When I Was Crazy - John Gardiner
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The night was okay, although after I got back to my room, I decided I'd
like to take a bath, because I was feeling grimy and dirty, and I thought
it might help me stay relaxed after the coffee, which I probably shouldn't
have drank because sometimes it keeps me up half the night. The bath water
was weird. You kind of floated in it, like they must put some chemical in
it, or something. And it was hard to relax because your feet kept floating
up to the surface of the water and kind of off-balancing you. I guess they
must treat the water to keep you from drowning yourself. At least that's
all I could think of.
The moment you're born, you start to die. I didn't used to like dying
slowly. Especially with all the suffering that goes on around here. That's
why I slashed my wrists when I was seventeen. That's when they sent me to
the Ontario Hospital in Kitchener. That's when I found out how very sane I
really was. Man, that place was full of crazies. Like the drug addict who
thought they were putting marijuana smoke into his room through the heating
vent when he wasn't looking, 'cause he thought he could always smell it.
And the lady who'd had six shock treatments, and couldn't remember who her
husband was when he came to visit.
My Dad took me to the hospital to meet the doctor, and the way he talked,
the doctor I mean, you'd have thought I was in for something really special
in the OH, in his new program for troubled teenagers. He talked my Dad into
leaving me there, bandages on my wrists, an old beat-up brown suitcase
holding my pajamas and such. It was my first time away from home. I was
One of the first things I noticed was that there were other people with
bandages on their wrists. I saw them walking the halls, and when you looked
at them, they looked back with a kind of hollow stare. They seemed like a
nice bunch of zombies -- if you liked zombies.
They took my disposable razor, the one I use for shaving my legs and under
my arms, when they rummaged through the old brown suitcase. It was maybe a
sensible precaution. But they also took my belt, and that kind of pissed me
off, because my jeans were a little big for me, and I didn't want to have
to be holding them up all the time. Anyway, they should have known that I'd
made my try, and that I wouldn't try again. I'd told the doctor, and he
shouldn't have doubted me. That set us off on a bad footing almost right
from the start. They have to put a little faith in you, even after you try
the suicide thing. It can have a lot to do with why you try in the first
place -- because they have no faith in you to begin with.
I met Bill in the lounge after supper; after my first day. I was sitting
on the couch, and the only empty seat in the room was beside me, when he
came walking in. He came in quietly, and settled in on the couch, seemingly
careful not to make any noise, so people's television watching wouldn't be
disturbed. It was Jeopardy time and people were pretty caught up in it. So,
we just sat on the couch, not being introduced or anything like that. But I
could hear him breathing beside me, and I found myself wondering who he
might be. I looked over to catch a glimpse one time, but he did the same,
so that we ended up sitting face to face really close, just for a second,
before I looked away. It was embarrassing.
When the first commercial break came, people's concentration left the
television, and there was some talk in the room.
"You're new," I heard him say.
I looked over and regarded him, nodding slightly.
"You crazy?" he asked as straight-faced as you might please.
I said nothing, but the question made me smile slightly. He saw his chance.
"I'm Bill," he said, smiling back and offering his hand. "And I'm
definitely crazy -- and proud of it!"
He emphasized the last part of what he said and it made my smile widen.
"Angela," I said, feeling this guy might be okay to know, so that I could
let down my guard just a bit. I took his outstretched hand.
"Glad to make your acquaintance, Angela," he answered, and as he took my
hand, he held up the bandaged wrist for a closer look. "Nasty bit of
business that," he said, looking at me kind of out of the tops of his eyes,
as if he was looking over invisible glasses. You know, those half kind that
some people wear when they get old.
"You into Jeopardy?" he asked.
"Not particularly," I answered.
"Want to hit the caf for a coffee?" he asked. "I'm not into this
mind-numbing TV stuff. It's for cattle."
And we were off to the "caf" for a coffee.
There was quiet for a couple of moments after we'd settled in.
"You in school?" Bill finally asked, interrupting the silence.
"I was," I answered, "but I don't think I'll be going back."
"Why not?" he asked.
"I'm just not into that stuff anymore," I answered, and I used a tone that
said I meant it.
"That's too bad," he said, "because school can be cool."
"Is that so," I said.
"It is," Bill answered.
"I suppose you went right through school," I challenged.
"I didn't have to," he answered. "Because I knew what school was really
trying to teach me -- that knowledge is power -- so I read.......I learn. I
don't need school. But I'm not stupid."
"Maybe I don't need school either," I said, again challenging him.
"Maybe you don't," he answered, but it was in a patronizing sort of way,
like he somehow didn't believe there was any truth to the statement. "But,"
he added, almost in a drawl, "maybe you do."
And we were quiet for a while longer. There was no one else in the caf, so
that the whole place was bathed in the quiet. I felt sort of peaceful for
the first time since my Dad had dropped me off at this place. It was him.
He seemed to exude a strange sort of serenity.
We talked a little more, but it was mainly about nothing, except that I
was a die hard Toronto Maple Leaf fan, which he thought was odd for a girl,
so I called him a sexist. But it was a pleasant time, and I found myself
wishing that it could linger longer and longer.
Finally, though, Bill looked at his watch. "Lock-up at ten," he said.
"I've got to get going."
I must have looked puzzled, because he smiled at me. "I'm over in the
dangerous offenders ward," he said, suddenly drawing himself up and trying
to look particularly menacing. "You know.....the place for the criminally
insane." He continued to do a bad Dracula-like impersonation, then abruptly
ended the charade. "I'm in the protected custody ward," he explained, now
serious. "The doors lock automatically at ten every night, and you've got
to be inside. I'll fill you in sometime."
He walked off across the empty room, winding his way through the tables
and chairs. I watched him go. I smiled. He made me smile.
So, the bath idea was sort of a failure. But the coffee didn't keep me
awake, and I slept good.
I had my first therapy session after breakfast the next morning. I went
into this very tiny office and sat across from the psychiatrist. He asked
me a few questions, but I didn't answer. I didn't really trust him. And I
really didn't trust myself. Where I grew up, the only people who saw
shrinks were crazy people. And maybe that was me. Or maybe he was there to
trick me into thinking I was crazy.
I sat through the whole session and didn't say a word. I didn't find his
questions too interesting, so I didn't answer them. Mostly, I thought he
was a boorish old fart who probably drove a Beemer and had a prissy wife
with big tits and a kid with horn-rimmed glasses. He wanted to know about
my early life, and I figured he was going to point to something in my
upbringing as being the whole key to why I was having trouble. But I liked
my upbringing, and I thought I might dirty it by holding it up for
scrutiny. So, I was quiet. And, finally, he was quiet. So that we sat
across from each other in an office that wasn't all that large, and seemed
to try to avoid making any actual contact. It was kind of odd. It was odd
then, and it's odd now that I think of it.
So, most of my morning was wasted. I didn't get to see Bill and that was
about all I could think of during the whole thing with the shrink. Finally,
though, it ended, and I was told I could go to the cafeteria because the
rest of my group was involved in some activity which I'd missed most of. I
went to the caf and there was Bill, sitting off all by himself, with a
coffee sitting in front of him, but not seeming to pay it much attention.
But, as I got closer, I thought something didn't look right with Bill. He
was just sitting there, sort of looking out in front of himself, but not
like he was seeing anything. Even as I walked closer, there seemed to be no
flicker of recognition, so I was quiet, said nothing. He sat as still as
could be, back erect, stiff and straight and proper.
But to look inside of him, through the eyes, you'd have thought he was empty, filled with
nothing, and his face blank, but serene and calm.
Then, as I watched, he cried. Tears came from somewhere deep inside of
him, where there seemed to be only a void. His expression blank, betraying
"Just remember, Angie, that you're in control," he said, after some quiet.
I felt sad. I did not understand. But I was quiet. I did not intrude.
After a few moments, I left the caf.
"Too bad about him," the waitress remarked, as I passed. "He had a
treatment this morning. They're always like this after one of those. It
makes them forget."
I said nothing, just walked hurriedly by. When I got back to my room, I
cried. How could they, I thought? That had to be the awfullest thing I ever
saw in my life. It was the look on his face......and the eyes.........and
the emptiness. And it was like he was fighting to get out. How could they?
That afternoon, we went bowling. It was alright, because I'm a pretty good
bowler, because my Dad is a really good bowler. But it was the way they
lined us all up and paraded us down the street to the bowling alley, just a
little ways from the hospital. Retards on parade. That was about all I
could think as we were walking along. I kept to myself. Most of the other
people were talking and laughing, probably glad to get out of the
confinement of the hospital, but I was thinking about Bill. I was wondering
how long he'd be like he was in the morning when I saw him in the caf. I'd
never seen anyone like him before.
I saw him sitting in the cafeteria when I went there for supper. He was
off by himself again, but he had a tray full of food in front of him, and
he seemed to be paying it some attention. I walked over to him, when I
finished loading up my own tray.
He looked up and smiled at me as I approached, but there was still
something about the look -- the eyes. It made me uneasy.
"Hi," I said, knowing I was nervous saying it.
"How are you?" he asked.
"I'm alright," I answered, and I took up a position across from him.
I said nothing else, but started in on my food, hungry after the bowling,
not even minding it being the hospital stuff. Also, I was unsure what to
say -- where to start.
I kept my eyes down toward the table, and couldn't help but notice that he
was just toying with his food, not really eating, but sort of playing with
bits of it, moving them around on his plate, almost deliberately.
He noticed I was watching.
"Not too hungry tonight," he offered. "Kind of lost my appetite."
"I understand," I told him, and I tried to mean it.
"You saw?" he asked.
"I saw you in here this morning," I answered.
"Not a pretty sight, I imagine," he said.
I didn't answer, but felt a lump in my throat at the thought of it.
"I feel a lot better now. Just not too hungry -- especially not for this."
He slid the tray of food away from him.
Suddenly, I seemed to remember about the hospital food.
He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, got one out, and lit it.
"I didn't know you smoked," I said.
"It comes and goes," he answered. "I guess I feel a little stressed out.
I'm not particularly good with stress." He took a long drag on the
cigarette, and exhaled through his nose, flooding the tabletop with smoke.
"Look at it," he said, passing his hand through the smoke. "First, it's
there, and then it's not. Kind of like life." He paused. "Did you ever know
anybody who died?" he asked.
"No, not really close. There was a kid in my class who drowned when I was
ten," I answered.
"You almost knew someone too well," he said, reaching over and touching
one of my bandages. "You've got to know how precious life is."
I didn't answer. I was quiet. Embarrassed.
"It seemed like the thing to do," I finally said, putting a defiant edge
on my voice.
"I've been there," he said. He pulled back the cuff of his sweatshirt
sleeve. I saw the scars. "A long time ago."
"Not any more?" I asked.
"Not for a long time," he said, covering his wrist.
We sat in quiet for a couple of minutes.
"Not for me to lecture you, anyway," Bill finally said. "I guess if I'm in
here, I'm not such a great role model, right?"
"I don't care if you're a role model," I answered. "At least you're a bit
friendly. That's better than those bitches in my group."
"Yea, but I'm not sure we should be hangin' out together," he said.
"Remember, I'm potentially aggressive."
"You don't seem too aggressive to me," I said. "What'd you do to get in here?"
"You're never supposed to ask another patient that," he said. "It's
against the unwritten code of the inmates."
"Comeon," I chided. "How am I supposed to know whether it's safe to be
with you?" I told him. I was kidding with the tone of my voice.
"Hey, how am I supposed to know if it's safe to be with you? Looks like
you're pretty handy with sharp objects," he kidded back.
"Not much of a threat," I answered. "Didn't even do a good job at
it......or I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you."
There was another short silence.
"Why'd they shock you this morning?" I asked, probably a little too bluntly.
"I guess it's part of my treatment," he answered.
"It makes you forget?" I asked.
"It's supposed to," he said.
"Does it work?" I asked.
"I remembered you," he answered.
From there, the conversation wandered. I told him a bit about the town I
was from. He asked me questions about school, and other dumb junk, like if
I had any boyfriends. I told him I didn't -- that no dumbass boy from that
hick town was having his way with me. Finally, though, the conversation
headed back to where it had started.
"I'm not sure why I tried the suicide thing," I found myself telling him,
and him almost a total stranger. But, somehow, he got my guard down. I felt
comfortable talking to him. "It's like it all looked so hopeless."
"How do you mean?" he asked.
"Well, just look at most people," I answered. "They aren't happy. They're
all caught up in their little lives. But they're not happy. They go along
and gather all this useless junk. And that's what you're supposed to
do.......I don't know if I can do that. I don't want to do that!" My voice
had gotten louder and louder. I looked around. Others were watching.
"Don't get angry," he said, reaching over and putting his hand on mine,
trying to calm me. "But I don't think there's anything wrong with how you
feel. You've just figured it out and they haven't. That's all."
"What do you mean?" I asked, and there was still a trace of anger in my voice.
"Most of them are happy," he answered. "I think you're wrong when you say
that most people are unhappy. They're happy because they're doing what they
want to. And that's sort of what it's all about. I agree with you that most
of them spend their lives in ways that seem a waste to you right now. But
it might not always be like that. You might meet Mr. Right and want some
kids some day, and you'll need a house, and that sort of stuff. It just
sort of happens to most people without they're even realizing it."
"God, I don't want it to happen to me," I said, and there was more anger
in my voice.
"You probably don't have to let it," he answered. "You're in control."
There was quiet.
"Do you have a family?" I asked, breaking the short silence.
"No," he answered. "That's not for me."
"Why not? If it just happens. Why didn't it happen to you?" I asked.
"I don't want all that responsibility," he said. "I'm no good at that sort
"Seems to me you'd be pretty good at it," I answered.
He just offered a sort of half smile.
We'd been sitting in the caf for quite a while. Most of the other people had left.
I looked over at him. And I smiled.
"I should go," he said. "I'm really whipped. It's been quite a day." He
got to his feet.
"I might go and watch some TV," I said, and I kind of hoped he'd change
his mind and come along.
"Suit yourself," he answered. "I'm off to lock-up."
We walked to the cafeteria door together. Then, it was time to part.
"Take care," he said, as he turned to go. And he came back to me and
hugged me. It only lasted for a couple of seconds, but it was a firm and
solid hug and it seemed so sincere the way he did it. Then, he turned and
was gone. I went and watched TV. It was one of those cop shows. A lot of
The next morning was my first group session. There were about six of us in
the group. We were supposed to take turns talking about stuff that was
bothering us, and why we thought we were here -- in the program at the
hospital. But I thought it was a pretty dumb thing -- a couple of girls got
all upset and cried -- so when my turn came, I was quiet. I said nothing. I
watched the others carefully, just to make sure they didn't try to sneak up
on me. The doctor was annoyed with me, and pulled me aside after the
session to tell me so. I didn't care. I didn't talk to him either.
It was lunchtime. I went to the caf. Hoped I'd see Bill there.
But he wasn't there. I looked around, while I was picking out my sandwich.
"Too bad about your friend," the cashier said, as I approached with my money.
I didn't know what she meant.
"The guy you were in here with last night almost until closing," she said.
"Why?" I asked, now knowing that she meant Bill.
"He offed himself last night. I thought you'd have heard," she said matter
of factly. "Hung himself."
I dropped the sandwich and the money. I felt the tears starting to come. I
looked at the cashier, and the shock and sadness must have been all over my
"I'm sorry, baby," she said softly, suddenly seeming to feel some
compassion for me.
But I burst away from her and out of the caf and toward my room. I lay on
my bed and cried. I cried for Bill. Why? I asked. Why? I thought of him
sitting there telling me so calmly how precious life is. I knew nothing
about him. He was dead. Offed himself. That's what the cashier had said.
I think of him often, as I think of that time in my life often. First I
was lost, but now I'm found -- that sort of stuff. And I've decided that I
think I'll try to die very slowly, a year at a time. Sometimes, I look down
into the eyes of my five-year-old, and she looks back, and the whole world
explodes with beautiful colour for me. And I know that life is precious.
Just like Bill said. Back when I was crazy.
I checked out of the hospital the next day. Took the bus back to the town
where I lived, and kind of surprised my parents when I came walking in.
I've never been back to a place like that. I haven't needed it. I just keep
telling myself that I'm in control. And I guess I am. Have a husband who
works in the foundry and three kids and a house up behind the hospital in a
kind of fashionable suburb. And I guess it's alright. Just like Bill said.
Another short story by John Gardiner on this site. Also you can read his A Humanist Manifesto.
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