In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper
Last night they took away my shoelaces.
It’s morning now. A man down the hall is yelling. “Give me my shoes back!” His wailing wakes me. A patient answer comes from an endlessly patient nurse: “I’m sorry. You can’t have your shoes unless we take out the laces.” The man doesn’t find this agreeable. He yells out in pure agony, “But you didn’t have to take away my soul!” Eventually, after a long and heated discussion, the man’s shoes are returned with medical tape where his soul used to be.
I’m not sure how he made the connection between laces and souls—the metaphysics are difficult for most people to understand—but I think there is truth in the observation. The first time I cried was when I looked down at my shoes, laces gone, helplessly flopped open. Two tongues spread, tilting, and lying askew like ancient roman columns. Somehow, in a way that I couldn’t quite understand, some part of me slipped away when my laces were removed. I am told that they will be returned to me upon departure.
The man down the hall is yelling again. It’s the fierce anger that comes from pain. He is hurting. The empathetic hospital staff understands and responds with kindness. But the angry man continues: “You don’t have the right to take away my clothes!” Interesting that he uses the word “right.” He’s a desperate man trying to evoke all the power of centuries of a proud democratic heritage. Something in this situation is so fundamental to the Western character. The moment is slightly patriotic. I’m feeling more and more of an affinity for the large, irate man outside my door. With his sanity spread thin he crusades boldly for our rights—his and, therefore, mine.
But things in the struggle for our rights are going poorly. The situation is escalating. My personal crusader starts making threats: If his demands are not met, he will kill himself and everyone else on the floor. It’s a strange threat from a man who is almost exclusively surrounded by people wishing for death, those of us who have already made attempts at suicide. The irony is not lost on me and I have to smile. After all, without laces what’s he going to do, tape me to death?
I think this is going to be a good day. I’m now motivated enough to start whatever lies ahead. I roll over, kneel down, and begin to pray. I offer God my gratitude for the humane scene that unfolded just outside my door.
- – –
When I was admitted they encouraged me to participate in the different groups. It was a smiling ultimatum: play nice with the others or else. The consequences were left unclear. The locking metal door behind me was less ambiguous. The more I color and clap along with the piano player, the sooner I go home. Apparently drawing hearts, sunshine, and bears is the fast lane to recovery.
At 10:55 AM the smiling man comes by. “Art group is about to start, Daniel,” he entreats me. “It’s a real good group.” This is his standard line. Everything is “real good.” He sells it to me like a parent vainly trying to get his three-year-old child to finish dinner. “Mmm. This is real good casserole.” The ploy works no better on me. He has the best of intentions, nevertheless, I feel frustrated. No matter what I do there is no convincing this man I am a lucid adult—a university student with a genius IQ. I’ll go to the group, if for no other reason than to be agreeable.
I enter the community room, which smells like crafts and urine. The neo-hippie notices me and is all too happy to pounce on the new guy who has finally come out of his room. “Would you like to color?” She holds up a piece of art paper in one hand and gestures toward the crayons and chalk with the other. New age music is playing—the kind of music white people think Native Americans would have played if only they’d had synthesizers. “No, thank you. I’m just here to watch.” She cocks her head. She’ll work on me and one triumphant day her training and years of experience will payoff. One day she will entice me to color with the other patients. After an infinitesimally brief moment relishing her future victory, she smiles at me, almost winks, and returns to hover over the others who are intensely expressing themselves. Meanwhile, I find a pen that’s been carelessly left out by a busy staff member. A precious piece of contraband. For the remainder of art group I sit in the corner and write.
The smiling man comes by and sees my frantic scribbling—the chicken-scratch handwriting—and shakes his head. He would much rather I was coloring, but he doesn’t take my pen away.
The day passes slowly. There isn’t much to do. I sort through pieces of newspaper scraps, trying to find fragments of interest. There is a woman here, Yolanda, who compulsively, methodically tears the paper into smaller and smaller bits. Not helpful at all to my sanity but an interesting element of her insanity. She provides me some consolation and entertainment by telling me stories. “This girl was the lead-cheerleader at my school,” and she points emphatically at a twenty-something model in a cell-phone ad. “Granite High, class of ‘66. We were great friends; she was always so nice to me.” Certainly the character is fictitious, but someone at sometime once treated this woman tenderly. She must be remembering it and is sincerely touched. So am I. The obituaries are up next for shredding. Another picture is emphatically pointed out. “I knew him. He was a boat captain in the navy. Such a funny guy, but stern too. His name was Hank.” In bold print above the picture I can see that the man was clearly not “Hank,” but there is no use interrupting. She is just getting warmed up. I hear about adventures, compassion, pranks, and whenever she tells me something with a risqué or filthy punch-line, she puts her hand to the side of her mouth, as if to not let the naughtiness spread out into the room. She truly loves this Hank, and tears have been welling in her eyes for some time. I wonder how she can feel so strongly about someone she just made up, then the telling phrase comes and I don’t wonder anymore: “He reminds me so much of my father.”
“You loved your father, didn’t you?” I ask even though the tears made the answer obvious.
She is too choked-up to answer, but nods back and forth with her whole body. In time she tells me all about her father. She is glowing. He must have treated her well. Or she had to believe he did.
– – –
It’s amazing how much my friends here at the mental hospital appreciate simple kindness. They accept the plainest friendly gesture so eagerly that it is thrilling to oblige. Now I attend the groups just to be with them. Pet therapy is next. They are going to bring in a dog for all of us to “ooh” and “awe” over. I’m skeptical but everyone else, staff included, seems seriously enthusiastic. I resolve to play along and do my best to feign excitement for everyone else’s sake. The dog enters the room. At once I start laughing as my skepticism instantly melts away. Where did they find this dog? He is a picture-book sketch of goodness—the epitome of carefree, childlike happiness. Everyone has seen this dog at least once in their lives. This is the dog that chases boys on bicycles in Norman Rockwell paintings and follows them to the ol’ swimmin’ hole. He sits next to lemonade stands in cartoons. There is a spot around his left eye, one ear sticks up while the other lays flat, and he has a whiskery chin.
Everybody in the room brightens at once and I understand what all the enthusiasm was about. The lovable mutt’s name is Toby. He is instantly the most popular individual in the North Wing, and his attention is more precious than a cigarette. The smiles in the room become contagious. All of our better angels come out. I don’t compete for Toby’s time. It’s far too precious a commodity and I am the least deserving. Nonetheless Toby ends his visit by jumping up onto my lap unsolicited. He must have sniffed me out and realized the nostalgic love I have for those children in the Rockwell paintings. I think he knew that I wanted so badly to have him sitting with me, but would not show it to any of the others in the room.
The trainer tugs at his leash but Toby is fixed. “I don’t think he wants to leave,” the woman says as if she had told a joke. Looking into the dog’s eyes I say, “Don’t worry, Toby; we’ll meet again. Fate won’t keep us apart.” I look up to see the staff looking at me and suddenly realize how much my little joke resembles the remark of someone who has truly lost his mind. They’re never going to let me out of here.
- – –
You become self-conscious when you’ve been institutionalized. One moment I’m sitting on my bed reading when something strikes me as funny, and I toss the book aside and began to laugh aloud. The next moment a man with a clipboard peeps in through the window, stares at me, and writes something down. All he sees through his little window is a man sitting by himself, staring at the wall, and laughing. An asylum stereotype.
Later I’m feeling restless and decide to practice some yoga. My room is too small, but the hallway is wide and long. I start my stretches and poses. Ten minutes into the practice I become aware of myself from the outside and realize I am the crazy man in the hall at the mental hospital. Oddly twisting my body, kneeling, lying face down on the floor, lifting my hands toward heaven—in every movie I’ve ever seen about a mental hospital, there is someone like me contorting in the hall. Soon I gather a crowd. Another patient, a woman in her seventies, begins to mimic me. The staff is uncomfortable with the commotion in the hall. Admittedly, it resembles some sort of uprising with me as the leader. “I must be crazy,” I think, and wonder what my life would be like in here permanently. There are worse fates. I could adapt.
- – –
I finally join in with the patients in the art group, where I learn coloring is fun if you’re doing it with people who really enjoy it. A proud day for neo-hippies everywhere.
It’s a good day for me also. I, like the patiently coaxing art therapist, feel triumphant. The staff is warming up to me and I’m enjoying more precious liberties as I’m perceived as more stable. I walk from doorway to doorway talking with my friends. It seems strange how much I love them
after so short a time. The love seems like a gift to me; it feels too wonderful to be something that anyone could earn.
Mary Jane enters the game room. She is my seventy-something yoga apprentice. Despite her age she is a beautiful child at heart. Since lunchtime, about four hours ago, she’s been wearing her vest inside out and backward. In my best-natured voice I ask, “Mary Jane, are you going to be backward all day?” Of course she is. After all, it is Silly Day.
It’s incredible how Silly Day can creep up on you. “If only I had known,” I tell her. “I would have had some silly things brought to me.” She encourages me to do the best with what I’ve got, but to me it is no use. Silly Day is today and I am stuck behind locked doors unprepared to celebrate. Hopefully, I’ll be in better shape and more prepared next time the holiday rolls around.
“We should sing silly songs!” Mary Jane pronounces exuberantly, and without missing a beat, or waiting for assent from anybody, launches in to a rousing version of “Boom! Boom! Ain’t It Great to be Crazy!” Others who have learned the song at elementary schools and kid’s camps quickly join in. The choir is completely innocent—they aren’t being ironic, or making a statement. To them it’s nothing more than a silly song, and to me the moment is nothing less than priceless. I look at the staff member watching over us and he is trying his best not to laugh, but ultimately the spectacle is too much. I laugh too. For a long time I laugh. A small tribe of patients in my wing of the mental hospital is singing and waiving their hands, and is totally unaware of just how appropriate, and inappropriate, their song is.
- – –
The days blur into each other like the lines on my chalk artwork, punctuated by meaningful experiences here and there. Right now everything is dark. It’s nighttime and I cannot sleep. There is no clock in my room; I’m not allowed to have a watch. I hardly ever know the time. Suddenly there is a punctuation mark. A woman hysterically screams. It’s a new voice. I can tell from the sounds and voices outside my door that she is being admitted. The woman is becoming violent, and I begin to hear a faint, rapid thumping. Initially I think the sound is my heart speeding up. I do not believe that anyone can hear a scream like hers and not immediately be alarmed. She must be in unspeakable pain. I calm down and realize where the thumping noise is really coming from. Staff is running down the hall from all directions. In my brief time here I’ve already learned things are about to get worse before they get better. The woman cries out again, a sustained and awful “No!” She shrieks that she does not want to be killed, but for some reason murder seems inevitable. All she can see is death and hell. Her terror is the most human and sane response possible.
The struggle continues. Eventually she will be put into what I know as “the hole.” You may know it as “the box” or “isolation” depending on the movies and TV shows you were raised on. The small plastic sign with white letters on the most soothing of off-pink backgrounds simply reads, “dark room.” There she will be sedated and left to regroup alone in the blackness. It seems severe, perhaps even cruel, but here you must always remember the mantra: This is for my own good.
With very few exceptions the staff truly intends to help rather than punish. They do the best they can and whenever things get hard we are quickly reminded of “our own good.” Their sincerity is genuine, but the expression in not wholly accurate. The care, treatment, and restrictions are not always for our own good. Indeed, sometimes they are detrimental. More accurately, all things are done for “the good” that the worst-case scenario might not be realized. The staff must reduce everything, and every patient, to the lowest common denominator; everything gets whittled down to a matter of what will and will not eliminate human life and safety.
I don’t think the frantic woman down the hall would have hurt herself or anyone else. Not tonight, not during this fit. She probably only needs some space—a little gap between herself and a reality that is too harsh. A small break would probably be the best thing for her particular own good. Instead strangers on all sides are encroaching, slowly moving in to take away her freedom. The staff cannot be blamed because no one can be completely sure whether or not this tantrum will be the one that takes a life. A chance cannot be taken.
Time passes while I write. Presumably she is asleep now. Alone. In the calm dark. Comfortable. Safe. No one will die tonight.
I think about her and remember my own first night. I also was put into the hospital long after dark. Admission seems to be the hardest part for most patients. It is the moment when you—your life, personality, character, hopes, wants, and everything—are reduced to the lowest common denominator. You become nothing much more than a human life that needs to be kept going. For your own good.
Tomorrow I will meet my new friend. Hopefully we can talk, share, and create a kinder reality, just like my good newspaper shredding friend did for me on my first full day.
The screaming and commotion has long subsided. I’ve been writing and thinking in the pale light that fills the rooms just enough so that anyone can be spotted at any time. Every fifteen minutes a flashlight from the window finds me at my small table. I should be in bed, but the man patrolling the halls seems to understand and smiles approvingly. His look tells me he understands how a tortured soul can graze our hearts. Though it’s wrenching, everyone who lets this sympathy and vicarious suffering in feels more understood and our loneliness, whether great or small, ebbs. The pain we’ve felt from being last picked for baseball, financially destitute, dumped, teased, and enduring the loss of those dear is now resting peacefully in “the hole.” I finish my writing, hide my pen where no one will find it, and go to sleep like all the others.
- – –
The flashlight visits me throughout the night, but my sleep is sound until dawn. It is the first morning where I am not awakened by shouting, and, oddly, I am disappointed. There is something in the call and response of intense pain met by real care that is inspirational. My room is still, and light begins to break-in from the window. I lie there for a while reflecting on my surroundings and realize inspiration is the best feeling for daybreak.
After straightening up my room and showering, I go to the hall. I want to mingle. Ryan, my personal crusader with strips of medical tape for shoe laces, is already campaigning. “The system is what puts us in here.” His tirade goes on and on and is filled with rancor and the richest profanity. Most of the fire is aimed at doctors, cops, and jocks. Especially the jocks. Nearly everything he says is unfounded, but his ability to declaim is brilliant. While the staff must brace for a defense, the rest of us are free to sit back and enjoy the diatribe. He contends the jocks think they own us, the patients. Yet, he goes on to explain unfettered by rationality, the jocks would not know if something was theirs even if it were attached to their backsides. His vulgarity is artful and we spectators laugh at this last feverish rant. Ryan notices the approval of those around him and smiles like one who has waited so long for acceptance. He goes on, encouraged, “They put us in here to make us crazy, but they’re the crazy ones.” There are more expletives followed by a question: “What are all the jocks going to do when they’ve killed us all off?”
It’s a provocative question. Like a work by Picasso, Ryan’s rant does not strictly mirror reality but does have some relationship to it. As a student of politics and philosophy, I sit in the North wing and wonder: Does the oppressor realize his dependency on the oppressed? The former is free to move, act, and govern as he or she pleases, but, in the end, his or her identity is entirely a matter of dependence. Meanwhile the latter can act only in accordance with the will of the oppressor, but has an independence in that he or she needs no oppressor. I wish I was somewhere in the middle, able to enjoy freedom and independence of identity.
While thinking I invite the frenzied woman from the night before to sit next to me. She is not screaming now, but is looking lost and docile, wandering around the room vacantly. Her name is Edna. She is an Asian woman, perhaps sixty-five years old, is nearly 4’7” tall, and cannot weigh more than 100 pounds. This “killer” takes a seat next to me, wearing green scrubs that are far too big for her. We talk briefly in semi-coherent fragments. After only a few moments she is up and wandering again. I have nothing to say that can keep her still.
In here we all wander around. It’s somehow essential to finding our place. We walk along the walls, bend in at the corners, peer through every window and open door, looking for something different. Something to change. We walk, and fate disperses our experiences. The patients we bump into will make our conversations and become our friends; the corners we have yet to sit in will provide us with novelty and solace; the culmination of encounters and interspersions will hold our sanity.
There is a new thing today—a children’s fair out in the parking lot, featuring appearances from popular Sesame Street characters. As I watch preparations from my window, my Psychiatrist maneuvers into the room. Everything he does seems calculated and I have a hard time trusting him for that reason. He’s merely checking up on me, making a Saturday appearance at the hospital because his grandchildren will be attending the festivities. Apparently it is an annual event. Kids come to see furry celebrities and parents learn about health and child safety. All the magic takes place in the parking lot of the neuropsychiatric hospital. The location seems odd to me, but you cannot imagine my joy over the big, blue, inflatable whale beached out my window. Variety is the spice of life, even for the delusional.
I sit on my windowsill and watch. Clowns, balloons, painted faces, strollers, and overjoyed kids all pass under me. They cannot see me watching them. The windows are tinted too darkly. I wish they could see me. I’m so sad and lonely and I long to make a connection, to somehow be a part of the fair. A wave, a nod, or even a glance with a smile would be enough to make me feel like I was part of the fun. For a moment I consider pounding on the Plexiglas. Someone from below might at least look up. But with their curious glance I would also gain unwanted attention, and the hall would fill with the thumps of staff members responding to the noise. After a heavy sigh, I resign myself to remain apart from the fun for now.
I know other patients are watching from their windows, and I think every one of them is more dangerous than I am. It’s a strange thought: Hundreds of happy, helpless kids skipping, pointing, and laughing within feet of the neurotic and criminally insane. The credulous parents must have no idea what, or who, is watching from the other side of the glass. It’s better that way. Although most people can learn to adapt with struggle and effort, it can be scary to learn what lies under the surface of the mentally ill. Knowing who touches the other side of the glass would certainly subdue the sunny morning of family fun and games.
Very few people know I’m in here—my mother, the girl I love, a sister, and two brothers. Before I was institutionalized, only the girl knew how ill I had become.
I make friends easily. For the most part, people have always liked me. Strangers are constantly working their way into my life as friends, and my friends call me often. They write, send e-mails, stop by the house, leave notes, and call again. I love them dearly and neglect them terribly. They cannot understand why I don’t pick up the phone or return their calls. They don’t understand why I’m so happy to see them and so quick to withdraw from them. They don’t understand my behavior because they don’t understand me. They don’t understand me because I won’t allow them to. And I won’t allow them to because I’m crazy. Just as the parents at the fair might be disgusted and disturbed by the people watching their children and touching the other side of the Plexiglas, I believe others would be disturbed and appalled if they could see into me.
- – –
More disgusting and disturbing still are the trusted parents, adults, friends, or schoolmates in our past—those who could’ve helped us, or at least have done us no harm, but didn’t. Everyone locked in here with me seems to have been mistreated as a child. Ryan always complains about the jocks of his youth, and never without his favorite expletive. I can tell people have taken advantage of him, preyed on his many disabilities because it was fun, aggrandizing, or simple because it was easy. I know he’s been taunted, pushed around, and beat-up by those who were older, stronger, and saner.
With thoughts of children and vulnerability on my mind, I feel nervous when a man with a clipboard tells me I have been invited to attend the “adult group,” then escorts me away from my friends to a locked room in the South Wing. There will be no singing or coloring—this is therapy for the higher functioning patients. The man sitting next to me is undergoing electrical convulsion therapy, more commonly known as “shock therapy.” He submits himself to the regular torture in hopes that a voice in his head will be purged—it’s the voice of the uncle who took advantage of him as a child. Every time he hears the voice he feels like getting into the fetal position and crying. I know because he tells me so. His uncle has been dead for over ten years.
Not all the ghosts that haunt us are from the past. The woman on my other side was raped by a coworker. In callous response, her live-in boyfriend left her as if the tragedy were her fault. After all, she was only “allegedly” raped. She works as a police dispatcher and the man who used her so cruelly is an officer. They both are immersed in a culture where every misdeed, no matter how foul, is “alleged.” She quickly grew to hate that word with its connotation that, after all she has been through, there is still a chance she may be the knave. She is crying. No matter what she does, her “alleged” attacker will always be able to track her down. Through his fraternity of officers, he will be able to learn a new phone number, find a new address, know her car and license plate number. Any day he may return to punish her. The next call could be his. He may be the person at the door. The patrol car following her in traffic may be the thing she fears most moments away from repeating itself.
It seems like she will never find pure, undefiled rest in this life. The thought of all she has been through, and has yet to go through, is more than I am able to bear. I gush tears and wonder how people can be so cruel. What sanity is there in hurting someone else? How can my new friend go on? What can life possibly do to make amends? Not knowing the answers leaves me feeling hollow. Yet I am imbued with a sense that there is a value to life that I have never before conceived. There is somehow a goodness in going on and living, even if we never completely find the rest we desperately seek.
- – –
All of these people are so precious. I’m going to miss them dearly. Now it’s after dark. I sit by Yolanda who is at work compulsively folding and tearing magazines. She wants to show me every page for no particular reason that I can discern. I wonder if she is trying to tell me something—trying to get me to see whatever she is seeing that is so compelling. The best I can do is examine each scrap intently, look up into her eyes, hand the piece back, and smile approvingly. Ryan enters the room with a dull1 1” pencil and a piece of paper. Drawing is one of his best outlets. Without any words, Yolanda implores him to examine each valuable picture, ad, or article. He gives more attention to each one than I did, trying to figure out the significance. In time he can’t make sense of the folds, patterns, and scribbles either, but responds to her with questions, encouragement, appreciation, sympathetic tones, and a sincerity deeper than mine could have been. Ryan begins frantically drawing his name. The letters are square and mechanical looking, covered with a systematic pattern of dots. The work has a faint resemblance to a city skyline. As a final touch, a drop of blood falls inexplicably from the “a,” the only letter he wrote lowercase.
A sudden swelling of love fills my heart as I look at the works of art around me. I regret that I will not have any pictures to remember my friends by. When I leave they will slowly wander away from memory. I feel the loss and a sinister thought enters: I will steal their drawings and folded scraps to remember them by. The temptation is strong, but the idea passes. I couldn’t do anything unkind to them. Besides, I suddenly remember Ryan’s immense size and unstable nature, and realize that even with a tiny nub of a pencil and no shoelaces, he probably could kill me. I wonder if I should ask for what I want, but that also seems wrong, though I cannot figure out why. Momentarily I’m lost in thought. Finally, it hits me: Even though the papers will assuredly end up in the garbage, until that happens they will remain essential parts of who my friends are, and I cannot ask them to give that away.
“I’m really going to miss you guys.” I want them to hear and respond to the love and respect in my tone. Neither person responds. They keep scribbling, tearing, and folding. I try again. “I’m really going to miss you guys when I go.” Once more, nothing. They don’t seem to understand what I’m trying to say to them: that I love them for who they are and can’t imagine caring for them more; that their goodness has made me proud to be a part of the North Wing; that because of their suffering and innocence they are Christlike to me. There is a sense of frustration, but it is not enough to suppress the happiness I feel sitting with my friends in the stuffy, urine-smelling, dimly lit room. The floor is filling with brilliant expressions of humanity one shred of paper at a time. Ryan is still adding to his name. I look at it all like a proud father, and realize it’s all right that my friends cannot understand my words. We may communicate in different ways and often times not understand one another, but we are all human and all divine just the same, and I couldn’t love them less or ever be whole without them. And that’s enough; I couldn’t ask for more.Spread: by