People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, it’s easy. And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. Most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists. And who can resist an opening?
An odd feature of the parallel universe is that although it is invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from. Sometimes the world you came from looks huge and menacing, quivering like a vast pile of jelly; at other times it is miniaturized and alluring, a-spin and shining in its orbit. Either way, it can’t be discounted. Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.
Take it from his point of view. It was 1967. Even in lives like his, professional lives lived out in the suburbs behind shrubbery, there was a strange undertow, a tug from the other world--the drifting, drugged-out, no-last-name youth universe--that knocked people off balance. One could call it "threatening," to use his language. What are these kids doing? And then one of them walks into his office wearing a skirt the size of a napkin, with a mottled chin and speaking in monosyllables. Doped up, he figures. He looks again at the name jotted on the notepad in front of him. Didn't he meet her parents at a party two years ago? Harvard faculty--or was it MIT? Her boots are worn down but her coat's a good one. It's a mean world out there, as Lisa would say. He can't in good conscience send her back into it, to become flotsam on the subsocietal tide that washes up now and then in his office, depositing others like her. A form of preventive medicine.
Something also was happening to my perceptions of people. When I looked at someone's face, I often did not maintain an unbroken connection to the concept of a face. Once you start parsing a face, it's a peculiar item: squishy, pointy, with lots of air vents and wet spots. This was the reverse of my problem with patterns. Instead of seeing too much meaning, I didn't see any meaning. But I wasn't simply going nuts, tumbling down a shaft into Wonderland. It was my misfortune—or salvation—to be at all times perfectly conscious of my misperceptions of reality. I never "believed" anything I saw or thought I saw. Not only that, I correctly understood each new weird activity. Now, I would say to myself, you are feeling alienated from people and unlike other people, therefore you are projecting your discomfort onto them. When you look at a face, you see a blob of rubber because you are worried that your face is a blob of rubber. This clarity made me able to behave normally, which posed some interesting questions. Was everybody seeing this stuff and acting as though they weren't? Was insanity just a matter of dropping the act?
Swish, click. Before you knew it, she'd be back. Click, swish, "Checks," swish, click.
It never stopped, even at night; it was our lullaby. It was our metronome, our pulse. It was our lives measured out in doses slightly larger than those famous coffee spoons. Soup spoons, maybe? Dented tin spoons brimming with what should have been sweet but was sour, gone off, gone by without our savoring it: our lives.
Cynthia was depressive; Polly and Georgina were schizophrenic; I had a character disorder. Sometimes they called it a personality disorder. When I got my diagnosis it didn't sound serious, but after a while it sounded more ominous than other people's. I imagined my character as a plate or shirt that had been manufactured incorrectly and was therefore useless.
“We'll find you a new [boyfriend] in the cafeteria," said Georgina. "I’m sure Wade knows somebody nice.”
"Let's forget it," I said. The truth was, I didn't want a crazy boyfriend.
Lisa looked at me. "l know what you're thinking," she said. "You don't want some crazy boyfriend, right?" I was embarrassed and didn't say anything. "You'll get over it," she told me. "What choice have you got?" Everybody laughed. Even I had to laugh.
Therapists had nothing to do with our everyday lives.
"Don't talk about the hospital," my therapist said if I complained about Daisy or a stupid nurse. "We're not here to talk about the hospital."
They couldn't grant or rescind privileges, help us get rid of smelly roommates, stop aides from pestering us. The only power they had was the power to dope us up. Thorazine, Stelazine, Mellaril, Librium, Valium, the therapists' friends. Once we were on it, it was hard to get off. A bit like heroin, except it was the staff who got addicted to our taking it.
"You're doing so well," [our doctors] would say.
That was because those things knocked the heart out of us.
The student nurses were about nineteen or twenty: our age. They had clean, eager faces and clean, ironed uniforms. Their innocence and incompetence aroused our pity, unlike the incompetence of aides, which aroused our scorn. This was partly because student nurses stayed only a few weeks, whereas aides were incompetent for years at a stretch. Mainly, though, it was because when we looked at the student nurses, we saw alternate versions of ourselves. They were living out lives we might have been living if we hadn't been occupied with being mental patients. They shared apartments and had boyfriends and talked about clothes. We wanted to protect them so that they could go on living these lives. They were our proxies.
For many of us, the hospital was as much a refuge as it was a prison. Though we were cut off from the world and all the trouble we enjoyed stirring up out there, we were also cut off from the demands and expectations that had driven us crazy. What could be expected of us now that we were stowed away in a loony bin? The hospital shielded us from all sorts of things. We’d tell the staff to refuse phone calls or visits from anyone we didn't want to talk to, including our parents.
"I'm too upset!" we'd wail, and we wouldn't have to talk to whoever it was.
As long as we were willing to be upset, we didn't have to get jobs or go to school. We could weasel out of anything except eating and taking our medication.
In a strange way we were free. We’d reached the end of the line. We had nothing more to lose. Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity: All of this was gone and we were stripped down to the bare bones of our selves.
Valerie and Georgina picked me up under the arms and steered me down the hall to our room. My legs and feet felt like mattresses, they were so huge and dense. Valerie and Georgina felt like mattresses too, big soft mattresses pressing on either side of me. It was comforting.
"It'll be okay, won't it?" I asked. My voice was far away from me and I hadn't said what I meant. What I meant was that now I was safe, now I was really crazy, and nobody could take me out of there.
In the cab Valerie said, "I've got something for you." It was my tooth, cleaned up a bit but huge and foreign. "l snitched it for you," she said.
'Thanks, Valerie, that was nice of you." But the tooth wasn't what I really wanted. "l want to know how much time that was," I said. "See, Valerie, I've lost some time, and I need to know how much. I need to know."
Then I started crying. I didn't want to, but I couldn't help it.
He started asking me, "What are you thinking?" I never knew what to say. My head was empty and I liked it that way. Then he began to tell me what I might be thinking. "You seem sad today," he'd say, or “Today, you seem puzzled about something." Of course I was sad and puzzled. I was eighteen, it was spring, and I was behind bars.
In February I asked Melvin, "You know those tunnels?"
"Could you tell me more about the tunnels?" He didn't know about them. If he'd known about them, he would have said, "Yes?"
"There are tunnels under this entire hospital. Everything is connected by tunnels. You could get in them and go anywhere. It's warm and cozy and quiet."
"A womb," said Melvin.
"It's not a womb," I said.
"Yes." When Melvin said Yes without a questioning intonation, he meant No.
"It's the opposite of a womb," I said. "A womb doesn't go anywhere.”
[The mind is] full of claims and reasons. "You're a little depressed because of all the stress at work," it says. (It never says, "You're a little depressed because your serotonin level has dropped.")
Sometimes its interpretations are not credible, as when you cut your finger and it starts yelling, "You're gonna die!" Sometimes its claims are unlikely, as when it says, "Twenty-five chocolate chip cookies would be the perfect dinner."
Often, then, it doesn't know what it's talking about. And when you decide it's wrong, who or what is making that decision? A second, superior interpreter?
Why stop at two? That's the problem with this model. It's endless. Each interpreter needs a boss to report to.
The point is, the brain talks to itself, and by talking to itself changes its perceptions. To make a new version of the not-entirely-false model, imagine the first interpreter as a foreign correspondent, reporting from the world. The world in this case means everything out or inside our bodies, including serotonin levels in the brain. The second interpreter is a news analyst, who writes op-ed pieces. They read each other's work. One needs data, the other needs an overview, they influence each other. They get dialogues going.
If my diagnosis had been bipolar illness, for instance, the reaction to me and to this story would be slightly different. That's a chemical problem, you'd say to yourself, manic-depression, Lithium, all that. I would be blameless, somehow. And what about schizophrenia—that would send a chill up your spine. After all, that's real insanity. People don't "recover" from schizophrenia. You'd have to wonder how much of what I'm telling you is true and how much imagined.
I have a few more annotations to my diagnosis. 'The disorder is more commonly diagnosed in women." Note the construction of that sentence. They did not write, 'The disorder is more common in women." It would still be suspect, but they didn't even bother trying to cover their tracks.
Many disorders, judging by the hospital population, were more commonly diagnosed in women. Take, for example, "compulsive promiscuity." How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn the label "compulsively promiscuous?” Three? No, not enough. Six? Doubtful. Ten? That sounds more likely. Probably in the fifteen-to-twenty range, would be my guess--if they ever put that label on boys, which I don't recall their doing.
And for seventeen-year-old girls, how many boys?
I often ask myself if I'm crazy. I ask other people too.
"ls this a crazy thing to say?" I'll ask before saying something that probably isn't crazy.
I start a lot of sentences with "Maybe I'm totally nuts," or "Maybe I've gone 'round the bend."
If I do something out of the ordinary--take two baths in one day, for example--I say to myself: Are you crazy?
It's a common phrase, I know. But it means something particular to me: the tunnels, the security screens, the plastic forks, the shimmering, ever-shifting borderline that like all boundaries beckons and asks to be crossed. I do not want to cross it again.
She had changed a lot in sixteen years. She was no longer urgent. In fact, she was sad. She was young and distracted, and her teacher was bearing down on her, trying to get her to pay attention. But she was looking out, looking for some- one who would see her. This time I read the title of the painting: Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Interrupted at her music, as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all the other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that?
I had something to tell her now. "l see you," I said.