The Question of Spilled Milk: A Short Parable by Tracy Ross

Featured Image: “Integration6784” by Danielle Hark

When I had my psychotic break, the analyst, upon my checking in to the hospital asked me a simple question, an exercise, if you will. She asked me to explain the phrase, “Don’t cry over spilled milk…” I thought, in my euphoric, manic state, this to be a strange request, but I tried my best. I started from point A and instead of going to point B, explaining the concept behind a very simple phrase, I zig zagged through a plethora of reasons as to why the milk spilled and what to do about it. In fact, I covered the whole alphabet and even some numerical quotients added in there for good measure. Yet, everything I explained in circumstance had everything, or so I thought, with the spilled milk yet I could not, for the life of me, simply explain what the phrase meant in as little words. I was confused as to why I was there. Why ask me such a silly question that had nothing to do with the situation at hand?

I also remember a form I had to sign that made me voluntarily check a box that agreed I was going through acute psychosis at the time. I did, indeed check that box, and my small adventure began. Spilled milk? Why? I could tell her the most accurate details about the day of the week, the president of the United States, current events in the news and even an encyclopedia of non-related facts that I could recite as if with photographic memory for no apparent reason. She listened patiently, and after approximately forty five minutes I told her the meaning of “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” They kindly checked me into a private room.

The CAT scan was the first test to get through. I was talking so fast they thought I might have had a stroke. I laid there on the medical table going through the test fidgeting and came through as clean as a whistle, but with one abnormality, my mind was racing about a million thoughts a second, without direction and reason. A new reality had hit me, a sense that I was very high atop a mountain and I had a marvelous bird’s eye view of the world, that I was finally privy to all I didn’t understand, and if I continued in this state, I could eventually see through walls. The medical staff had ruled out the possibility that it was a synthetically induced state of psychosis, meaning a reaction to drugs or substances beyond my control. They had concluded that, based on all evidence, I was going through a psychotic state brought on my acute stress and an influx of too much stimulus and information, in other words, I was temporarily schizophrenic. My adrenal gland was producing enormous amounts of fight or flight hormones and I was in a hyper state of survival, absorb the information and regurgitate the data or die.

Ironically, or so I thought at the time, they gave me a small carton of milk to drink with a straw, upon my first night in my room. “Don’t cry over spilled milk?” I thought. “What the hell does that mean?” Is this some sort of universal joke? I started to think maybe I failed the test, the spilled milk test, that I had answered the analyst’s question wrong and that is why they secured me in a room for my own protection and observation. Questions of life had always been against me and now they would be my downfall and ultimate demise.

Promptly, thirty minutes later a nurse with a sublime but evil looking face came into my room and told me to take a small plastic cup of pills, some red, some brown, some white. I did so and promptly fell asleep. Next thing I knew, it was morning and the game was afoot. I felt groggy, sleepy and tired, despite having a long restful night. I was hung over and dreamed about spilled milk chasing me down a hallway, a big puddle of it turning into a leak that trickled to the edge of my foot where ever I ran. I saw the carbon copy of a pink form on the small side table by my bed that had my rights on the back and on the front of the form was the box I checked in agreement of my acute psychosis diagnosis. I felt my face. I was the same person, thank God, but something was slightly different. We had a regimen, get to breakfast in the communal dining area and get to group therapy as soon after waking as possible, and make your bed and clean your room area as best as you can. The nurse heard me wake and informed me that this was the score and to divert, meant further meetings with the analyst. I got the gist of what was necessary immediately. I knew survival was key, even in this place of estrangement and spilled milk.

Something biophysical was going on with my body. It felt like I was crawling out of my skin, I was jittery, nervous and I couldn’t stop cross referencing. Each thing I heard, saw, read on the hospital walls had a connection, an overarching meaning in the grand scheme of my mind. I would pick apart the symbols, I would separate the words, I would remember the images of all I saw and integrate them into a matrix of meaning in which all was infinite and understandable. I was in hell. I felt a terrible fear that I would suffer, yet what I was going through at the time, I didn’t perceive as suffering by my own mind because I was the culprit, I could not see that I was creating the suffering of my soul. My eyes were wild and it was I creating the wilderness of thought I could not escape from.

I met the others. I met the ones suffering as well. At first I thought of them as scary, not like me. Then, I soon realized, they were in the same boat, and were going through something similar if not the very same biochemical imbalance. Yes. They dealt with it differently, some with anger, some with fear, some with sadness, but all with courage and a fortitude I had never seen in human beings before. We were all in survival mode, here because something backfired, and left us to choose to fight or flee. There was anger management, there was sports, there was art class, there was music, there were coping therapies to put us back on the path of normalcy. I drew, I painted, I punched and kicked punching bags with the rest of them. I woke up in a daze of chemical lobotomy like all of them, taking my medications as prescribed, praying for the outside world to accept me once again and for me to not see things other than spilled milk.

Second meeting, the analyst asked me to explain the same phrase, “Don’t cry over spilled milk…” and with eyes crying I panicked in fear and told her everything I was feeling, that I wanted to return home, that I was trying my best and that I couldn’t stop cross referencing and that I didn’t belong here and that I felt as if I was not myself and that if I just could stop and center the world I could make the milk re-enter the glass. From A to Z and back to B I went without giving her a simple phrase in comparison. She looked disappointed in my response, she looked despondent. I was sent to my room to await dinner, this time with a carton of chocolate milk and a straw on the side of the tray.

Weeks passed and I took my pills, I went to therapy, I went to management classes, I drew, I painted, I played sports, I whittled my time away looking at pretty pictures on the walls and nodding my head complacently to the other inmates along the hallways who paced in lost oblivion. Then one morning, it happened.

I had not slept well the night before. I was told to monitor my sleep because I was getting too little of it. As usual, I woke up early to see the nurse enter my room with my tray of pills and drink. But this morning was different. As I awoke, lifting my head and shoulders with my tired arms from the bed, my face once buried in the pillow for fear of the world, my nurse was at my side and low and behold she had fumbled with the tray. All the contents, including a small carton of milk, proceeded to fall as if in slow motion. I watched the pills and the milk fall, hit the floor and spill in all directions. The nurse was looking up at me. She was smiling. I stared at the milk and pills on the floor. Then it happened. I smiled back.

On my third try, the analyst and I had a talk about spilled milk. She asked me to explain the phrase, “Don’t cry over spilled milk…” I told her there is nothing I can do about it. “What?” I remember her asking in disbelief. “There is nothing I can do about it.” I answered again. It was then that we both smiled.

Upon packing my things for my return home, I realized many things, but most importantly, to relinquish the fear because one can always learn from spilled milk, one can always learn from the causality of seeing the milk actually tip and go down and see the end in plain sight, spilling across the floor in such chaos knowing the cause and effect is proof of all there is.



Tracy Ross is a poet and writer living in Minnesota. Her work, "Certainty of One" is currently available from Adelaide Books and "Broken Signals--Trials of Disconnect" from Shanti Arts Publishing. You can learn more about her work at

Danielle Hark is a writer and artist who lives with PTSD and bipolar disorder. Her photography and mixed-media work come from her lived experience with mental illness and trauma, including sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, and the loss of her father to ALS. She is the founder of the non-profit Broken Light Collective that empowers people with mental health challenges using photography. Danielle lives and creates in New Jersey with her husband, two sassy young daughters, two and a half ukuleles, a Samoyed pup, a Scottish Fold cat, and a typewriter named Cori Blue. Her website is:

1 Comment

  1. This was gorgeous and beautifully written, and subtle. I could relate to so much of it… “I was hung over and dreamed about spilled milk chasing me down a hallway….I felt my face. I was the same person, thank God,….Each thing I heard, saw, read on the hospital walls had a connection, an overarching meaning in the grand scheme of my mind. I would pick apart the symbols,…. I could not see that I was creating the suffering of my soul….. but all with courage and a fortitude I had never seen in human beings before. We were all in survival mode, here because something backfired, and left us to choose to fight or flee.”

    We can’t do anything about spilled milk but witness and acknowledge. Crying is good, though, and grieving especially if we are the spilled milk.

Go ahead and Leave Feedback about this essay for a reply from the author.

Memoir Magazine