Iwonna and the Ghost of J. D. Salinger

Nov 24 2014

Here I was, again, in a bare room, empty except for a worn-out bed.

“You’re getting what’s coming to you,” said a voice that I knew wasn’t in the room.

“It’s your fault he’s in here,” said another to the first.

I waited, and breathed. Eventually, the door opened. A man in a tweed blazer and matching pants came in with a chair and a pad and pen, and sat down towards the left side of the bed.

He glanced over and said, “Your parents brought you in because they said you were talking to someone who wasn’t there again, Daniel.”

I didn’t want to be dissected for this all over. “What time is it?” I asked him.

He clicked his pen and readied his pad. “How long have you heard this voice for?”

His question rolled past me without ever really drawing the balance of my attention. By now, I knew that answering a question like that amounted to a distraction. I needed to concentrate; how could I leave that room without being forced back?

The only other person in the room looked at his watch. He jotted something on his pad and asked me, “Is the voice speaking to you right now?”

I drew my bare legs up under me and smoothed the front of my gown over them, tucking the excess beneath my knees and sitting on it like hospital corners. The worn foam mattress made a sound like crunching snow when I redistributed my load.

It made me start. “What’s the weather like outside?” I asked. The room didn’t have a window.

My interrogator didn’t react. The expression frozen on his face was newly familiar to me, since a few weeks ago. Against my better reason, I’d hoped that the interview wasn’t one-way.  My heart sunk a little deeper in its foxhole.

He asked, “What does the voice tell you?”

I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples with the fingers of my left hand. If I completely ignored him, this was going to get worse.

Without opening my eyes, I said, “Look, you don’t get it. It’s not like I confuse what you call ‘the voice’ with a person physically in the room with me who’s speaking. I don’t want to talk about it, though, because you and everyone who comes into this room to talk with me treats me like I’m too naïve and addled to pick up on the pathology you’re driving towards when you call what I hear ‘the voice.’ You probably figure ‘the voice’ wakes me up at night to tell me to burn down churches, or something ridiculous like that.”

I looked up as I heard my keeper fidget to attention. He clicked his pen and quickly readied it on the surface of his pad. “Does it tell you to burn down churches?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I said, “but I can tell you expect something like that. It’s not like I think the voice of God is speaking through my dog. I know it’s in my head, and I can distinguish it completely from someone physically speaking to me, like you.”

The doctor spoke slowly and gently, “Are you always sure it’s not physically in the room with you? Other people have heard you speak with it aloud.”

“It’s in my head,” I told him. “It can ‘hear’ me whether I think at it or speak. Sometimes, when I get frustrated, it’s just more satisfying to shout back aloud.”

I could see the pad shake. The back tip of his pen waved at me furiously and chaotically over the edge of the up-tilted cardboard backing.

He looked up. “You say you shout back. Does it shout at you sometimes?”

I sighed. “I know you’re gonna get the wrong impression. It’s really more like I’m shouting with it. We’re shouting back at the world, like it’s some kind of romantic catharsis and at least God’s going to hear us–which is obviously kind of ludicrous. I’m a cheeseball like that, though, and my friend gets a kick out of it, too. Once, we were smoking out in the backyard, and he asked me to howl at the moon for him. I swear I had every dog in the neighborhood howling with me. It’s the kind of thing I’d never try if I didn’t listen to him.”

My evaluator seemed excited as he scribbled something else I couldn’t see, and dotted it audibly, with a flourish of the pen. I chuckled under my breath at how ridiculous the note probably was: “Patient appears to think he talks to animals and is made of cheese.”

He looked up impatiently when he heard me laugh. “What’s funny?”

Crap. “Oh, nothing. Really,” I said.

I could see the flashbulb pop in the attic of his mind. “Was the voice talking to you just now?”

“No, I just thought of something funny about my situation,” I replied. ‘You’re convinced I thought I was talking to aliens, though,’ I added in my head.

“What was it?” he prodded.

“That what you’re doing really wouldn’t help me even if I was psychotic,” I said.

He put the pad down in his lap and brought the tips of his fingers together in front of his face. “Dan, I think you were talking to the voice.”

It actually would have been laughable how wrong he was if this guy didn’t have the authority to force me to take antipsychotics via injection. “Really? I wasn’t.”

He had a look on his face like this was supposed to be some kind of debate he was winning. “Dan, you’ve said that you’re God. Tell me what you mean.”

“I’m basically a pantheist; I think everyone’s God. I think we all participate in the same irreducible physical system, more-or-less.”

He scratched his beard. “What do you mean by a ‘reducible physical system?’”

I might as well have told him I thought he was the direct reincarnation of Louis XIV. “An irreducible physical description of a system cannot be broken into complete descriptions of smaller subsystems. In other words, there’s no way to fully understand me without a full description of my environment. What I mean is that you more-or-less have to understand a universe to totally understand any single person in it.”

My interlocutor looked unimpressed. “I’m not sure I understand. What does that have to do with you being God? Do you understand the entire universe?”

I looked down at the dusty beige tile floor, for a change from looking at the dusty beige walls. “No, I’m nowhere near understanding the universe. But if you ask what I believe in, I’ll tell you I believe in the universe as a singular whole. I might as well call it the Tao, or talk about it like it’s a deity, because that’s somehow the closest parallel in most people’s minds to what I believe in. Somehow, I end up in the emergency psych ward, though.”

The doctor’s expression softened, a bit. “But you practice magic,” he said. “Why would you practice magic if you don’t believe in a deity?”

“I dunno, if I’m wrong and there is a deity, maybe I’ll be able to shoot fireballs from my hand at some point, and then I guess I’d know, wouldn’t I? The word ‘magic’ is a convenient handle on what I don’t fully understand, and its practice is a test of what I think I do understand. Poetic expression lets me style myself as God, or Buddha, or the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, because I think of myself as an essential part of the same universe as them–just like I think you or anybody is, too. Everyone shares a common greater identity.”

“Do you think you might be grandiose?” he asked.

“I think this dude’s grandiose,” said a voice that I knew wasn’t in the room. I froze. Something in me whispered, “We’re never going to make sense to most people. It’s tragic, but people will turn pathology on someone who stands in clear opposition to their own particular set of cultural delusions. As far as he’s concerned, Dan, you’re sick.”

The doctor saw me flinch. “Was that the voice?”

“But the doctor’s right!” shouted another voice only I could hear. “You really are a lunatic—that’s obvious. I don’t trust you when you’re free to walk around my neighborhood. You’re a drunk, and a bad influence, and a cultist. Plus you’re just a loser, ya derp. You’re never getting out of this with your head intact. Go back to school, derp.”

I clenched. “Fuck you…” I muttered.

“Who are you talking to?” the doctor asked.

“A self-standing personification I’ve created of everything I hate in the world!” I barked.

The psychiatrist flinched. “I don’t understand what that means,” he said.

“Then you might as well call her a demon! Same friggin’ difference, in some vaguely pseudo-Jungian sense.”

His eyes bulged. “A demon? But it’s a ‘she,’ then? I still don’t know what you mean. Tell me more about her.”

“She’s a social-climbing busy-body who thinks she’s matured wonderfully since her high school and college drinking days and now aspires to the apex of the middle.”

“You think you’re so damn witty, ya derp,” she quipped back.

The doctor squinted at me. “But she’s a demon?”

I shrugged. “Sure. There’s college in hell.”

“Does she have a name?” he asked.

“Iwonna,” I said.

“Iwonna?” he repeated.

I nodded. “As in ‘I wonna pony.’”

“I’ll have your head,” she whispered. Somehow, I identified the twitch-inducing shock I felt at the base of my spine as her doing.

The doctor started taking notes again as he spoke. “You talked about your friend before—the one who asked you to howl at the moon. Is this her?”

“No,” I told him. “I mean, these are all me. They’re parts of my head. But the ‘friend’ I mentioned is another self-standing ‘voice’ I’ve known all my life. He stands up to what Iwonna represents in my head.”

The furrow in the doctor’s brow gradually deepened. “Is he a demon, too?”

“I told you he wouldn’t get us,” came the voice of my unseen friend.

I groaned. “Call him the ghost of J. D. Salinger,” I said.

“Is he dead, then?” asked the psychiatrist.

“Are you dead?” I thought at the voice.

“I think so,” the voice replied.

“He says he thinks so,” I told the psychiatrist.

He stopped writing and put the pen down for a second. Then he picked it back up and opened his mouth, and closed it. He looked up at the beige ceiling and chewed on the end of the implement for a moment, squinting. Then he put it back to the pad’s surface and said, “Tell me everything you can about the late Mr. Salinger.”

“Still doesn’t get it,” said my friendlier daemon.

I felt my muscles twitch under the weight of imaginary shackles. My breathing came shallow and rapid. I wanted to cry, and I ranted at him, ‘manic’ and ‘paranoid’: “He doesn’t pretend to understand the world, but he knows that the obvious path through life is the wrong one! We’ve watched so many people get caught up in this unending loop of just doing what’s expected until they have extra time to analyze whether or not what they’re doing is what they actually want or need to do! They figure ‘I’ll just get my degree while I think about what I really want to do,’ and they pour themselves into school, and then they figure ‘I’ll get my next degree while I’m thinking about it,’ and they end up doing homework all week until they’re too fried to do anything but drink on the weekends until they graduate, and then it’s the next house, and then it’s the next car, and then it’s the next gadget, and then it’s the next spouse, and before they know it, they’ve lived the entirety of their lives as prescribed by the previous generation, supporting an old way of living they never really took the time to question, when they had to claim the opportunity to reject it all along, because that’s the point of the paper-chase—that’s why it was set up for them that way! They were supposed to feel bad about being happy without the ‘iPhoney’ and the BMW and the respect of a majority of shallow people! They were supposed to feel bad about setting their own standards!”

“Calm down, Dan,” said the late Mr. Salinger.

“Dan, I think you’re being somewhat grandiose,” said the doctor. “This doesn’t have anything to do with why you were hospitalized last month, or why you’re in the emergency ward again today. Your parents, in particular, are very worried about you. Your friends are very worried about you. I’m worried about you. You seem to have a degree of insight, but you need to address why you’re coping this way, why you’ve personified these feelings so strongly as to talk to ‘the voices’ in public.”

“He half gets it,” said my friend.

I drew my arms into my abdomen and clenched. “I don’t know how to communicate with her—with Iwonna. She doesn’t really want to communicate, I guess. I don’t think it really matters how I try to talk with her.”

The doctor bit the end of the pen again. “So what I think you mean is that you feel like people don’t listen to you. It seems you think people like ‘Iwonna’ look down on you for rejecting opportunity, when your intent is to help them and yourself, irregardless of whether it’s effective, or even necessary, or whether this blanket assessment of your peers has any real basis.”

I twitched. “I don’t even know,” I said. “I just wish my friends and family didn’t look at me like I was crazy, when I talk about how I feel, and try to do what I think is right.”

He carefully and deliberately put the pen and pad to the side on the floor and threaded his fingers in front of his face. He stared at them for a moment. He sighed and closed his eyes.

They opened with a jolt. “Dan, your parents were naturally worried by your decision to drop out of school—and because you started talking to people who weren’t there—but I think you manifest these particular ‘voices’ because they were at least willing, or even compelled, to listen to you, even though you never expected your peers or ‘Iwonna’ to ever listen to what you had to say.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re right, Doc’,” I said, “nobody gives a crap. Nobody gets it, or cares to.”

He nodded and squinted. “Mhm. Believe it or not, Dan, I see a lot of unhappy teenagers and young adults come through this hospital, not unlike you, clutching ragged copies of Salinger. Whether voluntary or involuntary, coping this way means that someone will listen and react in awareness when you try to dissect your world, whereas maybe your peers really are more concerned with homework, drinking, and their cell phones. Why shouldn’t they be? Frankly, your friends and family probably won’t ever care in the way you want, about your spirituality and your dysfunction, and no one wants to be alone in their innermost self, in the parts of me most important to me,” he said, poking his left breast with his thumb. “If there is a payoff, here, maybe this arrangement takes a vague and expansive set of uncomfortable feelings and ideas and turns them into an obvious and explicit conflict, which is ultimately easier for you to understand and cope with.”

“He gets it!” shouted the ghost.

“Fucking quack,” said the demon.

The doctor asked, “Have you been taking the medication you were prescribed since your last hospitalization?”

“I have,” I told him in truth. “My parents make me swallow it in front of them,” I said, adding my head, ‘and if being compelled to take drugs to change the way I think isn’t literal “mind control,” I don’t know what is.’

“So they told me,” said the doctor. “Dan, for all the advances mental health has made in decades, the truth is that there’s relatively little we can do for you besides titrating you and keeping you on an antipsychotic, and providing you with a therapist to talk with. The primary function of a hospital admission is to titrate you under close supervision. The secondary function is basically protective. I’ve explained this to your parents. They gave me the details you aren’t telling me, and it sounds like the symptoms are actually gradually responding.” He looked over his glasses at me. “In a week, we’ll reassess that. They tell me you haven’t missed a dose, though. They tell me they want to support you in any way they can. They told me in great detail how your behavior has changed since titration, but they don’t understand why the ‘voices’ haven’t gone way. I’m not sure that your parents appreciate the breadth and severity of your diagnosis, yet, and its full implications. Thank God for small favors, Dan, your parents love you, and I think you can understand it, when I say all this to you.”

He took a cloth out of his pocket to wipe his glasses, and sighed. “They certainly love you, Dan. They’re new to this, and they want to flip a switch back and return you to how you were before you presented what could very likely turn out to be a–God-willing, manageable–lifelong chronic disease. I’m explaining this rather bluntly, when you were brought here in a suspected state of psychosis, but I think you’re an unusually intelligent person capable of benefiting from some frankness, right now. Am I scaring you?”

I shook off a death sentence. “This is the least scary thing anyone has said to me in a month,” I said. “Does modern medicine honestly believe that the way to treat mental illness is to strip a person of all reminders of his identity, isolate in him in cold light, condescend to him, and force psychotropic substances down his throat? Why in God’s name is this the first time someone has put it to me this way?!”

He groaned. “…Because speaking reason to psychosis usually doesn’t work, Dan. Not this quickly, at least. And most people in psychotic episodes couldn’t be videotaped attempting to study differential equations out of a soft cover textbook in the involuntary ward. …Small favors, Dan.”

“You should provide the soft cover texts in the emergency room, rather than leaving me to grab hold of one for dear life on the way in, and you should see what happens!” I gave him my expert opinion. “Wait–the pen is too dangerous, of course.”

“I also suggest maintaining weekly therapy sessions. I hear you are trying to take steps to establish financial independence from your parents, as you can. Many people in your situation, here, have no choice but to do so as quickly as possible. Hopefully, you’ll be able to, in time,” he added. “Your parents will likely continue to think it’s the illness’ fault so long as you don’t want a Porsche.”

I laughed. “My dad offered me a Camaro to—“

“He told me. You’d rather ride a bicycle and howl at the moon.”

I shook my head. My parents really aren’t that way.

“You’re right—they’re not,” said Iwonna.

“Yes, they are,” said the late Mr. Salinger.

“The one hope the child has of surviving the birth of his identity is committing the most unforgivable crime of matricide,” added Carl Jung, “lest the mother force him immediately back into the womb.”

I winced. “Doctor, that all makes perfect sense, but what about all the other voices that sound like dead historical figures and my ex-girlfriends?”

His eyes turned to saucers.

I disowned the comment with little shakes of my hands. “I’m joking. I’m sorry, I forgot that people sometimes can’t distinguish irony and abstraction from a disease.”

Now, he winced. “Stop reading Freud. You’re going to take the medication in front of your parents every night for the next week, at least. Any breach, and you’re going to have to go into the hospital. If you comply, we reassess at the end of the week.”

I fell back relieved against the fourth beige wall. “Doctor, can I ask you one more question?”

“What’s that?” he asked.

Feeling a little sheepish, I asked, “Do you think I have a point about the world?”

He seemed to reflect carefully. There was a moment of awkward tension. Then he said, “I’ll get the paperwork started on your release.” He got up from his chair, picked his pad and pen back up, and then walked to the door and opened it.

Standing in the doorway, he turned and said to me, “Mr. Strano, do you know how many people I see come into this hospital every week claiming to be either Holden Caulfield or Jesus?”

“How many?” I asked him.

“About seven. Can you guess how many of them attempt to hurt themselves or someone else?”

“How many?” I asked again.

“About as many as students in amphetamine induced psychosis,” he said. “Goodnight, Daniel. Maybe you’re somewhat better off thinking everyone’s Jesus.”

Iwonna sent another jolt up my spine. I flinched. “Goodnight, doctor,” I said after a moment. “Thank you,” I added, as he closed the door.

I took a deep breath in, down into the pit in my stomach, then let it slowly out. I was alone, again, in a room with four beige walls.

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