Bedtime in first grade is finger jelly and sock lint. Vaseline rubbed on my bloody, split, vellum-dry knuckles; hands cocooned in white Nike gym socks, wrapped on my wrist with scrunchies. I am told to sleep. Wake up for…
I can now order craft beer at the former asylum where my great-grandmother was lobotomized. The state hospital has become a brewery called Newsylum that serves an IPA named Therapy Session. The one-hundred-acre campus is also home to a town hall, recreation center, walking trails, softball fields, and a dog park. Many of the buildings still sit abandoned, corralled by chain-link fences speckled with signs that warn visitors to keep their distance. Turkey vultures roost in the neglected cupolas, scavenging stray pub pretzels or picnic scraps. As a child playing on the institution’s grounds, I often worried I was bound to repeat my great-grandmother’s legacy of mental illness. Was my brain fated to betray me? Was my future, in some ways, predetermined?
Repetition is important to the structure of this piece. The echoing of “Normal Girl” is used to reinforce the persistence of my obsessions and the rigidity of the rules I created for my adolescent self. On a literal level, it represents the repetition in my compulsions, which were replicated until they felt “right.” It also, more plainly, fortifies my deep childhood yearning to be “normal.” The Normal Girl becomes a mythical figure, the phantom that younger me aspired to in order to be accepted and gain a perceived safety from society or institutions. It’s possible that my desire to be a writer might stem from this childhood feeling of being misunderstood and a longing to communicate more effectively, especially when many of my emotions surpassed my limits of language and comprehension at that age.
I have often felt a pressure to be silent about my experiences with mental illness, pressure that partially stems from my family’s unfortunate prior experiences in seeking treatment for loved ones. If writing is an act of vulnerability, reading is a practice of empathy. My hope is that, by speaking about mental health more openly, we can better empathize with each other and the personal challenges we all face. Who among us has never felt, at times, a desire to be free of our private conflicts and fears—a desire for simplicity and security in the promise of “normal”?
KELLY LINDELL is an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School in New York City, but calls Connecticut’s Naugatuck River Valley her home. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Longleaf Review, CRAFT, and Atticus Review.