I was happy. Such a simple word, but I could feel it. Just over a year ago, I married a man my father had met during one of his trips into London on solicitor business. Mr. William Shaw was a man of good means and came from a good family. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a barrister making him well off and well respected in London. My father invited him to a party my mother had planned after I had come out to society.
When Mr. William Shaw and I met, he instantly took a liking to me. I was lucky. After a short time of knowing each other, he asked my father for permission to marry me. It was all so proper, and my father not only gave his blessing, but was excited at the prospect. I thought I was happy. We married shortly thereafter after receiving a special license and moved away from my home in the country to London to live. We immediately began trying for a family.
William wanted several children. He believed it illustrated signs of great wealth. We bought a house that was large enough to house several nurseries to support our growing family. Our persona was very important for him. After only several months, I discovered that I was with child. A few months later, Ruth Margaret was born in November during the city’s first snow of the season.
Happiness is almost unimaginable now. All emotion has been replaced by tactile pains. It is so cold, and no matter how many times I ask, I am told I do not need another blanket. I am not used to being treated like this. Others typically do as I tell them. It is during these cold, dark and quiet moments when it happens. I wouldn’t call it a hallucination, more of a daydream. These are the only times that I truly question my sanity. She comes to me more often now. When the doctors and nurses are more abusive than usual, I close my eyes and there she is. My beautiful Ruth! It makes me wonder. Does she remember me?
William was disappointed with a daughter, and he desired our next child immediately. Despite his hesitation towards her, I have a hard time turning my attention away from her. I spent most of my time with her, despite the frustration from William for ignoring my daily duties or the teasing from the servants for being around so much. Ruth was truly a wonderful girl and hardly made a sound. She will make a fine lady someday.
When I was not near my beautiful Ruth, I wandered aimlessly, unsure of my purpose. I felt numb to all other life around me. I was often found staring out my window. I would love to say that I daydreamed as I watched the people walking down the street, but in truth I stared blankly, mind empty.
That blank stare is even more common now. How could it not be? It is no longer filled with love but rather pain. Thinking that life could be wonderful and happy is a lie that I have discovered since my time here. There is nothing kind about life. It is hard, traumatic, and cold. It is so cold. Suddenly, Ruth fills my thoughts, and it sends an unusual warmth through my body.
After a month of William’s attempts to touch me, he became angry for neglecting him and my duties and told me to visit the doctor. The local doctor said if I did not obey my husband’s demand of my time, William and I will never conceive another child.
“Mrs. William Shaw, your behavior towards your husband’s needs is very unbecoming. You must resume your wifely duties immediately” the doctor told me. I nodded in agreement with him, because I knew that I had been neglecting William and my wifely duties since Ruth was born. It was very unsavory of me.
The doctor did not understand the difficulty I was having. The labor was reasonably easy and there were no major issues, but I just cannot seem to leave the comfort of Ruth’s nurseries. I stand, staring at her. I would love to say that I was only thinking of everything that needed to be done for William, but in truth I stare blankly, mind empty with only the love of Ruth running in my thoughts. I find myself helping to take care of her rather than provide for my husband. When the servants are successful in getting me to leave, I simply wander the halls aimlessly with no purpose at all.
It was rare, leaving our home. To do it for pleasure was even rarer. I remember it being a sunny day. The sunshine brought on an unusually positive attitude. With William by my side and little Ruth in the stroller cooing up at us, I found a smile spreading across my face. Maybe the worst was behind us. Maybe we could be happy and have another child. After all, Ruth fills my heart despite all the trouble I seem to have giving my attention to William. Perhaps another child would cause that glow to move outwards, and William would be happy. I can be happy. I felt positive
That was the last thing I remember. When I woke up, the doctor told me that the incident was purely by chance. No one else had been hurt. Ruth and William were both unharmed. The cart had simply hit a bump in the street causing the crate of apples to fly out of the back. I had gotten hit in the head by the crate before it crashed into the street causing the wood to split and the apples to scatter.
“She should be fine in a few days,” the doctor told William, “But she should still rest. I have prescribed laudanum for her pain, and I advise you to give her a week in some fresh air to be safe.”
William decided to follow the doctor’s prescription and that I could go and visit my father in the country. Ruth would stay with him and our servant Abigail. That is when I traveled away from the only thing that kept the pieces together, Ruth, but I trusted that William was only looking out for my well-being. After all, the doctor said it would do me some good, and I believe in him.
Doctors. They are so different here. They always treated me kindly, like a lady, when I was on the outside. Here, I am a burden. There is no such thing as a lady here. No proper societal norms. There is no sanity. There is no chance of being cured. No chance for escape, except one, but that hadn’t gone right the first time. It only made things worse. Now I am here. I see life for what it is truly here.
My fits continued to worsen. I was struggling and a lot of that had to do with my inability to see Ruth. Every day I begged to see my Ruth, but they continued to keep her from me. They said once I was well, we would be reunited, but how was I supposed to get well without her beautiful smile? I was forced to stay inside my bedroom, a prisoner to the thoughts running through my mind. I begin to talk to myself due to the complete loneliness I felt.
A week later, I found myself completely unable to get out of bed. Despite all the doctors telling me that I should be well, my body grew weaker. William and the doctors could not explain why, and I could hear them beginning to whisper about my health behind closed doors.
It grew even worse after that. I began to collapse with even an attempt to get out of bed. I slept all day and night, refusing any food brought to me. Both William and my father grew very angry with me.
“A proper lady does not act this way,” they both kept telling me. Their constant chiding only seemed to exacerbate me more, and they continued to keep my Ruth away.
The day came when I no longer even tried to get out of bed. Both William and my father attempted to pull me up only to have me collapse back into bed. My frail body began to bruise from their continual efforts. Their anger grew stronger. They would come into my room screaming, grip my wrists and pull. When that did not work, they would slap me. They said they were trying to wake my sensibilities, but it was to no avail. I could not take much more.
I can still remember how it felt. The day when I finally had enough. The blood running down my arm was warm at first, and its presence comforted me. I desired the peace it was supposed to give me. But as with most things in my life, it quickly grew cold and my hope of freedom was once again taken from me. Abandoned completely by William and my father. Now I am trapped here without hope of seeing my Ruth. I am completely alone.
The day after my incident, was the last time I saw my family for over 6 months. This dark and dank place is my home now. I have not seen or heard from any of my family since that day. It is as if what I did is unforgiveable in their eyes. They don’t understand how I felt. They don’t care that the feeling has finally passed. I can finally take care of them the way a proper lady should. I still cling to these ideals, these hopes, but they are starting to slip away.
Although it is a stark contrast to my home, I am starting to get used to this place. At least it is not quiet. I cannot stand the quiet. I discovered that when I was out there. The quiet drove me to this place. The other women are constantly making some type of noise around me. Even though the lack of quiet is due to the sicknesses of the patients, I am thankful for it.
One of the women staying here runs up and down the hallways a few times a day just screaming. I am not sure why she screams, but I can understand the sentiment. I can see from the looks of the others, they understand her as well. In fact, the noise gives me a much-needed distraction. It is less time in which to fill the spaces in my mind.
We aren’t allowed much to occupy ourselves, even less than what I was allowed when I was sent to my father’s to heal. Some of these women are unable to speak for a variety of reasons, we do not have many friendly conversations with each other. Once I was feeling better, I tried to talk to some of the other girls.
“Hello. My name is Mrs. William Shaw” holding out my hand to another of the patients.
The girl, who never told me her name whispered, “There are no proper titles here Mrs. Whoever you are. You would be wise to learn quickly to become more modest and stay quiet before you get us both in trouble.”
I was confused by her warning, but I have come to learn that those of us who have tried to speak have been silenced either from fear of repercussion or inability to maintain a conversation. So for those patients who break the seemingly required silence with screams or frequent self-proclaimed musings, I am thankful they keep the absolute quiet at bay.
Even though we don’t speak, we empathize for each other. We all have our own version of nightmares that wake us screaming at night. Day after day, we suffer abuse I could never have imagined existed until that fine day I was secluded to this new home. Despite our previous status, we all suffer this place together. It is an unspoken bond that we have gained from our close proximity to one another and the trials we continue together.
Although my environment has drastically changed, I somehow have been able to change the darkness in my mind. It may have taken months and I am unsure of how, but I am finally happy. I no longer wake screaming from nightmares. I am much stronger now, and I am happy here alone. I have learned to trust in me and what I want.
It is a stark contrast to my surroundings. Maybe it is because of my surroundings. I have found solace in overcoming the hardships this place has put on all of us. I have faith in myself. In my survival. You can see this in many of the eyes of the women here. Determination. I am surrounded by women determined to survive. It brings hope to my situation, even though none of us know how to make it happen.
The doctors and nurses here are much more aggressive. They are quite uninterested in how we truly feel or our health. When I first arrived, I was isolated and heavily medicated. I was a mess, but I had faith that whatever was wrong with me, these doctors would help me get well. They had my best interest at heart. I believed the medication was for my health due to my little incident, but after months of bedrest and the inability to move, I began to think otherwise.
We are required to have weekly sessions with the doctor. Most of the other times, we are in the care of the nurses, but they are to follow the orders of the doctor. It seems that no matter what, every session goes the same.
“Esther,” the doctor begins, “how are feeling? You look frail, have you been thinking about how you disappointed your husband?”
A few weeks ago, I began to hide my medication instead of ingesting it. I do not wish to listen to their medical opinions of my health. They weren’t right in telling me to seek fresh air away from Ruth, and maybe their opinion is wrong now. I feel more like myself since stopping the medication. They do not have my well-being in mind. Now that I am out of isolation, I am beginning to see how it is here. I see the other women around me and how they are coping to what ails them. They give the majority of us sedatives to keep us quiet and subdued.
“Tell me,” he begins again, “how are you sleeping? Are the nightmares still happening? You know that is just your subconscious showing you unbecoming your behavior. You are a disgrace to your husband and your family name.”
Up until this session, I have been honest. I believed they wanted to help. I tried to explain what drove me to the incident that brought me here, but their only answer was to medicate me until I forgot who I was. What they have yet to discover is that in a moment of clarity, I found my own way out. I no longer need their help. I am slowly starting to see the many errors in much of my bringing up.
“Sir,” I say to the doctor, “I truly feel better. I realize what I did was wrong, but I will never do anything like that again. I am ready to be reunited with William and my beloved Ruth.”
“Esther,” he responds, “have you been taking your medication. You do not seem yourself.”
“Why,” I insist, “because I speak in clear and rational words?” I look up at the doctor and heave a sigh. He remains quiet, stoic. That look tells me everything I need to know. “I am sorry, sir,” are the only additional words I say for the rest of the session.
“Esther, you look pale,” the doctor finally says after a few moments pause. “I’ll make sure Nurse Cora gets your medication for you. I will see you next week.”
He escorts me to the door. I sneak a glance toward him, and in that moment, I see how much he intends to help me reunite with my family. Will I ever be able to convince him that I am well enough to leave?
With my wits back, I watch and listen to what is going on here. It was never brought to my attention how asylums were run. It is a dark spot on society that people in our class never spoke. On the outside, we were to understand the only people committed were truly sick or unable to care for themselves. Asylums kept them away from the public, and in theory were rehabilitated back into the population once well. In actuality, many of the women in here are victims of bad circumstances, just like me.
We are victimized daily in many ways. We are forced to strip in front of the doctors and each other. We wait naked in long lines to take cold baths in the same water as the previous woman in line. Our food is limited to small portions that even the healthiest of us have trouble surviving on, let alone those of us who are ill. In truth, if you are truly ill, you will have a hard time recuperating due to the dank and moist living quarters we are forced to cohabitate.
I have seen several women disappear just in the short time I have been in the general population. One day they are very sick, unable to eat, and then the next they are gone. We are not truly sure if the women die or they are removed from our eyes. It is not for us to know.
It is almost unimaginable that I have overcome my issues in a place like this. The asylum is not a place they send you with the hopes you will be cured from whatever your ailment. The doctors do not listen if you try to tell them you are better. I have stopped trying. I will have to find another way to leave this place, and it will not be the same way I got in. That feeling has passed.
I have tried to reach out to both William and my father to tell them how much better I am and that I am ready to be removed from this place, but I have not seen or heard anything from them since I arrived. I am not sure if it is due to my letters never being sent or they merely do not care to write or visit. After all, I am now merely a stain they wish to discard from their family history. I am on my own. For the first time in my life, I must do this on my own.
I begin to investigate if anyone has ever left this place. Everyone I talk to, including staff, eludes the only way out is in death. I have a daughter, and I will not do that to her again. She must be just about old enough to walk now. I really would love to see that. Experience that. I crave to see her smiling face again
On a very cold night as I stare up at the ceiling listening to the moans of the women around me fighting their own demons, I hatch a plan. The only way to leave here is to run away. To escape. Then I realize if I do that, I would be a criminal. I would never be allowed to see Ruth and would probably end up right back here. This is a cycle I am unsure of how to break.
That is when it happens. A scream I have never heard before. It is different from the ones that keep the quiet at bay. It is hauntingly pained. After only another moment, screams of several other women begin. They all sound so scared, which heightens my senses. The women in here, myself included, have endured many a painful thing both inside here and outside. It takes a lot to scare any of us now. I feel a shiver down my spine, unsure if I want to discover what makes these women scared.
I see the nurses running down the hall and the place is lit up like Christmas despite the dark, moonless night outside the windows. I find myself slowly following the commotion. As I peer over the others’ heads, I see a woman hanging from one of the lights. Her neck was wrapped with a sheet from her bed and tied to the frame of a light. Her body was twitching, but all the color from her face and neck had been replaced with a gray pallor. Her eyes were still open and from where I stood, I could see the cold hollowness within them.
My mind began to race. Considering those cold eyes, I could glimpse what my future may hold if I stay. This cannot be the only way out. I cannot live this way. I had to find a way.
Around me, more and more people began to gather. I saw all the nurses and orderlies on staff pushing through the crowd. Now was my chance. I would never have a better opportunity to leave than now. I quickly turn, and start to walk away from the mass watching to see if anyone noticed my movements. No one paid me any mind. Everything was centered around the woman who had found no other alternative, and thus ended her pain the only way she knew how.
As I made my way to the front desk, I tried to think how I would get out of the locked door to the always empty and unused lobby that was built to create an illusion that family members visited their committed family. In actuality, family members were either too embarrassed or non-existent to use the cheerful area. Adrenaline pumping through my blood stream, I heard footsteps approaching me. Slowly at first, but after seeing me, the footsteps grew faster and closer. They quickly approached standing between me and what would be my freedom.
“Hey!” the orderly yelled at me. “Get back to your bed. No one is allowed in the halls at night.”
Not sure what I was going to do. I turned back just as he reached me. As I looked him in the eyes, something came over me and I slapped him. My frail hand did not do much to hurt him, but I could see the shock come over his face. That look somehow gave me more confidence. I lifted my foot connecting to his male sensibilities, and unlike my last attempt, this one took him down to the floor. Reaching for his keys, I unlocked the door. My last obstacle to escape now overcome, I flew open the front door and was immediately hit in the face by the cold night air. It sent shivers down my spine, but one breathe and I was rejuvenated. It had been so many months since I had felt the air on my face. It was like being reborn. I was a different person. I smiled, and ran and fast as I could, as far as I could.
It has been two weeks since I escaped. I haven’t seen or heard anything about it. I suppose the asylum does not want the news to spread. I feel they must keep the most unbecoming news and everyday treatment of their patients secret in order to continue to exist. I would hope that if the public knew the truth about our treatment inside, there would be some changes made. I like to think if I had known before, I may have tried to help, but in truth the public may willingly choose to remain ignorant. Unwilling to acknowledge this stain on our society similar to the way William choose to ignore me after I was admitted. All of this has played in my favor.
I have waited, impatiently so, before trying to see my daughter. I know I can’t let William see me. He would not be happy, and I would only be sent back away from her. I won’t go back now. I can’t. I am not sure if the asylum reached out to them about my escape. I needed to wait and see before seeking out Ruth. Seeing her now, maybe William does not know either. I have been tracking Ruth, and there seems to be nothing amiss to her security.
I have altered my appearance some. I cut my hair short. I collected some clothes here or there to help me blend in more. I am not dressed as a lady. Those ideals are gone. I could never be that person again. I want to live simply. I want to work to keep my happiness. I cannot go back to doing what others ask. I find that there are many things I cannot go back to now.
From my vantage point on the bench, I look up and finally see my first real glimpse of her. She was barely smiling when I left. She is walking now, and her whole face is bright and happy. She is with another woman, her nurse I remind myself. They are walking through the park. I look at Ruth. Really look at her. She is beautiful. That same feeling I once had in my heart comes rushing back. I know I cannot spend another moment away from her. A stage of her life was taken from me, and I refuse to let that continue. I want to be a part of her life like I was never allowed before. She is my only priority.
I watch and wait as she plays with the other woman. I am waiting until the right moment presents itself. Then it happens. The woman turns to set out a blanket and what looks like lunch for both of them. I run for Ruth expecting her to scream at my presence near her, but as I get to her, she looks up at me with her blue eyes and smiles. I reach for her and she is quickly in my arms. I take a very quick second realizing I have my arms around Ruth again. It is the only place I want to be. Then, never for a moment stopping to look back, we escape from the lives we once lived. Leaving behind the criticism for the love I have for Ruth. Together being all the happiness we need.
For days we didn’t stop. I knew from birth how great Ruth was, but she has grown so much. Still she is a wonderful, kind child. Almost as if she sensed the importance of her demeanor on this journey. She was quiet and never left my arms. I soaked every moment in, letting the importance of what I had done overtake every decision I made. I knew we needed to run far and stay hidden. What I had done would never be acceptable. My death would surely be imminent if we were caught.
As we travelled, I began to think on what I could say and do to provide for Ruth without William or my father’s monetary help. My upbringing did not provide me many skills that may help to provide for us. After several nights on our own, I discovered that I was decent at preparing food. Maybe I could find a family to cook for after apprenticing. If I claimed to be a widow, no one would question Ruth’s presence or why I may be seeking employment. Now that I had a plan, I needed to find where we could go where no one could possibly know us. We found our hope in Ireland.
For a few years, I trained under the kitchen servants and was able to make a nice home for us. Later after we escaped, I learned that William had fallen ill with tuberculosis shortly after I took Ruth. This explained why the search for her was not extensive. He moved to Italy to warmer climate, but inevitably was unable to recover and died the following year. Now I truly was a widow and did not fear capture quite like I did at first. I was able to live my life with Ruth the way I wanted.
I had learned so much about myself during my stay in the asylum. Despite how terrible the institution, I discovered myself and the strength I had to defeat any obstacle that came before me. Nothing would ever seem as difficult as that time in my life. Now every day, although I must work hard, I am able to be a part of my darling Ruth’s life. Ruth knows no difference, and lives a happy and content life. We both do.