A Few Thoughts on Madness

My only visit to a locked mental ward was to see a friend incarcerated in Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.   When I left I waited for the elevator in a dingy space between the ward for men and the ward for women.  A woman was screaming, part of her face visible behind the medieval looking screen over the tiny window in the metal door.   From the sounds of it she was being tortured while the guards read magazines, ostentatiously pretending not to notice.  It took a long time for the elevator to arrive and the woman begged for my help the whole time.

I’d been visiting a friend who had been committed to this ward for refusing to be admitted voluntarily after a few weeks of increasingly bizarre behavior.  This meant that police with guns came to the suburban house where he was holding court, arrested him as a possible danger to himself and others (it’s unlikely he actually was, though he was clearly crazy) and took him to a room where they held him for several hours as they processed his paperwork and decided what to do with him.   We watched him for a rueful moment through the one-way mirror.   I remember he just sat there, still, and we saw him in profile.

The locked ward in Elmhurst, where the State in its mechanistic wisdom brought him next, was a scary place.  It was more a prison than a hospital, I thought during a short visit before he was transferred to a less restrictive section of the hospital a few days later.  Our friend seemed to hold his own there, pacing, glowering, vibrating with an energy that was disconcerting to watch.  It was an energy that most of the ambulatory men in that large, dingy day room seemed to have.

Before witnessing this breakdown I had a romantic notion about the fluid line between madness and sanity, seeing it more as a social construct involving conformity than a hard line.  I learned that it is, at times, a hard line; there is little subtlety involved when someone is having a full-blown episode of being batshit crazy.  There are plenty of eccentric, pain-filled, maladjusted, tormented, impractical, melancholic, aggressive, self-destructive, absurdly demanding people in the world who nobody would claim are completely mad.   It may be said that most lives, examined for more than a moment, are tinged with irrationality, ruled by destructive beliefs, misperceptions, shifting angers, ill-shaped grievances, avoidance, bottomless sorrows.  Or maybe this only describes the people I have met.  There is always that possibility.  

Anyway, this friend emerged OK, went back to work, continued courting his new girlfriend, soon to become his difficult wife.  Things were fine until a few years later, when I had a series of shrill, early morning calls from the difficult wife demanding that I drive to Greenpoint and take care of my friend, who was barking mad again.

When I arrived at their door she pushed him out, without his keys or wallet, and locked the door behind us.  This woman is vicious, full of self-important opinions, demeaning, demanding, narcissistic, reserving the right to rage.   A thoroughly unlikable person.  Though we got along for fleeting periods of time over the years, I think of her, for shorthand’s sake, as Hitler.  She is certainly as implacable as the famous psychopath.   Although, on that day, after a few minutes with my friend, I realized that she had been pushed to this desperate, if harsh, maneuver.  

My friend was clearly manic; he was cheerful as hell, spoke quickly, his great intelligence swerving the conversation from one difficult to grasp idea to the next. His eyes glittered with a combination of merriness and malice.  He had partially shaved his head, giving him an excellent look for his new attitude.  He was very thin, clearly had not been feeling the need to eat for some time.  I tried to get him to eat something at the nearby McDonald’s, but he wisely declined.

Fifteen or twenty hours later, at my wits’ end by now and realizing that the only help for my friend would come from skilled professionals, I made him a plate of pasta in my apartment.  He agreed that he should eat something.  Then as he sat down he turned to me and said something so provocative, so vicious and uncalled for, so perfectly aimed at my greatest vulnerability, that I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, lifted him from the chair and slung him toward the door of the apartment, intending to shove him into the hall.  I am not proud of this moment, though neither am I unduly tormented by it.  Every human has his or her limit, and that now forgotten cruel comment as I was trying to get my insane friend to eat something was mine.

He grabbed me by the throat.  I grabbed him by the throat.  It was a moment when raging insanity was about to prevail.  In a moment of inspiration I lurched forward and kissed him, on the lips.   He laughed.  I relaxed my grip on his neck, he let my neck go.  I patted him on the back, told him to go eat, and went into the shower to blow water out of my face and try to regain myself.

A few hours later, somehow, I had him at the mental hospital, this time without police.  No locked ward this time.  He was restrained on the gurney, however, and I recall seeing him in profile spit a Haldol pill into the doctor’s face.  They wheeled him away.  The next time I saw him he was in the hands of a psychiatrist who became convinced my friend had been misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic.   Treated as bipolar, on a long-time regimen of Lithium, he has had no recurrence of mania in the twenty or so years since.

Knowing that Lithium is eventually fatal, he weaned himself off the drug.   He’s been maintaining himself with Zen meditation, achieving a certain clarity that included the realization that one can not live a happy life sharing a home with Hitler.   He finds comfort in cult-like settings, he tells me, and has found a nice group of people he meditates with.  He found a woman there he is very fond of and has a lot of sex with.   His wife broke the window of his rented room in a jealous rage over this and he obtained a restraining order against her.  She somehow got one against him.  The divorce is not going to be smooth sailing, but then, how could it be?

We check in from time to time.   The dispirited period I am going through makes it harder than usual for me to reach out, but we talk every month or so.  He reports that he is mostly content.  I nod, since regular and good sex with its steady flow of life-restoring endorphins will have that effect on a person’s outlook.  

The last time we spoke he was keen to taste the single malt I keep on a high shclf and have been refraining from drinking, being depressed enough without imbibing depressants.  He began singing its praises.  He does not keep it at home, fearing to fall into the bottle himself, but loves to drink good stuff from time to time at the home of a friend. I told him I’d prefer not to drink, and explained why, but later gave him a snort, against my better judgment, which led to having a few myself.  I felt like shit the next day and haven’t touched it since.

Had a call from him the other day, for the first time since.  “B is such a good friend to you,” he said, “he helps you with your business, and brainstorming, and trying to get your apartment shaped up, he hauls boxes of things to Good Will, puts his back into it, really cares about your well-being.  He seems like such a good guy and I feel bad that I’ve made such a bad impression on him.  He probably sees me as a guy who is always sucking around looking for something from you.   Dragging you back into well-worn bad habits you’d just as soon pick up.  To him I must look like Lampwick from Pinocchio, my ears slightly donkeyish as I persuade you to uncork the bottle, pour us just a drop.”

I agreed that this was likely the case, refraining from saying there was a certain accuracy to the image.

“I’d appreciate it if you could let him know that I’m not really that way.  If I ever meet him again, and I hope I do, I’d hate to think he has such a poor opinion of me.  Would you set him straight?”

We talked for a while more, he described the likely end of his period of unlimited sex, how the younger woman was very practically looking for a mate her own age, to have a child with, and how he could probably not hold on to her much longer.  He told me she was compassionately trying to set him up with another woman in the group, and that he had certain hopes for this new one.   He observed in passing that I am depressive.   I described some semi-comical recordings I’d made recently, and an aggravating piece by the often aggravating David Brooks that I had annotated.

“Send them to me!” he said emphatically.  I had stopped sending creative things to him because of his penchant for remaining silent.  We have been over this time and again in the past, my sensitivity to the easy slight of silence, when even “nice” or “ah hah” suffices to break the bitterness.   My father had been severely abused as a child and his cruelty translated often into the strategic, viciously ungenerous withholding of attention or comment.  This regular practice had sensitized me to the chillingly brutal power of complete silence in response to a query or creative effort.  I have stopped sending things to people I rarely hear back from, particularly those who attempt no creative work themselves.   His silence had become conspicuously dependable. “Send them to me,” he said again.  I told him I would and later that day did.

“By the way,” he said, by way of providing an excellent punchline, “I was thinking… if it’s OK with you…. you know, heh…. that I could come by for a drop of that excellent single malt today.  I have a few hours before I have to go see my girl.”

Neither of us laughed then, though it is very droll, if you think about it.  As droll as the silence into which the things he asked me to send him dropped.


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