“Are you having thoughts of harming yourself?”


“Are you in trouble with the law?”


“Are you addicted to drugs or alcohol?”


The nurse at the counter kept droning on with these questions. She and I both knew that I was going to say whatever I had to to get out of this place, but still she asked.

“Are you having hallucinations or visions?”


This was the platonic form of a formality.

“Are you currently prescribed antipsychotic medications?”




This place was just slightly better than jail. The only difference was that I was allowed to have a notebook and we got to go outside to smoke twice a day. No books, though. They said they couldn’t be sure what would “trigger” our “conditions,” so there was a very small list of approved books, all of which were tacky Christian self-help tracts. At least when I got out, I would only be stuck in my head.

“Do you feel trapped in your life?”


Fuck. That was the right answer. I’d just pass/failed the psych eval. A Freudian slip in the nuthouse.

“Have you recently had a relative or close friend pass away?”


“Have you recently ended a romantic relationship?”


“Alright, Mr. Miller. That’s all.”

I turned away from the desk and walked back to the table, where the guys were starting up another round of poker. My rubber crocs squeaked on the tile floor. The guys on suicide watch weren’t allowed to have shoelaces. Fair enough. I’d tried to think of just about every way I could off myself in this place, but the fuckers were three steps ahead of me. The only half-decent idea I had was to smash the mirror in my room and use it to cut an artery. The thing was plastic, though, and about five inches thick. The only thing that could break that and use it to apply lethal force was a Mack truck. I sat down at the table and the boys dealt me in.

We were in a “mixed diagnosis” ward. It was populated by folks with mental health issues, drug addictions, or both. I was playing cards at a plastic table surrounded by losers, freaks, nuts and junkies. It felt like where I belonged. The mixed crowd ranged from down on their luck to fucked for life. Two of the guys were schizos with heroin addictions. They would be in and out of places like this for the rest of their life. One of the guys was on pills after a back surgery and his doc recommended he come here to detox. He would get out in a couple days and never come back. There was a new kid who was a cutter. He had scars running up, down, across, and around all four limbs. He was a pretty boy with a bad ego. None of us liked him, but all those scars made us pity him enough that we didn’t fuck with him. The first night he was in he spent talking loudly on the phone to his girlfriend about fucking her. We tried to ignore it and keep playing our card game, but the conversation kept getting louder and more graphic. Finally, when he started describing exactly what he was going to do to her “hot wet pussy,” one of the schizos, Mike, shot him a hot look and he kept his voice down after that. When his lurid phone call was over, he walked up to us and asked:

“Hey, any of you guys know how to sneak a phone in here? I want to get some pictures from my girlfriend.”

“Man, you better not fuck around in here and get us in trouble. If you’re gonna talk about shit like that, do it away from me,” Mike said.

The kid didn’t talk much after that. The guy detoxing from pills, Robert, dealt me a hand and asked

“So why are you in here, man?”

“Suicide.” I said.

“Was it a girl?”

“Part of it. It was a lot of things.”

“It’s always a girl, man.”

“How about you, kid?” Robert asked the cutter.

“Same thing.” He said.

“Well, there goes your theory, Rob,” I said.

“I guess.”

We played the next few hands in silence. Then Mike said:

“Man, I saw some crazy shit today.”

“Oh yeah?” I said.

“Yeah, man. Remember those gargoyles I was tellin’ you about? The ones I saw strangling my wife?”

“How could I forget?”

“They were clawing through the walls of my room trying to get at me. There was a bunch of fire and shit behind them. I think I was looking at Hell.”


“Yeah. I don’ t wanna talk about it too much. I’ve been doin’ really good lately as far as seein’ stuff.”

I always thought it was good to bear witness, and it wasn’t hard in this piace. As rough as I had it, I couldn’t even come close to some of these guys’ lives. I guess the least I could do was try.

“Cigarette time!” the nurse chimed in with a singsong voice. It was the most beautiful thing I’d heard all day. We lined up single file in front of the counter. She got the bucket of cigarettes out and gave us two cigarettes out of the packs with our names on them. I told the nurse to give Robert two of mine. He wasn’t a smoker, but it was something to do, so he’d been bumming smokes off me for the last couple days. The nurse shepherded us out to the little courtyard where we smoked.

The absurd act of sucking smoke through a paper tube gave us all such joy. We would walk around with big shit-eating grins and chat with each other. We had come alive. One of the guys gave me some tips on how to fight a guy with a longer arm span. He showed me how to get around his side and work a hook into the chin. I talked to an old guy who was in for “homicidal ideation” for a bit and then it was time to go back in. We walked back into the harsh fluorescent light and white tiles. It reminded me of high school. I can say with complete certainty that Hell is lit with fluorescent lights. Dante and Milton’s fiery visions were the best approximation of eternal torture available to them at the time, but they never saw fluorescent lights. Fire and brimstone was much too interesting to constitute torture. Instead of everlasting fire cooking your organs, it was a dull, unceasing light that drained the color from the world and melted your brain inside your skull.

I went back to my room and wrote a little. It was almost impossible for me to write anything good. If I let myself go, it came out sappy and sentimental. If I tried to control myself, it came out cold and dead. But I still wrote every night. I had almost filled my notebook. I would have to ask my mom to bring another one. I wrote a few pages of overly emotional poetry and closed the book, shut out the light, and went to bed.

The next morning after breakfast, I was called in to visit the doctor. I sat down in front of his desk while he shuffled some papers around. He was a short, shrewd Indian man with big round glasses. This guy could have told me he was an actor that lazy casting agents used as a standard shrink and I wouldn’t have blinked.


“That’s me.”

“So you’ve been here for a week now.”

“Guess so.”

“Do you feel like you can leave safely?”



He scribbled on a sheet silently for about a minute.

“Through that door.” He motioned to a door to his left.

“I can leave? Just like that?”

“Just like that.” He said, handing me the top sheet from his stack of papers without losing his laser focus on the stack. I grabbed the paper and stepped through the door.

“Diagnosis: Major Depressive Disorder. Prescription: 20 mg Zoloft to be taken daily.”

Ten years of medical school for that brilliant prognosis. An orderly shoved my clothes through a metal slot. I dressed and opened the slot a crack.

“My notebook is still in my room.”

A few minutes later, the slot popped back open and my notebook and pen tumbled through. I picked them up and walked through a door marked “Exit” to my left. I was in the foyer where I had checked in a week ago. The nurse was checking someone new in. Looked like a real poor bastard. Skinny as a rail. Dark bags under his eyes. His skin looked diseased, just on the border of rotting. No one looked at me. I stepped through the front door into the beating summer sun.