I arrived at this hospital yesterday. When checking in, I told them I had been feeling suicidal. Someone put me in a wheelchair and brought me up to the 4th floor: the psychiatric ward. Someone else went through my belongings and found a pair of draw-string pants and pulled out the thin, cotton strip that would cinch around my waist. Did they really think I would kill myself with that?
Then, I was shown to my room with a single bed, the only window looking out at a drab grey building. I was told someone would check in on me every fifteen minutes. Instead of this unnerving me, I felt a great sense of relief. I felt safe for the first time in what seemed a long time.
The next day, I meet the other patients. There’s Andrea, who has obviously either been here for some time, or has come here before. She shows me “the ropes”: where to do laundry, where to shower, what time meals are. She rooms with Jasmine, who appears to be about Andrea’s age and it’s clear they have formed a friendship. One time, I hear a commotion, so I poke my head out of my room. Jasmine is in a wheelchair and Andrea is pushing her hard and fast down the corridor. They are both laughing and whooping it up and I find myself smiling a much-needed smile.
Then there’s Oscar with his droopy mustache and shuffling walk, who hangs out often with the waif-looking Toby; the two of them often having private conversations.
And then there’s Henry, who is wall-eyed and Asian, whose black, untended hair stands straight up. He can’t bear to look anyone in the eye and his whole body language is apologetic. He exudes both sweetness and confusion.
Victor is the only patient I am afraid of. He exhibits that kind of behavior that you see on the street that you want to avoid. He stands in a corner and argues with someone – someone the rest of us can’t see. Sometimes his voice becomes louder, turning to rage. Because I am so very anxious, and because there often seems to be no orderlies around, my fear escalates. I wring my hands; will he become violent? Will he unleash his violence on someone here? Me, even?
The other patients and I keep our distance from him. We all, excluding Victor, gravitate to one another, forming a kind of short-term family, while he remains a loner. I don’t know about the others, but I want it to remain that way.
But on my third day here, something changes that.
We are all gathered in the community room, including Victor. We take our places – Victor in the corner arguing, the rest of us sitting around the table, loosely interacting.
The TV is on, as usual. Today, someone has put in the DVD “Ghost”, which we look up at occasionally. Then the famous scene comes on with Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel, while Patrick Swayze comes up from behind, puts his arms around her, his hand joining hers. Then the familiar song, “Unchained Melody”, by The Righteous Brothers starts up, enhancing the scene.
Suddenly, Victor stops arguing. He turns from his corner and walks towards us and looks at the screen. He listens for a second, then opens his mouth and starts singing. His voice is full. His voice is tender. His voice is full of feeling. He knows every word, and every word is pitch-perfect. His gaze, usually hard and glazed over, becomes bright and clear, his blue black face is beatific and glows with an inner light. He is angelic.
The rest of us watch him, our jaws dropping. We are transfixed. We can’t believe what is happening. We know we are experiencing some sort of miracle.
And then the song stops – and when it does, Victor’s demeanor changes, and he turns away and goes back to his corner, resuming his argument.
For a full moment, no one says anything. We are stunned into silence. For a full moment we drop our roles (and our guard) and fall into that silence.
And then the moment passes. Patrick Swayze removes his arms from Demi Moore. Andrea and Jasmine look at each other and giggle. Oscar and Toby exchange glances. I bite my nails, my nerves returning. Henry hangs his head, as if embarrassed to be alive.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Now, looking back at that incident, I realize many things. The first, most obvious realization is that music has the power to heal, if only for a few minutes. Everybody knows this, to a degree. If I’m feeling funky, I can, for example, listen to Al Green’s “Belle” and my whole mood shifts. When his beautiful, soulful voice enters the room and for some time afterwards, I feel uplifted, changed.
The second realization is that for as long as “Unchained Melody” lasted, Victor was no longer “other” – someone to be feared and avoided. For those few minutes, he became a part of our weird, dysfunctional family. He became a part of us, and we were a part of him.
For years afterwards, I thought about that incident and wondered about Victor: How did he get that way? Why was he so angry? Was it purely a “chemical imbalance”? What was his life like before he came to the hospital? Did he live on the streets? Does he now? Did he ever fall in love, have a family?
Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know he is my brother of sorts. I know his metamorphosis made me believe in miracles. I know I want beauty to be always a part of his life.
And, wherever he is today, I hope he is singing.
Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers/Produced by Philles Records (1965)
While standing in line at Rite Aid, I look over at the magazines at the counter. On the cover of People Magazine is a picture of Mariah Carey, with a caption revealing she has bipolar disorder. When I reach the counter, I take a copy and set it down with my other items to buy: a notebook and my favorite pens.
The cashier ringing me up glances down at the cover.
“Mariah Carey’s bipolar?”, she scowls.
“Seems like everybody’s bipolar these days. I think it’s just an excuse. They want attention, or they’re just weak-minded. Sometimes you just got to buck up”.
I look at her tight mouth and flashing eyes and wonder about her life. Does she just “buck up” and push through? Is that how she handles the difficulties of her life?
I must have a shocked look on my face, or maybe my mouth is tightening, because when she looks at me again, she says, modifying her tone, “or maybe she is bipolar”.
“Maybe more people are coming out about it, are being braver”, I suggest.
And with that exchange, I leave.
The conversation bothers me. It’s attitudes like hers that keep brain disorders and mental illness in the closet. All chronically ill people have to push harder to go through life. Mentally ill people have the added difficulty of having a stigma attached, making it hard to feel okay about having an illness that affects the mind.
Why is it such a stigma? The brain is part of the body, not separate from it. So why do we get so judgmental or frightened about mental illness and not as much or at all about other illnesses? Unless someone is violent, it seems no point in being afraid or protecting ourselves. Are we all just frightened of losing control, ourselves? Aren’t we all trying to keep it together on some level, at least some of the time?
Strictly speaking, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, not a mental illness. For that matter, so is an anxiety disorder. If I’m honest, I feel a sense of relief that I am not labeled “mentally ill”, because I don’t want to be lumped with “those people”. I’m not a psychiatrist, but it seems to me that there is some sort of spectrum. You have people like me on one end, and a paranoid schizophrenic on the other. Am I a better, more respectable, likeable, deserving person because I’m more functional in the world? No.
Personally, I’m happy Mariah Carey is on the cover of People, telling her story. Kanye West gives no apologies for his bipolar disorder. I’m happy Howie Mandell is honest about his plethora of anxieties, even making us laugh about them. When well-known people are outspoken about their mood disorders and mental illness, I think it encourages others to do the same. Maybe by doing so, the stigma of mental illness can slowly slough off because of their willingness and courage; to be vocal about it and be themselves.
We have a long way to go. There needs to be a lot more education about all kinds of brain disorders, until shame is ditched and replaced with compassionate understanding. Everyone can come out of the closet and not fear condemnation. We all deserve to be respected, accepted and treated well by our doctors, friends, and community. We are all part of a greater whole and deserve to be recognized as such. Otherwise, there will remain a fracture in our humanity and we will all suffer from it. And I don’t want that. Do you?
“We’re one but we’re not the same. We need to carry each other”. ~ Mary J. Blige