BELLEVUE PSYCHIATRIC WARD VERSUS ST. VINCENT'S OUTPATIENT BEHAVIORAL HEALTH SERVICES:
A CONSUMER ADVOCATE'S COMPARE AND CONTRAST STUDY
VOLUME 1: BELLEVUE
Let's face it, a crazy person without health insurance who is contemplating suicide has very little in the way of real options when it comes to finding a good doctor at a good price!
But if you can just use your nutty noggin, there are a few unconventional methods which might, at the very least, delay the purchase of the razor blades for a few more hours. And sometimes, that brief window of opportunity is all that you need to convince yourself that life is worth living--if only long enough to die of natural causes!
One of the more unconventional of these unconventional methods is to check yourself into the emergency room of the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital in beautiful east-side Manhattan.
This was not the first time in my many years of freelance work in the field of consumer advocacy for the insane that I had attempted to check myself into the emergency room of the Bellevue Psychiatric Ward. In fact, it was the third. All three times were quite miserable experiences. (The first two times, they even tried to involuntarily commit me!) However, if any of you are familiar with the lexicon of new age spirituality: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results! The way I saw it, by going back a third time, I was only following the protocol of my own madness!
I had tried to check myself into the Bellevue Psychiatric Ward twice when I was living in New York for the first time--once in 1999 and again in 2000. As I mentioned before, both experiences were quite a bummer and I'm not sure why I thought the third time would be any different other than, once again, I am insane!
Since all three experiences are so similar in overall substance, I will only be discussing the details of the third visit, reminding the educated consumer that the differences between this visit and the first two visits consist only of the variations of clothing worn at the time by myself and others, the doctors and patients appearing herein, and the fact that this time I was not alone, but accompanied by two close friends: my personal secretary, Steve Cleary, (aka "Stealth Johnson") and my spiritual secretary, Mary Magdalene.
Bellevue is a very large and well-known hospital. It has been referenced in many motion pictures as the premier insane asylum of New York City, most notably in one of my all-time favorite movies, Dog Day Afternoon in which the audience discovers midway through the film that Al Pacino's transsexual lover has been a patient there. I have often referred to Bellevue as the 18th-Century Bedlam of 20th-Century Mental Health Americana--a testament to its colorfully insane historical position in postmodern lunatic folklore.
Newcomers might be awestruck at the size of the main lobby at Bellevue and--if they're really crazy--think that they might have accidentally wandered into the corporate headquarters for Citibank. Do not be worried. Bellevue is not a bank. It is a hospital. Although the large Doric columns and spacious marble floors reveal to the consumer that Bellevue, not unlike Citibank, was also built with money.
It's a short jaunt from the main lobby to the first in a series of two waiting rooms. The first waiting room is a place to catch your breath for a moment and marvel at the vastness of the line in which you must wait. Obese Filipino women are on hand to answer any questions you might have in a language you do not understand.
As you take your place in line, you are given a white sticker with your "patient I.D. number" scrawled upon it in black ballpoint ink.
On the night I went to Bellevue, I was feeling surprisingly chipper (despite being on the verge of suicide only an hour before) and decided to entertain the other patients by reciting a few lines from Winston Churchill's "Finest Hour" speech as I slowly applied the adhesive label to the breast pocket of my tattered sports coat.
In fact, as a former comedian turned consumer rights advocate for the insane, I was pleasantly surprised by how well my maniacal brand of humour seemed to go over in this newfound community of fellow psychos. I will go even further and say--as I often did in my former line of work--that I "killed" and that the first waiting room at Bellevue was a very "good room" with a very "hip" crowd.
To give but a few examples to illustrate the remarkable reception I received and how I was misled into believing that this long night ahead would be more magical than it otherwise turned out to be, I recall with fondness the bald and obese white man shuffling slowly around the waiting area, lugging two heavily-filled Duane Reade shopping bags.
His perambulations seemed void of direction or purpose. Sidestepping the line, he sat down in a cushioned chair, away from the group of the other future patients to which I proudly belonged, and complained to a random nurse in a slow and measured monotone: "I hear. . .two voices. . .two of them. . .I hear two voices. . .in my head."
The nurse explained to him that he would have to wait in line with the rest of us, but the man continued flatly, "There are two voices. . .two of them. . .in two different languages. . .two languages. . ."
Taking my cue, I mustered up my best female telephone greeting: "To listen to your voices in English, press one!" The line of patients, along with a sizable portion of the family members and friends sitting in the waiting area, smiled and laughed. I was encouraged. I was reminded of the cliché, "laughter is the best psychotropic mood-stabilizing medication."
The man was unable to stay still and seemed restless even though his movements, when he did make them, were decidedly slow. Eventually, he got up and wandered to the front of the line. When the rest of the patients complained to him that he needed to get to the back of the line, he said defensively: "I hear TWO voices. . .I hear TWO of them!"
So I shouted from the back: "Hey man, I hear SEVEN!" That got an even bigger laugh than my first joke. A young Latino guy in a Yankees cap turned around and gave me a thumbs-up. I saw a black family of four doubled-over in hysterics. For the time being, I didn't feel like killing myself anymore. I was having too much fun killing from the stage.
"I mean, we're all crazy motherfuckers here, right?" I added as a follow-up, basking in the narcissistic glow of my luminescent wit. These were my people, all right. Man, what a crowd!
Most of my thirty-minute set in the first waiting area was improvised and so the riffs might lose some of their original sparkle in this current narrative, so I'll briefly tell you about the hyperventilating young brunette who tried to upstage me before we proceed onwards with our consumer advocate study of the Bellevue Psychiatric Ward.
By now, I had the room in the palm of my hand, you dig? They were all mine. Patients, family members, friends, nurses--hell, even the security guards were into me! Seriously, I could have stayed in that line for two hours! I was burning up the joint, I tell ya!
Then the hyperventilating young brunette made her entrance. She didn't say anything at first. She just sort of zigzagged her way towards the nurses' station, panting heavily and hysterically. My first thought was how sexy she looked for a lunatic. Like an average 20-something NYU chick, but without the keffiyeh. However, I wasn't in the hospital to get laid. I was there to do a comedy show. So I waited to see what she was going to say or do to keep my jokes fresh and flowing.
She stumbled drunkenly toward the reception window and started pounding on the Plexiglas, "Help me! Help me! I'm having palpitations! Nurse? I'm having palpitations! Somebody help me!"
Call me a cynic, but I just didn't believe her. As an actor and a student of human behavior, I felt I had spotted something inauthentic in her delivery. Perhaps it was all the fake-sounding breathless sobs she was using to punctuate each of her sentences. Kind of like the fake coughs I have to endure all the time from uptight nonsmokers. This was textbook drama queen shit, I thought. Diagnosis: Diva!
Putting my hand to my forehead in a campy swoon, I started riffing as an impromptu composite of all of Tennessee Williams' major female characters: "Why, Blanche, I do declare! My heart is a-palpitatin'! Big Daddy don't like it when I gets the palpitations so! Whatever is a modern girl to do with a secondhand palpitatin' heart?"
She might have been oblivious to my crudeness, but the audience wasn't. I'm not sure if they understood the literary references or if they had just liked the characterization, but man, were they ever loyal! I was killing, I tell ya, killing! (And not myself, either!)
Two smiling and slightly snickering nurses wheeled out a gurney. The girl laid down upon it, fumbling at the same time for her cell phone which had been constantly ringing ever since she had made her grand entrance a few seconds earlier. "Hello?" she answered, "Yes! Yes! I'm having palpitations!"
I continued, "No, no, I'm only hearing ONE voice! A palpitatin' voice!" I got the biggest laugh of the night for that particular callback. Then, referencing her new privileged position at the front of the line, reclined on a comfortable gurney with two fluffy pillows underneath her dainty head, I tapped the guy standing in front of me and said loudly enough for the rest of the room to hear, "Fuckin' Cleopatra over there! What happens now, they feed her grapes?"
That one fell flat, but I wasn't too concerned. They can't all be gems. As I saw it, I was still batting a thousand.
Especially later on when her cell phone rang for the umpteenth time (Apparently, word had spread like syphilis among her friends about these palpitations!) By then, I had memorized her ringtone well enough to play a perfectly synched air guitar to it. The blacks in the room (of which there were many) seemed to really enjoy the physical humor of this rather Chaplinesque routine. The nurses also liked it, for every time it rang they had to remind the girl yet again that cell phones weren't allowed in the waiting area. (By the way, I also found the fact that she always had enough breath to answer the phone every time it rang to say "I'm having palpitations!" as further evidence that she wasn't really having palpitations.)
At this point, my friend Steve, either legitimately feeling bad for the girl or perhaps embarrassed at being part of my unexpected and insensitive performance, gingerly approached the gurney and asked, "Miss, would you like a bottle of water?"
"Yes," the girl said, "I'm having palpitations!"
"Oh, Steve," I cooed, "Always the romantic!" I'm not sure why this one got such a big laugh. Maybe it was because Mary Magdalene, who was also there at the time and knows of Steve's reputation as a ladies' man, kicked off the laughter with a mighty and infectious guffaw.
I was actually surprised that Steve didn't take the opportunity, as so many of my other friends have done in the past when I've fucked around in a public setting, to say something wry and deflating like, "Don't mind Will, everybody! They just let him out of the hospital today!"
But that would have been beneath him. Steve is an excellent and professional straight man. In fact, the funniest point of the night, as I saw it, was when Steve left on his chivalrous quest to the soda machine only to return to the gurney a few minutes later with his head hung sheepishly low and his eyes sweetly apologetic. "I'm sorry, Miss. . .the soda machine's out of water."
"Oh nooooo! But I'm having palpitations!"
Ha! Holy shit! I thought I was going to bust a gut! I remembered the scene in Schindler's List when Liam Neeson is spraying the boxcars with fire hoses so the Jews inside won't die of thirst. Ralph Fiennes laughs and says, "You're cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope!"
Er. . .I'm sorry. . .
I don't mean that Schindler's List was funny. I mean. . .well, I guess you just have to know Steve. He has a lot of unintentional funny expressions of his own.
His apologies are the best, though. They're really adorable. There's a brief second or two of silence, he swallows once or twice, then with his chin tucked downwards he moves his eyes upwards to meet yours and says with a hangdog expression something cute like: "I'm sorry, Miss. . .the soda machine's out of water!"
Jack fucking Benny! Priceless! How could you NOT forgive the guy?
Or at the very least thank him for making an effort?
Apparently, this girl could. "I'm having palpitations!" she whined again, without a word of thanks. The whole earth revolved around her and her goddamn palpitations. Ungrateful bitch, I thought--but had the tact not to say out loud!
That would have been crossing the line. I didn't want to bring the room down with any personal attacks. Cruelty is okay, but it has to be funny. Especially in a mental hospital.
Eventually the girl was wheeled away down the antiseptic hallway, her crocodile sobs fading in the distance. At that point, I was invited by one of the nurses to step into a small office for my brief intake interview. (I had been so caught up with performing, that I hadn't noticed moving to the front of the line! Time flies, eh?)
I turned to the crowd and with a sincere wave shouted, "That's my time everybody! Thanks for coming out!"
In the office, a black nurse attached a blood pressure cuff to my arm as a Latina woman sat at a computer and asked me some questions. "So your name is Will. . .Franklin?"
"Franken," I said, correcting her, "So what'd you think of that girl with the palpitations? She was faking it, wasn't she?"
Both ladies smiled. "She was a little dramatic," the Latina said in agreement. Then she asked a few more questions about my birthday, my social security number, whether or not I was currently taking any medication--all of the usual small-talk.
The black woman removed the blood pressure cuff from my arm and reported that I was "normal".
Mary Magdalene, who had come into the office with me, expressed shock: "How can it be normal? You smoke two and half packs of cigarettes a day!"
I smiled, "That's the key to my health. I just don't care."
"So what brings you here today, William?" asked the Latina.
"Well, I don't have any health insurance so I wanted to go to the psych ward to see if I could get a cheap psychiatrist so I could get on some medication again."
"Okay, and why do you feel that you need medication?" she asked.
"Oh. . .you know. . .I'm just sort of sad a lot of the time. . ."
"And suicidal," said Mary Magdalene.
"Shut up, Mary Magdalene!" I hissed through clenched teeth. Having once before been committed by court order to a mental hospital back in Missouri, I was familiar with some basic ground rules. If you don't want to be committed involuntarily--which I didn't. I just wanted a cheap doctor so I could get back on some pills--the two things you NEVER tell anybody in a hospital are a) you want to kill yourself or b) you want to kill somebody else.
"So you're feeling suicidal?" asked the Latina woman.
"No, no, no. She doesn't know what she's talking about. I'm just kind of down in the dumps, really. Kind of going through a blue spell, you know? Nothing serious. Just a little sad, that's all."
"And you need to go to the psych ward?"
"Yes?" I said as a question, suddenly apprehending that I might have fucked up again. Suddenly, this all seemed eerily familiar.
A wristband with my name was slapped on my left wrist and I was led down the long, antiseptic hallway and beyond the double doors through which the hyperventilating young brunette had just passed. I waved goodbye to Steve, but he didn't see me.
It's an extremely long walk from the first waiting area to the second waiting area. There are quite a few unexpected twists and turns, more sets of double doors, and more long expanses of hallway that seem to never end. Bellevue is a sterilized labyrinth that seems to mirror the confusing din of my waking mind.
I sighed and thought, "Oh, shit. Here we go again." I knew I was in for a bad time. What had I done? Why did Mary Magdalene have to say I was suicidal? I had even warned her about the rules beforehand! I know I'm suicidal, but I didn't want THEM to know that! It was going to be a very long night indeed.
The second waiting area, unlike the first, is a very tough-looking room. There is a row of twelve brown plastic bucket seats facing a large Plexiglas window. Beyond the window lies the psych ward. Through it, you can see mumbling old lunatics, shuffling around in backless gowns; men and women with shaved heads lying on urine-stained gurneys and crying out in supplication to unseen voices; burly, but condescendingly-kind orderlies sweeping the floor or playing at cards as harried doctors of either gender sit at older-model computers and shuffle papers.
At the door, there is a black female police officer who welcomes you. Somehow, she knows your name.
"Hi, Mr. Franken. Go ahead and have a seat. It'll be just a few minutes."
So I sat down. There weren't too many people sitting in the second waiting area when I arrived other than a squat and chisel-jawed male NYPD officer babysitting a drooling middle-aged man handcuffed to a wheelchair. He was on my right.
To my left, there was a tall and hyperactive Latino man--probably about my height--who looked a bit like John Turturro. In fact, his manic energy and above-average height made me wonder for a second if he was not my Latino alter-ego.
I decided that this was probably not a good room to try out any comedy. And not only because the audience was so small; I mostly didn't want to run the risk of being misinterpreted and possibly committed to the hospital against my will. I just wanted to talk to a doctor, get some medicine, stop fantasizing about killing myself, and get back to being funny again. But I knew that the cards were now stacked against me since Mary Magdalene had made her faux pas. So I simply sat quietly in my plastic seat and tried to be polite, well-behaved--and, above all else, normal.
But that didn't last long. After thirty minutes of sitting in silence, I started to feel the oncoming nicotine withdrawals. My thoughts were racing. I felt the walls closing in on me. It became impossible to remain still and silent, so I turned to the police officer on my right, "Hey man, I got kicked out of Shea Stadium the other day for smoking. Can you believe that shit?"
"They kicked you out for smoking?" said the cop. He was cool. I liked him right off the bat. But then again, I've always liked the NYPD. They've got one hell of a job. When I talk to an NYPD officer, I always feel like I'm talking to something quintessentially American. It can be a very comforting and calming experience, even in times of nicotine withdrawal.
"Yeah, man. I mean fucking Shea Stadium of all places, you know what I mean?"
The wild-eyed Latino suddenly jumped in from my left, "Bloomberg, ees a fucking asshole!"
"Fuckin' A," I agreed. "I mean, what the fuck has he done to this city? You can't smoke anywhere, they took the transfats out of the food--"
"Whassa transfat?" asked the Latino.
"Some shit they used to put in food but they took out cause the government wants us to be little babies so they can raise us," I said, with probably too much speed in my delivery, "I mean, keep your laws off my body, you know what I mean?" I turned back to the police officer, "No offense, man."
"It's all right," said the cop, "Yeah, a lot's changed. So they actually kicked you out of Shea for smoking? Were you in your seat or--"
"No! I was on the fucking concourse, hanging my hand over the railing--"
"Little babies they want us to be!" shouted the Latino gleefully, "Little babies! Little babies!"
Uh-oh, I thought. I've uncorked something here with this nut-job. I'm probably the first person he's talked to in a long time. I turned to my left, "Yeah, man, you got it. Little babies. No freedom of choice. That's their platform." Then I turned to my right, "Cause you guys got a serious job. Like where's your beat?"
The cop grimaced, "Bronx."
"Shit," I said, "pretty fucked-up neighborhoods, I bet."
"Oh yeah. It can get nasty up there."
"That's what I'm saying, man. You guys got serious work to do and then on top of all the murders and the rapes, they're going to start sending you out to crack down on smokers and transfat-eaters. What is that shit?"
"Like the little babies!" shouted the Latino again.
Shit, I thought, I work better without a sidekick.
"It's ridiculous," said the cop, "When they got rid of smoking in bars out here, I couldn't believe it."
"Fuckin' A," I agreed, "I mean, that's a West Coast thing. I never expected New York would go for that sort of shit."
"Ga-ga! Little babies! Bloomberg babies!" laughed the Latino.
Right about now, I started to worry that the Latino was going to get me into trouble. I wasn't sure if there was a penalty for uncorking another patient's mania, but I wasn't in any hurry to find out. I suppose it could have been worse. At least he was in agreement with me. Either that, or he was a political parrot.
"You ever been out to Seattle?" the cop asked me.
"A few times."
"You liked it?"
"Yeah, it was pretty cool. I like it cause it's always raining there. I hate the fucking sunshine. I got out of the subway at Union Square this afternoon and I saw all the happy people in the park and I wanted to blow my fucking brains out," Fuck! I hope he doesn't go tell a doctor what I just said. "Why do you ask? Are you thinking of taking a trip?"
"Actually, I may be transferring out there."
"No shit, huh? That's cool. Seattle's got a great aquarium. I hate to say it, but I think it's even better than the one at Coney Island--"
"Roller coaster! Cyclone!" shrieked the Latino.
I turned to my left again, "You like roller coasters, huh?" and then I turned back to the cop and made circular movements with my index finger around my right ear. He smiled knowingly as I picked up where we had left off: "Yeah, Seattle's pretty cool. You can get good borscht out there. Lots of Russians."
"Oh yeah? Never really ate a lot of borscht."
"Borscht is good, but I LOVE Russian women," I said, "They have those really depressed eyes. Sexy, you know? I hate blond happy people, you know what I'm saying? Sunshine people? I like moody and depressed Slavic-looking girls. That's my thing. So, yeah, Seattle's pretty cool."
"I'm just worried it's going to be boring."
"Well, it's probably quite a different pace from the Bronx!" I said in my small-town Missouri way. He agreed and we politely shared one of those quaint small-talk laughs that you can hear only once in a blue moon in the second waiting area of the Bellevue Psych Ward.
The Latino tugged impatiently at my shirt sleeve, "I like ALL women. That's the kind of woman I like! Good for making babies!"
"I hear you there!" I nodded. And then suddenly I decided to shut up. I figured it was better to stop talking completely than to be interrupted any further. Out of fear that the guy on my left was going to wet himself with excitement, I was willing to sacrifice my conversation with the police officer. I'm sure the cop understood.
We sat in silence for another thirty minutes until a doctor came to lead the Latino man through the door and into the psych ward proper. As he was leaving, he turned around to say goodbye, "Watch out for the little babies!"
"I will," I smiled, "you too, man. Have fun in there."
I thought about reading a little bit from my copy of William Manchester's The Glory And The Dream, A Narrative History of America: 1932-1972, which I had remembered to bring along with me to the hospital in case I needed to kill time, but I was afraid doing so would make me look crazy. So I continued to sit passively and watch the clock.
It did occur to me, once the Latino man was gone from my left, that I might continue my conversation with the police officer on my right, but I knew that the nicotine withdrawals were too strong at this point and that everything I might say to him would come out jumbled and frantic.
Another hour passed. And then another. I had entered Bellevue hospital at around 7:30pm. The clock on the wall was now approaching 10:30pm. It was right around this time that my cell phone rang.
I knew that phones weren't allowed in here either, but I saw that it was my best friend Jonah calling from Berkeley. So I answered.
"Hey," I said in a whisper.
"Hey," said Jonah.
"I have to call you back a little later. I'm in the psych ward right now."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"It's a long story."
Then a voice came to me from the other end of the waiting area, "Mr. Franken, you can't talk on your cell phone in here." It was a new black female police officer. Unlike the one who had welcomed me in the beginning, this one was older, more austere, looking a bit like an ebony version of Teddy Roosevelt's Mt. Rushmore image--sans the mustache and glasses, of course.
"I know, I know. It's my friend. I'm just going to tell him goodbye," I told her.
Jonah sounded concerned, "What do you mean you're in the psych ward?"
"I'm in Bellevue. It's kind of a funny story--"
"Mr. Franken," she started again.
"Let me just say goodbye! I'll be off in a second," I turned from her and back to the phone, "Hey man, are you still there?"
"Yeah," said Jonah, "What do you mean you're in Bellevue?"
That's when I noticed the two large black orderlies coming towards me. One of them, sporting long, grey, ponytailed dreadlocks, said, "Okay, Mr. Franken, you're going to have to put away the cell phone--"
"All right, man, I got to go," I said to Jonah. I hung up and put the phone back in my pocket. "There. Are you happy? I'm off."
I had reached my breaking point. It had been over three hours now since I came to Bellevue. I wanted to talk to Jonah and I needed a cigarette. Large black men were looming over me. I figured it was time to leave, regroup, and then plot out another strategy to obtain a doctor and medication without health insurance. Better to be free and suicidal than imprisoned and happy.
"All right," I said to the pair of orderlies, slapping my hands on my knees and standing up "I think I'm going to go outside and have a cigarette."
I put on my sports coat and grabbed my bag. At this point, the dreadlocked orderly walked over to the female police officer while the other one stayed behind, watching me with a curious grin.
As I walked towards the exit, I heard the dreadlocked orderly whispering to the female cop. I could not catch all of it, but I did hear the following phrases which sent me into a slight panic:
"Mr. Franken. . .wants to go out. . .a cigarette. . .personal items. . .watch him. . ."
Before I could reach the door, two additional police officers and a security guard had joined the orderlies. It didn't look like I was going to be leaving any time soon. "Oh come on," I pleaded, "I just wanted to go outside for a cigarette. I'm a grown man. Please?"
But they weren't going to budge. They just looked at me in stony silence--all of them; the guard, the orderlies, the cops; all except for my friend who was transferring to Seattle, still sitting over there against the far right wall, babysitting the drooling man in the wheelchair. I thought for a minute about turning to him for help, but I knew that as a police officer, he was bound to stay impartial, no matter to what extent we had bonded earlier. I was fucked, all right. My mania overtook me and I started to ramble a mile a minute.
"I'm not even--I'm--I'm a grown-man. I'm just sad, you know? But I don't have health insurance, you know, cause it's like--you know? But you guys got me by the balls now cause I smoke and then when you don't let me go outside for a smoke, that makes me seem crazier, right? But I'm not crazy, I'm just sad. And freedom is important to me. Personal choice, you know what I mean? If you take away a smoker's cigarettes, then he's not normal anymore, you see? That's--but that's--that's just my personal choice, you know? My personal choice? You know that term? See, I'm not a dangerous person. I just can't live without freedom. I have to have freedom of choice!"
The door connecting the waiting area to the psych ward opened and a young white female doctor with shoulder-length brunette hair approached me. "What's the matter here?"
"Are you a doctor?" I asked.
"Yes, what's the matter?"
Good, I thought. She's a doctor. She'll be smart enough to understand all of this. "Okay, here's the deal," I said gathering my breath and continuing as slowly and as rationally as I could, "This is all about money. I don't have any health insurance. I don't have a personal doctor. But I wanted to get set up with some kind of mental health professional so I could get back on some medication. So I came in through the emergency room here to see if could get 'into the system', if you know what I mean? But I didn't know that I wouldn't be able to leave here of my own accord. All I want to do now is just go outside and have a cigarette because I'm a smoker. And you probably know, as a medical professional, what happens when a smoker can't have a cigarette. They get a little crazy. So that's what this is all about. It's a mental and physical reaction at having my personal freedoms taken away. Nothing against you or your profession."
I let that sink in and then waited patiently for her response.
"Okay," she said, "you're just going to have to wait."
You fucking cunt, I thought. "Well, how long do you think it's going to be before I can get out of here?"
"I don't know. You're just going to have to wait," she said and then disappeared back through the door.
You fucking cunt, I thought again. In fact, for the next ten to fifteen minutes, as I was instructed by the orderlies to place all of my personal possessions into a manila envelope and put on some ill-fitting hospital booties, my mind was stuck on a rage-filled loop: You fucking cunt, you fucking cunt, you fucking cunt, you fucking cunt, you fucking cunt.
I didn't voice my anger out loud to anybody--not even my police officer friend. I just sat down, bit my tongue and watched the clock again. I was boiling on the inside. On the outside, I didn't move a muscle. They want a catatonic? I'll give them a catatonic.
Once it seemed that I was going to be amenable after all, the other orderly--the one without the dreadlocks--approached me. He was a tall, muscular, soft-spoken black man with glasses. In all fairness, even though I was in a miserable situation, after talking with him, I found myself rather liking the guy.
"Hey," he said, "I know it's rough, but that's the way it is."
"I know, man. I don't blame you. You're just doing your job."
"But see, you can't let them be knowing you're upset."
"Yeah, I hear you, man." I dug him all right. It was something in his voice. Very calm. Very understanding. He knew the score and wasn't afraid to let me know he knew it. Though I never asked directly, I could tell that he, too, was a smoker. Or at least sympathetic to the cause. I started to think of him as a black older brother that I had always wanted but never had.
"Cause if they see you getting upset, they just gonna keep you here longer," he said.
"I know. That's always the game. I have to sit here now and pretend that I'm not really fucking pissed."
He smiled, "That's the way this shit works."
"As long as YOU know that I'm really fucking pissed, maybe I can hold back from letting THEM know."
"It'll be our secret."
"Well," I said, "In that case, I'm really fucking pissed right now."
"Cool," he confirmed and then walked over to a nearby supply closet. "You want something to eat? Drink?"
"Got any coffee?"
"I'll give you some from my personal stash." He disappeared and returned a few minutes later with a styrofoam cup of hot water and two packets of instant coffee.
I winced. Instant? Oh well, it's the thought that counts. "Thanks, man."
"You're welcome. I gotta make my rounds now, but if you start feeling really fucking pissed again, let me know."
"I'll be keeping an eye out for you," I smiled.
I drank my coffee and watched the clock some more. Another hour passed. And then another. It was after midnight now. I had been at Bellevue for over five hours. My metaphorical tongue was metaphorically bloody from all the metaphorical biting. I was going to crack again soon. I knew it.
As time continued to pass, the waiting room became crowded with an alarming number of semi-comatose drunk men handcuffed to wheelchairs and the police officers who had been assigned to babysit them. That's right. It was after hours on a Friday night in New York City. Rush hour for the Bellevue Psych Ward.
Though the place was crawling with cops, I still entertained fantasies of a making a break for it. I studied the police presence at the doorway. If I sprinted fast enough, I thought, I just might make it through them. After all, I've got pretty long legs. But these hospital booties--what if I can't get any traction in them? And besides, look at all those haphazardly positioned wheelchairs. That's one hell of an obstacle course to zip through in a matter of seconds. Not to mention that I could no longer remember how I had gotten to the second waiting area from the first waiting area in the first place. I needed to be able to repeat the whole procedure backwards exactly at the point when every second would be crucial--when every second could mean the difference between success and failure. How many hallways did we go down to get here? How many sets of double-doors did we pass through? Did we turn left at the 'T' or right?
I've never been very spatially-oriented. Verbal, that's my thing.
That is to say, I could always write an eloquent speech urging the other inmates to break out with me in political solidarity for the cause of personal freedom, but the actual blueprints would have to be drawn up by somebody far more left-brained than I!
Before the idea for escape was completely shot down, however, another thought occurred to me: If I make a break for it, and fail in the process, chaos will ensue. In a great release of frustration, I might snap(!) and take a swing at the first face I see. I'll be shouting utter nonsense at the top of my lungs in a beautiful tidal-wave tirade of yawping madness(!) Flailing limbs madly assailing without rhyme nor reason(!) Set upon by NY's Finest in a life-or-death struggle for the preservation of physical and mental liberty(!!) All hail the conqu'ring hero(!!) Cu-koo(!!!) CU-koo(!!!)
But wait! The fantasy gets even better (*!*)
They take me back (!!) kicking and screaming (!!!) strap me to a gurney (!!!!) and then shoot me up with some really top-notch sedatives. . .
and i trip out by the surf of a lower-grade madness. windowless walls behind me, i watch the sun set on the urine-stained floors of the bellevue psych ward. . .my droopy eyelids are beach umbrellas now. . .
and i go to sleep and do not think anymore of cigarettes. or of cell phones. or of freedom. . .
Until I awake the next day and think, "Oh, fuck! That's right! I can't have a cigarette! LET ME OUT OF HERE!!!! LET ME OUT OF HERE!!!! LET ME OUT OF HERE!!!!"
No, no, no. I have to be good, I thought. It was too much of a gamble. Besides, I still had some hope that I would be allowed to leave before sunrise.
And besides, I did not want to fight with the NYPD. I have nothing against the NYPD. I like the NYPD. They're working class people, just trying to do their jobs. The rules may be bullshit, but it's not their fault. They don't want to babysit nut-cases and drunks. They want to track down murderers and rapists.
I turned to my police officer friend from earlier. The drooling man in his care had been taken into the ward a while ago, so he was on his own, strangely aloof from his police officer brethren on the other side of the room. "Hey man," I said, "I'll tell you another good thing about Seattle."
"What's that?" he asked.
"You won't have Al Sharpton out there busting your balls for doing a good job."
He laughed. That was cool. I stopped thinking about escape for a few minutes. Laughter can be such a pacifying sound sometimes. As the cliché goes, "Laughter is the best kidney dialysis machine."
I thought during the next hour about how I would no longer be able to tell the truth to any doctor in this hospital about what had really brought me to Bellevue. I didn't even want to tell them that I was sad anymore. In order to get out of here before sunrise, I needed to convince them that I was normal. And I also needed to convince myself that it was possible to convince THEM that convincing myself to check into the Bellevue Psych Ward was a normal thing to have done.
It was a rhetorical challenge, no doubt about it, but I was sure I could pull it off. After all, I am an accomplished writer and performer. But before I could convince a doctor that I was okay to be released, I first had to meet with a doctor. And after five hours in Bellevue, I was beginning to doubt that I would ever be given that opportunity.
For it was also during this hour that I noticed something very disturbing. A great number of the semicomatose drunk men that had been brought in, handcuffed to wheelchairs by police officers, had already gone back to be seen by a doctor--even though I had been waiting for much longer than they! Why, I wondered, were they getting preferential treatment?
That thought and the following one did not escape my brain for nearly half an hour:
I am the only patient here who was not brought in handcuffed to a wheelchair by a police officer.
I am the only patient here who was not brought in handcuffed to a wheelchair by a police officer.
I am the only patient here who was not brought in handcuffed to a wheelchair by a police officer.
After thirty consecutive minutes of mentally reciting this mantra, I noticed the young white female doctor from before come out to speak with one of the men handcuffed to a wheelchair by a police officer. After a few moments, I approached her. "Excuse me again."
I cleared my throat and presented my case, "I am the only patient here who was not brought in handcuffed to a wheelchair by a police officer."
"Well, you're just going to have to wait," she said, wheeling the semicomatose drunk man through the doors. With that, she was gone in a cloud of antiseptic dust. You fucking cunt, I thought once more.
And then, in a single instant, all of my emotions vanished. I was no longer angry. I was no longer depressed. I was rational. Coldly rational. It was then that I started to think like a bona fide, unfeeling psychopath.
i am going to find out her name. i am going to find out where she lives. if i get out of here tonight, tomorrow, next week, or even next year--i am going to go to her house in the middle of the night. i am going to sneak in through the back door and tippy-toe up the stairs. i won't make a sound. i'll be real quiet. i'll be real patient. i'll be a patient little patient. it might take all night getting to her bedroom, but that's okay. that's all i've got is time. she's not going to hear a thing. she won't even know what hit her. it'll all be over in an instant. and then come sunrise, i'll assume her identity. and i'll be the one with the medical degree. and i'll be the one to tell people that they'll just 'have to wait'. and i'll be the one--
Just then, I spotted through the Plexiglas window a kind-looking East Indian gentlemen in a blue jacket and pink silk tie coming out the door. I jumped up and rushed towards him.
"Excuse me, are YOU a doctor?"
"Yes I am!" he said with a slightly campy American accent.
A gay doctor, eh? Hmm, I might be able to work with this. "Cool, maybe you can help me out."
"Well, what seems to be the matter?" he asked brightly.
"You see, the thing is," I started, "I'm the only patient here who was not brought in handcuffed to a wheelchair by a police officer."
"And have you been here for a while?"
I sighed, "All fucking night, man."
"Well, that's no good," he sighed in sympathy.
"No, it's not," I agreed, "See, the thing is, I don't have any health insurance. But I was wanting to talk to a doctor about. . .being sad. . .sometimes. And to see about getting back on some medication. . .for my sad feelings, you know? So I came in through the emergency room. Pretty stupid, huh?"
"Well, I wouldn't call it stupid. Sounds like you were just feeling sad and didn't know what to do."
Sometimes it can help to open up to a real woman. He promised that he would take a look at my file and come back in a few minutes to talk with me and, for some reason, I trusted that he would do what he said. Maybe it was his pink silk tie. Maybe it was his perfect smile. Whatever it was, I started to feel that the storm would soon be over and before long I would see the rainbow again.
I'm not gay, by the way.
It was a few minutes later--a little after 2 a.m.--that the gay male East Indian doctor returned to lead me through the doors to a barren, yellow-walled office with nothing in it but an unused desk and two plastic chairs. He sat in one and I sat in the other (we had just met and I was only looking for friends anyway! Boo-yah!)
I had made it. After all this time, all this frustration, I was now officially IN the Bellevue Psych Ward! Cocktails and Playboy bunnies, here we come!
He asked me a bunch of questions about my feelings and what had brought to me Bellevue. I continued to respond vaguely that I just "felt sad" every now and then. I told him I was basically interested in getting back on Wellbutrin because I had really enjoyed the side effects. Then he asked some more questions about feelings and I reaffirmed my promise that I was fine and just "felt sad" every now and then.
"It says in your file that you mentioned feeling suicidal?"
"Oh that!" I said with a politely contrived chuckle, "I was just being hyperbolic there."
He squinted, "Hyper. . ?"
"Hyperbolic, you know. I was just speaking in hyperbole."
He put his hand to his chin, "I'm not sure. . ."
"Like I'm not really suicidal. I was just. . .you know. . .going a little over the top there."
"Oh!" he smiled, "I understand. You were being overly descriptive."
"Yes, exactly!" Jesus, is this guy really a doctor? "See, I'm a comedian. It's part of my job to go over the top."
"I see! I see!"
We continued for a few more minutes, exchanging pleasantries. Then I told him that I had been craving a cigarette for some time and anything that he could do as a medical professional to help speed along that process would be most welcome. He advised me at "some point in the future" to come up with "some sort of plan" to "stop smoking" (Apparently he really WAS a doctor). Stringing him along, I promised I would do just that very thing the first chance I got. Then he apologized for all the confusion and said that he would return in a few minutes with some release forms for me to sign.
A mere ten minutes later, I was back in the second waiting area, removing my hospital booties and gathering up my personal possessions from the large manila envelope with my last name scrawled upon it in black sharpie. Then I turned around to bid all the assembled police officers farewell, admonish them to keep up their good work, and encourage them to never let Mayor Bloomberg get them down. And with that, I was finally free.
Not quite. In my mad rush for a cigarette, I ended up heading out the wrong door and right into a construction site. I wandered around in confusion for a few more minutes among the steel girders and stacks of plywood in a mad search for a missing 1st Avenue. Before too long, I started to worry that I was going to get picked up by a police officer, taken in as a vagrant and sent right back to the psych ward.
Eventually, a security guard found me and pointed me in the right direction. When I finally got to 1st Avenue, I was covered in dirt and completely exhausted, but enjoying the best cigarette I had had in a very long time. It was a little after 2:30 in the morning and I was all alone. Steve had left a long time ago, catching the bus back to New Jersey. Mary Magdalene was nowhere to be found. I had spent a total of seven hours in Bellevue and--like the first two times before this--had accomplished nothing in the process.
As a customer rights advocate for the insane, I give the Bellevue Psych Ward a D-. Preventing it from being a straight F are the following positive factors: the receptiveness of the audience in the first waiting area; the hip jazz-era calmness evoked by the non-dreadlocked orderly; and the compassion and gullibility of the gay East Indian doctor with the pink silk tie.
Overall, however, I did NOT find Bellevue helpful in my search to find a good doctor at a good price.
In Volume II, we will look at the comparative benefits of St. Vincent's Outpatient Behavioral Health Services. Stay tuned.