Author’s Note: Pulling Salt from Water was not an easy thing to write. I have never written about sexual abuse. I think this subject braids nicely with my youth and experience of schizophrenia. It’s a story that triumphs over tragedy. It’s a story that highlights my writing life and my need to be transparent. Yes, I have trauma in my past and yes, I have schizophrenia. Those two things no longer define me. I am at peace.
Editor’s Note: “Pulling Salt from Water” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in nonfiction, as published in the Delmarva Review, Volume 14 (2021). From the opening lines, we are invited into the mind of a courageous writer who is “best understood on the page.” She gives her voice to metaphors that “long to be set free, the paragraph that belongs to me, the one I decide to share as I try to touch my reader.”
Pulling Salt from Water
HE ENTERED AT NIGHT. THE ONLY PROTECTION I HAD were the monsters living in my closet. I begged them to pull him off me. Quietly. Softly. So much so that he couldn’t hear me. My words were hot breaths against his neck. I left my body to float on the ceiling.
This man was not my father. He was an impostor who simply smelled and looked like my father. Old Spice was his cologne of choice. This man was not the man who seated me between his bicycle handlebars and rode me around the neighborhood. He was not the man who played hide-and-seek with me and my two sisters. Not the man who taught me how to throw a football or quizzed me on math problems. He did not buy me a hamster for my twelfth birthday; my father did that.
The monsters never came to my rescue. Instead, they tormented me on sleepless nights, telling me they were going to shave my head while I slept or eat my fingers to the second knuckle. The monsters had been in my closet for years. I knew they were there, these lecherous old men standing three feet tall with no hair and mottled gray features. They wore dinner jackets and stank of feces. They never blinked.
IN THE PAST, MY BRAIN CAUSED ME TO LOSE WORDS; I was locked in psychosis with no way to communicate. In the future, I will be hospitalized. There is a fear that I will not be able to get my proper medications. There is a fear that depressed and paranoid me will not be able to leave my house. I have a fear of losing words.
I WAS SITTING IN A PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE, midday, wondering why he had fake plants. He was a bald man with a Salvador Dali mustache, the ends of which stood up beautifully. This was my first time seeing Dr. Denton. The file on his desk contained information about me. It was filled with an accumulation of hospital staff reports and my parents’ observations. Dr. Denton told me this as he randomly flipped through it. Dr. Denton was the one who would deliver the news. My diagnosis.
He cleared his throat and in one breath said, “I have reviewed your file and believe you to have schizophrenia.”
My whole world changed with that one sentence. I was twenty-nine years old.
Please, poetry, make me more awake; lead me to a new truth.
Ask me to come to the poem with a child’s sensibility.
I BELIEVE WRITING IS A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. I rarely know what it is I’m going to write. I like learning what I don’t know about my story. I love the magic that is poetry. I am a poet writing prose. Sometimes my prose leaves me at waist level in water.
I AM IN A PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL. The plastic window allows sunshine to brighten the bedroom. I am warmed by it. The unit runs cold; an open door of a freezer allows the ice to melt slowly. Once the door is closed, the ice will regain itself. Maybe it is cold to keep us awake and moving. My mood slowly thaws.
The day room is sterile with a smell of Lysol. There are couches covered in gray vinyl, a whiteboard, and several round tables with chairs around them. The TV is paused on Forrest Gump running. The room is well lit. There is no dark corner in which to hide. I don’t eat in the dayroom with the rest of the patients. The patients don’t interest me. I am a cat who never meows.
A few of us pace the hallway. Up and down. Again. Up and down. Once tired, I will stand still as a hinge, sometimes for hours.
When will I fall into myself? I wonder. Back into my shoes and the weight I feel with each step? Normality is suspended.
THE FAMILY ROOM WAS DIMLY LIT. The wood-paneled wall contributed to its dreariness. It was 1976. Wood walls were all the rage. I could hear my mom in the kitchen preparing dinner. I knew she was making Italian food. I could smell the garlic. The clock in the hall chimed six.
Father and I stood eyeing each other. I was six feet tall at twelve. He had a couple inches on me. He was barefoot. I, in black-and-white Converse sneakers, flat to the ground, no heel.
I was afraid of this man. My fear was like a snipped tail of a kite unable to catch wind. The kite stalls out before ever having flown. I am tethered like this. To the ground. Flightless. Unmoving. At the mercy of what he will say. I’m afraid of being ridiculed.
I needed him to hear me.
“Dad, I’m tired. Like really tired all the time.”
Dad responded, “You can’t be tired. You’re only twelve.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. I lowered my chin to my chest with the hope that he hadn’t noticed I was crying.
“Hey, hon. Do you need any help in the kitchen?” He called out to my mom. “We’re done here, yes?” he asked me and then turned to walk away before I could answer. I thought the deep green of his Polo shirt was a good color for him. It complimented his raven-colored hair.
“Done,” I said to myself. “Done. I’m done.”
I didn’t know what to do with my hands. It seemed I would feel better if I just knew what to do with my hands. I rolled them into the front of my shirt, creating a cotton muffler.
The front door slammed open. My sisters had been playing Barbies in the front yard. Their hands were full of blonde dolls and small cardboard boxes. They used the boxes for all sorts of things: dressers, beds with tissue pillows, refrigerators filled with paper groceries. They fell into the family room beside the blue couch like one falls from climbing a tree onto the grass below, silently and suddenly.
“Wow,” Samantha said, stopping abruptly. “You’re crying.”
“I am not,” I said. “My eyes just itch.”
My sisters left me alone. They headed for their bedroom where the coveted case for everything Barbie lived.
Dinner was silent. Samantha and Suzanne twisted spaghetti onto their forks and then shoved it into their mouths. Mom wouldn’t look at me. I figured Dad had told her what I said. She was afraid of my feelings. Feelings weren’t her thing. Dad was brutally quiet. He usually was a mountain of talk. He reached for the garlic bread. Mom offered to pass the butter. He nodded yes. I pushed the broccoli around my plate. It was covered in cheese so my sisters and I would eat it.
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“So, you’re tired and not hungry,” Dad said. “You’re really just a mess tonight.”
My sisters stopped eating as if hearing my dad clearly required them to abandon their forks scraping against their glass plates.
“Okay. I’m a mess,” I said solemnly. “May I be excused?”
“Of course,” Mom said before Dad could say anything. She saved me in that moment. I felt her love.
I slowly inched my chair back. The wooden legs caught on the shag carpeting, spoiling my quick exit. Dad stared at me. I stood and turned my back to all of them, leaving my chair stranded a few feet away from the table.
“I love you, Kristina,” Samantha said. Her words painted color back onto a blank canvas. Suzanne eyeballed Dad and then mumbled out an “I love you” in suit with her older sister.
I paused and then started to cry again. Without turning around, I said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I really don’t.”
“You’re just twelve,” Dad said. “Only twelve.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. I didn’t know if he was acknowledging my suffering or jabbing me with words already said. I just knew it hurt. A boxer rests his arms on the shoulder of the other, but only for a moment. Then the beating begins again until they finally dance away from each other after the bell rings. The hall clock struck eight.
I BELIEVE I WAS BLESSED WITH THE BREATH of the written word. I’m not much of a conversationalist, but I can write. My writing began in the first grade, when I used to journal about my feelings and ideas for my parents. Once, I caught my mom reading one of my letters to a friend. They laughed at it. I slinked down the hall and into my bedroom. Later, I created illustrated stories about Batman and Robin. They always caught the bad guy.
The fact that I have schizophrenia makes my language different at times. It impacts my descriptions of things. Sometimes, the way I write only makes sense to me. I write in snapshots. My mind welcomes single images. The bee stings my shoulder knowing it will lose its life as it leaves its rear end behind.
Sometimes, descriptions don’t necessarily fit in the right places. I have a blueberry that’s barely visible in the ocean of cranberries but is still sweet like only a blueberry can be, while the cranberries remain tart.
Writing allows me to give voice to the metaphors that rub the inside of my cheeks and tickle my throat, causing me to cough. I can hear it in a period, hear it in a comma—the phrase that longs to be set free, the paragraph that belongs to me, the one I decide to share as I try to touch my reader.
IN MY DREAMS, Mom would open my closet door and encourage the monsters to come out. The monsters would moan and tell her they were too tired. Mom would offer them vodka. They’d still resist her.
I WOKE TO MY PILLOWCASE STAINED WITH DROOL. At times during the night, it felt as if I was drowning in spit. This was a side effect of my medication. Maybe this is why the hospital pillow inside the starched white industrial pillowcase was plastic. It is quiet in the hospital. Still early. Most don’t rise until they hear the call for breakfast. One thing I know for sure is that no matter how sick the mind, everyone comes to meals.
Bonnie, the psych tech, shouts out, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Breakfast is served.” Her voice so loud that it easily reaches the last room down the hall of eight doors on each side. She rivals a rooster.
I CAN SPEND AN HOUR ON ONE LINE OF POETRY or one paragraph of prose. The pitcher walks four players before she begins to strike out batters.
I’m not good at knowing what is working and what is not working in my writing. Writing peers assist me in pulling salt from the water, allowing me to quench my thirst without losing the spark that ignites each page. Water can boil without the salt. Perhaps the salt can be added seasoning later, but it’s primarily about getting rid of the thirst.
THERE WAS A MIRROR PERCHED ABOVE MY DRESSER. I leaned toward it, my face a palm’s width away. “I don’t know what’s wrong, but it will be okay,” my twelve-year-old self said to my reflection. A line of snot dripped from my nose. I swiped at it with the back of my arm.
“My time will come” I reassured myself. “Yes, it will. I will be a strong and beautiful girl with the energy of a horse, who will have several best friends.” Right now, I was alone with no one to talk to.
Removing my long-sleeved black T-shirt and light-colored blue jeans frayed at the bottom, I slipped into an oversized white T-shirt with the band Queen on the front. I liked Freddie Mercury. Fortunately, my dad knew nothing about him. My dad hated gays and would light my T-shirt on fire, probably with me in it, should he learn that Freddie was queer. “What a fag,” my dad would say.
I pulled on my black cotton pajama bottoms with little cats dotted all over them. They were the softest thing I owned.
The salt from my tears had streaked my face. The bathroom was just across the hall from my bedroom. I took a wet washcloth and washed the traces of my pain away. “As if nothing happened,” I said. I dumped the washcloth into the laundry basket in the corner.
I was too tired to sleep, which I knew made no sense, but that was the way it had been for days. No wonder I was crying so easily. Exhaustion could do that to a person. I stroked Felix, my cat, my black cat with a white chin who’s small enough to sleep across my throat as I lie on my back and began my count of a hundred backwards.
“One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight,” I forced my eyes shut. Felix licked at my cheek, savoring the remnants of salt.
MY DOCTOR, DR. PUREWAL, VISITED DAILY to have fifteen-minute conversations with me. At first, it was always frustrating because I was unable to get him to understand me. Pulling words randomly into full sentences was beyond my reach. My writing was bleak, also. While lost in my mental illness, I could write only for me. Readers weren’t allowed in. He said he could make the voices I hear go away and bring me into clear thought. With clear thought, I could write and speak once again in paragraphs.
Dr. Purewal always had a poker face. When I finally agreed to take Clozaril, he got excited. He clearly believed the drug would break my psychosis. It was the only anti-psychotic of nine different anti-psychotics that I hadn’t tried.
IT’S BEEN A WHILE SINCE I SHAVED MY HEAD looking for the dial that would allow me to choose realities beyond my psychosis. I still believe there is a dial on my brain that can be found beneath my dark curls. I believe that other people could dial into my realities if only they had such a mechanism attached to their brains. Of course, my belief in the dial was attributed to my schizophrenia.
The voices I heard that no one else heard, the voices that were so real to me, telling me things I should do like tell the fat man he had a lard ass, punch the woman who is always crying in the face, knock down the little man with the mustache like a bowling ball would a pin, finally quieted.
I struggle with maintaining life in the common reality: the reality of postal workers and grocery store clerks, the reality of friends and family being intimate with each other. Today, my struggle is less intense, unlike ten years ago, when I was in and out of hospitals every three months.
I wanted to be well. I did not know how to always get my mind to cooperate. My mind was a wheelbarrow filled with glass bowls the color of cherries, the bowls filled with letters of the alphabet. Some bowls contained words like shoe, door, walk, and free. Others contained just random letters I desperately wanted to make sense of. The bird walks to the edge of the mountain and jumps, expecting to fly, but instead finds that she has a broken wing and tumbles to earth. Words like fall safe could have prevented her from crashing in a mix of feathers and blood. Before the Clozaril, I could not make sense of the things I thought about.
When stepping out of my mind, I could not be understood, like an infant wanting to say hello. When I fell into my mind, I made sense. I am a woman who just happens to have schizophrenia but am not controlled by it. I wanted this. I wanted freedom like a helium balloon released from the clutches of a toddler’s fist.
My mind is never emptied of bothersome thoughts, but it is so much better. Many days the voices are just static, and I can clearly say good morning to my coworkers and thank the man who bags my groceries.
MY HOME IS A SAFE PLACE FOR ME TODAY. There are no monsters in the closet. Mirrors are my friends; I can look and see more than just vacant eyes and an empty stare. I have pretty hair.
My kitchen is small but mighty. I can crack eggs to scramble. One of the burners on my four-burner stove doesn’t work properly. When it’s turned on, smoke comes from the dial.
I have two black cats that I got at the Humane Society for ten dollars. They have never been without me. Grams is named after my grandmother and Annie after my mother. I am good at cleaning the bathroom. Grams watches me as I clean, her sleek black coat avoids my cleaner, the smell of Comet is toxic to her. She lifts her nose.
I kneel, making certain to clean around the valve at the bottom of the toilet. Grams leaps onto the seat, her feet clean against the white surface of the plastic. She eyes the blue of the toilet bowl cleaner. Her meow lets me know my work is right on.
My home is as much Grams’ and Annie’s as it is mine. Together, we move forward. The calendar ticks off days and nights of solace. I am happy. The world invites me to take a seat at the table of quiet abundance, where I am served coffee with two sugars and cream.
I DON’T MISS MY FATHER. He died of a heart attack ten years ago. I still haven’t reconciled the imposter and him, but the two do sometimes fit into the same beige shirt and black khakis when my father morphs into the rapist in my dreams.
I continue to miss my mother. She never smelled of alcohol and cigarettes, although she indulged in both. Alcohol killed her at the age of 58. She was walking around on Thursday and then in a coma by Friday.
I knew she drank too much, but I had no idea it was going to kill her at such a young age. I didn’t know she was dying. Her liver just quit. When young, I spent months hoping she would save me from him. How could I tell her he forced himself on me? I was too afraid and ashamed to tell her my innocence had gone the way of a feral cat, wild without bonds.
I have regret. I wasn’t a good daughter. I could have done more for her. At the time of her death, I was really sick. I could not swim my way out of depression.
I’ll always remember the call at midnight. Bob, my mother’s roommate, called and told me that my mother was acting strange. He didn’t know what to do. I gave him the number to the psychiatric helpline. They would send a team of therapists out to see her.
The next call I got, at two that morning, was from a psychiatric nurse in the urgent care center. She explained to me that my mother had been brought in to be evaluated. Though rare for them to allow clients to be given the phone, they put her on. She was desperate to speak to me.
“I trusted all the wrong people,” she said over and over, her voice a piston of words. I could sense the steam through the phone.
The psychiatric nurse took the phone from her and told me they were transferring her to a medical hospital because she didn’t look good. Her liver collapsed on the way there.
I would never hear her voice again. She woke once from the grave of her bed in the ICU when I visited her. I told her I knew she loved me. She blinked with yellow eyes, and then they closed, leaving me alone. I had never felt a loss so deep. I struggled, trying to break the surface of an ocean whose waves were relentless.
My heart fractures when I think of her. There is so much I want to say.
I climbed trees at night as a kid, hoping to pull down a star to give to you.
I no longer hate you for not knowing I was being raped.
I want to take her hand in mine and whisper in her ear, “Sweet, you have nothing to prove to me. I love you just the way you are.”
I WEAR MY SCHIZOPHRENIA BLINDLY. When my symptoms are not present, a person would never know I have mental illness. Why do I have the good fortune of having schizophrenia? Right…the good fortune. But I do make the most of it, turning it on its head by writing about it. It can make for an interesting paragraph.
I HAVE NOT BEEN IN A HOSPITAL FOR ELEVEN YEARS. I have worked my same job with no absences for that same amount of time. I am at home in my body, able to watch comedy on TV and laugh, able to fix myself a spinach omelet, able to drive to the grocery store and shop.
I forgave my father because I had to. The hate and loathing were eating me up, leaving a big hole in my psyche where God should have been.
God is with me today. I am led to my creative self by inviting God in. God is the birds I hear in the morning, the dance of the bush in the breeze. The love I have for my friends is orchestrated by God. I am always in good company.
I WALK AWAY FROM PSYCHOSIS, leaving it on the pantry shelf behind my medications. I continue to write myself into being, thinking I am best understood on the page. The days are gentle, like green oil paint on the bristles of a brush. My schizophrenia is in my hands. I shake it loose, leaving plenty of time to walk into the parking lot, filled with hope, painting a black Mercedes that I can drive, taking me wherever I want to go.
Kristina Morgan’s book-length memoir Mind Without a Home; A Memoir of Schizophrenia was published by Hazelden Press (2013). She received an MFA in creative writing and poetry in 2007 from Arizona State University. In addition to Delmarva Review, her writing has been published in Quartet and other literary journals. Her work has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, for a short story and for a personal essay in Delmarva Review.
Delmarva Review publishes evocative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry selected annually from thousands of submissions locally and nationally. Designed to encourage and present outstanding new writing, it is an independent, nonprofit literary publication. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.