Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The investigator from the department of mental health, Mr. D., called yesterday to tell me that the woman who seduced me after my stay on the K-4 unit a dozen years ago has been suspended from work for six days. This is the maximum punishment possible for someone found guilty of “ethical” — not “sexual” — misconduct.
Never mind that I was sent to the unit after a messy suicide attempt on the statehouse lawn, my arms hacked to pieces with a razor blade. Never mind that page after page of my chart indicated that I was sexually confused, immature, that I had never had a girlfriend, never dated. Never mind that I was still a virgin then, afraid to remove my clothes, afraid of every touch, afraid of the gay man in his bathrobe who handed me a copy of Naked Lunch, afraid of the hairy-legged woman faking retardation who tried to lure me into her room, afraid of all the staff because of their propensity to pin down an excited patient one person to a limb, strip off his clothes, and strap him to a bed in an empty room so that all the poor lunatic could do was scream.
And never mind that I possess, even as I write this, letters from the woman in question detailing how much she longed for my caresses and my strong arms around her, how grateful she was for me to wander the late-night streets alone to her bedroom window. There’s even a little card with a picture of a baby in diapers and boxing gloves and the text, “I’ll give you the shirt off my back . . . but you’ll have to fight for my underwear (tee-hee)!”
This woman told Mr. D., the same man who came to my home and questioned me in his calm, state-trooper demeanor, that indeed she and I had had a relationship, but that it had been purely platonic. I spent three hours seated with Mr. D. at the antique table in our dining room with a photocopy of my hospital chart from a dozen years ago, the letters and cards she sent me, and the journals I kept both in and out of the hospital. Three hours with my wife in the seat next to me, her eyes growing rounder as I unfolded the story whose outlines she had known, but whose searing center she had yet to discover.
She would hear about the suicide attempts, the booze, the LSD, the petty crimes and curfew violations that left me sitting in jail with my head in my hands. She would hear in detail how hideous I found the woman, how I had no resources to say no, still a virgin at nineteen years old, not out of any moral standard, but because of the sheer, shitting fear of it all, not even able to yank myself off into the vortex of orgasm in spite of a thousand adolescent erections.
It would be helpful, I know, if I would only slow down and recollect this better, if I could stop spitting words like seeds.
When I would become angry as a child I would imagine myself growing into the comic-book hero The Incredible Hulk and smashing tractor-trailers in my path, or else becoming The Flash and running so swiftly that I could pummel my target and vanish before the first blow even registered.
I never turned into a hero. Instead I turned my anger on myself. But I didn’t die when I most hungered to; the doctors stitched me up like Frankenstein’s monster, and I lived to arrive on K-4, where I met that woman who said she was my friend. I believed her in spite of myself, in spite of how much I had learned that trust and friendship are meted out in exchange for sexual gratification, whether the other person is man or woman, older or younger, beautiful or monstrous.
The woman on K-4 was entirely the latter, which is one reason why it grieved me so deeply to speak of her in front of my wife, whose features I admire: lovely brown eyes, brown hair the color of leaves and delineated with strands of gray, a round face that belies the narrowness of her body. In spite of her own fears, her apprehension about her appearance, my wife remains androgynous, feminist, ready to square off toe to toe with me or any other man who would impede her.
At first our respective agonies drove my wife and me apart to the point where we had conversations about who would get the cat when we divorced. Then, as we began separately to nurse our wounds, we each discovered that the other’s struggle was part of the attraction we felt for one another. That pain granted us dignity, a certain wisdom, a laughing heart that wouldn’t allow us to take it too seriously. We poked holes in it the way a kid sticks a finger in a Bazooka bubble to watch it decorate a playmate’s face.
At that three-hour session at the dining-room table, my wife had to endure hearing about the following:
A litany of sexual acts, including the original seduction when the woman arrived at my mother’s apartment, where I was living only days after my discharge from K-4. She took me to a drive-through convenience store, where she bought a bottle of wine even though I was underage, and then brought me back to my mother’s apartment to drink it. She put her feet up in my lap and asked me to massage them and then she pulled me on top of her, begged me to kiss her, and guided my hand between her legs. This led to oral sex (each on the other), coitus in various positions, mutual masturbation in her bedroom and in her car and in a booth at a Chinese restaurant, her giving me an enema once when I was constipated, and one particularly kinky night when she decided to tie me to the bedposts with scarves and ride me as if I were a pony on a carousel.
A further litany of strange moments, like the night she threatened to cut her wrists if I stopped the relationship; or the time she took me on a picnic with her family, me depressed and angry and eager to die, wearing my yellow I are a college student at Kent State T-shirt, her mother calling her a whore for sleeping with someone like me; or the night I became so depressed that she took me to the emergency entrance at the nearest mental-health center and got them to prescribe me some medication; or the time she photocopied portions of my chart and brought them home for me to read.
And then back to the events within the hospital walls: the time I staggered back to K-4 after going AWOL and dropping beautiful, pure sugar cubes of LSD with a friend, and she the only one on the unit who recognized my state because she had taken huge amounts of acid herself in her day; or the numerous times she and I got passes off the unit for no particular reason, and I, ever so grateful for a kind gesture, was stupid enough to think it carried no price; or the time she sought medical attention for me after I had sat unattended on K-4 for three days with scarlet fever raging through me. Soon after came the first time she told me she was sexually attracted to me, and I told her I was afraid; and then the lewd comments: how she liked the outline of my balls, or how she had slept with another patient who was a paranoid schizophrenic and couldn’t get it up. Then she confided how other people on the unit were aware of her behavior with patients, but none of them were brave enough to turn her in; they feared their own jobs would be jeopardized because they hadn’t spoken up sooner.
My radiant wife sat through all of this with impeccable calm, soaking it in, understanding it, relating to the pain, gripping my hand more tightly when my breath grew shallow, smiling and offering Mr. D. a glass of water, or tea, or coffee.
He, too, was calm, executing his official duties with a trace of sadness at having to hear such a story, regretting both that I had undergone discomfort and that the woman was going to be put through some herself, apologizing to my wife when he had to ask detailed questions. He recorded it all by hand over three hours. His girth, his white hair, and his rosy skin created a Santa-like demeanor that bespoke someone who could fulfill wishes, someone who had authority and an eye toward discerning good and bad in the simplest way, the way one does with children.
Like a child, I discovered that wishes can be shattered in an instant. Mine were shattered in less than fifteen minutes on the phone: the woman had said our relationship was platonic; her punishment would be six days’ suspension. She would not lose her job, but would return to it in less than a week. She’s now an administrator on a unit similar to K-4, placing her even higher up the ladder of hospital authority.
I understand that hierarchy. In the hospital, you know which son of a bitch on staff has keys to the kitchen but will tease you a bit before he gives you something to drink. You know who’s got the cigarettes and coffee. You know who’ll respect you and treat you like a human. And you know who’s convinced that you’re going to rot there, not on a nice admission ward like K-4, but on a back ward as dark as the inside of a smokestack. A ward where you can strangle someone and none of the staff will notice until the corpse begins to stink; where you can cut your foot, your fingers, and your arms on shards of glass from a window in your room, and the staff won’t find out until they call you to dinner; and where you can have sex with anyone at any time in any room and the staff, too preoccupied with filling out paperwork and playing cards and talking on the telephone, will never notice.
I remember the people on staff who gave up on me, the contempt in their eyes. Or was it fatigue, the expectation that once we were labeled “mentally ill” by the probate court we would always wear that mark on our foreheads? It was as if they thought the label were visible to people on the street, directing someone’s gaze from our nondescript faces to the scars on our arms, the rigidity that medication adds to our gait. At times, I thought they were right to give up on someone like me.
Over the decade following my stay in K-4, I drank a half-pint a day, signed narcotics registries at drugstores to get a mediocre codeine high by slugging down a bottle of cough syrup, leapt in and out of bed with many women — any woman — because I was feeling like hell and hell just got hotter if it was with someone I found unattractive or disliked. When I liked a woman or found her attractive, I would become impotent and scared and would curl into a fetus, weeping with failure. And yes, I continued to cut myself — not to die, but simply to hurt, to feel the flesh burn. I was augmenting the insignia of my madness: “Here I am, world! If I’m going to be crazy then I’ll be dangerously crazy, deadly crazy!”
I was convinced that I was garbage, worthless, evil — contaminated by the sin and seed of my abuse. I was sure there would never be an out, except the total one: death. Or else that I would be stuck on a back ward for the rest of my life.
Yet even as the parade of self-destruction marched on, I also accomplished some things: I finished a bachelor’s degree; I had a somewhat healthy relationship with a woman; at intervals I stopped drinking and taking drugs and sleeping around. During those intervals, I held my first real job, went to graduate school, taught classes, even published a thing or two.
When I stopped drinking and taking drugs altogether, I began to seriously examine my abuse. One night in a recovery group, I came up with this image: the woman from K-4, knives in her hands, perched on top of me, fucking me, driving the knives into my chest, and slicing me open like a butchered calf.
That night I returned home and opened a box I’d carried with me for years from one closet, or basement, or attic to another, opening it once each move to fill it with more papers. The original contents lay buried at the bottom. Among them were letters from this woman.
Thrashing about in the world of my recovery, learning what my personal, physical, sexual, professional, and familial boundaries were, I suddenly understood that she had violated them. I had been sick. I had been judged a danger to myself. The hospital, the probate court, the department of mental health had all said so.
She had my entire history in front of her on K-4, day in and day out, had known my background and my psychology, and had decided to make them mesh with hers. I have little idea of her past, except that she’d abused drugs and slept around, and had probably been abused and taken advantage of over the years. I don’t think of her as evil, but that doesn’t stop me from hating her for what she did to me.
A desire to kill her grew in me toward the end; it was as close as I ever want to get to abusing a woman. That’s why I left. Looking back on it, I was more mature about it than she, more capable of recognizing that my rage was unhealthy. However much I hated myself, it wasn’t enough to hurt anyone overtly — not even this woman who had betrayed my confidence, trust, and friendship.
But having left when I did brought me no peace as I filed my little administrative complaint with the department of mental health, sweated the answer, called Mr. D. at regular intervals for updates, and sorted through the box of letters and my hospital chart several times to make sure I hadn’t left out any details. I so wanted to prove my case.
It wasn’t about money, either. I asked for two things: (1) to have this woman removed from any contact with psychiatric patients, lest she abuse others as she had me; and (2) that I receive some sort of acknowledgment from either the department of mental health or the woman herself indicating that her behavior had been inappropriate and abusive.
That she lied to them about our relationship and they believed her not only makes me feel betrayed once more; it leaves me with the sense that I am still incarcerated on K-4, my every word, thought, dream, and action suspect. It leaves me uncertain of my own footing in the world, and concerned for the other men and women still under the care of such a system.
For all my efforts to vindicate myself, to improve myself, to work within the system, I am left with this fact: the person who took advantage of me, who was at the very least “unethical,” will serve a sentence of six days before returning to her comfortable position of power. After I served eight weeks in that institution, without power, and a dozen years of misery since. And now they have left me to serve more time still.