According to Korean tradition, after a baby is born, mother and baby do not leave the house for the first twenty-one days. There are long cords of peppers and charcoal hung in the doorway to ward away guests and evil spirits. At the end of the twenty-one days, a prayer is given over white rice cakes. After 100 days, there is a large celebration, a celebration of survival, with pyramids of fruit and lengths of thread for long life.
When my son was born, I was reminded of this tradition daily by my family and by my in-laws, because we were breaking all the rules. I took a shower after birth, ignoring the week-long rule of no water on the mother’s body, and my first meal wasn’t the traditional seaweed soup, it was sushi. We opened our doors, let in guests, bundled my son in layers and took him on walks in the falling snow. And then we did a fateful thing: we left our home.
My son was two months old when we embarked from London on an extended trip across the US. I had come up with a plan to use our shared parental leave to do a cross-country tour of family and friends and introduce them to our son. I didn’t see why we had to pay attention to Korean traditions – or superstitions, as I thought of them. As Korean Americans born and raised in the US, my husband and I had never paid much attention to the rules, and I had always thought our families didn’t either. Except that suddenly, with the birth of a baby, the rules seemed to matter.
We had avoided any evil spirits from California to Virginia, but perhaps we’d just been running away from them, because they found us at last at my in-laws’ house in New Jersey. My son was eight days shy of his 100-day celebration when I started to see devils in his eyes.
My husband would take me to the hospital emergency room; by then I would be screaming and tearing off my clothes in the waiting room. I was admitted to the hospital where I spent four days without sleeping.
In desperation the doctors gave me a cocktail of drugs that my body rejected; I still wouldn’t sleep.
The decision was made that I should be admitted to a psychiatric ward. I was checked in to an involuntary psych ward in New Jersey, which is where I am now.
It’s difficult to know where the story of psychosis begins. Was it the moment I met my son? Or was it decided in the before, something rooted deeper in my fate, generations ago?
My first memory of psychosis is the light.
A bright light. I’m lying on a bed. The room is white, stark and plain. I’m wearing a hospital robe; it feels like paper against my skin. I try to raise my arms, but I can’t, there are restraints crossing my body, snaked around my wrists. The restraints are heavy and made of dark cloth, loops that cut into my skin. My hands are clenched. I notice that there are strands of hair in them. There are metal curtains around me; they fold like an accordion.
I try to lift my head, but I can only move it from side to side. I see a man, standing in the corner. He’s looking at a clipboard. He has dreadlocks and he’s wearing glasses. He looks up and smiles at me gently.
‘Hi,’ he says. His voice is calm, grave.
‘Nmandi,’ I say, reading his nametag.
He looks surprised. ‘Yes, I’m Nmandi. I’m a nurse here.’ He points to his chest.
‘Do you remember how you got here?’ he asks.
I shake my head. I don’t know. I have a vague memory of tearing off my clothes in a hospital waiting room. I remember terror. I can still hear the sounds of screams in my ears. I think they were my own.
My lips are dry, and I try to clear my throat. I find my voice. I want to feel something certain, something to take away the fear. Nmandi is looking at me kindly.
‘Nmandi, do you believe in God?’ I ask.
He pauses, and he looks thoughtful.
‘Fifty–fifty,’ he says. ‘But I’m OK with that.’
He walks over to me and takes my hand.
‘Do you see me?’ he asks.
‘I do,’ I say. And I do see him, in the fullest sense of the word. He’s Nmandi, the one who speaks with his hands. Someone who comforts those who mourn and helps those who are afraid. But I also know that he must be the archangel Michael, come to deliver us from the demons.
The rules of time don’t exist in a psych ward. Each of us counts the time differently. There are some who count in days, others in weeks and months. And then there are those who don’t count the time at all, they’ve been here for so long. The ones who count in days, they are the ones who pace. I am one of them.
I’m wearing foam slippers, pale blue with smiley faces on them, government issued. I claimed them from the bin, they’re now a treasured possession.
I walk past the glass enclosure of doctors, past the TV room where the sound of the 24-hour news cycle is blaring, past the activity room with the conference table, the hallways of resident rooms, to the heavily locked doors, and then back again.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. I think it’s a few days. But I count today as day one. The first day that I’m aware of where I am.
In my pocket, I have a folded piece of paper where I’ve written my truths in purple marker. These are words that I cling to as reality, or at least the reality I hope for. I’ve repeated the phrases so often I know them like the words of a prayer.
I am alive. Real.
I am married to James. Real.
James loves me. Real.
I have a son. Real.
My son is three months old. Real.
My husband and son are waiting for me. Real.
I have post-partum psychosis. Real.
I have post-partum psychosis. I had never understood what it meant to doubt your own sense of reality, to be removed from time. The closest way I can describe it is those moments in dreams where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still sleeping, but in psychosis, no matter how many times you try, you don’t wake up.
The medical definition of psychosis is a mental illness in which an individual has difficulty determining what is real and what is not – it’s a loss of objective reality. I had never heard of post-partum psychosis before my own diagnosis. Pregnancy had brought a list of worries – episiotomies, prolapse, pre-eclampsia. I was so preoccupied with the idea of losing my body, it had never occurred to me that I might lose my mind.
When I woke up this morning, my memory was in fragments. I was flooded with glimpses of past versions of my life, real and not real, as though I’d been copy and pasting a paragraph of my life on repeat.
When I reached for my body, I didn’t recognise it. My breasts were a network of red angry knots from not breastfeeding, my ribs were protruding and I could feel the edges of my collarbones. I was wearing a hospital robe and my wrists were sore with the marks of restraints. My hair was damp, tied in a strange way, someone else must have tied it. I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Wasn’t I married? I was sure that I was. I remembered a lace dress, roses and ivy in my hands. I tried to remember the song that played at our wedding. But which wedding? I remembered a few, the groom’s face was blurred in all of them.
As I pace the hallways, I’m trying to find the molecules of myself, to collect myself in the present, to contain myself.
Any time I try to remember something from before, to hold on to what was certain, I come up against loops, tangles of repeating memories, replaying with different outcomes.
I remember living and dying, again and again, each lifetime of decisions splintered into possibilities.
I go back to my truths. I am Catherine. I am married to James. I have a son.
Counting my footsteps makes me feel reassured. Numbers are certain; they hold a linear logic. It occurs to me that no matter how many steps I take, I will remain constant, in this place.
I try to remember, but I can only recollect moments.
I remember a baby. The curl of a small fist. The feel of a breath against my arm.
I remember a balcony in Hong Kong, counting the seconds while surrounded by the grit of an orange sky, listening to the man pacing inside, hoping he will forget about me and go to sleep.
I remember sitting with my brother under a maple tree, watching the clouds descend, revelling in the silence, waiting for the tornadoes to come.
I remember my first conversation with my husband. His smile. The swirl of bourbon in cut glass.
Mostly, I try to remember who I am.
The above is an excerpt from Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho, published by Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99.
Inferno has been shortlisted for the 2020 Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.