I was wheeled into what appeared to be the dining area. It was small and circular with tables and plastic chairs, almost reminiscent of elementary school. Everyone was in their late teens or early twenties, dressed in pajamas with not a smudge of makeup on their faces. They looked up at me as if to say, “Fresh meat.”. I still had yesterday’s eyeliner and mascara painted down my cheeks like the remnants of a storm. The blue gown draped over my shoulders was unsexy and anonymizing. It was a far cry from my usual pouffy skirts and patterned dresses that practically screamed for attention. The nurse wheeled me around the perimeter of the room and asked, “Where would you like to sit?”. That familiar sensation of my clenching stomach arose, reminding me that I knew noone. One boy wearing plaid pajama pants with mussed blond hair said, “She can sit here.”. pointing to the empty space across from him.
“Hey,” he said, “I know how scary it is on your first day, but I swear it gets better. It’s not so bad.” I nodded, “I’ve never been to a place like this before.” “Don’t worry. Everyone’s here to help you.” We talked about reading, school, and then of course the dreaded topic of what sent us here. He told me first, and then I told him. To my surprise, he replied, “Well, you’re in the right place.”. His reassurance was oddly comforting. I felt as if I could breathe again; like I no longer had to lug. around my dark secret. A strange feeling arose in my stomach, and it was neither nausea nor anxiety. It felt warm and inviting, as if I had been wandering a cave, but saw the dull flicker of a candle burning in the distance. I could not see the exit of the cave, but at least I could see where I was headed.
The rest of the night entailed watching television, and listening to one boy talk emphatically about the economics class he was taking at a local college. The way his eyes lit up when he talked about the various different factors that led to the success or failure of a business reminded me of how talking about Cicero or Julius Caesar made me feel–connected to something real. I could tell he loved it by the way he wanted to teach everyone around him about it. It was like he knew the secret ingredient to happiness and wanted to share it with the world.
That night, as I tried to sleep in an unfamiliar bed with an eerie light peeking out from the floor, I gazed out the window. There was a whole world outside of the locked windows, but here I was in a minuscule dot on the giant map, with people who, like me, feared the world more than anything, yet yearned with every fiber of their being to rejoin it.