A short story by Smiler
She’d slept in until 10:20 that morning when the phone rang. It was a nurse from the outpatient clinic she had contacted calling her back to give her an appointment. Tara, nervous and easily upset these days was having difficulty expressing herself on the phone, and finding herself tongue-tied, started crying and blubbering into the receiver. The nurse grew very concerned “Unfortunately we can only give you an appointment next week, but in the meantime I strongly suggest you get yourself to emergency care as soon as possible.”
Her family doctor and her closest friends, her relatives, had all insisted she go check herself into the ER, but Tara was terrified of going there. She had an irrational phobia of hospitals and to add to it, was worried they’d keep her there indefinitely. Even more scary to her were the serious nut cases she was likely to encounter there, and be forced to spend several hours with, before being seen by a doctor. But then again, she couldn’t go on like this. She’d been crying day and night for nearly two weeks now, and the thoughts plaguing her were very likely to drive her to desperate measures imminently. Since no outpatient clinic could give her an appointment any sooner, and since she’d been trying to see a good doctor for over six month months now, she finally made up her mind: She would go to the ER. As much as she hated to admit it, this was now what could be considered an emergency situation, she could no longer hide that from herself.
She tidied up her apartment, cleaned the dishes, put her papers in order on her desk. She didn’t want to come back to a messy place after the impending ordeal, which she suspected might last for a good while. She took a shower and brushed her hair for the first time in days, a week, or more. She wanted to look at the very least somewhat presentable. She didn’t put on any makeup, since she couldn’t stop crying anyway, though she did think of putting on a light classic cologne to spruce herself up a little.
There was a rainstorm raging by the time Tara called a taxi. As she was making her way out the front door and juggling a garbage bag, recycling bin, umbrella, her purse and house keys, her phone rang. It was her most recent lover calling from rehab. They hadn’t spoken for a couple of days and she hurriedly told him where she was headed to.
“Don’t go! What if they decide to keep you there?”
This annoyed her greatly, and raising her voice to a shout into the receiver:
“Don’t you understand you idiot?! I’m a danger to myself—I can’t cope anymore! What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
She managed to take the trash, recycling, and all her personal effects down the perilously shallow stairs, while still holding the mobile phone to her ear without a glitch. Now her poor wretch of a lover, having recanted on his objections to an emergency room visit when he saw how angry she’d gotten, was in the middle of telling her how much he missed her from his retreat at the rehab centre. Tara had made damn well sure he check himself into that place. She had a habit of picking up desperate cases, just as she’d brought home homeless and injured animals as a child and this one had turned out to be a raging very hard drinking alcoholic. Just what she needed of course. She was getting into the taxicab and inadvertently pressed the keypad in her general confusion, cutting him off mid-sentence suddenly. He can only make one call a day. Now he’ll think I’ve hung up on him and I won’t ever hear the end of it! She was already so very upset about going to the mental hospital ER, having to admit to herself that she was truly sick and truly in need of help, truly had no choice but to take medication to stay healthy… it was so hard for her to swallow as it was, and now this, too. She started crying and sobbing even harder, utterly unable to control herself.
Between her sobs, she managed to tell the taxi driver the name of the hospital she was going to. It was the only such hospital in the city. Taxi drivers know exactly who it’s for: crazy people like me, she thought. She felt deeply ashamed of how desperate her situation had become, and as she looked out the window at the dull grey day and the rain pouring by the bucketfull from the skies, she was glad for the rainstorm. It seemed especially fitting given the pathos of this particular errand. The taxi driver, who was obviously a talkative man quickly and almost immediately started to express concern for Tara. In his heavily accented English, he tried to convince her that a ‘girl’ like her didn’t need to go to a ‘place like that’. “All you need is to think happy thoughts, look at yourself in the mirror, see how beautiful you are, such beautiful eyes, such beautiful lips, how can such a beautiful girl like you cry so much? Even with all the tears, you are still beautiful. I take you for coffee, we talk and you will feel better, you will see”.
She thought this man had good intentions, but what was meant to be an uplifting sermon and a not so veiled pickup line only made Tara feel even more alienated. She carried this perceived beauty, which she thought was quickly vanishing anyway, rather indifferently. She knew it was a double-edged sword, it had gotten her into so much trouble, all her life, and never quite knowing how to wield these looks without harming herself in the process, she pretended it did not exist. Since when have beauty, money, power or any of those trappings equalled happiness? What the hell is wrong with people?!
The car entered the hospital grounds. It had been several years since Tara had been there last, and it had remained a distant and vague, but threateningly bleak memory. She was surprised to see how green and pretty everything looked on this July morning, even through the driving rain. Trees everywhere, nicely groomed grass, colourful bright flowerbeds, the squat two-story buildings all set a good distance away from each other, almost like a posh university campus. But she wasn’t reassured. They only make it look this way to make us feel more trusting. The taxi driver dropped her off at the emergency pavilion with one last plea “You don’t belong here. I will bring you anywhere you want, you are too beautiful for this place”. The tears started flowing more insistently now, after what had been a very brief reprieve. She wished he didn’t keep bringing up her looks that way, at this particular moment in time; as though her looks alone were the solution to all her problems. It was insulting, she didn’t appreciate being objectified like that. All he sees is an illusion; he can’t begin to imagine all this pain and ugliness I carry inside me. Besides which, how could he presume to hold the key to her happiness?
The burly security guard at the entrance searched Tara’s handbag with an indifferent and rather vacant look on his face and promptly took her mobile phone away. She’d managed to stop sobbing for a minute or two as she’d made her way in, but broke down at that moment again and started wailing: “BUT ALL MY PHONE NUMBERS AND CONTACTS ARE ON THERE!!! WHAT IF I NEED TO REACH PEOPLE TO TELL THEM I’M HERE?!? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THAT???” All the while wondering: Am I making a Paris Hilton of myself? Am I being a screechy overprivileged brat? Then: I don’t really care if I AM being obnoxious—there’s no dignity in a place like this, may as well let them know I won’t be messed with. Her worst fear was that they might keep her there and she would have no way of reaching anyone to tell them where she was, or worst of all, how to get inside her apartment to feed her cat if she was kept for several days or more.
She was still crying when she signed in at the reception desk, and she continued to do so while they made her wait in the admissions room. This room was furnished with a dozen padded office chairs, most of which were occupied. Tara didn’t dare look around—she felt humiliated and she was also afraid of seeing “real crazies”—the kind with bad teeth that talk to themselves with drool running down their chins. She kept her eyes down on the well-trod yet clean nondescript carpeting. Sobbing and sniffling so much she went through a pack of Kleenex tissues within a few minutes, she looked up briefly and saw a young woman across from and right in front of her. She seemed normal. Decently dressed. Properly combed. Clean. Calm. Tara wondered what she was doing there. Visiting someone maybe? She quickly looked down again. Another administrator called her into an office, searched her bag again and took away her Tylenol and contraceptive pills this time (because I might attempt to kill myself via oral contraception maybe??). She informed Tara that it would be a while before she’d could be seen by a doctor; only one psychiatrist was on duty that day. A nurse would see Tara in a while to make an initial assessment. This of course wasn’t exactly news since long waits had always been part of the ER ordeal in this part of the world. But at least one could get treated for free and not have to go bankrupt over hospital fees. Tara asked about her mobile phone: “Could I have my phone back? I just need to call a few people to let them know I’m ok!” There was a payphone in the waiting lounge for just that purpose and which was free of charge.
The waiting lounge wasn’t so much a lounge as a couple of intersecting hallways with chairs along the walls. There weren’t a lot of patients waiting—maybe half a dozen at most—but Tara knew that didn’t have any correlation with how long she would actually have to wait. Tara sat herself on the chair next to the telephone and started to make calls. She could hear someone talking loudly in the adjoining corridor but she couldn’t actually see him from where she was sitting. She didn’t know if it was an orderly or a patient, and if the latter, she wasn’t entirely sure if he was talking to himself or if he had an interlocutor, as he spoke in a seemingly uninterrupted monologue. His voice was so loud that it was impossible to tune him out. After she had finished making her phone calls and reassured a few people about her whereabouts, Tara listened to the man more attentively for a few minutes and quickly understood he was giving a lecture about the dangers of cocaine addiction. She had not yet seen who was talking, but Tara learned that the orator had had a roommate who had held down a respectable and well-paid position until he had developed a cocaine habit, accumulated enormous debt, fell into deep depression and obviously eventually lost his job. Apparently this poor wretch had deteriorated further and was now living in the streets. The moral of the lesson, The Orator said: Don’t take drugs! Tara figured that was his problem: he probably refused to take his drugs, however badly he needed them.
She eventually got a peek at The Orator when he walked past her. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, though he might have been younger, so many mentally ill people aged badly after all. He had shortish graying hair and a short black and grey beard – which was mostly a random growth that had gone unshaven for a good while. He was wearing pants which must have been black jeans at one point but were now faded to a medium uneven well aged greyish colour. Despite his impressively large frame, the pants were evidently much too large for him and were held together with a belt which was probably nothing but a piece of rope. The jeans had been cut off a few inches bellow the knee, mid-shin or so. One of the pant legs was a bit longer than the other and had an uneven, very large zig-zag cutting pattern. An item of clothing a cartoon character or a clown might wear. Furthermore, he had on black Doc Martens boots which had been spray-painted fluorescent orange, though a good portion of the paint had rubbed off or been scratched away. His preposterously, monstrously huge belly was amply spilling over—yet still contained—by the straining ochre-yellowish t-shirt tucked into his pants. He was not at all as Tara would have imagined him to be, not by a longshot. The educated voice and decent vocabulary was completely at odds with his appearance, but at least she had no doubt as to whether he was a patient or a member of the hospital staff anymore.
The Orator kept pacing the corridors and finding people to assail with his store of knowledge, as new patients came in to the waiting ‘lounge’. Every time he so much as glanced her way or seemed to be considering an approach Tara turned away and kept herself busy to block him out. At first she did this by making a few more phone calls. When she was finished with those, she moved down a couple of chairs, away from the phone and attempted to read a magazine she’d brought along with other reading material for what she’d known back at home would be a long wait. In a short while, a stooped and unkempt old man shuffled past her and plopped his skinny frame into the chair Tara had just occupied. He tried to use the phone, and after attempting to punch in his numbers a few times, started to mumble to himself unintelligibly. After a while Tara realized he was in fact talking to her: “Does it (i.e. the phone) work?’ She was able to eventually make this out, though it took a few tries of making him repeat his words for her to understand him because his speech was so garbled and strange. “Of course it works! I just used it!”—came her terse reply. Then she had a better look at him, and her heart sank. He had a dozen or so stitches above his left eye, apparently quite fresh and still bright with red bloodstains. She also saw now that he was attempting to literally punch in the numbers… with his entire fist. Oh Lord. Heaven have mercy on me. Right away, she got up to dial the number for him and handed him the receiver, but as she sat down again and heard him talking on the phone, Tara was dismayed to realize he was loudly and somehow quite clearly talking about his stools and describing them at length and in great detail; his most recent visit to the toilet had apparently been his fist in quite a while and was an event worth calling home about, as it were.
She decided to seek out another spot to pass the time. She found a counter at the end of the corridor. It was along a wall, in its own small alcove lined with windows and overlooking the grounds outside. She sat on a stool with her back to the room and pulled out her journal. Among other things, she made notes about some of the nonsense The Orator was spewing at any given moment, when she wasn’t able to block his constant drone out. He was presently lecturing about the wonders of cardboard as a construction material. Tara found it hard to ignore him completely because everything he talked about was vaguely interesting and bore some elements of truth, yet he somehow always managed to make things sound completely grotesque as well. Presently he was saying he had put together his very own “designer furniture” and had even built his kitchen cabinets, all out of… cardboard of course. “Cardboard can even be used as a weapon! Take martial arts for example…” then he segued into this next topic, talking about the various branches, techniques, history and myths about martial arts: “Did you know they once had only white belts, which the novices wore through their entire training period, and only once the belts had turned black from sweat and blood were the students deemed worthy of being considered as masters?” Even though it was a misconception, he did manage to make his argument sound convincing and Tara couldn’t help but wonder where and how The Orator got all this random information.
The pitiful beaten up old man once again made an appearance, this time holding a large TV remote in his hand. He shuffled himself into a chair in the room behind Tara and proceeded to point the remote at a television that was hung up high on the wall at the furthest corner from him, though of course there were many vacant chair right in front of him and closer to the television set. When he landed on a decades-old rerun of a soap opera, he proceeded to raise the volume to what must have been the absolute limit. The sound was deafening now but Tara, intent on keeping her interactions with ‘The Freaks’ to an absolute minimum, tried her best to tune out the noise and with some difficulty, kept writing in her journal. After a few minutes an orderly appeared and gently asked the old man to turn the volume down. The old man did as he was asked, but as soon as the woman had turned the corner, immediately proceeded to ratchet the volume up even louder still. Again, the orderly returned and calmly asked him to lower the volume “You know, not everybody wants to listen to your soap opera monsieur Leblanc!” she said. Apparently he was a regular. This did not surprise Tara in the least; of course he was.
She had brought Golda Meir’s autobiography to read that day and no sooner had she cracked it open that The Orator sneaked up on her and loudly proclaimed “Tell Me What You Are Reading And I Will Tell You Who You Are!” at which she buried her nose even deeper into the musty old book and waved him away, which thankfully was enough to dissuade him from a further onslaught. She’d managed to read a few chapters of the impossibly tiny print in her old and yellowed (actually browning) paperback edition, when a nurse called her for an initial evaluation. After Tara was done pouring her heart out with the ensuing sniffles and tears, since she was incapable of expressing herself any other way at that point, the nurse simply said: “If you don’t take the medication prescribed to you by the psychiatrist, you won’t receive coverage, simple as that”. Tara did not like pills. In fact she hated them. Had a deep mistrust of the whole pharmaceutical industry, and she had resisted taking medication for several years, against her treating psychiatrist’s advice. But at that point, she was willing to swallow any pills they were going to give her. It came on her now that if she needed to be in a place like this, with all these crazy people in it to begin with, then surely she must be crazy too. The nurse sent her back to the waiting lounge after informing her that it would be a few hours more before the doctor could see her. Of course it would be. Tara continued reading while awaiting this encounter with the one psychiatrist on call at emergency services that day. The Orator was still going strong, his voice booming along in the background, but Tara had grown accustomed to the drone of it by now and was able to more or less tune him out. The old man had fallen asleep in his chair. The reading was slow going. The text really was so incredibly small. She wondered: did people really have better eyesight twenty years ago? Was that even possible?
Eventually, after a couple of uneventful hours, the psychiatrist called Tara into his office. He seemed young and alert and willing to listen, this after what had evidently already been a long half day for him. Empathetic even. Not an ancient drone or a drug addict, and without any visible tics or strange facial expressions, unlike many of the shrinks Tara had seen before. She explained her situation to him, detailed her medical history and related the tremendous stresses she’d been put under at work and in her personal life. The more details she gave, the more she cried and the more agitated she became, the more concerned the psychiatrist seemed about her condition. “I strongly suggest you stay here overnight, I am seriously concerned you are a risk to yourself”. Tara shook her head. “Can you force me to stay if I don’t want to?”. No, he couldn’t, but he thought it would be imprudent for her to go back to an empty home. However, he added almost as an afterthought, there were no beds available, so they’d have to keep her in the emergency ward. She had a vision of herself sitting up with the hoi polloi that night. She imagined an entire evening, night and morning, spent in the presence of The Orator and the sad bruised old man and God only knew who else. That was the final straw. She grew agitated again. Fighting against the mounting panic, she begged the doctor not to insist she stay. He tried to convince her otherwise, at which point she made a supreme effort to collect her thoughts and express herself as clearly and succinctly as she know how to. She promised and solemnly swore that she would not do herself any harm. “This place absolutely terrifies me. I’ll take the medication. I’ll be much calmer when I get home. I’ll start doing better as soon as I leave this place, I assure you! Just PLEASE let my insurance company know I’m taking the meds so I can pay my rent next month and rest easy for a while, that’s all I ask”. The doctor wrote down a prescription and the note she needed to prove she was complying with her treatment. I’ll take the fucking pills if it means I never have to set foot in this place again she grimly thought to herself.
As she took her leave, her personal effects were returned to her and she was quickly buzzed out of the waiting lounge without any difficulties whatsoever. This state of affairs was unlike what Tara had anticipated. She’d had visions of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, of Victorian lunatic asylums running through her head her whole life, and now she was free to go, just like that! Not that very long ago in the past, they’d have kept her there without a doubt. Times had changed of course. Passing by the now oblivious security guard at the exit, Tara walked out of the psychiatric emergency pavilion to what had turned into a beautiful, sunny summer evening. The smell of the drenched and shimmering greenery, with freshly clipped grass and so many shrubs and trees all around, was fresh and enticing. There were birds singing in the trees, calling to each other. Freedom, precious freedom. Conditional freedom perhaps, and she was certifiably insane maybe, but she was free. She turned her face up to the lowering rays of the setting sun and let it warm her closed lids for a moment. Then she went home again.
Colour photographs: LSD photographers