There Are No Words
By Tommy Womack
In June 2001, Beth came to an agreement with NewsChannel 5 that she would step down as the morning news anchor. The deal was sweet: the rest of the year severance paid.
We figured up a plan we considered airtight. She would spend the first three months at home taking care of Nathan (who was just turning 3 then) and then at the beginning of September we’d go on a cruise with some college friends.
We’d get back from the cruise on Sunday the 9th, take Monday off, and then she’d hit the ground running the next day looking for a job. Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.
There was nothing to worry about. Three months to find a job? No problem; she’s Beth Tucker of NewsChannel 5. Something was going to come along.
I was in no rush that Tuesday morning to hop in the shower and get to work. My temp job started at 10:30, so I was sitting up in bed a little before 8 AM, Central Time, watching the ending of L.A. Law on one of the cable channels. Then I decided I wanted to catch the news headlines. I switched over to NBC, and that’s when I saw it for the first time.
“Holy shit!” I hollered across the house. There it was, one of the World Trade Center towers, with a huge gash in it’s outside wall, smoke billowing out, about 80% to the top of the tower. Katie Couric said something like “We are looking at the World Trade Center…”
“Sweetie! Come here! Now!”
Beth came in the room, in her bathrobe and a towel around her hair. We both sat on the bed, riveted.
The gash in the tower looked like a giant mouth, exhaling smoke. It was breathing at us. A reporter was on the phone, talking to the Today Show. Tom Brokaw was on now; they’d brought in the big gun early in the morning, as if to say “this is huge.”
I had tuned in just in time, and Beth had sat down with me just in time. We saw a jet airliner (looking so small) fly into the screen from the right. It went behind the stricken tower, and then… a billowing orange cloud of flame plumed out the left side of the other tower, the one behind in the camera shot. “Another just hit!” the reporter said, her voice betraying fright, “Another plane just hit.”
“Terrorism.” Beth and I both said that. At the same time. I’m sure we weren’t alone. I’m certain that all over the world that same light bulb went on over millions of heads right that very instant.
I don’t remember showering. Maybe I did, but I bet I just washed my face, brushed my teeth and put my clothes on with one eye on the television. We flipped between channels. All that changed were camera angles. On every station was the sense of incomprehension. Nobody knew what was up, but everybody now knew it was no accident. One plane, yeah, bad hop. Two planes, no, that doesn’t just happen.
Then there were reports of hijackings. Then there was a report that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Then there was a report that a plane had crashed into the Sears Tower in Chicago.
Then there was word that a total of six planes were believed to have been hijacked. Or was it seven. Then someone said radar was tracking a plane headed for the White House. Then there was a report that explosions were heard in Los Angeles. In Seattle.
Then there was a report that a plane in Pennsylvania had disappeared from radar.
Then there was a report that as many as three other planes were headed directly for the Capitol, the U.N., your momma’s house. And on and on. Nobody knew what was true. All we knew was that nobody was safe right now. Nobody was safe.
I had to take Nathan by Day Care on my way to work. By now we were watching coverage in the living room. It was right around 9 AM, maybe a little before. They kept rerunning the shot of the second plane going in.
One of the networks started crawling news updates at the bottom of the screen, an endless train of words. Soon all the networks were doing it. And they never stopped. They do it to this day.
I took Nathan out to my GMC Jimmy and buckled him into his car seat. I cranked the engine and the sound coming out of the radio was one big rumble and roar. “It’s coming down.” Someone on the radio said that.
I left the truck running and dashed back into the house. There on the screen was a wide shot of lower Manhattan, the whole thing buried in a white cloud, and now only one of the towers was there. The other one was gone. And somebody, I think it was Peter Jennings on ABC, said…
“There are no words.”
Twelve years later, there still aren’t any words, though trillions have been offered up, and the words keep crawling along the bottom of our television screens.
For years we heard these words: “If blah-blah happens, then that will mean the terrorists have won!” Nobody could ever parse out an explanation how we’d ever know who won and who lost.
In that same vein we had four other words. The War On Terror. As if Terror was this one guy with one army. To an extent, this was true, and when we killed Osama Bin Laden there was some closure. But it was true only to an extent. Terror is not one guy, it’s a tactic. And you can’t wipe that out. You can minimize it, and we have to a degree (in our own country) but there will never be a day when we “win” and can toss ticker tape out of windows in Times Square, when some jubilant sailor can dip and kiss a nurse for the black and white camera. We’ll never have that day.
On this sacred day, I’m not going to get into the politics of the last 12 years. We all got hurt, red and blue and undeclared citizens alike.
And heck, for a short while after that day, we were all united. That didn’t last long though. And these days it feels like it would take something even worse than 9/11 to bring us together, if anything even can by this point.
What is true is that things have never been the same and never will be. My son will never know the world of September 10th, 2001, when his Mom was assured of finding a job in short order and the country was fixated on Gary Condit.
Or maybe he did know something. When I dropped him off at day care, all of the other kids were crying. Every single one. I swear to God.
I’d just finished the Circus Town record before the cruise. I sold it to Sideburn Records for $8000. When the Newschannel 5 checks stopped coming in the new year, we lived on that $8000.
It ran out in March. It could have lasted longer, but the Newschannel 5 money had been so good for so long that we hadn’t developed any austerity chops. Now, 12 years later, we have those chops by necessity.
The same week in March that the Circus Town money ran out, Beth found a job. It was like it was scripted. Since then, we’ve had good times and bad, but when it comes to the country, it’s been more bad than good.
Who knows what the future holds, though I am convinced that nothing will ever be the same again. It can be good. Maybe. But the same? No. Never again.
What a Difference a Decade Makes
By Tommy Womack
As I write this, I am almost fully packed. Nathan and I will be headed to Florida in the morning. It’ll be a working vacation, a gig in Flagler Beach, one in St. Augustine, and copious pool time and father/son bonding. This will be my third working vacation this summer: first New York and DC with the family, then Mexico by myself, and now this one.
Life is good, and I’m thinking about how bad it was exactly 10 years ago right this instant. 2003 was the worst year of my life. Some people cruise through life being stoned and have no ill effects – not many, but some – but as for me, after almost twenty years of being stoned every day that I could get it, I had a nervous breakdown in March of ’03. I became an absolute basket case, bursting into tears randomly, and stayed that way. For months. Gigs had to be cancelled and my career (and you could barely call it that) pretty much ground to a halt.
I was working part-part time as a temp at Vanderbilt, a place I hated then and still hate today. As Spring gave way to summer, I was still crying every day, heaving and shedding tears at the drop of a pin. I got fired because you can’t have a receptionist who cries at the front desk. It unsettles visitors. My antidepressants weren’t working and I was convinced that I’d blown every chance at a better life, and that I was well and truly screwed. I was 40, and a failure. How in the world does a weed-head with a severely damaged psyche even think about supporting a family? I saw no way out. If you had told me that 10 years later I’d be enjoying a right decent career and be loving life as a well-adjusted guy with a good life and a happy home, I wouldn’t have believed you. Life was bad then. And I was convinced it was going to stay that way.
The following text was written almost exactly ten years ago to the day. The copy has been “freshened” a little bit, but it is mostly as I wrote it then. I posted the narrative as a blog in August 2003, and you might say this is the Tenth Anniversary edition. The events described here – my one and only night confined in a mental institution – are the germs from which sprouted many of the songs that would appear on my “comeback” CD, “There, I Said It!” There is also an instance described that bore fruit as one of my favorite Daddy songs, “Martin Luther”.
I suppose if there is any redeeming social value to re-running this 10-year-old story, it’s to illustrate to any of you out there who are feeling washed-up to look where I’ve been, and where I am now. It wasn’t over for me, and it ain’t over for you. Now, having said all that, here is that blog…
On Tuesday, (in late July ’03), I went to see my counselor about three in the afternoon, an hour early, because I had nowhere else to go and nothing to do but sit in her waiting room reading Entertainment Weekly and listening to Oldies 96.3 piped in, humming along with “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”
It was a weekly thing, our visits. She was a nice lady. I’d come in, sit on her couch, whine and she would take notes, give feedback, and we do the counseling dance. I’d been seeing her for almost a year at that point and she was one more in the long line of counselors or shrinks or social-workers that I’ve been seeing since 1979.
I was feeling particularly bad that Tuesday. I’d been at my Vandy job – a temp job where I more hung-out than worked. I’d had a lump in my throat all day like a big chunk of steak that wouldn’t go down, but the tears wouldn’t come. I also had a sore throat and a headache, which happened when I was really depressed. On top of that I was starvation-level hungry. People don’t understand why you don’t eat when you’re depressed. I don’t understand it either. You just don’t eat sometimes.
Oh yeah, the counselor. So I had an appointment with the counselor at 4PM.
I left Vandy and walked the four or five blocks to where I can park for free, got in my van and drove over to my counselor’s office having no idea I wouldn’t be driving away very soon.
She could tell I was in a bad way.
The last time I was this depressed had been six weeks before, and she’d recommended hospitalization then, but my son’s birthday was that next weekend and I had a couple of Todd Snider gigs I was opening up at and didn’t want to miss. This time I had no such gigs. She asked if I felt I needed to be hospitalized and I said that it wasn’t for me to say. You’re the professional, you tell me. She felt it was the thing to do, turned to her desk and called upstairs to my shrink, the medical talking doctor. (They were in the same building.)
Before I knew it we were walking over to Parthenon Pavilion, which is where I’d be hospitalized. By now I was warming to the idea.
I was thinking”hospital”, like any I’d been in before – television in the room, phone in the room, maybe Beth could bring me some magazines, maybe they’d give me some valium and I could maybe get a nice vacation from the world for awhile. Maybe it’d be a nice thing.
But as I filled out some forms in a little room, the tears started to really come, for the first time all day.
“I can’t believe this is happening” I remember saying.
My counselor was gone, back to her sane life, and she’d been replaced in my life by a nice fellow from Parthenon named Ken who started asking me a lot of questions.
“Do you feel like you’re a danger to yourself?”
“Do you feel like you’re a danger to others?”
“Do you keep firearms in your home?”
I thought about breaking into”Skinny & Small” for him, a murder ballad of mine. I sat on the idea.
By now, it had it occurred to me that this was all going to come as a surprise to Beth. And Nathan would miss hisDaddy tonight. He wouldn’t understand what was going on. Ken kept asking me questions and brought me forms to sign. Then he said I was prepped and my room was ready. I was in the hospital. For a night? For how long? 3 to 5 days he says. Sometimes longer.
And we went upstairs.
Ken led me down a hall where he had to unlock a couple of doors that automatically locked again behind us with a little ka-chunkety-click. Then he had to unlock the elevator with a key. Then we were on the third floor, walked across the hallway and he unlocked another door. We went inside. And there we were.
And that’s when I knew this was no hospital with a television and phone in every room.
Have you ever seen “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest”? This was it.
The place was flooded with fluorescent light. The ceiling was half Masonite, half fluorescent light. The floor was white linoleum. The walls were shiny cinderblock. It was so bright you could have filmed a sitcom in there.
There was one television against the wall across this great room, with a bunch of chairs in a 3-sided rectangle boxing it in, a coffee table with magazines in the middle. There was an old lady with long stringy hair sitting at a table working a puzzle. There was an emaciated middle-aged woman sitting in a chair and shaking uncontrollably.
There was a big man in a hospital gown shuffling around, and a dazed-looking young woman in a wheelchair, and a pool table, and a bookshelf, and three or four other people lounging around and chatting and looking cheerful and everybody had white medical wristbands on.
In the far corner, next to the door I’d just come in, was the windowed nurses’ area, just like Nurse Ratchet’s place in Cookoo’s Nest. This was it. This was the hospital.
It takes a lot more time to describe it than it did to see it and take it all in, and then the tears started coming like a gusher.
Next thing I knew I was sitting in a chair answering more questions from a nice nurse named Leah while I watched snot fall on my pants and tears make little gray circles on my shirt, thinking holy fucking shit Tommy what have you gotten yourself into this time?
They took my cellphone, they took my cigarettes, and they took my wallet, took out all the important stuff( driver’s license, credit cards) and gave me the wallet back.
And since I’d mentioned suicidal thoughts before to my counselor (and she had taken notes which these people now had), they also took the laces out of my shoes and took my belt from me.
Now, I’d also mentioned to my counselor that I wouldn’t ever actually do myself in because I have a five-year-old boy. That part either wasn’t written down or else they already knew that this environment could push somebody over the edge. I don’t know.
All I knew was suddenly my pants were hanging down to my hip bones and my shoes were loose wraps around my feet. Walking became a sliding motion trying to not bring my feet off the floor lest my heel rise out of the shoe.
They led me to my room. All the rooms came off the main room where the television and the pool table were, and where the old lady was still working on her puzzle. There was a fellow named Mac who took me by the arm and escorted me to my room along with a nurse, not Leah, some other nurse.
It was time for the strip search.
While the lady nurse kept out of sight, Mac told me (not asked, told) to step into the bathroom. (I noticed a faint odor of dried feces, like a pair of underwear with skid marks in them.)
“Take your pants and shirt off.” Mac said. So I did.
“Now drop your drawers.”
I wanted to say “are you serious?” but I just did what he told me to do. This is when I noticed for the first time that he had a latex glove on one hand.
“Now turn around.”
“Spread your cheeks.”
I turned around, crying again. “Can I put my clothes back on now?”
“Sure,” he said. So I did, as quickly as I could, crying like I hadn’t ever cried in my life.
The nurse had left. Now it was just Mac and me, and he was suddenly like a different person. “What’s the matter?” he asked with a glassy smile, as if, now that he’d seen my anus, we were … friends now, for some reason.
“What’s so bad?” he asked, smiling at me. (He had to ask? He’d just seen my anus and he had to ask?)
I don’t remember what I told him. I think I said something like, this is all such a shock, or something, I don’t remember. I must have said something about being depressed, because he put his hand on my shoulder (not the gloved one, thankfully, even if it was sterile I didn’t want that fucking glove touching me anywhere…) and said “You know, what’s your name?”
“Tommy” I sniffed.
“Well, Tommy, I suffer from depression too. I’m also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. And you know…” he pointed to the window in my room, “there’s hope out there. There’s HOPE.”
He had a very glassy look in his eyes, but I believed he was in recovery. He had several necklaces with chips hanging from them. That’s Narcotics Anonymous. NA is to AA what Fugazi is to Bon Jovi. They are hardcore. An NA member with a year of recovery will have as many as a dozen chips on a necklace, ching-chinging as they walk like a tinkly Buddhist bell wordlessly chanting “I will not smoke crack today, I will not smoke crack today.”
“There’s hope out there.” he repeated, looking at me with a smile like preachers do when they want to minister to you. I noticed the “out there” part. He didn’t say “in HERE”, he said “out THERE.” It reminded me of the prisons in old movies with signs on the way in that say “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
So then it was time for “Patio Break.” I was lucky. If I’d missed this one it would have been two more hours, and I had never needed a cigarette in my life like I needed one right then.
For Patio Break, we all gathered up front next to the Nurse Ratchet window. We were (we smokers) given two of our cigarettes each (not our lighter) then the nurse unlocked the front door of the ward and led us across the hall
We were led out into the hallway to the elevator, which was also locked. The nurse took her key and unlocked it. We stepped inside. The door swung shut. We traveled downstairs, the door opened and we were led down a hallway to another door, which also had to be unlocked, we stepped inside a hallway. The door shut behind us and re-locked itself. At the end of that corridor was another door, which, yes, the nurse unlocked, and then we were on the patio.
The nurse gave one patient the lighter and we all gathered around it. Once we’d all gotten a cigarette going, the lighter was taken back by the nurse. There was a semicircle of benches. On three sides the building rose up with all the windows of all the different rooms. On one side was a wall, a sheer wall, a very tall and sheer slate stone wall. Above us all was the sky. The clouds moved across the blue and we all looked up at it instinctively. You couldn’t help it. You couldn’t help imagining you were a bird.
I was still crying. I don’t know if I had stopped. I was sitting on a bench next to a nice, well-dressed fellow named Duane. He had a smile that was worth more than my 12-year-old Dodge Caravan, the kind of teeth that were white like a Formica counter top, straight and even like little white soldiers.
“What’s your name?” he smiled and asked.
“Tommy.” I sniffed, blowing out smoke, “Sorry,” I added, “I’m a little overcome.”
“You depressed?” he smiled.
“So am I!” he added brightly. “I’m suicidal!” It was like he was saying, “I’m a third-degree Mason!” not “I’m suicidal!”
“I’m also bulemic!” he added, still smiling. I noticed he had laces in his shoes. He’s happily suicidal and keeps his laces. I wondered whom he’d bribed.
“Oh, I’ve got a lot of problems.” He said, still showing a mouthful of radiant teeth like occur in Hollywood but not nature. “Tomorrow’s my birthday! How’s that for depressing?” he said, laughing a little.
“How old will you be?” I asked.
“31.” He replied.”How old are you?”
“40.” I said, lighting my second cigarette on the ash of the first one.
Then we were led back up through the gauntlet of locked doors back to the ward. Some horrible ABC sitcom was on the television, I think the Jim Belushi one, I’m not sure.
One of the happy ladies asked if anyone was watching it. And since no one objected, she moved it over to NBC. “Fear Factor” I think it was. This appeared to please her greatly.
Her name was Rita. She and another lady and two fellows were the ones who looked happy to be here. And Duane of course. A very fat woman in pajamas was sitting there, along with the dazed-looking woman I’d seen before. The old lady was still working the puzzle; the emaciated woman was still siting in her seat, trembling. There was another lady sitting alone to the left of the television. She looked, if anything, sadder than any of us. There were a couple of healing, beet-red gash marks on her neck.
I went over to the bookshelf. There was one romance novel and about 20 old ratty Readers’ Digest Condensed Books. My parents used to always get those. I looked for one I might recognize. I didn’t want to read anything new; I wanted one I’d seen before. I wanted some familiarity. I didn’t find any.
I said ‘excuse me’ very softly as I moved in front of the television and looked at the magazines on the low table there at the center of all the chairs. Family Circle was one of them (didn’t want to see any pictures of kids because it would remind me of my own I couldn’t see) and for some reason Kiplinger’s Financial Report. Now who in the hell would be reading Kiplinger’s Financial report in here, I thought.
Oh yeah, I remembered, the magazines come from doctors. Doctors want to read that shit. The front cover had some white guy in an Izod shirt laughing on a sailboat with his white wife. And they were so happy because their 401K is on steroids, the Republicans are in control and they’re not locked in a mental ward without their belts and shoelaces.
So I went to my room. I decided to investigate what was in there.
You talk about barren! First of all there was nothing on the walls, no Ray Harm bird prints, no Ansel Adams mountains, no Monet prints, nothing. Nothing but cinderblock. I guessed that was because if you had art on the walls, some crazy person could pull it off and smash it.
There were two beds, one of them mine, one of them, mercifully, nobody’s. There was a bureau drawer that stretched across the opposite wall. There were two windows with the blinds pulled shut. There was a small bathroom where we’d had the lovely strip search earlier, and now I noticed inside that the mirror was polished aluminum, not glass. I noticed the faint fecal smell again.
I sat on my bed and regarded the little three-drawer wooden nightstand next to it. I did what I always do in every hotel room. You know there’s nothing in the drawers, but you look anyway. Maybe this time there’d be a Gideon Bible or something.
I opened the top drawer. Nothing. I opened the second drawer and whoosh! The fecal smell!
The drawer was empty but I noticed that the outside was varnished and the inside wood wasn’t, it was porous. And though the drawer was empty now, I knew it hadn’t always been. Great, I thought. Someone shit in this drawer. That’s really wonderful.
So I lay back on the bed and thought of Martin Luther.
That’s not as far a stretch as you might think, from feces to the leader of the Protestant Reformation. You see, Martin Luther used to sling his own feces at visions of Satan. He was under a strain at the time.
The Catholic Church in the 1400s was appallingly corrupt, and Martin Luther did something about it. He had a church in Germany and one day he nailed his 95 Theses to the Church door. I haven’t read them but I know they boil down to “Popes Suck! Parishioners Rule!”
So the Pope sent “emissaries” from Rome to Germany, to kill Martin and then put him on trial, probably in that order, depending on how they felt when they got there.
So some friendly monks hid Martin out in the Black Forest, in basically a safe house, and that’s where the stress of being the most wanted man in Europe got to him. The other monks took Martin’s clothes away so he couldn’t hurt himself and locked him in a cell for his own protection, where he began to have visions of Satan in the room with him.
Having no other weapon, Martin Luther took to slinging his own feces at Satan, spattering the walls with his own shit.
And now there’s millions of Lutherans; and I sat on my bed wondering how often they mention this in their church services, or if they just gloss over the whole thing.
I wondered if they have a Lutheran Flying Turd Blessing. For Feast Days maybe.
“St. Martin, we thank Thee, for Thou hast flung Thine own Shitte at our Oppressor. So that We, by Thy Grace, might touchest not our Shitte, nor fling it, nor smear it on the Sheep or the Antelope, but flush it. Amen.”
From there my mind went to silly puns. Martin Luger. The 95 Feces. Martin Luther Campbell and the 2 Lutheran Crew. As Lutheran as They Wanna Be. “We wownt some Minnesota POO-SAY!” etc.
Having mined that vein of thought dry, I called Beth again. I’d called her three or four times by this point.There were two phones, ten-minute time limit. I think this time on the phone I just said “Oh God, oh God, oh God” over and over again.
Then it was time for Goals Group.This was my first meeting.
All the patients gathered in the seats around the television. The nurse called the meeting to order. Everyone started the day with a goal, and now it was time to see if the goals had been met.
One person said her goal was to have a tear-free day and she’d accomplished that (praise all around). Another lady (the slack-jawed one) said her goal was to remember everybody’s names. She couldn’t do it. The big fellow, Jerome, had the same goal, and he couldn’t do it either.
I don’t know how I found out, but it came to my attention at some point that the slack-jawed lady and big Jerome were both ECT patients, and when I asked what ECT meant, I found out it meant Electro-Convulsive Therapy.
That’s what happens when nothing else works. When you’ve been through Prozac, Zoloft, Effexor, Paxil, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednigo. When nothing else is left to try. When they’ve tried every sort of cognitive and behavioral and pharmacological therapy and nothing’s worked. When nothing makes you feel better. That’s when they put a stick in your mouth so you won’t swallow your tongue, wrap metal bands around your arms and legs, flip a switch and shock the ever-loving dogshit out of you. Literally.
They juice you with enough voltage to re-heat leftovers. And this has actually been shown to bring hopelessly depressed people out of their torpor long enough to at least have a conversation.
I didn’t meet the slack-jawed lady nor Jerome prior to their being shocked, so I don’t know how effective it is firsthand, but I can tell you it makes it really hard to remember peoples’ names. That I do know.
Goals Group went around the room and then it was time for me to introduce myself. I was crying my ass off again by now, but I got a few words out.
“My name’s Tommy” snif, heave, bawl, “I’m sorry folks. I’m in here because” waah, sniff, “I… I get depressed and I’m sorry, this is all a bit of a shock, I… I didn’t expect to… I thought I’d be home for dinner tonight I WANNA SEE MY BOY!” I couldn’t say anymore.
And this is where I’ve got to hand it to these people. They were nice to me. Jerome patted me on the shoulder. Another lady brought me a roll of tissue paper. A couple of other people patted me on the shoulder too. I was grateful for that.
“Well Tommy,” the nurseholding the meeting said, “it sounds like you’re right in the place where you need to be.”
I didn’t reply to that. Agreeing with her would have sounded like pandering, and telling her to go fuck herself didn’t seem like the right thing to say either. So I said nothing.
Then it was medication time. The nurses brought out trays with little plastic shot glasses labeled for each of us. Some people had one or two little pills; some people had multicolored piles of medicines almost spilling out of the little containers.
I had one little pill, something called Sonata. It was to help me sleep, I was told.
Thank God for that, I mused in silence, and washed the little thing down with some water, hoping the effect was immediate, hoping I’d pass out right there on the floor, like surgery when they put the mask on your face. All right, Mr. Womack, count backwards from 100. One-huuuuhndredd, ninety-nuh out.
But it wasn’t immediate, and anyway it was time for another Patio Break. Again we were lined up and given two cigarettes each and led through all the locked doors downstairs.
The first time I’d been too dazed at my loss of liberty. This time I was furious.
How DARE you tell me when to smoke and how much I can smoke and where I can do it! How DARE you! This is America! I’m a 40-year-old man and if I want to give myself cancer, emphysema and low birth weight I want to do it WHENEVER I WANT, not when YOU want.
This time on the patio, Duane wasn’t as happy. “It’s dark.” He said. “I don’t like it when it gets dark.”
We sat smoking and the conversation in our little group centered on our fathers. It appeared that none of us had fathers who gave us enough love.
Confessions were made, tears were shed, cigs were lit on the ends of other cigs, and we were led back upstairs again.
I thought I felt the Sonata working, so I went to bed immediately. It was 9:30.
Over the next two hours I figured out that “Sonata” stands for “So not going to put your ass to sleep.”
I lay there and lay there. And then I lay there some more. And I prayed. Oh boy did I pray. I interlaced my fingers and prayed like a POW, like Martin Luther with shit on his hands, like a15-year-old girl on the pioneer plains giving breech birth on a dirt floor in a thunderstorm. Oh did I pray.
“Jesus, please, if you’re there” (And I was going back and forth about that notion a lot) “If you’re there, please come to me. Please give me some kind of sign, a feeling on my shoulder, some relief, some sense I’m not alone, some sign, a mouse doing a Michael Jackson moonwalk across the floor, anything!”
I prayed like this because I have a friend named Bill and Jesus actually DID come to him when he needed it most.
You see, Bill used to like to drink and drive. Well, it’s not so much that he liked to drink and drive – it’s more he liked to drink and, as Sam Kinison put it, drunk-driving is usually the only way to get the damn car back to the house.
So Bill was lying in the drunk tank one night and he knew he was fucked. This was his third DUI and he was going to jail. He knew it. He was looking at losing his job, maybe his family, his house, maybe everything.
There was a door off to the side of the drunk tank and it was locked, but some light was coming through the bottom of it, and he heard someone on the other side of the door.
As Bill lay there, bemoaning his fate, a voice on the other side of the door said, “You’ll be alright. You just need to quit drinkin’.”
The next day, as he was being released on bail, Bill asked to speak to the man on the other side of the door.
What man?, he was asked, and for that matter, what door?
Well, the door in question turned out to be a utility closet, with brooms, mops, a bucket, and no light bulb. Bill’s been a clean-and-sober church-goer ever since.
So I prayed for some sort of sign too. I got dick.
I do believe God answers all prayers; just sometimes the answer is “Fuck YOU Charlie! You’re in an air-conditioned building and you’re ASKING me for something? I’m GOD! I’ve got millions in Baghdad with no power, and the National Guard with targets on their backs! I’ve got Liberians killing each other for no reason. I’ve got hundreds of people in Nashville alone down at the riverfront, and they’re not down there to see Better Than Ezra on the riverboat stage either. They’re under branches in boxes and lean-tos. And here you are in a room with clean sheets and you’re ASKING me for something? As your loving and most gracious God I do say FUCK you!”
In retrospect, I don’t know if God was really that harsh or if I’d just heard Him through harsh ears. I get in trouble for dialing the Old Testament number and yelling at the operator.
I got some sleep between I’d say about 11:30 and 3. Then I was up.
Why do all nurses in hospitals do this? You close your door so no more of the fluorescent light is coming in, then they do rounds, check on you, and then leave the door open! I got up four times and closed the door again and after the fourth time, I was up for good.
I started walking around the ward in my backless gown. I checked the clock on the wall. 3:30 AM.
I found a Newsweek from 10 months ago on the table. I took it back to my room and read it cover to cover, making a mental note to shoot the next person who offered me any Sonata.
I stepped outside into the main room. And I overdosed.
It wasn’t drugs. It wasn’t the imprisonment.
It was the goddam fluorescent light.
It had bothered me earlier, for sure. But now, with the sleep deprivation and my emotions like a top E-string tuned up to G-sharp – it got to me. If there’s one thing I hate more than the damn Dave Matthews Band, it’s goddam fluorescent light. It flickers, it blinds, it gives me a headache. I even wore blue-tinted glasses, I hated it so much. (Vandy’s a damn fluorescent temple!)
And now, at 3:30 AM, with every other light in the ceiling turned off, it was still blinding.
There was one nurse up front, dozing in a chair. She stirred as I approached her. “Hi!” she smiled.
I was choked up again. “Is…is there…” snif, “…is there anything to EAT around here?”
“Why yes!” she said,”Look back there in the kitchen,” she pointed back to a room next to where the phones were “there’s ice cream and apples and bananas and all sorts of stuff.”
I found a cup of chocolate ice cream and went looking for a plastic spoon in a big bag of utensils. All I found were forks, I started scattering the forks all over a table in adesperate search for a spoon. I never found one.
I stabbed the ice cream with a plastic fork and broke one of the tines loose. So I put the cup of ice cream in my room to let it soften up a little. And I went out to the big room again, to see if any of the magazines had mated, and maybe produced another Newsweek, or a Mojo or something.
There wasn’t any such Immaculate Periodical Conception, so I went back to my room and read the Newsweek again, and ate the ice cream with a two-tined plastic fork as it melted.
Next thing I knew I was up front talking to the nurse again. I don’t remember walking back up to her. I just remember sitting in a chair across from her and crying my eyes out. And I remember how she talked to me.
There is a policy in mental wards.I suppose it’s justified. When talking to a patient, the patient is to be considered crazy until proven otherwise. That’s how all the nurses talked to us. And it works in a contrary way. What it does is it drives you crazy if you’re not there already.
I’m not crazy, I felt; I’m just depressed. And panicking. And crying. AND when you’re sitting in a chair in a backless gown with a white wristband on and you look a fright from crying most of the last ten hours, you’ve got a long-ass way to proving you’re anything but as crazy as they think you are to begin with.
So she talked to me,
Very slowly. sooooooo I’dddd unnnnnderstannnd herrrrrr. ‘calllllllm dowwnnnnnnnn, re-laxxxxxxx, take deeeeeeep breathsssss..’
The more she tried to calm me down, the harder I cried. I was starting to hyperventilate.
She gave me a Clonapin, which is a poor man’s Xanax. Then she went back to her mantras – ‘calllllllm dowwnnnnnnnn, re-laxxxxxxx, take deeeeeeep breathsssss.., give the medication timmmmme to wooooorrrrrrkkkk’
And finally, at 5AM, the Clonapin kicked in. Poor-man’s Xanax or not, when Clonapin kicks in, you’ve got a nice ten-hour sleep coming up. Maybe twelve. Sometimes, fourteen, sixteen…
Unless you’re in a mental ward.
“GOOD MORNING IT’S SEVEN-O-CLOCK, TIME TO GET UP, BREAKFAST IS AT EIGHT!”
With the Clonapin seeped into every bone and nerve in my body, I lurched up and got dressed. Then I fell back on the bed. Next thing I knew it was 8AM and I was standing up, in the main room, in a line with all the cattle, and we went through all the locked doors and down to the cafeteria.
We all had to eat together at the same table, and we all had to stay seated until it was time to go back. I ate some eggs and bacon and hash browns and a jelly donut, and sat with my eyes closed in a Clonapin fog, and then we were back up in the ward again.
Goals Group. What’s your goal,Tommy? I don’t have one. Oh, come on, think of one. Okay, I want to talk to my boy. Oh, that’s a good one. (I’d meet that goal too.)
My doctor came on rounds around ten. I begged him to let me go.
“You know,” he began,”that’s not an unusual feeling for the first day here, but many people get over it and oftentimes by the end of their treatment they don’t want to leave.”
I was having none of that, and over the course of about five more minutes haggling with him, he agreed to start the paperwork.
But paperwork takes a while. I was still there in time for the first Patio Break.
Smoking down under the sunlit sky, Jerome asked me “You leavin’ us?”
“Don’t like us?”
“Don’t like locked doors.”
A little over an hour later, when all the paperwork was done, the nurse unlocked the front door of the ward. I followed her, with laces in my shoes, a belt around my waist and my by-God American cellphone dangling on my hip.
She unlocked the elevator, we went downstairs.
She unlocked a couple of more doors. And there was the lobby.
I had to wait for one more piece of paper to be signed. It was like being a thoroughbred at the gate.
With the last signed piece of paper in my hand, I went for the first of two sliding lobby doors. The first one slid open and I walked through the breezeway so fast that the second one hadn’t hardly had time to open and I missed hitting it by about an inch.
I was on the sidewalk. And free.
I ran back to my van, called Beth from behind the wheel, bought a pack of cigs and a Diet Coke, drove home and hugged my wife and little boy.
And that was it.
You know what? I regard it now as a rather positive experience.
I sure wasn’t as depressed coming out as I was going in, for one thing.
I never had known what getting my personal liberty taken away feels like. Now I do, and I’ll never forget.
There were a few people in there who didn’t want to leave. They didn’t WANT to see their family members any time soon. I understand. Some families are like that.
But I couldn’t wait to see mine.The thought of being locked in somewhere was bad enough, but locked in without being able to see my son at all was intolerable.
I was in love with Nathan, just as much as I was in love with Beth. And being without them was like being without air to me. I’ve never been happier to see them than that moment when I got home. And I thought that maybe now I’d feel better occasionally, just walking down the street. Because I’d have a little more insight on what it’s like to not be able to walk down the street. To not be trusted with your own shoelaces, to not be fully human for a while. A pinch of that shit goes along damn way.
I thought, now, so what’s next? I didn’t know. At this point, I figured I’d never beat the depression. Abraham Lincoln never got over it. Winston Churchill had it so bad he stayed tanked for two World Wars. The pills weren’t helping. The therapy wasn’t helping. All that was left would be to hook me up to a car battery and NNNNNNNNN-rrrggggggg-ZZZ!!!!! And I wasn’t too into letting them do to me.
No, I figured, I’ll just walk on down the street, pulling my belt up and hitching it tight over my skinny hips, bending over to re-tie the laces on my shoes, either because they’ve come loose, or because they’re too tight, or maybe just because I could.