the kitchen. She is standing there with her mother, who is beaming. I look at Jessie and she does look better. Her eyes aren’t as vacant and her movement not as timid.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I’m really sorry,” though in truth, I’m not sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for what she experienced. What she became.
“Whatever. I’m dealing with it,” she says.
And I’m surprised as she reaches in for a hug. I reciprocate and when she pulls away and goes to her room, her mother smiles at me.
“She’s so much better. So much better.”
“Good,” I say. But I’m not sure if she’s right. There’s no going back from something like this. There’s no recovered, just recovering—forever.
~Coordinated specialty care: This treatment model integrates medication, psychosocial therapies, case management, family involvement. . .*
8:27pm April 23rd
Earlier that day I found Jessie outside her art studio. She was smoking a cigarette and looking drawn. The sun overhead made her features waxy, as though she hadn’t showered for some time.
“I’m going to paint the studio,” she said.
“What are you going to paint?”
“I mean what are you going to paint on the walls?” I asked.
“Shapes and dots,” she said.
“Cool. I’d like to see it when it’s done.”
She’s still out there now. From the kitchen window I can see the light leak from the top, base, and sides of the sliding door. As close as we are I can only imagine what her world is like in there. . .
Jessie sits in the small art studio behind the house—she converted the shabby little shack herself, but it’s not quite finished. She holds her glass pipe. The weed is darkened by fire. She places it on the desk. She takes her paints and brushes out of the desk drawer. She dips the brush and then raises it with a slender hand. She pushes her brush onto the wall and makes a dot. It is large and perfect and then she does another, but if she connects those two dots all she has is a line and that doesn’t explain anything. When she had been a child the dots had come inside a book and the dots had all been numbered so you knew in which order to connect them. That was why this was all so fucked up. How were you suppose to know which connections to make? She paints a third dot on the wall and decides the dots make more sense by themselves.
Jessie reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small prescription bottle. The translucent orange plastic make the hateful pills look playful, but she knows they’ll just dumb her down. Cut her off from the truth of everything. She puts the bottle in the desk drawer and never touches it again.
~They may not think they need help because they believe their delusions or hallucinations are real. . .*
6:25pm April 25th
In my room everything is packed. My clothes, my art, my posters, everything. Within two days I have gone from secure in my home to leaving it behind. In the dark living room Jessie is lying on the couch, the staleness of smoke clinging to her blue polka dot blanket. The spotted dog, Nebula, is huddled with her and worried. And I can see the TV flicker and I hear Jessie let out a manic laugh.
Every person has internal experiences brought on by thoughts and emotion. But most people check those internal experiences against the outside world, against their friends and family, against people they trust. Early on, when Jessie first became ill, she asked my opinion of whether what she said was crazy. I told her it didn’t sound likely. That her belief in Kayla’s murder did not sound real. But as Jessie’s condition had worsened she stopped checking with others whether her experiences were real. It is a reminder how close we all are to a reality that is constructed by the human mind, without regard to the people and world around us.
I am standing in one room, a shared reality of florescent light, while Jessie is in the oppressive dark of her own making. How close am I to a place in which my internal experiences out weigh the checks of those in the external world? My eyes aren’t adjusted to the gloom of that insane room, but I see a perfect line, drawn in mid air, that separates us. As I peer into Jessie’s world I see the connections that tell me what will happen. I am determined not to be here. I will be at the bar with friends. I will be drinking and having a good time, for it is my last night in town, and when I come home, laughing and drunk, all lights in the house will be on. Don will come to the door and inform me that I shouldn’t be there—inform me I can’t sleep in my own bed because, for the second time in nine days, Jessie can’t connect the dots of reality. She’s painted them all over her studio, but the lines she’s seen there don’t tell her what is real or true. The lines are as confused and crisscrossed as her mind grasping at her internal reality. But I can connect those dots and all I see is that this isn’t over. And in the dead of night, I know, Jessie will be taken back to the hospital, and before she returns again, I’ll be gone.
It’s been months. I sit in a coffee shop and my phone buzzes, rattling the table—Jessie’s name on the screen. I hesitate, I wonder. Why call me? I heard, through the grapevine, after that second breakdown, Jessie went to Salt Lake City with her mother. I let the phone ring. She doesn’t leave a message. I speak with a friend about the call. She says, “You don’t invite crazy into your life that easily. It’s not a good idea.”
Crazy is a strong word—it’s dismissive. It writes people off, disregards their opinions and experiences. When someone acts emotional, or a way in which you don’t understand it is easy to label them as crazy. However, most people don’t understand the severity of that word, how harmful it truly is. They don’t understand what it means to lose your mind. Jessie was my friend. I won’t reduce her to a headcase. Behind her mental illness, she was a nice, compassionate person. I understand now that, with help, this illness will not define her.
I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I see events as unconnected coincidences, and though cause and effect comes into play often, I don’t believe the sequence of events are predestined. For Jessie, the events that led to the early morning of April 14th could not be explained. She was drifting, without a cause. When Kayla died, Jessie went looking for answers. For Jessie, young people don’t die of cancer. For Jessie there had to be another explanation—a reason for death that connected, in her mind, why her friend had died. She tried to check with me, to understand whether what she thought was real or just in her head, but when I told her she didn’t make sense, it only reafirmed her belief that she was right, and everyone else was wrong.
I text Jessie the next day and wish her well. She texts back with an apology of what she put Don and I through. She says she is getting help and someday, she hopes, we can be friends again. I hope she finds her way. I hope she comes to understand that sometimes events can’t be explained, nor should they be. Acceptance is our only refuge, I see now, even if what we come to accept is against our liking; against what we feel to be true of the greater world around us. Sometimes the dots can’t be connected. Sometimes the dots make more sense by themselves.
About the Author
Alex Clark-McGlenn is a freelance writer by profession, a fiction writer by passion. He’s a graduate of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. His fiction has appeared in eFiction Magazine, and Smokebox Literary Magazine. His story “The Lost Doll” appeared in the Best New Writing 2016 anthology as one of three stories to win the Editor’s Choice Award. His piece “The Story of Grandma Snow,” can be found in The Cost of Paper vol. 3, published by the 1888 Center. In 2017 his flash fiction piece will appear in Scrutiny Journal. He lives in Olympia, Washington where he assistant teaches at The Evergreen State College, and is a writing tutor at The Evergreen Writing Center.