“Come on Danny, be a good boy and take your meds. You know you always feel better when you do.” I spit something unintelligible at the matronly woman holding out a plastic pill dispenser. Turning towards the wall I feign resistance but we both know it’s a game.
She silently stands firm next to my bed. A few of my fellow inmates are watching, their blank faces making it hard to judge whether it’s out of curiosity or simply a reaction to her sympathetic but unyielding voice. A voice I’ve come to crave as it makes me feel safe, even though I know it’s all just a pathetic illusion. A 32-year-old man desperate to be called a boy so that he can feel like a boy; this solid, practical woman’s boy.
Rolling over I avoid her gaze, my eyes fixing instead on the navy blue uniform. Baby bird style I open my mouth, too ashamed to meet the kind eyes as she places the dispenser next to my lips, tipping the pills into my mouth. I swallow obediently, reaching for the water she offers me. “That’s a good boy,” she soothes before returning to the nurses’ station where the other one, the young one, watches our familiar dance with disinterest.
I’m not mad, I swear I’m not. Not like some of the others in here. Some of them are so far gone it’s hard to see anything human left. Maybe it was never there to begin with; maybe they’ve always been that way. Others, like me, are damaged maybe beyond repair but there are still remnants of what we once were. Not many and some days hardly anything at all but somewhere at the edges a ghost like flicker of what could have been.
I close my eyes, grateful for the dull calm that washes over me. I’m safe here without the questions and sharp edges. Somewhere far away I can hear Maxine’s low growl. It’s a deep guttural sound, part growl, part hum that comes from deep within her. Maxine is one of the ones who used to pass for normal. I’ve never heard her utter a sound other than the growl but her mother’s the type who thinks it’s okay to tell everyone her daughter’s story.
The mother comes every week but spends most of the time she’s here re-telling Maxine’s story to other visitors or the nurses. She’s the kind of woman who, even when she’s telling someone else’s story, it’s all about her. She doesn’t out and out say how Maxine’s decline into madness has become an unbearable burden but that’s the subtext. And Maxine stares into space, growling that low tuneless rumble as her mother sits centre stage.
You wouldn’t think it to look at her but Maxine used to be a looker. She’s obese now in that puffy, marshmallowy kind of way that’s part medication part junk food. Her hair is cropped short with bald patches that remind me of a badly kept lawn. She has lots of not so great habits like ripping out her own eyelashes and slashing her skin with anything that’s not safely locked away.
According to the mother, things went bad for Maxine when her dad was diagnosed with cancer. Seven years spent waiting for him to die with false hope after false hope pushed her over the edge along with him. Of course the mother finds it hard to understand how, at such crucial time when it should have been all hands on deck, Maxine crumpled in such a catastrophic way. Maybe, her mother wonders aloud every Saturday, she was always weak.
I like Maxine, even though I’ve never spoken to her. In fact I’ve never even been up close to her. The closest we’ve come is me watching her from my own bed as she sits on hers staring off into space. It’s a mixed ward you see, all us nutters lumped in together. I know the government have made noises about these old hospitals not being fit for purpose but, the truth is there’s no money, no beds and more people losing their marbles every day.
So how did I lose mine? Nothing as dramatic as Maxine’s story I’m embarrassed to confess. It was just a sort of relentless slide into the abyss. Then one day everything quickened up until the descent took my breath away. I’d been doing normal for 30 years before the trap door sprang open and these days no amount of trying will keep the damn thing shut. All the stuff that had been locked away came flooding out and now there’s no room left. My head is full and yet more stuff keeps on coming.
They’ll patch me up and send me home, like they do with all of us. We’re like pin balls though and we all bounce back here before too long. Most times it’s via Accident and Emergency after a suicide attempt. It feels like coming home for awhile; Nurse Brenda, she’s always here to greet us with her pill dispenser and calm, accepting face. Then they convince us we’re doing better and off we go. Round and round and round.