Excerpt from Memoir’s From The Asylum, By Kenneth Weene
I should have started earlier. I’m too old, and it’s too damn late. I wish that I could blame someone else for my mistake. There were lots of people who told me it would be a stupid decision – that there was much of life for me to explore, possibly even to conquer; but I chose to not listen. Why? Because I was scared. Pure and simple, I’m a coward. Life had too many potential pitfalls, and I have always wanted to play it safe.
Other guys went to Vietnam after college. Hell, some even left school and volunteered. I didn’t think it was a good war, but that was only the secondary reason for avoiding the service. I was scared, terrified. I didn’t want to die, but more – I didn’t want to hurt. Pain scares the crap out of me. I don’t do pain – never did and never will.
Then, too, I was scared of trying things that I couldn’t do. I’m one of those people who rehearse for getting up in the morning. I go through the sequence: what I’m going to wear, which tasks I’m going to complete, even what I’m going to think about. If something seems too difficult, screw it. If there’s a bunch of too difficult things on the roster, well, screw the whole day; I stay in my bed – my safe, unchallenging bed. With my face turned to the wall and my knees hugged securely to my breast, I journey inward – to the safety of my within.
There was a period, back in the early sixties, when I often stayed in bed for days on end just getting up to shit and to graze out of my refrigerator. Usually, it was the need for new supplies – the realization that what remained of my grazing space had slowly grown the green beard of time – that got me up for a couple of days.
Eventually, I’d hit Sloame’s for some groceries. Then, bologna, bread, soda, cheese – and mustard, mustn’t forget the mustard: all in fridge, and back to bed I’d go.
Safety is a relative thing. In the bigger picture, my life went from bad to worse. But, I wasn’t in ’Nam. I wasn’t failing at a job. I wasn’t getting into trouble with people. I was simply being schizophrenic. Disabilitied, Social Securitied, and indulged by parents hiding their loathing and frustration. Being schizophrenic isn’t so bad – at least not until they, the great unspecified they that is society, say screw it, screw you, and lock you away in the warehouse of unliving dementia.
Those dingy green-yellow hospital walls are really off-putting. It’s like living inside a puddle of puke. The people are the chunks of undigested food – no longer human, just unidentified floating objects. Some of them are really revolting. The others, “the patients,” aren’t so bad.
Mostly, the diagnosed only want to be left alone – alone – caught between the grief of being and the terror of not. Once in a while there’ll be somebody who wants to fight the world, but mostly the world they want to fight is that revolting staff, so you silently root them on. At least, that is how I see it.
Charlie wants to rape the nurse’s aide; good for Charlie. The nurse’s aide is twice Charlie’s size and has a right like Muhammad Ali; too bad for Charlie. Charlie ends up with an ass full of Valium; good for him. They lock Charlie on the violent ward – who the hell was Charlie?
Charlie comes back to the ward; good for Charlie. He’s had enough shock to fry his brain; too bad for Charlie. He shuffles along and drools; when he’s excited he shouts “Oh, boy!” in a repetitive Tourette bark – now Charlie fits in. Good for Charlie? Nope, good for the system. Modern medicine has won another round. The world of the asylum grinds the people; it makes pabulum of their brains and mush of their wills. The system works; the person doesn’t. We all celebrate Charlie’s return by standing around and rocking from side to side.
Some of us stare at the television. There’s a soap opera on. The picture rolls. Nobody seems to notice. Certainly, nobody cares. Most of our minds are rolling, too. Half the staring patients are watching their own programs, the ones in their heads. Vertical hold is not a strong point among the crazy.
Jack wants to take over the world. He plans on leading a revolution; he plans to start in Australia. He stares at the television and sees troop movements. In his program, he is leading an army. He is riding on a large black horse and is dressed in fatigues. He carries a magic sword. A bit anachronistic, but what the hell, it’s his program. It doesn’t matter; he’s too doped on phenothiazines to walk across the room without being told. Instead he pill-rolls his fingers and shakes. They’re supposed to give out Cogentin for the Parkinsons, but the nurses don’t bother. Instead one of them sells the bottles in town. It doesn’t bring much, but they save up for their Fourth of July party. They could get more for other drugs. Valium is good on the streets, but they don’t get much extra; they’re too busy shoving it into us. Mostly they just unload Cogentin and some antibiotics. It buys them a case of beer to commemorate their freedom, to celebrate the all-important fact that they have the keys.
Sue is writhing against the wall. She’s in a jacket. The arms are tied behind her. Eventually, she’ll work her way out. She always does. Then she’ll take off her clothes and try to get laid. One of the aides will drag her protesting to the rubber room. Most of the time she ends up frustrated; but if pimple-faced Harry is on duty, he’ll give her what she wants. They’ll couple quickly on the rubberized floor. Everybody knows what he’s doing. Everybody makes believe they don’t. Besides which, nobody cares.
Harry got her pregnant three months ago. She had a quick D and C. No baby, no foul. Harry strutted around looking pleased as a shark in a school of haddock. Way to go, Harry. You can impregnate a helpless nut job. Way to go, state hospital. You can cover things up without missing a beat. Way to go, Sue. You can attract a no-brained prick. Is everybody happy?
I’m not. I’m safe, but I sure ain’t happy. Life’s a trade-off. Isn’t that what they say?
Mitch is throwing stuff at the TV. There isn’t much to throw in this day room: a few books that have browned and greased with age, bits and pieces of board games that nobody ever played, decks of cards – mostly recreated from lots of other decks until the backs are as distinctive as the faces – and half-ripped magazines that the aides bring to read during their shifts and then leave scattered around. Mitch wanders around picking up this debris and heaving it at the television. Only a couple of the books hit their mark. The picture goes on rolling. Two aides and a nurse wrestle Mitch to the floor and pull down the back of his pants. The nurse inserts her Valium phallus into his butt. Soon he won’t remember why he was throwing anything. They wait until he’s nodding off and then half drag him to his bed where he’s safely lashed down. As they’re tying him in place, one of the aides will get his jollies with a quick punch to the gut. Nobody will object, not unless you count Mitch’s wordless grunt. Nobody counts grunts around here.
Alzheimer’s has Mitch. Every now and then it gets him restless, and he blows like an old geyser that’s running out of steam. The rest of the time he wanders around talking to himself. They say that he was once a college professor. So, it isn’t really that different; he’s just talking to himself in a new place. Guess what? Nobody cares.
Mitch never married. He has nobody to take care of him. One of his cousins, his closest living relative from among a collection of the uncaring, had him committed. Now he has the state – the state as parent – the great father – the great white father. Hell, now I sound hebephrenic.
These damn yellow-green puke walls get to me. The mismatched clothes pulled from the laundry and haphazardly distributed among us helpless inmates get to me. The rolling television screen gets to me. The metal screens on the window get to me. The ugly, nasty staff gets to me. The pointlessness of the people gets to me. The pointlessness of me gets to me.
This wasn’t the plan. I was supposed to become a businessman. That’s what I went to school for. That’s what I had intended, getting rich screwing the world. Then I got scared. Of course, now the army won’t want me. I could leave the hospital and resume my life. I could. I could except that I’m still scared.
What am I so scared of? What fills life with terror for me while other guys go about living with no problem? The doctors come and go here. Each one gives out new diagnoses, new explanations, and new medications. The residents try to talk with us. They have ward meetings and talk about the things like their arrivals and departures, things that they think are affecting us. They don’t realize that nothing much affects any of us; we’re all pretty well beyond the petty shit of this world. We live in our own distorted, phenothiazines laced, no-fears-here, Nirvana.
Before, when I was still out there, I talked to a couple of shrinks. I told them early memories. I looked at loony inkblots and made them into monsters and vampires: I dripped blood from vampire fangs, swam in fire, and drowned in their ocean of fiends.
I looked at pictures from long-ago America and made up stories. One, the one that disturbed me the most, was a picture of a guy in gym class. He was shinnying a rope. I couldn’t get my own gym classes out of my mind. I wanted the guy to make it to the top of the rope and to get an A, but he wouldn’t cooperate. The bastard kept falling to the floor until he hurt his damn back and had to go to the nurse. I thought it was a piss- poor story, but the shrink loved it. She called it significant. I thought she was a loser just like the guy on the rope.
Then I filled out questionnaires. It was back to school with these true false questions and a number two pencil. Yeah, I said, my table manners are as good in private as they are in public. Hell, I wouldn’t lie about something like that. My table manners suck everywhere.
The whole thing was a pain in my ass, but eventually, they stopped studying me like bug crap, and then I got to talk, to really talk.
I talked about the terror I felt as a kid. I talked a lot about Stan. He was my cousin – my cousin and my closest friend. Then he pulled his motorcycle out of this scenic rest stop in California; he pulled out right in front of a concrete truck. They scraped him off the pavement and cremated what was left. Since he’d done the same thing in the same place a year earlier but had survived that time, I figured he was trying. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. If you still don’t succeed, give up; don’t make a damn fool of yourself. Stan hadn’t made a damn fool of himself, just a blot. Ink blots and blood blots, what’s the difference?
Stan was two years older than I, which made him my source of knowledge in the world of childhood. The trouble was that Stan saw the world through horror colored glasses. He passed his understanding of the world’s woes onto me – at least until he found his messy way of escaping them.
His ashes were sprinkled around his college campus, the place he had been least unhappy. I have no idea if the wind was blowing that day, but I hope some ash ended tearing an eye. Everybody deserves a few tears.
Was Stan the reason I live in fear?
Who the hell knows?
Maybe we both inherited the damn fear gene.
Maybe we both had to live with screaming angry fathers who intimidated us as often as they could. With my old man nothing was ever good enough. My uncle was another story. He just raged. It didn’t matter what Stan or his sister did. It didn’t matter what Aunt Alice did. Uncle John just raged.
Then, when he had gotten it all out, he’d retreat into his study. He’d stay locked in there for days. He had a connecting bathroom, a sofa to sleep on, his easel, on which he could paint and repaint the same awful picture of a clipper ship being tossed onto the rocks by the grayness of tormented seas and tortured skies; and he had the meals that his wife, my aunt, dutifully left on trays by the door.
The days would pass. His store would go unopened; his customers would go unserved. Then, without warning, he’d reappear, act normally for a few days, slowly descend into another cloud of rage, and repeat the cycle of his special madness.
Some of us land in the morgue, some of us land in the asylum, and some of us build our own asylums. It’s all the same. It is, in the end, all the same.