Taking Control of the Chemistry

  • To take a break from the reflective entries I post here, I'll give you a fairly typical hospital scene taken from my memoir, Left of the Dial. I was only on the ward for three weeks, but I knew the taint of having an illness would be there when I got out. I suspected the other patients revolved in and out their whole lives, and I didn't want that to be my fate.




    On Friday, the staff order in pizzas for the patients, and I eat four slices. On the weekend, we're left alone. Everything closes up like a resort town in winter. The doctors and therapists go home to their real lives. I spend the time reading Elle and Vogue.

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    The medication is sinking in, bringing me closer to reality. In this hideaway, I'm alone with my thoughts. They encroach when there's nothing to do. I remember my life before. Only one week prior to being admitted, I'd gone with Carni and Willy to see Naked Raygun perform live at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey. Over the summer we'd gone to see a three-hour Looney Tunes cartoon festival at Cinema Village. My laughter was like a drug, if only the happiness had lasted.


    If I make it until Monday at 7 a.m., I'll be okay. "Blood pressure checks, medication!" rolls around, and I walk down for the drink. Morning, noon, night I take a swallow of the liquid hope.


    I remember the slow groove of "Cotton Crown," a pretty Sonic Youth tune. Kim and Thurston's voices surfed over the drum and bass: "You're gonna take control of the chemistry/And you're gonna manifest the mystery." I had played that song all the time on my radio show. Will I ever be able to do what the lyrics suggest?


    On this blue Monday, I'm in the TV room with the patients. We sit in the kind of last-thread, green chairs you see in funeral homes. An old, dough-belly woman with salt-and-pepper hair, wrinkles and dark eyes the color of nothing, rubs her pudgy arms.


    "It's cold in here. Like a morgue."


    Her words send shivers down my spine.


    "It's cold in here. Don't you think it's like a morgue in this room?"


    I look around at the beaten-down faces. They make pilgrimages from the lounge to the dining hall to their bedrooms, and back again.


    The hospital routine comforts them, because the outside world has expectations of its travelers. The exit sign reminds them of the places they've never been. Everything inside has neat edges: the metal bed frames, the chicken-wire windows, the plastic lunch trays.


    The ward is bleached of color. My life's been stripped of its music. I close my eyes, trying to forget this scene. The voice returns:


    "It's cold in here. We're going to die."


    I'm about to take up my copy of InFashion and retreat to the dining hall when the good doctor in his white coat bumbles about, his hair shiny and straight, like lead penciled in.


    "How are we doing today folks?" He smiles. "Remember to take control. Just take control."


    I think this is an odd suggestion for those of us sitting here.


    The doctor approaches. "How are you today?"


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    "I cannot yet be incongruous to this place," I say.


    That word has fascinated me ever since I read it used in the Siouxsie interview in Spin. The lead singer had told the journalist she "much prefers to be incongruous to a situation."


    In college, I desired to stand out, to make a name for myself. I fancied my life was going to be about the music. I thought I had found myself, now I'm not so sure.


    The doctor quizzes me with his eyebrows, and then lets it go. "Oh, okay."


    When he turns to leave, his white coat swooshes behind him. His hair is somehow shinier and darker than I first imagined it.





    To this day, I remember the image of the woman as if I saw her only five minutes ago. Those places aren't anywhere to be for long periods of time. If you ever have the misfortune of being admitted to a psych ward, I hope you find the right drug quickly and are only there a short time. I muse now on the idea of taking control, because it feels right.


    We may have symptoms, however, how we deal with them determines our fate. I've always believed that it's not the enormity of our challenge or obstacle that determines if we win, but how we respond to it.
Published On: July 31, 2007