By Thom Elliot
Posted June 28, 2021
On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.
I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.
Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless, prisoner under their control. I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.
To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.
No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.
A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration? Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.
I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.
It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.
I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.
At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.
I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.
I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.
Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”
At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed. I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.
People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her. Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.
We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.
Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won- the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf. The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)
On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.
On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.
The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.
I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days. Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.
After the factory closed and my dreams of a secure working future as an operating manager of an e-waste concern died, I was initially unemployed for approximately a day. In a kind of mourning, I drove around my area and applied at two places, an LED sign manufacturer and PC Server & Parts which refurbished used computers and sold them online. I worked two days at the sign manufacturer, which I enjoyed, but it only paid $10 an hour, and I was simultaneously hired at PC Server for $13.50. I felt I couldn’t responsibly turn that down, so I quit the sign manufacturer and went to work at PC Server.
The first two weeks are a short story in themselves, working next to Pancake, a rather portly blonde with a prominent but obscure Nazi symbol (the Wulfsangle) tattoo on his forearm, who was obsessed with fishing, breasts, mudding, and getting shithoused. I was moved into the inventory warehouse after telling my supervisor that shipping was “pure suffering,” and so it was to be hefting computers around instead. I worked there for two weeks in inventory, learning the ropes etc, and for the most part enjoying it, working hard tearing down computers or stowing them etc, but definitely not fitting in with the forty or so nearly identical white men. I don’t fish or play video games, so the opportunities for socializing were nonexistent. I was regarded as the alien being I am, and that was mostly fine.
On the Monday morning of my third week, there was a meeting. We all gathered in the inventory section and the supervisor said “Well, Dylan died this weekend”. Dylan, a handsome, well built, fresh faced all-American type, blonde twenty three year old who I spoke to once because he was wearing a Cannibal Corpse shirt. I found out we both were at the final Slayer concert in Michigan. There was a moment of silence, and then the supervisor asked if anyone had any words. An older guy with spiky white hair, cartoonishly large gold colored crucifix, who seemed to wear only one shirt Bikers 4 Trump (who pointedly never spoke to me), said “Well, Dylan was a good worker, never had problems with anyone…and was a good worker,” then awkward silence, someone else said almost the same thing “Dylan worked hard, and never had problems with anyone,” more awkward silence.
So after saying I didn’t know him at all really, I said my usual short existentialist rap about “You’re never too young to die, you could die today, so the time for meaningful experiences with each other is now,” the supervisor muttered that it was well said, and we all went back to work. I go back to my section and the older dude was talking to some of the others, said he knew Dylan since he was ten years old, and that it’s a shame but “at least he got to see Trump’s first term.” For the rest of the day, a lot of these guys, including Pancake, all wanted to talk to me, I think they knew I had some experience with this sort of thing.
Over cigarettes, a guy confessed his mother had jumped out of a building two weeks before, but because of some situation the funeral was that weekend, so he now had two suicide funerals in one week. That’s how I found out the story. Dylan had been out with the manager of inventory, Jake, drinking on Friday night. There was some unclear skirmish between them over a woman while they were drinking, and on the way home, Dylan had become so distraught over it, at 65mph he jumped out of the truck. Jake immediately pulled over, and to the bleeding, twitching wreck of Dylan, he gave him mouth to mouth until he died at the roadside. His life hadn’t even started yet, and was already over.
That night, I had nightmares, I was being attacked by invisible ghosts, slashed and molested by things I couldn’t see, and later that I lost Jenny in a surreal foreign airport and couldn’t find them. I barely slept, the nightmares so vivid and inescapable. The next day, I approached a couple people and just wanted to talk, I said “well I’m definitely traumatized, had nightmares all night” and would get cut off with “I don’t want to talk about it.” That happened twice, no one wanted to talk. I quit that day, did an Irish style goodbye, meaning I didn’t say anything, just clocked out and left. No moral of the story, no edifying truth, just human fragility.