last rites

hannah sexton

At the altar of my pill bottles,

I tried to give myself

last rites. 

The hospital’s priests wear white robes,

credentials embroidered on breast pockets.

Charcoal communion 

lathers my tongue. 

“How’d she try to do it?” 

I am crying.

Healers hover and 

I wonder if they feel 

like God.

My wrists feel the weight of restraints. 

Cracked lips open—

“Protocol,” a nun says instead.

And my sedative-dosed body is 

unwilling putty.

Indulgences take the form of ICD numbers. 

Someone is screaming 

in 2B.

There is no Jesus here.

The Catholic Church doesn’t keep a record of who receives communion.  Nonetheless, there are rules as to who’s allowed to walk down the tiled aisle with their hands cupped into a makeshift bowl: be baptized in the Church, keep up with confession, and abstain from eating or drinking an hour before Mass. As a child, I was never marveled by the amount of people at my large Church that faithfully lined up forty-five minutes into service. 

It was commonplace, its normalcy formed when I was a baby, crawling around pews every Sunday.

This sense of normalcy exists during psych intakes, too. When I attempted suicide, the doctor was methodical and unconcerned.  She handed me a styrofoam cup, heavy and sloshing with a thick liquid. The MD’s blonde hair was pulled into a high ponytail, and from my bed I saw two nurses whisper in the hallway. Their eyes were locked on my limp legs, which were resting against the thin hospital bedsheet. I looked at them, not just with the insecurity of a seventeen-year-old, but with the fragility of someone who had tried to die by suicide — and failed. 

My eyes flicked towards them, and they looked away, suddenly needing to read their clipboards.

My thumb rubbed against the smooth texture of the cup, nails beginning to dig a soft groove in its side. The plastic lid concealed the drink inside, and a thick straw stuck out of the top. I imagined someone putting that straw in. Their fingers pushing it in as they sigh to their coworker. 

We’ve got another one, I pictured them saying to each other. 

“What is it?” My voice was unfamiliar. Soft. Distant. 

The doctor tapped on the wheeled-in laptop she had brought with her. It was the only thing in the vacant room aside from the bed I rested on.

“It’s charcoal,” she said. “It’ll make all the pills stick together in your stomach.” 

Her words are casual, fingers not pausing on the keyboard. 

You mean to say it’s so  I don’t die, I thought. It sounded distant too.

“If you don’t drink it, we’ll have to get a tube,” she said, seemingly annoyed at the though of more work.

My hands tightened slightly, guilt grasping my chest. “I’ll drink it.” I brought the straw to my lips. 

I don’t remember the taste of charcoal. But I remember how it felt.

When I wrote this poem, whenever I think back on this memory, I remember how charcoal felt. Every year in January, I find myself caught in charcoal for hours. My therapist calls it an “emotional flashback.” 

Every January, I feel the interested yet disappointed looks of the college-aged nurses talking outside my door. Their scrubs would touch as they leaned in, pressing into the conversation  like high school gossip: she tried to kill herself. So sad. I agree, girl, sooooo sad– but like why?? RIGHT, like so sad, but kind of selfish too????

Every January, the time that this happened, charcoal still feels dehumanizing. The hours of diarrhea, but not being allowed to go to the bathroom with the door closed.

Charcoal feels like crying for my dad, sobbing so loudly that a nurse popped in to say that wasn’t legally allowed to see him; “crying won’t help.” It feels like the restraints they strapped across my body. Like being wheeled on a gurney into a psychiatric hospital, unable to lift my arms or legs. Preening my neck to meet the curious stares following me across the floor. The EMTs talking about me from above, knowing I could hear but only addressing me in third-person. Charcoal feels like helplessness. Like having my agency stripped within a medical facility. 

That blonde doctor, a makeshift priest, probably does not remember me. And she probably doesn’t know that I don’t just remember charcoal — I feel charcoal. 

My hospital room was a sort of chapel. The meaningful became methodical. As Christ’s flesh was reduced to lines up an aisle, my attempt was reduced to a line in my medical record: 17 y/o female presented w/ suicidal ingestion. Administered charcoal.

Hannah Sexton is a twenty-one-year-old psych ward survivor who likes creative writing. She’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Kennesaw State University in order to later work as a social worker and writer.

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