2/27/17

We Are the Dead
by
Josh Becker

 

     I open my eyes and have no clue where I am. I’m lying on my back somewhere. In a small room. My next realization is that there are sharp pains in the back of both of my hands. I lift my hands up and see that there are IV needles and tubes stuck into the back of both of them, as well as another IV tube sticking into the crook of my right arm.
     Turning my head to the left I see a white girl in her early twenties sitting in a chair, looking down, completely absorbed in reading a book on her lap.
     I say, “Where the—?”
     And pass out . . .

     Some indeterminate amount of time later, I open my eyes again. Once again I feel pain and realize that I have needles and tubes running into my hands and arm. I turn my head to the left, and the white girl in her twenties has magically transformed into a forty-year-old black man, also utterly absorbed in reading a book on his lap.
     I say, “What the—?”
     Then pass back out . . .

     Another unknown amount of time later, I once again open my eyes. Ow! Pain in my hands and arm. Oh, look, I have IV needles stuck in them. I look left and the forty-year-old
black man has now mysteriously become a thirty-year-old white man, also busily reading a book.
     I say, “When the—?”
     And pass back out . . .

     Yet another obscure amount of time later, I open my eyes and standing right in front of me are my former girlfriends, Lisa and Carol, both looking sheepish and incredibly uncomfortable, standing up against a wall in the tiny little room. Well, now, isn’t this an interesting sight? Not one, but two former girlfriends.
     I say, “Girlfriends—”
     And pass right back out . . .

At some point later I open my eyes and there stands my sister Pam, who lives in Florida, and a six-and-a-half-foot-tall baldheaded black man wearing green hospital scrubs.
     I say, “Pam, what’re you doing here?” I’ve managed to finish a whole sentence.
     Pam says, “We’re taking you up to the 6th floor.”
     The bed I’m on is actually a gurney and the big black man, as well as another black man in green scrubs, roll me out of the little room into the hall.
     I ask Pam, “Where am I?”
“In the hospital.”
     Huh. No kidding.
     They roll me into an elevator, Pam gets on and up we go.
     The 6th floor of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, located on Woodward Avenue in Pontiac, Michigan, is the psych ward, known as 6 East. It’s one of four locked mental hospitals in Pontiac. Locked meaning that once you enter and the door locks behind you, you can’t get out. Pontiac, located twenty miles north of Detroit, has been the home of the Detroit area’s mental hospitals for 150 years. When I was a kid and acted up, my old Hungarian grandmother would say in her thick accent, “You should go to Poontiac,” meaning the mental hospital. It had only taken me fifty-three years, but it now appeared like I’d finally pulled it off. I was in Poontiac. Grandma had miraculously seen my future.
     Looking extremely concerned, Pam says that she loves me and leaves. I’m helped off the gurney and all of my clothes and belongings are taken away. My wallet, cell phone and car keys are put into a plastic bag. I’m given two hospital gowns, one on my front, the other on my back.
     I’m taken into an office and presented with two pieces of paper: one headed “Voluntary,” the other headed “Involuntary.” Although I’m still groggy as hell, I ask, “What’s the difference?”
     It’s succinctly explained to me that voluntary means I’m leaving it up to the doctor as to when I’ll be released; involuntary means that I’ll be given a court date at some point in the unknown future, then I’ll have to go before a judge and let him or her decide. This second process, I’m informed, will certainly take weeks. They indicate that voluntary will probably, though not assuredly, get me out sooner, although how much sooner, or how long I’ll be there, remains unsaid. I sign the voluntary form.
     The six-and-a-half-foot-tall, deathly serious, baldheaded black orderly, whose name is Anthony, picks up a pink plastic bucket containing a three-inch stick of deodorant, a short toothbrush, a little tube of toothpaste, and a small plastic bottle of non-alcoholic mouthwash. He says, “This way,” and leads me down a hospital corridor. Anthony has a funky ghetto swagger that tells me without him even turning around, “Go ahead, try something. Anything. I can’t wait.” He stops in front of a door marked 644, opens it and states, “You’re in bed two.” A little old gray-haired man sits on the edge of the first bed. Anthony hands me the pink plastic bucket, steps out and closes the door.
     My new roommate, Sidney, is eighty-four years old and stares forlornly down at the floor. He tells me that he was born in Michigan, but moved to Scotland when he was a young kid. He joined the American army in 1946 in the U.K., finally mustering out two years later back in Michigan, which is where he’s lived ever since. His accent is a weird amalgamation of a Scottish brogue mixed with a Midwestern twang, combined with the slur of old age and a lot of medication, causing him to be nearly unintelligible. He points at a plastic gallon milk jug filled with a clear liquid on the night table beside him and says that he has to drink all of it for a procedure he’s having tomorrow. I have to say “what?” three times before I can decipher the word “procedure.”
     I lie down on my bed and Sidney lies down on his. We both lie there for a long moment in silence. Suddenly, Sidney proclaims, “Oh, bloody hell!” and shits all over the bed. He unsteadily stands up heading for the bathroom, then manages to shit all over the floor and the wall along the way, then he proceeds to crap all over every surface in the bathroom.
     Immediately the pungent aroma is overwhelming. I begin to gag and think I’m going to vomit. I stagger out of the room and up to the nurse’s station. I explain the situation and ask if there isn’t somewhere else I might sleep? They suggest the Quiet Room, which is opened for me.
     The Quiet Room is where they put patients who have completely lost control for one reason or another. It’s a 12-by-12 white room, with a mattress on the floor, a bathroom, but has no door handles inside. Once the two doors are shut and locked there’s no way to even attempt to get out. They don’t shut either door all the way since I’m not locked in, so I wearily lie down on the mattress. And at least it doesn’t stink of shit.

     I awaken in the Quiet Room to an announcement on the PA that says, “Vitals are being taken in the day room.” I get up wearing my two hospital gowns and green “footies,” which are socks with rubber treads on the bottom, and head up the hall. A few patients wander to and fro as mental health techs and nurses move up and down the halls attending their duties, rolling squeaky blood pressure machines and carts full of pills.
     A late-fifties, early-sixties man in a wheelchair with two twisted up arms, bent hands (clutching a bible), one useless leg beneath him and pulling himself along with the heel of his one usable foot, approaches me, finally backing me into a corner. His name is John and he explains in great detail, “I fell off my two-wheeler when I was four. Broke my neck. I had fourteen operations. I have twelve degrees from OCC, and I’ll now name them all: algebra, astrophysics, astronomy . . . ”
     I went to Oakland Community College many years ago and I’m pretty sure they only offer a two-year Associate’s Degree. I listen to John’s whole story, but from there on out I cut a wide swath around him and make damn sure to never let him corner me again.
     There’s a thin, unattractive white gal named Maria, who doesn’t speak and is so comatose that her blood pressure is 30/30; so low that it literally broke the machine. It made an unidentifiable beep that surprised the techs, then completely quit working.

      And then there’s Helen, a heavyset black woman in her forties, in a hospital gown (most folks wear their own shorts or sweats), with no front teeth, who is constantly saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Did I offend you? I didn’t mean to offend you.”
     “No, you didn’t offend me.”
     “I love you. Don’t forget, I love you. Did I offend you?”
     “No. You’re fine.”
     “I’m sorry” is pronounced “I’m thorry” due to her lack of front teeth.
     And there is Judy, white, forties, black hair, dressed in black pants and a pink shirt, who has an eight-inch sole on one of her shoes, a four-inch sole on the other shoe, plus a brace on that leg, who walks with a single aluminum crutch that makes a hollow clicking noise every time it comes down, like there’s a screw loose inside. When Judy walks the clicking of the crutch combined with her two uneven, clomping steps sounds sort of like a ping-pong match—clunk-clunk-click, clunk-clunk-click. Judy never stops circumnavigating the ward, so there is an endlessly approaching and receding ping-pong match passing by.
     Or Christine, who’s maybe twenty-seven, white, has no chin, a ridiculously huge overbite, doesn’t talk right, who looks stupid, but very possibly isn’t. She has no doubt always been treated like she’s an idiot because that’s how she looks and sounds. Tough luck, Christine. If I looked like her I’d definitely take drugs, no question. Lots of them.
     Or Ray with an absurd under-bite, who, just like Christine, appears moronic and speaks oddly, but isn’t necessarily nuts. But goddamn he sure looks nuts.
     Or Gina, a black chick back, maybe 35 years old, with startling blue eyes, floating around on the “Thorazine shuffle,” with the telltale white crud on her lips. She’s on a walker, not from injury, but from too many drugs. Her blues eyes are actually blue contacts that make her look like a zombie and were a surprise gift from her boyfriend that she clearly does not appreciate or think is funny.

     There’s some free time after breakfast, so I make a circuit of the whole ward, as do many other patients. Walking around the ward is the only exercise you can possibly get here. I am informed told that seventeen circuits make a mile. It’s extremely air conditioned and drafty up my hospital gowns. Linoleum floors, painted cinder block walls, patient’s rooms one next to the other, the nurse’s station filled with nurses and techs, the front desk attended by two people, the locked door leading to the elevator, a telephone on the wall, more patient’s rooms, the other side of the nurse’s station, then the day room. That’s it. My whole world for the time being. But for how long? Ah, that is the question.
     And there’s Gregory, mid-forties, white, always sporting a silly smile, who often hangs with Helen, and who, if you should mistakenly end up speaking with him, truly makes no sense at all, which is no doubt why he can hang with Helen, who never makes any sense, either. The folks on the 6th floor who make no sense are a big group, maybe 25-30%.

     I retreat to my room, which still plainly stinks of shit. The cleaning people have managed to smear it all around without actually cleaning it. Sidney is off having his procedure.

     Sidney returns and we talk. He’s been married for sixty-six years to a woman who finally called 911 and had him taken away to the mental hospital because he didn’t do anything anymore except watch TV, then take aimless walks through the neighborhood in the middle of the night. Sidney is in a constant state of befuddlement, stutters a lot and can rarely get to his point, if he ever had one.
     We are informed that a group therapy session is about to commence in the day room. Actually, it was in the third of the day room that can be separated by a portable wall, which it presently is. There is also a TV with DVD and VHS players built into it right there. Except the play button is missing. The only way to make the VHS tape play is to push it in and if the record tab is removed it automatically starts to play. Nobody can figure this out, so I keep demonstrating. Plus, there are no DVDs, and only four VHS tapes: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; Elvis in Las Vegas; Patch Adams, which I grow to actively hate; and Mystery, Alaska, with Russell Crowe that’s perfectly all right, in a deathly run-of-the-mill sort of way. After about a half hour of the movie, though, the nuts become too restless—bickering, loudly talking to themselves, clipping their nails, wheezing—finally causes me to bail back to the stinky sanctuary of my room with Sidney, and my blessed book. I’m reading Erik Larson’s Thunderstuck, a solid, exciting, non-fiction tale that considers the at-best vague connection between Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, and Dr. Hawley Crippen, wife murderer of the same time period. It’s a stretch connecting them, but they’re both fascinating tales.
     But I digress. A group therapy session is called with a social worker named Carol who is tall, white, early sixties, pushy, obnoxious and obstinately set in her ways. She is a retired, but fills in on weekends. Carol runs a contentious group session, riddled with endless walkouts and constant interruptions, that finally devolves into utter mayhem and her just calling the whole thing off. It should be noted that this is ‘B’ group, the more cognizant of the two groups. ‘A’ group colors with crayons during group therapy. Carol asks me what I’m planning to do after I get out? I reply as honestly as I can, “Get drunk.” Carol immediately grows angry, hissing, “That’s stinking thinking. Stinking thinking.” I say, “If the truth is stinking thinking, then so be it.” A tall, thin kid in his early twenties named Bobby, with white crusty Thorazine lips, drowsily slurs, “Aren’t drugs drugs? What’s the difference between pot, alcohol, opiates, or anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds? They’re all drugs.” Carol gets angry yet again, stating definitively, “They’re apples and oranges! Apples and Oranges!”
     I raise my hand. “Aren’t apples and oranges both fruit?”
     Chaos erupts signaling the meeting is over.

     A short, stout Indian man of about fifty, wearing an ugly, ill-fitting suit and an even uglier tie, waves me over. He has a thick Indian accent, just like Apu in The Simpsons.
“My name is Dr. Kakar and I will be your psychiatrist here. How are you feeling?”
     “Fine,” I say. “When do I get out?”
     “Oh, that won’t be for a little while yet, we need to stabilize your condition and get your meds in order. Do you feel suicidal?”
     “No.”
     “Homicidal?”
     “No.”
     “That’s fine, I’ll see you tomorrow,” then moves on to another patient. That’s it? My whole examination? When am I getting out? “Not for a little while yet?” What does it mean? The open-endedness of this sentence fills me with dread. Maybe I’m never getting out.

     I walk many circuits with Kate, a cute, slim girl of twenty-three with big gorgeous green eyes. Sadly, though, she picks at her face all the time causing bloody red sores. She’s completely certain that God talks to her on her cell phone, that she’s presently in hell, that the exit signs in fact say, “Hell,” and that smoke wafts out from beneath all the doors. Kate spends two entire nights in leather restraints screaming at the top of her lungs, “Brian Schloss!!! Help me!!! Brian Schloss!!! Dear god help me!!!” She somehow gets loose of the restraints and it takes eight security guards and four mental health techs to finally bring her down. Along the way she bites a tech and a guard hard enough to put them both into emergency.

     The first few days are blurry not only from the booze and the pills I had taken of my own accord, but by the meds they’re now giving to me. Nurses with COWS (computers on wheels) constantly travel up and down the hallways feeding the patients little clear plastic cups full of pills, which everyone for the most part just takes without question. The nurses are always perfectly happy to explain what any of the medications are, and you’re always allowed to refuse to take anything you don’t want, although it will be noted and reported back to the doctor. I’m given a drug called Serax (Oxazepam 15 mg) and it’s knocking me for a loop. I feel half awake and dopey. It’s meant to ease me off the alcohol, and I guess it does that by eliminating my senses.

     There are two obesely fat white men, Charles and Roger, both with thousand-yard stares and their tongues dangling out, who frequently don’t make it to meals and rarely speak in community settings. Charles has the biggest most disgusting gut I’ve ever seen my life. It looks like he’s swallowed a whole cow. And for no reason that I know of, Roger hates me.
     A thin ugly woman with bad teeth named Eileen who wears Ugg boots, who somehow looks just like a sea hag, can’t stand the sight of me, either. She stares at me with daggers in her eyes. In line for a meal I impatiently tap my fingers on the wall. I look up to find her glaring at me with insane dripping hatred.
     “Would you like me to stop that?” I ask.
     “I’ll cut off your fingers.
     “OK, then I’ll stop.”

     Mark is a forty-eight-year-old unemployed construction supervisor with whistling dentures and a highly silly sense of humor, just like me. He ingested one hundred and twenty Xanax and washed them down with a bottle of Absolut vodka. Ah, a fellow Absolut drinker. Paisan. Unfortunately, he’d gotten no further than I had with forty Ambien and forty Xanax. Insufficient pills. Suicide with pills, it turns out again and again, is a difficult proposition. Perhaps 25% of the population of 6 East is comprised of the failed suicides, mostly with insufficient pills and booze. There’s also a guy who called his mother, waited just the right amount of time, then tried to hang himself, but his mom saved him (he drank fourteen pints of Popov in a weekend), and a girl who ineptly cut her wrists, another far-less-than-certain method of self-destruction.
     Mark and I have a lot of laughs together. He’s not nuts by any means; just a plain old drunk like me. So we both got too smashed and ate a few too many pills? Big fucking deal. So what? As Mark and I hang out, laugh and tell tales of past drunkenness and debauchery, I come to realize that no matter what I may subsequently say to anyone: doctor, nurse, tech, social worker, family member or friend, I have absolutely no intention of quitting drinking.
     Then in comes Rob, a forty-eight-year-old, slim, athletic, white yuppie business man with short gray hair who acted like such an arrogant prick that I immediately hated him. In front of his wife of twenty-three years, Rob had drunkenly snapped his favorite $250 graphite tennis racket over his own shin, injuring himself, then threw his dresser out the bedroom window where it smashed on the driveway (“You can’t imagine how fulfilling that was”). He then got in his BMW and ran over the dresser several times for good measure. Rob was not crazy either, nor was he even a drunk. He’d just gotten drunk, acted crazy and scared his wife. And now he’s here. When he was given the Voluntary and Involuntary papers upon his admission he impatiently pushed them on the floor and said, “Fuck you.” Anthony, the big, unsmiling orderly, stood up behind Rob, glared down at him and said, “Pick that up.” Rob promptly picked up the paper and signed it. Several days later, hoping to make amends, Rob says to Anthony, “Sorry I was such a pain in the ass when I got here.” Anthony glances up at Rob with utter disdain and says, “I’ve seen a thousand of you.”
     Rob, Mark and I all buddy up, hang out, eat together, and start playing poker in the evenings. Let it be known that I’m the worst poker player of all time, often forgetting which form of poker we’re playing. There is a box of chips in with the games but, for some unknown reason, they won’t let us use them. We hypothesize about how one might kill themselves with poker chips, like possibly shoving all of them up your ass.
     Then Big Rob shows up. Big Rob is a big man, 6’3”, 280, mostly fat but still some muscle hiding there, who sports a big bad attitude. He didn’t speak at all for the first two days he was in, dressed in hospital gowns, staring at the ceiling and nervously shaking one big beefy leg. There are thick ugly scars all over both of his legs. Mark, Rob and I all assume that Big Rob will probably kill us in our sleep.
     On Big Rob’s third night he comes over to the table where we’re playing poker and asks, “Can I play?”
     We say, “Sure.”
     He sits down, takes the cards, starts shuffling, suddenly transforming into a professional card dealer, “Two up, three down, maybe a straight,” “Another diamond, possibly a flush,” and it turns out Big Rob is really smart, with a thunderously resonant basso profundo voice, a hair-trigger temper, and far more experience in the world than all three of us white boys put together. Big Rob has spent ten years in the state penitentiary, read a lot of books, including many law books, and really knows his shit. When asked if he’d ever had any trouble inside, he replies, “I had trouble. Everybody has trouble. You just deal with it. Nobody messed with my shit, I can tell you that much.” We all believe him, too. Big Rob is a junkie who has been completely clean and running a three-quarter house in Florida for the past seven years. Two months earlier his mother was killed by a tornado in Louisiana. When he heard that his mom was dead (“She was my best friend,” he laments), he got on a Greyhound bus heading north, getting high at every stop. Since he’s originally from Detroit, when the bus got to Pontiac, Big Rob got off and checked himself in here at St. Joe’s. He keeps saying loudly, “I’m not ready to forgive.”
     I’m only getting two or three hours of sleep a night, even though I get two Ambien before bed. They knock me out but I’m up 2-3 hours later, always unable to get back to sleep. I take my book to the seats near the nurse’s station, the only place with lights on, and read all night. Nothing is mandatory. You can skip anything you’d like, but then you’re not going with the program and not being compliant. Notes are constantly being taken about everybody by all the techs and social workers all the time. And of course you never knew when you were getting out.
     “Will I be getting out soon, Dr. Kakar?”
     “Oh, no, we have to see how these new medications are working, which could take several days. Your blood pressure is very high. Just be patient” and he smiles and walks away.

     I finished Thunderstuck, then proceeded directly into Candace Millard’s River of Doubt, an absolutely fascinating account of Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition into uncharted territory in the Amazon jungle in 1913, which came very close to killing him, and in fact did kill a couple of other people. It was a trip of madness, much like I’m on, only I don’t have to deal with bugs and snakes.
     I stake out a spot at a round table near a window in the room adjacent to the Day Room, on the other side of the movable wall. I shut the wall, then hide in the corner at my spot reading for as much of the day as possible.
     It’s 6:30 AM, still dark, and I find a woman already seated at my table, although thankfully across from my seat. On the table in front of her is a golf ball-sized mound of black nappy hair. Katherine is perhaps forty, black, wears a head scarf, has an enormous ass causing her to waddle, is always talking to herself , and hauls around an unwieldy stack of Vogues, Bizarres and folded up Avon catalogs, plus a well-worn, highly book-marked bible. She speaks in whispers, constantly picking at the edges of her hair, pulling out little hunks, then carefully placing them in the ever growing pile before her.
     Out of sheer boredom and insufficient light to read, I begin to just talk at her for lack of anything better to do, mentioning that my Director’s Guild pension will soon be kicking in and won’t that be an excellent thing. Katherine says, “I’m in the Writer’s Guild.”
     “Really?” I ask, legitimately interested, “how so?”
     Katherine says, “I wrote a book about my life that was made into a movie.”
     “What was it called?”
     She appears perplexed. “I can’t remember.”
     “The book or the movie?”
     “Either one.”
     “Huh.”
     She says, “I’ve had other things made into movies, too. I was a top model for years. I traveled the world with bodyguards. I’ve been to every major city in the world.” All the while picking out globs of her hair and stacking them in the pile. “I modeled for these catalogs,” she says, indicating the folded up Avon catalogs.
     “Oh, really?” I say. “You’re in there?”
     “Yes.” She then literally spends fifteen minutes going through each of the catalogs, back and forth, back and forth, finally settling on a photograph of a slim gorgeous Asian girl that is absolutely not her. Ever.
     Katherine continues, “I was the stand-in for Little Orphan Annie on Broadway.” I cannot help but think, “They had a black stand-in for the very white Andrea McCardle?” This would have to be thirty years ago, was she even the right age then? And why was I trying to make sense of anything she says? She’s obviously completely nuts.
     And then it hits me—oh, that’s right, I’m in a mental hospital. I must be nuts, too, otherwise why would I be here?

     Sidney thankfully gets moved out of my room, although the lingering scent of shit remains. I have no roommate for a few days, which is great, but I still can’t sleep.
     Or defecate, for that matter. Each day I try to shit and each day I fail, sometimes trying so hard that I leave little dried up gumball-sized turds that cause my hemorrhoids to bleed.
     Every day becomes more unreal and less believable—I’m still fucking here? This can’t be true. Every single time I open my eyes from a doze, or look up from reading, I think, “I can’t believe I’m still here,” and the bottom drops out of my guts yet again. I’m locked in a loony-bin. A nuthouse. I’m nuts! They wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of locking me in here unless I really was nuts. Whatever the hell your story is, you’re here, the door’s locked, and you can’t get out no matter what you say or do.

     “Good morning, Dr. Kakar,” I proclaim happily with a smile on my face.
     “Good morning, Joshua. How do you feel today?”
     “I feel very good.”
     The doctor nods, writing something next to my name on the patient list, “Ah, that’s manic behavior. I’ll put you on Lamictal. That will even out these manic episodes.”
     My smile fades. “I’m too happy?”
     “Let’s see how the Lamictal works, and that will certainly take a few extra days,” and he’s off to his next patient, each of us democratically receiving 60-120 seconds of specific attention.
     My response is one more hopeless, “Fuck. A few extra days? I’m never getting out of here.”

     Here are all the drugs they have me on:
     Prolixin
     Cardura
     Prozak
     Lamictil
     Ambien
     Lisinopril
     Clonidine
     Wellbutrin
     Xanax
     Atavan
     Serax
     Benadryl

     I’ve already been here for five, maybe six days. There’s at least one other day lost in the ER. And absolutely no sign of getting out. I feel bereft of all hope.
     I befriend Anthony, a patient with what appears to be an ice cream scoop worth of his forehead removed, which is particularly alarming because he’s a black guy with a bald head, and the area that’s scooped away is bright pink, moist-looking, and the size of a pack of cigarettes. This Anthony is a friendly, goofy, thirty-five-year-old guy who lived for years in Hollywood, CA, as have I, and I knew right where he used to live, down near Western and Hollywood, a totally shitty neighborhood, and just a few blocks from my first apartment thirty-five years earlier. He told me how he’d rent out his apartment every day for an hour at a time to fourteen- to eighteen-year-old hookers so they could clean up and change. “And I never even got a blowjob. That’s why they’d come there. They trusted me.” Anthony has been having serious closed-head injuries every couple of years since he was three. His first closed-head injury, “back when everything in a car was made of metal,” was when his mother slammed on the brakes and Anthony’s head smashed into the metal ashtray. He generally makes about 70% sense, has a funny smile, and a wonderful sense of humor. He laughs uproariously. Dr. Kakar walks by attired in a striped suit coat with a counter-striped tie, and Anthony asks, “Did you dress yourself this morning?” Dr. Kakar stops in his tracks, smiles and says, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
     But everybody gets out sooner or later, as crazy as they may be. You come to realize that this isn’t a perpetual care facility. The average stay seems to be about two weeks, but who knows? Apparently, you can be here for as long as two or three months.
     Like this ugly white bitch named Vanessa, in her fifties, who looks pregnant but isn’t, always wears dirty pink furry slippers and a ratty housecoat, has a disconcertingly loud voice, an offensively aggressive attitude, and constantly hollers at everyone, “You don’t even know me!” She’s apparently already been here for a month. She tells Dr. Kakar first thing every single morning, day after day, “Go fuck yourself!” and every morning I can’t help but think, “That’s probably not the best way of getting out of here.” Vanessa spends two entire nights screaming at the top of her lungs, keeping everybody up all night. Every couple of hours techs go in and give her a shot that takes about thirty minutes to quiet her down for about an hour, then she starts right back up again. As the techs go by for the third or fourth time I yell, “Give her a thousand milligrams of Shut-The-Fuck-Up!

     There are no female doctors and no American doctors. It is entirely Indians, and one Asian.

     We have an imbroglio in the lunch room during evening snack. Vanessa is bellowing in an her usual excruciatingly loud voice, just going on and on about some horseshit, and since I was unfortunately seated right next to her, I finally say as calmly as possible, “Could you please hold it down?” Vanessa goes fucking bonkers ballistic, yelling at the top of her lungs, “You don’t tell me what to do!!! You don’t even know me!!!
     A slim, tall, very animated (meaning gay), black kid of maybe twenty-seven, who is a dancer, and is being discharged tomorrow, suddenly looks up at Vanessa and yells, “Shut the fuck up!” And oddly, there are no techs in the room supervising us.
     Though it doesn’t seem possible, Vanessa goes even crazier and gets even louder, rising to her feet, waving her arms and shrieking. The black kid, who’s drinking a plastic cup of lemonade, stands up, marches right up to Vanessa and sticks his face directly into hers. It now a shouting match and it seems apparent that he’s about to throw his cup of lemonade in her face. Then everybody starts yelling, including me, “Don’t do it, man. You’re getting out tomorrow. You don’t want to fuck that up.”
     Then this little early-twenties, bulimic ballerina girl, Marissa, begins shouting, “Suck my dick! You can just suck my dick!” which I find rather incongruous. Then general pandemonium breaks out until a tech arrives, Vanessa splits, and everything quiets down. Will, a former high school principal who is really nice but shakes uncontrollably, sums it up with, “Well, for two minutes I wasn’t bored.”

     I just finished Papa Hemingway by A. E. Hotchner, which was either exactly the right book to have read in the mental hospital, or entirely the wrong book. At the very end of his life, Hemingway, nearly blind, unable to write, confessed to Hotchner, “If I can’t exist on my own terms, then existence is impossible. Do you understand? That is how I’ve lived, and that is how I must live – or not live.” Very soon thereafter he blew his brains out with a shotgun.

     This morning Dr. Kakar glanes up from his clipboard, sees me, smiles and says, “I Googled you. Very impressive.” I don’t even bother asking when I’m getting out. I’m sure he’ll let me know.

     There are two boards mounted on the wall of every room that are headed by “Welcome/Recepcion,” followed by a chart numbered 0-10, corresponding at zero to a simple cartoon of a yellow, cross-eyed, smiling face, labeled, “No pain/Ningun dolor”; then a half-red face, also cross-eyed, with a straight line for a mouth, “Mild pain/Dolor leve”; then a somewhat unhappy face, with droopy eyelids, “Moderate pain/Dolor mederado”; a very unhappy face, “Severe pain/Dolor fuerte”; then a bright red unhappy face with tears or sweat trickling down and an open mouth depicted as an O, “Worst pain imaginable/Dolor muy fuerte”; followed by an empty box marked, “Goal/Objectivo.” Apparently, you are supposed to mark on the board your daily state of pain and goal/objective, which I would happily do, were I allowed to have a marker, or Q-tips or a belt. To keep my pants up I use hospital wristbands looped through the belt-loops and pulled tight.

     Oh, and let’s not forget about Carrie, who, if she’s not actually a zombie, so resembles one that she may as well be. She’s in her twenties, has deep dark sunken eyes set in a deathly pale face and is always dressed in a long white nightgown. She has seriously scared the shit out of me three times by sneaking up behind me while I’m on the phone, then madly attempting to grab the receiver out of my hand. She just walked by holding a pen in her clenched fist out in front of her just like a knife ready to be plunged into someone. I went up to her and gently took it away (and now I have a pen). Carrie regularly wanders into other people’s rooms during the night, scaring the bejesus out of each and every one of them, so now they have an all-night watch on her.

     They make me the president of the daily community meeting. This is because Bobby, the tall, thin, stuff-nosed kid, covered with nicotine patches, is so overly-medicated that he can’t get up. Also, nobody else wants to do it. I read the daily selection from the AA book as though I were Captain Kirk. Afterward, anyone who wants to speak, can. It goes all the way around with each of us stating our problems and possible “support systems,” when this really big black dude named Rashun raises his hand and says that he has one final point to make. The social worker asks, “What is it?” Rashun replies, dead serious, “I want all of you to stay out of my dreams, do you hear me? Just stay out of my dreams!”

     I thought that Rob, the yuppie who broke the tennis racket over his leg (and continues to limp), was such an arrogant prick when he first got here, but now I love him. He makes me laugh like hell. He made me laugh so hard that I literally started crying and had to lie down.

     I’ve got an incredibly shitty taste in my mouth and I desperately need to floss. Of course, they won’t let us have dental floss because we might hang ourselves. I know I certainly would at this point.

     I see Dr. Kakar and ask brightly, “How about today?”
     He says, “How about Monday?”
     It’s Friday. OK. That’ll make twelve days. Only average.

     Two new guys, both named Dave, arrive. One Dave is a thin, tall, white, twenty-three-year-old with a big nose who is a totally snotty asshole who keeps saying, “I’ll be out of here tonight! Nobody keeps me locked in! You just watch, I won’t be here in the morning!” Oh, yeah? OK, we’ll all watch. Good luck, asshole. Nobody gets out in less than a week, ever. The other Dave is my new roommate. He’s forty-eight and looks just like George Clooney, if you dropped a safe on his head. He’s soft-spoken, friendly, and is ten times the drunk I’ll ever be. He also drinks Absolut, by the way. They found him passed out in the driver’s seat of his car in Lapeer with a cigarette burning between his fingers. He’d never been to Lapeer before. His blood-alcohol level was .27. When Dave was twenty-one he drunkenly pulled his ’71 Challenger into a Clark gas station and took out both gas pumps. He drove away as fast as he could, he tells me, with one of the gas pumps stuck under his car.
     I say, “That must’ve fucked your car up.”
     “Uh, yeah it did.”
     Dave’s a particularly nice guy and I already like him a lot. He and his family are seriously discussing electro-shock therapy, now called electroconvulsive therapy (which sounds worse in my mind), and he’s absolutely not crazy; just a completely addicted drunk. It seems like a misuse of the treatment to me. In any case, I sure hope he doesn’t snore.

     Dave and I spend many hours shooting the shit, exchanging tales of drunken escapades. Dave’s stories are way better and far more exotic than mine (not to mention far more numerous) since he spent four years in the navy, mainly stationed aboard the aircraft carrier, USS America. Dave got utterly smashed in every port city in the world, frequently following it up by getting into trouble with the shore patrol or the local cops. He tells me stories about being aboard the aircraft carrier where he was perpetually on KP duty for being a drunk fuck up. They’d throw all the garbage off the fantail, meaning the very ass-end of the ship. It was one hundred feet down to the water and everything went over: food, paper, plastic, metal, tools, floor buffers (of which they went through many, sailors cleaning miles of linoleum hallways every day), metal lathes, everything. And since there was so much discarded food in the water there were always a school of huge sharks following them. Dave said that when they threw heavy shit overboard, like the broken floor buffers that weighed seventy-five pounds, they’d aim for the big sharks. He said that if you could actually hit one, which was difficult, “They’d fold right in half.”

     There’s a girl here—in her twenties? Thirties? Forties? Who knows?—who shockingly and disconcertingly resembles ET. She is shaped like a pear, has short stubby legs, but unlike ET, she has no neck at all (although, perhaps if she’s startled, her head will rise up). I’ve never heard her speak, have no idea what her name is, no clue if she’s crazy or not, but how could she not be? She’s one of God’s cruel jokes.

     As I sit up all night I come to understand the mental health system of America, which is probably pretty much the same in most every civilized country in the world, in one form or another. Fifteen percent of the human population has some form of mental illness. Some figure out how to manage it, some don’t, new ones are born every day, and the overall number stays uniformly the same. So what do you do with them? Everywhere humans are found a system must be in place to deal with the crazy fifteen percent, of which I am now officially included. Once that door shuts behind you and locks, you’re not part of the general population anymore; you’ve now officially joined the ranks of the mentally ill.
     Drinking too much booze and taking pills doesn’t seem like mental illness to me – just a lousy night – however in ours Judeo-Christian society, it is. The wonderful irony is that this Judeo-Christian morality is being imposed upon me by a Hindu. It’s Dr. Kakar’s job to make me believe that by attempting suicide I have committed a both a crime and a sin. I don’t believe it for a second, but at this point I’m happy to tell anybody anything to just get out.

     We are all informed early on in group therapy that seven out of ten of us will end up back in the nuthouse, two will die, and one will get their shit together. So, given the odds of nine to one, there legitimately isn’t all that much hope. There’s no changing the numbers. There will always be a crowd in the nuthouse, and this is the system we have for dealing with them—on a short-term basis. On a long-term basis there’s nothing. There’s no fixing anything; there’s just managing the multitudes. I’m no more than a standard component in an unchanging, never-ending cycle. I’m the Disappointed/Suicidal Drunk, and there will always be a bunch of me in every nuthouse everywhere.
     So now I’ll go home, get drunk, and put off deciding whether I’m one of the seven who return to the nuthouse, the two who die, or the one who prevails. Presently, I don’t feel like the guy who prevails, and I really don’t want to return to this place, which then, I guess, makes me one of the dead.

 

 

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