There is nothing about beef stroganoff that should make a person want to flee from it. But on that particular day and on that particular tray of hospital food, that particular medley of meat strips, egg noodles, and cream of mushroom slop was the catalyst for my escape.
As my mother drove me to the hospital on a morning so cold I regretted not wearing a third pair of socks, she dispensed enough platitudes to convey that she was concerned about me, but not enough to conceal the fact that she only had a few minutes get to McDonald’s before breakfast ended. “I’m here to love and support you,” she seemed to be saying, “but you have to work through your problems on your own.” Especially when those problems stood between her and an Egg McMuffin.
Over the past year, my depression had wrapped itself around me until I could no longer see that everything beyond my solipsistic bubble had started to unravel. Eventually this bubble burst, sending me into a free fall. I fell past the strain of unemployment and a mounting stack of unpaid bills, past a social calendar wiped clean and empty advice to smile more, worry less, let Jesus into my heart.
My world shrunk to the size of my twin mattress. The nightly syndication of Married … with Children acted as my sole time marker. Two Buck Chuck provided my only relief. This relief lasted only as long as it took for my hypnopompic haze to fade when I came to the next day, a pounding headache announcing my stark reality.
The past, present, and future breached their boundaries, fusing yesterday’s paralyzing setback with today’s Pyrrhic victory with tomorrow’s inevitable struggle. A continuous train of thought looped though my mind for days, weeks, months—or was it only hours, minutes, seconds?—leaving me dazed and disoriented.
Again and again I was left dazed and disoriented, convinced that I had hit rock bottom only to find myself sinking further away from a life that I was barely living. After waking up with my limbs draped over the headboard and the bed sheets stained with used wine, I knew it was time to get help.
And so I entered the emergency room that morning with a bruised spirit and bloated desperation, sensations that grew as the day progressed and I still hadn’t been admitted to the psychiatric ward. All of my inquiries to the hospital staff were met with roughly the same dismissive response: “Look, honey, I’m hardwired to hate the world. If you find anything I say or do to be of any assistance whatsoever, consider it an accident and don’t interrupt my clock-watching again. Understood?” A figurative slap in the face when a literal wave of the hand would have sufficed.
I shuffled from one waiting room to another, the depletion of my patience measured by the increasing number of magazines I defaced in each place. Unable to concentrate on “O’s Guide to Serenity Now,” I became strangely thrilled by the prospect of leaving a trail of hirsute Oprahs in my wake: svelte Oprah boasting a beehive, stout Oprah sporting a soul patch, horseback Oprah sprouting a neckbeard.
It wasn’t until that evening as I was touching up bubble-blowing Oprah’s five o’clock shadow that I acquired my own room, a palimpsest of previous illnesses.
While I was struggling to adjust the elevation of the bed, a nurse walked in and set a tray of food on the table beside me.
“If it’s a five-star feast you’re looking for, it’s this you’re stuck with.”
Her forced attempt to lighten the dim mood certainly didn’t inspire confidence in whatever it was she delivered. I didn’t laugh and her reflexive shrug suggested that this wasn’t the first time her quip had fallen flat.
“Anyway, don’t get too cozy in here. Someone will be coming by to take you to the psych ward.”
She left me alone with my meal, which by that time had already breached its plastic lid and choked the room with its stench. I uncovered the source of the offense, revealing a coagulation of beef stroganoff that I eyed with equal parts disgust and fascination. I took a fork and began probing the snarl of noodles. Probing for what exactly? For a secret ingredient that would somehow make it appetizing? For something potentially toxic that would justify hurling it against the wall? It didn’t matter. What mattered was the sudden surge of panic attacking me.
I didn’t fight back. Instead, I fled. Once I had thrown my coat over my flimsy hospital-issued nightgown and stepped into my boots, I hurried toward the stairwell, my echo chasing me down eight flights of stairs to the ground floor. I crossed the lobby to the main entrance only to find that the automatic doors refused to budge.
Are they really out of service or do they just sense that I’m dead inside? I thought, manually forcing my way outside.
I ran down the street, my feet slipping on the ice and my unbuttoned coat and nightgown sliding off my frame leaving my exposed skin raw and red. It was if I was trying to escape a monster of my own creation, both separate and inseparable from myself.
I ran faster.
I continued running until an ambulance siren cut through the air, breaking my stride and causing me to surrender to a serrated wind that I hadn’t felt until now. I headed for a nearby gas station—any port in a shitstorm.
Once inside, I gravitated toward the warmth of the roller grill, the synthetic sheen of a lone hot dog catching the light with every rotation. I stuffed it in a bun and grabbed a fistful of ketchup packets. After ensuring that the cashier’s attention was firmly riveted on the technicolor churning of the slush machine, I retreated to the restroom and watched my mirror image inhale the hot dog. (The fact that it was even less appetizing than the beef stroganoff I had just rejected was not lost on me.)
So this is what the end of my downward spiral looks like, I thought as tears blurred my reflection.
The sudden trill of my cell phone startled me. No one ever called me. No one but my mother.
It was my mother.
“Where are you? Someone from the hospital called and said you had disappeared and WHERE ARE YOU?”
Minutes later I was riding back to the hospital, my mother’s car full of unspoken words until I broke the silence with laughter. What initially sputtered out in fits and starts crescendoed into an untamed, infectious roar until any room for a heart-to-heart was crowded out by our shared hysterics.
Pulling up in front of the ER, I could see a nurse and a security guard waiting inside the entrance.
“They’re expecting you,” my mother said.
Approaching them, three words written at the top of my chart caught my eye: High Flight Risk. But tonight’s escape had exhausted all of my energy. And so I let the nurse and the security guard set the sluggish pace as they led the way to the psychiatric ward.
“Everyone is just finishing dinner,” the nurse told me as we passed through the double-locked doors. “We saved you a plate.”
The distinct smell of beef stroganoff greeted me.
I shook my head. “No thanks. I already ate.”
Robyn Schindeldecker is a Minneapolis-based writer whose previous work has appeared on Elephant Journal and The Tangential.