The retired cop acts like his heart is breaking. He applies the handcuffs, the legs irons. “I appreciate your service,” he manages.
“I was only a common soldier.”
In his white golf shirt and black, creased pants, he bends down to click closed the ankle cuffs.
In shackles in the back of the police car, there is a chain leading from my handcuffs to the chain tight around my waist.
“The chains are merely a safety formality – so I can drive you,” the cop keeps saying.
Another chain leads from the cuffs around my ankles, connecting them. A third chain connects that chain to the one around my waist. The back of the police car is tight, with a fence of thick metal separating the front from the back.
The retired cop chooses a gas station off an exit out in the middle of nowhere. “So it's less embarrassing for you,” he says.
After filling the tank he parks the police car near the door. Upon entering and managing to the latrine the cop and I continue our banter while two employees and a customer witness in stillness.
Ward One Echo is beige and white with a lounge, patio, nurse's station, and a square hallway with rooms along the way.
John is forty-years-old, boisterous for a recluse, grateful for the conversation as we play cards in the day-room of the VA's stabilization ward.
“The real crazies are lying,” he says. “While the doctors try to understand them. If the docs aren't honest people themselves, they'll never pick up on the fact that the patient is lying.”
“They diagnose you instead,” Daniel says. “Trying to box you up."
Daniel is an ornery old man inside a thirty-two year old body. Bipolar with a tendency toward chronic depression, he was admitted yesterday. “I am in the beginning stages of the a divorce,” he says. He used to work in computer software but his mental illness made working unsustainable. “I'm on disability through the Air Force,” he explains. “She finally got tired of my depression – it's like I'm low and can't get back up toward manic – like I usually do. I have three daughters. Didn't know what else to do.”
“Spike disorder,” Reyn, my roommate, says in his rough auto. “Frontal lobe dementia. Turns out my dad has it. A Marine. When he retired in two-thousand-thirteen, I joined the Army and deployed ...”
He is my size and frame with short, brown hair and a twenty-four-year-old-stoner's happy-but-sedated-expression.
“Eighteen months from the end of two-thousand-three to two-thousand-five. We were two days from shipping home and got extended. I started showing symptoms upon getting home.”
He leans back into the chair by his bed, exhaling. “They got me on all kinds of drugs. At the S__ burg VA, man, they'll take you off totally and start you on a different regimen, like they're trying to get you to lose your mind.”
He has a wife he's been with for nine years. The first time he was hospitalized he threw a rock through a windshield. This time he saw two men step into his house.
“I was watching my kids playing at my feet in the living room,” he explains. “Then went nuts when I saw them. Then my wife – who was in the kitchen – and my kids – who were playing in their bedroom – come out of nowhere and I'm like, how did you do that?
“... Beta blockers,” Reyn says later. “Keeps you from remembering your dreams – all those combat nightmares … it's funny how in real life there's not so much blood but this red mist that shoots out of the head when it's shot ... nothing like the movies ... Sometimes I'll get up and perform a whole fight in my sleep.”
“What's your genealogy, man?” Mike asks.
He is Bromsden, stands like Bromsden; I call him Bromsden and we laugh, though my personality is more like Bromsden in the novel, his more like Nickolson in the movie.
We talk about Kesey and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as we walk laps along the ward's one hallway, shaped like a square.
“Do the hokie-pokie,” one attendant says as we pass the nurse's station.
“That's what it's all about,” answers the other.
They prescribe me Quetiapine because I still haven't slept.
“Prozoan,” Johns says. “Beta blockers, up to 30 mg. Don't let them prescribe that to you if you want to remember your dreams.”
“They'll stop working after awhile anyway,” Mike says.
“Quetiapine?” Reyn says. “They start everyone out on that stuff. “I swear they must have some sort of endorsement.”
“When I was manic, I was at my most happiest,” Daniel says. “The smallest detail around me was God speaking directly to me – symbolically saying the kindest, most uplifting things.”
“Were you on anything … “
“Never. I didn't even know I was bipolar or had depressions.”
'Could see the truth inherent in admitting all the bad thoughts along the way. Seems understandable, even comfortably normal. Still, they added up, detail by detail.
Shifted to the inside of a steam engine train racing through American frontier. In the latrine I notice my glasses. I hate to wear glasses, but these fit my face perfectly. I walk through the boxcars, excited to meet up with my loved ones so they can see my glasses straight from God.
Shifted to a recurring dream. The Oscars are being held in Wildwood Church, located miles into the forest. Ray, who I haven't seen in so long, suddenly asks if I will give him a ride. I jump up from the pew in the back, as if, of course.
Though the last dosage of Quetiapine wore off hours ago, rarely do the shows playing on the television in the background not sound like bad actors running lines.
“We use our whole brain all at once, all the time,” Sarah says, walking laps beside me as she lectures on what it's like to have schizophrenia. “While most people only use a small section that then connects to the other parts of the brain as needed.” She is tall, slinky, blemish-less, with milky-white skin and light red hair – an Irish goddess.
“Schizophrenia begins for some people very young,” she says in her auto tones. “You realize you're more sane than the adults and peers around you. You then continue to look for the big picture, only seeing the world in that way, always, constantly looking at the whole-world-picture.
“Right now psychologists believe schizophrenia is caused by an overly-controlling mother. I have a hard time with that because I am a mother. They used to say the same thing about autism, which used to be called infantile schizophrenia. Some crucial moment where the mother failed and a bond was catastrophically severed. Now they do not consider autism a psychological condition.”
"I used to travel Europe regularly,” she says later, summing up her world travels. “The fashions there are years ahead of us. I'll see the latest thing in an American high end store and recognize it from years ago.”
The VA is only a few miles from Uncle Saul Castro and Aunt Karen, the forever-young, 'cool,' aunt and uncle of my childhood. The VA encouraged me to contact them, but by the time they arrived I had already handled my logistics so the contact was unnecessary.
“You're both exactly the same,” I say to them in the private meeting room -- which is doubly true, they really do look the same.
Though we have only been passing pleasantries and giving comments concerning the war, suddenly Aunt Karen hmmphs. "Didn't you used to never speak -- not even cry as a baby -- and then you would walk around in circles around cars, tables, trampolines ..." she says, ending with a certain smile I had thought only my blood female relatives could pull off.
"Obviously you now understand you shouldn't put things online," Saul interjects, as if mediator, as if I was supposed to know this had been what we were talking about all along.
(0600) 50mg Quetiapine
(1100) 50mg Quetiapine
(1630) 50mg Quetiapine
(2030) 300mg Quetiapine
“I was once in an orange jumpsuit, too,” says Briar, our boisterously confident evening attendant, in aside to another patient. “When a soldier comes through that door into Ward One Echo, he or she is in a state of destroyed.”
“You're normal,” Briar says later. “But not average.”
“He was tantruming,” an RN says to an attendant as we pass by. “So I got down on the floor and tantrumed, too.”
The attendant laughs.
“He was like, is that what I really look like?”
That certain physical-self-awareness showed up again, here and there.
I've learned the attendants ways well enough to reach over their counter while it is unmanned. In my file the daily entries describe me as 'disheveled.'
That night, after showering, I stand alone in the latrine wondering about it. I do a workout of pushups and situps every morning, walk for miles in the afternoons. I wash and dry my one white t-shirt, each night. They have me where a pair of polyester pajama bottoms as part of their color system. With my bald head I look like some kind of monk.
The young attorney provided appears like a gumshoe: old-style tennis shoes, the kind made of canvas laced past the ankle and a half-circle of white rubber over the toes. He wears a blue suit with a red bow tie. “This is only for formality,” he says. “When you get out of here there will be no legal actions concerning you.”
While playing basketball with Daniel – there is no backboard – I could feel our energies silently communicating as I win at Horse.
A new patient, Kirsten, a young girl who weeps into her food, turns out to be good at basketball. A Marine athletically built but small, she leans forward when she walks, jutting her neck and face forward, her eyes always in a lost expression, her lips held in a gape.
She wins at All Around the World.
(0900 – 1100)
A psychology P.h.D candidate administers a series of psychological tests … Ink blots, setting up blocks to match designs, figuring out three-piece puzzles, and a series of memory games.
“You handled yourself very well,” he says at the end.
“You know I'm a mess,” I tell her through the phone.
“Then how is it I know you exist.”
“You're safe,” I tell her. “You could live the life most women in the world only dream of. You can have anyone you want.”
Sarah, Daniel, and I walk laps discussing our meds. All of us are on an anti-psychotic and a mood stabilizer. Mine and Sarah's anti-psychotics are actually sedatives, while Daniel's is Ambilify, which is an upper. Though I am only on two drugs, they have others to counteract side-effects.
“Addicts are looking for only two things,” Briar is saying to a patient as we pass by. “Euphoria or numbness.”
(0600) 50 mg Quetiapine; 300 mg Lithium
(1100) 50 mg Quetiapine
(1630) 50 mg Quetiapine
(2000) 300 mg Quetiapine; 300 mg Lithium.
“Somehow I've lost who I am,” Kirsten wails in the phone, her head in her hands as she sits in a chair against a wall.
Not five minutes later she energetically walks laps with me, smiles at my jokes.
After a few laps she gets on the phone again, crying, sitting curled up in the corner of the hallway.
“Stand sideways,” the blonde-haired attendant says. He is my age with hair down to his jawbone and two rings in his right ear lobe. “Let the football sit in your palm. Then kind of flick it off your finger tips for the spin.”
Sometimes he'll teach things with the basketball. He seems to choose our units' outdoor-times according to when I've just taken a dose of Quetiapine.
“Now that Kirsten's discharged,” I say to Daniel as we walk our two miles of laps. “We've got nobody to play cards with except old men.”
“Actually, that's pretty normal,” Daniel replies in his deadpan way.
“What about females … “ I ask him.
“They're pretty random,” he says as a new-one-our-age, Sharon, walks by.
“You're getting so good at that,” says Mrs. Phylla, an attendant. “And with no backboard.”
I work in a circle, making each two-pointer, then begin the circle of three-pointers.
“Somehow I'm going to learn to dribble,” I reply.
“Throw it like a baseball,” Briar says. “Except you're releasing higher up.”
He adjusts the football in my palm.
“Hold it toward the back of the ball, then throw it with force, trusting it to spin.”
I adjust my footing, standing sideways about to throw to my left with my right hand.
“You're position should allow you to hold the ball away from you vertically with one hand without it slipping out of your palm.”
I make the throw across the court.
“THERE! You go ...”
(watching the Super Bowl)
“I don't understand how they went from a twelve point score to fifteen … “ I ask Daniel.
“There's touchdowns and field goals,” he replies. “And there's the two-point conversion. The fourth way is called a safety. If you're tackled in your own end zone, the tacklers get two points.”
Walking laps, I pass the same office window several times. Sharon sits against the window, while Dr. Hotel, the ward's psychologist, sits at the desk in front of her. Upon Sharon being excused, I am called in.
He is a large, over-weight man in his fifties. He exhales slowly, heavily, before speaking.
“Please don't use drugs,” he says, suddenly friendly. “Please, please, please. You know I knew a few acquaintances of Hunter Thompson's. He accomplished great things but he wasn't exactly a hero.” He pauses. “You overdosed – because your heart stopped beating, then beat erratically, then stopped again. Apparently you once safely drove yourself to the emergency room in this state.” He pauses again. “If you've got some streak in you that wants to reckon with death, remember, please, prolonged experiences with mortal danger either desensitizes you or drives you insane, more often than not.”
Upon stepping out and resuming laps, Sharon joins me and cheerily asks what was up.
“Begging me not to use,” I answer.
She is short and petite, energetic and quick with a zinger. She's the life of our party.
“He kept begging me not to date anyone in this ward. He kept going on and on.”
“And what about childhood?” Mrs Sierra asks during my interview for the twenty-eight day program in another ward of the hospital.
“I got out okay.”
“When you left that place, were you diagnosed with PTSD?”
“No, of course not.”
(On white board:) As a person thinks, so they become.
“Why did you move back to Wilton?” Dr. Foxtrot, the ward psychiatrist, asks.
“We're thinking of a more long-term facility,” Dr. Hotel, sitting across from her, finishes.
“I'm familiar with Wilton,” says Dr. Farris. “There’s nothing there.”
“We're advising you to move up here,” Dr. Hotel says. “There is a beautiful long-term rehab facility here, called Rustic. The dormitories are log cabins nestled in the mountains.”
“I joined for the college money,” William says as our group plays cards. He is twenty-three, hit by four IEDs, and now so cocky he can't even control himself, not to mention fit into a civilian work force.
“Only thing I told the recruiter was: I want to JUMP out of planes,” says Sharon. “Make that happen.”
“It's called the 4H club,” Daniel later explains concerning the city we're in. “Hippies, Homos, Hicks, and Hobos.”
“I heard if you see a ring around the moon,” Sharon says she places a nine of clubs. “It's going to snow. The stars in it are how many days until it snows.”
“They're raising the rents, the property values,” says Daniel continues. “Rich people love it here; they're pushing the lower classes off this land.”
“Meanwhile the downtown gets seedier and seedier,” she says, placing a three of diamonds. “As more and more homeless collect.”
Williams' wife arrives in order to be present with him during rounds – when each patient steps into the ward's conference room and reports to the treatment team. She keeps checking me out while I walk laps, stolen looks I'm not supposed to catch.
“She doesn't love him,” Sharon tells me. “Pregnant with his baby and talking to him like he ain't nothing.”
The woman is sweet, older, short, sharply dressed underneath the white, Egyptian cotton bathrobe she always wears. “Been doin' this a long time,” she says as we wait in line for rounds. “I was in Denver, Colorado at a long-term mental facility – it was awful.”
She leans back against the wall and sighs. “They just medicated the veterans. Men would be laying down in the hallways, the stairway, outside all over the grass. Sleeping men everywhere.”
“This facility must be pretty great,” I reply.
“No. All of them are like this now. With the war, they shut that place down, changed the standards. These places are excellent now.”
She has the shakes. “I'll go three, maybe four years sober,” she says. “Then fall off the wagon and start from scratch again. These shakes are the alcohol affecting me neurologically – common with withdrawals.”
“What was the catalyst for getting you here,” I ask her.
“I started to feel my liver hurting.”
“What's this trend in the ward where everyone's got some autobiography in the works,” I ask the treatment team. “What is that … “
“There's an author named Ira Progoff – highly respected psychologist,” Dr. Hotel says. “Who wrote a book called At a Journal Workshop. That should answer all your questions.”
“Still, it helps the patient put their thoughts in order,” interjects the social worker.
(on white board:) The heart has reasons that reason cannot know – Pascal.
Shifted to being deployed with Moser. He is so happy to see me. He had become a cop in the civilian war and can't wait to show me his badge.
After some sort of morning meeting of Moser's coworkers I walk with him to chow, where we stand in line.
“Chuck,” he says. “This is like, the greatest day.”
(on white board)
Thoughts manifest into words, and words manifest into deeds, deeds turn into habit, and habit hardens into character, so watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring forth with love for all beings. – Buddhist quote.
My psychological tests have been rolled up.
“You scored exceptionally high all around,” Dr. Hotel says as if this were a mounting problem for him. “That's why I wanted to do this instead of one of my underlings.” He looks through the paperwork as if he doesn't know where to start. “Someone with your brain is SUPPOSED to be in school. Its functions actually improve with scholastic use. Also, this brain type is especially susceptible to damage from drug and alcohol abuse.” He almost seems angry, pausing for measure. “I don't understand how it is that you haven't killed or damaged any brain cells, the alcohol alone should have shrunk certain areas.” He pauses again, as if to let it sink in. “The colleges here are some of the best in the state. You ARE to take advantage.”
She has read the short stories.
"It's only a game they've been playing for twenty-nine-years.”
(0600) 50 mg Quetiapine; 300 mg Lithium
(1100) 50 mg Quetiapine
(1630) 50 mg Quetiapine
(2030) 300 mg Quetiapine; 600 mg Lithium
Dr. Foxtrot and Dr. Hotel are of two minds – Dr. Hotel, the psychologist, insists, even demands, I get myself to college henceforth, while Dr. Foxtrot, the psychiatrist, fears such pressure and promotes the CWT program of the VA's, which gives veterans temporary jobs in the VA, while keeping a close, even doting, eye on them. “It's a year long job,” she says. “Paying tax-free minimum wage.”
The two throw their weight around, careful not to actually argue with each other, as I stand in front of the conference table, having presented myself for rounds.
“No one has ever been on CWT a year, or even close to a year,” Missy, a young attendant, whispered once in private. “It has always led to a job.”
Both the doctors and the social worker want me to live at the rehab program. “After you perform your initial three months, you will be given a per-diem bed in the veteran's cabins,” the social worker explains. “You wake every morning in rehab, then go to school or work, then go to sleep each night in rehab. You can do this for two years without spending any of your own money. After that, you can continue on there for a small monthly fee – four-hundred and twenty dollars, I think.”
I work for an ornery, gray haired man in an underground shaft loud and thick with dust from distant explosions. Sometimes I work as a miner, other times I am his acquirer. In the middle of the three rooms in the shaft, I receive instructions from him, sitting at his plugged-in laptop behind his paper-cluttered desk. I am to acquire two dogs.
At the house in God's Country, the gigantic pecan trees still stand strong over the yard. Inside the silent house, the furniture is covered in white sheets, the air stale. I find Susie Q, what's left of her tail wagging. I remember how she jumped into my lap and had her pups. I take two of them.
“I need two German Shepherds,” I say to the lab-coat wearing woman at the counter in Wilton. She takes the pups as trade. “What happens to them?” I ask her as if confidentially, implying euthanasia.
“Sir, this store front is empty and sterile,” she says.
At the underground shaft, my boss acts as if I am late, his wrinkled face contorting. The German Shepherds are large, hardy; the workers are pleased. Back at the white, sterile storefront I am to think quickly. By Susie's expression she wants me to trade her for the pups. I would, except I am aware of the euthanasia, which I cannot do to her.
“If she could see her pups,” I say to the same blonde woman manning the counter as before. “She is the mother.”
She silently agrees, and Susie, the pups, and I visit in the farthest corner where I sit on the floor thinking, watching the woman in my peripheral. Suddenly I see Dawn's car pull into the drive thru of the restaurant across the street. I place one puppy into the right front pocket of my coat, then place the other into the left as I move to scoop up Susie. The woman nears me, stopping my motion.
“Sir?” she says over and over. “Sir?”
She places a hand on my shoulder and I back hand her face, sending her to the ground. Grabbing Susie, I race out, crossing the four lane traffic at the expense of blasting horns, finally darting into the backseat of Mom's green Oldsmobile.
Looking abstractly out the windshield, she wears a slight smile, like she is thinking to herself. I gather she is on her way to see Mrs. Linda, her friend and protector during the Marissa case, because Wilton looks that time period. I empty my pockets of life forms; they curl up with Susie on the passenger back-seat floor mat. I sit in the middle, straddling the carpeted green hump in the floor at my feet, as she drives through stop lights. We approach Marissa's neighborhood. “It's sad,” I say. “The neighborhood looks the same twenty years later. Still poor, and the houses like they have huge cracks in them.”
The dusk is gray, the inside of the Oldsmobile slate blue. She seems preoccupied with her smile. I forgot how used to me she is, how important each friend is to her, how wide and limitless her hope while her loneliness had taken on a life of its own.
“Mom,” I say quietly, leaning forward toward the space between the front seats. “Are you going to become a school teacher ...”
“Are you?” she answers.
We listen to the hum of the car for several seconds before I speak again. “I've never met a happy teacher.”