Three days. When a patient was first brought in to the hospital, an analysis was done over 72 hours to determine if the patient is “a danger to themselves or others,” and therefore will be staying indefinitely, or if not, to be released. It’s also the first thing a new patient, “Jomo,” said to me.
“Three days, man, and I should be out of here.” He sounded more nervous than confident, probably reassuring himself. “I swear, man, I just took a lot of acid, and now it’s mostly worn off. So they’ve got to let me go, right?”
We actually had a lot of patients on the ward who claimed that drugs, particularly hallucinogens, caused their problems. The scientific belief was that schizophrenics tended to abuse drugs, or that drugs could be contribute to the experience that tips the brain balance in a person with schizophrenic tendencies. “Let’s hope so,” I said. “That’s why they’ve got you scheduled for a brain scan today.”
Schizophrenia generally shows up on a brain scan, either as reduced activity in the frontal lobes, or shrinkage in the areas of the brain associated with attention, memory, and social behavior, and sometimes (at that time) used to identify schizophrenics who couldn’t be definitively diagnosed from their behavior — for example, because they tested positive for drug use within their 72-hour observational period.
I took Jomo over for his scan, and waited with him through the procedure. He was understandably nervous — the results of this scan would determine his fate — possibly even whether he’d spend the rest of his life in an institution. Perhaps more importantly, it could be an early indication of a progressive disease, of which he’d only experienced the first symptoms. Jomo was at the age where nearly all schizophrenia first manifests itself — between 18 and 23 — and what he thought was a drug experience could genuinely be his first symptoms of his brain detaching from reality.
I was within that range as well.
The next day, we got back Jomo’s scan results, with the interpretation: “inconclusive.” The scan showed some reduced activity and shrinkage, but it was not yet profound. Jomo would be staying for a while.
Later that night, my roommates and I had been invited over to dinner at our elusive third neighbor’s house, so we walked a few blocks to the local convenience store to pick up some drinks so we didn’t show up empty handed. (On a side note, I never adopted the local dialect of calling the store a “packy,” short for “package store,” which referred to its ability to sell alcoholic beverages.)
On the way back, a car pulled up alongside us, and a man in the passenger seat shouted, “fuck you, Mickey Mouse!” I was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt.
This seemed like an unusual amount of hatred for a cartoon character, and I said, “What?”
The car screeched to a halt, and two big, muscular, prison-tatooed guys jumped out. They looked typecast for brainlessly violent goons in a movie. They pushed us around a bit, trying to start a fight. None of us made any threatening moves, attempting our best to diffuse the situation, but without any idea what any of us had actually done to provoke their ire. “Do not FUCK with us! We have a guns in the car and will KILL your asses!” they yelled as they sped off.
“People from your ward?” asked one of my roommates as their car swerved out of sight.
“Heck no,” I said, my heart still pounding. “I’ve never felt that threatened on the ward.”
We met our neighbor for the first time, who we hadn’t actually seen much. We’d seen his Trans Am, the exact model featured in Smokey and the Bandit, complete with the bird logo on the hood. It had been out of style for a while even then. The man himself usually wore mirrored aviator sunglasses, and had a Burt Reynolds-style moustache, but he’d never actually stopped to talk until that day, so when he told us all the neighbors were invited over to his apartment for a cookout, we all agreed that it would be a good opportunity to meet him.
He grilled hamburgers outside, and served us in his kitchen. None of the other neighbors showed up, but he only had six chairs — and there were five of us and one of him. We ate burgers and chips and drank the beer we had brought. About halfway through her burger, one of the girls pulled the other two girls aside, and they all left, leaving me, my roommate “Tom,” (who also worked at Metropolitan State) and my neighbor together. I had another burger while we talked, eating quickly as usual.
Our neighbor went out back(probably to tend the grill, or grab another beer) and “Nancy,” one of my roommates, stepped back in. “Something’s not right,” she said. “I’ve been throwing up. All of us have.” Tom and I looked at each other. None of the girls had eaten all of their burgers, but they seemed fully cooked. Tom had eaten all of his, and I had managed to eat two. Nancy left quickly again, clutching her stomach.
“Uh oh,” said Tom, looking a little green.
We felt the heave at the same time. Tom headed for the front door, barely making it outside. I headed for the sink. After heaving, I was rinsing out the sink when Tom came back in, and whispered to me, “I think we’re in a lot of trouble. I’m hallucinating.”
I looked up at Tom. I noticed his dilated pupils first, then his face distorted like it was melting. His face and body pulsed and flowed and changed colors as I stared, fascinated and horrified — and suddenly nauseated again. Tom fell to the floor, crawling away, as I bent over the sink again.
I saw my neighbor come back in through the back door. “Something’s wrong with the food,” I told him, not quite thinking straight, and trying to think of what kind of food poisoning would cause hallucinations.
“I know, motherfucker. I didn’t eat any,” he said, staring at me through his mirrored sunglasses. My reflection in the sunglasses undulated and moved crazily. In those sunglasses I could see my own soul, twisting. “That’ll teach you fuckers to narc me out.”
I hadn’t a clue what he meant. “What?” I said, unable to tear my eyes away from his glasses with my reflection dancing in them.
He pushed me into a chair. After a moment, I’d realized he’d tied me to it. My stomach was still heaving, but there was nothing in it. “Where is everybody?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter, Mickey Mouse,” said one of the huge guys from the car who had pushed us around earlier. He and the other goon from the car were now there, two guns on the table. “We’ve got your friend in the other room.”
I can’t string any thoughts together; as I watch the room and the three guys in it swirl and pulsate. Perhaps I have done something horrible to them. Had I called the police on them? Perhaps I had informed Starsky and Hutch, or maybe even the Duke boys? I couldn’t remember.
One of them pulls out a gigantic knife, and I watch the blade bend and twist and reflect painful light through my skull. “We’re going to give you a choice. We can either kill your friend, or cut off one of your thumbs.”
I’m now beginning to realize the kind of trouble I’m in.
I hold out my left thumb. There isn’t really a choice involved. I’m suddenly fascinated by it, as it squirms and dances, and imagine it gone from my hand. “You’ll let him go, right?”
“That’ll cost you both thumbs,” said my neighbor with a laugh. He ties my hand tightly to the end of a chair, and the gleaming, swirling knife comes screaming out of the sky toward my thumb. It’s terrible and absurd, and I laugh as the knife touches the joint.
Deep red blood appears on a line along my thumb, and I stare at it, giggling like an idiot, as the pain shoots through my entire body. Not just my body. The entire room hurts. My teeth are on fire. The mirrored glasses hurt, bouncing reflective metallic pain off the corners of my skull. I’m laughing, or screaming, I can no longer tell which, as I drift out of consciousness.
It’s dark outside when I wake up later. The room glides and twists about me, and I’m tied to the chair everywhere; my arms, my chest, my legs, my dreams, my soul. I notice that both my thumbs are still on my hands, and I count them to make sure. It’s hard work, and it takes a while to complete. “Two,” I say out loud. Around my arm, there’s surgical tubing loosely wrapped, and dots of blood on the veins of my arm. The two guns that were on the table are now two empty syringes, and I ponder this for a while, wondering how such a transformation could have been effected.
The room throbs and pounds, sending waves of pain through my entire body. Agony comes from all directions, and pierces me everywhere. My teeth sting, my muscles are jerking everywhere, and electricity shoots through me. I hurt in places I don’t even have, and the pain doesn’t stop at the boundaries of my body. The hours and days drag on, and I feel myself … detach.
When I next have a coherent thought, I’m in a hospital bed. Some memories come back to me, but I don’t know what’s real. Running through broken glass on the street; climbing rusty metal steps covered with pigeon and bat droppings, running down the streets, scraping against buildings and falling, trying to cram myself under the back seat of my own car, trying to escape the pain, desperately repeating every phrase any patient of mine had ever uttered to anybody who would listen in an attempt to make them understand… My feet hurt, and I wonder if they’re cut up badly.
I realize that I’m strapped down. Weirder, I recognize the restraints from some dim corner of my memory. Ever so slowly, my brain starts to re-engage, and I realize I’m strapped to a bed in my own hospital. I don’t recognize the ward or the room. I actually say out loud, “holy shit, I’ve gone insane.”
Into the room steps Tom, “holy shit,” he echoes. “I was afraid you were gone for good. It’s been four days.”
“What happened?” I asked weakly, still a little nauseated, and still, I noticed, hallucinating slightly.
Tom took a deep breath, and started to explain. “Well, turns out our neighbor is a coke dealer, if you hadn’t figured that out. I guess he thought we’d called the police and turned him in. Apparently, he put a combination of rat poison and LSD into the hamburgers. The girls went to the hospital and got their stomachs pumped as soon as they left. They figured it was food poisoning.”
“Did they let you go?” I asked. “After they said they would…”
“Well, I crawled out the door, and threw up in our apartment for a while,” Tom said. “After I finally felt like I could move again, I went back to look for you. But I was tripping pretty hard, and not thinking too straight. I walked around to the back door, and you’re in there with three guys and they’ve got guns, so I go to call the police…” Tom winced, “but I kind of got lost. I couldn’t think straight at all.”
“So they didn’t have you in the other room?” I asked, now wondering if he was ever there.
“Nope,” Tom went on. “I don’t think they saw me. Anyway, I wandered around until I ran into Rose around 10 in the morning, at one of the gas stations she works in. She helped me find my way back, and when we went to the back door, you were in the dark all by yourself, tied to a chair, screaming. You didn’t recognize either of us.”
“We cut you free, and you kept screaming. We went to call the police, and you went running out of the place. By the time the police got there, we had no idea where you had gone. But they found you that night, apparently you kept hailing taxicabs and then screaming incoherently at the drivers, so they called the police. They brought you to the hospital and they got you into detox with me. But I don’t think they know what they shot you up with.” Tom pointed at the track marks on my arm.
“This isn’t detox,” I pointed out.
“Nah, after a few days of that, they were afraid you’d snapped completely, so you were brought here for your 72 hours of observation. Every time you woke up, you’d scream and try to run away.”
“So, what happened to those guys? The neighbor and the goons, I mean,” I asked, wondering if the police had caught them, too.
“After they left you, they headed for the Mexico border. The police took our statements and told us we might be needed to testify, but yesterday, they told us it wouldn’t be necessary. They were killed by police when trying to escape.”
Wow. “Hey, while you’re here,” I asked, “you think you can take me out of these restraints?”
“Sure, man,” said Tom, as he started to unbuckle the straps holding me down. “Now that you’ve got your shit back together, we can probably move you back to a regular hospital until your feet heal. Oh, yeah, and somebody else wanted to see you while you’re here, if you want.”
It was Jomo.
“Dude!” said Jomo, shaking the hand that Tom had freed from the restraints moments before. “They’re letting me out!”
“Awesome,” I responded. “What changed?”
“Well, man,” said Jomo, “you provided a damned good example of just how fucked up somebody can get on drugs and still have a normal brain. I think that helped me out.”
“Glad to be of help,” I said weakly.
“Plus,” he added, “I wasn’t never as crazy as you.”