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Cooperstown Psych Ward Diary photo

My wife watched me walk headfirst into a mirror. It didn’t break. I turned around and saw my wife had just walked by the room and could see in and see what I’d done. She got this pained look on her face and came to embrace me because she could see I was in pain. But then she didn’t stay with me to talk to me. She left. And that hurt even more than any mirror-kamikaze would have.

Mental illness was real but it was also an excess of unhealthy self-regard that drove other people away, scared them so they couldn’t take it anymore. She feared coming home with G. our daughter to find me hanging from some high place or otherwise having killed myself, and the scene of that scarring G. forever. So her solution was to make me go away for all time. The decision to go to a hospital, maybe if I had done it earlier, might have saved things or at least not broken them between us so hard. When I did it was too late, not too late to save my life but too late to save my marriage. 

So she kicked me out of the house and I spent one night at my parents an hour further away from work, drove the extra distance to the hotel and went through a horrible charade of normalcy where I moved tables and chairs in stacks, filled water glasses for the guests and looked over the rest of the week’s duties which seemed impossible. I told my manager that my wife had kicked me out of the house and that I didn’t know if I could stay at work today, there was too much life-chaos, and she took pity and let me go. This was in Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I left work, went to the bank, cashed my paycheck, went and sat in the parking lot of the hardware store and thought about buying a garden hose and duct tape to asphyxiate myself in the car. I knew I couldn’t drive home, to my home home where my wife was because I was told not to come back there. I couldn’t see driving the ninety minutes back to my parents’ house in Delhi and just living life without killing myself eventually. It would come up again, like the highway exit that comes up without warning that you have to tear across four lanes of highway to the leftmost lane to avoid getting sucked into. It comes without warning but with some regularity if that makes any sense. It probably doesn’t.

Instead of buying the suicide gear I drove to the lower parking lot of Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown and with the most defeated and destroyed sobbing choked back so that no one could detect it, I walked into the emergency room and said to the lady at the desk, “I’m going to kill myself and I need help.” I threw myself at the hospital. 

Certain things take over when you tell emergency room staff that you’re going to kill yourself. They put you in a room and if the absence of clocks or watches indicates anything about the passage of time you are left alone with your thoughts for eighty-three years. No one talks to you. They just walk by the slightly ajar door and you can’t hear anything but people making phone calls. What they’re saying on the phone is just out of the threshold of hearing. They took your belt away. This was in the days before I had any phone so I was cut off. I don’t remember what I said to anybody who did talk to me. It felt like throwing yourself into the current of a powerful river but then right away you drift into a still, deep side pool you can’t get out of and the river continues on without you. You will never have the sensation of anything changing again. A shocked catatonia takes over. I was taken to the second floor where the psych ward is. It’s locked of course. I was taken to a room with a bed and I just stared out the window for so long. I lived the rest of my life looking out that window. I could only see another wing of the hospital out there, covered with ivy. And some of the upper parking lot. I am telling you my only life, my only biological functions were in watching brief snippets of people walking to and from their cars in the parking lot and with a pathetic struggling vicarious shudder they were my freedom. I tried to imagine the lives of those men and women, doctors and hospital staff and visitors going back and forth in that slice of visible space limited by the window that I couldn’t open. They could breathe free air, they had lives and jobs and marriages. I studied the women and made up stories about them in my head. I wanted to watch what happened to them when they left the slice of space I was allowed to see. 

I don’t remember talking on the phone but it was constantly ringing. It was right outside my room.

My dad showed up with a duffle bag full of clothes that my wife had packed. She must have been contacted, I don’t know. She packed me a bag for my suicidal gesture throwing myself at the hospital. She had included a photo of my daughter, I think. For me to look at and feel things over. Or, is that photo of her in my bag she packed like the detail that gets filled in when you tell yourself the story of your dream, days after waking, a falsification that serves your turn in some way? In the act of trying to remember a dream, you set fire to one corner of it. 

People on the ward were edgy, I wondered if letting them out to smoke would make a difference. Or not. I thought it was going to be so odd when I got out, the air was going to be so fresh and the sidewalk was going to seem like a flattened monument of freedom. Quietly I asked the nurses for earplugs. 

It got scarier and scarier. A guy named Peter who looked like something God scribbled in His early days and put in a drawer as a mistake, was talking to me and my mother when she visited. “Joy to the world, the hookers are dead... wouldn't that be funny? Joy to the world, the criminals are dead, Freddy Kruger is dead, AAAH!” He talked about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “the scene where he plays the bagpipe and everyone’s like AAH, then he plays the cymbal, T-square? Then there’s the part where he drinks spit, and piss and shit,” all this in the same room with my mother. “I don't remember that part,” my mother said, all demure. He also talked about how I looked like Ferris Bueller, and like a friend of his. “I used to steal from him, I mean cigarettes and stuff, but he didn't mind. I would steal from him and pay him back and he never minded. Until he shot me in the face. With a .22. Blew my brains out.”

Lamictal medication. Is Lamictal weird? I thought. Will I feel weird at first on the stuff?

For some reason when Kelly the psychiatric nurse practitioner spoke about my depressions, I believed her, it's tougher to use my own brand of denial: “I'm not really depressed.” She convinced me to go on Lamictal.

Everyone on the ward seemed really tapped into everyone else's business. And ready to quarrel and squabble. And bitch. It was like detention for unkempt, deformed people. And you could never leave. Disruptive, bitchy, antisocial people. Women ran the psych ward. Mutant lionesses, the most warped was the leader. Most assertive. Which one was Peppermint Patty and which one was Marcie? Remind me. Girl cliques on the psych ward, impromptu pecking order of the madwoman-to-madwoman matrix.

* * *

I was so sad about my current state of affairs. Hearing about my wife, hearing testimony from my brother, not a thing I heard every day. About things like how angry Dad was with my father-in-law for putting stress on me. There was a bad fight brewing between those two men that never came to anything. I was realizing again how self-centered I was, had been. I couldn’t imagine living life without her. I never asked the other person how they're doing. No reciprocity.

Gasping in his sleep in the night, my roommate DAN. Snore-sculptures. No sleep for me. I took a harrowing shower the next day. Every detail seemed kind of infused with drabness. I didn’t know if I was going to survive outside if this drabness kept up. The sun did come out while I was eating breakfast.

Darlene came into my room. I asked her to leave. She had the most terrified look on her face... she somehow looked like she could have been either 29 years old or 59, both were plausible. Was it drugs, meth? You use the word psychotic but you don't know from psychotic until you have a psychotic woman first tell you that you look like her 87-year old father, then the next day as you're talking to your visiting brother, she comes up to you and starts stamping her feet and moaning, “Dad, they wont let me go...” and then minutes later she tries to sit on your lap. I had to call out to the nurses to take her away. Her ass cheeks were cold and gelatinous, I could feel it communicated to my dick through both our layers of clothes. She was probably harmless physically—but psychically, she was volatile and dangerous. The mental aberrations were infectious. My brother said that when Darlene called me Dad and sat on my lap, I should have told her “Go to your room! You're grounded!” And you could tell by the nurses' reactions that this Darlene chaos was all quite typical, nothing to be outraged about.
I was just very afraid, afraid of being in there, and afraid of what happened after I got out. I needed to decide how nervous about the future I was going to be. Decide not to worry about my ex and I. But that was very hard. Because that was all I worried about. And don't manipulate her, I thought, give her a break. It’s funny how the genders are somewhat reversed—in the 50s the wife was hysterical and needed to be committed by the capable husband who's bringing home the bacon. I was only bringing home the bacon bits. Correction: I did talk with her on the phone that second day and she wanted me to go back to Four Winds, the “nicer hospital” in Saratoga Springs. I just wished the sun would come out.

I was so sorry I made her live on a razor's edge for so long. When they came up with the vow “In sickness and health” were they thinking of mental illness? Were they fully contemplating “sickness”? Listening to the marital bickering from the other patients talking on the phone right outside my room, the one-sided conversations I could just barely decipher. “Have you taken a shower yet? You take a shower and call me back. I love you.” This after she called him back to berate him in her broken gibberish-English.

Barb stole my pens and my glasses from my room and Joyce the nurse returned them. A comedy of manners there on the 2nd floor at Bassett. Charenton, Marat/Sade, asylum plays put on by patients. A girl walked by my room singing the “doo doo-doo doo doo-doo” part from “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

An unearthly boredom set in. I read the Jason Compson section of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, one of the only books I could find in the ward. The older brother of the Compson complains about his mentally handicapped brother Benjy and the black people who are “the help.” Jason Compson represented the New South. I can’t defend myself from the fact that in my lowest point of my entire life I thought it was hysterical and perhaps the humor for me came from how racist the character was, and anti-semitic too. Cruel and bitter—somehow the sick humor made me laugh. It wasn’t allowed. It gave me something to cling to in that moment, in the psych ward. The transgression of it, the political incorrectness of it. A part of me wanted to destroy all of humanity.

I can’t sit here and imply that my wife didn't help me, which isn't true. I didn't really move to leave our home until I saw the sympathy on her face. We were in our bedroom, in our bed. She put her hand on my face and was crying. The last time she’d ever touch me.

The sun was gone, the sun-shapes through the window, the parallelogram of light was a memory. They made you take meetings with visitors in the common areas so you'd be less likely to talk about other patients. When they weren’t there.

This panic was normal for mental hospitals. The “When can I leave?” business. Bargaining. Even though in the totality it was voluntary for many of us. But you still had this notion you needed a shrink to sign off on your release. It was like detention with a bunch of retarded Okies, Faulkner characters. Psych ward like flying coach.

The meeting with the psychiatrist was like a job interview. The job you were applying for was “normal person living life outside the ward.” The psychiatrist was an Indian man with freaky magnetized reading glasses that came apart above the nose. He got a kick, I could tell, out of sending crazy people on a disorienting mind trip when out of nowhere he put them on by joining the two lenses in front of his face. I could feel him staring at me to get a reaction.

Dr. Gupta (I don’t remember his real name) had total power over my freedom. He asked if a medical student could sit in. She was a young woman, also Indian, who laughed at all his jokes like there were not suicidal people all over the place, and she would do anything for him. This spiritedness was cruel to the patient, this happiness and flirtation barely disguised between the medical staff. Dr. Gupta told me I was getting a divorce and I could not hear him. I blocked him out. I had a strange sensation that there were five or six people in the room when there were only three. Being watched. I had fantasies about writing a play about the Indian shrink and his student. They were fucking after hours, and she called him daddy. Patients came before him and begged to be released like they were in front of a parole board. He told two patients they had to stay forever but the third patient, who was me, bested him in intelligence and cowed the Indian, was let go, got the wife back, the kid back, the job back, was happy.

But I was very sad just then because I effectively quit my job at the Otesaga Resort that day. In a rather cowardly fashion, leaving a message on my manager's answering machine. Never again would I see the Templeton Lounge, the Ballroom, the Fenimore Room, the Abner Doubleday, the Kingfisher Tower Room, the Staffeteria, the Kitchen, the East Lawn, the OAK Room! Maybe I could go back and just stroll through and visit—in fifteen years.

“I'm leaving for the Lake of Fire. Don't know if I'll be seen again. Getting boned by a thousand queers,” Peter the Scribbled Error Guy said before he was let go to terrorize the world while I was still locked up there.

Was it worth it to wonder what people are saying about me? I wasn’t intending to hold our marriage hostage with the threat of suicide. Or to blackmail her with it. I hope that's not what I was doing. But I might have been. Emotional abuse was within reach and I did so thinking it was something that was helping me or meeting a need within me. And bonding me to her.

Fortress of solitude, castle of worry, my mood was fluttering like a Blue Morpho’s wings. It was a bad simile, wings are fast, this was a slower fluctuation. It was hard to recognize a mood swing. “Sure the DSM IV gives a good definition, but have you, Doctor Gupta, ever experienced mood swings?” It was hard sometimes to even pinpoint a mood. It seemed so elementary, just report how you're feeling. But what if your scope itself, your frame of reference was itself depressed? “You may as well ask me to quantify a color.” The nurse Kelly said my mood had stabilized, but it had stabilized at “depressed.”

I was expecting more screaming in the night, more nightmares. Maybe the earplugs kept all that out. Everything I did then, I saw through the prism of being in a “mental hospital.” My hands were shaking. My knee was bouncing. I whispered to myself. All these things were somewhat normal on the outside, but now they fit the “profile” of an inmate of a mental hospital. My roommate Dan left and I was fearful about who they were going to put me with next. I got my own room, at least for two days. The Birnie Bus Service bore Dan away. Dan was a poor man eking it out, but with a system. Dan had COPD and in the darkness at night he would slam his head hard on the concrete wall and cry. He was replaced by the scariest muttering man I’ve ever seen. This new guy was brought in overnight out of an Escape From New York apocalypse wasteland like that guy Romero who first meets with the cops and tells them to leave in thirty seconds or the president dies. Romero was put into my room while I slept. So I woke up and was aware of him sleeping in his bed. Maybe sedated. My room was normally a safe zone but I avoided it for the rest of my time, to avoid him. He seemed violent like a prison inmate and the male nurse told me “once he gets stabilized he’ll be fine.” 

I had to answer the phone outside my room like somebody’s little brother, who had to go into the ward to find the lioness woman who was being called. “Just say I’m not here,” the woman in the common room said, and I yelled that I was not going to lie for her. Funny how I couldn’t forgive certain people even though they were mentally ill. What does that say about how I looked at myself and still do?

I had from my short time away from life, my two weeks worth of retrospect, this weird suspicion that I somehow played with fire with this whole suicidal depression thing. Like I was getting burned in the hospital. This was my fault. My desire to “be suicidal” caused this. It was a choice I was putting on her, and them. Family dinners at my parents seemed to be unthinkable right then. Everyone joking their way around me. It would be so hard for them to reestablish normalcy. Maybe I was an Okie too? An Okie with a vocabulary? My fictional alter ego Archie Chamberlain, who I had written a Faulkneresque novel about, he stands between rural and whatever's not rural. Hails from dairy farmers but couldn't farm to save his life, too far removed from it. In time. The grandchild of farmers and general store owners, the Snopeses. But still believing in his own farmer cred.

Tell her you'll always care for her no matter what she decides. Take things slowly and on small steps. That’s the funny sad bargaining thought you have seeking mercy from the person who has total control over your future. It’s wrong but I associated her with the psychiatrist, the institution that had me locked up for my own safety. They were allies even though I know now they weren’t. That way lies a host of resentments, a paranoia it has been hard not to give way to. I thought I could buy myself time (for what?) by writing her a letter that said “I am sorry for the anguish I caused you. I was in a fog, I was unaware of the full extent of my behavior’s impact on you. I wish I could have done the last two months differently. I'll always care for you no matter what you decide.”

One gelatinous tear moved through a forest of beard-whiskers as I saw a woman out the window. I thought it was my wife. She had a little girl with her who was too much in motion to see. They were hopping like frogs in the Bassett Hospital parking lot, hopping in turn, like “jump where I jumped.”