In time, I began to frequent a room we called the Smoker, and, although not a smoker myself, I adjusted to the languid smoke-filled terrain of our den of inequity. Layer upon layer, the yellow walls were stained nicotine brown. Scraped, scarred and slashed Salvation Army chairs circled eight-foot round rough-hewn tables that were scattered in clusters. A myriad of ashtrays — both on the floor and the tables — were always full of ashes, butts, and spittle. At the head of the Smoker stood two wooden rectangular tables under the naked glare of ceiling lights that cast shadows into the grimy recesses of the large room.
The head tables were for the employees in charge of maintaining decorum in the Smoker. They doled out cigarettes to momentarily abate the incessant cravings of the inmates. One cigarette per customer per 15 minutes 24 hours a day. The line established itself just before the quarter-hour and the dolers regularly shortchanged the clock to avoid being nagged. I supposed it was also a gesture of good will.
The rights to cigarettes were obtained in a variety of ways that included exchanging your disability welfare check for your favorite brand, being a beneficiary of the covert founder of the cigarette endowment, guilting what family and friends still recognized your existence, theft and, above all, mooching. The cigarette cult permeated our society-in-exile and the Smoker was its capital.
I had met a woman in Brainard named Jeanne. Soon she became ‘my woman’ and we had a sort of romance that was born of necessity as much as desire. She and I held intriguing meetings in the Smoker, where we shared butts, kissed and fondled each other in the dingy shadows.
Jeanne liked to deny my fondling both inside and outside of that drab room. With a lean, poised body, darting clear blue eyes, and subtle breasts, she entertained herself by play-acting a fear of being defiled by men. Her mind was seeded with paranoia and she spent most of her free time calling lawyers and begging for their help. She demanded that they comprehend her plight and secure her freedom. In every call, she recanted the sins heaped upon her that were now destroying her brain and infesting her body. A sexy child-woman, over-medicated, frightened and pushy, she was beyond even electro-shock to pull her back from the edge of sanity.
One random morning at two am, all was well in the smoker. John had his head-set radio scattered all over the large round wooden table and was attempting to use black tape to repair its bare guts. For four dollars, he’d just bought at least twenty dollars’ worth of radio from a new incarcerate. Fixing, breaking, re-fixing—his hands flew between waist-attached tape players with head-phone privacy, an army of batteries, double AA, alkaline, triple AAA-used, new, no good at all, and the prized cassette tapes. Barter, borrow, buy and hide away for the needy day. He was hoping to tap into that electronic music sub-culture, an elitist indulgence for the intelligentsia. How utterly sublime to soar through one corridor after another, to sit in the dank Smoker while enveloped in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique! And only he would be able to hear and dance to its rhythms.
Randy, another inmate, postured out of the gloom. His presence was ostensibly to help John, but we all knew he would fail as usual. Randy’s air of monotonous superiority was more boring than offensive, even a bit entertaining at times. John wouldn’t give in to Randy’s attempt to help — or dominate, one could say — and he collected the pieces of his electronic world and left. Randy bantered on, pointing fingers and sermonizing on the need for order and rules. He bragged, as he often did, that his myriad of contacts on the ‘outside’ were waiting for his release. Then he paraded proudly up to the head table and preached at the cigarette dolers. Was it to provoke, ingratiate or simply to relieve his boredom? Maybe all three. But the people in charge were used to his biteless bark and even admired him as they would a strutting peacock.
It was a shame that Randy ran off John. He was the sweetest, brightest and most caring soul I have met in a long time. Like with the radio, he was always tinkering with something, piecing together parts into a whole that never quite came together. I didn’t believe that his Rube Goldberg-style inventions were a sign of what got him institutionalized, but rather the result of 22 years of drugs and institutions. Often he launched into a tirade that lacerated drug psychiatry. “None of this shit works,” he’d say. Because according to John, he “ain’t really sick.”
I was always fully entertained and pleasantly distracted by John’s lectures on bizarre, erudite articles, published by the psychiatric towers of Babel that preach success through correct labeling within their 280 categories. John had spent most of his 35 years in institutions, and reveled in his theory that he was blowing the hell out of the State’s mental health budget. It was his way of killing them as they’d tried to kill him over the years.
One day, Jeanne simply disappeared. Word was she’d been discharged, though no one had informed any of us, her friends. Thanks to our conversations, I knew the only place she had to go was back to her drunken, abusive father. She was back in a week with fresh tales of mistaken identities, demonic psychiatrists, drug blackouts and a new pair of cowboy boots that accentuate her slender sexiness. Our romance resumed its former function — as a calming background noise that distracted me and allowed her to obsess over the brain damage she sensed was slowly, invisibly enveloping her. She was terrified that the drugs were permanently “fixing” her.
“Can I stay at your house?” she asked me once. “Won’t you take care of me?” Sure I would. Just give me $50,000 a year and a social worker who actually cared. It was clear that our relationship didn’t have much shelf life outside the institution and we both knew it. Jeanne could barely function in the real world and I didn’t have the resources to care for her. She was one of those poor souls doomed to be institutionalized until the monster was slain and a rational treatment for humans with emotional disturbances was invented. For the time being, it was easier to lock her up and drug her: out of sight, out of mind.
Close to my release, someone informed on me and I was caught spitting out my pills. After that I got mouth checks. I could no longer be trusted. I also couldn’t afford to dwell on the fifty years of being sane that I already had under my belt. They did not recognize my credibility in Brainard, and arguing to the contrary would have only set me back further. Like my fellow inmates, I was quite cognizant of the dangers in this prison — after all, we aren’t that crazy.
John had begun to posture — his body became distorted, his arms and hands askew. He took a step and re-postured, another step and again re-postured. With his wicked sense of humor, I first mistook this for a new parody he was creating. But I suddenly realized that it was the tradive dyskinesia of Haldol. Because of the meds, his face became fixed in a grimace to which he added his own sardonic flare. Seasoned by my own suffering, I convinced John to mouth his poison and advised him to be more careful than I was. He needed to use the water fountains to dump the pills and avoid the toilets with their prying eyes.
John had already informed the monster about his previous problems with Haldol (which he did not need in any case), but this is the world of which Kafka wrote. Orders were issued from The Great Oz, who may or may not have read John’s chart, who may have erred but was beyond reproof, and whose capriciousness always wreaked havoc. John mouthed his Haldol, recovered, and the balance was restored again.
Life in Building One went on, with its inhabitants, myself included, trying to piece together our shredded selves into some form of supportive society. All the while, our Keepers fought a stiffly organized resistance against our need to belong. I groped for love, for kindness, for hope — blurred as I was, I was instinctually drawn to this community of comrades.
The time finally came when I became expendable. The system did not need me any longer. It had justified my incarceration, my diagnosis, my druggings, and finally, my disgorgement. Ironically, the admonishment I received upon being vomited from the belly of the beast was, “Don’t come back!” (Almost all do — again and again.) My prognosis was “guarded,” a polite medical term for “hopeless.”
I left my sheltered world, my comrades, and was folded into the darkest cocoon of my mind. By my keepers’ standards, I was cured. Months later, in the sanctuary of my sister’s home, I picked up the trail of my life and hesitantly emerged, clinging to the thought that today was a millimeter better than yesterday. In the face of the monumental incline ahead, it took only minute signs of progress to rally me forward. I had survived in order to live anew — now metamorphosed into yet a deeper understanding of what it is to be human.
The Voice paid a final visit to me during those months of reconstitution when, as a free man, I could finally stop the medications. I was delighted at first, for I had learned to love that mysterious voice in my deaf ear and had feared the drugs had destroyed it. But the Voice told me that it would no longer speak to me. There was no more reason to continue a dialogue it said. And thought I was disappointed, I understood what it meant. It would never truly leave me — it couldn’t. The Voice was me. My inner, most intuitive me. If it were to remain ‘a voice in my head,’ it would always be something separate from me, not part of me. Therefore, it was time to end the dialogue and begin to act on what I had learned. It was time to be what I had become.