Here is the opening section from a personal essay called “Thought Disorder.” The complete essay is a novella-length work that deals with my brief stay in an unnamed Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital in the 1980s. Names have been changed. -CTJ
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to greet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
–T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
We all knew from the start that Ike wasn’t quite right. We were neurotic, dysfunctional, suicidal, anorexic, bulimic, obsessive-compulsive, manic-depressive, drug-addicted, defiant-oppositional or just plain screwed up; all this fell comfortably within the category of “troubled youth.” Our food didn’t talk to us; we knew our names—if not our places—and in general could not only tell you how many fingers you were holding up but exactly where you could shove them. This was just the short-term ward. People like Ike were supposed to be intercepted by the Rorschach squad and rerouted to secure facilities with pastoral names like Riverview or Mercywood. But somehow, Ike got through.
His arrival was not particularly dramatic. It was nothing like the Friday morning when Jim Huizinga had entered our midst, trussed to a gurney and flanked by a uniformed police escort. Somebody had hissed, “Is that a boy?”, and the entire girls’ health class had scrambled en masse to the dayroom window for a glimpse of stubbly red hair sticking out of a white sheet. (Jim later tarnished his own myth by confessing that he wasn’t actually straitjacketed; he was merely strapped down with several yards of medical tape. But we were still impressed, and he was still a boy.)
Ike, by contrast, appeared without fanfare one afternoon, under the auspices of a mother twice his size. It would’ve been a stretch to call him “a boy”; his appearance was otherworldly enough to defy gender. Luminous black eyes–huge eyes, bushbaby eyes–boggled out of a nearly phosphorescent face. Black hair poufed outward from his head, apparently repelled by whatever electromagnetic forces warred inside his cranial dome. During the Community Meeting that night, he perched on the edge of the sofa and tapped his feet, staring at something that wasn’t there. We all clapped when he was welcomed into our happy family. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Why do they make us clap for new admits?” my roommate fretted, “It’s like, `Yay! Yay! You’ve been committed! Good job!’”
I shrugged. Ike was still engaged in his staredown with an imaginary opponent, like a cat. I’m not certain he knew we were there.
I shrugged. Ike was still engaged in his staredown with an imaginary opponent, like a cat. I’m not certain he knew we were there.
Nobody held first impressions against him, though. A little eccentricity came with the territory. My first inkling of Tina Reinhardt’s existence, for instance, had been a hyena screech, followed by a chair that flew out of a door and bounced down the hall. The chair was followed by a nightstand, and then, improbably enough, a chest of drawers. Tina, maddened to the point of superhuman feats, had hefted the furniture at her window, where it ricocheted off the industrial-strength screen and shot into the corridor. Tina later, much sedated, became my closest friend. After witnessing such a debut, one hesitated to pass judgment.
I even tried to make conversation with Ike during school hours. It was just the two of us cooped up in the stuffy math room two floors below the ward. The teacher had stepped out to relieve himself and pop breath mints in another round of his losing battle against halitosis. I surreptitiously surveyed Ike’s houndstooth print dress pants, which he had worn for the past three days– I doubt he owned another pair. He also wore black leather dress shoes with bulbous toes, and he always kept his heels together with his feet turned out, the overall effect somehow evoking Charlie Chaplin.
“So, uh, what school do you go to?” I asked, then immediately bit my tongue. Ike appeared to be my age, about sixteen. Now I noticed that for the past half-hour he’d been laboring over a worksheet of one-digit sums, and his penciled numbers were huge and wobbly. I was afraid he’d respond “St. John of the Cross Academy for the Hindmost Sheep,” or something comparable, and I’d feel bad for asking.
“Pioneer High School,” he said.
“Oh, I went there!” I volunteered. I felt as though I had set off a flashbulb in his eyes; he couldn’t stop blinking. “Just for three days, though, before I came here.”
I marveled at the camouflage that Ann Arbor’s public high schools could provide for characters like Ike. The cast from a medieval fantasy movie, all the creatures from the front page of the National Enquirer, and a phalanx of Roman legionnaires could potentially have traipsed along in the passing-time crush without attracting a second look. No one would single out Ike’s consumptive features from the human magma that roiled down dozens of identical corridors. Perhaps he had lingered by the drinking fountain after the bell had sounded; that would have brought the jackals down, all right. Anyway, someone must have flushed him out, for he was here now.
I tried once more: “So, what are you here for?”
“I don’t…think right. They sent me here…to fix the way I think.”
I wasn’t about to pursue the point.
The next day, some of us were watching baseball on the dayroom TV. To be precise, I was writing, or trying to write, free verse about the Huron River and the autumnal woods, visible to us through a layer of wire mesh and an inch of Plexiglas, while lesser mortals who interested themselves in team sports watched the game. This wasn’t entirely their choice. The expense of installing cable was prohibitive, and anything not G-rated, which was just about everything on TV, was prohibited. A sort of psychiatric baby-sitter– the official title was “Caretaker”– stood guard to ensure we didn’t plot against the staff or watch “disturbing” programs. (On Halloween night they’d left us unattended when the kiddie psychos came up from floor five with their hospital issue trick-or-treat pillowcases and their pants full of shit; we took advantage of this negligence to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, Part III. Whenever an authority figure walked by, we would snatch up the remote, which invariably settled on the Home Shopping channel, and pretend to be engrossed in Franklin Mint commemorative plates. Nobody was fooled, but the powers that be were in a convivial mood and let it pass.) On this day, however, the choice was between baseball and Who’s the Boss reruns.
Suddenly, Ike leaned forward from the couch and pronounced, “That’s not real baseball.”
The people sprawled on the floor in front of the box rolled over to stare at him. “Whaddaya mean?” Jim Huizinga asked.
“I don’t think that’s real. They’re faking.” That was all he would impart, but his hands wreathed itchily in his lap.
“Hoo, boy, do you need to be here!” Huizinga commented, resettling on his stomach.
I looked at the green expanse of Astroturf that filled the screen, at the surreal red and chartreuse of human flesh. The color adjustment was a tad past its prime. Ike’s assertion actually would seem quite plausible, to a Bushman or a Martian who had never been exposed to the technology of cheap TV. I returned to my lament for a dying year, and everyone else returned to the fake baseball. Later on there was a show in which a man was strangling a woman, and Ike began to guffaw uncontrollably. We looked askance for a moment, then shrugged.
The upshot of this brief exchange was that Ike formed a dog-like attachment to Huizinga. Poor Jim would be cloistered in his room with Heavy D. pumping from his boombox speakers and Cycle magazine open in his lap; then he would hear a carpeted footstep. Ike hovered in his doorway, anxiously lapping up Huizinga’s slightest motion with those bushbaby eyes.
“Ya need something, buddy?”
“No,” Ike would say. He’d shuffle a few paces down the hall, then return ghost-like to the scene of his haunting. Eventually the nurse-on-duty would bustle out to make Huizinga turn down Heavy D., shooing Ike out of the corridor en route. We were forbidden to loiter in the hallway. It encouraged sedition.
The staff tried in vain to shield Huizinga from his admirer. After all, when you’re locked up with your stalker and you aren’t allowed to close your door, it’s pretty hard to get away from them. Whenever he left the kitchen or dayroom by himself, Ike glided after within the minute.
“He’s gonna creep up and git you up the booty some night, Huizinga,” Tina chirruped. Part of Tina’s charm was that she actually said things like, “git you up the booty”; her Momma was a hillbilly. “I wouldn’t be letting him look me all up and down like that.”
“Yeah, he’s my most loyal fan, that’s for sure,” Jim said wanly.
“Speak of the devil,” I said. “Here comes your other half.” Tina and I snorted with suppressed laughter as the pasty face loomed closer beyond the Plexiglas wall of the dayroom. I would have patted Huizinga’s arm consolingly, but that constituted P.C.– personal contact– which was an even more grievous offense than loitering in the halls or watching Freddie Kruger on the red and chartreuse screen.
But so far as we were concerned, Ike still fell safely within our tradition. There had always been a scapegoat in our midst, some wild-eyed pratfaller who bore the brunt of the ward’s collective malice and provided much-needed gossip and amusement. There had been the other Jim, who suffered from “seizures” which looked suspiciously melodramatic, and always had his hands down his pants. Then again there was Mike, who had a huge head on an underdeveloped body, wore Velcro sneakers, never bathed, received mail from his mother addressed to “Master Michael Lansing, Esquire” and toted a leather briefcase around the ward which allegedly containing a novel he was writing. The truth was, we could have survived a sewage backup, a kitchen strike, or a central heating failure with more equanimity than the loss of our sideshow freaks. Sometimes I was tempted to philosophize about this phenomenon, or even moralize about it, but decided it wasn’t worth my time. Let someone better than I break bread with the lepers; I just wanted to survive the company of my fellow inmates and eventually obtain a discharge date. If Ike was fulfilling a valuable social role, I was glad of his presence.
Sunday dinner rolled around. I sat down next to Ike at one of the tables in our cramped kitchen. People groaned as we removed the cellophane wrap from the night’s entree. It was listed on the weekly menu as “Turkey-Ham Surprise” and it had a history worthy of the name. Legend held that T.H.S. had cropped up at three-week intervals for five years, until the ward supervisor lodged an official complaint with the hospital administration about its repugnant appearance. The kitchen staff had retaliated by adding green food coloring to the gravy. Nobody dared to say anything after that. Tonight, however, there was more than green food coloring in the gravy.
“Is that a surgical glove?” I squawked. Taken aback, I tipped over my glass of milk. As the Powers that Be investigated and confirmed that well, yes, there did seem to be a couple fingers of latex glove in the Turkey-Ham Surprise, I applied every napkin within reach to the puddle. Then we extracted the glove and chowed down.
“Why aren’t you eating, Ike?” a nurse queried five minutes later. Ike was sitting immobile, staring at his reflection in his plate.
“She took my napkin,” he said, with the kind of voice that spy novels refer to as “dangerously quiet.”
“I beg your pardon?” I said.
“I told you, she took my napkin. She didn’t even ask. She just took it away from me.”
“She needed to mop up the milk fast, Ike. You can reach right behind you and get another napkin from the holder,” the nurse said.
“No, I think she ought to fetch me another napkin. She owes me a full apology!” He sounded so earnest, so sane, like a representative with a petition of grievances. I half expected him to chuckle, elbow me, and say, “Ha-ha, just joshin’ ya!” like Huizinga might have done. But Ike just fixed me with the discomfiting bushbaby eyes, rendering me oddly frozen, until the nurse procured him a fresh napkin in the interests of the public peace.
After the meal, Ike brought his dishes into the kitchenette and started scrubbing them in the sink.
“You don’t have to do that, Ike. The hospital hires people to wash up,” the nurse said.
“But someone told me to wash it.”
“Who told you?”
“Oh, just someone, that’s all.” He kept scouring and scouring long after the dishes were spotless.
Ike’s good hygiene practices weren’t novel in and of themselves. Ava Liebermann washed her hands dozens of times a day, until her knuckles ran with sores. Her compulsion extended to tooth brushing as well. (She had two toothbrushes, which she kept strictly separate; as her prior hospitalization had been for an eating disorder, we theorized that she used one to bring up her food and the other to freshen up afterwards.) If she ever pissed someone off, all the offended party had to do was block her access to the soap dispenser and Ava would go into hysterics. Yet Ava had never tried to impose her preoccupation on others. Ike, however, soon appointed himself as germ cop for the ward.
Metal silverware was prohibited to us, like nail clippers and record player needles, for fear we would injure ourselves and others– though what they thought we could or would do with stainless steel spoons escaped me. We ate with picnic cutlery, which always snapped and of which there was never enough. If Tommy, our favorite nurse, chanced to halve a stick of butter with his carefully washed pocket knife, Ike would be there to tap him on the shoulder and warn, “That’s not sanitary.” If Tommy countered that he had just scrubbed it, Ike would grow self-righteous: ”Only cut butter with butter knives.” Should Tommy then lounge with one foot propped against the wall, Ike would renew his objections. “That could spread germs,” he’d say. “My mother told me never to put my foot against the wall.”
I was the only patient to remark these brief exchanges, and viewed them as little more than snippets of gossip for the dayroom. However, Ike was soon to move more conspicuously onto his own private wavelength.
Every day at three, the staff unlocked the kitchen door and announced “snacktime.” Every
day there was strawberry and blueberry Colombo Yogurt and a tub of fig Newtons. The walls above our heads even boasted a couple of attractive pastel studies where former patients had hurled strawberry or blueberry Colombo Yogurt at some irksome warden. As we sat dipping our spoons into the pinkish plasma, a nurse came in with the midday meds.
I was impressed. I myself only got two blue and gold Imipramine capsules (the U of M football colors for the U of M Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital, I presumed) and a slim white Xanex, dispensed morning and evening. At snack time I just got the eight-ounce carton of mineral oil which I forced down thrice daily to counteract the constipation from the other medicine. So I was relatively unmedicated. But Ike had at least eight or ten pills in his little plastic cup, all different colors; it put me in mind of a doll’s jewelry box, gaudy and overflowing. I couldn’t imagine all the things that must be wrong with him.
“Hey, look, Ikey’s on the Pill,” Huizinga hooted. This was his idea of friendly banter–he himself was on antipsychotics. Ike fixed him with his unblinking gaze, hugged himself tightly, and rocked his chair backwards and forward010s while sing-songing in perfect iambic meter: “I should be on the Pill ’cause I’m a hom-o-sex-u-al!”
“WELL, gee, I’ve got a ton of laundry to do!” Huizinga cried, galvanized back from the table.
“Yeah, uh, whaddaya know, I’ve got O.T. in five minutes!” one of the other guys put in.
“Yeah, I’ve got R.T.!” said the last one, though they both had just returned from Occupational Therapy and Recreational Therapy minutes before. Three athletic teenage males literally overturned their chairs in their stampede for the door. Not particularly desiring another tête-à-tête with Ike, I crept out after them. For Huizinga and his cronies, the very word “homosexual” sufficed to plunge them into a panic. I was disturbed less by the revelation–I couldn’t have cared less if he was homosexual–than by the delivery. Iambs and autistic rocking hinted at something beyond a sexual identity crisis.
On the tenth day it finally dawned on Ike that he was locked up and couldn’t go home. It was a Monday afternoon like any other; I remember we all had Snoopy Band-Aids in the crooks of our arms from the Monday morning blood draws when they’d monitor the levels of our drugs. Tina and I were nestled on the couch, trying to stave off the weeknight melancholy with our favorite pastime, which was plotting a way we could molest Huizinga without getting caught. At last we had it figured out. Our original plan had been to corner him in the laundry room, but this was now kept under lock and key, and patients had to petition the nurse to open it. This was our own fault. One dull evening, having noticed a sour smell in the vicinity of the laundry, the two of us composed a rhyming ballad about an ingenious bulimic who evaded staff surveillance by puking in the washing machine and running it through the rinse cycle. The staff, eavesdropping as always, copied down our lyrics in the shift-to shift report. Subsequent investigation apparently had proved our idle fancy to be fact. So now it looked as though the showers were our only hope.
I, not being labeled an eating disorder and no longer considered a first-degree suicide risk, was allowed in the showers without supervision. At a pre-arranged time, I would take a shower, while Tina would snag Huizinga, saying, “Hey, c’mere, we gotta show ya something.” Meanwhile, my roommate Tiffany would go into the nurses’ station opposite the showers and ask to use her nail clippers. While the nurse was rummaging in the “sharps drawer,” I would open the locked door to the showers from inside, and Tina would smuggle Huizinga in. Then we would pounce upon our possibly not unwilling prey, gag him with a hand towel, and overpower him. We were both taller than he, but more to the point, we doubted he’d resist too much. Needless to say, this scenario was purely hypothetical, and Huizinga was in no more danger from us than if we were playing Old Maid.
“What can I say: we’re pretty damn smooth,” Tina said, swigging from her ever-present Burger King cup. She was allowed ice water despite being bulimic, because her lithium gave her a wretched case of cotton mouth. (Normally all the eating disorders’ fluid intake was monitored by the milliliter, via “I and O,” or “intake and output”: the poor girls were required to piss in graduated bedpans under staff surveillance to make sure that every drop that went in came out the right end.) I nodded, but my attention was now elsewhere.
All afternoon rumblings had been emanating from down the hall. They rose and then subsided, like a thunderstorm brewing in another county that can’t decide which way the wind is carrying it. I strained from time to time to make out the noises, which came from behind a closed metal door. First, an authoritative drone: several doctors, I surmised. Next a woman’s voice rose, pleading, then scolding, in turn. Then there was an unintelligible ranting sound. I had never heard anything like it. Everywhere I went that day, the baritone ravings carried through the walls. Even when my activities took me onto another floor in the building, I fancied I could hear them still, erupting through the skin of the building, blistering the chemical blue or green of the paint. For some reason it made me queasy. It was a feeling like when you’re alone in the house, and the air pressure feels oppressive, and the dog’s hackles rise at nothing.
I felt a sudden need to talk to a friend, a friend who lived in the real world. I excused myself to use the hall phone, the blessed umbilical cord tethering us to the outside world. Just as I lifted the receiver, Ike’s voice, now unmistakably his, rang through steel door and cinder blocks wall:
“IN THE NAME OF GOD LET ME OUT OF THIS PLACE!”
I swiftly rapped my best friend Kit’s number into the phone and crouched down on the floor to chat. Oddly enough, I can’t remember just what news she had to impart that day—the latest antics of her dysfunctional family? Perhaps school, and the endless soap opera of our friends, “freends” (that’s friends in a really bad Michigan accent; it means friends whom you don’t really like,) enemies and “eenemies” (enemies you can’t take seriously enough to hate—see freends.) Regardless, I am pretty sure that my end of the conversation consisted mostly of “Uh-huh,” and “Oh yeah?” because just then the door to Ike’s room burst open and I saw him standing in the midst of two doctors in white coats and a buxom woman I half-recognized as his mother. She was wearing high-heeled pumps and a cabbage-rose-y dress that looked like upholstery; she must have shared my own mother’s superstitious belief in the universal custom of dressing up for doctors. Ike was clutching a Holy Bible open to the middle and the red-edged, tissue-thin pages flapped in squalls as he paced around the little room.
“Mama, take me home!” he bellowed. “I beg of you, I beg of you, Mama, let’s go home!”
There were more mutterings, something about medication, an agitation of the upholstery.
“No! I don’t want more pills. I don’t need meds, I need Jesus! I need Jesus for me and my Mother and for everyone!”
Still clutching the Good Book, Ike broke free from the huddle surrounding him and launched himself headfirst at the sixth-floor window. He was repelled by the steel mesh installed for that very purpose over the shatterproof Plexiglass but, immediately springing to his feet on the rebound, he tried once more. Down the hall, a figure in white was discreetly fastening the massive steel chain on the main doors, the one like a thicker-than-normal swingset chain that usually went up only at night.
I found myself speaking louder and laughing louder so Kit wouldn’t hear the mounting ruckus: “WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY?” and “NO WAY! I WANNA KNOW ALL THE DIRT…” Kit was definitely a little crazy herself, and thanks to her family she was no stranger to scenes (her dad once shit in his pants as a protest against her mother’s crappy housekeeping); so it wasn’t that I needed to protect her tender ears. I simply felt an odd resistance to mentioning aloud what was very obviously going on. Having to explain it would mean acknowledging it, and I felt fierce embarrassment and fear at the thought. My desire to talk about mundane things was like a proverbial charmed circle that might hold the demons—or worse, our ward-mate’s naked emotions– at bay.
Avoidance was never an effective tactic with Kit: “Hey, what the fuck’s goin’ on over there?” she said.
“Aah, nothing.” I felt acute irritation at her question. Why couldn’t she just keep up the chit-chat?
“But what’s all that screaming about?”
At that moment, Ike broke free once more and bolted down the corridor yelling, “HELP ME LORD JESUS! GET ME OUT OF THIS HORRIBLE PLACE!” while his doctors and mother followed at a brisk walk. He flung himself against the double doors of the ward, throwing his shoulder into it with all the weight of his skinny body, and I thought how Tina and I occasionally would grapple at the chain-link fence of the hospital playground and howl, “Help, help, get us out of here! They’re torturing us!” at nerdy-looking medical students who trudged past on the sidewalk; but then afterwards we always fell back giggling helplessly into the hill of clover. Three times Ike charged the double doors of the ward so that the bolts rattled and the great chain jigged up and down upon the metal.
“Oh!…mmm, just this guy going crazy,” I told Kit. “You know how it goes. A day in the life…”
The staff beckoned to me to get off the phone. “Sorry, they’re making me go,” I said.
“AAARRUUUARROOOOGGGGH!” went Ike in the background.
“Ohhh-kay…” Kit said.
The staff herded the rest of the stragglers into the dayroom and locked us in. Some people settled down on the couches, but most of us sat on the floor in one corner hugging our knees and picking at our toes. They had dragged Ike into the nurses’ station, the heels of his Charlie Chaplin shoes scuffing the institutional carpet. Now all the action was down the hall, at an angle so oblique that even craning our necks we couldn’t see much. A white coat hastened to the now-fortified doors, and I idly wondered if they had summoned a chaplain to speak to Ike in his own language. Maybe they would have to conduct an exorcism? Visions of green slime filled my head.
“There’s Mandy Tiller!” an outpost on the couch said. Instead of an exorcist, we spotted the Head Nurse, whose silver pompadour, black spectacles, massive bosom, and hulking demeanor evoked a mean old high school French teachers that all kids dread. We referred to her in our peculiar Cockney as “Handy Killer,” though I privately also thought of her as “Big Nurse.” She passed our assembled faces without looking left or right or breaking her customary robotic stride. Ike continued his hollering for a moment longer. Then someone hanging over the back of the sofa for a better view called out, “Whoa! Handy Killer’s coming out of the nurses’ station with a big old honkin’ syringe in her hand!” She held her hands apart, eyes wide, as if indicating a lover’s measurements. Ike’s voice abruptly fell silent.
Some time later they let us out for a dinner filled with the scrabbling noise of plastic forks. There was no sign of Ike, but we all knew where he was. There was one door on the ward that didn’t lead to anybody’s room, nor to any of the common facilities like the rec room or the laundry. It was always shut fast, but on one occasion I’d seen it ajar. Inside lay a narrow cell with a bare vinyl mattress on the floor and a window high up by the ceiling. (I think they’d thrown Tina in there for a day and a night after she cracked the Hospital Director over the head with a painting of a sunset that hung in his office.) So he was like a green dot bleeping silently on our radar; we all knew his exact coordinates, practically to the number of footsteps, the number of cinder blocks along the wall.
After dinner the staff called a meeting so we could “talk about what we must be feeling.” We went around in a circle and rehashed all the little signs that no one thought much of at the time: the “fake” baseball, the spilled milk, the skulking in Huizinga’s door, the woman being throttled while Ike laughed. I felt that we—or at any rate, the more lurid members of our cohort, not necessarily the anorexics or obsessive-compulsives who you knew were always on Student Government—were spooking ourselves with Ike almost for titillation, the way kids at a slumber party conjure up some thing-under-the-bed that they don’t quite believe in anymore. After all, Ike was just a fluke–none of us could be crazy, right? No one was coming for us with a big honkin’ syringe. We knew that baseball was real. We consoled Huizinga, with the ghost of a smirk, on the near miss to his booty. By bedtime my roommate Tiffany had christened him Ike the Psych. So Ike both was and was not among us, already folded away and on his way to being forgotten behind the metal door, like a dead leaf in a big book. And then it was lights out.
TO BE CONTINUED
* * * * * *
FROM PART TWO:
“Red nights were always the worst. Next worst were orange nights, like the smear of light pollution over a small city; then came black, which was strictly neutral. Dark blue was still solemn, yet serene. Best of all were purple nights, like the nights of midsummer, when the sky ripened like a giant plum. From long nights of wakefulness, I’d come to recognize the sky in all its hues through the window at the foot of my hospital bed. But it was a red night when they came to take Ike away…”