Don’t know if she believed me or not, but the nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment–drugs and/or therapy–would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.
He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy… what a cool bus ride they had together.
Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.
He drugged Douglas and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door. After his door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated every room of that hospital.
Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek. Much of the attack is now just a blurry nightmare in my head. I was assigned to a bedroom only three doors away from his.
My skinny roommate, Melanie, sat on her bed with her knees clasped to her chin. She looked like a praying mantis cut in two.
“Why are you here?” the frail, depressed girl asked.
“I can’t stop drinking.”
“I slashed my wrists. See?” Melanie said.
I wasn’t really expecting a coherent conversation. Melanie exhibited her bony, scarred arms. I was really trying to be calm and sympathetic, but I just wanted to escape.
“I’ve been attacked. I want to leave this place now,” I told the nurse on duty who came in to check on us.
“You’re safe now. Don’t worry. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
“Please let me use your phone.” She pointed to a public telephone down the hall.
I made a collect call to my husband, Joseph.
“I hate you. I really hate you. An insane man just tried to kill me. Come and get me. Now. This place is filled with certified lunatics, and that’s no exaggeration.”
Joseph replied in a stern voice, “I’ll come tomorrow morning.”
During the night, he arranged to have me transferred to another hospital, Fair Hope, in Sumac, New Jersey. (What a strange coincidence; I remembered that my parents were married in Fair Hope, Alabama—I would have named their marriage rendezvous location: No Hope. Ever. Ever. Ever.)
The following morning the Walter-Mitty type staff psychiatrist tried to convince my husband and me, as we sat in his dark-brown dreary office with worn-out leather furniture, that I should stay put.
“Out of the question,” said my 53-year-old husband in his most authoritative executive voice.
He immediately drove me to Fair Hope Hospital where I lived for one month.
A member of the cleaning staff stole my navy leather handbag–with the exquisite brass hardware and clasp–from my closet, but other than that, the experience of living with a group of men and women, who had endured far more than their share of life’s cruelties, injustices, and tragedies, was almost an epiphany; I began to believe that a different life was possible.
During the day we had group therapy with counselors who all were recovering alcoholics and/or drug addicts. I was an oddity because I had never used drugs. Not once. Most patients in their 30s had at least experimented with every powder, pill, or injection available.
As Boris Pasternak wrote, “I don’t like people who have never fallen or
stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless, and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its
beauty to them.”
He was right, of course. I wish that we had met; Dr. Zhivago is one of my all-
time favorites. And I’m very fond of late bloomers; he was sixty-eight when he won the
Nobel Prize for Literature.
We ate our tasteless meals in a bland cafeteria. Only decaf coffee was available from a large metal container, so I was really sleepy for the entire 30 days. Most of the patients were men, so my roommate, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde, around my age, and I got lots of attention. We also were among the youngest.
We were the lucky ones, who had been forced into rehab before the devastating effects of alcoholism took their toll: debilitating neuropathy, memory loss, grizzled complexions.
One patient had to have his arm amputated; he was drunk and waved his arm out the car window…a truck roared by, too close.
Every night we went to an A.A. meeting. I met a woman who had watched her brother hacked to death with an ax by a stranger in her backyard; a man who was just released from jail for grand larceny and who ran a prostitution ring from his Irish bar on First Avenue (He begged me to work for him as a call girl after we were discharged from Fair Hope); a good-looking, sanguine, irreverent man in his late twenties who had spent years traveling on luxury cruise ships pretending that he was a Catholic priest and befriending and bedding older women if they bought him enough champagne; another woman stood outside with her mother and sister as her father burned to death trapped in their suburban house; a shy, thirty-two-year-old female, who was the unwanted only child of an abusive alcoholic manic-depressive mother and charming, artistic homosexual father, who found neither the time nor the energy nor psychological fortitude to protect his daughter from his wife’s violent rages and relentless cruelties.
That one was me.