When we got inside the unit, the nurse parked my wheelchair and me at a makeshift processing station. As soon as she left, patients seemingly came crawling out of the woodwork to check me out. Each exhibited some form of mannerism similar to the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, although this Washington, DC, cast was more culturally diverse and multilingual. They demonstrated a great deal of angst over the most minor things; I thought they were totally deranged and a bunch of whiners. What had I gotten myself into?
My blood pressure rose to a level of 200 over 110, and I felt every millimeter pounding through my arms and chest. Turban Man—Hosni Ben Saad, a Tunisian, as it turned out—came back. He hovered over me and just stared, stiff as a mime. He appeared to be in a depressed state. But when I started to talk with the registrar, he became manic and started ranting in Arabic—then broke into uncontrollable laughter as he walked away.
“Am I rooming with him?” I asked. She didn’t know. Barely looked up to answer me. I suppose we were all a bit crazy on Floor W.
Once officially admitted, I got up and wandered around, peeking into open doorways for telltale signs of room assignments.
I hadn’t gotten far before I was reprimanded. “Henry, take a seat,” came a voice, seemingly out of nowhere. Rule number one on the floor was to obey, and I did. The only available chair was in the group living room. A black girl in her late teens had control of the lone television. She was wearing pajamas and sucking her thumb while watching a cartoon show.
“Do you mind if we watch something else?” I politely asked.
The girl was catatonic. My body could have been engulfed in flames, and she wouldn’t have flinched. I asked another time. Still no reply. I got up and changed the channel using the button on the television itself. As I did so, I asked the girl if the station I’d settled on suited her. Rather than talk, she got up and left the room.
In came a short and wiry black man, full of pain in his face, with both hands pressed into his lower back. He’d had a couple of rough days since jumping from a building and landing on his tailbone. This wasn’t the first time he’d failed to kill himself. Nor his first time on Floor W. In fact, he’d stayed at least once at all the DC psych hospitals. He wanted me to know I’d come to the best “house” in town.
He spoke—and looked—like a man who was worn out by life. Half of it had been spent in Leavenworth, the largest maximum-security federal prison in the country. Gil had been found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder. And would do it all over again, he claimed: “Dem no good sons of bitches were better off dead.” He survived Leavenworth, and only once did anyone ever try and fuck with him. He knifed that guy in the neck. From then on, the other inmates stayed away from Gil. A self-taught man, he’d developed a passion for philosophy during his incarceration.
Perhaps someone observed our compatibility, because, suitably, I was assigned as Gil’s roommate. After turning in my belt, razor, and the yoga strap I used for stretching—all things I could use to hurt myself—at the front desk, I was taken to the shared bedroom. It had a definite “lived in” stench, but the smell of life was as fragrant as roses that night. My only fear of dying was Gil slitting my throat. I soon learned from listening to the “philosopher” that he meant me no harm. He was done with “the killin’.” He’d been consumed with rage as a young man, partly due to his upbringing in a fatherless home and partly due to his drug and alcohol addictions. Now, in his later years, he was resigned to battle what he called “confuse-yun.”
Listening to Gil squirm his way through a mattress minefield to ease his back pain made my first night a sleepless one. His being a “frequent flyer,” the staff disregarded my roommate as a monopolizing hypochondriac. I knew from my own experience with lower back pain that he wasn’t faking a thing. In fact, considering that he had a confirmed fracture, I thought the hospital’s reaction was negligent and irresponsible.
So I became Gil’s advocate. Yes, I had a vested interest—sleep—but even more so, a burning desire to see my roommate treated like a human being and not like an animal. I fought on until the hospital yielded. All it took was a back support brace one could buy at Walmart for less than twenty bucks, and Gil’s world was righted. Two days later, he was discharged.
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