"So." Pen still tucked between his fingers, Dr. Gallagher laced his hands together and settled them with a soft air of finality atop the case file on his knee. He was going to need a new folder soon, Zeke absently noticed; this one was next to bursting with all the notes that had accumulated from their sessions together.
Tearing his attention from his case file – And that's got to be, what, his third one by now, just for me? – Zeke glanced up just long enough to see the creases of his doctor's face deepen with a fatherly smile, faded blue eyes kind and observant behind his glasses, before his mottled gaze redirected itself down to his own hands.
"School officially starts in one week. You excited?"
Doing his best to choke down the nerves suddenly rising inside of him, pulse pounding in his throat, Zeke wet his dry, chapped lips and stared down, rapt, at the fingers worrying at the fraying cuff of his hoodie. There were already holes there, where the fabric folded over on itself, and the reinforced seam that held the cuff together had long since been reduced to an exposed loop of thickly stitched material that frequently fell victim to his nervous fingers.
"Uh…" He tried to clear his throat, and managed a weak, self-deprecating half-grin as his eyes flicked up to Gallagher's face again. "Terrified, more like." To be honest, he could feel his heart hammering against his ribs at the mere thought of it, but still, in a display of candor common only within the confines of his psychiatrist's office, the words continued to spill out of him, even as his gaze trained itself on all the ragged edges of the fabric in his hands. "It's been…" Another brief, flickering grin at the understated enormity of the thought, "a really long time since I've been in school, so I'm a little worried that, y'know – especially with all the issues I've had from the ECT and everything – I'm a little worried that I won't be able to keep up, y'know? Too much information all at once," he mumbled down at his hands with a tiny frown, "and not enough time to really absorb it."
Gallagher's lips pursed themselves briefly into a mouth-shrug, his bushy salt and pepper brows arching only for a moment in allowance, acknowledging the verity of his concerns. "But at least you know they have services in place to help with that, if you should find you need it."
"That's true," Zeke conceded in a soft murmur. "I still worry, though. I mean," an agitated finger lifted to itch at his brow, "that's a lot of stuff to try and remember. I mean, I'm not as worried about the artsy part of things. It's the technical part that scares me. All those tiny little steps that you have to get just right or else everything ends up getting fucked up."
After all, the doctor had warned him that electroconvulsive therapy would likely have some degree of impact on his short-term memory – had assured him that in the vast majority of cases, it was only temporary, affecting scarce more than his memories shortly before, during, and after the procedure – and Zeke had been made fully aware of the risks and potential complications that could arise if he still chose to undergo treatment. What neither of them had anticipated, however, was that Zeke would soon find himself in the tiny percentage of patients who suffered far more severe and far-reaching side-effects than the conventional bouts of temporary forgetfulness.
In fact, as far as Zeke was concerned – even a full year after he'd initially undergone the process – his brain had been completely and totally fried. For months after completing his twelve sessions of ECT, he'd found himself all but utterly incapable of retaining new information, often asking people the same questions that he'd asked only a few moments beforehand, rehashing entire conversations with no recollection of the things he'd already said. He couldn't remember any of the things he'd done immediately before he'd been hospitalized, and while that issue in particular wasn't uncommon, the fact that his memories had never returned was.
But more than that, well above and beyond the frustrating and frightening issues with his short-term memory, were the effects it had had on his long-term memory, as well.
Because of his seemingly lifelong curse of the worst possible kind of luck, his willingness to undergo electroconvulsive therapy – in the desperate hope that it might finally alleviate the symptoms of over a decade's worth of suffering from chronic, treatment-resistant Major Depressive Disorder – had effectively given him retrograde amnesia. He hadn't just lost bits and pieces of time surrounding the four weeks of treatment. He had lost years.
In the time between his treatment and now, he'd attended a family reunion only to realize that he couldn't remember who half the attendees were, despite the fact that they'd been an off-and-on presence in his life ever since he'd been born. Aunts, uncles, cousins… People he had literally grown up with, spent countless holidays with… Many had been reduced to strangers. Co-workers he had known for years were suddenly entirely new people to him, and he had continued to fail utterly and completely in every attempt he made to try and remember their names.
He'd asked his best and oldest friend how their beloved and ailing pet dog had been doing – a dog he'd loved as dearly as though it were his own – only to discover that it had died of its ailments well over a year ago… and he had been with them when they took the animal's body to the vet to be cremated. He had been utterly and absolutely devastated.
He'd stayed in touch with an ex with whom he'd remained friends, only to wonder why they'd broken up in the first place, and he'd found himself going to someone else so they could explain to him what he had told them in regards to why the decision was made, after two years of being together, to end the relationship. The reasons made sense; they sounded like believable issues he would have had with his ex, but he never had been able to remember any of the actual process of it himself. Hell, he hadn't even remembered that his ex had moved and was now living with two other roommates – people Zeke had met, an apartment Zeke had seen on multiple occasions – or that his ex had siblings. Even now, the only things he could remember were faded snapshots of the many times they'd played Magic: The Gathering, playfully trash-talking one another over their cards, or the way his ex would make him supper before they would settle down, comfortably snuggled together, to watch something on Netflix. He didn't remember the fights his friend had recounted for him, or the way he'd apparently made frequent complaints about how smothered he felt by his ex's physical and emotional needs.
It wasn't an issue of simply being a little more forgetful than usual, which was a problem he'd had well before treatment and was accustomed to dealing with. Entire swathes of his memory were simply… gone. And it wasn't just people and experiences that had disappeared. The vast, eclectic assemblage of knowledge that he'd loved so dearly, the information on things both trivial and erudite that he'd gathered into his mind and cherished like a dragon cherished its hoard, had vanished into the same void, been swallowed up by the same black hole that had consumed his familiarity with even the things nearest to his heart – things of his own making, infused with his own blood, sweat, and tears.
When he'd been released from the hospital, he'd found the creative projects that he'd left at home were completely alien to him. That the very task of writing, of drawing, was suddenly as foreign to him as playing the piano might be to a dog. And that… As a person whose creativity and imagination had always been the core of his identity, that was the thing that had nearly broken him beyond repair. It felt like the ECT had taken everything from him, and given him nothing in return.
It had been over a year since he'd undergone electroconvulsive therapy, and while his memory was slowly starting to improve in small, patchy areas, there was still so much that he continued to struggle with, and his friends and family were a constant well of reminders of all the things he'd forgotten. And the worst part about all of it was that not too long ago, Gallagher had rather reluctantly admitted during one of their sessions that if his memories hadn't returned by now, the chances were overwhelmingly likely that some of those things – some of those years – would remain lost to the void forever.
As though sensing the path down which his problematic mind had taken him – or perhaps the good doctor had simply been able to see the hopelessness swelling beneath his expression while he stared down at his motionless fingers and his fraying sleeves – Gallagher leaned forward in his chair, his raspy voice softened to a velveteen rub. "I know how hard all of this has been on you, Zeke. Believe me, I know, and if I'd had any way of knowing how severely the ECT would affect you, I never would have recommended it. But you also have to believe me when I tell you that you are far smarter and stronger than you give yourself credit for. The tests don't lie. You are a smart kid."
Zeke hadn't been young enough to qualify for 'kid' status for many, many years – he was, after all, rapidly approaching his twenty-ninth birthday – but even so, a weak flicker of a smile tugged at the pierced outer corners of his lips. I guess everyone seems like a kid when you get to his age. Then again, I guess I can't really blame him. I know I certainly don't feel like I'm almost thirty.
Gallagher had ordered a thorough examination from another psychologist and their aide to determine how badly his cognitive functions had been impaired post-ECT, and in what areas. When the results and the write-up had come back, Gallagher had proudly informed him that – despite the below average and mildly impaired ratings assigned to other areas of his cognition – his overall intelligence had been graded in the 'superior' range when compared to others in the same demographic. A large part of Zeke was convinced that there had been a screw-up somewhere, that the test was, frankly, full of shit, because on any given day, he would have been hard-pressed to admit that he felt intellectually superior to a rock, much less others in his age range. Anxiety always made him painfully awkward in social situations, and he spent easily ninety percent of his time living solely within the confines of his own head, swimming amongst his thoughts about everything and nothing at all – and the sheer number of "dumb blonde" moments he had per day was beyond mortifying.
Needless to say, this "intellectually superior" business was a long-running point of contention between he and his doctor. Zeke knew it. Gallagher knew it. Gallagher insisted on making concerted efforts to convince him of the fact via small, subtle jests; Zeke insisted that he politely disagreed, and left it at that.
"I think that going back to school," Gallagher continued, "immersing yourself in an environment saturated with people with similar interests and learning to do more of the things that you love is honestly the best possible thing you could do right now. I think it'll make a world of difference when it comes to boosting your overall well-being and just… helping you feel at least a little less shitty all the time. Add on the benefits of having a degree under your belt that will hopefully open more doors for you career-wise, and…"
Zeke managed a nod, swallowing and wetting his lips again, picking relentlessly at the frayed hems of his sleeves. "I know. That's what I keep telling myself. Y'know, every time I start getting cold feet." He fiddled with the cuff of his sleeve, a minute furrow settling in his brows as he considered the situation. "I still don't like the idea of knowingly depriving myself of a decent source of income, but…"
"I know. And I know it's going to be hard at first, but stick with it, okay?"
Zeke distractedly worried at the inside of his lower lip with his teeth and nodded. There was a moment of silence just then, and he allowed it to settle like ash between them, playing with the tortured hem of his sleeve. Despite never lifting his gaze from his lap, he could feel Gallagher watching him, assessing him with those keen old eyes of his, reading more than Zeke cared to consider in the set of his face – and when he glanced up again, his doctor was still watching him, his expression soft and sad, even as his lips creased with a gentle smile.
"For what it's worth," he said, "I'm proud of you, Zeke. For not giving up."
His eyes flashed back down to his sleeve, jaw clenching, and it took everything he had to shove down the abrupt surge of emotion those words invoked. Twenty-eight years old, and even the smallest words of heartfelt praise felt, to him, like the validation he'd been bereft of his whole life.
"Especially when it means subjecting yourself to the particularly… unique breed of torture that is hospital food for a month."
A soft laugh – little more than a huff of breath accompanied by the tiniest of smiles – escaped him, and he could all but feel the victorious, lop-sided grin radiating from his doctor's side of the room upon seeing that his jest had succeeded.
Zeke's own smile waned soon enough, fading to a faint, pensive curl at the outermost edges of his lips as he resumed fidgeting with his sleeve. "Yeah," he murmured, acutely aware all over again of the hospital bracelet around his left wrist. "Thank you for not, y'know, giving up on me. I know I haven't exactly been the easiest patient to deal with." Not so much because Zeke had been wilfully resisting treatment, but his body…? There was a reason why he'd felt compelled to take the risks associated with electroconvulsive therapy. The drugs alone – and he'd tried a lot of drugs – just weren't cutting it. Either his body couldn't tolerate the side-effects, or there were negative interactions with the few drugs in his regimen that had helped to a degree… but more often than not, they simply did nothing at all. He seemed utterly impervious to them, and he'd spent more than one meeting with Gallagher trying to figure out precisely how to handle the newest concoction in the hopes that they would stumble upon the magical combination that might permit him some relief from his symptoms.
After eighteen years of suffering from depression, and six of working with Gallagher, they'd yet to find anything that made a substantial difference.
Gallagher watched him a moment longer, grin softening. "No thanks necessary. But let's finish up and get you out of here, shall we? You must be eager to get home."
For the first time since he'd stepped into his psychiatrist's office, a mild but genuine smile hooked itself into the corner of his mouth. "Can't argue with that." He'd learned years ago to accept the fact that periods of hospitalization were inevitable as the severity of his depression vacillated, but that didn't mean he had grown to particularly enjoy them. He missed the privacy of his own home, and the convenience of his creature comforts without having to check them in and out of lockup at the nursing station, or worrying that something harmless may be confiscated for the safety of all patients on the unit – but more than that, he missed his dog.
After all, she was often the only thing that kept him from trying to kill himself, the persistent flicker of light in the dark confines of the pit that had become his life. She didn't judge him, or hold grudges. If he was feeling particularly stressed, she would be there to lay quietly at his feet for a nap or snuggle into his side on the sofa, settling her head in his lap; if he was feeling especially depressed, she would be there to lick his hands and bring over one of her toys to hopefully present it to him with her mismatched brown and blue eyes sparkling.
He knew other people found it pathetic, or laughable, that a creature as simple and humble as a dog was his sole lifeline. Zeke had long been of the opinion that such people could go fuck themselves with a chainsaw. They'd obviously never been in the kind of position that would allow them to discover just how valuable a pet's services really were, and he'd take what comforts he could get. It just so happened that his dog, Phi, provided the best kind of therapy he'd yet to encounter, and he loved her for it.
"All right," the nurse breathed, shambling up to his side of the nursing station with a Ziploc bag full of fluorescent green pill bottles in her hands. "This'll keep you going for the first week or so." She plopped the bag down on the elevated countertop of the nursing station, fiddling with the bottles inside and rotating them until she could check each of their labels, various other members of the nursing staff tending their own duties behind her. "So this is your quetiapine, one hundred milligrams and two twenty-fives for one fifty milligrams total. Two milligrams of clonazepam. One hundred and seventy-five milligrams of Trazodone, to help you sleep. One hundred and twenty milligrams of Fetzima… and Dr. Gallagher gave you a new prescription to refill everything?"
"Yes ma'am." Arms folded atop the counter, Zeke wet his lips again, nerves fluttering in his throat as his restless fingers fiddled with a crease of fabric at his elbow. As keen as he was to go home, it wasn't beyond him how his feelings were a peculiar mixture of eagerness and apprehension. After all, the hospital had been his home for the past month, and there was no denying that part of him was going to miss the background bustle of the nursing staff and the other patients in residence. He hadn't been overly social with many of the other patients, preferring largely to keep to himself, but he had developed a particular kind of fondness for the nurses and aides who'd been assigned to him – never mind that all the extra company made it hard for his mind to dwell too long on thoughts that would only get worse, and had in fact been the very things to land him here in the first place. He loved Phi's company, and treasured her modest little contributions to keeping him relatively level-headed, but even her capabilities had limits.
"Good good." This particular nurse wasn't one that usually looked after him, and Zeke found himself ever so slightly disappointed that his favorite, a dusky-skinned middle-aged woman named Maya, wouldn't be around for any last-minute words of encouragement or a showing of her boundlessly amiable smile before he was discharged. "And is someone coming to get you or do you have a vehicle here?"
"My dad's coming to get me."
"Sounds good." The nurse handling his discharge rummaged around below his line of sight for a moment while he stood there, fidgeting, before resurfacing with some paperwork and a pen that she slid towards him with a cool, professional smile. "If I can just get you to give that a quick read-through and then sign and date it, you can be on your way."
"Awesome, thank you." It didn't take any more prompting than that for him to take up his pen and start looking through the paper-thin barrier between himself and freedom. He hadn't undergone ECT this time, and he certainly hadn't been cured of his depression – he knew that asking for a permanent state of remission was beyond stupid – but he also wasn't feeling quite as suicidal, and he'd regained some of the motivation and interest he'd lost.
Above all, if he was being honest with himself, he mostly wanted to go home so he could be reunited with his mischievous blue merle Sheltie, Phi. He knew how silly it could and likely did sound to strangers, but he'd been born and raised around animals, and being a natural introvert, he'd always found their company more comforting than that of many other people. Phi was the first dog that was truly his own, and she had proved to be a substantial help in dealing with his lower moods, even going so far as essentially saving his life for the very simple reason that he was responsible for her well-being. When he felt completely alone in the world, isolated and unwanted, Phi was always there with unconditional love and acceptance, and he'd missed her something fierce during his stay in the hospital. He'd missed her bright, intelligent heterochromatic eyes, so very much like his own, and the sweetness of her foxy little face with her tan cheeks and eyebrows, and the simple pleasure of playing with her and ruffling her soft, ample coat with its mottling of greys, blacks, and whites. She was his fur-baby, and if it weren't for her…
He didn't even want to think about it, what it would have been like to live without her these past couple of years.
"Zeke? You're leaving?"
Torn from his thoughts by a soft, familiar voice just as he finished scrawling his signature along the line at the bottom of the sheet, Zeke glanced over towards its source and found one of the other patients who seemed to have taken a particular shine to him hovering in the corridor. It was Lily, a petite Chinese girl being treated for bipolar disorder. She was peering at him with wide eyes flickering between the nurse, his luggage, and himself, twisting her fingers at her waist with a clearly dismayed expression on her face.
"Are you just going home on a weekend pass?"
He managed to drag a small, contrite smile onto his lips, hastily dating his form before he slid it back over to the nurse. "No, sorry. I'm being discharged today."
"Oh." Visibly disappointed, her gaze slid down to the floor, eyes obscured behind the dark fringe of her bangs as her head bowed, her delicate shoulders slumped. "Well, that's good, I guess, if you're feeling better."
"Better than I was." Rubbing idly at his upper arm, overcome by a sudden surge of uncertainty in the face of Lily's distress – wanting to comfort her but not quite knowing how without doing something profoundly awkward, like hugging her – Zeke lingered for a moment, torn between the urge to flee and the need to do or say… something. Anything. "Are… you gonna be okay?"
Head bowed, gaze inscrutable, Lily gave a tight, jerky nod, a hand clasped at the elbow of her opposing arm. He had always been amazed by how tiny nature had made her, and how much smaller and more delicate she always seemed to make herself, like even the slightest blow might cause her to shatter.
Not quite sure what else to do, Zeke nodded more to himself than anything, wetting his lips before he finally managed to flash her a perfunctory grin. "'kay, well…" A hand wandered out to find the extended handle of his suitcase. "You take care, okay?"
Her expression remained frozen despite the way her eyes were frantically darting back and forth across the floor at her feet, and Zeke felt his heart sink a little lower in his chest at the realization that he couldn't offer her anything more meaningful than the same old condolences that he harboured such deep-rooted disdain for. And then it hit him.
"Actually…" He glanced back over at the nurse who'd been helping him. "Sorry, could I bother you for a little piece of paper or something?"
Softly thanking her as the nurse slid a scrap of paper towards him, Zeke hastily scribbled down his email address before holding it out for Lily to take. "It's my email address," he informed her lamely. "So you can still contact me if you ever wanna talk or anything."
Dark eyes flashed up at him from under the fringe of her bangs, a shy smile tugging at her lips as she stared down at the slip in her hands. "Thank you…"
Zeke nodded with a wan grin plucking at a corner of his mouth, merely observing the other patient for a moment before she abruptly flitted forward and trapped him in a hug. He was still rooted there, arms awkwardly hovering, when Lily backed away, murmuring one last "Thank you," under her breath as she flashed that same timid smile at him before she twisted to leave, pausing just long enough to wave over her shoulder before she resumed her course.
Zeke watched her go, idly aware that the nurse had been watching her interaction, her expression softening. "That was really sweet of you." Her gaze shifted to watch Lily's back as she retreated to her room down the hall. "She has such a hard time opening up to people."
Zeke managed an awkward grin before he hefted his bag on his shoulder and reclaimed his luggage.
"So you're taking off?"
"Right, well, you take care of yourself, okay?"
"Yes ma'am." And then Zeke saw himself out.
To Be Continued...?
This one's a bit different from the last two in that I would still like very much to further develop this at some point. It's a little more grounded in reality than a lot of my projects and deals with some subject matter that hits quite close to home for me personally. We'll see if I can do something more with it once school is done for the year in April, though. I highly doubt I'll get a chance to do much before then, because I am a fecking masochist and had to go to school for animation, where 3D everything is king and kind of the bane of my existence some days.
Oh well. Fingers crossed! I hope you enjoyed this extremely rough little morsel! Stay safe and healthy, everyone!