“If I wore a coat of invisible green,
Do you think for a moment I could be seen.”
And dedicated to Friedrich Holderlin.
Let’s talk mental illness. I know that unless you’ve been there you can’t wrap your mind around it. It’s like leprosy (“Yep, He’s going on one of his tangents again,” I hear my reader say, “A truly cooked noodle!” – In my defense! I’ve been obsessed with leprosy lately for some reason.) I just finished a book about Ned Langford who contracted leprosy in World War Two fighting in the jungles near Iwo Jima. There could be nothing more horrible could there be? To be a leper. I mean, that’s the ultimate outcast . . . absolutely shunned . . . undeniably denied. The leper’s eyelids are falling off and his fingers are growing shorter by the day. I’ve read the book twice over and I still can’t fathom it . . . I mean, what it must be like to suffer leprosy.
But mental illness is as hideous in a way that looks much less hideous than leprosy but, I believe, must be as devastating . . . and most people have no idea of the suffering endured . . . as we have no idea of the suffering endured by the leper. I know mental illness . . . I know it pretty goddamned good . . . and I’m gonna let you all in on a little episode. It’s a good story . . . and serving it up to you is probably the only benefit I’ll get out of a horrifying experience.
After a hideous statue of St. Francis of Assisi . . . with horrifying shaved to a point teeth (and me a Protestant boy!) chased me out of the house . . . and after I ran to a public place to complain . . . and after I told St. Francis to fuck off as he came in the coffee shop behind me . . . and after I called him an asshole . . . and after the big tumbleweeds started menacing me again . . . I found myself, of all the goddamned things, locked up in a Psychiatric ward . . . laying in a bed . . . with a man who I thought was another nut-job fucking with me flashing these red and yellow cards in my face. Yes that’s where I found myself . . . and the man that seemed to be another psyche ward patient turned out to be my counselor! I still think he was crazy . . . but a good crazy.
He had one card that was yellow, and on it it said “SELF” . . . and under that in little letters it said, “true.” Then he had a red card which also had “SELF” printed on it . . . but under it it said “false.” At that point I wanted them to get the fucking lunatic out of my room. He was like a magician . . . sleight of hand with them cards. He’d flash the red one (that said “false self”) in my face . . . twiggy, twiggy wa! “This is the false you and I hate this ‘you’!” What? That’s what the mother-fucker said! Then swoosh . . . wam bam bingingham . . . it’d disappear. If they hadn’t shot me up with a hefty dose of Ativan I would of socked him in his goddamned jaw! Then he flashed the yellow card (that said “true self”), and he said “This is the real you! I love this you!” Like some sort of perfidious magician he kept flashing one card while he hid the other one behind his back, then he’d do the same . . . swoosh! The red card! Swoosh the yellow card! All the time saying “I hate this you! I love this you!” And this went on for quite some time. I wanted them to get the bamboozled dizzard out of my face!
There was something happening behind him that sure interested me. A cute little number (Hey! How come I’m always falling in love with a girl in a psyche ward? It happens all the time. I ask you dear reader, “Is that normal?”) was going through my clothes (I was in hospital garb) and this bag I had with a book of poetry by Baudelaire and some candy and stuff, presumably to take away anything I could hang myself with (my boot laces; my belt; yada yada yada) and making a list of my belongings so it’d be recorded when I left. She also took my wallet to put in the safe. I know from experience that this expedient is more to make sure you don’t run as to protect your belongings. Because without your wallet you don’t got much do you? No I.D., no money, no credit or debit cards, no phone numbers of your lunatic fringe pal that’d be willing to pick you up as you is running down the highway. . . and on the lam you can’t get very far without those things.
So everything was nice and legal. I figured she was gonna be my counselor (and I was very happy about that) but was just too busy to escort the loony gadfly out of my room. He was still doing his little hide and seek trick with them cards. So as I think I said, (did I?) this babble-box turned out to be my counselor, and in fact, I never saw my cutey again! He said all kinds of shit . . .
most of which I can’t remember because I was flumdiddled on the drugs. Yet later I hung on his every word because this dude was a fucking genius! He knew how to cure. God had given him a gift . . . a goddamned weird gift . . . but a gift all the same. I do remember one thing he asked me on that in-take day. He asked me to name a person that is the pinnacle of all that is precious to me . . . the one that I couldn’t describe how much I loved them . . . love beyond words. I said, “It ain’t a person . . . it’s a cat . . . a cat named Pip.” He said, “That’s fine . . . that’s cool that works fine!” He said, “That’s our key! We’ll work with that. We’ll start with this!” Then he got real solemn . . . like this was sacred stuff; and then he said to me, “YOU are as precious as Pip.” I started balling like a baby. It was the most beautiful thing anyone had said to me in a long time. I asked the little cutey how long that beautiful nut-case had been in here. She said, “That nut-case is your counselor, and he’s very good at what he does.”
After I got to know him I’d have to say the man was either continually manic or he had one hell of a passion for life and for his patients. Never a low moment!
Fascinated with life! Fascinated with everything! Fascinated! Whoop-de-holy-fantods! Then he got you fascinated with life.
He also did another beautiful thing I’ll never forget. In the morning there was this older black gentleman that’d wake you at 7 a.m. to take your blood pressure and do some other stuff with you. I’d already been warned about him by a nurse and this other patient that glommed onto me . . . a woman that’d tried to kill herself by taking 100 Benadryl tablets! (More on her later.) She said that the black dude seemed kinda nutty himself . . . and that he’d lay down a constant rap only about a tenth of which you’d understand. She told me to just nod my head and say, “Yeah.” Sure enough this fellow (as he took my vitals) laid down a steady stream of rap . . . lines I couldn’t grasp . . . I couldn’t follow him . . . but it seemed like some pretty heavy stuff . . . some serious philosophy! I wish my brain hadn’t been flumdiddled as it always is when I’m woken at 7 a.m. and full of drugs (ha ha ha), because I’d of liked to have understood and remembered what he said. Instead, I just said, “Yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah.” So on that first morning he led me back to my room, holding me up and moving me slowly along with a compassionate hand, and then he did a wondrous thing (Him and my counselor musta colluded at some point). As I groggily got back into my bed, and as he was leaving, he said, “Remember . . . you are as precious as Pip!” I couldn’t help but start balling again.
Yeah, I know you wanna hear some stuff about the crazy-ass patients . . . no end of entertainment there . . . some real doozies! But no, I ain’t gonna tell you about them yet. I’m gonna tell you about the ward. The ward made a square. In the middle was the nurse’s station, the counselor’s offices, and the pills . . . lots and lots of pills! (I love pills!) The outside of the square was the patient’s rooms.
This had to be Rick’s little concept. (That was the name of my counselor . . . Rick.) Along the walls of the halls were pictures . . . photographs . . . hundred of them! From ceiling to floor! They were old pictures . . . black and whites . . . a lot of Indians . . . like Edward Curtis used to shoot (with his camera, not a gun). All the pictures had either Indians or working class whites from the 1800’s. I think. Did they even do photography in the 1800’s? I’m a fool . . grief has crazed my wits . . . I don’t know. Anyway . . . they were old . . . and to me they seemed very sad. Maybe it was because I was locked in a ward with a darkness on my brain, but the pictures made me feel melancholic.
I was walking along looking at the pictures when I met my first fellow patient. A black chick . . . she’d come up to me, “Rick’s gonna make you choose one of these pictures and write three pages on it.” “Great.” I said with a lack of enthusiasm. “They depress me.” I saw it as three pages of depression. “It’s all how you look at ‘em.” She said, “you gotta find the light in them.” I was too brain damaged at this point to see any wisdom in what she said.
“What you in for?” I never know if it’s kosher, but I always want to know why the person I’m conversing with is in the booby hatch. Mostly because I’m curious, but I also want to know if I need to stay the hell away from the person
. . . there’s some sick mother fuckers in them wards.
I’ll call this lady Amanda. I told you she was black. She wanted to talk about Obama . . . she was really excited at the prospect of a black man becoming president. I didn’t care about that . . . I wanted to know what she was in for. “I tried to kill myself,” she said, “I took one hundred Benadryl. It was all I had. Man I flipped out! I hallucinated my husband as a flying sheet, and all sorts of furniture was walking around me and talking to me.” Christ! I wish I’d know the stuff did that when I was still a drug user! I mean . . . I’ve drank my share of cough syrup for a weird high in my day, but I didn’t know that Benadryl could get you off like that. I filed it away . . . someday I might need that information. You learn all sorts of interesting information in rehab and psyche wards . . . information you probably shouldn’t have.
I wanted to know why she tried to kill herself. She said, “I cheated on my husband . . . I’ve sinned and I’m going to go to hell. I deserve my punishment and want to go ahead and get it started.” “You think you are going to hell?!” I asked in disbelief. “You ain’t going to hell . . . Christ sister there isn’t no hell. If there is then you is already in it!” She didn’t buy it. Hell was her destination. I walked away thinking, “You belong here sister . . . you’re crazy.”
I did end up doing my three page writing assignment. Me and Rick got all into this “synchronicity” kick. We started to follow patterns in everything to see the map of God. Whoever the hell that is. The universe is a message God created and you have to learn how to read that message. Then you wouldn’t end up in mental wards. You’d have it all sussed. At least that was Rick’s philosophy. He’d bring me stacks of pictures glued on pasted board . . . flash them at me (sometimes fast sometimes slow), and we’d try to follow a pattern through the thought systems and quiet observances that ran through my interpretation of the pictures. Sounds nuts! Probably is!
The black and white picture that called to me from the hall wall to write my three pages on, as required by Rick (when you is locked-up, you do what they tell you to do . . . that is if you want to get out. Hell, if you like it in there, fuck all . . . have a ball). I wanted to go home . . . so I picked a picture, probably from the early 1900’s, of a woman gathering wheat by hand. This was synchronistic because I was reading at the time Zola’s The Earth, and the point I was at in the book described the backbreaking work of the men-folk cutting the wheat by hand with a scythe. But even more pronounced by Zola was the misery of the farmer’s women as they, bent over constantly, painstakingly gathered the wheat and tied it into bundles.
There is a part of the book where Zola is describing a worn-out woman . . . worn out from too much hard work and too little love and compassion. While he’s describing her you’re thinking she must be 75 years old . . . withered and worn . . . beat and badgered! But soon Zola informs the reader that she is only 35! She had one foot in the grave! Mind blowing!
The woman in my picture was beautiful . . . so it seemed to me . . . but from reading Zola I realized she wouldn’t be beautiful for long . . . and so I wrote about decay . . . entropy. A rather depressing subject . . . how we are all getting old and in the way. At least for me . . . my age . . . my misery I’m trying to drop off somewhere. Love to give it to some of the little bastards that hop around all youthful and merry . . .as if Charon and his oar weren’t gonna pummel them. Smash their pretty puss’s in! No . . . I wrote about how this woman was going to be dried up in the soul and flesh in no time. Like me sitting in a mental ward . . . all the magic gone. But I’m depressing you. My dear and beloved reader . . . I don’t want to lose you . . . don’t want you to spring off to happier things
. . . tossing my little rag in the garbage bin. So I’ll move on. There was another deeply synchronistic moment that tied into this picture and Zola, but my fried noodle can’t remember what it was.
Ah hell, who cares? I’m boring you with this drivel. Let’s get back to the freak show! That’s what you, dear reader, want. Absurdity and insanity? Maybe a little blood and guts? No . . . sorry . . . the crew in this round was mellow. If they weren’t, Restoril took care of that.
I was in room 3. In room 4 was the fattest woman I’ve had the privilege to behold . . . at least outside of them cool Guinness Book of World Records pulps we used to pour over as kids. Bertha! They needed a whole crew to roll her out of the bed and into a wheelchair (too fat to walk), and get her to the group therapy sessions.
I didn’t like her. I don’t know why . . . I just didn’t. Yet she had the saddest face I’ve ever seen on a person . . . and usually I have empathy for such people. I didn’t cozy up to her . . . I didn’t want to be her pal. Still, I had to find out why she was in there. I’d have to trust to the group therapy session and that she’d spill her guts. Yup . . . she did. She told us she tried to kill herself because they took away her kid. I sat there stunned. Holy mother of Satan! You’re too fat to have a kid! That’s what I thought. I’m a prude so I ain’t going to go into conjecturing here . . . but how can that happen? . . . I mean . . . I’m getting kind of sick thinking about it . . . I mean . . . oh hell . . . you know what I mean . . . with all that fat! How can it be possible . . . um . . . yeah . . . I mean . . . how do you reach it? I asked several broads I know about it . . . they had their humble opinions . . . but I ain’t going to repeat them here. I’m gonna go with the one that she got so fat after she had her daughter . . . some sort of trauma . . . some sort of sickness.
The other anomaly was the crazy Indian chick. She didn’t look older than 25 but she had ten children! Ten children! Plus a husband that beat her! The kids came from three different fathers. She admitted that all these men beat her. That was her gig . . . hooking up with brutal dunderheads and popping out brats. Her thinking was clearly impaired . . . I know that’s an understatement. That she came back for more beatings and to breed like a rabbit was messed up enough
. . . but her reason for being in there with the rest of us was even more warped. She had tried to kill herself because one of her children had died. Holy mother of Moses! She had 9 more! Plus she was pregnant with a replacement. I thought I was sick in the noodle! I had nothing on this dizzy dizzard. Christ! She could lose three or four and not even notice! Why off yourself over one brat. Plus . . .well
. . . yup . . . this is why she, in my humble opinion, belonged in there. It wasn’t because she tried to kill herself . . . no way. It was that she tried to kill herself over one child when she had 9 more to still care for. Plus, if she killed herself, she was killing the brat inside of her. Not that I cared. One less shit-ass and its dip-spiddled mama. The world wouldn’t lose nothing. Still I was fascinated with her logic . . . or disorder of.
Next! There was a dude in there I’ll call “blue shirt.” Because he wore the same blue shirt every day. A bigger pessimist you won’t find on thirty planets! He made Voltaire seem like a jolly optimist. Holy dinosaurs! I figured him for a goner. I’m fairly certain he’s offed himself by now. He could depress Mother Theresa! Half an hour with him and she’d be putting a pistol to her head. Wow! Cup half empty? No! Hell no! It was completely empty! He wasn’t even a person anymore. He was a walking dead man. I had to tune him out to keep my own dark side from falling into step.
Actually I can’t give this moniker to “blue shirt” because we really did have a walking dead man. I took him for a ghost at first. I thought I was hallucinating. He was whiter than this sheet of paper. He was white! I mean WHITE! Whiter than an albino! If it’s possible to be whiter than an albino and not be an albino. He was nearly translucent. Pain had drained all the life out of him. Me and him had a good long chat. Something about the obvious death instilled in him attracted me. You always want to talk to death when you get the chance . . . I mean, while you is still alive and kicking. Once you is dead it might not be so fun to have that little chat.
I took advantage of the situation. Plus he was a gentle soul . . . he wasn’t embittered by all he’d suffered. Pain, literal physical pain, had drained all the life out of him . . . sucked his soul dry. He told me he prayed every night to God that he wouldn’t wake up in the morning. He could hardly move and he talked in a whisper. You had to put your ear real close to him to hear. He’d been in chronic pain for over 30 years! “How old are you?” I asked. “Sixty,” he replied. “Christ on a crutch!” I hollered. “Yeah, it’s been a living hell.” He whispered. I asked him what he’d done to hurt himself . . . thinking it’d be some sort of construction accident. No! He’d just woke up one morning with pain all through his body! Down his back and into both legs! The doctors had tried all sorts of gigs . . . from surgery after surgery to acupuncture. He was in the ward because he’d finally had enough . . . tried to kill himself . . . morphine overdose. Problem was, he’d been on morphine so long, it took such a huge dose to overcome his tolerance that he couldn’t get there with the stock he had. It just wasn’t enough . . . he came out of the fog still alive.
I had to admire him. He’d held out for a long time. I hope he’s got his wish
. . . I hope by now he’s gotten off this shithole . . . with its pain. He’d been in pain thirty years! My brains would have been all over the wall a long time ago
. . . though I’ve had my share of mental pain for the past thirty years. You find heroes anywhere . . . even in psyche-wards. I had two now . . . my seemingly cracked counselor and Mr. Pain. I wanted to talk drugs with my ghost. I’m partial to pain killers and I wanted to know what his regimen was. He said, “They started me on codeine fives and now I’m up to straight shots of morphine repeatedly through the day.” My mouth stared to drool. “Sounds like paradise to me!” I told him. “No.” he said, “You get so tired of them . . . they just dull it . . . the pain . . . and make you dumb and sleepy. So you still got the pain, only dulled, and you got a mind that can never really wake up. Year after year that’s fucking tedious.” “Oh . . . I never thought about that.” I said sheepishly.
The rest of the crew there was people just like you, dear beloved reader . . . but with a wire connected wrong . . . a circuit that’d shorted . . . a childhood of abuse and incest . . . a trauma not forgotten or forgiven. Some had lives that were appalling . . . some were whiney candy-asses . . . some were paranoid . . . some were just fucking weird . . . some were as simple and trusting as children.
What’s more to say? Nothing really. They let me out after a week. I didn’t want to go but I didn’t want to stay. I didn’t want to lose Rick and his crackpot therapy, but I was goddamned tired of the nut-jobs. Plus . . . I missed Pip . . . my cat . . . my daughter. I missed her something awful. And you know what . . . wanna know the truth . . . want in on a little secret? I’m as precious as Pip!
Featured Artwork By: Chris Bird