Summer of '88. We're all queued up, waiting for whatever chemicals they were using to control us. I knew one of the drugs they were giving me, but I could swear I was getting something besides those little Dreamsicle-colored capsules, and I can't for the life of me remember what it was or what it was for. There was some mumbling towards the back of the line, about which we were warned. In other words, it was just another day.

I was what they call "voluntarily" committed, which meant that I was ostensibly still conscious enough to sign the papers, and that at some point I had indicated that this might be, after all, a better plan than driving into the nearest bridge abutment. I had parked my car behind the building; they confiscated my keys. I wasn't going anywhere for the next month and a half, maybe longer. Stabilization, they said, was the goal. I pointed out that being dead was about as stable a condition as one could ask for; no one was impressed.

Despite the staff's best efforts, the inmates tended to splinter off into subgroups, with a couple of notable exceptions. One of these was Rhonda*, the only one among us who used a wheelchair; she'd hang around the periphery until she was noticed, and then she'd flee to another corner. Rhonda was quite lovely, actually, with a strange gap-toothed smile, like Letterman's but not quite symmetrical, and an old-fashioned peaches and cream complexion, with occasional dark spots. Had someone been beating her, knocking out those missing teeth? I wanted to know, but it wasn't my place to ask. And she never said much anyway, so maybe she wouldn't have answered.

More accessible was Janice, a voluble woman in her forties who would talk about anything with anyone; we got on quite well. Too well for staff, apparently; more than once we were warned (separately, of course) about "sexual acting-out," whatever that may have been. It's not like either of us had invited the other to bed or anything. And the gentleman with whom I shared a room had a Monster Truck of a snore, disturbing to the extent that I once dragged my mattress to the far end of the hallway in the hopes of getting some sleep.

Being out of one's room after hours, of course, was Not Permitted. The major offender here was Martha, somewhere in her seventies, who was given to wandering the halls late at night. She was very quiet about it, until her inevitable meeting with a staff member, at which point she would shriek in a key you'd never have figured, given the gravelly contralto in which she spoke. One time, the grapevine passed the news that not only had Martha broken out of her room, but she'd done so without her nightgown; apparently it took two staff members to subdue her that time.

One morning, the rest of us were in something resembling an Army formation, when we heard that voice in its highest range, apparently coming from behind the building. Had she tried to escape? We were not told, of course. But as the voice came closer, it suddenly shifted to Mercedes McCambridge from The Exorcist at her most chilling: "Don't you dare try to put your penis into my mouth!" I started. Was this standard procedure for female inmates, or was she just a little more delusional than usual? I would never find out; still, I can hear that voice from three decades ago, loud and clear.

Not that things were particularly eventful otherwise. Once in a while we'd get to walk down one sidewalk and up another — never across the courtyard, that would be wrong — and land in the Art Therapy Department. Instructed to produce something that represented my mood of the moment, I spent the next hour constructing a modeling-clay simulacrum of a toilet. "With," I proclaimed proudly, "a working seat!" I assume they were not impressed.

Eventually I was sent home, for some value of "home" I didn't quite comprehend; for about a week I lived with a young woman who had been discharged the same day, but that wasn't going to work for any length of time, and I returned to the streets whence I came. At least I still had my car.

* All names are fictitious.

The Vent

  16 January 2017

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