Miles by Jami Nakamura Lin
I had a couple days left in the ward when one of the counselors told us we were getting a new kid. We were curious. People rotated in and out of Upstairs all the time, since most didn’t stay for more than a week or so. Upstairs was what we called the in-patient program, because it took place in the upper levels of the hospital. Downstairs was the less severe partial hospitalization out-patient program.
The boys ribbed each other, said they were hoping for a “hottie hottie.” Wendy, the last hottie hottie, had left that morning. She was skinny, blonde, fresh-faced; she also stopped eating when her boyfriend broke up with her. I didn’t like her. I suffered a loss, she told me when I asked her why she was Upstairs. I thought someone died. Then I found out the boyfriend story and I was filled with disdain. The other girls didn’t like her either. We didn’t like the pretty ones, the ones who reminded us too much of the Outside world.
But it was a little boy instead. I first saw him at dinner, through the huge windows. The boys and girls ate dinner separately. We peered at him through those windows, putting our fingers around our eyes like binoculars. Baby! we said. He looked like he was approximately nine years old—his brown hair sticking up every which way, cheap denim jeans far too big for him. But he was adorable, mousey. After dinner, when the boys and girls were allowed to be together again, I found out Miles was thirteen and in seventh grade. Why is a seventh grader in a mental hospital? we asked. He told us that he had attempted suicide. He was so little.
In Process Group, we tried to figure out the root of Miles’s problem: ostensibly, bullying. He was teased because he was wee and because his ears stuck out. We all said things like Don’t worry, they are just struggling with their own self-esteem issues but inside I knew that if I went to school with this kid, if I was in seventh grade with Miles, I would make fun of him too.
I tried to be nice to him. I told myself I was being kind, but in reality I was compensating for all the things I did to kids like him years ago. Things like the hate emails I sent to Avery, saying she was so fat that she broke the swing set. Spreading rumors about how Jonah’s dad left him.
Miles tried to be tough. My sister is a bitch, he announced. She’s such a lesbian, I hate her. I asked him how old she was. Nine, he answered. What a bitch. She makes me dress up and be the dad for her dolls. I laughed, in spite of everything. In spite of the fact that on Halloween, we weren’t allowed to eat caramel apple lollipops because the sticks are dangerous. In spite of the fact that they took my favorite tank top away because the straps are too thin. In spite of the fact that we couldn’t wear shoes, wear makeup, or use pens.
Over the next few weeks, after we both graduated to Downstairs, Miles and I became close, despite our four year age difference. I mothered him, and he validated me. I called him Harry, because he reminded me of first-year Harry Potter, and in return he called me Hermione. He would imitate the other counselors because he knew their optimistic psychobabble irritated me. Breathe in the good air, he told me. Breathe out the bad air.
He clung to me. At first it was cute, and then it was less cute, and then I was annoyed. The others teased. Mike, who threw a broomstick through his windshield, said your little boyfriend . I cringed, denied. Slowly I began to back away. Miles didn’t understand; he was only thirteen, and he followed me around. I wanted to tell him to stop it, to give me my space. I knew it would crush him, so I stayed silent, but my resentment grew and grew. I avoided him as much as possible. He never caught on.
But I couldn’t stay away from him all the time. One day I wore my striped shirt with three-quarter length sleeves. The shirt was a gift; it had a boatneck and made me feel vaguely French. Miles found me during one of the breaks and noticed the red marks on my wrists. What’s that? he asked, motioning to my arms. Are you—are you doing that? I tried to pull my sleeve down. Don’t worry about it, I told him, it’s not a big deal. He pointed at me. You’re a cutter! he crowed. I shrugged. They know about it, I said, motioning towards the therapists, who did indeed know about it. Like I said, it’s not a big deal.
But it was, in some ways, a big deal. My favorite counselor, Becca, chewed me out a couple days before. It had come up during one of our group sessions. What the hell do you think you’re doing? she asked me. Just as you’re recovering from your pills, you decide it’s a good idea to start doing this? Her words shook me; it startled me that she cared enough to be angry. Most people tripped over themselves trying to appease me, like my parents. They loved me, but in small ways they enabled me. They were too afraid to yell at me, to strike the fear of God into me. But Becca yelled, and I liked knowing that there were boundaries out there, somewhere, even if I couldn’t find them.
I didn’t have a good answer for her. I didn’t know I was bipolar then; I thought I had the disorder, but the doctors kept telling me no. I didn’t know about the concept of bipolar rage. I just knew that I would get so angry that nothing could calm me down except for the pills, and later, when the pills were taken away, the scratching and the burning.
The day after Miles noticed my arms, we were eating lunch, another sad sandwich and limp apple, when I heard someone shouting. It was seventeen-year-old Katie, waving her hands at Miles. I was surprised they were interacting, as she was one of the older CD girls. CD was our shorthand for chemical dependency, and it meant all the kids who were only in the program for drugs. In the beginning the drug kids mostly stuck together; even though it was only a psych ward, there were cliques. They were looser and less well-defined than in high school, because kids moved in and out every day. There were always leaders, but they changed from week to week. While I didn’t care at my regular high school, I desperately wanted to be popular here. Which is one of the reasons I was, by the end, so eager to rid myself of Miles. So where’s your little friend? the other kids would ask. At the beginning I would laugh it off. By the end I would respond: oh, him, he’s not my friend.
I walked closer so I could hear. You’re going to get sent back Upstairs, she snapped at Miles. No I’m not! he retorted. I’m not! Jami didn’t get sent Upstairs for it! he said, turning to me. Shut up, Miles, I hissed, what are you talking about? He giggled. You do it, he said, laughing to himself quietly. And they didn’t put you Upstairs, so they won’t put me Upstairs. Katie said, I wouldn’t be so sure about that, glancing over at the therapists. They stood in the corner of the room, glancing over at us and whispering. One of them pointed at Miles and threw her hands up in the air. I stared at Miles again. But why? I asked him. He shrugged. You of all people can’t talk. But then one of the male counselors walked over to our table. Miles, can you come here? Miles choked on his roll and followed him into the hall. The room buzzed after they left. A couple of the CD girls whispered and stared at me. I stared back hard. I was sure Miles would receive a lecture and then return in time for Process Group at one. My main concern was that the girls weren’t starting rumors about me or talking shit.
I had to work to keep afloat in the nebulous social strata. I had a lot of things going for me, in that I had a whole laundry list of problems that made me “legit.” Inside, your social cachet depended on the severity of your illness. Nothing was sacred. At the beginning of each group meeting, we went around and said our names and what we were in the program for. Half the kids downplayed their problems because they were embarrassed. The other half played theirs up. There was a fine line to be walked between too crazy and not crazy enough. The CD girls belonged to the latter group. They arrived at the hospital perfectly coiffed every day. They reapplied makeup in between group therapy sessions. Like I said: we didn’t like the pretty ones. But after a few sessions everyone started to like each other because he shared and she cried and we all felt warm and fuzzy. But people kept leaving, and the process had to recycle over and over again. From mistrust and hatred to acceptance—and then once you truly connected with someone, they disappeared. It was exhausting.
Miles disappeared in that same way. When he walked into the hall—when I was sure he would come back in a few minutes—that was the last time I ever saw him. The big shots determined he was a threat to himself in a way I wasn’t, so he was sent back Upstairs. Later, we heard through the grapevine other things, tragic stories: how he snuck a razor blade into his room and tried to slit his wrists. How they took the razor away from him, and then he tried to hang himself using his hospital robe. How he tried to kill himself three times this way. How his parents took him out and brought him somewhere else, since obviously the hospital wasn’t keeping him safe. No one knew where this somewhere else was. Maybe a residential place. Maybe home.
I was filled with guilt, of course. I believed it was my fault. That I instigated his behavior, that he was modeling mine. If it wasn’t for me, I thought, he wouldn’t have cut himself, he wouldn’t have gone back Upstairs, he wouldn’t have tried to commit suicide so many times. The therapists told me it wasn’t my fault, that I was trying to protect him from it. But they didn’t know I was a bitch: that I hated him by the end, that I wanted him to leave. Miles hadn’t thought I was a bitch. But that’s the truth I remember.
He would be seventeen by now, the same age I was when I was Inside with him. Sometimes I want to type his name into a search engine and find out what’s happened to him. But I swallow this impulse, because I realize it’s better not knowing. This way I can imagine that he’s fine, that he’s a senior now, debating between U of I and going somewhere out of state, trying to work up the courage to ask his neighbor to prom. Maybe he will ask her and she will say yes, and he will rent a tux and a limo, the whole shebang, and they will stand on his driveway and his younger sister—the lesbian!—will come out with her Canon and snap a hundred near-identical shots and upload them to Facebook within hours. Maybe his parents will stand a little off to the side, and his mother will tear up a little bit, and she will look at her husband and begin: Remember back when—and her husband will shush her, because this is a happy time, and they don’t want to think about way back when. And maybe he will squeeze her hand in acknowledgement that yes, that did happen, but look where they are now. Miles will be bashful, trying to pin on the corsage. He will open the limo door for his date, and when she stumbles on her too-high heels, he will grin at her, and she will feel instantly at peace.
Jami Nakamura Lin is an MFA candidate at Pennsylvania State University, where she writes creative nonfiction. She works for Revolution House literary magazine and is the nonfiction editor at The Star Mill Review. She can be found at her personal website.