“Call me Ishmael.”

When I turned twenty-two — I was about to graduate from college in Boston — I started experiencing intense anxiety. I was always a worrier with deep envy for people who have unyielding optimism for life. But what descended on me then was much worse than my usual worries.

Afternoons became petrifying and I had to stay inside, away from the windows and the setting sun. To this day, I don’t know why it was in the afternoon that I felt such anguish.

With the anxiety, came a mountain of thoughts — thoughts about future, about people and about thoughts themselves. In time, all the thoughts became one question: Is life worth living?

I grew up in South Korea, where Confucianism and Buddhism dominated the land for ages before Christianity arrived in the 20th century. People used to live by the axiom “to live is to suffer.”  Men and women chose to die rather than be dishonored. Life was clearly not an imperative.

As I saw it, there were two doors before us: One of them said “Life” and the other one said “Death.” And dying seemed just as important as living.

Death might bring peace to those who don’t have it in life. And I didn’t find anything wrong with the notion of wanting to die when living became meaningless. If life belonged to an individual, so did death. But people didn’t want to talk about death, so I stopped asking about it. I asked the question for the last time to a professor of classical studies. He looked at me with a straight face and said: “Why not sing and dance when you can?”

A doctor gave me a prescription for Xanax, which knocked me out, not the anxiety; but it still did the trick. I graduated with a psychology degree and moved to New York to enroll in a clinical psychology program.

I spent two days a week at a psychiatric hospital, running group psychotherapy sessions at a “dual diagnosis” unit (mental illness plus addiction; truly wretched). Medicated and lost in their world, none of the patients were fully awake during group therapy. But it went on each day. I walked around the ward with a list of names in my hand. Putting on a bright smile, I announced the therapy session would start.

“You should come; it will be good for you,” I said.

Some patients nodded. Others said “yes.” Most saw through me.

Ishmael, a patient, was in his early twenties. He was tall and thin and had a boyish face with a mop of curly yellow hair. Like most psychiatric patients, he was missing a few teeth. He had schizophrenia, paranoid type, and was addicted to just about any drugs out there. When he was a child, his father, high on drugs, stabbed his mother, his younger brother and him. They died that night, but Ishmael survived. He used to show the scars on his abdomen to other patients. He showed them to me, too — the disfigurements were enormous and looked swollen. I could almost make out in which way the knife slit his skin: one stroke this way, another that way, and another one again that way.

Once I heard him fighting with someone in the bathroom. I banged on the door as he screamed and cursed and wailed on the other side. When he opened the door, he was alone.

The hospital discharged him only to take him back the following week. Police officers usually found him hallucinating on the street and brought him in. Each time he was discharged, he was clean and sober. Then Ishmael seemed like he could live up to the promise of a lifetime of remission. But half an hour on the street and he always found some drug to take his mind off.

Each time he was readmitted, he spent time on a different floor pretty much just throwing up. Then a phase of calm would descend with the help of medication. It was during this time he wandered around the ward in barefoot, wearing a hospital pajama. His pale face looked blank and he didn’t recognize his doctor or fellow patients.

It was as though he alone was there.

“When you overdose next time, you should do it right, so you can put an end to it all,” I told him a few times in my head.

He wouldn’t get better — I knew he wouldn’t get better.

People wandered into the small room. We sat in a circle looking at one another. We were supposed to have an agenda for each session — like how to deal with frustrations. But I never did. It didn’t matter what the agenda was. The sessions were all the same.

Starting with me, the ones awake enough talked about what we did that day and what we planned to do later in the evening or the following day. Having little control over their body because of medications, patients often farted or threw up during session. We ignored them — or didn’t notice them.

“I want to wake up in the morning, have warm breakfast and go to work like other people do,” a man said.

Others, as usual, made encouraging remarks — “Yeah, you do that” — or nodded approvingly with their eyes closed.

“What do you have to do to do that?” I asked.

“Take my meds and come to groups” was the usual answer.

“I’ll work with my doctor and talk to my friends instead of drinking” was another.

Forty-five minutes passed quickly. When the session was over, they slowly woke up from their seat, thanked me, said good-bye to me and dragged themselves out of the room into the hallway. I felt so desperate then.  And then it was my turn to drag myself out of the room into the adjacent office to do the paperwork for another 45 minutes. Affect, check; participation, check; mood, check; body coordination, check. But all was an exercise in futility.

I was entering a profession where I’d make a living on other people’s pain. I didn’t know what I would do if I didn’t become a therapist, but I knew I had to quit. I didn’t believe in recovery and had no business in keeping people alive, just so that they could get through another wretched day.

On my last day at the hospital, I looked for Ishmael to say good-bye. He was in his room pacing. I walked in, extended my hand, told him it was my last day and wished him well.

“You’ll be all right,” I said, but I didn’t mean it.

Ishmael shook my hand — his hands were warm and he had a strong grip. He looked at me in the eye as though he’d never been struck with dreadful illnesses.

“If you pray for me, I’ll pray for you,” he said.

I never felt more sorry for him. I was heartbroken that he was so sick. I wanted to hold his head in my hands, put my face against his and ask, “Why do you go on living, Ishmael?”

“Of course, I’ll pray for you. We have a deal?” I said instead.

He went back to pacing, and I left.

That night I cried until I couldn’t breathe through my nose. I couldn’t imagine what he suffered, but it must have been a thousand times worse than the terrifying afternoons I lived through. He, too, when his head was clear, probably knew that his life was a constant struggle between the desire to give in and the will to go on.

I never prayed for Ishmael — I’m not religious — but I think of him. It’ been 15 years and the urgent questions have been losing their urgency a little every year. And anxiety, too, grows less insistent.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2013. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

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