Elissa Ely

Losing yourself all at once

I noticed — but, as Holmes might say, did not see — when my backpack was stolen from the shelter office. Probably the patient mistook it for his (both were black) and grabbed it as he was leaving our meeting.

By the time I realized it was gone, the taker was also gone. He had fled the shelter, leaving his jacket on his bed. A baggie of coarse white powder fell out of one pocket. Cocaine, said the policeman on detail, then he opened it. No, he said. Instant oatmeal.

It’s not often that you lose all of yourself at once. Besides the car and house keys, phone, checkbook, wallet with credit/ATM/library/insurance cards, there were family pictures, directions to a gravesite in Texas, and a remark my 15-year-old had made when she was six and first learning about American history. I had transcribed it onto the back of an appointment card, but had never transferred it out of the wallet. If I remember right, she said something like, “Mom, when you argue with Dad, it’s like the British and the Americans.”


There were also prescription pads, office keys, a beeper, a needlepoint project, unanswered correspondence, a box of easy-grip pens, a notebook of random ideas, and some protein bars. It was gold for the person with patience to sift through.

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Lotta good stuff, the policeman said. He asked the cost of the wallet and the backpack, neither of which were anywhere near as valuable as what they held. He said that concerned citizens recover “stolen debris” more often than the average citizen might think, that I should not give up. He flipped his pad shut.

This theft-that-did-not-start-as-one occurred in a setting where some guests sleep with their hands on their shoes. Women come in having been raped on streets; assaults are commonplace; threats are rampant. What happened was not violence or death, and all the backpack contents would be replaced. Yet, without my little proofs of existence, and knowing that a patient had stolen them, I felt awful.

As I was wondering about the usefulness of owning a car but no longer owning car keys, a night staff member came up to me. She had a walkie-talkie on her belt and earrings down to her chin. I had never seen her before.

“I want to apologize to you,” she said.


“For what?” I said. “It’s not your doing or mine.”

“I know,” she said. “But when something like this happens, SOMEONE needs to say they’re sorry.”

She was right. At that moment, maybe just a few blocks away, my one-time patient was searching with little interest through pictures and protein bars. With more interest, he was searching through wallet, phone, prescriptions pads, and personal checks. Her apology meant a great deal. Someone had to fervently say it.

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.