[following "Why I Jumped off the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge"]
When I was in the hospital, I had this roommate, Chrissy, for a while. She was diagnosed schizophrenic. Her legs were broken, and one was really badly shattered. What had happened was she had gone off her antipsychotics because they made her feel dead, and she began to imagine that her boyfriend of ten years or so was Satan. So she had decided to do the Christian thing and kill him. She asked him to go with her across the bridge to find some new shoes at the mall, and she’d drive. Once they were on the bridge, she started bashing the passenger side of the car against the side rails in an attempt to murder him that way. I don’t see how that could work, but at any rate, in the act of doing so she realized what she was attempting was wrong, so, in a suicide attempt, she stopped the car and ran in front of a vehicle coming toward her. Her face was very badly damaged in on one side, a mass of browns, pinks, scarlets, and purples, from it bashing into the windshield. The main injury, though, was the badly smashed leg. A large screw stuck out of her calf. I’d never seen anything like it, and never got the medical explanation.
Chrissy was a well-loved person. Her parents, your basic nice, conscientious suburban types, came to see her at least once a day, often with a friend of theirs, a man of about 40 with an Appalachian drawl. Sometimes her old schoolmates came as well, and all these people always brought gifts: little teddy bears, balloons, flowers; her area looked like a hospital gift shop. They talked about old times at the high school, their white collar careers, their children, and such. They reminisced about prom and grade school.
Chrissy was very concerned about where she was going to live when she got out. She had a job with some public mental health program, but she wasn’t going to be able to return to her old apartment because the building had no elevator and the apartment was three flights up. She was keeping an eye on the rent ads in the local newspaper. Her mother was arguing, very gently, that she should go to a nursing home because she needed physiotherapy, but Chrissy argued that a physiotherapist could come to an apartment, so her mother was looking for a place for her, or so she said. Chrissy had found a basement apartment in the paper, and her mother said, “Chrissy, that has stairs.” Chrissy said, “Just one short flight, Mom! Once I get down there you can bring me groceries and stuff and I won’t have to leave the apartment until my legs are all better.”
Was it just an extraordinary coincidence that in this city hospital, two white women with “serious” mental illnesses, both of whom were there because of a suicide attempt involving a bridge, ended up being roommates? Or did some administrator look at our records and think, well this should make for interesting conversation for the staff? To be serious, I reject the second theory; the place was too slapdash in its operation to consider it. This was the city hospital that served mostly the poor, no nurse’s first choice for certain, as I found out in subsequent conversations. I think it was one of those strange, unlikely coincidences that will happen from time to time. And to suggest this is synchronicity shows a misunderstanding of chance. Nothing seems more unjust to a gambler than somebody who wins the lotto big on his second ticket.
You might think that we would have lain there weeping and regretting and crying out to God, but that wasn’t the case at all. We watched talk shows and sitcoms to pass the time and laughed at all the jokes. Chrissy talked about having gone to college to study religion and literature, so we discussed William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and our favorite authors. She said she’d had to drop out of college when she had her first psychotic episode, but she was getting back on track and was signed up for college the next fall. She wanted to become a minister.
“Oh, you better watch out with that religion stuff!” I said, laughing, “I knew this chick who got so psychotic that she thought she was the Pope and a Navy Seal at the same time!”
Chrissy thought that was hilarious. “Oh, don’t worry. The only psychosis I ever get is thinking that guy is Satan.”
“So this isn’t the first time?” I asked. She said it has happened since she’d been with him, off and on. Usually when she went off her medication, but sometimes even when she was on it.
“Do you think there are angels and devils all around you? That chick I was just telling you about did. When the psych ward discharged her after the money ran out, she let these two co-patients live in her apartment. She thought they were angels, but they stole everything she had.”
“No, nothing that crazy,” she said. “Which psych ward was she in?” I told her it was the one in East Cleveland, and she said, “Oh God, that one’s the worst,” and I said, “I know. I was in there for three days once. First and last time I’ll ever let myself be admitted to one of those madhouses.” That was the time I was trying to figure out how to hang myself with a two belts attached to a hook on the ceiling at 5 am, so I went over to Judy’s and she insisted I call 911. I had the worst psychiatrist ever in there. Wouldn’t let me out because he said I ‘needed to be punished.’”
I hope you will not think me rude, but my biggest fear at the time was having a bowel movement, which was going to be painful, particularly considering that opioids make people constipated, not to mention that the effort would surely make my sciatic nerve go mad: the operation had been botched and a nerve had been caught in the screw, so the pain was intense if I bent too much toward the sitting position. To ward off the inevitable, I wasn’t eating anything, just drinking black decaffeinated coffee, broth if I got some soup, and water. Most of the nurses were fairly pleasant, except this one who was always in such a bad mood she handled me roughly, and seemed at the edge of full attack at any time.
I asked Chrissy about her life. She said that she’d been fine until she turned 20. “Wow,” I enthused, “Me too!” She had been studying religion and literature in a local private Catholic college and all was fine, and then she met this older man and fell in love with him, even though she was the more intelligent. Usually she went for the intellectual types. That’s when the schizophrenic episodes began.
‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘these coincidences just keep piling up.’
She had a lot of issues with men hitting on her all the time. She talked about a boss she had that was always trying to get her in bed, and what really angered her was how her coworkers reacted. They assumed she was getting all the easiest and most profitable work because she was sleeping with him, which she was not. Like most of the mentally ill, Chrissy was quite sensitive to the emotions of others; we can nearly smell them. Her coworkers’ attitudes really made her fume, because she was really a hard worker and deserved what she got. She talked about that situation quite a lot, although I can’t remember the details. Some sort of sales job. Chrissy had quite the feminist take on life.
Once she got a nurse to give me one of her little teddy bears. I guess she felt bad because nobody had brought me anything—the book was from the library, just a loan. The teddy bear wore a little Scottish cap and kilt. It held up a sign that said “FEEL BETTER!”
David called up once and chatted for a while. “That was really stupid,” he said, laughing. “Why didn’t you go to the middle of the bridge?”
Chrissy would not let them take an MRI scan. A doctor came in once and argued with her about it. They absolutely needed to do this before they performed the necessary surgery. She refused, over and over. Finally he said, “We are wondering if you are mentally capable to make these decisions,” and left, quite exasperated.
That was the only time Chrissy seemed at all insane. “Chrissy, why don’t you let them put you in an MRI machine?” I asked. She said it was the radiation. I said, “But x-rays give you radiation.” She hadn’t known that, so maybe this was not insanity, just a bit of ignorance. “Chrissy, do you want to live your life with a screw sticking out of your leg? How’s that going to look?” So Chrissy did get the MRI scan, got the surgery, and came back.
Her face was looking a little better after a week or so, more yellow and less of the darker colors. Her eye had cleared of blood, so she looked much less frightful.
I was missing my intensive care nurse, a beautiful Latino who was so kind. He told me funny stories about his little son; I can’t remember what they were but I very clearly remember he would say, “OK, I will see if I can get you some more pain medication, but don’t tell anybody,” and wink at me as I lay flat on my back, excruciated by the pain whenever I had to use the bedpan. He acted like attending to me was the greatest delight, the most important thing in the world. I remember a doctor coming in at some point and explaining to me what all had broken and what the plan was, He did this very briskly so I can’t remember what they all were. He called in another nurse to help turn me on my stomach, which, let me tell you, was quite the painful experience, and mapped out all the major contusions on a diagram of a human back, and then explained that he had only included the worst ones because there were too many.
The memories of those first days are a bit sketchy, and one persistent one is quite dubious. I was in a room as copious as a low-ceilinged dance hall. I was sitting in a chair facing five doctors, which would have been impossible because, first of all, I couldn’t sit in a chair, and second, getting that much attention from that many doctors at a time is highly unlikely—particularly given that they knew I had no health insurance, which makes doctors surly, and these were quite intent and patient. But in that memory, most of the room was dark; there was just some light beamed at our little group. Something was going on in the other side of the room, in the dusk, but I couldn’t tell what. Something musical? A bit of carpentry? Something with noise and rhythmic busyness involved, maybe tap dancing, as the doctors asked me questions and tried to get me to perform physical acts. I found I couldn’t lift my arms over waist level. That part was true.
I could not tell dreaming from consciousness for a while, but that has happened before, even without massive drugging. For instance, I dreamed so often for years that there was a fantastic nightclub on the top floor of CSU’s oldest building, an art deco confection called Fenn Tower, that I actually believed it was there for years, and sometimes my dreams are so mundane and realistic that I’ll think I’d bought groceries because I’d dreamed of doing so the night before.
My Latino guy would peer into my eyes with empathy, grave concern, and then a bit of mischief, and slip me some more opioid. I doubt he was giving me more than what the doctor ordered; he could just tell that I loved transgressions, so pretended for my sake.
I don’t remember how long I was in intensive care, but eventually I had an operation to put my pelvic bone back together: there’s a substantial eight-or-so-inch screw in there—I saw it on an x-ray once—and when it was over, I was wheeled into the room with Chrissy. My daughter showed up. “Mom, how did this happen?” she asked, and when I fessed up, all sympathy left her face and she walked out, never to return that entire hospital stay. Judy showed up a few times. Judy is my best girlfriend. She is 15 years my senior, old enough to be my mother, and spends a lot of time in hospitals due to various problems with lungs and bones, mostly. She loves going to the hospital and being served food like a queen, but this hospital had really crappy food.
She talked to the social worker on my behalf. She said that although I could get really depressed, I was not dangerous, but just such a sweet woman who teaches English. Judy does a very good sweet little old lady act herself, which serves her well, particularly when she’s run through all her SS money because she bought a bunch of plants or even crap off the TeeVee, is out of SNAP, and wants me to “lend” her some. She told me she would get my house, which I’d left in a disastrous state, all cleaned up for me, and feed the cats. My friend David the carpenter was going to mow my lawn. I asked her if she had anything to read. She pulled a book out of her bag. I have no idea what it was called or who the author was, but it seems to me it was translated out of the Swedish or somewhere thereabouts. It was a really sick book about this doctor without nipples who murders women, cuts them up, and then rearranges them into sculptures. This reminded me of the sculptures Judy used to make out of dead animals she’d find out in the yard, combining their bones and bits of fur, along with rusty nails and assorted hardware, into interesting shapes. It is so like Judy to bring me a book as horrorshow as that one days after I’d jumped off the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge.
This hospital is known for its focus on intense physiotherapy. Not long after I’d been in with Chrissy, a physiotherapist came in with two nurses, one of them that really angry one. Chrissy’s mother was sitting with her; Chrissy nearly always had company. The physiotherapist announced that it was time for me to sit in a chair. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll stay with you, and will put you back in bed if the pain gets too bad,” and then they wheeled in this contraption that foists people like me up and into a chair. One nurse took my arms, one by one, and pulled them up to the bar, and then they wheeled the contraption to a chair and dropped me into a sitting position. The pain was just fucking Boschian.
That physiotherapist lied. She and the nurses left immediately and did not come back for nearly an hour, and that whole time I sat writhing in pain, sweating and writhing, moaning and grunting, watching the clock for them to come back, so relieved to see it reach the half-hour mark, and then so angry that they didn’t come back when they said they would. Meanwhile Chrissy and her mother discussed plans for after the operation. Chrissy’s mother did get me some water, which was nice of her.
When they finally returned they took their fucking time wheeling that contraption in that would carry me back in bed. The physiotherapist just glared at me triumphantly when I complained of her tardiness, as if to say, ‘You’re a spoiled asshole and don’t know what’s good for you. I’m the Expert here.” When for some reason I had to lift my hands to the handles on top of the bed, the mean nurse spit out, “Do it yourself.” They kept on forgetting about the shoulder adhesion problem.
Man, was I relieved to be back in bed and see them go. I lay there with my eyes closed for some time, then turned on the TeeVee. “Hey Chrissy, there’s a documentary about John Lennon on. Wanna watchit with me?” She turned it onto her TeeVee and we watched it. I’m OK with John Lennon, but watching him and Yoko Ono frolic around their English estate was kind of depressing. However, nothing else was on, and I was done with that horrorshow book Judy had lent me.
Then there were the psychiatrists who would come in and stand around the bed. There was the middle-aged Indian woman, who was in charge. Then there was this innocent-looking Chinese kid, I think, second in command. Then there were three even younger ones, apparently students, their fresh little white faces attempting to beam some proximity of cheerful good will at me. Circling around my bed, they tried to pressure me to take some psychotropic meds. I told them no thanks. But they would not hear of it. They kept telling me all the dangers of not taking them and all the benefits of taking them. When I explained my history of taking psychotropics, they assured me of all the wonderfully new advanced meds out there. When I told them about that chick who thought she was a Navy Seal and the Pope, the Indian woman said, “The profession makes incredible advances year by year. Such a thing would never happen now.” That’s what they ALWAYS say. It took me a long time to get rid of them.
The next day, however, the Chinese psychiatrist came in alone. Bossy Indian lady must have decided he could persuade me; he had a very gentle persona. Actually, I think he was truly sincere. He talked to me about my suicide attempt, and how he really wanted to help me so I wouldn’t do it again.
This really pissed me off. So I went into a rant, and it went something like this: “First off, how do you think I’m gonna manage to kill myself? I can’t even lift my arms or stand up. Unless you leave a razor within my reach, I don’t stand a chance, so don’t pretend to be worried about that. And why don’t you quit sticking your nose into other people’s business? It’s no skin off your ass, and no, I don’t think it’s murder, if that’s what you’re thinking of telling me. Isn’t it my business what I decide to do with my life? Isn’t this the land of the free, or are you another one saying no?” On and on like that, ending with “I’ve already told you I’m not going to take them, so get the fuck out of my face.” I’m sure I said that.
It worked. He looked a little frightened, and wandered off. About ten minutes later Chrissie said, “I heard what you said to that psychiatrist, about suicide.” Then a minute later, she asked, “Do you believe in evil?”
I thought a minute and said, “I don’t know. There’s that theory that good is battling evil, and then there’s the one that says what people call evil is just an absence of good. Take your pick, same difference.” Boy was I in a bad mood. She had some tact, or was lost in thought. In any case, she left me alone, not saying a word for at least an hour.
Finally, after a week, I realized I could not put off a bowel movement. My favorite nurse was on shift and I told her I was going to try, so get out the suppositories. She was very cool all through the process, which was much worse than childbirth—and mine was really bad—and took her entire night shift, nearly. Some monitor I was hooked up to was malfunctioning, and she complained about how these things cost 25 thousand a piece and don’t even work half the time as she banged at it. She came in periodically to stroke my head as one does to calm a child. It stunk like hell.
This nurse was a trim, pretty Romanian who told me that she had seen what life can be like—things will be going fine, but one day some horrible mishap will happen out of the blue, and it will be nothing but pain, excruciating pain and suffering from then on. It was a hard job that way. She said that to cheer herself up she gets a pedicure, pointing down to her feet. “When this is all over, that’s what you should do, get a pedicure,” she said. I have never and will never do that, but I was grateful for her good intentions.
She told me about fleeing Romania with her son. She said, “The police will not help you, like they will here. I tried to get help, but they did not care that my husband was beating me up. They knew him.” So, upon fear of death, she came to Amerika, and it was very hard, working and raising her boy, plus going to nursing school while trying to learn English.
She knew that my daughter never visited me; everybody paying attention knew. The contrast between my barren surroundings and Chrissie’s abundant silly gifts and constant visitors was obvious. “You know, my son doesn’t visit me either,” she announced once. “He could care less about me, but that’s how it is at their age. He says he’s too busy, but he still drops his laundry off once a week.” She beamed at the thought of that, and I didn’t want to shatter her illusions by telling her he sounded like a real asshole. But what do I know about Romanian parenting?
The Chinese guy tried again, and was there just when a resident showed up to tell me that the doctors had consulted and decided against an operation to free the sciatic nerve from the screw. They figured that with physiotherapy and Neurontin, that wonder drug to beat all, I could do fine. I said I could not take Neurontin because it’s an SSRI and could make me manic. The psychiatrist confirmed this. The resident made a note of it, and left. The psychiatrist then asked me how that made me feel. I said, “What an idiotic question. Those doctors have decided I can bear a lifetime of severe sciatic pain, and you’re asking me how it makes me feel?” He left after that remark.
The next day, though, the doctor who had done the operation came back from some remote area, looked at the pictures of my pelvic area, and decided an operation was necessary after all. So I had another one. When I came back from the surgery, that bitchy nurse was on staff. What she was angry about all the time were all the double shifts they made her pull. And she hated her supervisor, who was not fair on scheduling. She took it out on me by jabbing needles into my wrist a tad too hard. Hospitals assume that to do their job you always have to have a needle in you. What is so wrong with oral medications? And why can’t they give nurses a constant shift, rather than switching them from first to second to third all the time? That might calm this bitchy one down a bit, and she’d be a little kinder with the bedpan issues too.
A long hospital stay is mostly tedium. There was nothing but the TeeVee and borrowing Chrissy’s magazines: Cosmopolitan and Time. Then there are meal-times. The people charged with bringing me food dressed in cheap replicas of tuxedos, comically enough. They’d come in to take my dinner order, and give me two choices. Once I asked one of those guys what he thought of the chicken option, and he stared at me blankly and said, “I’ve never tasted it.” I said, “Nor would you, right?” He just laughed. Man, the food sucked!
The nurses were entirely exasperated with Chrissy for the fact that she drank so much water that she always overflowed the bedpan. She just could not accept that this was a problem, because drinking water is good for you, and she was thirsty. They began to refuse giving her as much water as she asked for and gave her some lozenges to suck on that were supposed to quell thirst. It didn’t work and made her mouth feel icky. There was a lot of complaining about that.
The psychiatric team kept showing up, nagging at me to take their drugs.
Apparently pushy Indian lady had decided that Chinese boy couldn’t manage it, so she took charge, showing the other four how. Finally she broke me down; I just had to get rid of them. “But no antipsychotics,” I said. I stayed firm on that one, despite their protests, but agreed to a few drugs I’d taken before that had had absolutely no apparent effects. I think they had me on three. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d have to pay for them, or that the nursing home nurses would insist on making sure I took them, standing over me until I swallowed them. But what matter? It’s not like I’ll ever be able to pay those bills anyway. I get too panicky to even try looking at them.
One day Chrissy’s parents came with their friend with the Appalachian drawl, and then the parents left, leaving the man, and it was just the two of them alone for the first time.
With a sly smile, he drawled, “So you’re planning on going to live in a basement, all by your lonesome.”
“You’ll never see it!” she answered.
“Waaahl, what if there are rats down there? Then you’ll be callin me up, now won’t you?”
“Believe me, you’ll be the last person I’ll be calling up,” she said, on her high horse.
“Waaahl what if your back itches, and you can’t reach the spot?”
“Backscratchers can be bought. I’ll get my dad to find me one,” she lobbed back.
Then a bit of silence, after which he said, “We’ll see about that, Chrissie.”
I thought, ‘Oh my God, now I’ve heard everything.’ I looked at the book about the doctor with no nipples, and whispered to its author, ‘You could learn something herein about boys and girls. And I do not believe you about a guy without nipples. A human with no nipples?’
“Chrissie,” I said the next day, “That guy you were talking to yesterday; he’s the one you tried to kill, isn’t he.”
She admitted this to be so. I asked, “Well, if you go psychotic thinking he’s Satan, don’t you think you should stay away from him? Then you might not even need those pills that make you feel dead.” I didn’t mention that it might keep her from killing him some day, a possibility that nobody in that little family romance seemed to have the least regard for.
She was looking down at a little Teddy bear he’d brought her that day, one among many. “No, I couldn’t do that. He and my father are very good friends.”
See also her "Teaching Torture in the Homeland."
Sunday, July 12, 2015
[following "Why I Jumped off the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge"]
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.