I am the right kind of mental patient. He is not.
White, sixteen and overwhelmed by life, I take all the Tylenol in a bottle. (I don’t know then that there aren’t enough left to kill me, but that is neither here nor there). My new doctor wants to try medication; I want to do what the doctor says. In the psych ward–the short-term, pediatric wing–I follow all the rules. (Except that one time: my psychiatrist had to say: “Do you want me to put you into a long-term facility?” and then I was perfect again). In group therapy, the staff encourages me to speak. They sometimes try to encourage me in very strange ways, like telling me my IQ score in front of everybody, but they mean well, I guess.
He is a year older than me, black. I don’t always understand everything he says, but I like listening to him. “They say I hallucinate,” he tells me. I don’t get to talk to him as much as I’d like; when he talks in group therapy, the staff give him a shot of Thorazine and he is asleep in a small room for the rest of the day. “This is wrong,” I think. But I am only sixteen and have no idea how to stop it, stop them.
I am the right kind of suicidal teenager. She is not.
We are in the same Latin class at school. I sit in the front of the room; she sits in the back. Our teacher, a nun, gives us lots of auditory drills: ah eye eye ahm ah. Eye ahrum ees ahs ees. Sister likes how I do Latin, as if it is not just some serendipitous meeting of her methods and my mind. Sister does not like the girl at the back of the class as well as she likes me.
When I come back to school after being in the hospital, the principal wants to make sure I have everything I need. (She wasn’t keen on giving me what I needed when my mother and I asked for it a few months ago, which is partly why I took the Tylenol in the first place, but that is neither here nor there). Sister is glad to see me back; she doesn’t even take points off my grade for lack of participation.
The girl who sits in the back of the class does the same thing I’ve done. She goes to the same hospital; she’s met my psychiatrist, and I wish I could meet hers. When she comes back to school, Sister is annoyed with her, as if she’s just skipped class for two weeks. Nothing she’s done has made Sister treat her like this; she has only not been the kind of student Sister likes.
Somtimes I’m the right kind of person; other times, I’m not. There is “good” or “bad” behavior involved, no secret way to stay on the right side of personhood. There are only the whims of others; whether you line up with them or not, ultimately, has nothing to do with you. You can be privileged to be the right kind of person, sometimes, but it is no skill you possess, nothing you have done. The only thing you or I or anyone else can do is stop chopping people up into pieces, into kinds. And when we are the right kind of person, we can recognize our luck-our privilege-for what it is.