Billy Love’s – Ursula’s Underground World
I slammed the door behind me and squinted—examining every inch of my tiny apartment. The minimal furnishings: a couple of straight-backed wooden chairs a single mattress butted up against the far paint-peeled wall, a rickety metal table where I ate rations standing up.
The one redeeming element in my abode was the large leaded glass window that overlooked a narrow courtyard. I crossed the room unlatched the hinge and flung it open, sticking my head outside and gulping in the frigid air as it seared my lungs.
My hands trembled as I ducked back inside and collapsed onto the hard-wood floor. I lit a joint and sucked eagerly on the reedy stem then released the earthy smoke into the stale air. It had been one hell of a day. I pulled a thread-bare blanket around me and attempted to lean back and relax. Impossible. My mind was reeling.
Ursula’s Underground World
I slumped against the cracked leather chair, feeling dejected and defeated. I knew I appeared disheveled and unkept—I had hurriedly dressed in old jeans and one of Parker’s plaid flannel shirts this morning. There was an urgent need to transport Ursula to the hospital, for she had started self-mutilating herself, taking scissors and cutting at the tender tissues on her wrists.
Admit ably, I had not handled Ursula well. I was faint at the sight of all the blood spilling onto the white carpet, staining it ruby, then seeping and spreading throughout the bedroom. I had screamed at Ursula, startling her, as I grabbed clean rags, and placed pressure over the slashes—trying to stem the bleeding. She fought me at first, thrashing and moaning, until she finally became slack, her eyes vacant, as she played into her own head game.
Now, I was in the emergency waiting room, replaying my daughter’s situation that devastating day in the crematorium of Dachau Concentration Camp—when we learned from Samuel that her birth father was executed with a bullet to the head and her mother was raped to death. Ursula had been an eye witness to the carnage. Would she ever be able to overcome the hideous pictures filling her mind, seemingly an endless reel of images?
Whatever the health professionals told me, I knew she would have to be admitted to the mental health ward for inpatient treatment. Parker and I could not cope with her acting-out behavior, and it was unfair to Renata, who needed some semblance of a calm, stable home.
Parker and I had tried therapist after therapist to no avail. There had been very little improvement in her behavior, and she was failing in her school studies. Now that she was nine-years-old, she was harder to control—she was bigger and stronger, and she could land a punch to the face or groin with skill. Her outbursts became a daily occurrence. And I felt like we were in a constant battle zone.
I was against giving Ursula medications, but in the end, we relented and filled a prescription for the antipsychotic drug, Thorazine. Within days of taking it, however, she became a shell of herself, drooling and wetting herself, as she sat in the corner, and stared at nothing for hours on end. Renata would huddle with Ursula, draping her arm around her shoulder, as she cooed positive thoughts. It was a heart-breaking sight—the two of them, hunkered down, which reminded me of when I first met them at Aunt Liz’s house. Renata was Ursula’s protectress—always there for her.
In the end, we refused to refill the Thorazine prescription, and Ursula’s violent behavior returned with a vengeance. I looked around the waiting room and noticed other parents, with their heads bowed, as they waited for a miracle to make their kids normal again. But what was normal? One thing I knew, Ursula was NOT normal, and I was mad at God. Why was Ursula exposed to such horror, a horror so great, that it would prohibit a healthy, happy childhood?
I frowned and furrowed my brow. What was taking them so long? A lone tear slid down my cheek…and a handkerchief floated into my lap.
“Honey, is this your first time at Bellevue?”
I turned to the diminutive young woman sitting beside me.
“Yes, it is, my daughter is very ill,” I said, my eyes filling again.
“Let me give you some advice. Most of the people who work here want to help our kids, but there are a few sinister people who you need to avoid. And whatever they tell you, never consent to a lobotomy procedure,” the woman said, as she leaned into me, conspiratorially.
“Yes, they cut into the brain, and separate the lobes. It makes the person into a senseless blob,” she said, as she sat back and crossed her arms.
I paused, uncertain what to say to this unwelcome information from a stranger.
“Well, my husband and I would never approve such a barbaric procedure. But thanks for the advice about the people who work here. I will be vigilant regarding Ursula’s care,” I said, as I looked at my watch. Surely, they were done evaluating her by now.
A nurse encased in a head-to-toe starched, white uniform stood in the doorway of the examination room. A white, witch-like cap was perched on her gray-streaked tresses. She had a serene look to her that instantly calmed me.
“Yes, you can call me Billy Love,” I said, as I stood and walked toward the nurse.
The nurse seemed older, around forty-five, which was unusual, as most nurses these days, were giddy, single young women searching for husbands. When the nurses found mates, they typically retired to the life of a housewife.
I found the nurse’s demeanor professional and confident. It was clear that Ursula was in good hands.
“My name is May Phillips, Nurse Phillips if you wish, and I am taking care of Ursula today. We are getting the paperwork ready to admit her to Bellevue. Will you come with me now? I need to get some history from you,” she said, as she turned and strode down the hallway in her white, polished shoes.
“Thank you, Nurse Phillips, my husband is on his way here,” I said.
“Let’s sit down and visit for a few moments before seeing Ursula,” the nurse said.
I liked the lilting tone of her voice. I trusted her.
Nurse Phillips pushed her round wire-rim glasses up on her nose, and grabbed a clipboard containing Ursula’s chart.
“It took us quite a while to dress her wounds. She would not let us near her. We finally had to restrain her and inject her with a sedative, and now she is sleeping. What can you tell me about her background? She is adopted, right?” Nurse Phillip asked.
“Correct, she and her sister were discovered hiding in the bombed-out area of Munich, after the war, in 1945. We did not discover their circumstances until 1948, when a survivor of Dachau came forward and shared his story,” I said.
The nurse scribbled copious notes, as I relayed Ursula’s history.
“Has Ursula had violent behavior from the beginning?” she asked.
“Yes, and we believe it stems from witnessing the deaths of her birth parents, in Dachau. Her father was an SS guard and the family lived on the grounds of the camp. The American army unit that liberated the camp…well, in the chaos, they delivered fatal injuries to many of the guards and their families.”
“Oh, my goodness, dear, I can think of no greater horror for a child to witness,” she said, patting my hand.
The door opened and Parker stood hat in hand, adjusting to his surroundings.
“Oh, Parker, Ursula cut herself. It was horrible,” I said, raising my voice, as I ran across the room and wrapped my arms tightly around him.
“Darling, let’s take some deep breaths. She is safe now, and in the best possible place for her,” Parker said, in a calm, sure voice.
I looked up at him and nodded. Always my rock, I was more confident when he was by my side. He still had a bit of a boyish look to him, with his sprinkle of freckles and his sandy wind-tossed hair.
“Come, Parker, I want you to meet Ursula’s nurse. We were just going over her history.”
“Parker, nice to meet you. I will be Ursula’s long-term nurse, and I will manage her daily care,” Nurse Phillips said, stretching out her hand to Parker.
“Like-wise. I am sure Ursula is in good hands,” Parker said to the nurse, as he grabbed a chair and sat down beside us.
“Now, where were we?” Nurse Phillips asked.
“Ursula has been violent for many years, but never before has she cut herself. Why, why would she do such a thing?” I blurted out, before I could stop myself.
“Billy Love, there is a theory in psychiatric circles, that when people feel extreme anxiety, the act of cutting themselves and the resulting pain and bleeding reminds them that they are still alive,” Nurse Phillips said.
“Oh,” I said, as I gripped Parker’s arm.
“Another theory is that when people cut themselves, it is like popping a balloon—all of the air is released—when the blood flows, the anxiety flows away with it. Until their apprehension builds again,” the nurse explained.
“Then what?” Parker asked.
“Then, they will slash again. We found a pocket-knife in her bathrobe. Ursula knew that the fear would come again and overwhelm her,” Nurse Phillips said, arching her eyebrows.
“Please, make her better,” I said, in a small voice.
“Nurse Phillips, how long will she be hospitalized? Parker asked.
“I will need to consult with our lead psychiatrist, Dr. Andrews, but I believe a three-month- stay is standard.”
“Three months?” I asked, flooded with relief that I might get a long stretch of respite—but I simultaneously felt guilty as a mother, for abandoning my child.
“Billy Love, you know Ursula needs the routine and the long-term medical help. And Renata needs our undivided attention for a sustained period of time,” Parker said.
“Let me get us some tea. I think we need a break from this intense conversation,” Nurse Phillips said, as she motioned to the aide peering through the window. I sat back and tried to clear my mind, as we waited for the refreshments.
I watched the steam rise from the teacup, and smelled the spiced tea. As I sipped the liquid, I felt my spirits lift.
“Nurse Phillips, what is your background?” I asked, taking the focus off Ursula.
“I know it is a bit unusual, but I became a nurse at age forty. Nursing was always a profession I thought I was suited for, and after my divorce, I pursued my dream.”
“Why did you decide upon mental health?” Parker asked.
“I did a rotation here at Bellevue as a student nurse, and I fell in love with the children, most of whom are on public assistance. There are so many children who fall through the cracks,” Nurse Phillips replied.
“You know, I forgot Bellevue was a public hospital,” I said.
“Indeed, the first building went up in 1796, not long after our country was founded,” she explained.
“There is another reason I came to Bellevue. One day a week I am assigned to the medical research laboratory. Our research team receives government funding to collect information on the effectiveness of new psychiatric medications and procedures. It is fascinating work—and the results could very well help people in the future.”
“How interesting,” I said, as Parker nodded in agreement.
“I am very content. Now, let’s get back to Ursula,” Nurse Phillips said, as she looked over her notes.
“Why do you think Renata has adjusted to life in your family and Ursula has not?” Nurse Phillips continued.
I sighed. “Renata was in the cottage at the time of the liberation. Only Ursula witnessed the killings.”
“Samuel said that Ursula screamed like nothing he had ever experienced, then she tore through the camp grounds until she reached Renata. She could not have been more than three or four years old at the time,” Parker explained.
“Research shows us that even very young children can have flashbacks and terrifying dreams because of traumatic events. I suspect that is what is going on with Ursula—the memories keep coming in waves,” Nurse Phillips said, as she put down her clipboard and fluttered her hands in the air.
I leaned back and concentrated on the information given to Parker and me about Ursula—then, I moved forward and quickly signed the admission papers.
“Nurse Phillips, I enfold my precious Ursula into your care. My forsaken child,” I said, as my eyes welled yet again, and my voice cracked.
Parker helped me out of my chair and we moved toward the door.
“Let’s go see her. I can explain to Ursula why she is staying with us for a while,” Nurse Phillips said.
“Thanks, Nurse Phillips, but I need to tell her myself,” I replied.
Together, we slowly walked down the hallway until we stood before Ursula’s barren room. We peered into the small window. She sat on the mattress, legs crossed, staring blankly at the gray walls.
I approached her and sat next to her. She scooted away, and pulled her legs up under her chin, refusing to give me eye contact.
I decided to keep my conversation short. “Ursula, Nurse Phillips will take good care of you. Daddy and I want you to get better. We will visit often.”
Nurse Phillips gently pulled me to my feet, and led Parker and me from the room.
“There is hope for Ursula, and I will be by her side throughout the journey,” Nurse Phillips said.
Something flickered inside me. Hope.