There is a thirteenth floor to St. ---- Hospital. Of course they don't call it the thirteenth floor. It is called the fourteenth, so that there is no thirteenth. And on this fortuitously renumbered floor they put the psychiatric cases, the flip-outs, the suicides, the moonstruck, the nuts. It was here that I spent one Thanksgiving, many years ago, in that dim region of Weir known as Our Younger Days.
What happened is not remarkable in any way. Broken love led me to say that most despondent of phrases, I want to kill myself. Of course, I did not really want to kill myself but at that time I was the only one who knew that. My friends, in whose home I chose to have my wig-out, thought they saw signs of the final desperation. They thought in my simplistic, narcissistic phrasing, they saw an endgame. This is admirable in our friends. This is what we would wish of our friends. God bless them.
The breakup was standard. Like many partings this one came in stages. There was the stage where a lengthy separation, by miles and weeks, was instigated. There was the stage of mutual parting, where we both agreed that we were better off apart. There was the stage where I was cuckolded -- on my 30th birthday! -- for no better reason than boredom, sweet twentieth century ennui. And there was the stage where I went raving, weeping, hysterical to her parents to convince them that I loved their daughter more than any man in the history of civilization was capable of loving their daughter. I'm not proud of any of it.
But the blow of mercy, the unambiguous, terminal guillotine blade was delivered after we had presumably patched things up. It was then that she decided that I was not good enough for her, a formulation given this way: she told me that she was not good enough for me. I recognized grim resolve when I heard it. It was the finality of this -- black like imagined death -- that sent me spiraling. I'll admit to not being the most stable youth. And hence, this spiraling, this unspooling, did not surprise too many of my friends or loved ones.
Vaguely I remember my friends putting me to bed in their home that night with a pill. I remember waking early the next morning with the horror all over me again, as fresh as the night before. Sleep had solved, had resolved nothing. And I remember that it was then that I uttered that fateful phrase. I believe part of me understood that this would lead to my being put someplace safe. I believe this was at least partly why I said it. Was I bringing drama into play, so to speak, as a sort of desperate action to signal my own seriousness, my own heartfelt loss? Yes, I admit that. Part of me knew it, too. I seem to have been split into many parts: the steppenwolf brain.
Vaguely I remember being admitted, and an interview with a psychiatrist who readily agreed that I was possibly suicidal, possibly a danger to myself.
And then my little room on the 13th floor. And into a hospital bed as if I had broken a bone instead of a heart. It was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.
I remember then that afternoon and evening, contemplating the pain that led me to this ignominious rest cure. The psychiatrist came by again, to look at me with melancholic discernment -- or so I read it -- Merlin's smile on her Cheshire mouth. She told me that since it was a holiday I would pretty much be left alone until she could return sometime during the weekend. Immediately this whole adventure seemed off beam -- a miscalculation somehow. I felt as if I had done something wrong -- a ready enough default function -- as if occupying that bed had been a decision I had made, akin to choosing an elective in college, or deciding between working full time or finishing school.
Of course, it hadn't been a decision. Yet, I felt as if I could have done something else--anything else--and would have felt better about myself. Partly, this was due to the fact that I was sitting alone in a hospital room watching The Rockford Files , eating hospital victuals, trying to read Sheltering Sky , which seemed impenetrable. In other words, I felt guilty about taking up hospital space. What was wrong with me? Was I looking to psychiatry to solve a problem that went back, at least, to Man's second generation--say, Seth and his wife, who didn't seem to share the same interests, Seth with his shepherding, and his wife with her book group?
I lay there, institutional covers up to my goozle, and knew I had to make at least one phone call. I had to tell my parents that I wouldn't be there for turkey at their house tomorrow. Instead I had decided to see what kind of festivities the Booby Hatch had to offer. This was a tough phone call. I wept. They wept. Or at least my mother did. My father, stuck with his entire generation's inability to show emotion, gave me stolid strength, implied empathy. I feared their approbation. I feared their disappointment. What did they do to deserve such an unstable son?
Actually, I was surprised by my mother's show of solidarity. And, at the time, I didn't really think of it as commonality. I did not realize, I don't think, that my mother was suffering with clinical depression, untreated her whole life. She did empathize. She knew the parameters. But I'm skipping ahead. Back to Wednesday night, post phone call.
Now, I admit here to being slightly disappointed with the Psycho Ward. Where were the men picking imaginary nits off their skin? Where was the nymphomaniac who entered rooms slavering and concupiscent? Where was Renfield? Where were the guys with the straight jackets? The firehose? I wanted a Snake Pit. All I got was a quiet floor with a few eccentrics. I was disappointed because I fancied myself a writer -- or at least I fancied myself becomin g a writer. I needed gritty experience. I needed a good schizophrenic to conspire with, a nymphomaniac to turn over my little apple cart. Instead, I got James Garner's wry, world-weary smartass.
All this is embarrassing. Was I really suffering, or just overly theatrical?
I was really suffering. I did think that I might hurt myself. Not kill, but hurt. Because the pain inside needed an exterior emblem. I imagined that I could not walk around in my hometown because everything would remind me of her. I needed her. It was an addiction in that it was physical. My body needed her. And here, writing this 20 years later, I tell you this: it took a long time before I gave up the idea. I thought I would die if she were taken away from me permanently. It was a longing of the flesh, and of the heart. Perhaps I've overexplained it. In short, I was in great pain.
I managed a short walk around the corridor that night. I remember seeing a soldier in the room next to mine. He sat on the foot of his bed, spine as straight as a column of fire, staring straight ahead. I assumed that he had worse phantoms in his head than I had in mine.
I slept very little the first night. Who sleeps well in a hospital? The nurses came in periodically even though I was on no medication, no drip. I thought perhaps I would be awakened by Billy Babbit's screams, but the ward was peaceful, almost dreamy. And the next day dawned like a rag-end of tattered dream. I was alone in a hospital. And the woman who loved me loved me no longer.
It was Thanksgiving Day in the Bughouse!
I met a few more of my fellow inmates. I cannot remember particulars. A number of us wandered the floor, doctors home with their loved ones and a roast turkey or duck. There was a game room where no one was playing games. The pudding cups were going like water. And word spread among us like a conspiracy: the dinner tonight would be turkey. It was as if someone had told us we were all going to Paris! The exhilaration, the anticipation! Turkey!
I passed the soldier. In about 12 hours it seemed he had moved 12 inches. He was now standing at the foot of his bed, at full attention, TV flickering.
I retreated to my room. Some friends came to visit. They sat by my bed and the jokes came fast and furious. I have funny friends. This sometimes saves me. We laughed and I made with the self-deprecating sallies and I felt, briefly, as if everything was beautiful again. What was I doing in the psycho ward on Thanksgiving?
That evening my parents and sister brought me leftover turkey, dressing, gravy, potatoes. Now, my mother's roast turkey and gravy would be enough to pull anyone out of a trance. It could make Hyde Jekyll. And the sweet, comforting expressions my family wore -- well, they broke my damn heart.
After they left I felt bereft, lonely. I called a woman I knew whose affection for me had always been a great boon. For whatever reason, she kept a pilot light burning for me, if not a flame. She came right away. I didn't deserve it. When she visited, all nurture and concern in her lovely face, I felt lighter, enriched. She smiled sweetly, and placed her palm on my cheek. Such tenderness is vouchsafed few men.
And yet the next day I awoke on the ward and felt like an astronaut abandoned on a desert planet. I was all alone in the world, unloved, unlovable, inconsolable.
I determined that I had to go home. I had a plan. And when the doctor came later that day, I outlined my plan. I would leave the hospital. I would stay with my parents until I felt better. I would be fine. She looked at me the way Apollo looked at Orpheus, when Orpheus summarized his proposal to follow his dead wife.
In short it was agreed that if I still felt OK I could leave on Saturday. She recommended that I make serious plans to begin seeing a psychiatrist. I made her an empty promise that I would
My parents came to collect me Saturday morning. I rode home in the family Buick, feeling as if I were six years old again, as if I were being picked up from the sleepover where I'd gotten homesick.
I stayed with my parents, who were remarkably accommodating, helpful, remedial. When I finally went back to my home -- where dwelt the ghost of my ex-lover -- I was still as sad as if steering toward dim eternity. I had not healed. My house cursed me.
Eventually -- well, you know what eventually means. I slept in my bed again. Eventually it succored me again, allowed me to sleep peacefully, somewhat.
Eventually -- slowly, like a bird sharpening its beak on Ararat -- I recovered from my addiction to my difficult and seductive ex-lover. Of course I did. Humans do. Humans heal. Erratically, measurably, and by increments.
A lot has happened since, to me, to the world. Great strides have been made in psychopharmacology, not to mention great bushels of mazuma. I now see a therapist; I now take a handful of pills a day. And the world has learned to speak gently of the mildly deranged, has learned somewhat to empathize with sufferers of nervous disorders. There is a newborn sensitivity in the land -- some may even be offended by my flippant tone here. Faulty mental health is not funny. It is not.
The pharmacy has become the new saloon. Mother's little helpers have spread to the entire family. A few years ago the book Prozac Nation appeared. A whole nation on Prozac! Lithium is given out like tictacs. ADHD drugs come home in the Tuesday folders. It seems like the whole dang world is on something. Not to mention, many folks are self-medicating with booze, cigarettes, Enzyte, chocolate, coffee, reality TV.
In retrospect, was it really a broken heart which put me on the 13th floor, or the committee in my head, which tells me poisonous things I have built, cosmic brick by cosmic brick, member by member, insult by insult, over a long and loosely troubled life. A friend of mine calls this little voice in the head the "You Suck" guy. Yes, occasionally the voice tells me I Suck. What shuts him up? Many things, thankfully.
And here I am, twentysome years later, agoraphobic and uneasy, heading higgledy-piggledy into the Uncertain Future, sometimes terrified of it, sometimes philosophical about it. The world is a place of chaos and ferment. But also one of love and friendship and continuance. How we respond to the Uncertain Future is a major theme. Some of us weaken, some of us are brave, some of us write poems, some of us turn everything, the grist of our very lives, into Story.
I'm doing OK. Today I don't suck. Today I wanted to tell you the story of my Thanksgiving on the Thirteenth Floor.