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

I said you could read it for free, and you shall! Now, if you want to find out what happens to the guys a little faster you can pick up a copy of the book for a mere $2.99 at Amazon or Smashwords! Or just keep reading here! Thanks!

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!

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?