Folks, this is a longer piece — almost 6,000 words. It’s a chapter from the memoir that will probably only get dribbled and drabbled out here on the Substack; it’s the story of five years ago this week, when the fire in my brain burned too hot and I needed to go away for my own safety.
Mama, there is one brief sexual reference here, but lots of references to suicide and self-injury, and that may be upsetting.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
It’s a 2.2 mile run around Rancho Park in West L.A., and I’m struggling through my third lap. My legs are strong, my speed is good, and yet twice I’ve fallen, tasting dirt. “You okay?” asks another runner as I rise from my second tumble, blood trickling down my leg. I wave and smile, my badly skinned knee far less painful than the dozen cigarette burns on my shoulder, evidence of the morning’s first attempt to wrestle back control of my racing, wild thoughts. This now-bloody Sunday trot is my last-ditch effort to hold the impulses at bay. So often before, I’ve sweated my way to at least temporary sanity.
Not today. I am overmatched. Bipolar Disorder 1, Endorphins 0.
Two hundred yards from the finish, I admit defeat. The thoughts – they’re not quite separate voices, not yet – win. In those final seconds of my run, all is decided: home, then a shower. The note. Drive to Long Beach. The Vincent Thomas Bridge. Finis.
I drive home singing to the radio. Taylor Swift asks if we’re out of the woods, and heck yes, girl, we are. We are in the clear. We are in the peace of the decision. I turn it up.
The note I write takes more time than I expect. Passwords. Account numbers. A summary of California law on life insurance payouts for suicides. The phone rings. Danielle.
Since my brain storm began a week earlier, my therapist checks in every day. I send Danielle to voicemail. I can’t explain the indefensible. It would be cruel to let her try again. Wait, though. Shouldn’t she at least know that there was nothing more she could have done? I call her back, leave a message, what I imagine is the standard “please don’t blame yourself, you were wonderful, this was out of your hands” spiel. I throw on a baseball cap, shorts, sandals, t-shirt. It is a hot day, and after all, I am going to the sea.
Just as I start the car, Danielle calls back. I answer. You stupid shit. “Hugo, where are you?” she asks, calm. Danielle tells me to shut off the engine. “Do you have a picture of the children?” Oh. She tells me to go back in the house and get a photograph. I know I’ll want to see them before I go over the side; it’s a good idea. Danielle keeps talking, and not just to me. “I’m calling the police, Hugo. Can you stay where you are?”
I tell her I don’t know. The cops will soon know my license plate, and it’s 25 miles to the bridge. Fuck. Wait.Maybe there’s another way. The X-acto knife in the kitchen, the one I use to slice spiderwebs into my skin.
I’ve seen the news. Perhaps all even a clean-cut white boy like me needs to do is wave it, and some nervous, unlucky cop will save me the drive to Long Beach. I walk back into the house. I put the knife in my shorts.
In just 90 seconds – this is Beverly Hills, with the fastest emergency response time in the state – Danielle tells me the police are outside. “Go outside to them,” she says, “slowly.” I walk out, one hand in my pocket clutching the knife, the other holding the phone to my ear. More officers than I expected; two cruisers, now an SUV. Five of them, maybe six, fan out, a blue crescent surrounding me. “We need to see your hands, sir. Now.” I freeze. This is it. Now, Hugo, Now Now Now. I wonder how much the bullets will hurt.
And the training of a lifetime trumps the readiness to die. I raise my hands.
Oh. Oh no. The Me That Is Not Me shrinks. I hear the long, slow whistle of disappointment and defeat. Taylor, we are still in the woods.
The officers are kind and efficient. In seconds, the X-acto knife is on the ground, my hands are cuffed behind my back, and one of the cops has plucked the phone and is talking to Danielle. I hear the same speech I’ve heard more times than I can count: “You’re not under arrest, sir. This is for your protection.” They seat me on the curb, and a black Irish officer with astonishing green eyes crouches next to me. He gently asks the usual questions. The day is irrevocably altered; now I just want the hurricane to stop, and so I tell him what he needs to hear.
I am polite, small, chastened. Sir, take me to the place where they quiet storms.
Handcuffed in the back of a cruiser, I’m driven to the Kaiser Permanente on La Cienega. Before we get out of the car at the hospital, the officers “5150” me; I am declared to be a danger to myself and formally placed on a mandatory 72-hour psychiatric hold.
Once in the ER, I text my ex-wife and give up the phone. The despair is gone; the wanting to die ending as soon as I raised my hands in surrender. I ask for Haldol. Let it be over for today. I sleep.
Monday, February 15
This is the day that isn’t. I lie in the ER the entire 24 hours, rising only to pee. At midday, I beg for more Haldol and get rewarded with the 5 mg injection. My ex visits, and I’m cotton-mouthed and drowsy, in and out of consciousness. In Eira’s face, visions of the children rise, and the name of the horror of what almost was starts to write itself. It’s too awful. I shut my eyes, try to wipe out the vision of my body, floating in the oil-slicked waters beneath the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
Clean the chalkboard; clap the erasers when you’re done. I dream; I am a child myself, and my babies are not yet.
Tuesday, February 16
Los Angeles has the fewest psychiatric hospital beds per capita of any large American city. It is not uncommon for patients placed on 72-hour holds to spend the first 48 hours of their 5150s as I do, sedated and languishing on an emergency room gurney. When I was a college professor, I had excellent insurance that secured me access to the most comfortable facilities whenever I had a breakdown. I am not a professor anymore. I have a small bookkeeping job and Medi-Cal (the state’s version of Medicaid). The ER team is trying to place me in a hospital that accepts the bargain-basement insurance. They’ve been trying since Sunday afternoon and are having no luck.
A young Nigerian doctor explains this to me when I wake up – ravenous – late Tuesday morning. “Sit tight,” she says, “we’ll have you out by tonight.” I point out that my 5150 will be up by Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps she could write me a scrip for psych meds and just send me home? I’m feeling more stable, I reassure her.
She starts me on Wellbutrin and Xanax.
I’m desperate for food – I haven’t eaten since Sunday -- and they bring me a late breakfast tray and lunch at the same time. I eat the French toast and grilled cheese, slurp down two diet Cokes. The gentle float of the Xanax replaces the brute suppressing weight of the Haldol. This isn’t so bad. I call my ex, ask her how the children are. “They love you, Hugo. They’re praying for you.” The Xanax doesn’t mute the guilt this time. I cry when I hang up. What kind of monster contemplates doing the Great Bail on his children? You, you’re that kind of monster.
Self-pity is the spoonful of sugar that helps the self-loathing go down.
It’s nearly 6 in the evening before the nurse comes in with news that they’ve found a bed for me. St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, a Catholic hospital that contracts with the county to take indigent psychiatric patients. It sounds grim, but I’m confident it will be a short stay. Within 24 hours, I’ll be out, safely buckled into the armor of anti-psychotic medications.
I am very wrong.
After more than an hour in evening traffic, the transport ambulance deposits me at St Francis. Knowing that I’ll surrender my iPhone when I hit the psych ward, I text my boss, my ex and three other women. I call my mother. As I’m reading my email, the battery dies.
We arrive in Lynwood. The main hospital is gleaming contemporary glass and steel, while the psych ward is housed in a grim, squat 1960s concrete block. As I’m wheeled onto the ward, bound and restrained on the gurney, one of the EMTs smiles ruefully. Gesturing around a worn and peeling common area, he offers a bleak summary. “It’s not the best, but there are worse places.”
“I’ve been in many of them.” My bravado is reflexive. My bravado – the Me that Is Not Me -- is also false . I’ve been on a dozen locked wards in the past 30 years, but never the grimmest ones. St Francis looks dingier than those I remember. No big deal; I’ll sleep one drugged night and then slip away.
I’m unbundled from the gurney. I’m weighed; blood is drawn; I produce a urine sample. My phone, wallet and belt are taken. My cigarette burns are examined.
I’m signing the property inventory when the psychiatrist walks into the exam room. She is a tiny Filipina, perhaps 40, and she totters on improbably high, blood-red heels. The shoes perfectly match the lipstick and the polish on her (of necessity) short nails. She wears three rings on each hand, so large that they click against each other.
“I’m Dr. Aquino.” She looks at the chart in her hand, and I know from experience she’s considering the pronunciation of my surname. She wimps out. “Well, Mr. Hugo, I’m going to start you on lithium.” Her accent is heavy, her tone brisk and musical.
“How is 900 milligrams?” I nod. That’s my usual starting dosage. “You’ve been through this before, Mr. Hugo; what else should we start? Zyprexa? Abilify?” I’m a little indignant, as I associate the latter of these with schizophrenia, though I’ve been on it plenty of times.
“Seroquel works,” I say.
Dr. Aquino is agreeable. She scribbles. At county hospitals, they know most of us have been locked down so many times we know which medications we need.
She looks up. “We’ll need to keep you until you’re at a therapeutic lithium level.”
The panic is instantaneous. “But… my 5150 is up tomorrow afternoon.” Dr. Aquino shrugs. “It will just be a few days. Maybe five at most.”
Five? “So you’re gonna 5250 me?” Under California law, a 5250 is a 14-day hold; it’s tacked on if a 5150 patient is judged to still be a risk to themselves after the initial 72 hours are up.
My tone is frantic and angry, and I can see Dr. Aquino adjust to my combativeness. “Yes, Mr. Hugo. The paperwork will go in tonight.”
The complacent bravado I had minutes earlier is gone, replaced by indignant anguish. “You can’t do that, doctor. I’m safe to go. I need to get back to work, to my kids.”
Dr. Aquino smiles coolly. “Just a few days.”
I spit words. “I get a hearing! I want a hearing! I want my advocate.” I only dimly remember the mental health law, but I know that after a 5250 is implemented, the patient is entitled to appear before a judge to present a habeas corpus appeal. On the psych ward, just as on the school playground, terror and confusion manifest as grandiosity and aggression.
“I’m gonna get a lawyer down here! You can’t do this.”
Dr. Aquino hasn’t just heard this before; she likely hears it half a dozen times a day.
“You do that, Mr. Hugo. Rest well.” And with a sharp set of clicks, she turns and disappears. I stare at the floor. I feel the pinpricks behind my eyes. I debate fighting back the tears, decide I’m too tired. And too old. As I begin to cry openly in front of the nurse, I snort. My inner voice’s relentless focus on my age cracks me up.
The nurse makes his living soothing people who are responding to voices only they can hear. “Would you like something to eat? We saved a tray when we knew you were coming.”
They knew I was coming. I have a sudden image of arriving late at my boyhood home after a long drive, a tin foil-covered dinner --perhaps turkey meat loaf? -- waiting on the kitchen counter, family eager to embrace me.
I remember my manners, blow my nose. Deep breath. “That would be splendid.” A grilled cheese sandwich and two cups of fruit cocktail (a staple of every psych ward I’ve ever been on) later, I’m reconciled to a long stay.
By the time I finish eating, they’re already dispensing night meds: it’s bedtime. I take my lithium and two 200 mg tablets of Seroquel. That’s a hell of a starting dose, and I query the nurse. She shrugs. “Doctor’s orders.” I’ll sleep well, I figure. I pop the pills.
Within 10 minutes, I’m woozy. Within 15, I’m asleep on the wafer-thin mattress in room 141. Within two hours, I am awake. There are many unpleasant side effects to medications, but the worst is night terror paralysis. It’s happened one or more times with most antipsychotics I’ve taken: I’m awake, and there’s a crushing, suffocating weight on my chest. I can’t move, can’t cry out. On this night, it’s worse than usual. I realize I’ve forgotten my name. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. I see my children’s faces, and I can’t call their names either. My brain was a wild English garden, and I knew the name of every rose, but now it has been burned clean, and only ashes are left.
I manage a moan. My roommate stirs. I fall asleep.
Wednesday, February 17
The next morning, I am still confused and disoriented. After breakfast, I use the ward’s pay phone to call my ex, collect. I don’t remember what I say, but I remember not being able to speak without slurring. I fumble for words. I speak to the nurses, and they promise to ask Dr. Aquino to reduce my dosage.
The Seroquel wears off, and I take in just how big the St. Francis locked psych unit really is. It’s got 40 beds, 20 for each sex, and it’s almost always at full capacity. Because most patients are on three-day holds, there are 8-10 discharges and the same number of admissions every day. Discharges take place at noon, but admissions can happen 24 hours a day.
The ward is shaped like the top half of a human body. The head is the glassed-in nurses' station, with a 240-degree view of the “body” – the common area with a television set, a dozen metal tables with benches, and four dirty, oversized armchairs. The vinyl on the chairs shimmers with the collected excretions of dozens of bodies, and from within five feet, you can smell the sour odor. Unless you’re medicated past the point of caring, you’re repelled at first. Everyone ends up sitting in the chairs anyway. Comfort trumps disgust.
The arms of the body are the two hallways that spur off from each side of the common area; the northern hallway for men, the southern for women. Except that there are more male patients than women, and my roommate and I are the only two guys on the women’s side . There are always more men than women in places like this, and if they need to decide which men go to be near the women, they pick the gentle, suicidal ones.
The food trays come at 7:30, 11:45, and 4:45, wheeled in on an enormous steel cart. In a nod to a faith I wear ambivalently, I’ve ordered kosher meals. My breakfast tray looks like everyone else’s, but my lunch is a Salisbury steak TV dinner, double wrapped in plastic with a hechsher (kosher certification) on it . Nubia, the sparkling, tattooed nurse’s aide, pulls my lunch tray from the cart and is fascinated. Several other staffers come to take a look, and I turn teacher, starting a mini-lecture on kosher laws. As the words come out, I hear the slight slur from the medication. They’re just indulging you. My confidence vanishes, and I fall silent.
I sit and eat next to Joey. Every exposed inch of Joey’s body is covered with tattoos, including his lips and ears. The ink makes it impossible to determine his age. He could be 30 or 60. He is eating a hamburger with a fork and knife, fastidiously and slowly. Joey looks up at me, eyes my strange tray. “Are you Muslim?” I shake my head. “Jewish.” Not exactly true either according to strict halacha, but close enough. Joey nods, and with lightning speed, reaches out and grabs my wrist. I freeze, and out of my peripheral vision, I see one of the nurses' aides detach himself from the wall and start walking towards us.
“Don’t be scared of nothing, man.” Joey’s voice is a hoarse, urgent whisper. “Not a damn thing.”
I don’t fight Joey’s grip. I learned years earlier that when a psych patient grabs you, they almost never mean you harm. (If I were a woman, I might have a different view.) I relax into the grip, letting my arm go limp. Joey releases me, smiles apologetically, and I offer an approving nod.
“You’re right. Thank you.”
I’m just finishing the rather meagerly-portioned lunch when I’m called to the pay phone. I assume it’s Eira, my ex, but instead it’s Anne. Anne had been a student of mine back in the mid-90s, and is now a teacher herself in Massachusetts. She’s on the downslope of her second marriage, and we’ve slept together on her two recent visits to California. Anne and I flirt on Facebook, argue philosophy, and trade stories about our children. I’d texted her from the ambulance, and she’s tracked down the patient phone number.
When I tell Anne I’ll be staying several days longer than expected, she asks what I have to read. The hospital has nothing, I tell her; no magazines, much less a library. “There must be something,” she says. “Ask a nurse for a newspaper. You have to read.” She’s right, and I feel the panic surge again. In ever other hospital I’ve been in, there’s always been something. Even a back issue of Family Circle or Readers Digest can be a welcome distraction. “Promise me you’ll ask for something,” Anne insists. I promise, and hang up.
I need to do something. I do a lap through the ward. A dozen patients are watching a talk show on the TV. I don’t recognize the program, but the chyron reads “Her Boyfriend Is Older Than Her Dad!” On the screen, a pale, tattooed girl of perhaps 19 shifts uncomfortably in her chair, sitting between the two angry 40-something men to whom the chyron refers.
The inner voice is quick: You’re older than both those guys, and the last girl in your bed was barely that gal’s age. Shame, defiance, pride. They mix.
Someone is calling my name again. A young Asian man about 30 approaches; he’s got a lime-green polo shirt, topsiders, and huge brown eyes. He’s juggling a clipboard and a venti cup from Starbucks. His badge identifies him as a social worker, and he introduces himself as Eric. On psych wards, social workers aren’t there to provide therapy. Rather, it’s their job to make sure that the patients have adequate support upon discharge. People aren’t placed on 3 or 14-day holds in order to get intensive therapy; they’re parked in places like this to be stabilized before being released.
Many patients in a place like this are homeless; the social worker’s job is to find them adequate shelter. For those on a conservatorship, the social worker will work in tandem with that patient’s guardian. For patients like me, it’s Eric’s job to certify that I have an adequate outside support network before I’m discharged.
We sit at a steel table. Eric’s coffee smells delicious, and I resent him immediately. I’ve tried to drink the oily instant decaf that patients get; even for someone as undiscriminating as I am, it’s undrinkable.
“How are you doing?” Eric opens, and I tear my gaze away from his white cup and lock onto those swimming pools behind his glasses. I tell him the story, careful to keep my voice calm. My memory of my fumbled interview with Dr. Aquino firm in my mind, I remind myself that tone matters as much as content.
Make sure you sound like you deserve to go home now.
I have a place to live, a therapist, an income, a support system. Eric ticks off the boxes on his sheet, nodding in approval. I comment on his USC class ring. We banter about Trojan football. “You’re ready to go as soon as doctor clears you”, he tells me in farewell.
Tell me something I don’t know.
At 3:30, patients line up for one free phone call. (The pay phone is for collect calls, and the rates are obscene: $18 for the first three minutes.) I get my turn just after 4:00, which is perfect timing: my ex has just brought both kids home from school. Eira answers the phone, and I hear the clamor when she announces that daddy’s on the phone. My son insists on the phone first. “Abba,” he says curiously, “Where are you?”
I know his mother has told him, but I repeat the truth gently. “I’m in the hospital.”
The next voice I hear is Eira’s “Oh no, honey, no, no.” For an instant I’m confused. Then I remember: when my sweet boy is at his most upset, he crumples in utter silence, his mouth open in a mute howl, tears springing from his eyes. The greater the upset, the greater delay before the sound comes; we sometimes count the seconds from first tears to first sound, like the space between the lightning flash and the thunder clap. David broke his arm last May and needed emergency surgery; his only association with hospitals is pain and fear.
My ex comforts our son, and Heloise comes on the phone. I can hear my son’s sobs now, and my body trembles with the effort of holding back my own. I am determined to wait until I’m off the phone.
My daughter sounds anxious and brave. “Abba, we’re praying for you at school. All my friends are. We held hands and asked Hashem to watch over you.” I thank her, reassure her how much I love her. “Okay, dad, bye!” She hands the phone to her mother, still comforting David. I give a brief update, and hang up.
The tears come so fast they fall onto the cradle as I return the handset. I ache with missing them, and as I hurry back to my room, that ache is swamped by a surge of reproach. They’re hurting because you’re in the hospital? How much worse would it be if you were dead? Such a fucking selfish jackass. My self-talk is as brutal as it is predictable.
Linda stops me in the hallway. Linda is a paranoid schizophrenic of an uncertain age with long gray hair and a distended belly. She has black fuzz on her chin and always carries a book; best I can tell, she’s the only patient on the ward who reads. At the moment, Linda’s clutching a slim Gossip Girl volume, the binding stretched by the fat little yellow pencil which serves as a bookmark. I stare at the book rather than meet Linda’s gaze. The tears fall straight to the floor.
“Are you upset about the cameras too?” Linda asks softly. With her left hand, she points towards the ceiling, twirling her fingers. Her right hand reaches out as if to comfort me, stopping an inch from my arm. I look up; I’m not quite prepared to believe in secret cameras, but what I do want is to push the image of my son’s heartbroken face out of my mind.
“They’re turning them all on tonight. 7:00. If they see that you’re angry, they’ll give you shots with mercury. And then they’re inside your brain.”
Linda leans closer, and I fight not to recoil. Her hair and breath are equally rank, but her tone is gentler. “Your children understand more than you know. They just want you to get better and come home to them.”
She walks away, humming. I’m left grinning, my tears gone. Spend any time with us, and you’ll learn the mentally ill see what others can’t. Sometimes, we see phantasms and hallucinations; other times, we see the truths no sane person can. A sudden swell of protective love for Linda and all my fellow patients comes over me. I am scared and sad and tired, and still I’m safe, safe here with my people.
It is a mercifully early bed. I barely stay awake for night meds. I’ve already been deeply asleep for two hours when I’m shaken awake at 11:00 by one of the nurse’s aides. “We have something for you. Anne sent this.” In the dim light, I see a thick paperback: War and Peace. “It was hand-delivered a few minutes ago. They said it was really important you get it now.” I thank him, gesturing for the book to be put on the bedside table. I fall back asleep.
I dream of Anne, and hear her slight Russian accent. I wake up in the middle of the night, confused, and look to the nightstand to see if I dreamed the novel as well. It is still there. I fall back asleep, wondering how Anne managed to get a book delivered so quickly.
Thursday, February 18
I carry the book with me to breakfast, afraid to let it out of my sight. I’ve never read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I started it in high school, quitting after 100 pages. What once bored me to tears when I had so many other options is now a precious opportunity for distraction. The novel’s length isn’t intimidating; it’s reassuring. No matter how long they keep me, I won’t run out of something to read.
I’m two bites into breakfast and reading the back cover when I hear my name called. Bloodwork to check my lithium levels. I’m cling to Dr. Aquino’s promise (it was a promise, wasn’t it) that I can go home as soon as I hit a therapeutic level. I’m extra polite to the phlebotomist, injecting my blood with gratitude. I figure it can’t hurt.
Back at breakfast, my roommate, Ulises, comes to shake my hand. He’s going home after a five-day stay. I watch the steel door that leads to the lobby swing open; a nurse’s aide hands Ulises his belongings in a plastic bag as he walks to freedom.
My wistfulness is short-lived. My clothes smell; the shorts and t-shirt I was 5150ed in desperately need washing. On each of my past hospitalizations, someone – my mother, a girlfriend, a wife – brought me fresh clothes. No one has come, not that I’ve asked, and I’m four days into my “Monterey Peninsula College” shirt, four days into a pair of plaid boxers.
Happily enough, laundry gets done every morning. It’s not too late to get my things done. I shower while my things are washing, and then layer on two hospital gowns.
On the ward, we get an hour of outside time every morning. The patio is a mixture of concrete and grass with benches and a ping-pong table. A basketball hoop gets plenty of attention from several patients, though the ball is so under-inflated it won’t bounce.
I sit in the sun and start to read. I read the twin introductions nervously. I’m afraid I’ll be bored, and even more afraid that the meds will take away my ability to focus. The last time I was on heavy meds, I couldn’t read more than a few hundred words without having to stand up and walk around.
I focus. There are so many names to learn, so many names easily confused, and I welcome the distraction of the game of keeping it all straight. I do not move until lunchtime, when we are herded inside to await the grand dispensing of the trays.
At lunch, I’m introduced to the roommate who’ll be replacing Ulises; beds are rarely vacant for more than an hour or two here. Edwin is college-age, large and soft. He has tiny dark eyes, great thick glasses, and a striking handsomeness that reveals itself after a few moments of studying his face.
Edwin had a fight with his girlfriend last night, swallowed a bottle of antidepressants, and spent the balance of the wee hours puking in the ER. This is his first 5150, and he’s frightened. He also wants his Xanax, but they’ve told him he can’t have any until he’s seen by Dr. Aquino. In the meantime, he wants to replace whatever he threw up last night, and begs the staff for more food. “This lunch is too small!”
With lunch over, I feel a wave of depression wash over me. Wash? More like fall – it starts with a cold at the back of my neck, then down my spine and into my chest, falling further still until it settles in my stomach. The meds blunt the impact of the wave, but not by much. For the first time since I came to the ward, thoughts of suicide run through my head. This is ideation rather than a crystallizing plan, but it’s still frustrating and frightening to watch it re-emerge.
Rather than think about jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge, I think about my lithium levels. Anxiety about the test results replaces the suicidal fantasy; I don’t want to die as much as I want to go home. I ask when Dr. Aquino will be in. I get shrugs all round.
I read more, lying on my bed. The afternoon meds kick in, and I fall asleep for a few hours. Anne calls, and I stumble to the phone, thanking her profusely for the book. She tells me she called a friend in L.A., convinced her it was a grave mental health emergency. “She’s a teacher too: if she hears someone’s stuck without a book, she’ll move heaven and earth to help.”
I tell Anne I’d like her friend’s number when I get out so I can thank her. Anne snorts. “Not a chance, Hugo.” I do us both a favor, and don’t pretend to be confused or indignant. I know me — and Anne knows enough.
She changes the subject slightly: “I’ll be interested to see if you’re more of a Prince Andrey or a Pierre.” I laugh. “I don’t want to be Pierre. He’s fat.” I don’t mean it, but something in Anne brings out my flippancy. When someone likes you more than you like them, sometimes you find yourself saying things that are banal, superficial, or just plain stupid – you’re testing to see how much they’ll take and still be around. Who is this ‘you’? Own it. It’s not like I’m proud.
Anne and I are still debating Andrey and Pierre when I see Dr. Aquino walk on to the ward. My throat tightens, and I hurry off the phone. I watch the psychiatrist begin her rounds, a nurse beside her, walking up to patients, asking questions and issuing orders. There’s no attempt at privacy: anyone within earshot hears everything that passes between doctor and patient.
I go back to my room to wait. I try to read, but after my eyes scan the same sentence six times without registering it, I give up. I try praying, mixing together Jewish and Christian petitions. I try deep breathing. Finally, I decide to make the bed.
I’m folding a blanket when I hear the click-clack of heels approach in the hallway, then stop. Dr. Aquino smiles at me brightly. “Okay, Mr. Hugo, your lithium level not so good yet. We try on Saturday! Try to be patient and good!” She click-clacks away.
I stand very, very still. I absorb. Saturday means I will miss Shabbat with my family, miss the Torah, miss blessing my children. Never mind all the work I can ill-afford to skip. I’m paid by the hour, with no sick leave.
I feel the disappointment, and something else beneath it: a trace of relief. Part of me knows I’m not quite well enough to go.
Friday, February 19
On the ward, we have karaoke lunches on Tuesdays and Fridays. I missed Tuesdays, but apparently, it’s the highlight of the week ‘round these parts. Just before 12, our little school of some two dozen paranoid schizophrenics, the severely depressed, and the otherwise fragile gather in the dining room. I sit in the back. I cannot do more than croak.
The first choices are predictable. A suicidal young woman with face tattoos steps up shyly and chooses “Shake it Off.” The next two selections are Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” and the theme is obvious. Hope and defiance are universals, and all the Invega and Thorazine the doctors can pump into our bodies cannot entirely suppress it.
“Angelique! Angelique!” The group chants the name of one of our favorite psych techs, beloved for her kindness and her humor and her willingness to give extra snack. Angelique has one side of her head shaved, the other in cornrows that fall to her shoulders. She shyly takes the microphone and whispers something to the tech running the karaoke machine.
She closes her eyes, and in an earthy, loamy alto slides into Anita Baker’s “Caught up in the Rapture.” All shuffling stops; we all lean forward; I forget I will miss blessing my children this Shabbat. Angelique rocks back and forth, seemingly effortlessly rekeying the song to meet the strengths and limitations of her own voice.
She finishes. There is wild applause, and she offers an awkward bow. For three seconds, Angelique’s joy sucks everything out of the room, and I forget everything except the thought that I want to spend the rest of the day watching her.
It’s momentarily comforting to remember that part of myself is nigh-on impossible to medicate away. I am not ready to go home, and I am more at ease with not going home, than I was before she started to sing.
Two of the more volatile schizophrenics, Miguel and Jeremy, are up next, sharing a microphone. Hoots of pleasure as they launch into “Hotel California.”
Of all the damn, too-on-the-nose songs to sing on a psych ward in L.A., and wouldn’t you know it, this is the one that this multi-ethnic, chronologically diverse assembly of the damaged, the forlorn, the medicated and the resilient all seem to know. Angelique excepted, no one can actually sing properly, but it doesn’t matter.
Welcome to the Hotel California, such a lovely place.
It is a mournful, defiant dirge. It’s perfect, and as I cry, I laugh.
I take a long, drugged afternoon nap. At sunset, I stand in my room, face the west, and sing L’cha Dodi to welcome in Shabbat, imagining my ex and my daughter lighting candles.
A few others hear my late and impromptu karaoke offering, and by the time I finish, I have a small audience standing respectfully at the door. Miguel crosses himself as I finish, and reminds everyone loudly that Jesus was a Jew who would have sung this same song.
I count the crowd in the hall. There are nine, enough for a minyan if you include me. I am with my true tribe.
I am released on Monday after eight long days.
Monday, February 22
Home in my bed at last, I dream. In my dream, Dr. Aquino and I are running the L.A. marathon together. I am shirtless, as lean and strong as I’ve ever been; the doctor is all in red, from her sports bra to her shoes.
We run the streets of Los Angeles side by side, our breaths and our pace synchronized. We are fast, and we push each other on, on, on.
In my dream, unlike reality, the final mile is uphill. We start to labor. The pain comes. 200 meters from the finish, Dr. Aquino can’t go on. She’s hurt and kneels down.
I stop. She waves me off. “No, Dr. Hugo, go! I’m fine! Go!”
And I turn and run again, and I see everyone is there — my children are there, and Anne, and Angelique, and my father, dead these 10 years, they’re all there at the finish line. They are releasing balloons into the air and cheering, and somehow, after 26 miles, I break into a sprint and I cross the line, raising my hands to the sky — and Linda is the first to jump into my arms. She smells so good.
“I told you!” she exults! “I told you!”