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 travels abroad. William was a man of good means, and he came from a prosperous family. When we met we instantly liked each other. I was lucky. After a few months of courting, 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 and moved to the city. We immediately started on creating a family.
William wanted several children, and it was of importance for him to have a male heir to his family’s estate. After only several months, I discovered that I was with child. A few months later, Ruth Margaret was born in November during the burrow’s first snow.
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 All emotion has been replaced by tactile pains.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. 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. Ruth was truly a wonderful girl and hardly made a sound. She will make a fine lady someday.
After a month of William’s attempts to touch me, he became frustrated and told me to visit the doctor. The town doctor said if I did not obey my husband’s demand of my time, William and I will never conceive another child. I nodded in agreement with him, because honestly, what is my other option?
The doctor did not understand the difficulty I was having recuperating from the birth of Ruth. The labor was reasonably easy and there were no major issues, but I just can’t seem to leave the comfort of my bedroom. Ruth’s demand of my time plus my duties to William, I have not a moment to myself. I often find myself 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 stare blankly, mind empty.
That blank stare is even more common now. How could it not be? Thinking that life is wonderful and happy is a lie that I have discovered since my time here. There is nothing kind about life. It is hard, painful, and cold. It is so cold. The thought of my little Ruth sends an unusual warmth through my body.
It was rare, leaving our home. Even more rare that it was for pleasure. I remember it being a sunny day. 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 with happiness. Perhaps another child would cause that glow to move outwards, and we can be happy. I can be happy.
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 advise you to give her a week in some fresh air to be safe.”
William decided to follow the doctor’s prescription and that maybe I needed to go and visit my father in the country. Ruth would stay with him and our wet nurse Abigail. That is when I travelled away from the only thing that kept the pieces together, Ruth. After all, the doctor said it would do me some good, and I believe in his diagnosis.
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.
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?
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 worse after that. I began to collapse trying to get out of bed. 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. Either William and my father would grip my wrists and pull me only to have me collapse back into bed. My frail body began to bruise from their attempts. Their anger began to grow. They would come into my room screaming, pull me up, and when that didn’t work, they slapped me. They said they were trying to wake my sensibilities, but it was to no avail. I couldn’t take much more.
I can still remember how it felt. 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. 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 that feeling has passed finally. 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. The other women are constantly making some type of noise around me. 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, and since some of these women are unable to speak for a variety of reasons, we don’t have many friendly conversations with each other. Those of us who have tried to speak have been silenced either from fear of repercussion or inability to maintain a conversation.
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. 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 was 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 am happy alone, here. 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.
The doctors and nurses here are very aggressive. They are fairly uninterested in how we truly feel or our health. They give the majority of us sedatives to keep us quiet and subdued. Shortly after I arrived here, I was truly a mess, but I had faith that whatever was wrong with me, these doctors would help. They had my best interest at heart. 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.
“Tell me,” he begins again, “how are you sleeping? Are the nightmares still happening? You know that is just your subconscious showing you what kind of lady you really are. 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.
“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. The look tells me everything I need to know. “I am sorry, sir.” 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 know how much he will help me to 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. On the outside, we were to understand the only people committed were truly sick or unable to care for themselves. 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 each other and the doctors. 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.
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 to it. I do not feel this way now.
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. 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, ensures me that 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.
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 will 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 endure many a painful thing both inside here and outside. It takes a lot to scare any of us now.
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 slowly follow 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 was paying any mind of me. 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. 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. 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.
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.
From my vantage point on the bench, I look up and finally see my first glimpse of her. She was barely smiling then. 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 watch and wait as she plays with the other woman waiting for the right moment. 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. Together being all the happiness we need.
For days we didn’t stop. Ruth 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. Once we were far from the city where no one would know or recognize us, I began to ask around for a place to stay for a newly widowed woman and her child. With my change in appearance, no one questioned my statement. With my husband dead and appearing to be from a low-income family, it would appear there was no one to turn to for survival. This is the only way to keep Ruth without raising suspicion.
Soon thereafter a farmer’s family took pity on us and let us stay in their barn and work for them. Ruth and I may not have had much, sleeping on the hay with the other animals, but we were finally together again. I would do everything to make sure it stayed that way.
After some time, we could get a small cottage for us. Ruth was growing quickly, but she never questioned our lives. She was happy and content. I never felt the way I once did after she was born. I overcame everything and found a way to provide for us. We were together.