The circle was never quite a circle. Every morning, as soon as the psychiatric aides arranged the motley collection of couches and chairs in a loose approximation of a ring, the patients would drift into the lounge and reposition the furniture in a way that minimized accidental eye contact.
Once situated, we each pursued our own method of enduring the mandatory group sessions. Toby played connect the dots with the self-inflicted cigarette burns that mottled his arms. Lois crowned herself with cornrows. Jorge silently prayed the Rosary. I filled in The New York Times crossword puzzle with derivatives of my favorite four-letter words.
In turn, we would share our progress since the last session, and since our physical confinement didn’t exactly inspire the confidence to perform an emotional striptease for a roomful of strangers, our reports were perfunctory, deviating little from day to day.
The psychiatric aides responded with equally as rehashed euphemisms and platitudes. A “high level of care” was code for involuntary commitment, while electroshock therapy masqueraded as part of the “stabilization process.” Echoes of “everyone has a cross to bear” amplified the fact that we had all collapsed under the weight of our respective worlds.
To avert potentially triggering subjects and defuse tense situations, the psych aides would interpose a question of the day that more often than not had the unintended consequence of further emphasizing the disparity between our world and the world beyond the psych ward’s double-locked doors. If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Jim Beam, straight up. Where would you go on your dream vacation? Anywhere I can lie on the beach and watch the sun set over my existential crisis. If your house was on fire and you could only save one thing, what would it be? My house.
The day he was admitted to the psych ward, Lorne breathed new life into our listless group. With the bravado of a two-bit hustler and the rapid-fire delivery of an auctioneer, he had the ability to take any statement—ranging from white lie to tall tale—and bully it into fact through the force of his voice. And the louder his voice became, the less the psychiatric aides seemed to care, notice, or care to notice his departure from the truth. A cursory glance at their notepads revealed that they transcribed his words into stars, spirals, and what appeared to be detailed escape routes.
Lorne’s grandly orchestrated, mordantly comical saga bridged fact and fantasy, the gulf between them disappearing as he fused together elements of both. Filtering stories through the distorted lens of his pain, he led us on a vertiginous tour of misadventures and misfortunes: from addiction’s siren song pulling him down to rock bottom to familial and financial fallout burying him below rock bottom.
And while his emotional honesty often ran afoul of the truth, his pain was as real as anything. Every embroidered scene and bloated caricature was rooted in genuine hurt and heart and tears and laughter. The group responded with reluctant acknowledgement, pitying Lorne even as we avoided making eye contact with him.
After being granted his first day pass, Lorne failed to report back at the designated time and still hadn’t returned by lights out. As I passed the front desk on the way to my room for the night, I watched the nurse cradle a phone in the crook of her neck while she struggled to direct a pair of psych aides using spastic hand gestures. When the confused aides were unable to interpret her gesticulation—let alone translate it into concrete action—her movements became increasingly frantic, as though she were conducting an orchestra of desperate futility.
When I walked into group the next morning, Lorne was already settled in his chair. Once the other patients had shuffled in and assumed their usual positions, a psych aide signaled the beginning of group by clearing her throat.
“Hello everyone. How are we feeling this morning?”
If we had any feelings, we had swallowed them down with our medication. No one spoke.
“Well, Lorne, you had an interesting day yesterday, didn’t you? Why don’t you tell us about it?”
He responded with a shrug that carried no pretense of equivocation and tore into his latest picaresque debacle.
“So, after my brother signs me out of this hellhole, we head back to my house to make sure my daughter hasn’t burned it down yet. As we’re getting out of the car, we hear a loud howling that sounds a little too close for comfort. I make my way around the house to investigate, and what do you think I see, glaring at me from my own backyard?
“A bobcat. A goddamn bobcat. He—or she, I’m no expert—is squeezed in a cage with a few bars missing and I’m thinking, hey, this animal could break loose and slaughter me in a heartbeat.”
Toby fingered a scab until a drop of blood appeared.
“Just then my daughter comes out of the house, hooting and hollering at her chowderhead of a boyfriend, who comes out hooting and hollering back at her. It turns out he lost a bet to some other chowderhead and got saddled with this bobcat. Naturally, they bring the brute to my house, making it my problem. As if my life isn't problematic enough, right?
“So after I give my daughter an earful about her lack of common sense—she get’s that from her mother—I go inside to fix myself something to eat. I can’t handle this bullshit on an empty stomach, you know? I needed to fill my gut so I can clear my head.”
Lois chewed on the end of a braid.
“I walk into what looks more like a war zone than a kitchen. The garbage is overflowing onto the floor. The dirty dishes in the sink are spilling onto the counter. My empty refrigerator is practically taunting me. It appears that while my daughter excels at eating me out of house and home, she hasn’t quite mastered the art of cleanliness—she gets that from her mother, too. Given my limited options, I decide to make a mayonnaise sandwich—the Jan Brady of food. You guys aren’t laughing. How the hell do you not laugh at that? It’s priceless.
“Anyway, I have no idea where my brother went. If I had to guess, I’d say he hightailed it to the bar when he saw what was going on. Can’t say I blame him, really. Then I hear my daughter’s car peeling out of the driveway. Boom. It’s like she’s begging to be written out of the will.
“Meanwhile, I’m just about to bite into my sandwich when I hear knocking on the door. It’s the cops. Well, I don’t want any trouble, so I let them in and they ask me if I know anything about the bobcat. I say no, but apparently to them, ’no’ means ‘yes’ and and ‘yes’ means ‘this guy looks like he could use a breather in the back of our squad car.’”
Ten across. Six-letter word for “Shows poor judgement.” F-U-C-K-E-D.
“A few neighbors wander over to see what all the commotion is about. Then a few more squad cars pull up. A respectable crowd has gathered and I try to slump down in my seat, but it’s no use—I’m on display for everyone to see. By the time animal control has hauled the bobcat away, practically the whole neighborhood is standing in front of my house. I guess you could call it payback from the time I trimmed their wind chimes with my chainsaw. Karma neutral.
“The cops finally realize that they’ve got nothing on me, so they let me go. I call my brother. No answer. I call my daughter. Straight to voicemail. I call on divine intervention. My phone dies.”
En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.
“Without a way back to this madhouse, I decide to hike the one, two, what was probably about five miles over to the interstate to try to hitch a ride. After standing on the shoulder with my thumb out for about fifteen, twenty minutes—it might have closer to an hour, I don’t have a watch—someone finally pulls over and offers me a lift. So here I am, hitching a ride with a guy whose Ford Festiva is plastered with bumper stickers. Coexist. Follow Your Bliss. Chicago Bears. I mean, does he think he can change my entire belief system with his car or something? Good luck with that, buddy.
“So, long story short”—too late—“here I am, back in this godforsaken place. It’s crazy to think that a bobcat almost landed me on the evening news, huh?”
The psych aide scribbled some notes that quickly devolved into a downward spiral.
Lorne didn’t wrap his latest mess in a convenient didactic package. Instead, after unraveling the illusion of a fixed reality, he left the loose ends of his story dangling, ready to be picked up and woven back into his ongoing narrative another time.
The aide nodded once she was convinced that Lorne had finished talking and said, “Well then, let’s move on to the question of the day: If you were an animal, what animal would you be? Who wants to start?”
Lois stopped braiding her hair and looked at the aide. “The kind of animal that attacks people who ask stupid hypothetical questions.”
“A bobcat. I'd be a bobcat.”
Robyn Schindeldecker is a Minneapolis-based writer with a penchant for probing and prodding life's absurdities. When she's not making a mess in the wordsmiths forge, she can be found looking for a silver lining where none exists.