Wednesday, April 16, 2014

False Prophets

A work of fiction.

It goes a little something like this. If you know the right psychiatrist, he or she can contact the admitting psychiatrist on call who will eventually find you a bed. Otherwise, you're on your own. Without someone to grease the wheels, you're a low priority, neither the victim of a car accident nor a heart attack. Psychiatric wards are not my favorite places to be, especially because I’ve experienced somewhere around twelve lengthy stays over time.

After waiting for eight hours in the ER, I was finally triaged and placed in a room to wait a little more. The hospital was the best in town. I'd made a conscious decision to choose it. Even in a fully socialized system of health care, some hospitals provide better care than others. This is based primarily on available financial resources. One can make the system fairer, but capitalism reigns.

All the beds were taken, so I was transferred to another hospital. In accordance with the law, I had to be placed somewhere, whether it was in the next country over or even the next state. Where I was headed now was based entirely upon chance. I wasn't thrilled with the prospect, but had to admit my hands were tied. I needed care and I couldn't sit by myself in that room forever.

Time means nothing to those who work in hospitals. At three o'clock in the morning, a slot opened up at the worst hospital in the city, one that I'd recently read was in danger of completely coming apart at the seams. I wanted to leave almost immediately upon being admitted, from the moment the wheels of the gurney upon which I had been placed hit the tattered carpeting of the main hallway. I needed help and couldn’t turn down any offer of assistance.

Upon entrance, the patients reacted to me in unexpected ways. Some treated me like The Messiah. The label was not deserved, nor sought. My mistakes and limitations were no different than theirs. Mine came attached with the splendor of a college education, a loftier vocabulary, and a few more exotic road trips. Even had I tried, I wouldn't have been able to convince the most mentally ill of my mortal status.

I noticed, rather quickly, that they asked to borrow my clothing. They coveted things that had touched my body, lusted after them like talismans, as though they somehow had power and charm. There was a touch of the supernatural about it, as though they believed that wearing my clothes would make my own supposed superior traits transfer onto them. I imagined they worshiped them, placed them before altars, and whispered incantations before bed.

I went through the motions as I had many times before. During occupational therapy, I yet again unenthusiastically water-colored a cheap piece of balsa wood in the shape of a fish. While doing so, I made unsatisfying small talk with fellow patients. Social class and educational opportunity kept me from the company I sought, forcing me to skim across the surface instead with dull and unsubstantial small talk. I love deep conversation, which leaves me feeling satisfied, but I had to make do with the audience provided me.

I never quite understood the point of what we were doing. I take that back, somewhat. On one level I did. It kept us from stewing in our own misery, distracted for the moment by something designed to keep us busy. I didn't understand the phrase occupational therapy. This activity wasn't exactly labor-intensive, nor did it promote any sort of helpful exercise that I could reckon. What it did do was occupy patients' time while the staff took smoke breaks and drank copious amounts of diet soft drinks.

Every day, punctually at 1 pm, we filed into a room with lots of tables and chairs. One was supposed to select three colors that he or she preferred, all found in large plastic see-through cylinders. One hoped that they weren't painted shut from someone else's earlier carelessness. We were next supposed to select an object to paint. I went through the motions, but not with much relish or zest for the task at hand.

Each of us patients had a measure of unsupervised freedom perhaps undeserved, one that could be dangerous. The staff was too consumed with making sure that a particular patient, who everyone called Mister Norris, wasn't sexually harassing the other patients or mutilating himself. He would sidle up to female patients and express a desire to kiss them. The only thing the staff could think to do to discipline him was to restrict his smoke breaks.

No, you ain't smoking today, Mister Norris, said the nurse, her face a portrait of annoyance, hands on hips. I heard you been causin' trouble.

I had the misfortune of rooming with Mister Norris. I would find bloody rags and paper towels in the trash can. I would wipe the urine off of the toilet seat. I would never walk around in the bathroom without rubber soled shoes. Having lived with men before, some of this was expected, but I still found that a lack of basic cleanliness was totally disgusting.

They called all of us, even the hopeless cases, Mister, Miss, or Misses. From that treatment, one could almost believe that we really weren't stark raving insane, that we were instead guests at some exclusive resort with horrible food and dishwater coffee. I appreciated the professionalism, but it didn’t seem to fit here, not under these circumstances.

The true entertainment was watching Mister Norris moonwalk across the room with a dishcloth on top of his head, much to the amusement of other patients. The day room was where we spent most of our waking hours. A round-faced, sarcastic patient had maybe one-half a front tooth left, due to years of meth addiction. I tried to ignore the visuals. At some point, she accidentally brushed up against me, whereupon the oily foundation she had caked onto her cheeks rubbed off on me.

Is this even? I didn't have the heart to tell her that she was asking the wrong questions. Whether or not her makeup was evenly distributed wasn't the problem. I doubt she was well enough to do it herself. Until she recovered, her hands were too unsteady, her perception too impaired.

Look, I never told you I was a nice guy. I generally enjoy being left alone, but thinking hideously cruel things about fellow patients was my means of compensating.

I had various rude nicknames for certain patients I disliked. Snow White was the moniker of one such woman, an exceptionally pale-skinned lady in her mid-thirties who had slashed her wrists. She showed us all the stitches that had closed the once open wound. It reminded me of horror films--the way that eyelids are sometimes sewn shut. She pulled out her Bible in an effort to show us how the events of the present day were connected in some large, overlapping way to Scripture.

A day later, she terrified the more trusting, and more devout members of the ward by feigning a seizure in the dayroom. Faking her convulsions she continually repeated the same verse in Proverbs. This had drawn the fury of the rest of the patients, and leaving her now a pariah. Other patients angrily confronted her for faking illness and momentarily turning the ward upside down. I suppose she wanted the attention.

Ain't I a good actress? 

Later that same day, she practically dry-humped me, leaning over my body under the pretense of re-attaching a loose telephone cord. She wondered out loud if she could only divorce her husband. I wasn’t sure what she was implying, but didn’t want to find out. I wasn't interested, if she was suggesting I might consider being her lover.

I had no peace of mind. Mister Norris talked non-stop. Initially, he'd only kept me anxious, but now it was much worse. The staff had seen everything by now. A male nurse gave me a reassuring smile and told me oh, he's just old and confused. Mister Norris droned on and on, returning to the same two or three topics. He owned a house over by the helicopter pad, he claimed. He’d point out the window towards the location, with great emphasis, assuming you were also capable of seeing it yourself.

I arrived at the hospital in the middle of some fairly massive exploration of my gender identity. I was too weak to hide evidence of it. My socks off, Mister Norris looked at my painted toenails. I wish I had some polish on my nails. Would you do it for me? You know if they saw a man like me with polish on his nails they'd call him a sissy. I wasn’t sure how to honor his request and had not, in any case, brought toenail polish with me.

My assigned nurse very kindly offered to locate some nail polish remover for me. One of the other patients had loudly accused him of being gay and in denial. Based on my perception alone, I suspected this was probably true, though I did not hold the same intolerance. I took offense but tried to gently correct her. Because she looked up to me and respected my opinion, she never raised the subject again.

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