bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter Eight

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Last week: Holt swallowed a hell of a lot of anger. This week, he may have to swallow more.

Chapter 8

            Somewhere in the blur, two or three weeks later, I got a package from Laura. It was my glasses. They were in one piece. Some of my clothes from my hotel room were there too. There was no note or anything. Maybe I’d saved her from me.
            Unfortunately, hospitalization wasn’t exactly opening my world to a brand new day. By the time I got dandruff shampoo I’d clawed my scalp all to hell. And I needed nail clippers.
It was a metaphor for life. There was always one more thing. When you got that thing, everything was going to be okay. Except then you’d need that next thing, and you were never really done. Even the people who’ve got it made, never completely make it.
A friend of mine, who’s a lot healthier than me, once told me, “Everything’s going to be okay. It’s not only going to be okay, it already is.” In other words, life is a process. For guys like him it’s a matter of faith. The clinically depressed aren’t real big on faith.
            I’m not really sure why, but the nail clipper incident was the worst of it. I can’t stand having long nails, and after a three week bender and well into two weeks of my second hospital, I was walking around looking like Dracula’s manicurist. I asked the staff for nail clippers and gave them three days to say, “I’ll see what I can do about that.”
            The night before had been one of the worst yet.
I’d been in my room, staring off into space with that thousand-mile-stare you always hear about guys in prison camps getting. I’d hit bottom. And realized I’d learned to live there, with no self worth, few brains, and no small amount of advantages. Somewhere along the line fate had provided me with a chance for some sort of respectable life. A possible future. A chance to love. A vast potential. Hope.
            And rather than just use what was given me, I had decided that every possible option left was wrong. Maybe after just one drink, the one I could handle since I obviously couldn’t handle anything else…
I had been left with just enough desperation, just enough depression, just enough pain, that I could fuck it up just one more time.
            And I fucked it up one more time.
            And that was the reason I was at Clear Rock.
            So I could see what it was like to think I was the same, when I wasn’t. See what it was like to think I wasn’t stupid, when I was. I remembered Laura saying one other time when I’d been locked up on a ward, “God, that’s so awful. I’m so sorry. But it’s so nice to hear your voice speak clearly instead of blabbering and making no sense and slurring all your speech.” At the time I hadn’t thought my speech was slurred at all.
            While all that was racing through my head, I was interrupted by Jack.
“Oh, hey, sorry to bother you man, but am I in the right room?” Great, he had lost his fucking mind. “Yeah, I must be. I can see this is where I hang my hat,” he said, eyes squinting, scratching at marks on the wall as if they were coat hooks.
            It struck me then who Jack reminded me of. A guy I’d known back in the real world, back in the old neighborhood. A fast-talking, speed-freak, salesman type named Tommy Patrick. Tommy had been one of those quick witted, sarcastic guys with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He was as hard on himself as anybody else, but he did not suffer fools. Tommy was the only guy I’d ever known that could lacerate you verbally. And he wasn’t somebody you wanted to get into a fight with either. He was sharp and funny as hell.
            Only now it was twelve years later. And the timing was gone. And what was once a dark sense of humor was laced with the same venom, but stained by loss; because the speech was slurred without drink, and the sentences fell into non-sequitur. The jokes seemed funny, with a wink and a slightly sideways turned smile, but the subject matter didn’t quite fit the subject and the guy talking was lost.
            I led Jack back to the door of his room.
            “Hey man, thanks,” he said, shuffling in and out of the hallway. “You wanna step outside and have a cigarette?”
            He didn’t even realize he was locked in.
            “Hey, watch yourself.” I almost called him Tommy. “You’re a little whacked right now.”
            “Thanks… Yeah, I noticed a few people looking at me funny. Like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’” He cocked his head sideways. “But thanks again for that on the bus today man, ‘cause that’s what I’d expect a friend to do for me, like, ‘Hey, ya got something in your teeth.’” He made a toothpick motion with his pinky, and walked back down the hall, away from, and oblivious to, the room that he’d been looking for to begin with.
            This afternoon he had been fine, and now it was like he had Alzheimer’s or something. He literally didn’t know where he was or where he was going. And I knew for a fact that he sure as hell hadn’t been on a bus that afternoon.
            I felt blank. This could be me. It could already be me, and I just don’t know it yet.
            This could be what I’ve become.
            And Jack may never come back to become Tommy Patrick again. And I hoped if he didn’t, that I wouldn’t have to follow him.
            And I had to fuck up one last time so I could learn this, and pray it hadn’t already happened, and worry about it. And actually thank somebody’s God, because there was a chance it could be, or could not.
            I still didn’t sleep at all that night, even with the Ativan. So—big surprise—I was sick and tired. Physically, emotionally and hopelessly tired. Since my fingertips hurt from my nails splitting open I couldn’t ignore them anymore. I decided to ask about the clippers first thing that morning when the nurses got in.
The nurse turned out to be young and kind of cute. Too cute and too young to be working here—she was defenseless.
“Excuse me. I don’t mean to be a bother, but are you really sure you don’t have any nail clippers at all?” I asked.
            “I’m sure,” she out-and-out lied. She was obviously much too busy with other things to deal with my problem, and rifled through the papers on her desk to show me so. “We’ve never had nail clippers here.”
Never mind what the other nurses had been telling me for three days. At least they had had the courtesy to attempt to look like they were trying to find some. She had made the mistake of answering without even pretending to look.
            “How can you honestly, with any foresight at all, not have, or have ever had—Ever!—nail clippers for twenty-two patients in a so-called medical facility?”
            “We don’t keep them because they can endanger the patients,” she answered, “and most of our patients aren’t here that long.”
            I think that’s when my head exploded.
            Nobody has ever needed to trim their fingernails in the history of the facility? People walk through that front door, and immediately all dead protein just ceases to sprout from their bodies? I suppose that you have hospitalized here, the most well-manicured group of alcoholic, addict, homeless, crazy people in the entire western world! And lord knows, you wouldn’t want to endanger the patients with a pair of those gruesomely horrible “Jaws of Death,” as they’re called in the psychiatric trade. Yes, you may as well hand the patient a loaded gun, because those war-mongers over at Maybelline have just been waiting for some psycho-terrorist to smuggle a pair of nail clippers into a public place and threaten to trim everybody to death from the fingers down in standard millimeter increments!
            Never mind that I see guys in here walking around looking like they tried to shave with a machete because they just cut off two-years of beard with a Bic razor that could scar its way through a concrete bunker! Boy, are they lucky they couldn’t get their hands on a nail trimmer! Because this whole ward would just be one big bucket of blood, now wouldn’t it?
And ‘Nobody’s ever been here that long…?’ There’s a whole unit out there that treats this place like it’s their summer home! You got a couple of patients in here that were lost with the Jamestown colony! They’re just too stupid and crazy to know they’re supposed to be dead already!
            “Please, do me a favor, and at least pretend to look,” I said. I wanted to punch her. I wanted to hurt, kill and maim.
            My old hate for the world was back.
I forced myself to turn around and go back to my room.
            This is the way it always was—since I was a kid—depression had driven me through tears and fury.
            The professionals say depression is anger turned inwards. You know why we turn it inward?
To keep from killing you.
            Depression makes one yearn for human contact, but fear that same connection because we know we’ll never come out of it smiling like other people. It’s about trust—and we don’t trust you. We know nobody could ever feel as bad as we do, and then we realize we’re not even that good, and there’s somebody else out there that’s better at feeling worse.
            And when we hear you laughing in the street, we remember a time when we felt like that. And we hate you. We silently pray for the day this pain hits you. And the only thing that relieves us in that moment is that when it does, we’ll get to see the surprise on your face. And when the sheep finally look up, mouth open with the shock of death—we’ll be smiling, because we knew it all along.
            I didn’t bother with coffee that morning.
I went back to bed to lie down because I knew “Here at Clear Rock Ranch, our patients’ rest is important.” I wasn’t even going to try to make the useless groups. I was beaten.
            I pulled the sheets up over my head and was pretty sure I was about to cry, when I heard the toilet flush.
            I looked up and the bathroom door was open. Wes was there staring down into the bowl. I was expecting the worst, and got weirder.
Wes’s hair was wet and dripping on the floor. He was shirtless and looking down into the toilet like he was mad at it. He pulled the lever to flush it again, and kept staring the toilet down
            No, it didn’t overflow. Instead, while I could still hear the water whooshing around in the bowl, Wes placed both feet far apart, bent one knee, and leaned over the toilet at an almost impossible angle. Then, bracing himself with the palms of his hands on the edge of the bowl—he thrust his head into the toilet.
            Before I could pull my jaw off the ground, Wes was back up and shaking the water out of his hair like he’d taken a punch to the head and was trying to unscramble his brain. His expression got even angrier. He feinted with both hands in the air like a boxer. Then he flushed the toilet and stuck his head in again.
I’m lying there contemplating suicide, and my roommate’s giving himself swirlies. He’s having a battle of wits with the toilet—and losing.
            This was the way he washed his hair? Maybe.
            I sat there staring, stunned. Blank. How long had he been doing this? And how stupid was that question? Like there was a certain amount of time that would be OK?
            He couldn’t be doing this. Obviously, I had lost my mind and was hallucinating again. I got up to go tell the staff, and realized that if I told them they might not believe me. I didn’t believe me. I stumbled through the door and down the hall. This is the point in a cartoon when the character starts running a finger up and down over his lips and blabbering “beedeebeedeebeedeebeedeebeedee be-b-b-b-b…” and little birds and stars start circling around his head.
I sat down in the rocking chair by the nurse’s station. Candy, the nurse, or whatever-the-hell-her-name-was, came over to me and said, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” or something like that. I didn’t get any of it.
            “I want to sign my Five Day,” I said.
            The Five Day is short for Five Day Release Form, which they had told me about when I’d signed in. If at any time the patient feels that they are not being treated properly, they can sign a five day release form. They will be restricted inside with the footie crowd for five days—but if their doctors agree that they are not a danger to themselves or others, at the completion of the five days the patient can go home. Or wherever.
            Candy, the nurse or whatever-the-hell-her-name-was, replied, “Please, we are looking for some nail clippers. If we can’t find any, we’ll call up one of the other lodges and borrow theirs. We’ll have some by tomorrow, even if we have to go out and buy them ourselves. I promise you.”
            She thought I was still pissed off about the nail clippers.
            “Just let me sign my Five Day,” I said. She was opening her mouth to say something I didn’t get. I sat there staring into space, biting my tongue, hoping the staff didn’t notice. It didn’t work. “Please, just let me sign my Five Day,” I interrupted.
            She went to the back of the nurse’s station and whispered to Day-Staff-Bill.
            One of the other nurses offered me a pair of office scissors to trim my nails. “Here maybe these will work for you,” she said, ignoring the fact that they obviously wouldn’t.
            Surrealism gave way to comedy of the absurd. I couldn’t get a pair of nail clippers because I might hurt myself with them; so the nurse was handing me scissors. Because she thought I was angry that I couldn’t get nail clippers. Yeah, you always want to hand a sharp instrument to an angry patient!  
            The next thing I remember was Bill standing in front of me. “Holt, could you just sit down a minute, and I promise I’ll be right with you. I promise.” I hadn’t even noticed I was standing again.
            Damnit. I did trust Bill.
            I sat in the rocking chair, closed my eyes, and let them roll back in my brain. They bounced on down the rabbit hole. My head was swimming. Drowning. And I was as close to delirium-and-never-coming-back as I ever would be.
            At that very moment one of the other patients walked up and offered me a pair of nail clippers. The universe laughed.
            “Here, you can have my nail clippers. I’m transferring out today, anyway.” Somehow, this guy had slipped a set of nail trimmers inside. Must’ve been a made mob guy or something.
            I thanked him. Candy or-whatever-the-hell-her-name-was gave me the evil eye, probably because one of the other endangered patients had made a gift of the “nail trimmers of doom” and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. At least until the next room search.
            Bill came over to talk. He explained that he understood how frustrated I was, “But you’re due to get out of here in maybe less than a week. I mean, you may have noticed you’re a little higher functioning than most of these guys. Besides, if you sign your Five Day Form, that means you have to stay in here five more days. You may not have to stay that long if you just talk to your doctor.”
            After he had talked to me for a little while (and I had realized I was broke and had no food at home), I decided to stay. Bill was an okay guy. I decided to let him know what was bothering me.
            “Bill, the reason—or one of the reasons—I wanted to sign my Five Day didn’t have anything to do with the nail clippers. ‘Course it’s little things like that that really piss me off about this place, but actually—it has to do with Wes…”
            “Hey, I appreciate your patience there. I really do. I know Wes is a problem. Especially, since he’s had to relearn so many basic skills. But look at it this way. Both you, and Wes, are coming up on time to check out of here—though I don’t know where he’ll be going…” He looked over his shoulder like he’d told me a secret. “But even if I put you in another room, you’d still have to deal with somebody possibly worse.” He smiled and almost laughed. “Besides, Wes is starting to like you.”
            I inhaled deep.
“Okay, here’s the deal. I’m afraid… Okay, I’m not even sure I saw what I saw. But a couple of minutes ago, I walked into the room, and Wes was flushing the toilet and sticking his head into it.”
            “Nooooo,” he said.
            “Yeah. I swear. He was standing back looking at it, and his hair was already wet. And he leaned over, like forty-five degrees, flushed it, and stuck his head in.”
            “No way.” Bill started laughing.
            “Seriously, I swear to you. He stuck both hands on the bowl to balance himself, like this—” I showed him, “—and stuck his head in! I thought maybe I was starting to lose it. But I saw him flushing the toilet and sticking is head in there.” Bill started laughing. “Yeah, it’s funny, but you don’t have to live with the guy.”
            Then both of us laughed. I was imitating the look on Wes’s face, the way he had pulled his head out and started shaking it. Bill almost fell out of his seat. I think I made his day.
            “I’ll talk to Wes about it,” Bill said. “We’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again. At least while you’re here.” I heard him ask Wes if he’d been washing his hair in the toilet. Instead of just saying no, Wes started to make up some excuse. Somebody must have heard because Wes’s hair care became a running joke.
            Bill had been right about one thing though, Wes was starting to like me, which wasn’t altogether a bad thing. Having two-hundred-and-fifty pounds of caveman on your side can be a decided advantage, as long as he stays in his own bed.
Later in the day room, Wes asked me if I’d trim his toenails for him. I told him he’d have to do it for himself. The crowd parted and ran when he held his feet out in the air. You could’ve shingled a roof with the damn things.

            After two weeks I was a veteran in the place. Most of the trouble I had was from insomnia, but I figured once I got out of this place, I’d crash for a week back at the hotel. I’d gotten my landlord on the phone and it turned out I hadn’t been evicted. I had just enough money to pay rent as long as I didn’t eat or drink. I’d worry about food when the time came. Shelter’s a lot harder.
Financially, I’d been hospitalized just in time.
            I’d tell you more about how the doctors earned the nickname “sub-interns,” or how they found out the MIT-schizo was the one drinking all the milk because when they locked him up and it stopped disappearing; or how one guy went into a diabetic coma because after getting a ketone reading of 400; the nurses had called his doctor—who phoned back thirty-six hours later.
In the end, the stories only reinforce the empty redundancy that filled that place; the feeling that since you’re expendable and unimportant, that it’s okay to ignore you and lock you away. Okay to make you live with people that give animals a bad name. And I’m not just talking about the patients, but everyone that was dependent on that system. At least animals aren’t intentionally evil. They don’t herd in bureaucracies, ignoring each others pain to make a buck while they pretend to help. Supposedly animals don’t even know how to lie—except maybe in wait.
So I waited.
            Jack left at daybreak one morning, luggage rolling behind him. He didn’t even wait for a ride. Turned out he had signed his Five Day. He wasn’t delirious anymore. I found out later the doctors had been pumping Haldol into him. He’d even told them the stuff made him crazy, and they just kept feeding it to him.
The stuff just makes me sit in the corner drooling, but it had kept him looping in and out of reality for nearly a month. On one of his more lucid days he checked the calendar and realized he’d been there a week longer than either of us thought.
            Anyway, he walked all the way to the nearest train station. He was going to stop at the Art Institute in the city to look at a painting, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Classic early twentieth-century stuff; a guy in a diner alone with the grill cook.
The two of us exchanged addresses and told each other we’d stay in touch, which was more a sign of respect than anything else. We knew we wouldn’t. People in places like this never do. At least that’s my experience. Probably his too.
            Eventually, they found a long term institution to send Wes to, one that was supposed to be able to take better care of him. And, just when he was finally learning how to work the toilet.
So yeah, they released the caveman before me.  I thought I’d be rejoicing the day Wes left, but I was actually kind of jealous. All of a sudden I felt like the slow kid in class. Everybody else had graduated.
Oh well, with Wes gone I might rest better. I operated on the theory that if I could make myself comfortable, they’d have to ship me to a different level of hell. My treatment had obviously failed to make an optimist out of me—so fuck ‘em.
            I remained secretary at the AA meetings. Here are some of the minutes I took:

Buncha fuckin morons

            Tic                                                    This is your life passing you
           Tic                                                                            by
You might have 20 to 30,000 days of life.
If you are here, you will spend two of them discussing milk.
Bitch, moan, gripe, justify, whine

            Just be glad I couldn’t recreate the doodles on the pad.
            My last night at Clear Rock, I got a roommate who wouldn’t stop talking to himself. All night long.  And he stopped the toilet up.
            The morning they released me, they told me they weren’t going to give me any medicine—but prescriptions instead. I told them I would need a bill to show my public caseworker, because without it I couldn’t afford the medication. Marla, the social worker, told me they couldn’t generate a bill today. So when I got back home I tried most of the next day to follow up on the scrips, but I couldn’t get them filled. Hell, I couldn’t afford to use the phone.
After three weeks spent adjusting my medication, they put me back out on the street with no way to get any. 
I should have just turned around and gone right back to the emergency room.

Next week: It’s back to the here and now—the present-future—and Holt just might be dying from the decisions he’s made.
Don’t miss Part Two: Back in the Lowlife!

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