“I understood that knowledge was a dwarfing, obliterating, all-consuming thing, and to have it was to both be grateful and suffer greatly.” -- Carmen Maria Machado, The Resident.
Working in a psychiatric hospital taught me two things: carry a pen wherever you go and misery is a choice. I chose to work at a psychiatric hospital after a traumatic mental health experience, thinking being on the other side would be useful for helping others. Instead, I found that the brain’s separation between memory and reality is a malleable boundary. In her short story, “The Resident”, Carmen Maria Machado uses setting and narrative point of view to illustrate this manipulation of reality through memory. She explores how, in order to move past emotional pain, we have to take an honest look at ourselves and the memories we’ve tried to hide from.
The story is set at an artist’s residence located across the lake from her childhood summer camp. The setting of “The Resident” at the lake serves as a physical representation of the narrator’s flip of perspective, where she looks at the same object from an older perspective. The author’s choice of a lake as opposed to a field, a building, or something rectangular further advances her notion of time’s circular nature. At this camp, the narrator experienced traumatic bullying around the discovery of her sexuality. This setting allows the narrator to draw parallels between her adult and childhood experiences, until there is no distinction between the two. Similar to the narrator, I received the same visual feedback in the past and in the present. My attempt to flip my perspective caused the timelines to merge. Although I didn’t work at the same hospital where I was a patient, smaller details overlapped. The patient bathrooms had the same exact design, tile work, and warped mirrors. When I did rounds, I recognized the milieu of the unit as the location where I was a staff member, but when I checked the bathrooms for contraband, I saw my own reflection in the mirror. The only difference between the reflection in the present and the reflection in the past was the outfit.
Machado uses narrative point of view to transition between past and present. As the story goes on, memory and reality lose their distinction, where the narrator describes memories in the midst of her present experiences. This can be confusing for the reader as well, where the journey through her stream of consciousness becomes entangled and removed from any definitive period of time. One night, the narrator sits on the steps of her studio and reflects on her childhood experience. Paragraph by paragraph, Machado switches the narrative point of view from past to present without transitions. The physical sensations between the current narrator and her childhood self overlap, and I identified with the sensation of claustrophobia, both physical and emotional. I met versions of myself multiple times throughout my position, but the remembrance of both the physical and emotional distress is what broke me on one occasion in particular. The occurrence wasn’t anything especially grandiose or unique — it was more so the drop in the bucket that caused the water to overflow. While I was doing rounds, the patient paced and repeated “I have to leave, I have to see the doctor, I have to leave...”. I’d do one round, circle back, try to be useful, then do another round. I felt the same physical sensation of my time as a patient, blood racing, cooped up in my own body. I thought I heard my coworker tell the patient he could speak with the doctor one more time. When the doctor emerged from his office, I repeated what I thought my coworker said. But when I passed the doctor, I heard him tell my coworker, “This young lady needs to be redirected.” The last word is usually used in reference to a patient, and that last straw collapsed my memory and present into one.
I spent my last round trying not to cry. When I finished, I went into the break room to compose myself. When I returned, the patient said, “Can anyone help me with...?” I didn’t register what he was asking for, but I spoke the most honest words I had since I started working there: “I can’t.”
He asked if I was okay, which, anyone holding back tears can tell you, made me burst into tears. I went to the bathroom, hyperventilating and sobbing, stuck in some vacuum void of space and time. I looked in the mirror. The blood vessels in my eyes had ruptured, and my face was redder than my worst sunburn. For the first time in ten months, the person I saw in the mirror reflected the person inside.
The narrator describes it best after a fever she has both at camp and the residence. Her fever leaves her bedridden for days, dehydrated, shaking, and helpless. She remembers having the same sickness as a child at camp. Small bumps appear all over her body, and she lances each individually with a safety pin, letting blood trickle down her leg.
“I pulled my shaking body up to the vanity, glanced into the mirror, and saw who I’d been looking for” (Machado 214). The choice to reside in painful memories is really a desire to meet ourselves. Meeting ourselves is the first necessary step before taking a safety pin to each individual wound, draining it, and letting new skin reform.
After one of the artists flees the residence, a painter repeats a phrase from the narrator’s childhood. “Not everybody’s cut out for this, I guess” (Machado 214). Shaken, the narrator backs away from the table, telling the other artists, “Don’t be afraid. I’m not. Not anymore” (Machado 215). The quote references her experience at camp, where she felt trapped in her situation. Here, the narrator is reminded that her fear of having to meet herself keeps her trapped in that state, granting her the fear of having to look. Both at the painful memories, and ourselves. However, if we don’t look at these wounds, we miss the capacity to clean and heal them.
I got home after that final meeting, feeling broken and trapped. I got out of my car, slammed the door, and that line popped into my head. “Not everybody’s cut out for this, I guess” (Machado 214). Until that point, it didn’t occur to me that I could just leave. The narrator and I take a long time to realize we are only stuck in this loop if we choose to stay . It slipped my mind that I didn’t have to stay. I put in my two-weeks' notice the next day.
To end the story, Machado breaks the literary fourth wall to give the best advice on emotional pain I’ve ever heard. “I have known many people in my lifetime, and rarely do I find any who have been taken down to the quick, pruned so that their branches might grow back healthier than before...Many people live and die without ever confronting themselves in the darkness. Pray that one day, you will spin around at the water’s edge, lean over, and be able to count yourself among the lucky” (Machado 218). That being said, during my last shift, a sign fell off the double doors exiting the unit: Please Open and Close This Door Carefully.
Machado, Maria Carmen. “The Resident.” Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, Graywolf Press, S.l., 2017.