Shackles, Faith and Hope (Part One)
In January 2016 I suffered a bout of psychosis on par with that of my earliest breakdowns. Due to self-stigma I tried to present as “normal”, but this particular experience led to consequences which required emergency services and inpatient care.
This three-part series is meant to illustrate my state of mind at the time. Any misperceptions during my stay were due to the symptoms of my disorder. I mean to cast no aspersions. Each individual responsible for my care did their job to the best of their abilities. I am grateful for their kindness, and have the utmost respect for them and their profession. ~HBJ
My “second sister” Amy held my left hand and wrist, while our friend Laura cradled my right foot and ankle. They were trying to hide the steel brackets locked to my limbs. My best friend Jeff stood at the corner of the bed, blocking my view of the proceedings behind him. My free hand clutched my teddy bear Murphy tightly to my chest. The four corners of my body’s map were in the care of my closest friends, but my mind was lost to terror. What had I done wrong, and why was I being treated like a prisoner?
Triage was in the wing known as Garden View, the irony being that there were no windows. No rooms were available either. My bed sat against the wall in the crossway. Ahead of me were drunks and addicts; in my fog of paranoia I considered them “free” whereas I was the one in restraints—the one who voluntarily committed himself after a suicide attempt in the vortex of psychosis.
I was informed that the leather straps and manacles were for my own good. I found nothing good about them. After all, I’d brought harm to myself, not to another person.
Devils had taunted me with extreme prejudice, strewing messages of death along my path. It wasn’t raining, but the deluge was incessant, like the command Voices surrounding me. I’d finally been located by their Master. The cowards had tracked me for years, and now they had me cornered.
My heart wouldn’t stop racing, but it wanted to. Stop, I mean to say. Dead. Why? Because there, in bright orange spray paint, was a message from the Devil Himself, numbers in a pattern that signified capture. My only out was to bite the capsule. Find a way to die and save humanity. It was all up to me. Savior, madman, martyr, spy.
Three months earlier in October I’d begun preparations for my battle. I started counting calories again, losing as much weight as quickly as possible. My food journal was filled to the margins with annotations on my daily insights, twisted now as I know them to have been.
“11/25/15: I suck at everything in my useless life. I am forced to start this diet plan. I know for certain that I need to lose twenty pounds or more. Being crazy and unwanted doesn’t help the life expectancy much, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“01/08/16: After blowing it for a week, we move back to the Real Deal, starting today. Food’s in the trash—threw it all out. Lousy way to spend money, but a good lesson.”
“01/13/16: I’m struggling with God. There is no love for me. I am completely alone.”
I’d lost eighteen pounds in under two weeks. I was eating one banana per day. Ninety calories. Black coffee. Nothing else. That’s how the monsters found me: scattered, gaunt, out in the street, taunting four lanes of rush hour traffic. I was begging them to run me down, to end me, to take away the pain of being unloved.
Time had come to make the move. We had a plan, a phone-tree, a team. But who do I call, and what do I say? Will my friends try to keep me from starving? Will they call the police because I’m trying to murder myself? No, they won’t. The Voices tell me that. They also tell me that my life is worthless. The garage sale total of my belongings wouldn’t pay for the funeral.
Instinctively, I hit the crisis line speed-dial. I got my therapist on board. Runes and demons, traffic, shouting. One banana a day. No food. No love.
Amy and Laura were soon in the loop. We met at my apartment, trashed as it was, and while they took instructions from my therapist over speakerphone, I stuffed my backpack with essentials: toothbrush, socks and briefs, Pikachu tee. I’d worn the same ratty, moth-eaten sweater for days. I hadn’t bathed in as long, either. I was flossing compulsively, my last shred of hygiene in tatters and blood. I don’t know how I got to the hospital, but Jeff was waiting for me there.
“I’m not trying to snake your girlfriend,” I said. “I’m sorry. My thoughts aren’t my own. Everyone is trying to steal my brain.”
I went through the security gate with my pants half-down because they took my belt, my glasses, anything metal, even not metal, my shoes. They put everything in a bag. All I could do was clutch my bear and sob into Jeff’s parka. “In Chicago it would be snowing, but I don’t have pumpkin bread. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.” He wasn’t.
He walked me to the admissions desk. I told the intern that I wanted to commit myself. When he asked me why, I said, “I want to die. I killed David Bowie. I need to be punished for it. I’m not thin enough to fight ogres. All the children are dead because of me.”
I was admitted, and, despite advocating for myself, my body was chained to a bed because I was considered dangerous. Because of my actions? No. There’s no crime in holding a teddy bear. My appearance? Possibly. I didn’t smell right. Maybe not bathing is an offense worth hobbling a smallish man. Or maybe it was the name of my diagnosis —schizophrenia—that carried with it the justification for restraints. It didn’t matter. In my panicked state of confusion and fear I believed—for those six hours I lay shackled to a bed—that I was considered a liability in a system which valued the worth of insurance over the dignity of a patient.
When the cuffs came off, I was transferred to a holding cell in what used to be the asylum decades ago: an eight-by-twelve windowless room with gray padded walls and a one-handled door. The chains were gone but I was strapped to the gloom. Down the corridor, deep in their own madness, patients wailed and screamed for release. I felt alone, terrified, fragile and small. Twelve hours later I would experience a very different sort of treatment, but for now my life was colorless, flat, and empty. I needed hope when there was none, faith when I’d lost mine. I let Murphy soak up my tears.
[to be continued]