Cover Photo: 7 Days of Heaven or Hell - Here's How I Figure it Out by Madiha Athar

7 Days of Heaven or Hell - Here's How I Figure it Out

No scars to show

As I stand in the shower, foaming myself from head to toe, running my hands over my soapy breasts, arms and tummy, my hairy legs, as I straighten and stand, as I run my fingers through my tangled, conditioned hair, I feel a sting. There is a nagging, badgering sting at the side of both my legs. The skin on them is dry and scratched red. As I turn the taps, carefully blending in the hot with the cold, as the drops wash away the soap and collect in bubbly suds across my pink-tiled bathroom floor, the stinging dims until it is gone altogether and I am reminded I have no scars to show.

A year ago today, I had been wading through endless, relentless mud. It refused to let me take a step further. I stumbled and fell and cried, blinking myself into blindness.Everything was dark, painful and scary. Let me go, let me go, let me go, oh please let me go.

Every night I’d hit my bed and before I could finish the thoughts in my head, “Tomorrow I will be going….” chemicals in my brain shut my eyelids tight. Every morning would be met with disappointment. “No, Madiha. Not today. You’re not ready to go.” Tears, angry words were galore.

Somebody brought me flowers. I think I kept them in a small glass – probably a small potentially absolutely harmless plastic cup, actually – rested against my large, glass window. It must have been Heather who had brought them from one of her walks; I wasn’t allowed to go. My window overlooked the parking lot. Nothing too exciting, but my favourite Berkeley hills were still in view.

I remember Skip gently hinting that I’d better shower. I remember arguing adamantly with the nurse, trying to convince him that I’d surely get lice in my hair and infect the entire ward of uncontrollably ill and beautiful people were I not given my hair comb to brush and clean my hair properly. Please, please just please let me have my hair-comb?

I remember the friends I made, but not all their names. A tall girl with skin that seemed to be caramel and chocolate melted together and short curly hair had the most soothing voice I’ve ever heard. She sat beside me on my first morning; trying to console me as I wept uncontrollably after all the nurses had given up. She was my first friend and a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. I recognized her girlfriend as soon as I saw her – Kat Graham, a Vampire Diaries star.

What was her name though? You dark, sweet, angel. I’ll always remember you. Thank you.

As I remember all this, I remember it all with a twinge of sadness, shame and pain. But I want to remember that it was more than that, so much more. It was seven days I didn’t have to fight to look normal; it was seven days I didn’t have to struggle to seem sane; it was seven days of delicious freedom, a taste that will always remain on the tip of my tongue – a souvenir of those seven days, something I will always be grateful to have. In those seven days I was probably most like a bird I that could ever be. Nothing could stop me.

I remember the nurse with the loud laugh. And the one who told me he was Muslim in the middle of the night during an anxiety attack. Assalamwalaikum. May peace be within you. His name was not on the white board, which only bore names of the daytime nurses. I was scared and paranoid and in tears. Where was I? Surely not in a hospital? What was going to happen to me? What possible, acceptable explanation could there be for his name not being on the board? The nervous glances shot in my direction every few seconds felt like needles piercing my skin.

I AM NOT A MONSTER.
I AM NOT A CRIMINAL.
DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT.
Please don’t look at me like that? God, just hug me tight?

But I remember the nurse and I knew he was kind. I was the one suspicious of him and he showed me his ID and he was black and as a citizen of a racist world I could kill myself for it. Sorry, that was not an appropriate phrase. I promise I’m not suicidal anymore.

I remember the nurse who dug her nails into my shoulder so hard it drew tears to my eyes. I was trying to escape. It was all a game, my challenge in a movie. Heather with long, shiny pink nails was from Orange is the New Black, I could swear I’d seen Sarah in Jurassic Park of which Skip was the director. Our group therapist was Robyn from How I Met Your Mother and she was also some kind of an agent in one of the Avengers movies. The old lady nurse with the white hair was in Scooby Doo, oh and the social worker? He definitely reminded me of one of the confused fishes either in Finding Nemo or Shark Tale. Or was it Spongebob? I knew it was all a plan. Arnob was waiting downstairs with my friends and family to sing my favourite song.

I remember the nurse who made me cry and the super nice one. Thank you Lisa, for taking in all my bullshit and still being ever so kind. I remember the first time I was allowed on my walk. Oh, the joy! Was the outside world always this beautiful and exciting? I almost walked into a Thai restaurant because I was craving Thai food so badly.

I remember saying a prayer with everyone in the evening on my first day so that everyone would get a visitor during visiting hours. I so desperately wanted to see a known face. I remember everyone receiving one, everyone but me. I remember not remembering how much of an absolute asshole I had been to the only person who had been by my side through my entire episode, done more than family. I remember hugging her in her over-sized pullover when she came to see me and I remember it feeling like home. I remember her bringing me a large bag of chocolates – Kitkat I think, or was it Hersheys? I remember loving them.

I remember jumping for joy and running to hug my mother – yes she had finally arrived! And she had brought with her Thai food and a floating balloon too! One that I could carry with me on my walk.

I remember Heather’s long, shiny, pink nails and her willingness to share with me her iced tea. In return, she asked for Coke but I forgot to tell my Aunty to let the people at the front office know that the Coke was for her, not me. I wasn’t allowed too much caffeine, you see. Heather wasn’t even angry. And when I finally got sent home-cooked food, the kind I was too scared to eat at the table with everyone lest the smell was bothersome, she happily ate it with me. Oh Heather, I hope you’re doing well. I am lucky to have met a darling like you.

I remember numerous phone calls – the disappointment when they weren’t for me and the excitement when it was a friend or a relative. Oh God, did they really love me?

I remember Skip’s unwavering friendliness, fruitful and interesting group therapy sessions that I always thought I was better without. The bed was so comfy. I remember mandala colouring books, an English Quran that the hospital spiritual consultant gave me. I remember my floor-mate bringing me Ghiradelli chocolate because she remembered I loved them. I remember my roommate bringing me my clothes. She felt too awkward going through my things (bless her) and brought the first things she could get her hands on which included my swimming tights. But hey at least she got my blue and gold Berkeley shirt that I loved! I remember my friend telling me I looked great in it. I remember Sarah’s motherly eyes and watching Bangla and Urdu songs on repeat on YouTube. I remember peeing my pants in the emergency room.

“Hey Maddy, just let go.”

The seven days ended and I was finally let go – sent home, flown across oceans to my father and brothers. Of course I’d be back in no time. Of course everything would be fine, just as before. It didn’t feel like I was free then – forced to do things against my will, forced to stomach the pain of losing my dream, forced to tears every morning and night. Those seven days were my freedom – heaven and hell all at once. A bit like life, but a bit more extreme. Seven days that I have no scars to show for, perhaps because blessings don’t leave scars.