Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Volume 6Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Volume 6

Colorfully coated tablets turn mountainous highs and cavernous lows into gently rolling grassy knolls of I’m ok. Professional listeners smooth life’s wrinkles and put a crisp crease in our outlook. A jolt of electric current reshuffles the cerebral deck so we forget what got us down. And for those with time to spare and good insurance, the ordered and orderly-controlled world of institutional residence offers the opportunity to stroll cocooned grounds like Mrs. Robinson. Big therapy.

A smile of acceptance. A word of encouragement. A hand of support. A suspension of judgement. Little therapy.

Mental baggage can be dead weight on a weak mind. It is one thing to lift the weight and quite another to propel it forward.

*  *  *

The weight landed on me with a thud in the summer of 1977. It was the “Summer of Sam” in New York City. Ultimately exposed as a doughboy taking his murderous orders from the neighbor’s dog, Sam’s ethereal persona was a terrifying night stalker of monstrous proportion. At 3 a.m. on a sultry July morning, I wondered what mischief the “Son of Sam” was up to as I looked down on a lonesome taxi rumbling west toward Third Avenue—steam softly rising from a manhole cover and trailing behind. This had become my near-nightly ritual since making Manhattan’s 47th Street YMCA my home. Wile away the night getting quietly drunk until Friar Tuck’s turned out the lights. Walk the eight blocks back to the Y and straight up 12 flights to the roof. Step onto the 3-foot-high brick wall at the roof’s edge. Climb over the 4-foot-high metal fence that stood atop the wall. Balance precariously on the inches-wide ledge on the other side. Hinge my left arm to the corner fence post, and swing out over the night, debating whether or not to let go. The debate ends when I lock onto the sobering vision of my body lying in the middle of 47th Street, arms and legs impossibly bent, a pool of blood accentuating the pathetic form of my broken body. I climb back onto the roof, nearly falling in the process. Scared sober, I shuffle downstairs to my room—weary, depressed, and very much alone.

Depression doesn’t swallow you in one voracious bite; it nibbles at you a little at a time. And nothing whets its appetite like loneliness.

There was no need for me to be alone. I had a wife and three small children in New Jersey, an advertising agency full of work associates in Midtown, and a girlfriend on the Upper East Side. But I hated myself too much to be with any of them. Too many years spread-eagle between the intensely competitive Young Turks and mini-skirted temptations of New York’s ad world and the wife-three kids-and-a-house, church-going idealism of New Jersey’s suburbs had led me to rationalize that an occasional extramarital hors d’oeuvre was a harmless coping mechanism. But sexual dabbling gave way to a full-course affair that quickly transformed into orgasmic bulimia. In rapid succession, separation, guilt and shame morphed into terminal emptiness. Until the fateful day when a therapeutic vile of prescription sedatives became my ticket out…or so I thought—my attempted suicide undone by an unrelenting YMCA desk clerk delivering a message from my estranged wife. An archangel delivering a wake-up call, his incessant BANG-BANGING on my door somehow seeped into my overdosed, semiconscious mind. Alive and unhappy about it, I blindly escaped into the Manhattan night to add liquor to my drug-infested body and raise my profile with “New York’s Finest.”  After several hours of a decidedly one-sided game of cat-and-mouse with the boys in blue, I was deposited unceremoniously in Bellevue’s psych ward. Voila! I was ready for some real therapy.

*  *  *

Two weeks later.

Leather straps secured my legs and chest, but I managed to raise my head enough to glimpse my new institutional home. The expansive, low-slung hospital sat in a hollow, surrounded by rolling green hills. It looked nothing like Bellevue, where I had been deposited a week earlier in handcuffs, courtesy of the NYPD. Even in my heavily sedated state, I chalked up this change of venue as good news.

My memory of the past week was cloudy. I remembered being in the straitjacket, but I wasn’t sure why I’d been in it. I remembered being frustrated that I couldn’t control my tongue to form words, because of some drug they gave me; I hoped this new hospital wouldn’t make me take it too. I remembered the painful visit from my dad and my father-in-law; I didn’t like that they had to see me surrounded by all those crazy people. And I remembered them—those crazy people, the patients, shuffling along like zombies: drooling, threatening, cowering, staring.

But that was all behind me now.

It had been a two-hour drive from midtown Manhattan to the Carrier Clinic, near Princeton, in New Jersey. The day was dreary and the air heavy as the ambulance passed through the gates and followed a long, meandering road to a small building set slightly apart from the others. My wife got out there. The ambulance then proceeded to transport me to the rear of the hospital complex. I strained my neck to see a set of double doors open at the back of one of the buildings and two individuals—a white male and a black female—step through. Both wore immaculate white uniforms; the woman pushed an empty wheelchair. Tall, square-shouldered and youthfully fit, she had the look of an athlete, or a soldier. Her name, I would soon learn, was Alisha, and she would become a great friend over the coming weeks, patiently re-introducing herself after each of my electro-convulsive therapy treatments.

I was to be admitted to Edwards Hall, the 24-hour lockdown unit that housed those who might harm themselves or others. But first, Alisha parked me in a holding room so my wife could say good-bye after she completed my admissions formalities.

“Jimmy’s here,” my wife announced as she entered the room.


“Jimmy…from Rutgers,” she prompted. “The TEKE house. Jimmy, the wrestler,” she continued, trying to ring some bells in my muddled mind, but stopping short of using his nickname. Finally, she gave up. “You know…Killer.”

A chord of recognition finally struck. “Killer’s here?” I asked.

“Yes. He works in admissions. He processed your check-in.”

Ten years earlier, Killer had been one of my younger fraternity brothers. I had been his mentor. Jimmy got his nickname like we all did in the TEKE house—assigned during the pledge period by fiat of the TEKE brotherhood. Jimmy had this great Polish surname that begged to be preceded by something charismatic. As a member of the university wrestling team, Jimmy regularly overwhelmed his opponents with the quickness and power of a jungle cat, so “Killer” seemed a natural for Jimmy, inspired as his nickname was by an old Polish wrestler named Killer Kowalski.

Killer’s here. For a few moments, I lost myself in memories of college days—football, fraternity parties, girls, a future vast with possibilities. Then my sedative-dulled mind processed the reality that the future had arrived. I was no longer the big man on campus, the football star, the rising young executive, the loving husband and father, the good citizen. I was a patient in a mental hospital. Worse, I had managed to devalue my life so badly that I now required 24-hour supervision and, soon, shock therapy. Worse still, my little fraternity brother would be watching.

Edwards Hall housed about twenty patients, male and female, ranging in age from the teens to the forties. Several psychiatric aides were always present. Two stood out. They had that “let’s get out there and do some good” attitude that is fine until it’s imposed on you. The girl was in her twenties but seemed determined to be older-composed to a fault and coolly superior. The guy, about the same age, was the definition of earnest-always peering at you like he was trying to understand. I immediately disliked them both and managed to promptly make the feeling mutual.

I don’t know if it was the presence of those two or the ethereal presence of Killer that snapped me out of my druggy stupor, but suddenly I found myself assaulted by a renewed determination to finish the suicidal job I had botched in New York. So on my second night in Edwards Hall, I stole a piece of silverware from dinner. Truth is, I couldn’t have cut bread with that knife, much less my wrist, but I suppose it was the thought that counted.

Miss Do-Gooder started in on me. Taunting, “You just want attention.” Demeaning, “What a child.” Berating, “Grow up, little boy.” Sneering, “Weak, weak, weak.” On and on. She wouldn’t let up. She got to me, so I tried to get to her. In my mind, I lunged at her like a great predator. In fact, I sort of fell off the dining chair like a desperate but ineffectual drug addict. It was enough, however, for her to introduce me to the “rubber room”—ten square feet of padding and nothing else—Naugahyde and minimalism taken to the max. A couple hours in there were, indeed, effective decompression. But the wonder drug was yet to come.

Edwards Hall was a self-sufficient world of psychiatric rehabilitation, with its rubber room decompression chamber and a VIP entrance to the electric company, the patients’ nickname for the electro-convulsive therapy facility. The Carrier Clinic’s stock-in-trade was electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and partaking of its therapeutic powers was the reason my Park Avenue shrink, Dr. Rappaport, wanted me there. ECT borders on the barbaric—170 volts to the brain, sending the body into convulsions. But ECT’s barbarism was well masked by the sterility of the setting—like death by lethal injection, except with ECT, you only lose your mind, and temporarily at that.

The sessions themselves weren’t too bad, although the preliminary prattle about the risk of swallowing your tongue was rather alarming. Once the pre-ECT sedatives were administered, however, all anxiety evaporated. From that dreamy state, I just went with the flow-not bothered in the least by the heavy straps pinning me to the table or the metallic contraption securing electrodes to my head. Soon, a small Asian woman would appear—”the dowager of seizures” was how one fellow patient described her—address me by name, place a piece of hard rubber between my teeth, insert a needle into my arm, and ask me to count backwards from 100. Then I assume she plugged me in and I did a little jig. Later, I’d awake in a haze, trying to put together a mind puzzle and wondering if I had been given all the pieces: “Are you ready to get up now, Donald?” Who was speaking? “Do you feel better? I have some juice for you, and a cookie.”

Little by little, the voice would come to life as a nurse helped me to sit up in recovery. “The juice and cookies are over by the window, just like last time.”

After another moment or two, I’d shuffle toward the daylight, vaguely aware of the other denizens of the recovery process and unconsciously preparing to deliver what was apparently my standard opening line: “The hills! What happened to the leaves?” After each ECT treatment, I was dumbfounded by the disappearance of summer. The hills, so green when I arrived, transformed overnight to the reddish-brown defoliation of autumn.

During the days between sessions, I’d put the puzzle—some of it—together, but then another ECT session would re-scramble the pieces. The disorientation and memory loss were very real, if mostly temporary. For the recipients of my phone calls, it must have been equally disorienting: Where am I? What happened? What month is this? to my wife. Do I still work there? Can I come back? to my boss.

Several weeks and more than a thousand volts later, confusion, anger, rubber rooms, and shock therapy had disappeared from my life, and I was placed with the hospital’s general population. To say that I was becalmed at that point would be an understatement of some magnitude. Each day I would take long walks around the grounds. While oblivious to exactly where I was, I was keenly aware that I wanted to go home. Alisha would almost always join me (it was years before it dawned on me that she had been assigned to do that) and we would share our dreams for the future. Hers was to distinguish herself in military service as a tribute to an older brother lost many years earlier on a night patrol in Vietnam. Mine was simpler. I just wanted to be with my family again.

As fall edged closer to winter, I got my wish and my doctor signed my release. On my final morning at Carrier, I packed my bag, apprehensive but hopeful. I stepped out of my room and started down the long sterile corridor toward the area where my wife would be waiting. Lost in my thoughts, I suddenly felt a presence alongside me, someone reaching for my bag.

“Let me get that for you, Big Boy.” Nobody had called me that in ten years. I turned to see Killer. I had all but forgotten about him in the jolting process of my therapy. Gradually, my mind computed the experience of the past weeks, the news that Killer’s here, the memories of college days, the ride from Bellevue, the nightmare in Manhattan, the shame of it all. Did Killer know? Could he see it in my face?

“I’ve been keeping an eye on you, man,” he said. “You’re my brother.”

I hadn’t seen Killer in ten years. Chances were I’d never see him again. But those last few words reminded me that I wasn’t alone. They put a little bounce in my step. They helped me raise my eyes to the future.




Comments (0)

› No comments yet.

Pingbacks (0)

› No pingbacks yet.