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Chronic Ward


tougt e was crazy.

"Was Christ crazy?" she asked, her eyes flashing.

"Yes. Was Christ crazy?" another voice demanded.

"Well, some people must have thought He was. And may be so if He wasn't what He claimed to be and yet believed He was. But then we all have several conceptions of what we really are." They turned back to pacing.

Wistfully I stared out the window at the stretch of grass and few bushes that bridged the space between buildings. Never ad I so longed for fresh air and freedom. Slowly drained of energy I feared more than anything that maybe I, too, would fall asleep, stretched out ignobly on the floor. From this kind of stupor my body was jerked to attention. From the middle of the room came a horrible bonechilling cry.

"I'll beat you out of there--I'll beat you out of there." The scream came from a young woman who'd been pacing up and down the hall. Her face was flushed and contorted. Again and again she raised her clenched fists to strike at her stomach. It was a scene she re-enacted many times and which would later echo painfully in my mind.

For lunch I was allowed to go with the other patients to the cafeteria. Like a child who has been cooped up in school all day I charged outside--much to the amusement of the hospital staff. Phoebe, who had been asleep only a moment before, ran to catch up, and both of us, celebrating sunshine and fresh air, jumped over a hedge.

The Cafeteria was a social meeting ground where men and women from different wards all ate together. Seeing middle-aged couples on the make seemed somewhat comic, but, was refreshing. Again, the food left much to be desired.

After lunch patients returned to their corners to resume sleep. A few scavenged in the ashtrays and wastebaskets for a last drag on a crushed cigarette butt. Cigarettes were an opiate--sleep, an escape. On my right a woman sat lethargically in her chair--her eyes heavy and dull. I tried to start a conversation but she turned to the wall, flashing a look tat could only mean "Leave me alone."

All year I had worked with a patient trying to bring him out and stimulate his interest in some direction. Often he'd gotten up and left at the first opportunity. It was easier to withdraw, to live in a fantasy world. Other people, other tings disrupt that self constituted equilibrium and bring to mind the memory of an inability to cope with the trials of the real world. The reclusive life of a mental hospital is a respite from the anguishing pace of "the outside," but as time passes, unless patients maintain some sort of contact with the outside, it becomes all they know--a world of smoke and sleep in which I couldn't help but feel they were rotting.

Sunday I thought I couldn't wait to leave. As I went out the door Eileen came up to say good bye.

"Are you really going--for good?" se queried, as if she queried, as if she didn't quite believe it possible.

"Yes." As I left I remembered what a patient had told me when I'd first come:

"So you're here to see what it's like, huh? You'll never know. You'll never really know what it's like until you have everything you've ever had taken away, and this is all you've got."

I'd had a taste, tough. And it was enough.

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