Notes from the Hospital

Just a few months after I finished writing an essay about hospitals for Orion, I was sorting through boxes in my mother’s garage. I found a series of pocket-size spiral-bound notebooks I kept during one of the experiences I wrote about: a hospitalization after jaw surgery at the age of eighteen. Because my jaw was wired shut, I couldn’t speak. These notebooks were how I communicated, scribbling messages to nurses, doctors, and my mother.

Looking over these notebooks, twenty years after I’d written in them, I found a different version of myself—not a storyteller, but a patient: anxious, desirous, repetitive, uncertain, ashamed. I saw parts of myself that my essayist self, the retrospective meaning-maker, hadn’t always wanted to remember: my vanity, my irritability, my solipsism. But in these notebooks, I also found—of course—the truth. Or rather, a layer of the truth, in all its mundane, bodily immediacy. I found myself trying to get my hands on a mirror, trying to get my hands on more painkillers, trying to make a joke.

In this way, the notebooks offer a voice calling back from the weeds of memory, interrupting the smoother surfaces of retrospection with the prickly immediacy of lived experience. They offer a reminder that what we live is always messier—more chaotic, more desperate, more banal—than whatever we make of it years later, looking back.


Read Leslie Jamison’s piece from Orion’s Spring 2022 issue, Bright Passage, here. 

Leslie Jamison is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, including The Recovering, The Empathy Exams, and, most recently, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story. She teaches at Columbia University.