Two copper pirates excavate the past and gain insight into the nature of the mental health system.
[Sound of saw. Clanging of metal. Then trailing off.]
James: I’m feeling okay about this. Pull this out of the wall, throw it in the trailer, at the yard tomorrow. But could you stop digging through shit? It’s gross. And, y’know… no more supervised release, detox, whatever for me, so don’t get distracted. .
Sean: It’s cool. Really. We’re fine. You don’t need to worry. I sold a bunch of my sister’s Xanax to Guard John… you know, John? He’s the guard? He’s not going to do shit all night. [Packing cigarettes.] You want one?
James: I’m trying to stop. [Frustrated] There’s bird shit all over me.
Sean: I think that’s asbestos. [Match] Look. [Paper shuffling]
James: “Life skills exercises”. Step-by-step peanut butter sandwich. I don’t get why there’s more than two steps. And then a patient file. Why is this all dated to last year?.
Sean: All in crayon and some super sloppy pen…
James: Places like this only let you have these little pens that bend. So you can’t stab anyone. They’re hard to write with.
Sean: Here’s another one. It says…
Sometimes we think of things that happen to us that are bad, and this can get us caught up in negative thinking. Try to reframe the events in your life that you’ve considered to be bad as experiences that have let you grow:
Mom and Dad: Helped me to be realistic.
Thing with dog: Let me know I’m not better than anyone else.
Working here: I know how bad things can get. Friends with Margot.
Living in car: More comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Being in here: Not living in car anymore. Margot is my friend.
Sean: Okay, next prompt is…
Write about a happy memory that you can think of when you’re feeling bad:
My happiest memory is the time that Margo threw one of those chairs filled with sand at a guy and knocked him out, then bit another guy as he put her on the floor. Bit the shit out of him. Like a chunk. Then she spit a ball of bloody phlegm right into another guy’s mouth, and then he threw up.
Sean: (Whistle) That’s great spitting.
James: Yeah it is. You know what the secret is, to spitting well?
Sean: I didn’t know there was a secret.
James: There is. You have to get a lot of mucous, and then kind of wedge it against your lips, and then just breathe at it- It’s like a little potato gun in your mouth. (Sound of spitting)
When you experience unpleasant emotions it is helpful to redirect your attention and focus on yourself. In the spaces below, identify some things you can do to stop fixating on a problem:
- Have extra cake.
- Start fight for thorazine.
- Sleep for twelve hours.
- Judge Judy.
- Nicotine gum.
- Ativan. [Sean: I would have kicked that to the top of the list, but to each their own…]
Sean: Then the next one is…
Sometimes we feel like we know why other people treat us in ways we don’t like. This is called projection. In the space below, think about times that you’ve done this and some alternate explanations for other people’s behavior. But remember- We can never really know why another person acts the way they do. [James: That’s fucking stupid. You could just ask.]
Metzger seems to like hurting people. He looks like a cop. [James: Hate the guy already] [Sean: Right?] I watched him chase a boy outside of the hospital grounds and knock him down on the pavement face first. When he walked the boy back to the hospital he was missing teeth and crying. There was a lot of blood coming out of his mouth and I felt scared and ashamed.
I saw him do this again, to a lady this time, also on the sidewalk. Two other orderlies helped him carry her back to the hospital because she wasn’t able to walk.
He hurt Margot a lot of times. Any time she yelled. But they would wrestle her to the floor and inject her with thorazine in her butt. I was still an employee so I would have to make sure she didn’t stop breathing and she would wet herself sometimes. Sometimes it would take a long time to change her and she told me she got rashes. [Sean: That’s the worst when that happens.]
Metzger and Lewis and Simmons came to the library once, before it was hospital property, and they took three people. One was a little boy, and one was his mother. The other was a man who was just making a weird noise with his mouth when he was playing tetris on a computer. I was falling asleep because I was so hot, and Metzger said I was probably on heroin and grabbed my arms. He said I had to help them catch people next time.
I think Metzger hates me because he hates everything and that someday he will kill someone if he hasn’t already. He probably has already. But maybe he is trying to help people and throwing them on the ground and hurting them is the only way he knows how to help.
Josephson wants us to suffer because it is good for him. He gets more power and money and maybe something more horrible that way.
I was thinking this because the paper said he was embezzling money and made jokes about it when he gave a speech at employee appreciation day, which makes me think that he doesn’t appreciate the employees because he could have given us a bonus with some of that money. He didn’t even buy enough pizza. Just like new employee orientation when he didn’t give us coffee or donuts and had Metzger confiscate our phones at the beginning of each training session.
He had the hospital buy all the rental properties and run them as group homes and the wait list is so long that even if I get discharged I won’t be able to get a room, which is a huge problem because my car definitely got towed away and impounded by now.
He had the reporter who wrote the article about the embezzlement and that other super fucked up thing that happened committed. The guy seemed smart and now he just drools all day. And I’m pretty sure that the person from the state who came to inspect the hospital is Josephson’s daughter, because I heard her call him ‘Father’, which is strange because she’s older than him.
I think Josephson thinks that I am stupid and crazy. That’s probably not true. He might care about me. Maybe he put me in here because he doesn’t think I’m stupid. Or crazy.
The Founders. I don’t know what they think but I know what they want. They are going to make a perfect person someday.
Sean: Dude was nuts. But not in a boring way. Next is…
Fear and Anxiety
Sometimes we can get carried away with worry when we anticipate things that haven’t happened yet. Write down some of your fears and ways to reframe them as challenges.
I think that the whole world might turn into this hospital. The social workers and psychiatrists and staff go somewhere else for a little while. Maybe it is in some kind of hidden place, or maybe they disappear. I don’t know. But I do know that the tunnel between Altschul 1 and Altschul 2 [James interjects: Feel famous? We’re in the story.] [Sean repeats the sentence from the beginning, mildly impatient] has two maps of the property, and the one that used to show me how big the hospital is right now kept changing, getting bigger, like Margot’s rashes, and that after the map of the city they put up a map of the county and after that a map of the state and I don’t have any reason to think that it will stop growing. So, this isn’t a fear. It’s a challenge to not remember that none of that is happening.
Another fear is that I will never leave but, whoever is reading, I am absolutely never going to try to leave until I am perfect in all the ways that matter, so that’s a challenge, but until that happens I’m going to try to do my best to get someone to change the channel on the television because I don’t actually like Judge Judy very much.
I am worried that this is a ritual sacrifice that looks like an accident. My challenge is to remember that even if all of you want me dead you will keep me alive no matter how bad things get for me.
Sean: Okay, this one’s a SWOT analysis… whatever that is…
It can be helpful to identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Threats and Opportunities [Sean: Ohhh… that’s what SWOT is] when thinking about how to reach a goal. Use the space below to think about possibilities.
Strengths: I do not know how to answer this. I have Margo, or my memories of Margo. I’ve never known a stronger person and I don’t think I want to be that strong because of how hard you broke her. She told me that I have a guardian angel but that he’s a coward.
Weaknesses: I do not know how to answer this. I’m not Margo. I can’t say no. I will never know if I am weak or strong. Since I cannot do a single thing and all of you can then I must be weak.
Opportunities: I have checked. All the edges are rounded. There’s no doorknob on the inside of my room and my pants are made out of paper. Someone watches me shower. There’s grating on the windows and I eat with a spork.
James: Spork? You know the only time I’ve ever seen one of those is when I went camping with Cindy’s dad, back before… fuck. That was a terrifying experience.
Sean: Alright, back to it.
You only give me these safety pens to write with. I tried not eating but there’s nothing else to do here. Maybe I could eat myself to death but I’m pretty sure if I try you’ll decide that I shouldn’t have any cake, either.
Threats: I know this is going to get worse. It’s been snowing outside for a year now. I’ve travelled a hundred miles and ended up at the gates again. Even if I’m allowed to leave I do not know if I will be allowed to die. I’ve seen people running through the snow, and I’ve cheered for them, but I see them dragged back.
Sean: Yo, what’s like, the best you’ve ever been chased?
James: That’s a dumb question… What’s the best you’ve ever been beat up?
Sean: Easy. Both in one shot. Best time for both is running from two guys, knocking a baby carriage over, running across three lanes of traffic, getting hit by a car, then beat up. Top that.
James: I can’t.
Threats? The drugs won’t take all of my mind, that’s a threat. I’ll not be able to speak or walk, but I’ll still know what’s happening. And the founders will make a perfect person someday, and when they do it will be so violent and they will be so happy. I don’t want to live to see it. It might be possible that the whole world works this way now, and that the dead-eyed freaks who work here will live forever.
Sean: Alright. Dude just keeps going. This guy wrote a novel. You want to hear it?
James: How long is it?
Sean: Not that long… well, yeah, it’s really long, but like I said, Guard John isn’t going to do anything besides fuck around on his phone tonight.
Sean: Here goes…
Write the story of your life
The story of my life starts here. Nothing before makes any difference, won’t help me, and you don’t really care.
When I was a teenager someone asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I said ‘Help people’. This is a thing that people say without giving it any thought, and kids are dumb. They don’t realize that when they say that it means that they want to feel like they’re good, and more than that, they want other people to think they’re good, and even more, that they’d like to be rewarded for other people thinking that they’re good.
Again, kids are dumb. You can help people working at Walgreens. People need to know where coughdrops are, and pregnancy tests. Help them find these things and they’ll thank you.
I didn’t think about that, helping, again, until I ended up here. Working here. I was over helping. I just wanted to live because I was afraid of dying and afraid of feeling worse than I did, which definitely would have happened if I had to live in my car, and even worse if I had to live in my unregistered car, and all of that sounds perfect now. A car stinking like sweat and piss in a 2 liter bottle and maybe cigarettes too, and definitely rum would be fine.
Sean: Yeah. It’s totally fine.
James: Feeling pretty good about not cleaning your car?
Sean: Yeah… but, moving on…
So the story of my life begins here. A job interview. You could have just taken my pulse. Or my pulse and a search through the sex offender registry. I would have passed.
I don’t remember the training very well. There weren’t any donuts. I remember that. I remember Metzger too- maybe you’re reading this, you bald fuck- saying that we shouldn’t wear red because it made the patients mad. Like they, or we I guess, are bulls. Josephson played a video of a Warner Bros. cartoon with one of the characters getting chased by white suited men with human-sized butterfly nets, then told us about stigma, and then Metzger showed us the right way to wrestle someone to the floor.
Sean: You remember those cartoons?
James: No. You remember Speedy Gonzalez?
Sean: He was a hard worker.
The thing I remember clearly is the exhibit in the tunnel. Not so much the men. I can’t think of them, when I saw them that time, just that they were there, and a little bit of history that everyone already knew, and the map. The map surprised me. So much of downtown used to be this place.
Sean: We should look for that. We’re probably going to pull it out of the wall anyway.
James: We’re not archaeologists. The stuff that archaeologists steal is fucked up. What we’re stealing is harmless. Except maybe to air conditioners and extension cords.
After that it was just drudgery, and the sadness of seeing tortured people being tortured, by their past and the present, and trying to be okay with that. I came in, I went home, and then some things went sideways and I was living in that car, stinking like rum, coke, piss and sweat.
Sean: I would have told him that it’s not a thing to get hung up on. But anyway…
But I was employed so I knew I’d get out of it. Margo would yell at us when she was truly pissed. She screamed at us that she was a job creator and that the rest of us would be unemployed if it weren’t for her and her misery. She was absolutely correct.
It’s the display, always, that pops into my mind. Because it changed. It started to look like a trophy case. Things just appeared behind the glass and I didn’t know who was adding to it or why. One day there was a straight-jacket, neatly folded and pressed. It looked like it was ready to be used.
You probably have it in the file somewhere, that I complained. And I said just that: It looked like a trophy case. It was inappropriate, is what I said. The metal hook? I knew what it was. There was never a reply. The forceps? I took it personally, and I know I wasn’t wrong to.
No answer. One of the things I remember from the orientation was that we wouldn’t be punished for blowing the whistle. Over and over again. Too many times. No retaliation.
In November, and I don’t know how many Novembers ago, employee appreciation day happened. There’d been an article in the paper the day before. Financial improprieties. Preventable deaths. Then employee appreciation day, out of nowhere, between the employee exit and the parking lot. Unavoidable administrators and bad pizza, and I felt eyes on me, and only me. I wish I could say that I’d done more than complain about the display case but I hadn’t.
James: Didn’t even give the poor guy pizza.
Sean: I’m going to keep reading.
I stood there in the cold and listened to Josephson say that the newspaper was a back-end rag, which was weird because by extension this was a back-end hospital in a back-end state. Then, that we were always encouraged to report any concerns to our superiors, which is what everyone says if they want you to stay quiet.
I heard the talk a couple of days later. The journalist had showed up at his son’s school, taken off his clothes and begun screaming that there were angels coming and that they would kill everyone. For lack of another bed he was on a forensic hold here. Then the inspection happened and nothing changed.
Sean: This is a good one! “Problematic Thinking Habits”.
James: I’ve seen these. All of these things.
Sean: Oh yeah… that outpatient thing.
James: Near miss there.
Sean: Here’s the habits… quiz show. I’ll read you a problematic way of thinking, and you give me a situation. “I can’t stand it!”
James: CIA extraordinary rendition.
Sean: It is terrible when things go wrong!
Sean: He shouldn’t be that way!
Sean: I can’t forgive them/myself!
James: Halfway successful murder-suicide.
Sean: He ruined my life.
James: Child survivor of murder-suicide.
Sean: They should listen to me!
Sean: I can’t control my feelings!
James: Every fucking day.
Sean: I can’t change what I think!
Sean: Well done. You won… you said you’re not smoking?
Sean: Right… well, you win a whole bunch of copper. And lung disease probably. Which sucks for you, since you’re not smoking.
The map grew. Always. I paid attention to the display but it would have been better to pay attention to the map. Maybe I would have outrun this, or understood why it was too late when I tried.
I tried to find a place to live and I crawled through craigslist at the library. It was too warm and I’d not slept well. When you fall asleep sitting up in public you slingshot between waking and sleeping and panic. There was a little girl. She was taking books off of the shelf and opening them on the floor, talking to herself. Her mother was next to me, applying for something. She sighed over and over. I fell asleep again, for not more than a moment, and when I snapped awake Metzger was there with two other men, in their work clothes, pulling the girl to standing. Her mother stood and ran toward them and they grabbed her too. No one looked. I might have been dreaming. Metzger glared at me and followed the girl and her mother out the door.
I thought I was sick and I had a fever that night. I shook and I had a dream. I was on the unit. Margo was pressed into a corner and there were old men walking towards her from the other end of a long hallway, holding clipboards. One of them said “We can fix her,” and another said “In what sense,” and they all laughed. And I was there. They ignored me and she screamed for help. I tried to move and couldn’t.
At the doctor the next day they screened me for depression and the form I filled out was on the hospital letterhead.
I stayed at the shittiest hotel in town for a couple nights and sweated on the bed. When I was well enough to leave the room I saw that there were people living there, eating convenience store food and smoking by the scummy pool. They’d all been on my unit at the hospital. This was their life- hospital to motel to street and back again. They were kind to me. I smoked a cigarette that a man with an oxygen tank gave to me and neither of us said how terrible it all was.
When I returned to work the display in the tunnel had changed again. There were pictures mounted behind the glass. A line at a soup kitchen with men in white coats serving. A shot of a tent on the bank of a river, out of focus, and a man sitting on a milk crate looking over his shoulder. He looked very scared. Then the motel, an old woman, very heavy, setting on a bench next to the pool, her head resting in her hands. The display had gotten bigger, pills resting on little clear glass shelves. They were labeled: Thorazine, Seroquel, Haloperidol.
Sean: Do you think any of these are good?
James: No. Not at all. Think about what it might feel like to have… fleas, let’s say fleas, living in your leg muscles.
James: No, they’re not biting you. They’re just jumping.
Sean: Why do you know that?
James: Why do you care how I know what I know?
Sean: *Ahem* The map was bigger too.
I bounced between the hotel and parking lots and didn’t go to the library anymore. I called around to apartments and rooms I’d found listed and every one of them was being operated by a supportive housing non-profit contracted with the hospital. I cried in the car and didn’t know what to do. I spent more and more time at the motel. Everyone there was on some miserable public assistance. We’d leave our rooms, smoke outside the door and shuffle back in. We didn’t talk to each other.
There was an article in the paper the morning of the first big storm of the season, the editorial board calling for more money for mental health in the state, and I’d never known that Josephson was affiliated with the paper. I walked through the tunnel, bad cold coffee in my hand, and I looked at the display and the map. The green had spread, little green islands speckled over all of New England.
It was crowded on the unit. I had to weave down the hallway, past people crying and staring at nothing, to the room that they kept Margo in after she exploded into violence. She was unconscious and had pissed herself. I fell asleep.
Sean: On the back of this one it says ‘Overstimulation of Happiness Chemicals’, which makes me think ‘Yes please,’ but they’re saying it’s bad.
James: They don’t say anything about Unhappiness Chemicals? I bet it all evens out.
Sean: At the bottom it says it’s a good idea to take cold showers. For overstimulation.
James: What was this? A Witch hospital?
It was so hot when I woke up. Margo was awake, staring at the door, frightened. She told me she wanted to get changed and when I walked her into the hall the unit was full, people from the motel, people who had discharged months ago, all miserable and frightened. Metzger was standing on some kind of platform at the end of the hall, watching everything.
She crouched, and dragged me down by my shirt collar, and told me that it might be too late to leave but that we should try anyway. I felt that she was correct, and I didn’t care that this was a criminal act. That fever feeling was still with me, and had been for too long. Nothing felt real. My key still worked, and we took the stairs to the tunnel. The display had s single photo in it. A beautiful, flawless man, naked. No dick or balls or nipples. No hair. No mouth or ears or nostrils. All of them suggested but not existing. Margo said he looked very happy, even with no mouth and his eyes closed, and she was right. I wondered what they’d done to him because I felt so afraid to know that he was happy.
We made it to the car. The engine turned over and we drove, both of our heads out the windows to see, turning toward the nearest interstate on-ramp. It was slow, a balancing of flight and caution. We drove for hours. The snow kept coming. The highway was silent. Cars would pass us heading north but no one else moved South. I had to drive forty, then thirty, then twenty miles an hour, until we were crawling. Neither of us talked. It had been a long time since Mandy had been in a car or driven off of the campus. She stared out into the white.
The gas gauge was broken, but I had filled up the day prior and thought we would be able to make it at least 100 miles before the tank was empty. When the odometer logged the distance I took the next turn off of the highway.
We crawled down the ramp and fishtailed at the end despite our speed. I saw no McDonalds or Tesco. There was no Best Western or even a roach shit place like in the town we’d come from, and eventually we passed through gates. There was no reversing without threatening to slide off the road and so we moved onward, until a city came into sight. But it wasn’t a city. It was a hospital. But it wasn’t a hospital either. I didn’t know what it was. I looked at Margo and she was crying, a thing I had never seen her do. She said, “I guess I really don’t know what’s good for me.”
James: Speaking my language there.
Sean: Right? So there’s a last prompt…
Now, re-write the story of your life, paying attention to the positive things that have happened:
I hope this works. I was born and I got what I needed. So did everyone else. I was allowed to sleep in a bed when I needed to sleep and the food was good. I never spilled it in my lap. I learned a lot of really useful things. The only kind of help anyone needed was moving heavy things, taking care of kids and figuring out math problems. I had a good friend named Margo who showed me a lot about how to deal with things that were hard. All the good things happened to both of us. We got old and we died at very reasonable ages. People missed us when we were gone.
James: That’s it?
Sean: I don’t think so, but the pages are all stuck together. You see that?
James: (Pause) It’s a map. I thought it was just mold on the wall. That’s a big map.
Sean: But there’s no map.
James: Can’t you see under it? Under all that green?
Sean: What is that? Why is it so bright?
James: [Hesitates] It looks like an Angel.