Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Inferno

A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness

Catherine Cho

Henry Holt and Co.

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

According to Korean tradition, after a baby is born, mother and baby do not leave the house for the first twenty-one days. There are long cords of peppers and charcoal hung in the doorway to ward away guests and evil spirits. At the end of the twenty-one days, a prayer is given over white rice cakes. After one hundred days, there is a large celebration, a celebration of survival, with pyramids of fruit and lengths of thread for long life.

When my son was born, I was reminded of this tradition daily by my family and by my in-laws, because we were breaking all the rules. I took a shower after birth, ignoring the weeklong rule of no water on the mother’s body, and my first meal wasn’t the traditional seaweed soup, it was sushi. We opened our doors, let in guests, bundled my son in layers, and took him on walks in the falling snow. And then we did a fateful thing: we left our home.

My son was two months old when we embarked from London for an extended trip across the United States. I had come up with a plan to use our shared parental leave to do a cross-country tour of family and friends and introduce them to our son. I didn’t see why we had to pay attention to Korean traditions, or superstitions, as I thought of them. As Korean Americans born and raised in the United States, my husband and I had never paid much attention to the rules, and I had always thought our families didn’t either. Except that suddenly, with the birth of a baby, the rules seemed to matter.

We had avoided any evil spirits from California to Virginia, but perhaps we’d just been running away from them, because they found us at last at my in-laws’ house in New Jersey. My son was eight days shy of his hundred-day celebration when I started to see devils in his eyes.

My husband would take me to the hospital emergency room; by then I would be screaming and tearing off my clothes in the waiting room. I was admitted to the hospital, where I spent four days without sleeping.

In desperation the doctors gave me a cocktail of drugs that my body rejected; I still wouldn’t sleep.

The decision was made that I should be admitted to a psychiatric ward. I was checked into an involuntary psych ward in Paramus, New Jersey, which is where I am now.

It’s difficult to know where the story of psychosis begins. Was it the moment I met my son? Or was it decided in the before, something deeper rooted in my fate, generations ago?

* * *

My first memory of psychosis is the light.

A bright light. I’m lying on a bed. The room is white, stark, and plain. I’m wearing a hospital robe; it feels like paper against my skin. I try to raise my arms, but I can’t—there are restraints crossing my body, snaked around my wrists. The restraints are heavy and made of dark cloth, loops that cut into my skin. My hands are clenched. I notice that there are strands of hair in them. There are metal curtains around me; they fold like an accordion.

I try to lift my head, but I can only move it from side to side. I see a man, standing in the corner. He’s looking at a clipboard. He has dreadlocks, and he’s wearing glasses. He looks up and smiles at me gently.

“Hi,” he says. His voice is calm, grave.

“Nmandi,” I say, reading his name tag.

He looks surprised. “Yes, I’m Nmandi. I’m a nurse here.” He points to his chest. “Do you remember how you got here?” he asks.

I shake my head. I don’t know. I have a vague memory of tearing off my clothes in a hospital waiting room. I remember terror. I can still hear the sounds of screams in my ears. I think they were my own.

My lips are dry, and I try to clear my throat. I find my voice. I want to feel something certain, something to take away the fear. Nmandi is looking at me kindly.

“Nmandi, do you believe in God?” I ask.

He pauses, and he looks thoughtful.

“Fifty-fifty,” he says. “But I’m okay with that.”

He walks over to me and takes my hand.

“Do you see me?” he asks.

“I do,” I say. And I do see him, in the fullest sense of the word. He’s Nmandi, the one who speaks with his hands. Someone who comforts those who mourn and helps those who are afraid. But I also know that he must be the archangel Michael, come to deliver us from the demons.

The rules of time don’t exist in a psych ward. Each of us counts the time differently. There are some who count in days, others in weeks and months. And then there are those who don’t count the time at all, they’ve been here for so long. The ones who count in days, they are the ones who pace. I am one of them.

* * *

I’m wearing foam slippers, pale blue with smiley faces on them, government issued. I claimed them from the trash bin. They’re now a treasured possession.

I walk past the glass enclosure of doctors, past the TV room where the sound of the twenty-four-hour news cycle is blaring, past the activity room with the conference table, the hallways of resident rooms, to the heavily locked doors, and then back again.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. I think it’s a few days. But I count today as day one. The first day that I’m aware of where I am.

In my pocket, I have a folded piece of paper where I’ve written my truths in purple marker. These are words that I cling to as reality, or at least the reality I hope for. I’ve repeated the phrases so often, I know them like the words of a prayer.

* * *

I am alive. Real.

I am married to James. Real.

James loves me. Real.

I have a son. Real.

My son is three months old. Real.

My husband and son are waiting for me. Real.

I have postpartum psychosis. Real.

* * *

I have postpartum psychosis. I had never understood what it meant to doubt your own sense of reality, to be removed from time. The closest way I can describe it are those moments in dreams where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still sleeping, but in psychosis, no matter how many times you try, you don’t wake up.

The medical definition of psychosis is a mental illness in which an individual has difficulty determining what is real and what is not—it’s a loss of objective reality.

I had never heard of postpartum psychosis before my own diagnosis. Pregnancy had brought a list of worries—episiotomies, prolapse, preeclampsia. I was so preoccupied with the idea of losing my body, it had never occurred to me that I might lose my mind.

* * *

When I woke up this morning, my memory was in fragments. I was flooded with glimpses of past versions of my life, real and not real, as though I’d been copying and pasting a paragraph of my life on repeat.

When I reached for my body, I didn’t recognize it. My breasts were a network of red angry knots from not breast-feeding, my ribs were protruding, and I could feel the edges of my collarbone. I was wearing a hospital robe, and my wrists were sore with the marks of restraints. My hair was damp, tied in a strange way—someone else must have tied it. I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Wasn’t I married? I was sure that I was. I remembered a lace dress, roses and ivy in my hands. I tried to remember the song that played at our wedding. But which wedding? I remembered a few; the groom’s face was blurred.

As I pace the hallways, I’m trying to find the molecules of myself, to collect myself in the present, to contain myself.

Any time I try to remember something from before, to what was certain, I come against loops, tangles of repeating memories, replaying with different outcomes.

I remember living and dying, again and again, each lifetime of decisions splintered into possibilities.

I go back to my truths. I am Catherine. I am married to James. I have a son.

Counting my footsteps makes me feel reassured. Numbers are certain; they hold a linear logic. It occurs to me that no matter how many steps I take, I will remain constant, in this place.

I try to remember, but I can only recollect moments.

I remember a baby. The curl of a small fist. The feel of a breath against my arm.

I remember a balcony in Hong Kong, counting the seconds while surrounded by the grit of an orange sky, listening to the man pacing inside, hoping he will forget about me and go to sleep.

I remember sitting with my brother under a maple tree, watching the clouds descend, reveling in the silence, waiting for the tornadoes to come.

I remember my first conversation with my husband. His smile. The swirl of bourbon in cut glass.

Mostly, I try to remember who I am.

There are twenty-five of us in the ward, men and women. We aren’t allowed shoes, and so we shuffle in socks and slippers. We act as though this is temporary, like travelers at a departure terminal. People come and go, and we wave them off. Those who get to exit promise to keep in touch, but we know that they will not. Someone new will appear and join in quietly, and the cycle continues on.

There are those who make a fuss, who scream, but we ignore them, it’s too much. I’ve already become part of the routine. It’s as though I’ve always been here. I have trouble remembering anything before; the rhythm of the ward feels innate.

No one talks about their lives outside of this place, and we don’t acknowledge that there is anything outside this place; instead, we exist separately from reality, obedient to the rules of the ward. We are suspended in time.

We move along to the preordained schedules, waiting in the meds line, waiting to be called to the cafeteria, waiting for lights-out.

I can’t get used to the smell of the ward. It reminds me of the chlorine of a swimming pool, dank and dark. The walls are beige; there are tiles on the borders like the ones you’d find in a high school. The paint is peeling in places, and there are stains on the walls.

The ward is shaped like a Y, three corridors that intersect in the center. In the center of the ward there is a large glass enclosure with a circular desk inside. It is where the doctors and workers stay. The desk faces out onto each side of the ward; it reminds me of the control panel of a spaceship. On either side of the glass enclosure there are two rooms, a television room and activity room, each with a pane of glass so that everyone can see in.

On one side of the glass enclosure is a hallway lined with rooms. This is where the residents sleep. During the day, the doors are kept open, and at night they are latched shut. Some of the residents sleep during the day or sit on their beds. There are workers sitting on chairs in the hallway, looking at their phones, standing guard. The workers aren’t nurses, as far as I can tell. They wear civilians’ clothing. We identify them by their earpieces and clipboards. They don’t have lanyards around their necks; I guess it’s a choking hazard. Their poses aren’t natural—they seem tensed, ready at a moment to jump to attention.

* * *

My room is not in this hallway. I am in one of the twenty-four-hour high-security rooms. It’s located straight across from the glass enclosure. There is a worker who sits outside my door, making notes in a chart every time I leave.

In the glass enclosure, the doctors and workers tap away at computers and talk on phones. They pretend they can’t hear us when we tap on the glass.

I am like a zoo animal, except the zoo is inverted, and the cage protects those who belong on the outside. We, the animals, roam.

* * *

I wait for the showers to open. I have my arms across my chest, which is sore and so swollen it feels like it’s about to bleed. Shara, one of the workers, nods at me. She’s hunched over her phone, her elbow under her chin. “Good morning,” I say.

“You’re going to shower, baby?” she asks. I nod.

Shara mumbles into her earpiece and makes a note in the chart on her lap, and then she goes back to her phone.

* * *

The showers are in closets, doors that open in the middle of the hall next to the television room. There are two of them, side by side with curtains, but really it’s meant for one person at a time. I stand by the door uncertainly. I know that Tamyra is going to take the first shower slot, meaning that she’ll have the brief window of hot water. Tamyra swoops in without any greeting. She wears a Walking Dead T-shirt that’s stretched tight over her belly. She’s twenty-one and pregnant with her third child. Tamyra is a returner, residents who are released each week only to return the next. She knows all the nurses and residents by name and presides over them with authority. She is initially suspicious of me, but we make peace when I give her the shower slot in the morning and let her have my portion of dessert.

I sway from foot to foot while I wait for the showers. Around me, the ward is starting to come to life. In the glass enclosure, I see workers appear from one of the back doors, a door we don’t have access to. They turn on computers, unpack papers, open binders. They greet one another, but they don’t look at us.

Tamyra steps out of the shower room without looking in my direction; she’s wearing shower shoes and a towel wrapped tightly around her hair. She’s still wearing the Walking Dead T-shirt.

I step into the shower room. The tiles are green; it feels like the showers at the gym, smelling of bleach and mold. I take off my clothes quickly and balance them on the sink; there’s nowhere else to put them. I don’t have shower shoes, so I stand on folded hand towels. The showers are icy. There’s a burst of hot water for a few minutes, and then it pours down cold. I try my best to massage the knots from my breasts, but it’s difficult with the cold water. I start to feel like stone.

I quickly dry myself with a small hand towel and shrug on my clothing. I’d found clothing in the panels next to my bedroom door. Maternity leggings, maternity bras, sweaters that I recognize as my husband’s. I’m wearing one of his gray ones now—it’s soft, woolen, and smells familiar. I tuck cotton wool into my bra so that I don’t leak through my clothes. On top of my sweater, I zip up a hoodie. I have my hands in my pockets, so that I can keep ahold of the piece of paper with my truths. It makes me feel grounded, a talisman.

I walk back to my room where I fold my towel and make my bed. The bed linen is gray from being overwashed, and the material is scratchy and thin.

I can’t stand being in the room more than a few minutes, it feels so damp. I step outside the room and shut the door behind me. I start to pace the hallways. From the other end of the hall, residents are starting to walk to the cafeteria; it’s breakfast.

* * *

The cafeteria is at the far end of the main corridor, the farthest from the rooms, next to the heavy double doors that I imagine lead to an exit. Breakfast is at eight each morning. We stand outside the doors until they are unlocked. There are six cafeteria tables lined up in a small room. At the front of the room, two workers pass out trays of hot food. Breakfast is powdered eggs, pancakes, and slivers of bacon.

“Tea or coffee, honey,” Ronnie asks. He’s one of the popular workers, with close-cropped hair and a wide smile. Tamyra calls him her man, and he always laughs.

“Coffee,” I say.

I breathe in the coffee. I close my eyes, and for a moment I remember that I have a home, a place away from here. I try to imagine the table, the windows, the view, but all I can think of is the smell of coffee, and then I’m back. Grounded here in the ward.

The cafeteria room is quiet; we eat in silence. The windows are frosted over. The tables are so crowded, we have to stand in between them in order to wait in line. The only sounds are the voices of the workers around us. They stand around the tables and in the doorways, their arms crossed. They each have an earpiece dangling from one ear.

Lingering is frowned upon. We have thirty minutes to eat, and we shovel the food in our mouths with flimsy plastic utensils. We file out one by one as we finish. Anyone who is last to leave has to stay and help clean up.

Dave is usually the last to finish eating, but he doesn’t have to clean because he sits in a wheelchair. Dave is a homeless veteran in his fifties. He has four children. He’s black and has a habit of chuckling to himself. He calls himself Chuckles. He spends most of the day wheeling his chair in front of the glass enclosure, waiting for a doctor or worker to acknowledge him. He stands up from his chair whenever he wants to emphasize something, and he often shouts “it’s a disgrace!” that he hasn’t been allowed to leave yet. Sometimes he falls from his wheelchair and the workers have to help him sit back in it.

I bring him food from the cafeteria line because there isn’t enough room for him to navigate his wheelchair, and he says, “Thank you, Cathy.” He doesn’t look me in the eye when he says this.

Dave calls me a paralegal because he thinks I look smart in my glasses, and whenever I’m writing in my notebook, he nods approvingly, saying, “Get to work, paralegal!” He likes to shout at any girl in the ward, and he laughs when they flinch.

After breakfast, I stay to clean up anyway. It gives me a sense of normalcy. It keeps me from pacing the hallways for a little while longer. Tamyra looks at me like she thinks I’m a suck-up.

Jeff, a big worker with a beard and a gruff voice, hands me a cloth. I put on a pair of plastic gloves and spray the tables. I pass the jugs of AriZona diet tea and Sunny Delight down the row of tables, and Jeff pours them into remaining gallons to be taken outside to the medication line. Afterward, I leave and the doors to the room are locked behind me.

* * *

I walk toward the television room. It’s where most of the residents spend their time. It’s a small room, but there are three couches set up around the perimeter, and a small window that’s kept ajar. It’s also near the telephone, which makes it a good place to wait for the phone to ring. The TV is small, hung from the corner ceiling. It’s usually turned to Fox News or episodes of Law & Order. The residents perch on the couches; every so often, someone will stand up and start to roam around the halls, and someone else will slip in to take their place. The couches are a dark navy blue, with patches of cotton coming out the sides. I notice there are deep grooves on the sides of the wood as though someone’s been digging their nails into it.

In the corner of the room, there’s a plastic chair where one worker sits. There’s an unspoken rule that the race majority in the room gets to control the remote.

Race is all-defining in the ward. Our rooms are divided by race and gender, one side of the hallway for the Hispanics, one for the blacks, one for the whites. I have to believe it’s intentional. I think it’s to prevent potential gang violence, but it also makes things simpler. We self-identify by race and age, and most of the residents group themselves by race. The whites sit together at a table, the blacks and Hispanics at another. I am the Asian one. It would be offensive, except that it’s the most obvious way to be identified, especially if you’re not sure of your own identity. It reminds me of the TV show Orange Is the New Black, and I feel embarrassed that the only way I can understand this is through a Netflix television program.

I start to see people the way we must appear to each other. Someone with large glasses, someone with big hair, someone with a beard, someone with blue eyes, someone with dark skin. It makes me think of the Guess Who game we played as children. Does your person wear silly glasses? It’s the way a child sees the world and the people in it. The questions about appearance are innocent, without any bias or nuance, just “dark skin,” “beard,” a “hat.” I remember my first day of elementary school, and a girl walking up to me. “I’m black. What color are you? I’m the only black girl in this school.”

I didn’t know what color I was, and it was the next day after asking my mother that I was able to say that I was considered “yellow.”

I can tell the others are curious about me, the Korean girl who came in on a gurney, stripping her clothes and shouting that we were in hell, that the demons were coming.

But the rules are like the rules of prison: you never ask another resident why they are here. Even the workers wouldn’t ask that.

* * *

The TV is turned to Fox News. They’re talking about the upcoming Olympic Games.

“Bang bang bang,” one of the residents shouts during a recruitment ad for the army. A worker tells him to be quiet.

Ali moves aside so that I can sit next to him on the couch. Ali was one of the first residents I spoke to. He’s the only Middle Eastern resident on the ward. Handsome, lean, he’s a pacer like me. He walks with a slow, loping stride.

We kept passing each other along the hallways as we paced. We finally stopped where the corners met.

“I see you,” he said. “Family is difficult.” He gave me a small smile. I smiled back. I didn’t ask him why he was here, but in that moment, we nodded to each other.

“Thanks,” I said. “And yes, they are.”

He smiled.

“I’m not your enemy,” he said.

“Do I have enemies?” I asked. He shrugged and kept walking like he only happened to stop.

* * *

Tamyra is sitting across from us, legs crossed with a comb in her hair.

“How old are you?” Tamyra asks.

“Thirty-one,” I say.

She hoots. “Thirty-one? We thought you were a student.” Her tone says that I should be old enough to know better.

The worker in the corner looks up. There are two of them here, both hunched over their phones. They text about us; they have a chat group where they text messages to one another about the residents. I learn this by watching them. They are careful to cover their phones with their hands and notebooks. Sometimes they laugh, and they talk into their earpieces as though we can’t hear what they’re saying.

It’s 8:45, medicine time. No one announces it, but somehow everyone seems to know when to get in line. Someone will quietly stand and the rest of us follow. The returners say the names of their meds helpfully to speed along the process. “Lithium, Risperdal, Seroquel.” I don’t know the names of my medication. I think I’m the only one who doesn’t know. The woman scans the bracelet on my wrist. She hands over two small plastic cups; they remind me of the cups for samples of frozen yogurt. I swallow mine obediently, a bitter liquid and two small round pills.

The medicine makes my mouth dry, like it’s always full of powder.

* * *

Being in the ward feels like being on a deserted island. There are no books, no pens, no paper except for the sheets of illustrated drawings that have fantastical creatures on them, centaurs and leopards and griffins.

I have a notebook that I found in my room. I recognized it as one of my husband’s treasured ones, a gray one with creamy pages. I know that it is still 2018 because of the notebook. 9 FEB 2018 is written in James’s careful hand with the year underlined twice. Underneath, it says NEW BRIDGE MEDICAL CENTER. PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY.

When I found the notebook, I’d asked one of the workers if I could have a pen. She’d looked at me blankly.

“May I have a pen?” I gestured writing in my notebook. “So I can write in my notebook.” I’m not sure why I explained, but I’d felt like I should.

I waited by her chair, uncertain, and after a few minutes, she sighed and walked to the glass enclosure. I saw her talking with one of the workers; they looked over at me. One of them consulted a dark binder. I tried to look calm, normal, deserving of a pen.

She came back with a black pen.

“Here,” she said reluctantly. “The doctor said you can have it. But be careful.”

With a pen in my hand, I feel slightly less suffocated, like a window has been opened. I write in my notebook whenever I can. The things I remember, the things I know to be true.

The memories come slowly, stacking on top of one another, a picture slowly coming into focus. I feel like I am reconstructing myself from my memories. I am following a thread from the past to the present, and then I will know, I think. I will know how I got here. I will know who I am. And then, maybe I will be able to find a way to leave.

I’m sitting in the activity room, writing in my notebook. The activity room is my favorite place in the ward. The walls are a pale yellow, and it has the most light. The windows are frosted over, but there’s a soft glow that comes from outside. The room is curved, with a large wall of framed glass that faces the glass enclosure. It’s usually quiet, but every so often it’s music hour, when they blast hip-hop through the speakers. There’s a large circular table in the middle of the room. It’s scattered with markers, crayons, and stacks of torn construction paper and half-colored-in pages of fantastical beasts.

There’s a new girl who came in this morning. We heard her shouting in the hallway when they brought her in. Her name is Emma. She stands hesitantly in the doorway, arms crossed. She’s Italian American and in her early twenties. She’s still dressed in the pajamas she was wearing when she was brought in from the dorm. Her pajamas are the ones that have PINK stamped on the back. She reminds me of the girls I went to school with, tall, thin. She has a habit of twirling her hair in her hands.

“What’s going on here, what’s going on? I’m going to sit here. I’m going to sit next to this girl, she seems nice.” She sits next to me and keeps talking. She speaks so quickly she stammers over her words, a monologue without taking any breaths.

Her boyfriend and best friend checked her in. It is exam week.

“I hope they’re fucking, I swear otherwise I will never forgive them. I mean, I wish they’re fucking, because I can’t believe that they did this to me, you know. They better be fucking because then maybe I can forgive them, you know. You know. You know.” She stammers.

“I have to get out of here. Do you know how we get out of here? God. It’s a mess. How long have you been here? Do you know how long we have to stay?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. How long have I been here? I don’t know. And I realize with a start that I don’t know how long I’ll have to stay.

“Oh my god, some of these people smell like they haven’t showered in weeks. Oh my god.” She is breaking all the rules. Some of the residents look at her coldly.

I find myself feeling annoyed, and I realize suddenly that I’m thinking of myself as one of “these people.”

“Emma,” Will says. He looks up from his coloring. “You got to relax, girl.” His tone is gentle. Will is a returner. He’s been in and out of these buildings since he was five years old. This time around, he’s been in the ward for months, but he’s being kicked out in a few days. He has a hipster-looking beard, and he’s wearing plaid. He looks like he could belong in any café in Brooklyn. He’s kind, but has a cynical laugh. He doesn’t participate in any of the group sessions; he mostly stays in his room. “The fastest way out of here is to act like you don’t want to leave.” He laughs. “Then they’ll get rid of you as fast as possible.”

“You’ll be fine,” I say.

“You don’t know that,” he snaps at me. And I immediately feel ashamed. It’s true, I don’t know that. What will happen to him? He doesn’t have a car or a job. Where will he go? I hear him talking to some of the residents. He’s trying to borrow money for a taxi to pick him up from the ward; otherwise he’ll have to walk. To where? He doesn’t know, somewhere. The workers feel sorry for Will, I can tell. They smile at him indulgently, and no one says anything when he keeps apples in his pocket or takes a second serving of dessert.

Next to me, Emma is twirling her hair. “I’m going to go see if they’ve been able to get ahold of my abogado. Avocado. My avocado.” She marches toward the glass enclosure. Will shakes his head.

“The fastest way out of here is to act like you don’t want to leave.” I wonder about Will’s comment. How do I leave? I’ve been waiting, and I become aware that no one has told me that I will be able to leave or when. I look over at the glass enclosure, at the people inside, typing at their computers and shuffling through binders. No one official has spoken to me. I have not met with a doctor or a social worker. How long will I be here? I suddenly feel suffocated. I’m caught underwater, and I can only glimpse the surface, but nothing above it.

I try to think of my son. I don’t miss him, but his absence feels strange, as though my body knows we are not meant to be separated. I keep reaching for him. I think about the way he used to sleep in my arms, curled with his cheek pressed against my chest. I remember holding him for hours, staring at his face and trying to memorize it. I should have tried harder, because I can’t remember it now.

It is time for group. Not everyone joins. I’m not sure what we’re doing, but I follow Tamyra and the others as we wait outside the cafeteria door. Most of the tables have been folded, leaving only one. We pull our chairs to sit around the small table. I sit next to Ali. Dave pulls his wheelchair next to me. We are told that today we’re going to be sharing our autobiographies. How we got here.

The monitor is young with a soft voice. He is patient and lets everyone have their turn to speak without interrupting them. He is one of the rare people who actually listens, and it feels like taking a new breath of real air. “Okay, folks, so if you don’t already know, you need to have a written autobiography to go from involuntary to voluntary.” He shows us a form; it reminds me of the writing prompts from elementary school with lines to write on. “Your autobiography will go in your files for the doctor to read. Once you have a chance to read your autobiography, you’ll get points to get to level two. If you’re already level two, you’ll get extra privileges.”

The returners shift uncomfortably; they already know the rules of this game.

They go around and read their autobiographies out loud. We stare at the floor when someone speaks. It’s strange to see people start to take on dimension, beyond the identities of race and age and gender.

Tamyra states hers without emotion. A childhood of rape and neglect. “I’m a mom,” she says. She says the words easily, and I envy her. She’s been in the system her entire life. She wants to work on her temper and be a good mom to her kids. She has two boys and so she’s excited that she’s going to have a daughter.

There is Mick, a white veteran who was based in West Germany. He slit his wrists in his sister’s house. She checked him in, because she didn’t want to deal with his “bullshit” and he doesn’t blame her. He says he’s sarcastic, but that he’s got a good heart. He’s not been allowed a pen, so he’s unable to write his down. “Does it count if I’m telling my autobiography?” he asks. “You all won’t give me a pen, so does that mean mine won’t count?”

Dave sits next to me, twirling a pencil in his hands. His scrawl is like that of a child’s. I ask him if he wants me to write while he dictates. He looks at me for a moment, and then says, “No thanks, Cathy. You concentrate on getting us out of here.”

I think about my autobiography. How did I get here?

How would I begin?

Perhaps I would begin with love.

When I was fifteen, my grandmother kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “May you never find love.” It was a parting gift, like Jacob to his sons; she was trying to protect me.

Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow. As for love, it is thought of as an unfortunate passion, irrational and destructive.

Perhaps they believed this out of necessity, to keep stability in a country torn by war and tragedy. Love was best described to me as the hibiscus in our backyard in Kentucky. Also called Korean roses, they were transplants that burned a tropical sunset color. They scampered along the fence in a blaze. The petals were delicate and translucent. The stalks were so thick, they would tear and shred as they were cut, shaking the entire fence. To try to cut the blooms for the kitchen table was impossible. They were going to stay right there, not move, even as the sun burned them. Their endurance, the same endurance that made the flowers bloom brightly among starved bodies after a winter of war and famine, was what led to their downfall. Strength as weakness.

My mother had banished weakness from her world. When my grandmother was pregnant with my mother she had considered an abortion, but a fortune-teller had told her the baby would be a boy. The disappointment of having a fourth daughter in a row meant that my mother was named “Khet-nam” or “the end,” the harsh k like the sound of a knife. However, by being born at the end, my mother only pushed forward.

I was too weak; I had her features, but softened. My grandmother’s warning came too late. I was already fascinated by love and love stories. To me, romantic love seemed essential. I didn’t understand how it could be destructive, and I dismissed the warnings as a sign of a repressed culture. I preferred the Western belief in a happy ending.

My mother tried to temper my imagination with tales of Korean mythology and cautionary tales. The heroines were always strong, full of piety and sacrifice. There was Shim Chung, who sold herself as a human sacrifice to save her blind father and was rewarded by being reborn in a giant seashell. There was Nong Gae, a beautiful courtesan who danced an invading Japanese general off a cliff. She wore silver rings on each finger, and she interlaced her hands around his neck to keep him close, to make sure that he went over the edge with her. She laughed as she danced off the cliff, the trees her witness.

Romantic love did not feature in these stories; they were an afterthought or a deficiency. Love, instead, was a sacrifice. It meant loss, it meant sorrow. Sacrifice, the giving of oneself completely, that was what was required, that was what was expected.

And suffering. As a Korean, I was meant to expect to suffer.

* * *

My grandparents escaped North Korea at the onset of the Korean War, leaving behind loved ones that they yearned to see for the rest of their lives. It’s a common story, the people who fled, leaving behind parents and children, promising to be reunited, not knowing that the borders would close and all communication would be lost. Instead, they were left to yearn, to wait and hope. Suspended in the waiting. A border, the 38th parallel. We all know this line of the hemisphere. I used to trace it on the globe as a child. Such a simple line, I’d think, and it had severed so many lives, created such separation.

So for Koreans, to love means to mourn, to know loss. The sweetness of love is tempered by the knowledge that life will return with a bitterness to create balance to the story.

My psychosis, for all its destruction and wrath, was a love story. It was a story of sacrifice, an obsessive search for my husband. I thought I was Beatrice, the one who was assigned to lead my husband through hell, and that my life was a sacrifice for his.

When my brother and I were children, we would count thunderstorms.

We would see the flash of lightning and begin counting slowly, until we could hear the distant thrum of thunder. We would feel the storm approaching, we could count it into existence and know how many miles away it was, until the storm would be upon us and the house and trees would shake in a frenzy of light and sound.

I go back to those breaths, that counting, in moments when I can feel something approaching. Perhaps it relieves the expectation, the dread. Perhaps it just reminds me of being a child.

I remember counting the waves of contractions like thunderstorms. I was told to walk to encourage labor. It had been twelve hours already since the doctors had started my induction, and labor wasn’t “progressing.” It was before dawn. My husband and I paced along the long hallway; it loomed over us like an airplane hangar. I’d count my footsteps until a wave hit me, and I’d pause and bend over and let it come over me. It felt like my body was a clenched fist, and each contraction moved like a wave that I’d have to accept until it subsided. I could feel the start of the next, as though it was coming from the horizon. I tried to meet each wave without fear, to deliberately give up control.

I could sense that this was beyond my understanding of what my body was capable of. I felt like an instrument, waiting, that deep breath before the first chord of a symphony is played. I was going to be a mother, I thought. I was going to deliver a new life. I couldn’t begin to comprehend it.

Emma is dancing. She thinks we’re at a party. “Oh my god, I just want to baila baila,” she says. It must be music hour; the workers are playing hip-hop over the speakers again. Dave claps his hands, spinning his wheelchair while Emma dances.

“I like your vibe,” Emma says to me after a worker tells her to sit down. She brings markers to color next to me while I write. Her mouth is moving like she’s chewing gum. “We girls have to stick together.”

Tamyra looks at us. I know Emma doesn’t mean to include girls like her.

“I can’t believe this place. I swear it’s criminal.” Emma’s voice lowers to a whisper. “One of the black guys, he lunged at me!”

She’s talking about Darren, a young black guy who came in looking feral. His first night, he screamed in one of the twenty-four-hour monitored rooms. He’s a pacer too. He sits next to me at the cafeteria mealtimes. He is soft-spoken and calls me “ma’am.”

I feel a sense of protectiveness over Emma. There’s a blind naïveté behind her words that sometimes reveals unsettling truths about the ward, whether she’s decrying the unfairness of the workers or how no one seems to be taking us seriously. I wonder if she realizes how uncomfortable she makes the others feel.

* * *

It is Emma who helps me piece together our status. After tapping on the glass enclosure insistently shouting, “I’m going to call my avocado,” one of the workers finally hands her a stack of paper.

We read the papers together in the activity room. Dave has followed us in his wheelchair, listening as I read out loud for Emma. Both of us have blurred vision—I think it’s the medication—and so we read slowly.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

But I think I’m starting to. I learn that we are considered involuntary patients and that we are wards of the state.

“Am I involuntary?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say. “I think we both are.”

I learn that in order to move from involuntary to voluntary, we have to complete a set of levels to prove that we are fit to be released. I then realize why the returners make an effort to keep things polite on the ward. Points are given for friendly behavior, and with those points, you can earn privileges, like leaving the ward for outside recreation time. There isn’t much about how we get to leave; it says that it is only when the doctors sign off that we will be allowed to leave.

“Well.” Emma collects the papers. “I’m getting out of here. Maybe I don’t need to wait for an avocado.”

“I like that attitude,” Dave says. He nods at me. “You’re good, paralegal.”

Until the doctors sign off? I wonder what that means.

I look over at Emma, but she’s dancing again—twirling around Dave’s wheelchair.


Copyright © 2020 by Catherine Cho.