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Rock Creek Writing Center Best Essay Winner 2020


The Key 

by Alexander Prescott 

Rock Creek Writing Center Best Essay Winner 2020 

 Mental illness isn’t something you can really seem to medicate away. Sure, this pill can numb the pain, and that pill might make you feel apathetic. But overall, you are just putting a different mask on an ugly problem. My mother was one of those people with a little pill box, marked with each day of the week, reminding her to put on her “facade."

 It was the day before my eighteenth birthday. Freedom was so close. I would finally be old enough to leave this small dilapidated town behind me, but freedom came at a cost. I would have to leave her behind. You see, my mother was born deaf, and because of this, it closed out the world around her. Her life was silent, and over the years the silence dug its way deeper into her than it should’ve. Her depression kept her captive to her bed, as if the sheer weight of sadness immobilized her. 

 I stood in her bedroom doorway, her eyes looked just beyond me, fixed on an empty space of wall. This woman wasn’t the lively, beautiful creature that raised me. Her fierceness and wild exuberance for life had faded away and all that was left was this shell of a woman, laying in that bed, impersonating my mother. Signing to her, I attempted to pull her attention away, but she was lost in a heavily medicated gaze. When I left the next day, she would be alone. I mean sure, there’s my dad, but no one understood my mother the way that I did, nobody even tried to. 


 My things were all packed and situated in boxes neatly lining the wall of my childhood bedroom. Tomorrow was the day when everything would be different, a new beginning. The landlord was expecting me, I had to go pick up my new apartment key. My fingers fluttered as I signaled to my mother and signed to her that I would be back soon, it wouldn’t take long. Her eyes locked onto mine with a piercing glare, as if I was betraying her. Sometimes the sadness almost made her look manic. I hastily made my way to the bedside, planting a kiss on her forehead, assuring her that I would be back soon. 


 I sped off in my Ford Mustang, making great time. Swinging into a narrow parking space, I gawked at my freedom, in the shape of a red brick apartment complex. The landlord greeted me at the apartment door and passed me the key, but as I held it in my hand, it felt heavy and weighted with guilt. I was the last of my three brothers to leave the house, and I knew that the reality of us being gone would completely sink in for my parents. But I couldn’t stay there forever, leaving was inevitable, and all parents must say goodbye at some point. I bid farewell to the apartment building as I left; I would be back for it tomorrow. 

The drive wasn’t long; my childhood home was just one city over and if I hit the highway it was only a 15-minute drive. I pulled into the gravel driveway, pebbles crunching under the tires. I shoved the apartment key deep into my jacket pocket. The front porch steps groaned as I made my way up them; it was lunch time now and I had to feed my mother. This was usually my fathers’ job, but he had to work a double shift that day. 

 I swung open the door, kicked my dirty Chuck Taylors off, and tossed my coat on the floor. Making a beeline straight to the kitchen, I set a pot of water to boil and prepared all the ingredients for a pasta dish. She usually refused to eat, but today I would make her something special. Spaghetti used to be her favorite before she became the epitome of sadness. 


 The house was nearly silent, as it usually was, except for the rattling of a pot on the stove and the sound of my own feet tapping impatiently. Minutes passed and I finally had a bowl of spaghetti in hand and her pill box in the other. I made my way down the hallway towards her bedroom door. It was closed, which was unusual. I knocked. Nothing. Slowly opening the door, so as not to startle her, I made my way in. 

 The smell of iron clung to the air, thick and musty. And there she was, still captive to her bed but this time it was swallowing her in a pool of her own blood. My body went numb as my grasp of reality and of my own hands was lost, dropping everything to the floor. I tripped over my own feet as I rushed to her side. She was breathing, but her breaths were shallow and possibly her last. My father’s .22 pistol rested there in her limp hand. 

 I sprung for the phone on her bedside table, clumsily dialing 911. My words blurted out nonsense, but somehow the dispatcher understood. She instructed me to open my mother’s airways and talked me through how to keep her alive until emergency services arrived. I could barely even see past the panic in my own eyes as I fought to keep her going. It was all up to me now. 

 It seemed like those minutes lasted an eternity before they showed up. A slew of people rushed in, almost attacking her body in a desperate attempt to keep her from slipping away. I stepped back finally letting it all sink in. This wasn’t a dream, this was my reality. Terror rushed over me, as I processed what was actually happening. Her body was thrown onto a gurney and off she went, leaving nothing but her blood-stained sheets and a group of interrogating cops behind. 

She was rushed to OHSU in Portland, which was on the other side of the state, where she clung to life for months in a trauma-induced coma. The bullet barely missed her jugular vein, and the doctors assured us that it was a miracle she even made it this long. I had spent my eighteenth birthday with that useless apartment key in my pocket, heavier than ever, and my mother just lying there on a hospital bed, without the certainty that she would ever wake up. 

Eventually she did awake, but she was never the same. We never spoke of what happened, locking it away in the shadows of our minds. Hotels and hospitals became our new home; she would never go back to that small town, the place where she had put her depression to rest. The bullet didn’t take her life that day, but it took away her ability to walk, and my ability to stomach a genuine relationship with her. And that sense of freedom I had longed for was crushed and replaced with an aching feeling of regrets and “what-ifs”. 


 Before that incident we never fully understood her depression, or how lost she really was to it. We trusted that her doctors were taking care of her, and that all those pills would eventually do something. I guess no one really took her mental illness as seriously as they should’ve. Her physicians just wrote on their prescription pads and sent her on her way, just another sad person in need of something to suppress their emotions. She needed psychological help. She needed more than just a pill. But that’s just it, no one wanted to acknowledge her depression as an actual illness. It’s one of those things you just don’t want to accept, and often is pushed to the side. In my experience most doctors will just open that prescription pad at the very first sign of mental illness. It’s not to be confronted. Just shroud it in medication and mask it in ignorance. Take another pill to hide depression's ugly face. 

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