"The Human Condition" is a short story written by Student Contributor during her junior year at Bryn Mawr College. The story seemed relevant to a course in neurobiology and behavior that she took during her senior year, in the spring of 2005 (see eg on-line forum #13). The story is also relevant to other Serendip materials, including From the Inside, resources created by people experiencing mental health issues in their own lives and/or in the lives of family and friends.

The Human Condition

by Student Contributor

Adam drummed his fingers against the stairway railing in his apartment complex.  It had rained the night before, droplets of water spotted the railing, the stairs, the cars, the window panes, but he did not notice his fingers moistening from the contact.  He glanced at his watch.  8:39 am. It would only take him ten minutes to get to work so he could afford this momentary escape from reality.  His wife, Adelle, was probably still on the floor, pressed against the front door, her hair knotted from weeks of neglect.  He was imagining her there, her eyes swollen from crying, her body deteriorating from her lack of diet.  Rather than encourage his thoughts, he left his apartment complex in Vienna, Virginia and made his way to work in D.C., the sky still gray from yesterday's pouring.

The drive was uneventful, he arrived at Jones Day Law Firm a few minutes early, quickly headed to his cubicle, head down to avoid possible eye contact, and sat down in his swivel chair, the source of his constant backache. With the touch of a finger, a click on the mouse, the emails came flooding into his inbox.  He stared as email files darted across the screen, refusing to end, one below the other, until the number read an impressive 82.  82 emails, he thought to himself.  No doubt half of them junk mail - the usual Viagra advertisements, weight loss programs, and the suspicious virus under the subject heading: Anna Kournikova Nude.  He pondered the number 82.  1982, to be more precise.  The year he married Adelle, the both of them right out of college, he a political science major, her a mathematics major.  Adam had planned to apply to law school, to become a corporate lawyer, Adelle to graduate school, maybe a high school math teacher, possibly even a professor of mathematics.  There was a feeling of utmost possibility in everything they did that year: the slight breeze in the morning promised success, the crimson sunset promised love, their dreams destined to become reality.  How cliché, Adam muttered inwardly to himself. Bitterness had crept in that year, rejection letters from law schools, Adelle's mental breakdown, and Adam's temporary job at Jones Day Law Firm, in Litigation Support, became a permanent home at cubicle #145, second floor, across from the coffee pot machine.

Fate had tried to warn him that pivotal year, on his wedding day, Adelle traditionally dressed all in white, holding hands, talking to guests, envisioning the years of wealth and happiness ahead, when Adelle's glass slipped, spilling champagne all over her dress.  It seeped down her dress, branching in all directions, chaotic in its lack of pattern, its indifference to her need for propriety.  The dress was ruined, Adelle in tears, and Adam trying to repair the night with bad jokes and forced smiles.  Adam looked over his emails, sighing as he immediately deleted 67 of them.  There, 15.  A much safer number.

His job required no brain power, crunching numbers, copying and pasting emails, routine had become the old friend Adam was hoping would move on and lose touch.  His job allowed the part of his brain that stored painful memories and regrets to leak and consume Adam's thoughts as he mindlessly performed.  Adelle's blank stares and stringy hair, she was crying this morning as he got ready for work.  She wasn't able to fall asleep again, her eyes unable to stay open but equally unable to rest, she sat hunched over in a corner sobbing into his work shirt.  He woke up and made her some tea, wore yesterday's shirt, and made a mental note to call the doctor during his lunch break.  Adelle crawled over to the front door as he was leaving to remind him to pick up milk from the supermarket on his way home from work.  He had gotten used to these episodes, as they were running on seven years now, and felt guilty for his apparent nonchalance but not too guilty.  It was his coping mechanism, much easier to move forward than it is to stay and let Adelle's sickness consume him as well.  He waited for Adelle's nurse to arrive.  They had needed to hire one to monitor Adelle's behavior while Adam was at work.  Once the nurse arrived, he assured Adelle he would not forget the milk and left.

Adam spent his morning answering emails, making a few necessary phone calls, and coding a few documents.  He worked quietly and quickly, with a purpose, ignoring the chatter that bounced back and forth over his head amongst his coworkers.  He had lost his desire to socialize in the past month, to poke fun at the boss' new toupee, mingle at office parties, gossip at coffee breaks.  Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted David O'Rourke, an old friend and coworker, that he had stopped meeting for lunch since Adelle's latest suicide attempt.  Her lunatic ravings and withdrawn nature had slowly diffused into his own being; he preferred the mundane communications with his office accessories, his computer, telephone, and coffee machine.

"Hi Adam," David said, walking towards Adam's chair, eyeing the finished work neatly placed atop his table, more than the amount of work David had managed to complete all week.  "How's it going?  Long time, no see," he smiled, mindful of Adam's refusal to turn around and stare at him.

"Things are okay," Adam mumbled, opening up drawers, searching for a paper-clip, a stapler, anything to keep up the faŤade of busyness.

"Adam," David began, lowering his voice so as not to be overheard, "You haven't returned my calls, answered my emails.  Hell, you won't even talk to me in the office.  I'm sorry about Adelle, but this behavior can't be good for you.  Or her."  When Adam made no move to quit his incessant search for the paper-clip, David added, "Well, just know that I'm here for you if you need me.  Just a call away, ok?"

"Yeah, thanks.  I should get back to work."

As David walked away, Adam closed his drawers and stared at his computer. He didn't mean to be rude to his old friend, but somehow sharing information about Adelle's struggle with depression seemed an intrusion on her privacy. He didn't need to know that last month's suicide attempt, her overdose on Zoloft, was the third time she had tried this sort of thing.  Therapy, medication, life-style changes, all the advice of her doctors, had been tried, and she still fell into fits, sometimes lasting three months at a time, where she couldn't leave the apartment, couldn't stand the touch of sunlight, the taste of food.  He couldn't share with David that sometimes he understood Adelle's want of dying; her skeletal face, emaciated hands, all screamed for some relief, some escape.  That sometimes, he too, thought of escaping also, away from marital responsibility and mundane jobs.  No, he preferred to brood alone in this state of mind.  It made life easier with Adelle; talking to a friend only made his problems all the more real.

The morning passed away and Adam soon found himself on his lunch break. Grabbing his Swiss cheese sandwich on wheat bread, he went into the abandoned staff room, sat in a corner and called Adelle's doctor.

"Dr. Greene please," he told the receptionist who answered.  After a few moments he heard the raspy voice of Dr. Greene come on the line.

"Yes, this is Dr. Greene."

"Hi, Dr. Greene. This is Adam.  I'm calling in regards to Adelle.  She seems to be experiencing some sort of fit. Again.  I don't really know what to do."

"Adam," Dr. Greene said with a sigh.  "You know what I think.  I've made it quite clear.  Adelle needs professional help, not just once a week, but at all times.  I know you  told me you weren't interested in BelleMonte, but it's the perfect place for someone like Adelle.  There are always doctors on call, trained nurses, and most importantly, a safe environment for Adelle to reflect on her illness.  You can't do this on your own."

"I think I might want to come in sometime to learn more about it," Adam heard himself saying, shocked at how easily it came out.  He made an appointment and turned off his phone.  Without giving himself a chance to contemplate what just happened, he quickly unwrapped his sandwich, grabbed an old magazine from the pile on the staff table, and lost himself in the current events.

He arrived at home at exactly 5:12 pm, his usual arrival time, bid farewell to the nurse, and began making dinner.  Adelle was eyeing him from the kitchen table, her hair disheveled, her clothes in need of ironing.  The nurse was frustrated at Adelle's refusal to shower, to brush her teeth, to basic grooming, but she complied with her erratic behavior and busied herself making the morning meals and tidying up the apartment.        "How was your day?" Adam asked, his back to Adelle, chopping up vegetables to place with the spaghetti sauce.

It was okay.  Just sort of happened.  I don't know where the time goes.  I just sort of stayed in bed.  My head's been hurting all day," Adelle responded, staring at her hands, her voice dry.

"Are you hungry?"

"Not really.  My head hurts.  Do you think you could make me some tea?"

Adam stopped what he was doing and began making her tea, hot green tea with 3 tablespoons of sugar, more than was necessary, a pinch of lemon juice -  just the way she liked it. 

"Do you want to go for a walk later today?" he asked, waiting for the water to boil.

"It would probably do you some good to get some fresh air.  You haven't left the apartment in a long time.  C'mon, it'll be nice."

"I said, no."

The water began boiling, transferred to a mug, soaked the tea bag, waiting for something to break the silence.

"I'm sorry. It's not really me, Adam. It's my brain talking. These stupid chemicals." She paused for a moment and then resumed laughing, "It's like I've been taken hostage by my brain. It's like I have no control over who I am. Isn't that funny? Being held hostage by your brain?"

"Adelle, I spoke with Dr. Greene today.  He says we should think about BelleMonte more seriously.  What do you think?"  He waited for her response, stirred in the sugar, squeezed the lemon, licked the juice off his fingers.

"Adelle?" he repeated, turning to look at her, "What do you think?"  She was still staring at her hands, dead skin building up at the corners of her nails, dry and peeling, he cringed whenever she reached out to touch him.  She didn't reach out this time, only stayed in her seat, engrossed in the details of her skin, her pulsating temple the only indication of life.  After what seemed an eternity, she got up and walked out of the kitchen, slowly and with purpose, turning her head only once to whisper, "Do whatever you want.  I always knew you were trying to get rid of me."

He hated it when she said things like that.  Because he knew she really believed it.  He threw out the tea, put away the vegetables, and pulled out a microwavable dinner, eating in silence. He thought over his past conversations with Dr. Greene.  "Depression is not always the result of a tragic event, or the result of a series of stressful situations, " he had told Adam numerous times, "Some people are born with a predisposition for depression.  Think of it as depressive genes, " he laughed.  Adam had winced at his comment but Dr. Greene continued, "It's difficult for everyone involved but you must realize that a lot of it is biochemical.  Just as a patient with diabetes would require medication to lead a normal life, so does a patient with depression. " 

It made sense in Adelle's case.  For as long as he knew her she always seemed stressed out, unhappy, pessimistic even.  He hated reducing her to a series of biochemical pathways, to strip her of humanity, but he didn't know what else could account for her bizarre behavior.  Adam spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen, scraping the bottom of his microwavable tray with his plastic fork, wondering about the state of life now that they were nothing more than tangible forces.

A week had passed since Adam's meeting with Dr. Greene where they had agreed that it would be best for Adelle to spend some time at the nearest mental institution, BelleMonte Hospital.  He had gone to visit it during one of his lunch breaks, nurses in white, doctors with painted smiles, the smell of anesthesia.  It would only be for one month, he though.  If she wasn't better, he would take her out.  After his visit, it was decided that Adelle would come the following day.

He decided not to go to work, called in a personal day, and packed her belongings as she sat on their bed, her hair parted down the middle, combed for the first time in months.  He worked in silence, not knowing what to say, folding her clothes and placing them neatly in the suitcase.  They drove slowly to the hospital, the sun shining through the trees, the perfect weather for a day on the beach.  Memories flooded Adam's brain, the smell of salt in the air, the touch of sand beneath his feet, between his toes, the cries of children running into the waves, coughing as drops of salty water made it down their nostrils into their throats.  Adelle, laying next to him, her hair newly colored a shade of auburn, the reddish streaks accentuated in the sunlight.

They had just gotten married, enjoying an afternoon on the beach.  Adelle was going over some graduate schools she was considering for mathematics and Adam was half-listening, half-pondering his own future.

"It feels so weird not being in school, like it was all a dream.  Maybe I won't go back to school," she teased, "maybe I'll become a housewife and you can just support me."

Adam laughed. "You would go crazy if you stayed home all day and didn't have a career."

"I just don't see myself going to graduate school.  I know that sounds crazy, but all I really want to do is stay at home, read books, and not have to see anyone."

It was a harmless statement, except that Adelle was sleeping in all the time, wearing the same clothes for days, refusing to return calls.  Adam looked at her sprawled on the sand, her hat gently leaning against her forehead covering most of her face.  Adelle felt him looking at her and laughed, a loud laugh that started deep in her throat and shook her entire face.  Adam's thoughts subsided as he watched Adelle jump up and run into the water, her arms waving over her head, ready to greet the rushing waves. 

They arrived at BelleMonte in silence.  As he parked the car in the visitor's parking lot, Adam felt the urge to reverse out of the parking space and head home with Adelle.  Before he could seriously contemplate this sudden urge, nurses rushed out of the hospital, smiling with arms open, and Adelle got out of the car.  Still in the driver's seat, he watched as they led her away.  Dr. Greene had advised him not to get down and enter the hospital with Adelle, just to leave quickly and come and visit the next day. 

Adam fiddled with the car keys for a few minutes.  Sighing he drove off, catching glimpses of the sunset in his rearview mirror.




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