Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Delightful, Wonderful, and Crazy Universe of Melanie (5/5)

Escaping the Madness

“Lisa!”  I whispered as loud as I could.  She was supposed to bring us a rope made of knotted blankets, but she was behind schedule after taking a detour to the cafeteria for a night snack.   Melanie and I were poised to repel from the window and make our escape at midnight.  We had been making plans for this night, and everything had to run like clockwork.
           The Bedford rules about fraternization state that patients can’t hold hands or show any kind of affection.  Well, given our increasing love for one another, we could no longer live under such a dictatorial regime.  We wanted to be together and live our own lives, so we decided to leave this place on the first of June if the conditions were right and we had done our homework.
   The only regret I had about leaving Bedford was not being able to say goodbye to Dr. Bryson.  I can’t believe I’d feel this way, for our therapy sessions had been at best a mixed blessing.  For weeks after the “incident,” the word used to characterize my behavior before the mental health board, he tried to convince me that a “vaccination” had been found, one that would transform me back to human form: acceptance and reconciliation.  It was time to get out of here.
          Once we had decided to escape some four weeks earlier, we not only planned each detail meticulously, but we conditioned our bodies to prepare for the physical rigor necessary.  Not wanting to arouse suspicion, we performed calisthenics in our rooms at night.  Our efforts paid off.
          To come off without a hitch, everyone had a key role to play in this plan.  We could trust only our roundtable friends—Tom, Arnie, Lisa—as conspirators in our escape.  Melanie and I could have easily tied the bed sheets together ourselves, but what else was Lisa going to do?  Eat a hole in the back wall so we could slip through?
          Arnie would feign a heart attack and thereby distract the night staff and security guards.  Believe me: everyone heard his convulsions.  The lynchpin of the plan was Tom, who would walk toward the front gate once we were in place.  He would function as a decoy to divert the attention of security, while Melanie and I slipped through the gate. 
          So we made our escape on a late spring evening, never looking back at the cream-colored walls of Bedford that had enclosed us for so long.  We only looked forward, to a life together, without restrictions, without a tightly controlled schedule.  I had already arranged for us to stay temporarily at my sister’s place.  During her last visit in April I had played off her guilt for having sent me to Bedford in the first place, and she finally agreed in advance to take us in.  Admittedly, as I alluded in my testimony before the mental health board, were it not for Elizabeth I wouldn’t have met the love of my life.
          Time was of the essence, I thought, for the Bedford security would soon discover our absence.  Sure enough, as Melanie and I dashed across the golf courses toward the tree line, we heard the baying of hounds in the distance, vindicating the oft-whispered rumor that Bedford’s security staff kept scent dogs hidden in secret kennels somewhere.  None of us really believed it, until now.
Just inside the woods is a creek.  We already knew the terrain, because my sister supplied us only a week prior with a printed Google map cleverly hidden inside a Kafka novel I had requested.  Melanie’s mom, bless her heart, was waiting in her car about a mile away.  As frail as she is, her participation in the escape plan was as much a testimony to motherly devotion as an indication of our desperation.
We sloshed our way through the dark, trickling water separating us from our freedom.   Before we got to the other side, I turned to Melanie and clasped her petite body.
“I’ve been waiting to do this for too long,” I prefaced my next move.  Holding her firmly in my arms, I kissed her passionately.   She was startled at first, but she soon responded with equal ardor.  Her lips were warm and soft, the feel of her body against mine heavenly.  I had found my soulmate, and nothing on God’s green earth could compare to the love I felt for her.
          Perhaps nothing in this life lasts, and there are no guarantees.  And maybe our spiritual journey, like the road to mental health, is an individual one.  I don’t know.  But now I have someone with whom I can share my hardships, and I think she knows she’s found the same in me.  Together we’ll manage to soar above both the peaks and valleys.
          “We must go now!” I exclaimed, painfully tearing myself from her tender embrace.  Clearly we had locked arms in what can only be described as the hug of the century, but it did not even begin to satisfy our hunger for one another.
          “I love you, Sam Gregory,” she said, looking like a beautiful nymph under the moonlight.
          “I love you more, Megan.”
           I figured I call her by the name she’s always wanted.  Why not?  Now that we’re on the outside, we can do whatever we want.  Now that we taste freedom, we can have a happy ending.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Delightful, Wonderful, and Crazy Universe of Melanie (4/5)

Sam before the Mental Health Board

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?”
          I hesitated.
          “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?”
          “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.
          “Mr. Gregory?”
          “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!”
          “Mr. Gregory!”
          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.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Delightful, Wonderful, and Crazy Universe of Melanie (3/5)

Melanie and Sam in the Petunia Garden

The petunia garden is nearly two square acres located on the west end of the Bedford complex.  It has a gazebo in the middle and a nice view of golf courses on the outside.  Only patients who have made progress with their treatment can come here, though the staff would never admit it.  Otherwise, there are other places on the Bedford grounds where one can get exercise and fresh air.
          It being early March, the petunias had not yet made their appearance, but the grass was green and the trees were sprouting buds, giving them a pinkish-orangey glow.  In a month or two the place would be bestrewn with not only petunias, but flowers of all kinds, and finely trimmed hedges, making it an optimal time and place to profess one’s love.  But I needed to tell Melanie today what I’ve been feeling these many months, hoping of course that she felt the same.  I could not be certain that her willingness, if not (dare I say) eagerness, to consider me as her lover at the cafeteria table translated to real life.  As you’ll see, I had something else to tell Melanie, and I wasn’t sure how she would take it, as I wasn’t sure about it myself.
          We’ve never taken a stroll through the garden together, and it might not happen again.  We eventually ended up in the gazebo to gaze at the birds and the view.  Bedford staff was never far off.  This was my opportunity, and it didn’t get off to a great start.
          “I like birds,” Melanie said. 
          “Me too.”
          “That one there…See it?  It’s called a red-winged blackbird.”
          Melanie looked at the little creature and then turned to read my face for a few seconds.  “What are you saying?  Are you saying that I have a dark soul and that…and that my passion for life carries me to…freedom?  Are you saying something like that?”
          “No Melanie!  I’m saying, Hey, look at that literal bird over there, that flesh-and-blood bird.  Pretty cool, huh?
          “Are you upset?”
          “Me?  Of course not.”
          “Your tone.”
          “I just wish you wouldn’t always search for some hidden meaning, a metaphor for life or allegory, or whatever, in everything you see and hear.  Imagination is a good thing, but I think—and this is just me—you sometimes forget the real world.”
          “No, that’s okay.”
          “Maybe…maybe I don’t want the real world.”  She hesitated to check my reaction to her words.
          “I can understand that.”
          “Do you?”
          “Yes.  I like your imagination, Melanie.  You create an entire universe, a better place that’s delightful and wonderful.  But one must not lose sight of reality.”
          “Do you think I’m crazy?” she asked.
          She said nothing, for she knew I heard her.
          “Crazy?  Why would you say that?  Why would you ask me that?”
          “No?  I’m a patient in a psychiatric hospital!”
          “Well so am I.”
          “That’s because you’re crazy.”
          “I’m kidding.”
          “You’re hilarious.”
          An inexplicable pause in the conversation ensued.  Both of us stared at the patches of grass surrounding the gazebo.  The sun was shining, but the air was cool.  Melanie’s lavender sweater, I had duly noted, matched her beautiful eyes.  Though I never lost sight of us as two one-winged birds in my mind’s eye, I now pictured us flittering across the lawn like butterflies, following each other from one marigold to the next.  No doubt Dr. Bryson would reward me in therapy for seeing myself in a less pathological light.
          Finally, she took up her question in a new guise.  “Do you not think of me as a mental patient?”  I sat down on the stone bench in the gazebo to consider my answer.
          “No, but…”
          “But what?”
          “We’re all here for a reason, right?”
          “What’s your reason, Sam?”
          “You know.  Everyone here knows by now.”
          “I’m not interested in what’s in your file.  What’s the real reason you’re here?”  As an afterthought, she chuckled.  “You're the one that wants the real world, right?”
          “Dr. Bryson says I hated myself, but that’s not true.  It’s true that I tried to hurt myself.”
          “Why?” she whispered with a look of such compassion I had never seen before in anyone, including my mother.
          “I was a germ.”
          “No, you were not.”  With these words, Melanie sat down beside me on the bench.
          “Yes, it’s true.  I…”
          “Stop it, Sam.”
          “Imagine if people around you were becoming infected.  I thought I could hide out in my parents’ guestroom, but the danger I posed as a pathogen wouldn’t go away.  I didn’t take a razor to my wrists because I hated myself—far from it.  No, I wanted to protect others from the harm I could cause them.”
          Melanie looked confused.  My explanation didn’t mesh with the official or “professional” explanations that Bedford provides us.
          “Do you really believe that?” she asked.
          “It’s not about what I believe, Melanie.  It’s the truth.”
          I wanted to get the lens off me.  “Enough about me.  What’s your story, Melanie?  Tell me something about yourself, something I don’t know from the stories in the cafeteria.  Please?”
          “I’m not a very interesting person.  Why do you think I make up these stories, huh?”
          She rolled her eyes.  “Okay.  Um…My family comes from Amboy Perth, New Jersey, but I grew up in western Pennsylvania since I was 11, when my parents divorced.”
          “Is this for real?”
          “Yes!  Geez.”  She laughed.  “My great-grandparents immigrated to America in the 1920s from Russia.  They were Germans living along the Volga until it became too dangerous with the Bolsheviks robbing and murdering people.  Boring so far?” 
          “No.  What else can I learn about this enigmatic creature named Melanie?”
          “I studied art history and wanted to teach, but…I’ve had severe bipolar issues all my life.”
          Melanie and I went on to share our deepest secrets and fears, however cautiously, making ourselves more vulnerable and fragile, yet finding a kind of sanctuary in each other.  She told me about her lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety.  I told her about my inability to connect with people and how this sense of being socially dislocated affected my childhood and unsuccessful academic career. The shattering blow of my father’s death, I further confessed to her, and the more recent passing of my mother only increased my isolation and alienation.
          She responded with a kind face and reassuring words.
          “For what it’s worth,” she said, as if a summation to our discussion from the heart, “we seem to be on the same path.”
          “I enjoy our time together.”
          “You mean our time in the cafeteria telling crazy stories, right?”
          “They’re not crazy, but yeah.”
          “I like Lisa, Arnie, and Tom too.  They have their issues, but who doesn’t, right?”
          “No, I’m not talking about them.”
          “I’m talking about you.  I enjoy spending time with you above all.  Tom, Arnie and Lisa are great, but…I found myself looking forward to seeing you each day...and hearing your voice.”
          She didn’t say anything, but continued to watch the birds.  I had to fill up the awkward pause with words, any words.  “Weird, I guess.”
          “Listen,” I continued in a different vein, attentive to her demeanor and suffering under her silence, “I found out today that I’ll be going before the County Mental Health Board in a couple of weeks.”
          She still said nothing but turned her head from me.
          “Maybe I’ll be leaving Bedford.  I don’t know.”
          “That’s wonderful news.  I’m happy for you.  We’ll miss you at the table.”  She smiled, a forced smile, before adding, “I’ll miss you.”  Those three words would echo in my mind for weeks—no, eternity.
          “There’s no guarantee that they’ll decide…”
          “No, you’re leaving.  That’s just as well.  You need to get out of this hellhole.”
          “I’ll never leave here,” she said.
          “What do you mean?  You’re here in the petunia garden, aren’t you?”
          “So that means that deem you on the road to recovery, no?”
          “I’m never getting out of here, Sam.  They say I couldn’t cope on the outside.  If it wasn’t for the drugs, and if it wasn’t for the creative outlet that our morning conversations provide, I’d…”
          “What?  Be able to live a normal life?”
          “I’m here, in this garden, because they feel sorry for me.”
          “I don’t think so.”
          Melanie didn’t respond.  Yet another minute of silence passed before I attempted to tell her how I feel.
          “We’ve never walked here together,” I started.
          “We’ve never been in this garden together.”
          “That’s true.”
          “I’ve seen you here , though.”
          “I mean, I’ve watched you from afar.  Seeing you walk in the petunia garden somehow made me happy, but it also fueled me with …longing.”
          “Yeah, it’s weird, like I wanted so desperately to walk alongside you.”
          “Well, we’re here now.”
          “I….”  She must have known what was coming; she could see it in my eyes.
          Before I could get it out, a red-winged blackbird hopping along the railing of the gazebo ruffled its feathers and chirped as another one approached it.
          “I like birds,” she said.
          “Me too.”
          Melanie suddenly got up and walked out of the gazebo.  I wasn’t sure if I should stay put or follow her.  I remained in the gazebo and watched her traverse the pathway back to Building A.  I became painfully aware of my one wing.