The man sitting in the middle, Dr. Haverford, sifted through my records before looking up to eyeball me, his spectacles pinching the end of his nose. He puckered his lips, an odd involuntary reflex incongruous with an otherwise pedantic look about him. I’ve seen him before. As the head honcho of the regional psychiatric association, he’s made official visitations to Bedford from time to time and even sat in on one of my sessions with Dr. Bryson, with my prior approval of course. The colleagues to Dr. Haverford’s left and right, esteemed clinical psychiatrists (or so I presume), nodded to proceed with the board inquiry.
I sat about five feet before them, or rather five feet before the table behind which they perched, nervously watching every move they made: their body language and facial expressions. I was all too conscious that they were likewise checking every nuance in my appearance, demeanor, tone of voice, and verbal articulation. My judges looked to me like birds of prey behind that long table, preparing to feast on my flesh.
I clenched the armrests of the seat, imagining myself in an electric chair. I probably looked “mental” in this posture, but strategized that the proceedings would be less stressful if I simultaneously imagined a worse fate: excruciating death by electrocution. Nervous, I started to tap my foot, but soon stopped as contact with the old wooden floor reverberated throughout the room.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Gregory. We want to make this meeting as pleasant an experience as possible for you, an opportunity for you to share with us what’s on your mind. First, let me introduce the other members of the inquiry board, Dr. Linda Heinzman and Dr. Robert Schutner.”
The bookend interrogators made cordial eye contact with me and turned their artificial faces into a half smile upon the mention of their names. I politely nodded, though I found it difficult to break an obligatory smile in return.
“They will be asking you a few questions once we get through the preliminaries,” continued Dr. Haverford. “While we all know that we are here to determine the state of your mental health, Mr. Gregory, we’re ultimately here to help you, to figure out what’s best for you. Whether you walk out of Bedford’s gates tomorrow or stay a while longer, nothing but good can come from this discussion. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I responded. “I mean, Yes sir.”
“Good. Now, could you state your name, Mr. Gregory?”
This question took me by surprise. “You know my name, Dr. Haverford. Besides, you just stated it.”
“Please, Mr. Gregory, it’s just protocol. I’ll have a series of questions for you at the outset and for the official record,” he gestured towards a plump woman with a pleasant face at the far left end of the table typing into a laptop, “we need to have you answer them.”
“Yes sir. I understand. I’m not trying to be difficult, I…”
“Not a problem. I understand. Now, can you state your full name?”
“Samuel K. Gregory. The K is just a K.”
“I understand. You used to be a university professor, correct? Would you prefer that we refer to you by the title Dr.?”
“No, Mr. Gregory is fine,” I responded. “Yes, I taught at a university.”
“What did you…”
“Biological anthropology is my field,” I said in anticipation of his next question. “I was an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at Hexington University. I was also the program director for the graduate school.”
“Did you enjoy your job, Mr. Gregory?”
“Yes, but I also remember much stress at the time. Anyway, it seems so long ago now…four or five years or so.”
“You were admitted into Bedford three years ago…Wait a minute….” Dr. Haverford shuffled papers. “Ah, there it is: October 17. Is that correct, Mr. Gregory?”
“Yes, that sounds about right. My sister Elizabeth brought me here.”
“Is she your closest of kin?”
“You could say that. Yes. My mother died nearly two years ago now.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. You never married, correct?”
“Yes. I mean, No, I’ve never married.”
“You’ve completed the initial psychotherapeutic program, undergone three different treatment plans, and have met regularly with Dr. Bryson, your counselor. As I look through your files, I find not one instance of noncompliance or resistance to treatment. In fact, you have helped other patients and volunteered in the library. Is all this correct, Mr. Gregory?”
“How would you characterize your stay here and the program’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, in assisting you? Has it helped you regain a healthy life? How do you feel about yourself and the world around you?”
“Go ahead,” said Dr. Heinzman, picking up on my trepidation. But for the aforementioned artificial smile, her face was austere. “Speak freely.”
“I…I’m doing well these days. I mean, well…”
As I started to speak, I couldn’t help but think of Melanie, the way she laughed and her serious side too. I liked the fact that we could talk about anything; she could put up with my idiosyncratic style of seamlessly weaving silliness with serious topics into a single conversation. Her voice and the way she looked when she said she’d miss me kept running through my mind. Most of all, I thought about her tacit response in the petunia garden when I told her I’d finally be going before the board. In the moment I told her, I felt so alone, and I knew she felt the same way. What should have been the cause for celebration—my potential release from Bedford—seemed like a cruel fate. How can I live without Melanie in my life? The thought of living a minute without her pains me beyond words. No therapy could ever help me cope with this prospect.
“Mr. Gregory? You were saying?”
“I feel that I’ve been on the road to recovery for over a year now. I had a mental lapse, well, a mental collapse would be more accurate. This is true. That’s why I’m here at Bedford. My mind was completely divorced from reality, at least in terms of my self-image and the self-destructive actions I took. And while I resented my sister for having brought me here at the time, I’m now glad she did. I’ve received the help I need, truly; I’m not just saying these words. If anything….Regardless of your decision today, I will be fine. Why? Because I have my life back. I…well…so…I’m in control and have a healthy outlook on life. As far as violence toward myself or anybody else for that matter…I only want to live, to enjoy friendships and walk in the park. If I can return to academia some day, that would be great. But I have other things I’d like to do with my life, like creative writing and traveling.”
As I had anticipated, Dr. Haverford noted my choice of words with the utmost detail. “Mr. Gregory, when you said, Regardless of our decision today, do you mean to say that you are indifferent to being released from the program, to leaving Bedford and reintegrating into society?”
I thought about the question for a moment. “Well, don’t get me wrong, doctor. I would like to move on with my life, and I know I’m ready. I’ve dreamed of this day, of being before you like this, with the prospect of walking out those gates, as you put it. I guess I’m just saying that my mental health doesn’t depend on the prospect of release. That’s all.”
Again, as I spoke, the thought of Melanie competed with my words. I wanted to be with her. How I wished she were here with me experiencing what I’m experiencing, and vice-versa. Throughout all our role-playing, there had been so many instances when I wanted to reach across the table and clasp her hand in mine. I now hated myself for worrying what Lisa, Arnie and Tom might think, or that the vigilant and ubiquitous staff would rush the table and seize me for violating Bedford’s strict rules on fraternization. I wish I had just done it. Suddenly, an epiphany came to me, and you’d think I would have thought of this before. I could reach underneath the table. No one in the cafeteria would know about my love, our love—not Arnie, Tom, Lisa. But would she respond? Would she place her hand in mine and play along that nothing was amiss?
“I see,” came Dr. Haverford’s laconic response, followed by puckered lips.
Dr. Schutner weighed in at this moment. “Mr. Gregory, I’m going to get a bit more to the point, a bit more specific. And I want you to think carefully about my questions before you respond.”
“You mentioned a ‘mental collapse.’ Let’s talk about this a little more. What happened that ultimately brought you here?”
“You’ll probably find this information in my records you have there.”
“Yes, but I want to hear you explain it.”
“Dr. Bryson, and others with whom I’ve undergone treatment over the years, say that the death of my father, coupled with childhood trauma that I never dealt with, triggered my psychosis, what’s called schizoaffective disorder, which according to Dr. Bryson is rare. I’ve never been able to develop strong social bonds as a youth, and even as a university professor I alienated many of my colleagues, I guess, spending most of my time alone in the lab or on field studies. Anyway, one day I found myself…or rather I believed that I had woken up one day to find myself transformed.”
“Go on, Mr. Gregory.”
“Transformed into a bacillus.”
“Do you still think you are a bacillus?”
“Why not? Because that’s crazy. I mean, I now understand what led me to think I had become a pathogenic microbe.”
“So then you recognize that believing you had somehow transformed into a microbe isn’t ‘crazy,’” said Dr. Heinzman, using her hands to simulate quotation marks, “but that your emotional need, your sense of unworthiness and self-hate, created this image of yourself.”
“Yes.” Dr. Heinzman’s analysis is what I had come to accept, slowly but surely. I found it surreal to now see myself from the outside in, but that’s what the three years at Bedford had done for me.
“You appear to be distracted. Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m not a bacillus.”
“Very well then….”
I started to hold my breath until my face turned red.
“Mr. Gregory, you don’t look well.”
“I’m a virus,” I said.
“I was wrong. I’m not a germ, I’m a virus.”
“Mr. Gregory, what are you saying?”
“Please stay away, I’ll infect you. I’ll infect everyone!”
After I screamed so loud that I nearly got a hernia, I stood up suddenly and started to jump around before collapsing to the floor in convulsions. “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! You’ll get infected.” The plump lady with the laptop scurried out of the room.
Two burly men in the proverbial white suits (actually blue polo shirts with Bedford on the chest) ran into the room and subdued me. I scratched one of them on the face by accident, but it didn’t seem to faze him.
Dr. Haverford tried in vain to restore calm. “Mr. Gregory, please!”
As these security guys tried to pin me to the floor, I wriggled out of their grip and sort of slithered my way to the corner of the room. I guess I went into default mode, for I’d often stay in the far corner of my parents’ guestroom. My sister would often leave food for me on the bed. I wouldn’t need to venture far from my Petri dish in the corner.
The guy I scratched, a new hire who as it turned out had a criminal record, started boxing my ears.
“What the hell are you doing!” cried Dr. Haverford. “Don’t beat him!”
I think it was Dr. Schutner who yelled: “Sedate him! Sedate him!”
At this point Dr. Bryson rushed into the room and ordered the blue-shirted thugs to back off.
“What's going on here?”
“Mr. Gregory’s not well,” replied Dr. Haverford, evidently a master of understatement.
What happened next I can’t be sure. I remember kicking the syringe from someone’s hand and it flying across the room. Needless to say, after this fiasco, I didn’t make the board.
A week later I returned to the cafeteria. Dr. Haverford and other so-called experts deemed me a threat to other patients, so they kept me isolated in Building B until whatever treatment they decided to inflict upon me would run its course. Dr. Bryson successfully argued that taking me away from my friends was the worst thing they could do. Fortunately his authoritative opinion prevailed.
Story after story, day after day, Melanie and I drew ever closer together in our hearts, and, yes, we held hands under the table.