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Big Books Issue

Meursault and Me

Taking The Stranger to a strange land

Photo: Donald Ely, License: N/A

Donald Ely

Everybody seems to have the same walk around here. It’s more a lack of a walk, really—a shuffle, a slide, a stuttering stereotype. They hold their arms stiffly at their sides, not quite relaxed, like there’s a wad of moldy cheese under each armpit and it feels a little gross. It’s a walk with no destination. From where I’m sitting in the corner of the day room, I can watch this parade and still pretend I’m not a part of it. On the table in front of me is a paperback copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, left over from a high school assignment.

It was the last thing I’d grabbed on my way out the door, around midnight the night before, when I’d realized I’d probably need something to read. I’d stood in front of the shelves in my room, blood running down my arm, scanning for something that would keep me company. I grabbed Camus because it was one of the few books in front of me I’d read only once; I didn’t remember what it was about. I didn’t realize I was taking a story about being out of touch with the world to a place where I would be out of touch with the world.

The hospital took most of my things when I arrived—my phone, my ring, my shoes, my clothes, my book. I spent an uncomfortable night half-sleeping in a chair in a pre-admit room in a hospital gown before being wheeled—“Do you want me to lose my job?” the nurse answered when I asked if I could walk—down cold tile floors and through two guarded glass doors, where a kind, sleepy aide took my vitals, fixed the bandages on my arm, and showed me my room. Now I have my things back and I’m in the same jeans and hoodie I arrived in, minus my shoes—no laces allowed.

This is not how I’d pictured a psych ward. I’d imagined being in a private hospital room, family and friends visiting and telling me I’d be OK. This, where I am now, is different. Two strangers to a dorm room, a day room with a TV that’s always on, a pair of long hallways to nowhere, the therapy room with its medicine counter and chairs for group. No cell phones, just a few hours a day when you’re allowed to make calls from the four phones on the wall near the nurses’ station. Nothing sharp. No visitors, except for one hour at night.

The birthday cake that comes with my lunch reminds me that it’s been three years since this began. In that time I’ve been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (Recurrent, Moderate), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Anxiety Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified), Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, and now Bipolar Disorder II. This is not a list to boast about. In the world of mental-health diagnosis, this is barely a list. Anyway, it’s the symptoms that matter. In my case, they could pretty much be summed up thus: I am a worthless piece of shit.

I don’t actually believe this, but thoughts like these are part of, in doctor terms, “ruminating,” where if thoughts are a dog, mine is the idiot frantically chasing its tail in a corner while the rest of the pack rollicks in a field.

Early on, books became a place for me to bury myself in other narratives. In elementary school, I got caught reading in the dark after bedtime. And as I got older and started feeling anxious, it was easier to sit and read a book than to face the friends who were growing up faster than I was. For a while I was obsessed with the teen series Fearless, about a teenage girl born without the fear gene whose secret-agent father had trained her to be an ass-kicking ninja, and also she was tall and blond and gorgeous, and also a college boy loved her, and also she lived in New York City and got herself mugged late at night so she could beat up thugs. At 14, I was happier pretending to be her than actually being me.

Now that I find myself, on my 23rd birthday, in this unfamiliar place, I carry my book with me everywhere, opening it every few hours to take in a few pages. Had I known what it would be like here, I would’ve brought The Martian Chronicles, or maybe The Call of the Wild. My hours spent with them feel almost athletic, their freewheeling sentences inspiring thoughts that leave me satisfied and whole. I would’ve hidden in one of these good friends for days, waiting for the nice doctors to send me home.

But that’s not what happened. What happened is I brought The Stranger, and the sentences are short and quick, the action abstract, and Meursault, the protagonist, distant. In a place with so much to look at, abstract is not grabbing my attention. So instead of reading, I sit in the day room coloring and talking to my roommate, a 20-year-old with a forearm full of slashes and twin baby boys at home. I go to group but I don’t talk, fascinated by the honest outpouring from other patients. Sometimes I retreat to my room and sit on the windowsill and read, for an hour at most, but I’m restless. I understand why they don’t allow sharp things in this place.

I start walking faster down the halls, making hot chocolate for anyone who asks, finding things to keep me busy, give me purpose. I’m fighting entropy. I sit with the fortysomething bipolar woman who, in a druggy haze, tells me she loves me five minutes after meeting me. I listen to the schizo kid who was recently found naked in a church somewhere and now walks around kindly preaching to the new patients. He’s renamed himself Zander and comes up to me when I’m sitting alone to ask if I want to talk about anything, and tells me things like Life Will Work Out in the End and Look Inside Yourself for the Answers and You Should Talk to People Here They Are Nice They Want to Help. These are characters unlike any I’ve met in real life. At some point, I get it—this is a holding pen, a place people go when they don’t know how to be alive. Their stories are on pause.

But mine is no longer. It’s almost a year later, to the day, and I just finished rereading The Stranger. I start to pick out parallels between us: Meursault feels disconnected; he doesn’t react to things the way others do. He lets things happen to him, instead of making them happen; even a murder is passive in his hands, an act of desperation under a taunting summer sky. This is how I’ve often felt: a tractable observer, unable to move into the fray. But as I think more about him, and my younger self, I realize that’s not me anymore. In the last year I’ve moved to my own place, explored the city, made friends, built a life.

The psych ward is the last place I felt truly helpless, and for a long time I avoided fiction for fear of disappearing into books again. Now I can freely enjoy books for their own merits, rather than the escape they provide. Reading The Stranger again reminded me of what I am not, what I don’t have to be. I don’t have to be Meursault, staring out from a prison cell, hoping for a chance at freedom. I can create my own. I can step into the sun.

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