Daniel in the Lions’ Den

Jan 27 2015

It takes you a day just to recover from emergency and intake, because you’re reminded that you’re basically still in the dark ages of psychiatric medicine every time they strip you down to your boxers and a hospital gown, put a printed plastic bracelet on your arm with your name and a bar code on it like you’re a damaged canister of mixed nuts that’s just missing a label and 2 filberts in the grocery story nobody wants to shop at—but we can still sell those nuts, man—put you in a room with 4 beige walls to perfectly complement the beige ceiling and the wavy-patterned linoleum beige floor tiles, with a camera over the television from 1987 that they never acknowledge is obviously a fucking camera, when you learned DOS before you had pubes, and you just opted in the lobby not to sign the release to share the video with other institutions, and then they tell you to try to get some sleep but leave floodlights on in the room through the whole night—but at least you brought a fucking soft-cover book this time!

Then they send the crisis counselor in, and he tries to get you to put down the book. Years ago, I brought a copy of Bohm’s Quantum Theory in with me, having clutched at it like a snot-covered security blanket in a moment of life-changing insight, making myself as inseparable from it as a sensitive child going through problems at home. Years later, I brought a quantum field theory text in, and the crisis counselor—the very same counselor from so many years ago—warned me that, “You should give up that stuff, man. You’ll fry your brain trying to understand it.” Man, I hate to tell you, but I’ve been over that mountain, got a degree, passed a graduate level course in the subject, coded a simulation with applied semi-classical gravity fields, and got three T-shirts, but all I brought you back is this freaking exasperated tone.

When he gives up, and when you’re too exhausted to read, you might as well start talking to yourself freely, because it’s the best conversation you’re gonna have for a week or two. Pretend the whole ward knows exactly what you’re talking about—fuck it, the whole hospital! Pretend the gods themselves are throwing you a “welcome back” party right then—or “good riddance,” as the case may be. You’re not going anywhere for half a month, because you just got there, and it’s safe to assume you’re there for an excellent reason, whether you talk to yourself or not—so indulge. Tap dance with the fucking stars, you gorgeous, unfathomable beast.

The doctor comes in when you’re finally approaching the point of falling asleep despite the lights and removal of all things familiar and “you.” People ask why I have these tattoos on my wrists, and I tell them they mark the completion of two epochs in my life—which they do—but I don’t tell them they’re there to remind me who I really am in the emergency psych ward. The doctor comes in, her face blank, her manner hurried, and she barks half a dozen questions at you. She has to ask you three times about your level of education because, you don’t stutter, but the answer disagrees with her assumptions. She walks out of there as soon as her liability is minimized. You can finally sleep, then, because you’re just relieved that you know exactly what the next few weeks ahead of you have in store—after the first time, at least.

So it always takes me a day to recover, after they wake me up for the ambulance to the in-patient facility, and wrap me up on the gurney like a babe in swaddling clothes, and wheel me down to Limbo.

My parents dropped off some clothes and toiletries, but I dreaded talking with them. I changed into something comfortable to sleep in, trying to feel appreciative for that, at least, when I knew a lot of folks in the ward wouldn’t even have a second pair of underwear.

I laid down on the worn mattress, and I just listened to the voices in the center room that all the bedrooms adjoined, for a little. You overhear conversations in the ward to which you tend to feel like a familiar party even when you don’t know anyone, snippets about getting high, patients coming and going, and admonitions to demons for manipulating innocent Christians’ thoughts. I don’t even want to tell you what the demons say back.

As I started to drift away from what I’ll call “normal waking consciousness,” I heard the only “voice” I was currently on speaking terms with.

“Awe you fawwing asweep?” asked my “fwiend.”

“Trying to,” I said aloud.

“You usuawwy don’t wike to tawk to me awoud, though,” she said.

“There’s no reason to keep it quiet, tonight,” I said.

“Want me to wead you a bedtime stowy?” she asked.

“Bastet, please cut the fake speech impediment,” I said, rolling over.

“Why?” she asked.

“‘Cause you’re five thousand years too old for a lisp,” I said.

“Nuh-uh,” said Bastet, “fiwst, I’m going to teww you a stowy—and technicawwy it’s a wotacism, not a wisp.”

“…A what?” I asked.

“…A wotacism!” Said Bastet.

“…A ‘lotacism’?” I guessed. “…A ‘rotacism’?”

“Forget it,” said Bastet. “Just listen as you fall asleep.”

I pulled the covers close and shut my eyes.

Bastet tickled the back of my neck. “There once was a boy—or man-boy, really—who wanted to grow up to save the world, like so many near-virgins who play too many video games and watch dirty Japanese cartoons.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “He wanted to save the world, because he knew that exponential population growth, unchecked carbon emissions, reliance on non-renewable energy sources, and a condition of mutual assured nuclear destruction could not be maintained indefinitely.”

“You’re not making it easy to sleep,” I said.

“He knew that the chosen path of a majority of human beings was unsustainable,” she said, “’…But if I master the power of magic,’ he thought, ‘then maybe being able to shoot five magic missiles in a single cast will somehow help me reverse global warming!”

“I hate you,” I said, even though I was laughing.

“He read medieval and modern grimoires,” she said, “and started hanging out with a bunch of dodgy characters, like demons, and people who called themselves ‘mages’, and he drank a bunch of cough syrup whenever he needed to refill his mana meter.”

“What magical effect did the pot have?” I asked.

“…Made you impotent,” said Bastet, “and he had sex with a bunch of hookers and killed them to get his money back before driving around the city in a stolen car while being chased by the national guard. No, that didn’t happen, but he did meet a hooker, in my estimation, and she wasn’t very nice, but he convinced himself he loved her, for no clear reason given her lack of redeeming qualities that I can see, and he hallucinated psychic conversations with her about various depraved topics for a few months until even he got sick of her. He drank a lot, and wanked a bunched of angry wanks to try to get her out of his system, which never worked, and somehow the gods of various religions got pulled into this debacle of an unhealthy, one-sided relationship between her and him, because they expected him to either start a revolution out of sheer sexual frustration or possibly try to do something drastic, like ruin their Sunday brunch—and the girl was supposed to be his soulmate or some crap, they said, even though he doesn’t believe in that, or any of this bullshit I’m describing.”

“I don’t believe in this conversation, even,” I said, “but somehow I feel guilty because you called her a hooker with no redeeming qualities.”

“The girl fucked with his head, and gave him an inferiority complex, and left him a pretty messed-up shell of a boyfriend by the time I got to him,” said my “guardian angel,” “but kinda sexy in a bad-boy way that he’ll never quite recapture.”

“Then, what happened?” I asked.

“The gods were very angry at him,” said Bastet, “and they called him names, and said mean things to him like, ‘Dude, you fucking ruined brunch for everyone forever—way to go,’ and so they had to have a trial for him, and they sentenced him to have his soul split in billions of pieces and distributed to the people of the world to control his every thought and action, because it turned out that he was some sort of dimensional singularity that the gods could exploit as a resource. He maintained that the whole deal was bullshit, and he demonstrated repeatedly to us that we couldn’t control him, and he eventually got bored and went off to get a degree in physics while we pretended to channel the stuff of his soul into evil magic and snort it during wild hate sex with our ‘ex’s that never happened. Oh, and many of the gods and angels and demons and dryads and shit were actually the alter-egos of other people living on planet Earth—where he did not live at the time—whom it seemed like he could speak with psychically.”

“Tell me about all the times your incarnation dressed up in furry costumes and tried to snort my soul,” I said.

“Then the cat god told him to fuck off,” said the cat god.

I felt her aura envelop me like a hug. “…And that’s what Groundhog’s Day is all about, Jimmy Spooner,” she said.

“I remember a fox costume,” I said.

“…And that’s after trillions of dollars may or may not have been invested in trying to make you forget, while keeping you viable as a fuel source and a political diversion. I suppose you win the universe, Dan,” she said.

“What’s my prize?” I asked.

“I think you already know,” she said.

“Medication time!” came a shout from the center room.

They put me be back on my old meds, but the hospital could never risk the temptation to up the dose. It was just easier, I suppose, for everyone but me. It’d help me fall asleep, at least, right then.

I slept til lunch. I woke up, avoided all eye contact, ate soggy under salted green beans for lack of options without animal flesh, secretions, or ova in them, and slept til they woke me up for visitors.

I decided that if it was my parents they woke me up for, I was walking away. To my moderate wonder, though, I scanned the crowded cafeteria to find two of my closest friends from high school. Adam had brought a chess set with him. Jake was fiddling with his phone.

“What are you folks doing here?” I asked.

“What does it look like?” asked Adam. “I thought we’d both be up for a rematch.”

“…And I just like picking up women in mental hospitals,” said Jake.

Adam and I laughed. “That’s my line,” I said.

“Crazier, the better, right?” said Adam, chuckling.

“I find it correlates with the willingness to perpetrate unspeakable acts in bed,” Jake said.

“Until you start getting fifty calls a day from her,” said Adam.

We all started to laugh, but then the two of them looked at each other uncomfortably and stifled.

“Dude,” I said, “the truth is, anyone who’s been at this for a minute has experienced more ‘crazy’ in an afternoon than you will in your entire life, and they don’t want any more. They’ll never call you back.”

That got a hammy laugh from Adam. Jake smiled.

I tilted my head back and sighed. I said, “Man, it’s good to see you folks here instead of my parents.”

“How you feeling, brother?” asked Adam.

“Dude,” I said, “to be honest, I don’t know if I’m wired or exhausted, I can’t have a smoke or a cup of coffee, and an Ancient Egyptian cat deity with a speech impediment keeps cracking jokes about the Apocalypse that nobody but me can hear.”

“I can hear her!” I could swear I heard someone shout at the next table. I was relieved when Adam and Jake turned their heads to look, too.

“I don’t know that person,” I whispered.

Adam cackled. “…But you and she appear to have a friend in common!”

I tried to shake out the willies. Jake was still looking over, jaw hanging slightly.

I looked him straight in his face. “Bro’, that’s your chance!” I said.

Jake kept staring. My friend’s friend, looking older than my mother, with magenta hair, winked at Jake.

Jake slapped the table with both hands. “Dudes,” he said, “I’m done.”

“We gotta play this game first,” said Adam.

“Set it up quick,” I said, “before everybody else’s demons get a chance to know mine.”

We set up the board, and my first new friend in the hospital looked away. Jake tried not to let on that he was looking back that direction. I thought about a particular conversation Jake and I had years ago, under the influence of a moderate amount of marijuana, in which we both verbally came to agree that verbal communication had apparently become unnecessary to convey our minds. I wondered, as I considered my first move, if Jake was more taken aback by our new friend’s cavalier attitude and charm, or her purported familiarity with Bastet.

Adam beat me, of course. I could make excuses, about not being in my right mind, or about being distracted by all the psychic conversations I kept getting pulled into, but he usually beats me.

When they left, I slept til nearly dinner. I awoke to the feeling of someone staring at me who probably wasn’t there.

“What do you want?” I asked no one in particular.

“I want you to give up this suicide mission and just try to get some quality out of life, finally. You’re not doing anyone any favors,” said the One God of Too Many Religions, “especially yourself.”

“You say that like I really have other options,” I talked back to “God.”

“You do!” he shouted. “The problems you’re convinced you’re going to fix are too big for you! You’re only going against the democratic will of the people, anyway! You don’t own the world.”

“Of course, because you own it,” I said. “You’re gonna suck every last drop of oil out of the Earth, to keep your constituencies happy, and when you’ve built your own private Idaho of a ‘paradise,’ you’re gonna set the people who believe in you to kill each other over who gets to join you in it, and you’ll ultimately eugenically hand-pick your final kingdom.”

How do you figure?!” he demanded.

“I don’t trust any belief system that holds that there’s an ultimate expiration date on Earth,” I said. “Wasn’t that what we were fighting about, when you put me in here?”

“You were fighting with your parents about things they don’t have the slightest idea about—and you don’t, either,” he huffed. “They—we don’t deserve this.”

“Of course I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m just a backwater yokel to the folks on your plane. You, on the other hand, are a powerful charismatic dictator who likes to tell people how they’re allowed to screw.”

“You know that’s not my will,” said ‘Al.’ “I can’t micromanage every action undertaken in my name—it’d defeat the purpose.”

“Your will is whatever appeals to the person to whom you’re speaking,” I said. “It’s kind of amazing how you can maintain so many dogmas at odds with each other and still convince their adherents that theirs is the only true one, without drawing scrutiny to your faithfulness. You’re just a wheedling politician, ultimately, and you’ll act like it’s righteous when you get to pick which of your rich friends and obedient token sheep get to board the new ark.”

“There could very readily be a place in Heaven for everyone, including you, if you just do what you know in your heart is right,” he said.

Get bent!” I shouted.

“Just go to dinner,” he said.

I did as I was commanded, but it won’t make any difference when the Rapture comes. They were opening up the doors to the cafeteria when I left my room, and I got in line for food with the rest of the damned.

The person behind me was singing spirituals. Ahead of me was the magenta-haired woman with whom I apparently shared a delusion.

“Michael, row the boat ashore. Halle-luuu-jah…” said the one behind me.

“She hasn’t stopped singing that for three fucking days,” said someone farther up in line.

“You should sing with me,” said the woman behind me. “Jesus is the only way anyone’s getting out of this place, you’d best realize. His Second Coming is upon us!”

“Lady, if Jesus were alive today, he’d end up in Greystone, and you’d never hear about it,” said the person farther up.

My friend’s magenta-haired friend and I chuckled.

“Even if he was in the hospital, He’d save us, praise Him!” said Our Lady of Tactless Piety.

She tilted her head back and raised her arms. “Jesus, I know You can hear me!” she cried. “Deliver me from the wicked and set my soul free, Jesus! Michael, row the boat ashore…”

“I’ll set her soul free,” grumbled the person up ahead.

The one behind me started clapping. “Halle-luuu-jah…”

The face of the one ahead suddenly darkened, and his fists clenched. He started to stomp back to the singer, but the woman ahead of me with the magenta hair got in front of him, to my relief.

“Hey, we all need a crutch,” she said to him. “You’re next in line, anyway.” She pointed to the space in front of the food cart that had opened up.

He bit his lip and turned around to walk up.

The rest of us at the tail end of the line filtered into the cafeteria and got our food. Someone must have told them I was vegan, because they had an option for me this time, with salad and chickpeas. When I got my meal, I looked around for a seat, and I noticed the magenta-haired woman was sitting alone.

I walked up to her table and said, “That was very cool of you a minute ago, to step in-between those two. Do you mind if I sit with you?”

She looked up at me and said, “It wasn’t anything. Sure, pull up a chair!”

I flipped the nearest unoccupied chair around to her table.

As I sat down, I was surprised to notice a commonality in our food. “Are you vegan, too?” I asked.

She looked at me with solemn, analytical eyes. “It’s a family tradition. My mother was a Hindu priestess, and my father was an Algonquin shaman.”

I tried to express my respect in my face. I said, “Oh… That’s very…”

Her gaze turned impish and light. “I’m messing with ya,” she said. “I don’t even know who my parents are. I noticed the last time I was in here that you folks get better food—something fresh.” She chuckled.

I had to laugh. “Hey, I can’t deny that fresh veggies are better than the dry eggs and oily meat,” I said.

I put down my fork and offered a hand. “I’m Daniel,” I said.

She looked at my hand, then put down her utensil to accept it. “Tara,” she said. “Pleasure.”

We picked our forks back up and each took another mouthful of salad.

“That’s a heavy biblical name,” she said. “No wonder you’re in here.”

I sighed. “Yeah, maybe it helped give me a god complex or two,” I said.

She smiled. “You’re in the lions’ den, Daniel. I’ll bet you told a king something he didn’t wanna hear.”

“It’s kinda funny,” I replied, “but I tend to think that’s the real reason most of us are in here.”

“I know exactly what you mean, brother!” she said.

We both busied ourselves with eating. I was curious about before, with what she’d said during visiting hours, but it’s the sort of thing you learn not to ask about after a couple of stays in the “bin.” With a question like that, there’s the chance of disappointment with the answer, but it’s sometimes worse when you get the answer you thought you wanted to hear.

I returned to my room and conked out for the night. I missed the evening “leisure” therapy activity (karaoke or the like) and the after-dinner snack—gosh, golly.

When I woke, I’m not sure if Bastet was waiting to talk with me or if I had reached a blind, sluggish astral feeler in her direction, like a hand searching for an alarm clock, or a prayer for coffee.

“…No coffee or cigarettes for at least a week, Dan,” she said.

I kicked at the covers and put my pillow over my head.

“Find me a connection,” I said.

“I don’t hang out with dealers,” said Bastet.

“What good is a familiar if she isn’t familiar with the local apothecaries?” I asked.

“Excuse me!” she said. “Don’t talk to me like I’m your servant! I have entire armies at my disposal!”

“Ohmagawd!” I said, “…thousands of Legion!”

“My territory holdings on the astral are among the richest in this world!” she insisted.

“…Vast, fertile tracts of land!” I mused.

She can’t exactly kick me, but she can “zap” me in such a way as to elicit a pretty violent twitch when she feels like it, it seems.

“Where’s a goetic demon when you need a dealer?” I wondered.

“…Often closer than you think,” said a third voice.

I flinched. “Is he with you?” I asked Bastet.

“What would you give me for a smoke and a cup of Joe, Dan?” asked the third.

“Well, he hasn’t got a soul or anything like that,” said Bastet.

“Yeah, she snorted the last of it during hate sex with her ‘ex,’” I said. I twitched violently.

“I’m not interested in a soul or anything like that,” said the third.

“Who is this guy?” I asked Bastet again.

“Um, maybe he’s not such a nice dude, I’m thinking,” said Bastet.

“Is he someone to worry about?” I wondered.

“Um… Maybe a little, yes,” she said.

“You’re worried about him?” I asked.

“…Yes,” said the commander of thousands of Legion.

It got uncomfortably quiet in my head, for a minute.

“Don’t worry about me,” I assured Bastet. ‘I don’t have a soul to sell, anyway.’

“He said he isn’t after a soul,” said Bastet.

“I’m a fan,” said the interloper. “I just want to see you keep doing what you’re doing.”

I laid in bed for another couple of minutes, unsettled by the lack of sophomoric name-calling in my head for a change, and then a nurse came in to take morning vitals. Breakfast would be in about fifteen minutes, she told me. I stared quietly at the ceiling, trying to ignore screaming in the hall.

They summoned us, and we shambled into line for breakfast, stoned into ox-like amiability by the meds. A couple of people threatened to sue to no one in particular. Nobody wants to be here. None of the patients think it helps. All you can do is eat mindlessly.

I sat down with my purportedly vegan pancakes and melon and grieved the absence of smoke and bitterness. Tara came over and sat down without a word or eye contact.

We each took a couple of bites of breakfast. Finally, she looked up.

“Something dark is following you today, Daniel,” she said. “Keep yourself pure. Don’t descend into hate.”

“I suppose that’s good advice, in general,” I said. “I think it’s just the lack of coffee that makes me look like I want to kill someone, though.”

Ha!” she said. “So that’s it.”

We each took another bite of our short stacks.

“What are you in for?” she asked me.

I barely heard the question, as my nerves suddenly reported contortion and dismemberment besides all evidence to the contrary. My eyes bulged, but I tried to hold it together. I put my face in my hands.

“My parents told the cops I threatened them, which isn’t true,” I said.

I needed to move, but I only allowed myself to wiggle my toes.

“They think anything is justified in having me hospitalized when they decide I’m unwell,” I added.

Tara gave me a worried look. “Are you okay?”

“No, honestly,” I said as I bounced my heels, out of instinct. “It feels like I have to move and all my body parts are mapped on wrong.”

“That’s the meds,” she said. “‘Akathisia,’ I think they call it.”

“Not sure,” I said, fidgeting into a dozen different postures to try to find the least bizarre-feeling. “They just upped my dose, but I thought it happened when you start a new med.”

“What does it feel like?” she asked.

“…Velvet friction-burn and intense guilt,” I said, “and like my torso is inside-out—I don’t know.”

“Maybe it’s the war-machine sucking the last drops of your soul out,” said an unfamiliar voice I thought I’d left back in my room.

Tara said, “They might give you something for that.”

“I don’t think I want any more meds at the moment,” I said, squirming. “Sometimes, they’re worse than the illness.”

Tara sighed. “I wish I could shoulder some of the weight of your cross, Daniel,” she said.

We both took another mouthful of breakfast, as I swiveled my feet on their balls.

“You’re right, though,” she added.

I managed to hide the side-effects from the staff at breakfast. I skipped morning therapy again to study my quantum field theory text. I knew my parents would come to visit today, and the last thing I needed before that was therapy.

By lunch, the akathisia—or whatever it was—had become severe. I sat with Tara again, and I think we were both happy as middle schoolers to not have to sit alone in the cafeteria, but I wasn’t much for conversation.

“This kind of stoning is really so much more humane than what they did in the Bible, isn’t it, Dan?” said a voice coming from a dark and squalid place. “Too bad you have the wrong delusion. You could convert, you know.”

“Michael, row the boat ashore…” proclaimed the poor woman with too much of the right delusion.

“Faith is wasted on the faithful,” muttered Tara.

We both chuckled as I bounced and swiveled on the balls of my feet.

There was little I could do to either concentrate or relax between lunch and visiting hours. As I tossed on my dilapidated mattress, I almost wished I honestly believed in a benevolent “higher-power,” but not to the point of rejecting the balance of evidence.

“Do you love your parents?” asked Bastet.

“I’ll never stop loving them,” I said. “I wish they’d understand why I think certain expressions of their protectiveness are toxic and part of their neuroses, though.”

“How do you maintain this wall between thinking of them as your human, forgivably ignorant parents,” asked the least welcome of “voices,” “and the falsely deified tyrants of a five thousand year dynasty?”

“…Usually with off-label psychotropics, believe it or not,” I said.

“Oh, I believe it,” said the “Dark Lord,” himself.

There was a knock at my door. “You have visitors, Daniel,” said a voice on the other side.

It felt like I tumbled down the hall, the vector of gravity’s pull flailing every which direction, but averaging to deliver me to that single point of infinite density that might as well have contained all of space and all of matter. My parents were discernibly exhausted. I was exhausted. I looked down at the table, guilty, but I wasn’t sure that I’d even done anything wrong. None of us deserved this, but here we were—again.

“Tell them exactly what you think of them lying to have you put here, Daniel,” said nobody.

“Daniel, even if Bastet is actually talking to you right this moment, she gets you by now,” said Bastet.

I looked at my parents. They looked back at me. We all knew the gory details. We all knew each other’s justifications, the shape of the argument, and the weight of a soul.

“I love you,” I said, choking up.

“We love you, too,” said my mother.

“We love you too, Dan,” said my father, crying.

The rest of my visit to the hospital is a blur. There was “therapy” and proselytizing by Christian nurses that made me happy I occasionally talked with “Satan.” My parents brought competitive word games for visiting hours, and it didn’t matter who won. Side-effects got worse; side-effects got better. I blew off half the activities to study the soft-cover textbooks my parents brought me, but I never missed arts-and-crafts. There’s only one other episode from those weeks that I remember with any particular clarity or emphasis.

It was the day I finally left. My folks and I had a meeting with a doctor and a social worker, and I was one of the lucky ones who had a family to come home to after the hospital, who wanted him. They’d packed my clothes up in a garbage bag, and gave me a shot in the arm in case I got any ideas, and I carried my soft cover texts out to the doors you only pass through once. My parents were waiting for me on the other side, and I was walking down the hall with a nurse.

“Daniel!” I heard Tara shout from down the hall.

I turned back.

“They care about you,” called Tara. “It’s hard for them, too.”

I nodded, and I waved to her. “You take care of yourself, Tara!” I called back.

“Daniel!” she shouted. We locked eyes across the distance.

She pointed a finger to the sky. “Her, too,” she said. She drew the finger to her temple, like a gun.

Without another word, the daughter of a Hindu priest and an Algonquin shaman turned down the hall and walked back into the lions’ den. I followed her the long way around.

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