The White Crane

The White Crane

by Clare L Martin

White Sally was crazy as shit.  Black Sally dreamt of riding bucking mules. White Sally had a bomb in her stomach but it was really a baby. Black Sally was happily-crazed and non-violent, with a flabby face and a wide, toothless smile. Black Sally said I glowed when asleep. My luminosity healed the world, she said, of the dry rot of hate and death. White Sally said I was in cahoots with the devil.

I shared a room in a private psychiatric hospital with White Sally in 1992. The first night I do not recall.  Nor the second, but thereafter, I was open-eyed, hyper-vigilant. Shadow monsters were slick on the walls.  When I did sleep, I was somnambulant. I crawled into bed with White Sally and held her around the waist. She freaked out and kicked me to the floor. She called the nurse and the nurse warned me to stay in my own bed. For the rest of the night spectral leaves abraded the moonlight.

White Sally was psychotic, seventeen and pregnant by her married thirty-five-year-old-boyfriend. She could not be medicated because it would harm the baby.  She needed to be medicated because she would harm the baby. White Sally called me a bull dyke in group therapy. We all said the serenity prayer and hugged. White Sally slunk along the wall away from me. I never broke eye contact.  I smiled. She didn’t realize how much I already knew about her.  She couldn’t guess how similar she and I were at heart. Despite my graciousness, she kept her fork in her fist at meals and ate with her free fingers.  Her fear-infused glare was a threat—sworn against me her lesbian-like enemy.

Without waking White Sally, I rose from my bed in the creaking dawn hour to see the death I’d caused.  All of the rooms were unlocked and in every bed was a corpse.  I ran to the nurses’ station and found a large woman who looked exactly like my mother.  She offered to heat a cup of milk in the microwave behind the steel mesh and glass window that kept the ill and potentially dangerous persons like me an impenetrable distance from the staff.  My pseudo-mother hugged me and told me to sip the scalded milk. I had a memory flash of the Jonestown massacre.  I took the milk and nodded my head. I surrendered. I told my pseudo-mother the patients were dead, that my thoughts had killed them all.  She whispered to two lanky college boys who were working as nurse’s aides on the graveyard shift.  The college boys in scrubs who were younger than me put their arms around my shoulders as though we were simply strolling and brought me to a small, spare room.  The room was solid and without windows. There was a one-way observation mirror. I talked to the angelic minions on the other side inspecting me. A bloodless war raged in my mind. After the injection, there was total blackness.  The line of light that stretched beneath the door was rubbed out with grease smoke.  I woke the next morning wet with urine. I was led like a blind person into the sun’s fire.

I was kicked out, unwell, after ten days because my insurance wouldn’t pay. But not before the spa-like hospital made me sign a Promissory Note while I was in a psychotropic-drug-fogged mind state. I was the victim of a pencil pusher’s unethical ambition. The patient account rep firmly stated that the note would stand up in court. I was vulnerable and naïve.   It was a shitty ploy.

I was bankrupt in 1992. I had no dignity. I couldn’t hack graduate school.  That was the conclusion those who were my peers and professors made of my case.  I called the director of the graduate program from the hospital pay phone with a borrowed quarter and told him I was dropping out.  I can’t recall what I said exactly. I was so distressed.  I was probably wailing into the receiver.  Or more likely, I was restraining my emotions to the degree that he was suspect of my excuse. It was believed that I was most likely drug-addicted, immature and nonchalant about pursuing post-graduate degrees. I can only assume, through paranoid retrospection, that the world sensed my talent and assumed its destruction. The world knew the sludge of my life. It was chewed on by gossips.  They did not know I was an origami crane being precisely folded by its artisan maker into final form, not yet in flight.

When I was prematurely discharged, I put a dollar in the pocket of a black cashmere coat that was my grandmother’s.  There was a hole in the pocket through which a coin would slip but I tucked the dollar in a fold and it didn’t fall through.  I still have that dollar. The only plant I’ve ever kept alive is still alive. Someone with a rudimentary knowledge of flowering plants could tell me its name. I know what it really is. It is a perpetual gift. There are fifty tiny, vibrant leaves on it at this very moment.  I have tended it as though it were my own life.

The air of the state psychiatric hospital, a deep, tire-popping pothole on the road I traveled, smelled of meatloaf and cigarettes. The avocado-painted walls drove me crazier.  There were ancient magazines. Supermodel cover girls wore coffee stain halos around their airbrushed faces. Bug-eaten Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were unusable. The first and last pages of each abbreviated tale were torn out.  Boxes of beautiful puzzles—mountain landscapes, soft bunnies in brilliant blue-green grass, and covered bridges suspended over spilling streams— had been dumped on the tables, mixed together and put back in split-cornered boxes.  It was the perfect atmosphere to grow quietly or unquietly more insane. When I was too deluded to be aware of my surroundings, I clung to a Naugahyde couch with gaping wounds.  Two characters tried to recruit me into a game of bid whist.  After an entire day on the couch, a spindly nurse pulled me up by the arms.  A male nurse’s aide soaked in cologne held me up and walked me to bed.  The nurse swabbed a circle of flesh and stuck a needle in.  My vision was a green paste, my tongue flattened.

In a cold, white office, I sat with a timid female social worker, E., who cheerfully sang that Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar.  I beeped back that Van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. She pinched her smile into a frown.  E. called in my husband who looked as though he’d been beaten about the face.  Tears shook out of his eyes.  He held my hand and repeated “It’s ok” over and over.  The social worker said I’d be on medication for the rest of my life and that I should never go off of it unless I was instructed to do so by a doctor.  I was to take Lithium, Depakote, Wellbutrin, Enderol and Loxitane.  I complained.  I didn’t want to lose more of myself. I didn’t want to live in zero-visibility fog for the rest of my life.

As I became more lucid I itched for freedom.  I searched the only window at the hall’s end for a rescuer.  I was unsolvable, the fucked-up puzzles. I felt like an over-burdened ox in deep mud; I could only trudge. My heart, pierced, had deflated.  Such despair was not entirely new to me. It could have been worse.  I could have had no one that cared.

[Black Sally, my friend— if you are alive reading this— I love you.]

Black Sally told me a dream that changed my life. Black Sally motioned for me to sit on her bed at six AM just after the nurse who drew blood for lithium levels left the room.  She pulled the white sheet stamped “Property of State Hospital” over our heads. In Black Sally’s dream she wore a straw hat with sun-bleached and rain-withered plastic graveyard flowers stapled to stiff polka dotted ribbon on the brim.  The hat was a tight fit and didn’t fall off even as the bucking mule she was riding kicked higher and higher.   Black Sally’s long-gone natural teeth were snugly fit in her mouth. They sparkled like sunlit water. She was happier than I’d ever seen her as she spoke.  I asked her “What else happened in the dream?”  She said, “Nothing.  I was riding the bucking mule.” It was an epiphany. I was determined to ride the bucking mule until the damn beast collapsed from exhaustion.

The next morning, an emotionally disturbed man who resembled a poorly dressed, blonde werewolf ululated vociferously.  His mournful moans inspired a plot. I organized a sing-a-long.  “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” was the appropriate selection.  I rounded up cows, chickens, pigs, donkeys and ducks.  Each patient had a role; a singular purpose to fulfill for ten minutes until the outraged head nurse called it to a halt because it disturbed her soap-opera-watching. After the evening meal, but before meds, we had snacks in the common room. A smattering of patients was sucked into corners, withdrawn from the boisterous smokers. I found a Bible and approached each solitary individual with an offer of hope. Black Sally was so moved she put teeth in for the occasion.  The male nurse’s assistant (the one who held you down when you refused to take your meds so that the nurse could shoot you up) broke up the gathering of lost souls. He said there would be legal repercussions— separation of church and state and all.  He took the Bible away.  In retrospect, it was a good thing.  As a general rule, it is unwise to advise persons who are experiencing a psychotic break to read the Bible. We remained assembled.  We held hands in a tight circle and prayed for peace of mind: the most powerful force in the world.

The purpose of group is that you tell the nurse if you are sleeping well, if your medication is taking effect, if you notice any unpleasant side effects, and to voice the need to speak privately with the doctor.  Group was not the ideal place to talk about one’s emotions, except superficially, or air grievances we had with the staff.  That was unwelcome.  When I talked about my complex, many-hued feelings, I was shot down. Whenever I spoke in group, the nurse, who looked twice divorced and wore too many rings, scribbled on a yellow pad.  The movement of her ring-heavy right hand was an excessively long breath she pulled deep into her body.

One morning in group we were introduced to a new patient.  He was young and friendly with cocoa eyes.  His apparent happiness was inexplicable. He’d chosen to admit himself to get off marijuana and beer.  He was self-aware and intelligent.  I introduced myself.  He told me his name was Jim and he was twenty-three. He was a Leonard Cohen fan.  At 10:00 A.M. a petite, bouncy woman bounded into the common room.  She put a cassette into the portable stereo on the slanted shelf beneath the TV.  Slinky disco sizzled out of the speakers.  The woman pulled patients up from couches.  We pumped arms, kicked and danced for ten minutes and then the music stopped.

Silently, Jim raised and lowered his arms in a swooping ballet.  He stood in a wide stance and turned the trunk of his body and stretched.  The bouncing lady stopped bouncing and squeaked “Tai Chi!” The white crane spread its wings.  For two weeks, I, a committed person, emulated elegant cranes.  Cold spring broke through earth.

The food didn’t improve but my appetite did.  My banter and chatter was birdsong.  I whistled chirpy tunes. My stride was graceful.  I washed my hair. I was getting better. I called my husband and told him exactly which clothes to bring.  In the first paper sack he’d packed useless things: too many socks, not enough bras, old t-shirts and stretched-out sweat pants, one panty and jeans that were too small. I couldn’t blame him.  Committing me was a terrible thing for him to face. I made a list of outfits that were flattering. I asked him to bring the mascara in the blue tube, the silver tube of lipstick, the blush in the red compact and the powder in the gold case.  I asked for tweezers.   I transformed. The doctor asked to see me.

I stuck my hand out to shake Dr. R.’s hand.  He waved me to a brown metal chair in the small office.   Dr. R. tapped a thick manila folder with my name on the tab.  He asked me how I felt about dropping out of graduate school.  Shitty, I told him. He told me a manic episode led to a psychotic break. I was taking five medications. He wanted to cut them back to two in a few months since I’d responded quickly. His theory was that less medication was the best course. Dr. R. practiced privately and would take my case.  He told me I could expect to have more breakdowns, possibly throughout my lifetime.  He said if I took the risk of getting off of the medication, the breakdowns could be more severe. Dr. R. signed my discharge papers.

I liked the structure I’d become trained to follow in the hospital but I couldn’t keep it up at home.  I was well enough to be released but not to fashion a new life. My concentration was shot. I couldn’t read for a year. Before the crash of ‘92, I’d read an average of two novels a week.  My mind had been rocked at the core, seismically. I felt wasted, gutted. I slept too much or too little.  The medications overwhelmed my system. Dr. R. saw me once a month.  It was all I could afford. He referred me to a therapist.  She was a chalky wall.  I called her at home when I was suicidal and she responded, “I’m having dinner.” My husband was depressed as I was. The cost of private care and prescription medication became too great.  I stopped seeing Dr. R.  I stopped taking my medication. I hid my symptoms. I waited for the white coats but they never came.


  1. Thanks so much for publishing my piece.

  2. So glad to have you on board Clare!

  3. A beautifully written account of a descent into hell and the climb out. The many vivid images held me spellbound. Wishing peace and joy to you and all the others who have gone through this kind of suffering.

  4. Thank you, Christine! I am so glad that the treratment I receive now that our medical insurance pays for is top notch and I am stable. I am able to pursue happiness in life…

  5. What a fantastic essay. How happy I am to have Clare as a friend. Thanks for publishing this, Jessie.

  6. Helen, you are so dear to me. Thank you for your comment!!

  7. I can second that Helen 🙂 and I’m honored when people send me their best work!

  8. I’m stunned by the lyrical qualities of this. This is high quality art.

  9. Thank you so much for being involved Joel and taking the time to comment 🙂

  10. Beautifully told, Clare. Lyrical, yes, and full of straightforward compassion and humanity. xxoo

  11. So powerful. “spectral leaves abraded the moonlight” – wow.

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