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

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bipolar Express, Two More Chapters of Mindbending Mayhem

No, I did not forget Chapter 5. Sorry, gang, but due to the web format we're doing the abridged version. However, due to popular demand, I'm running two chapters this week.

Last Week: Locked up in a mental institution, Holt witnessed a psychotic beating. Both offender and victim were put in restraints, sedated and taken to a padded room. Holt is trying to figure out how to stay out of the padded room.

Bipolar Express
Chapter 4
Meet the Maniacs

            So by now you’re probably asking yourself, “If this guy can’t afford medicine, how can he afford a sinus operation?” Three words: Disability Insurance Coverage.
            Back then the powers that be had it set up so that if you had to live on disability, you had to cheat. The state’s theory was that if you could survive, then you must be cheating. Some people got money from friends, relatives, or charities outside the system. Not so much the mentally ill. A lot of us have no friends or relatives. And nobody tells you about the charities. Patient advocates weren’t exactly crawling out of the padded walls.
            In fact, the whole system was set up backwards. The disabled could go to the emergency room to get help, but they couldn’t get any medicine to keep them out of the emergency room. So when Bud-Spud-Regular-Guy had a real emergency—like being severed at the torso with a chainsaw or something—he still had to wait in line. Because the place was already packed with untreated mental cases. It was the only way for the mental cases to get treatment. No one except the disabled had figured out that if they couldn’t afford medicine, they would eventually have to be hospitalized to get it. The mentally ill figured it out because they had to.
They were forced to.
            None of the rocket scientists in the federal or state agencies could buy a clue. They didn’t have to; their medical bills were paid. But all of us knew. You could get your head injury treated, but you couldn’t treat your head ahead of time to keep from getting injured. That helmet you needed when you were learning to duck? Good luck. You could get medical treatment for your head wound, but you couldn’t get a helmet. They treated the symptom, not the disease.
            We could only duck for so long.
Budget-wise the psychiatrically disabled had to also choose between medicine and being homeless. Do the math. If you were sick you could either, (A) choose to live on the street with the crazy people and buy medicine, or (B) pay rent, have a roof over your head, and wait for the medication you couldn’t afford to wear off. Then go nuts. Most of us chose to go nuts with a roof over our head.
            So every other guy on medication wound up in every other emergency room in the country. Gridlock. The set-up kept hospitals and insurance companies in business, but it made housing for the rest of us a bitch. A lot of the guys in the hospital were already planning on which hospital they were going to next.
            I met one guy who had all his insurance so researched he could have opened his own agency, but since he couldn’t get medicine (and because he was a diagnosed sociopath) he had it all planned out into exactly which hospitals he was going to be staying at for the next year. It was like a communal group of nomads who simply made the rounds from treatment to treatment until they died. The really sick ones wound up on the street. Them and the ones that just didn’t care anymore.     
            So anyway, the point is, my nose was healing and I didn’t want to get punched in the face.
After the fight a couple of the guys who had come out to watch started huddling around a door marked “Smoking Room.” I peeped through the window and it looked like a jailroom drunk tank with ashtrays and a vent in the wall. I used to not even smoke, but this was before the big crackdown and, like waiting for meals, waiting for smoketime was one of the main attractions of being in a mental institution. Since most of your time is spent waiting anyway, you might as well wait to smoke.
            Besides that—in case you didn’t know—smoking is just perfect for us anxious types. It relaxes and speeds up the pulse rate at the same time. That’s why they had to ship all those cigarettes over to our boys in good ol’ WWII. Think about it. It relaxes you and gives you a kick at the same time. What better drug could there be for a soldier? Or a mental patient? Also, schizophrenics LOVE to smoke. And generally you want to keep your schizophrenics happy. Kind of keeps them in the “now,” if you know what I mean.
            So outside the room I wound up meeting about five guys that were capable of holding a conversation. Most of the talk seemed to be about patients and staff I hadn’t met yet. But the good news was that if you didn’t have your own cigarettes, the staff had some generic ones they’d pass out. Even if you had your own, you still had to give your box to the staff and those would be passed out to you when it was time to smoke. Or until they ran out of generics and you discovered they had been handing out your cigarettes to everybody else. Eventually, everybody wound up smoking generics.
            In the end I was grateful I could smoke. One time when I had had to stay at a smoke-free hospital, everybody had to wear a nicotine patch. Now mind you, I wasn’t jonesing for a cigarette as bad, but I truly missed the act of smoking. I don’t think they had any schizophrenics in that ward though. I do remember they asked me how much I smoked a day. And I realized I’d made a mistake telling the truth because the guy next to me was much calmer and had a much larger patch. Brought up all those old deprivation issues. “Hey! I got ripped off! I want a bigger patch!”
So I was looking around this smoking room at the five guys whose names I can’t remember, and behind me I heard this voice.
            “Yeah, first time I was in here it was all co-ed and there was some girl in here offering blowjobs to all comers. No pun intended. Pretty wild, if you’re into that kind of thing. But you got to wonder about what got somebody like that into a place like this to begin with. So I steered clear of that one. It does kind of make me yearn for the old days, though… Now that I’m stuck in here with all you nutbars. Jeez, you guys make me embarrassed to be mentally ill.”
            I almost laughed. I was surprised the story hadn’t ended with him getting laid by his imaginary girl. Most of the locker room talk you hear in a place like this is usually a shallow attempt to establish machismo. But this guy had completely abandoned the usual salute-my-dick-waving-in-the-wind strategy. Not necessarily in favor of the truth, but much more believable because of the discretion involved.
While most of the other patients were forced to stand up and mill around, trying not to make eye-contact (except for the ones trying to make brain contact), this guy had commandeered a wooden chair in the corner and was looking right at me.
“Hey, how ya doing?” he said, “John Thomas, Manic Depressive, treated with self medication,” like it was something he’d have printed on a business card. He pointed to a shriveled, little, old guy going through the ashtray for butts. “Call me Jack or I’ll be forced to sic ‘Guido’ on ya.” 
I almost laughed again. Part of it was the smartass tone of his voice. It wasn’t dripping with sarcasm, but it was well oiled. Kind of like his hair, just long enough to fall in his eyes. His beat up old boots had once been a little too dressy. Maybe a cowpunk. Clean but not neat. He reminded me of a lot of the guys I’d come up with.
            “Holt Dreivek. Alcoholic. Depressive, possibly bipolar,” I said.
            “Yeah, we’re all bipolar if they can’t figure out what’s wrong with us.” He thumped Guido on the shoulder and handed him his short. “Like, everybody’s not a little mentally ill.”
            “Yeah, that’s true, but I still can’t help thinking I must’ve really fucked up to be in here.”
            “Fucked up because you’ve been diagnosed, or fucked up because you’ve got caught?”
            “Both. I mean, everybody’s crazy, right? But wasn’t life a lot simpler back when you thought you were the only one that was sane? I mean, sure my life was a wreck, but it was my wreck. I had no doubts.”
            “Sane man in an in an insane world, no doubt.”
            “You too, huh.”
            “You want another cigarette?” Jack said. “I smuggled three out of the pack when the nurse wasn’t looking, and if I have to carry it around in this pocket till next break it’s just gonna get broken. Don’t try to hide any in your room either. They do room searches. If they bust you, then you’re not allowed to smoke next time. Plus, they got smoke alarms all over the place. Only an idiot would try to smoke in their room. You’ll probably hear the alarm go off some time today.” He nodded at one guy in particular. “No shortage of idiots. He set it off yesterday—probably do it again today.”
            While he was talking, I wondered to myself how much shit a guy named John Thomas would have to take in life. After all, isn’t that the name of some British guy’s schlong? At least that’s why I always figured he went by Jack. As much as you hear about guys named Jack in books and stuff, I don’t think I’d ever honestly met anyone who went by Jack. Kind of like Dick. I’ve never met anybody that said, Hey, just call me Dick.
            “Nice to meet you, Jack,” I said and shook his hand.
            It was something I hadn’t done in a long time, shake somebody’s hand. One week sober and I was already working on my social skills; didn’t hurt that I was surrounded by the mentally ill.
            I was among my people.
            We smoked.
            Everybody went outside to the cafeteria to eat lunch except me and three or four of the footie crowd. Mealtime conversation seemed to center on who ordered what, and who’d been drinking all the milk.
            Everybody came back from eating.
            Everybody smoked.
            When I finally made it back to my room the Lost Patrol Boy was still passed out on his bed. And lying face down on mine was a shirtless, gray skinned behemoth.
Damnit. I was so fucking tired. All I wanted to do was lay down. I started to get angry. Angry that I’d relapsed. Angry I had so little control over my life. Angry that I had to get locked up. Angry at the rest of the world and pissed off that there were people that didn’t wake up in the same private hell I did everyday. People that had a reason for living. People that didn’t have to question every thought they had, that didn’t have to count every penny they got, scraping through life without hope of ever even having a chance to have a goal.
People that got what they wanted.
And I hated every one of them.
I tapped the creature on the back.
            He rolled over and I was confronted by what I can only describe as the perfect example of Java Man. I swear to you, this guy looked just like those pictures you used to see in biology class. You know, the ones with the guy walking up the evolutionary scale. Okay, so his brows weren’t quite that heavy. But it still felt like I was browsing through an old encyclopedia.
            “I was assigned to that bed,” I told Java Man. “You go ask staff about it.” A part of me was feeling just mean enough to stand my ground. The smart part of me was praying he didn’t decide to pound my head in.
“This is my room,” the caveman said, sticking a finger in my face. “I was here before you.” He jabbed a fingers at the walls. “You! You! Or any of these fuckers!”  A rage burned behind the drugged cataracts glazing his eyes. Something primal.
            I didn’t move. Except maybe for my knees shaking.
            He grimaced at me, meaner looking. And with at least fifty-pounds on me—all of it muscle—he lowered his eyebrows even more and said, “You got any socks?”
            “Just the ones I’m wearing, dude.” It was the truth.
            And he let me through to my bed. I sat down on it and waited for my knees to stop shaking. Then I sniffed the air, and realized I probably didn’t need to lie down as much as I thought. At least not until I found a way to get clean sheets.
            That was my introduction to Wesley.
            By now it was late afternoon and I hadn’t seen one doctor yet.
I also hadn’t been assigned to, or seen anybody else attend, any kind of therapy. Mostly there were just people sitting around watching and listening to different media in different rooms.
            It was too scary to stay in my room with the caveman, and I really didn’t want to sit in the lobby screening patients. I was too skittish to stand in one place too long for fear of a punch in the nose, so I went into this little reading room that had windows overlooking the lobby in two of the walls. I figured I might find something to read and still look out above the pages to guard myself.
            Most of the stuff was pretty remedial. We’re talking sixth grade here. Eventually, I found a copy of Lord of the Flies and at the time failed to see the irony in that.  Later on, I found myself identifying with Simon, probably the most mentally healthy character in the book, until the other kids drive him nuts. Simon is the one that sees the dead pig’s head-on-a-pike as the Lord. He recognizes the real beast is in everyone, and it has to be accepted before we’re ruled by it. In other words: he knows the truth. He gets killed. The other boys beat him to death for telling them there’s nothing else to fear.
            It’s strange the way things can be interpreted in these places. One time I was in a place with all these developmentally disabled people and they showed Of Mice and Men on the media. It was a story about two guys—one of them was developmentally disabled—and the answer to all their problems was to blow away the dumb guy. Yes, killing the dumb guy is the most humane answer to your problem. Just what you want to be telling a bunch of suicidal retarded people. The staff asked afterward if anybody had found the story disturbing and volunteered to talk to anybody who had any questions. Hell, they had just given them their answer.
            We smoked.
            Everybody except me and the footie guys went to the cafeteria.
            After dinner everybody smoked.
            Wesley, who I still only knew as the caveman, managed to stop up the toilet in our room twice that first day. He also managed to flush it until the bathroom flooded. The staff pretty much ignored it. The first time it was still daylight and I managed to get a cleaning lady. She glared at me like I had done it but she did manage to get somebody else to unstop the thing.
            “Is there anything you can do to help with the smell over there?” I asked, pointing over at Wesley’s mattress in the corner.
            “The only way to get the smell out of that is to burn it,” she said.
            The second time Wes stopped the toilet up I told him in my most ‘dude’ friendly voice, “C’mon man, people can’t live like that. Let me get you a plunger and we’ll clean it up.”
            Me being new and not familiar with the power structure, the staff wouldn’t let me have a plunger and foolishly went in to do it themselves. I sat and watched these supposedly sane people plunge the toilet and force Wesley to clean up the floor. Day Staff Nurse Bill had to stick his head out of the door in an effort to breathe, a bit of hopelessness showing in his eyes, until he saw me looking at him. Then he made a face to let me know how crazy it all was. Somehow it got cleaned up and, being new, I didn’t have to do a thing. I suppose I would’ve lavished in all the luxury, but I still hadn’t been able to get any sleep.
            At 7:00 PM there was an AA meeting in, fittingly enough, the meeting room. The meeting room was a gigantic, carpeted, group therapy room sporadically laid out with some nicely upholstered chairs and sofas. Too nice. But I guess all the furniture had to be too big for the patient’s to pick up and swing at each other. After sitting in one, I realized they weren’t in the best of condition either. Wear-and-tear had worn-and-torn these babies. Probably a write off for whatever doctor’s office they came from. It was a giant waiting room minus the old magazines—and minus any AA literature.
This place had one Big Book (the AA bible) for twenty patients. “Individual substance abuse training” had to also take into account that thick books are heavy and have sharp corners—and the hospital couldn’t have the patients winging copies at each other’s heads. The one book limit was also appropriate, because the guy chairing the meeting was the same diagnosed sociopath who was calculating his insurance points to keep a roof over his head. He was a professional shoplifter in the real world, and he probably would have stolen them all.
            Everybody in the lodge was forced to volunteer to go to the meeting except for two guys and, strangely enough, the staff; which explains how I sat through the only psychopath chaired twelve-step meeting I’ve knowingly attended. See, one of the AA rules is that they govern themselves, so I guess it was supposed to be a closed meeting. Really though, it was just a chance to give the staff a break and they deserved it.
The AA group consisted of the same people that were in all the other groups, no outside speakers, and only about eight of us were capable of actually following what was going on. We were kept from being able to do that by whatever the hell the other ten or so members were doing. Usually, sleeping, bitching, or talking about who drank all the milk.
            After the meeting we smoked.
            At the end of the day we had a community group just like the one we were scheduled to have at the beginning of every day. Only at this one they told us about everything that hadn’t gone according to plan. They told Wesley to make his bed, and then made the formal announcement that if whoever was drinking all the milk didn’t stop, they were going to padlock the refrigerator, “And you don’t want us to have to go through that again.”
            We smoked.
            Finally, they gave us our meds. They gave me some little white pill I can’t remember the name of to help me sleep.
            I lay there and stared at the ceiling, hoping the pill would knock me out. The lights were off, the door was closed, and the Lost Patrol Boy was still passed out by the door. The guy never moved. Then, a thunder came down the hall. Wesley.
The door had already bounced off the bedroom wall twice, before the light from outside broke into the room. By then Wes had already crashed into a chest of drawers, his pants hanging around his knees. Scared the crap out me. He fell backward, stumbling and laughing, and bopped the back of his head off the inside of the door.
            No one could have slept through that entrance. Not even the Lost Patrol Boy.
            Wes was still laughing and muttering to himself as he lumbered to face his bedside and managed to get one leg out of his pants. Lost Patrol Boy rolled over in his bed, right next to Wes, and opened his eyes. A huge caveman butt hovered in his face mere inches away.
            The lost boy screamed, and I started laughing.
            Pants off and wang waving, Wes fell like a tenpin face down on his plastic mattress. He pulled a blanket over his bare, gray ass, and said something that sounded like, “‘M-Okay, Sheeeit, Wooooo Haw Haw Haw.” The laugh of a bluesman with a five-year-old intellect.
            I couldn’t help smiling, but I was still sad. Wes laughed again, except by then he was snoring too. I wondered what he was dreaming about and then laughed myself, knowing full well I wouldn’t get any sleep that night.

Chapter 6

            I pulled up a rocking chair and placed it in front of the nurse’s station. The trick was to be just visible enough that they couldn’t ignore me.
Every mental ward should have a rocking chair to go with the foosball table. It helps calm some of the more autistic types; I’ve been told the rocking motion provides mental stimulation. As I sat there mentally stimulating myself, Jack came up and helped himself a cup of decaf.
            “Camping, huh?” He already knew what I was doing. If you stayed in their way, the staff couldn’t forget about you.
            “Yeah, I figured I’d stake out a claim. Trying to get some dandruff shampoo, find out how I’m ‘progressing,’” I said.
            “You don’t mind me asking, you seem pretty well educated—what are you doing in here?”
            “Truth is, between you and me, I was going through the D.T.’s, and I saw what I thought was God. I was following his orders when the paddy wagon showed up,”—I paused—“And, I punched a cop in the jaw.”
            Jack started laughing so hard he did a spit take with the coffee. “Chicago cops?”
            “Yeah. Not my brightest moment.”
I left out the best part of the story. God had been talking to me through one of those Magic-8-Balls. You know, the ones that you ask a question, and the answer rises up through the ink “YES, NO, TRY AGAIN LATER.” Yep, that’s right. I beaned a cop with a Magic-8-ball. But I didn’t tell Jack that. I wasn’t ready to have anybody laugh at me that hard just yet.
            “Damn!” he said. “Well, don’t worry about it. D.T.’s will make you do some strange shit. But you might want to let some of the guys in here know you punched a cop, that’ll keep them from screwing with you.”
            “Yeah, I will,” I said, figuring that was exactly what I was doing. He answered my next question without me having to ask it.
            “Yeah, I came in voluntarily, if you can believe that. Medication adjustment.”
And he had seemed so well educated.
            Neither of us said anything for a while. There’s always something to watch going on at the nurse’s station.
            The staff was running a new patient through intake. They confiscated his hat—gang colors—and a gold rope necklace so thick he could’ve beat somebody to death with it. What they couldn’t confiscate was his prosthetic arm, the kind with a metal clamp for a hand. The new patient had the best weapon on the floor.
            “Wow,” Jack said. “Punched a Chicago cop… Were they out to get you?”
            “The cops?”
            “No. No. ‘Them?’”
            “Yeah, you know. ‘Them.’ Because they were out to get me,” he said, sarcasm now apparent. “I was hidin’ in my closet and shit because ‘They’ were out to get me.”
            “Yeah, ‘They’ were after me, too. Wasn’t the first time, either.”
            ‘They’ are some scary fuckers,” Jack said. “Well, good luck. Hope you get your shit.” Then he headed off like he actually had something to do.
            Get your shit. That’s what it was all about. A few minutes later the staff told me I’d have to wait for the dandruff shampoo, but I’d been in the way long enough to get some Tylenol and another Ativan.
Where was that doctor?
            It’s at this point that things start to become a little blurrier. I was tired, running on auto-pilot. I don’t think it was the Ativan, although it certainly wasn’t helping. I’d been through this kind of thing with before. One time I’d gone almost two weeks without any real sleep. You learn to just keep on going. You start to see spots of light flashing at the edge of your vision and you’re running strictly on reflex. Things are either foggy or they glow. Sometimes you wake up and realize you were dreaming, so you must have gotten some sleep. 
            I was operating on little more than the pineal gland. The reptile mind. The mental state that cults and interrogators try to get their victims into so they can brainwash them. I would’ve agreed to anything—if I was one of those people that could sleep. I went back to my room to lie down and try. My head hit the pillow and I began to drift.
That’s when they announced a room search.
            Everybody gathered out in the hall. The staff randomly grazed from room to room going through everybody’s stuff. Apathetically opening drawers and fingering through pockets. Going through the motions.
Then there was some group. And then dinner. I think. I know there was an AA meeting because they elected me secretary; somebody had seen me writing.
            During the evening Wrap-up Group, I remembered a sentence from the brochure, “We care about our patient’s rest…” and I started laughing so hard they had me go talk to a nurse. He sent me to bed.
            They woke me up for my sleep meds.


Next Week: Holt finally gets angry. Can he dodge the rubber room?


  1. Funny and scary. You still keep me laughing and shaking my head. "There but for the grace of God. . . . " This one got to me more than the others, on several levels. One of them being the many ER experiences I had when was Mom was going downhill. Funny aside: I once worked with a guy named Richard Bebeau -- not sure of the spelling. His nickname? What else?
    Dickie BeBop.
    True story.

  2. Cool, I've known a few jazz guys that would love to be called BeBop, and a Cowboy or two. Yeah, I saw quite a few emergency rooms as a kid with my mom. First place I ever saw Hot Wheels was in the emergency room. I actually saw my first episode of M*A*S*H when I was about seven years old, watched it with the patients in the mental ward.