When you’re inside, this place looks more like a bus station than a mental hospital. My mornings start in the dayroom, sitting for a minute with other folks waiting for breakfast to be called. Maryanne is wearing three pair of socks and is wrapped in a blanket in front of the TV, sitting beside a new guy who keeps his Yankees hat on all the time. He calls himself Mickey Mantle. Pretty people on the screen chat their Good Morning America while I lean against a wall.
“Is it time for breakfast?” Dunno Dave asks me in his thin, unraveling voice.
“What time do we usually get breakfast?” I say.
“Is it time for breakfast?” he says, as if he were resetting the needle on a record he plays every day. Which he is.
I walk toward the kitchen. I can’t really tell you how I ended up here myself. Just drifting and the next thing you know I’m here, for a long time. This place isn’t all bad. It helps a lot of people. Helps me. We need to keep to the routine, keep to structure. It’s fundamental. Hear what people say, but don’t always pay attention. The best way to avoid trouble is to not say things as much as possible. That doesn’t mean being silent, just saying things everyone can agree on, concrete things, things that don’t have any emotional reality. All of us people on the inside have a bundle of stuff knotted up, and none of it is likely to get you through a stress-free day.
When you have to spend every day with people you’d probably never choose to spend time with otherwise, you learn about “safe distance”. You learn from the very beginning. You learn from being together all the time, not talking about ourselves or each other. The only good time to talk about people or yourself is in group. Not to say I don’t have opinions about these others, these folks who are, like me, inside.
Take Carol. She’s a big, billowy woman with long, red hair and a sweet, low voice with a touch of a Southern accent. She’s very particular about her meds, counting each little pill out carefully and counting and checking each one before moving them into the little paper cup. She told me once that she believed none of these drugs were really what the bottle said they were, that drug companies and big government sorts did all kinds of things to chemically control people who needed psychotropic medications. If they even really needed them. But she’s not one to make trouble. She goes through her little pill rituals every morning, and then down the hatch. She has a big burn scar on the back of her neck, halfway down her back, where an ex-husband threw a pan-full of hot bacon grease at her as she was walking away.
Big Mike has his scars, too. One of those guys who came back from that stupid war and never really came back. There’s a lot going on inside that guy, and most of it you really don’t want to know. When you look in Mike’s eyes it’s hard to know if it’s angry or sad or just broken, but you can almost see bamboo roofs burning and smell smoke.
“That new guy in 28,” he says, “I don’t think he’s safe.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Nothing. But I’d keep an eye on him.”
“Is he coming to breakfast?
“Sure. Just don’t let him lock himself away. Just a feeling.”
I know enough to know that Mike has instincts that you should pay attention to. His head may be full of trip-wires and open wounds, but he’s definitely a guy you want to have on your side if there’s a problem.
Not like Ruth. Thinks she’s the queen or something. Really. Have you ever been around the kind of person who’s so delusional they think everyone else in the world is made up, and they’re the only one who’s real? That’s Ruth. Once, she demanded a meeting with the Superintendent of the Hospital, for Pete’s sake, and she got it. Nobody does that. Don’t even know what it was about because it didn’t change anything for the rest of us, but I think it was another little twinkle in her tiara. I heard some of the other patients saying they thought she was a lesbian, because of the way she has favorites with the younger women who come in. Neither here nor there, as far as I’m concerned. Another time when the advantage is to anyone who can stay invisible. That’s something most of us learn pretty early inside. That’s something that makes it much easier when you’re with those people day after day.
I think it’s funny even myself when I catch myself saying “those people” like I was something separate and different. I know better. Little Davie and Allison and Carrie and Leaning Lenny and the rest of us are all inside this place for the same reason. We’re here because something in the mind gets twisted and starts to strangle on itself, or hides in the dark and waits to jump out barking at you, bare teeth snarling. Something becomes a voice that you don’t recognize saying things you don’t want to hear, and if one other person can understand what’s going on then maybe there’s some chance of getting out of these woods, out of this place, getting outside. We’re here because people need to eat breakfast and have someone wonder how they’re doing. These people I’m with every day depend on each other and respect the safe distance everybody needs. Mike and Carol and Ruth and I are here to help each other and to help our patients.
Jerry Kraft has produced or published many plays, his poetry has appeared in Blood Orange Review, Rattle, Tidepools, Every Day Poets, Driftwood Review and others. Short fiction has appeared in Errant Parent, Vestal Review, Every Day Fiction and others. He reviews theatre for SeattleActor.com and is a regular contributor to Living on the Peninsula magazine. He lives in Port Angeles, Washington.