The novel Leave of Absence illustrates what certain mental illnesses are truly like and how they impact real people, real human beings. Because of a traumatic event and loss, Oliver Graham has PTSD, major depression, and complicated mourning (which is not in and of itself a mental illness, but it is a struggle that, in Oliver’s case, is intertwined with PTSD and depression).
Penelope Baker is another major character in Leave of Absence. She had a career she cherished, was engaged to a man she loved dearly, and was enjoying the pursuit of the life she always dreamed of. When she was twenty-eight years old, though, she began to experience odd symptoms. They worsened until she was hospitalized and subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her entire world was shaken. When the novel opens, Penelope is in the hospital (Airhaven behavioral health center) once again. She’s thirty years old; two years have passed since her diagnosis. She’s still engaged, but she doesn’t think she should be. The novel follows Penelope and shows just what this illness is like for her and those around her. In the spirit of increasing understanding mental illness and empathy for those who live with it, here’s a chapter from Leave of Absence, the chapter where we first meet Penelope. Penelope’s different patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving are evident from her very first appearance in the story:
“Well, good morning, Penelope. It looks like you’re hard at work today.”
Penelope continued to color the single petal without looking up.
Seemingly unfazed by Penelope’s lack of response, he pulled up a chair and continued. “Did you start all these this morning?”
Penelope stopped coloring and looked up. Eventually, she answered, pausing as she spoke, as though she were thinking about her responses. “Yes. I started them all this morning. …Yes. Did I start them all just now?…Yes, I did. I had…great ideas for them…but she took the ideas…out of…my…head. They just…disappeared…when I was working. …They went completely out of my head, and…my mind went blank. …That’s why I had to…start new ones. I started…all…of these…this morning…I wish she…wouldn’t…have taken…the ideas out of my…head when I was…coloring. She doesn’t…understand…the…meaning…of the…shapes…and…colors…like…I…do. The…Kerffies…only told…me…and…I…needed to…use…their meanings…but she…just…took…them…right out…of…my head and…she…won’t…give…them…back.”
“That must be frustrating. Who took the ideas out of your head?”
Again, Penelope took her time before answering. Finally, she said, impatiently, “Eleanor…Roosevelt. You should…know that…by now. …She…always…does that to…me.” Penelope’s voice became softer, kinder. “She just…zapped…them away…right while I was…working. So…I had to start…a new one…every time. And she…wanted me…to use a different color each…time too…She…doesn’t…understand…the…meanings of…the colors. …She took my ideas and…then told me her own ideas. …This time she told me…to use gray. Mrs.…Roosevelt told me…she would do…her magic and…turn it into a beautiful color.”
“Did you want to use gray?” “No,” she mumbled after a long pause. “Did I…want to use gray?…Of course I didn’t…want to use…gray.” Her eyes suddenly grew wide, and she glanced about, frightened. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Please…don’t tell…her…that. I…didn’t mean…to say that. Please don’t…tell her.”
“You’re afraid of what would happen if I told her?” Penelope had resumed coloring the single petal. Frantically, she rubbed the crayon back and forth across the single petal. She made a small tear in the paper, but still she continued.
“Penelope? What do you think would happen?”
“I don’t…want to talk…about it…anymore.…You need to…go away now.”
“How about this: I’d like to stay, but we’ll change the subject.” He waited patiently while Penelope scribbled her crayon up and down, back and forth, with hard, swift strokes. The tear widened, and she colored on the surface of the table. Dr. Daniels gently placed his hand on the paper. “Penelope. Look at what you’re doing. You’re coloring on the table. Slide your crayon over.”
Penelope didn’t look up. At first, she didn’t even seem to have heard Dr. Daniels at all. Slowly, though, she moved her hand over, away from the gaping hole she had made. As she did this, the speed of her strokes slowed down and eventually stopped. She continued to stare at her paper. “It…isn’t changing to a pretty…color.…I’ve…angered her.”
“Is she telling you that she’s angry?”
She cocked her head as though she were listening. She concentrated for almost a full minute before responding. “No.…She isn’t…talking to me…right…now. I…think she is too…busy.” “Doing what?”
“I don’t…know.” Penelope stared at Dr. Daniels. Her face was nearly expressionless, but the corners of her mouth drooped into a slight frown. “She will…be back.”
“Has she been coming around as much since you started your medication again?”
Penelope fidgeted in her chair. She snatched up her crayon and resumed her activity.
“You’ve become agitated,” Dr. Daniels observed. “What is your body saying right now?”
“Your…glasses…are…circles.…Circles…mean…caring…but…they are…silver and…I…haven’t…learned…the meaning…of…that…so…you…need to…go…now. I have to…color. Just…go now.”
Dr. Daniels jotted notes down on his notepad. He clicked his pen closed, tucked it into its holder, and closed his leather padfolio. “These medications take time to work, and you’ve only been on them again for six days. They will help, though. Tonight we’ll be increasing your dosages, and that may help you feel a difference. We’ll talk more about it later.” He watched Penelope.
Her fingers squeezed the crayon tightly, and her entire forearm moved furiously. Again, her head was bent forward and her hair hid her face from view. She uttered not a sound. Clearly, she was done talking. When he said goodbye, she gave no acknowledgement that she heard him.
She colored and colored in an attempt to placate Mrs. Roosevelt. Sometimes Mrs. Roosevelt talked about things that didn’t make any sense. When she did that, it sounded like a loudspeaker in Penelope’s head, like she was a spectator at a bizarre event she didn’t fully understand. Other times, Mrs. Roosevelt told Penelope things she should do. This morning, it was coloring. But Mrs. Roosevelt was being mean and critical. That looks dumb. Why would you do it that way? Your idea of art is pathetic, so I’m not letting you think about art at all. And then she just deleted Penelope’s thoughts.
Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t understand that Penelope’s work wasn’t based on human ideas of art. Penelope followed the Kerffie language, a complex system of shapes and colors even she didn’t fully understand. Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t comprehend this, so she had emptied Penelope’s mind. Penelope’s mind just went blank, and she didn’t know what to do next. Then Mrs. Roosevelt had shouted at her, What the hell are you just sitting there for? Don’t be so goddamn lazy! Pick up the crayon and color. No, not that crayon. Use gray. You’re not creative enough to choose your own color. I’ll work my special magic and turn it into a beautiful color when you’re done. You don’t have the right to choose a beautiful color. Don’t just sit there. Work! No. Not that picture. A different one. And remember—if you don’t do what I want, I will hurt you.
Penelope didn’t want to be hurt; therefore, she did what she was told. Plus, she wanted to please Mrs. Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt had been Penelope’s heroine for years and years, and it hurt her feelings when her beloved idol disapproved of her, especially since she had always thought that Mrs. Roosevelt was a kind, compassionate woman. What was so bad about Penelope that she brought out this wonderful woman’s wrath?
Thankfully, though, it seemed that Mrs. Roosevelt had gone away for a while. She did that from time to time. Penelope didn’t know where Mrs. Roosevelt went, but, despite the fact that she admired the great woman, she was always glad when she was gone. Actually, “glad” was perhaps the wrong word. She was never glad anymore. When Mrs. Roosevelt was around, Penelope was anxious and tense and afraid. When she was gone, there was room for different feelings. When Mrs. Roosevelt took her occasional breaks, Penelope was desolate and hollow and depressed. Always, always—whether the woman was hanging around harassing her or off doing who knows what—Penelope felt “off.”
Simply put, Penelope knew she wasn’t normal. And this knowledge wasn’t just from the conversation with Dr. Daniels when she was first diagnosed. “Penelope has schizophrenia,” he’d said so matter-of-factly, as though he were telling them she had a cold. Without waiting for a response from either her or her fiancé William, he had continued his delivery of her diagnosis. “It’s a very individual disorder; it looks a bit different in each person who has it. Penelope, in your case it’s called undifferentiated schizophrenia. It’s different from the paranoid version we so often see stereotyped by Hollywood.”
Disgusted, Penelope pushed the memory of the rest of that conversation out of her mind.
No, it was not just from that conversation that she knew she wasn’t normal. It was more than knowing the label. She was aware that she was different. She wasn’t like everyone else, and she hated that. She hated knowing it too, because knowing it made it all even worse. Dr. Daniels didn’t hate it. He thought it was wonderful that she was so aware of herself. When they first talked about her feelings about being different, he had been thrilled. He had called her awareness “insight.” About half of all people with schizophrenia lacked insight into their condition, he had explained. Of course, that meant the other half were aware that the hallucinations, delusions, and everything else associated with the illness were not things most people experienced. According to Dr. Daniels, having this insight meant the person had a better chance of managing schizophrenia.
Penelope didn’t feel that her insight helped her one bit. She wondered if she would actually be able to feel happiness if she didn’t know how different she was. Sure, Mrs. Roosevelt would continue to lurk and beleaguer her, and the Kerffies would keep teaching her about their language and ideas. They would keep taking Penelope’s thoughts away and leave her mind frighteningly empty, and then invade her by forcing their own thoughts and ideas into her mind. She would probably continue to physically feel the source of the Kerffies, too, as they tickled her or poked her to make sure she knew they were right there beside her.
But what if she didn’t know this was abnormal? Would ignorance be bliss? Would she just be able to live life thinking that she was okay? Certainly that would be better than the way she experienced it now. How was she supposed to feel happiness, or even slight contentment, when she knew she was mentally ill? She was only thirty years old, and the life she had known and loved for twenty-eight of those years was over.
Penelope looked down at her coloring pages. They were all incomplete, just like she was. She stared at the hole she had made in one of the papers. How fitting. The picture was broken, just like Penelope. Nothing could fix that hole, and nothing could fix her.
You think you’re broken? Mrs. Roosevelt was back. I’m here with you. I’m not good enough for you? You ungrateful bitch! You want to be “fixed?” I’ll fix you. Eat the crayons. All of them. Chew them up and swallow them.
Penelope stared, wide-eyed, at the pile of crayons on the table. Mrs. Roosevelt must have sensed her apprehension, because she lowered her voice to a whisper and crooned, It’s okay. Please trust me. You know I’m magic. Eat the crayons, and they’ll plug up the hole that’s inside you, and I’ll make them glow brightly in all their dazzling colors. You’ll be dazzling then, Penelope. The whole world will be in awe of your alluring radiance. They’ll admire you again. They’ll admire you as much as they admire me. You’ll see. Try it. Eat the crayons, now.
Penelope wanted to be better, to be complete, to be attractive again, and, if eating the crayons would transform her, then eat them she would. One by one, she cracked them into pieces. Snap! Snap! Snap! She split the wax, slashed through the wrappers, slid her fingers into the stack, and shoveled smidgens of color into her mouth.
A tech chose that moment to check up on her. “Penelope! Stop!” She grabbed one of the coloring sheets from her table and held it under Penelope’s face. “Spit it out.”
Penelope grabbed for more crayon pieces and continued to chew vigorously. The tech quickly pushed the pile across the table, sending broken bits rolling and scattering onto the floor. Penelope cried out and tried to swallow. The crayons wouldn’t go down, and she gagged. Involuntarily, she spit them out onto the paper that was still held under her face.
“No! Claire, why did you do that? I have to have those!” Penelope shouted and grabbed at the paper. Claire crumpled it up and shoved it into the pocket of her smock, so Penelope dove onto the floor to snatch up more pieces. Claire intervened. She knelt down by Penelope and gently covered her hands with her own. “Stop, Penelope,” Claire said gently. “Eating crayons is bad for you. I need you to stop.”
Just forget about it, you worthless loser, Mrs. Roosevelt sneered. I was going to “fix” you. You only had to do one little thing, but you screwed it up, just like you screw up everything. You ruin everything. William knows what I mean, doesn’t he, Penelope? You don’t deserve to eat those crayons anymore. I won’t help you.
Angry and hurt, Penelope jerked her hands away from Claire’s. She sprang to her feet. “Mrs. Roosevelt was going to fix me, but you ruined it!”
“Let’s talk about it. Would you like to sit here, or should we walk and talk? We can do laps around the day area.”
Mrs. Roosevelt shouted at Penelope. She summoned others, people Penelope didn’t even know. And from nowhere and everywhere, the Kerffies joined in too. There were so many of them, and they all spoke at once. Penelope couldn’t understand what they were saying. This wouldn’t happen to her anymore if she had only been able to eat the crayons. Mrs. Roosevelt had been right; she screwed up everything. Maybe she could have eaten them, though, if Claire hadn’t come along.
“Where do you want to talk, Penelope?”
Between the shouting and Claire’s chatter, Penelope couldn’t think. She grabbed her head. “I…” What did she want to say? If everyone would go away, she could think again. She had to make herself heard above all the noise. “Leave…me alone!” She yelled at Claire. Even her heart was upset. It pounded angrily in her chest as though it were trying to bruise her on the inside. Her head felt her hands tremble, and it felt their sweatiness too.
“What would help you right now?” Claire remained calm. Even though Penelope wanted her to leave, she appreciated Claire’s soothing voice. “I…need…a…cigarette.” It took a long time to form the words because of all of the roaring voices.
Claire glanced at the clock at the wall. “Well, you’re in luck, my dear, because the morning break is going on right now. The others went down already, but I’ll take you down so you can join them outside. Gratefully, Penelope followed Claire to her locker for a cigarette and then to the elevator.