Ward Six

Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead. I wrote this in a letter to Dread. I wrote a lot of letters back then. Some of them I even mailed. I wrote them in my notebook. Later I'd tear out the pages to stuff in envelopes. It was all sort of satisfying: writing, tearing, licking, stuffing.

This happened in the spring. That I wound up in a psych ward. I guess it had to be the spring. I remember the oppressive way the sun would hit the windows at midday. I felt tragic, we all did, and the sun had a way of interfering with the narrative.

Anyway it was better that I was inside writing in my notebooks hearing kid squeals from the playground below. The muffled noises of New York City traffic.

I needed to be contained, Lyle explained. I had energy and a focus that he assured me he wouldn't confuse with well-being. A mark of drive or ambition, he said. It was something, he said. It increased the odds of a good prognosis, he said.

It was all written in my charts. Which I later read. There was a short biography on the first page. I remember that most of all:

Roman Catholic, Irish, articulate.

I'd never thought of myself as Roman Catholic. Which didn't mean it wasn't true. Still, it was surreal. I'd try to imagine this person they were talking about, as if I was an actress and she was a role to play.

Most of the time, it all felt like a dream. I didn't know if it was my dream or someone else's. Maybe I'd ended up in Don Reakes' dream. Maybe it was Lyle's. This would explain things. The dream protected me—the ghosts, the possessed feeling.

It was the worst thing I could imagine and I couldn't even imagine it. That's how bad it was. If I could imagine it maybe it wouldn't have scared me, wouldn't promise obliteration. Plus it had to be the worst thing or else why would I be in the worst place in the world. I mean you have to be really desperate to be on a psych ward. I guess that's obvious. But it only occurred to me later. Like when I'd hear people make jokes—you know, about crazy people or loony bins. Nut jobs. There are so many words for it. I'd realize they were talking about me. I was the worst case scenario.

It was a long time ago.

I wasn't supposed to write or I was but the doctors wanted to read what I wrote. I would write in my more careful penmanship, like I learned in school at Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering, with Dr. Tufo.

Dr. Tufo invented Palmer Method. I loved Palmer Method. I loved all methods. I still do. I found comfort there: holding the pen, forming the words, filling the page with words. Everyday I'd copy something from a book or the newspaper or the words Sr. Loretta wrote on the board. It gave me pleasure.

I thought of it that way because the doctors had asked me if I could still take pleasure in things.

The other thing was that I'd discovered I was a cipher.

I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.

No, you just feel that way, they told me.

What's the difference?

Anyway now I don't care about having a voice. Maybe I cared too much back then. About everything.

Writing in the notebooks filled me up and calmed me down; the world was something I created. Which made it less terrifying. Even if the words were not my own. Especially if the words were not my own.

Don Reakes was forty maybe and from the Bronx. He wore t-shirts and baggy MC Hammer pants. Red and black in a shifting block pattern that made me dizzy. He had glasses and the scruffy beard that inpatient men tend to acquire before they are allowed to shave. Some never get shaving privileges. Don was chatty. Most from the rehab program were chatty. The addicts were generally more fun than the unipolars or even the schizophrenics but Don Reakes disturbed me to no end. I didn't try to understand my reaction to Don Reakes and I couldn't even explain it if you asked; I simply wished him ill.

There was this one unipolar named Eric. We had sex. We got caught but that was part of the thrill I guess. He taught me something about sex. He'd slam me against the wall, tear off my shirt. Later after we were both back out on the street he invited me to his parents' house. He lived with them on Long Island. They told him I was pretty. I guess that made it okay that we'd met in a psych ward. Their house was really dark and felt sad in a way I couldn't understand. When I slept over I woke up with this sharp feeling of terror in the middle of the night. I couldn't breath. I went to the bathroom to puke and ran into his dad wearing boxer shorts. After that I stopped answering his phone calls. I wanted nothing to do with Long Island.

Don mostly didn't talk to me was the thing. Maybe he sensed my hostility but that morning he asked for half of the banana I'd left on my tray.

"If you're not going to eat it?"

I didn't answer. I just looked away. The doctors told me that one of my symptoms had to do with food. I could not watch other people eat. I didn't want to imagine anyone eating either. It disgusted me. The last thing I wanted to think about that particular morning was Don Reakes or his appetite. I could not bear to hear the sounds he made when he ate my banana which I could see him peeling. I focused on my notebook, on the page, on my perfect penmanship.

"I think I want to kill Don," I wrote. I'd forgotten about the doctors reading it later. Or maybe I hadn't forgotten. The thing is when you're sick or when they call you sick you start acting like that. I guess everyone knows that. But I didn't know it, not until later. Not until I'd wasted a good part of my life in that place.

I continued my letter to Dread, who was now in Prague. It had gone this way: a failed suicide pact, me on Ward Six and later the S.S., Dread in Prague. In his last letter, he told me that all of Sarah Lawrence was in Prague. It was disgusting, he said. He thought he was getting away from Sarah Lawrence, he said, only to find it there in Eastern Europe.

I knew that I would not kill another person. Not even Don Reakes. I knew that back then. Maybe I didn't tell anyone that. And I only half tried to kill myself, only sort of swallowed a bottle of Prozac but didn't expect to die I don't think. I called my sister. For one thing. They gave me Ipecac, pumped my stomach, brought me to the ward. It was all so stupid and boring.

There was this other guy Michael Miller. Maybe I've mentioned him. One day he sat down next to me at the table. I thought I emitted a kind of do-not-sit-here invisible shield but it didn't always work. These were crazy people after all. Anyway Michael. I can still see him. He wore a velvet beret, a lace shirt, a long silk paisley robe and slippers. He had this wild curly hair that spilled out from under his beret.

"They say I'm bipolar," he announced apropos of nothing. Which again was pretty much the way things worked around here, conversation-wise.

A few days earlier he'd told me that he was on Ward Six because he thought he was Oscar Wilde.

"I write plays," he explained, "and I became confused."

That was when I noticed that he was dressed like Oscar Wilde, lots of flowing silky purply stuff.

"Do you think you are Virginia Woolf?" he asked me, staring into my eyes. Which really I can't stand. Eye contact they call it.

"Um, no." I told him. Not trying to sound superior or anything—I mean I have my own delusions, we all do—but that wasn't one.

"Well I just noticed you were reading her book."

"It was a biography, actually. Her nephew wrote it."


"Though I have read some of her books. Two so far. I hope to read them all."

"I think you look like her."

"That's not true."

Michael Miller gave me his play. I didn't read it but lied and told him it was interesting and that I enjoyed it. I liked him enough. As much as I could like anyone I guess. Which wasn't much. I was too trapped in my own skull, that suffocating place, to really like anyone.

I could dislike people I guess--even hate them, yes--but that was usually because they'd made a way into my skull. And I wanted them out. Lyle said this was one of my problems. He said he could help. None of us believed him but it was interesting enough. Seductive.

It's not necessarily a place you might want to be. But there are worse places to find yourself than here in the common area of Ward Six.

I wrote this way—stupidly—to Dread. Whenever I wrote letters I made things sound better than they actually were. I hated this about my letters but I couldn't find a way around it. It seemed to happen without my awareness. Sometimes I'd go back and cross out exclamation points.

I spent most of my time at that table in the common area. The common area was the stupid name for the room where patients sat, saw visitors, read, ate, or did nothing mostly. I'd sit with my Pen-Tab Composition Book. It had a black marbled cover. Its pages were lined and mostly blank. I liked the blankness most of all.

The first night they gave me a drug for sleep. I can't sleep without a drug now. But this was the first time. It left me feeling very calm but not in a peaceful way. Calm can be something else. Something wild. I had vivid dreams that night. In one I was back in Chicago. I was at the Rainbow Room. Nelson Algren was there, with Simone de Beauvoir. Simone was naked. Her hair was pulled up in a top knot. People were marching around the room, chanting.

I never forgot that dream or that first night. As if it were real.

If I didn't want to talk to Michael, I'd open the notebook. I wrote "Ativan" at the top of a new page:

It flattens me but underneath I sense my desires. The drugs cannot smother completely such intensity; though they do cloak everything. In any case it is not practical to be overwhelmed with desire when you are locked in Ward Six.

The mornings were the worst. Lyle told me this was Classic Depressive, that mornings were generally the most psychically trying parts of the day for a Classic. As Lyle spoke, I thought of all of the people everywhere, all over the world, who managed to get out of bed every morning. One morning after another morning. All of that getting out of bed. All of those people. And then I imagined those same people all leaving the house—actually going somewhere--maybe without even thinking about it. The progress of days. All of the lives in all of those days.

I remember wondering how it was done. As if I weren't implicated. This is what the ward did for me, at times, at its best—provided distance.

Lyle told me that this line of thought, too, was Classic.

I'd wonder if Lyle expected this to be comforting.

There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people. The kind that is more about a recognition of the failure of communication. The gaps. Like the other day this woman came over and I served her tea and her child played with my child. The woman told me of her career trajectory, which I have already heard in this same excruciating detail twice before. It involves a broken engagement and an incomplete PhD program. Which she considers failure, having come from ambitious North Shore whatever world. I don't consider either thing failure at all. Still, she speaks to me as if I am her judge, or confessor. I felt so lonely hearing her stories, because I know they are about her and her issues and her judges and have nothing to do with me. I nod, sip my tea, thinking about how hard it is to really truly connect with another human being.

Maybe this is how I described it to Lyle though probably not, as I didn't understand myself as well as I do now. Sometimes I had to explain things to the young resident doctor--this bald guy with a pale face, full of acne. He wore glasses. He was overweight and would turn red while talking to me-- embarrassed in that way that some people just seem to always be embarrassed. Embarrassed to be alive, I guessed. It made me like him.

I have become too aware of the gaps, I told him. Once you begin noticing the gaps, you lose sight of everything else.

He'd write down everything I said into his notebook, still looking at me as he wrote. It was impressive.

Say more about the gaps, he asked.

I mean, we can't bridge that. The way so much can't be communicated, not even if we try very, very hard. That language starts to seem ridiculous, once you start noticing.

I'd tell him how earlier in the day maybe I had wanted to connect with someone but then by late afternoon I'd feel that thing inside of me and it would all seem a waste of time. That was the night Don stopped by my room to ask if I'd like to watch television.

"We're trying to organize a group to watch Chinatown tonight. On the big TV."

"No thank you."

"We need at least eight of us. To get a quorum, you know."

I didn't look at Don. I heard a door lock from somewhere beyond Don. Next an elevator door, opening and closing. I looked to the wall. The windows were high enough that I couldn't see out. There was light, something translucent and green. I didn't feel my lungs full of blackness—it wasn't like that. It was maybe less complicated. Sick was as good a way as any to describe it.  

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