The Thick Red Line

Let me paint the scene for you:

First, the hum and buzz. Everything here moves not mechanically but organically like the tide — the hushed shuffle of the nurses doing rounds. Or the flow of meals being carted in and empty trays out. It is ordered but not mechanically so.

A woman in a gown hunched over me — I was sitting in a chair against the wall and said, “Here, I can show you how the other guys do this.” And then she held out her open hand. I put one of the four rubber-bands I was holding into hers. She stretched the rubber-band and slid it up to the middle of my shoe to take the place of the shoelaces the nurses put in a paper bag marked with my name. This was done with the care of a mother.

Across the hall from where I sat there was a small room with brown paper bags, each bearing the weight of the contraband inside. I was weighed on the scale and I thought about being weighed twice the day before by my doctor.

“I’m guessing 176 pounds.”

It had been 5 days since I’d been weighed.

“174. Probably the extra weight for your shoes.”

Scattered on the cafeteria table was a lunch tray: two styrofoam cups with unknown contents, a chicken-and-some-kind-of-unidentifiable-green-vegetable plate with a steam coated plastic lid and a milk. It reminded me of elementary school.

“Are you hungry?” then, “That’ll be your lunch.”

It is possible that the nurses knew I was coming and saved a tray for me. I was a walk-in with an appointment like a suburbanite showing up for a haircut. But it was much more likely to have wandered the seas of happen stance and then conscripted into service as my lunch.

“No, not really.” Later they found me in group therapy and set the tray in front of me. I might have eaten some of it.

What was I thankful for? At that moment, very little.

“I am thankful for <her name>showing me how to rubber band my shoes,” and I help up one of my shoes. Most of those around the table probably knew what I was talking about without me lifting my shoe as a demo but being asked what I was thankful for when I was there because I was particularly unthankful was unnerving.

Second, we should paint the red line across the hall near the entrance to the ward. On one side of the line, the nurses hover and congregate before flying from the hive. We know they are social creatures because we can receive some information back that we put forth into collective.

They have a hierarchy.

Some are workers. We see them counting heads every 15 minutes or dragging a blood pressure machine on wheels around to each person at lunch. And some portion out medication, the prized product of the hive. Some are only seen rarely but their motion sets the hive into motion. Others are not of the hive. The doctors and therapists, for example, are foreign matter. Their presence disturbs the activity, sending ripples and instigating specific but intelligent behaviors.

The official activities coordinator belted out her sentences like a silver sports car with a red interior being scraped along the exterior wall of a Laguna Hills home: an unending screech. He bought the car and got the girl built like a Barbie Doll as much to say that he had the car and girl as he wanted the car and the girl. Well, probably more. Of all the stories I heard, his was the saddest because his blindness to the depths of his problems was complete.

“I’m checking myself into a spa after I get out,” he announced maybe every 15 minutes the morning after he was brought in. While most speak to commiserate, to empathize, or to bring another into us, I never fucking understood the motivation behind anything he said. We leave open the possibility that he really did make money every time he spoke. Some of us never speak or are never heard.

But maybe I am biased because he came in around 2AM my first night. I was having trouble sleeping already; one of my roommates was blind and anxious to get to the day room so he asked every 15 minutes what time it was, sometimes arguing about the answer; the other I was a little afraid of — he had the stare of a man who had seen (or was seeing) things none of us want to see.

… and even at that early, the new guy liked to talk — mostly about himself.

Stay focused on the plot: activities coordinator, trivia, rec-room.

“Are poinsettias poisonous?”


“NO! It’s false,” she cackles at my apparent ignorance.

They are poisonous, not deadly, but still poisonous.

“It says no.”

Are we keeping score? Because this feels a little intense.

Another member of the staff said over her shoulder, “They are poisonous to animals, not people,” as she was leaving the room.

After dinner that night, I saw the same staff member sitting at the table, writing notes. I’d been sitting staring at the TV for a long time waiting for someone to say anything about what was next.

“Can you tell me what else we do at night?”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“Not really. I’m not usually sarcastic.”

“You’re reading Don DeLillo and you’re not sarcastic?” through a clear New York accent.

“OK — I can be sarcastic sometimes.”

“Dinner is at 5 and then we usually play games and watch TV for the rest of the evening.”

I carry books as a safety blanket.

I read to escape from the shit around me.

When I was told to go home and pack, I did not bring any clothes or toiletries — I didn’t even go into my room or bathroom. I grabbed Underworld by Don DeLillo and sat on the front porch of my house.

Two years before, suffering from dementia, her husband ended his life. She’d gone to her sister’s for a break from care-giving when a neighbor discovered the body and called her. She sold her house and although never a big drinker, she nevertheless began to drink away the turmoil and guilt. She was, however, a reader like me but was stuck without a book. Instead she read the same article over and over.

I felt unclean. Six men with varying degrees of psychiatric issues is not an ingredient in hygienic-pie, but there was no explanation for how bad it actually was.

Shit was everywhere…

and no matter how bad it was, it had to wait until the cleaning lady came by. Now, if one were to shit on the floor, there’s a little more hurry — not much but it at least wouldn’t sit on the floor for more than 20 minutes. The idea that cleaning up poop was not a high priority for our watchers and minders disappointed me.

The condition of the bathrooms, specifically forces on to ask whether washing ones hands is a sanitary act.

At dinner, I saw the staff member again, sitting with a cafeteria tray. She complained about the food being cold. Then I noticed that she didn’t have a badge. And she had a wrist-band given to a patience on being admitted to the hospital.

“Have you figured out the mistake that I made earlier?”

“Getting yourself admitted to this hospital so that you could eat this food?”

I chuckled, then “No, I thought you were part of the staff.”

I never really found out what circumstances brought her there, but after two other hospitalizations I knew the important truth would come out in conversation and it was rarely the moments or days preceding whatever bottoming-out that was important. The real truth of the condition of a human being is not the moments before and after falling apart but what got them to the falling apart and where they went afterwards. I would like to say that we all doing this falling-apart business. But that would be unfair because I know enough people who never do, many of those never even seem to hit a bump. I have a hard time navigating situations in life that other people struggle with about as much a slippery doorknob. So what is the difference?

Right off the bat, there were plenty of folks in the behavioral health and psych-wards who are not there because of anything so simple as not being able to deal reasonably with some part of their life. For some, everything in life is unbelievably difficult. For others, the disorder or disease is so severe that falling apart is not even on the menu. These are the poor souls that we could hear screaming non-stop, sometimes sounding like birds or injured animals. I have nothing more to say about them except that if there is a God or higher-power, I genuinely hope He can find the grace in Himself to alleviate the torture in the souls of these people because that state of being is beyond cruel if it was committed by a higher power.

The one difference between those who fall and those who do not that I have seen consistently over-and-over is those who turn inward every kind of emotional and psychic damage. It becomes of us, not a part of us, not something we set aside but it becomes part of the factor of who we are. Different paths lead into our valleys and crevasses. Drug and alcohol use is one, but it is more like a mode of transportation into the valley rather than the path.

Trauma is our commerce. What cuts into us most deeply remains with some us and eventually permeates the entire tapestry of our psyche. We trade in these tapestries with the others we meet wandering in the valley.

What makes us travelers, ragged and weary — what really differentiates us from those that remain above — is our awareness of self. We are aware of what we do to ourselves and others; we are aware of our loss and our isolation. We cannot reconcile the events of the outer world with that of our inner.

I don’t believe a word he says.

Some conversations start out completely normal and then slide into the valley. She laid out beads in what was clearly some periodic function. Then she said that she’d been thinking about how to optimize the function. Later I determine this moment to be the dividing line between rational discourse and total nonsense. But it isn’t a sharp line. At the time I thought maybe she was assuming I was more mathematically inclined than I am.

Then came, “… there are two layers of fish under this function and the water rolls between them.”. Followed by increasing nonsense.

Sometimes she would fall asleep sitting up during group therapy or before dinner came. It is always hard to watch anyone deal with psychosis: that is a person inside the haze of their illness.

And the solution is to medicate all of it away so that they can be managed? How many steps removed is it from lobotomizing a patient? Why is it that we can’t find another path through all of this? How did we come to measure mental and emotional wellness by full and manageability? And the question we on the inside ask of those on the outside: are we really the crazy ones?

According to the New York Times, one in ten Americans are on anti-depressants. I say there are three possible explanations — or categories of explanations.

  1. We have created a world so brutal that one out of every ten people needs to be medicated or risk falling into the unproductive depths of depression. And really, truly productivity is what we are talking about here. I believe deeply that depression is at least partly a manifestation of brutality that industrialization left in its wake. And when people weren’t able to show up and make more widgets than the day before, then we now have a disease that needs a cure.
  2. Depression is built into the fiber of our being, our DNA, our blue-prints.
  3. There is no depression. Depression is a weakness in the moral-fiber of a person who needs to toughen up and fortify their emotions. Or better yet, get rid of their emotions.

Despite the tone, I discount none of these. In fact, at any given time I would say that I believe all three are correct.

Third, let us add the flux, flow, the river of people who came and went. After the first two or three days, I stopped trying to learn people’s names. Sometimes asking would open the door to whatever craziness was rocking-and-rolling in their heads. Sometimes I got nothing at all. But honestly, I don’t even remember.

I became the riverbed: silent with the water flowing over and around me. I understood why the nurses, flying to each flower and perhaps never returning to any given flower, had such a hard time learning my name. Or really anyone’s name. To invest even the small amount of self in a small number of people would be too much. Or maybe they were just jerks. <Can I mix any more metaphors?>

When I was 12, we lived in a house with a creek on one edge of the property. Most of the time the creek was dry and in the bed were giant boulders. Maybe two or three times a year there would be enough rain that the creek would first flood, then run like a proper river then creek and then finally evaporate down to little stagnant ponds. In the process, however, those giant boulders would move.

There were moments that were not nearly so bad as all of this. For example, it was not lost on me that my shoes were said to have negative mass.

Sometimes there is humor in the madness of it all.

Like what you read? Give Shawn Bandy a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.