Our final class with the girls at Desert Hills was by far our most casual. We didn’t have much of a lesson plan drawn up but instead decided to focus more on going in with general ideas of what we wanted to do and adapt to what the girls wanted. We knew they wanted to write and we knew that they loved sharing their work with us, so we dedicated the beginning of the class to just writing and allowing the students to read their works aloud or share them with us individually if they so chose.
Our group had added two new members since our last meeting and one girl who had been with us from the beginning was missing. I asked if she was discharged and the group said she was still around but had something else going on during our meeting time. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see her one final time, but had to move on.
Before we officially began I was sitting with the girls having casual chit-chat, while some slid me pieces of loose leaf or torn notebook paper — donations to our growing collection of their works. One of our more vocal students, who had taken an interest in my story of being in the hospital and recovering, told me how she had spent our spring break in the hospital.
“I tried to kill myself,” she said, almost proudly. “I had a bad bipolar episode.”
“Well I’m so glad you’re here to join us,” I told her. “You have been a very valuable member of our class.”
She seemed delighted in my answer and then I transitioned into beginning class activities. I know the importance of validating one’s importance without drawing too much attention or putting too much emphasis on the crisis itself.
We started with a free write, telling the girls to write about whatever came to mind and just writing for as long as they could without interruptions. Some never lifted their heads or pens, some broke their concentration to briefly comment on what they were writing, but continued on with their work, very few did not participate or got completely caught up in side conversations.
The student who had returned from the hospital volunteered right away to share with us what she had written. It was a testimonial about her bipolar disorder and dealing with all the extra strings and attachments that came with her particular diagnosis. She was being open, honest, and unafraid. Once she finished we all clapped, with her fellow students validating her feelings and writing. Not in the feel-good sense that one would expect from a writing workshop on the outside, but in the way that teenage girls with attitudes trapped in a mental hospital validate and joke with each other.
“That was dope,” one said.
The class then began to dissipate with girls breaking off with one of my peers to aid in their creative projects. I stayed in my chair and would chat with those that wanted to chat or just watch the relaxed chaos that took hold of the room.
One of the new girls that we had just met presented me with a stack of papers.
“I really like writing,” she said.
“Can I read these?”
She nodded and I pulled the stack over, reading all that she had written while she scribbled in her notebook beside me. Aside from small spelling and grammatical errors, her writing was really good. She was very adept in her craft and her stories all shared a clear style, reflecting Native American myths. I set aside papers that were my favorite and gave them back to her telling her how much I enjoyed them.
“These are all really good,” I told her. “Keep writing. You have a real talent.”
She started opening up more but when she asked when we would be coming back, I felt my body get heavy.
“This is our last meeting,” I said, watching her smile sink.
“So we’ll never see you again?” the vocal student asked.
“I don’t think so.” I told them how I wanted to continue working here, doing some sort of writing program or even just working as a staff member. “But by the time any of that happens I’m sure you’ll all be back at home.”
“Yeah, I plan on discharging soon,” one girl said. “Don’t want to spend more time here then needed.”
They started talking about their plans for the future, plans after they get out, and I loved listening to them. The idea that they have hope and excitement for the future inspired me, but also hurt even more. I had come to really care for these kids, and I didn’t want to abandon them just as things started going really well.
When we said our goodbyes, there was a small sense of relief of having finished our project, but a sadness settled in because I had really started loving what we were doing. Ever since I was hospitalized, way back in 2012, I wanted to work with students in psychiatric care, writing with them and sharing our stories and working towards a better future. I’d finally had a taste of that and now it was all over. There was a general feeling of emptiness. I found myself thinking, “Now what?”