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It's better than in the army It's better than in the army
by Alexander Mikhaylov
2008-02-08 09:40:40
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Leningrad, Soviet Union, 1982

* * * *

They brought me to psychiatric clinic around five or six in the evening. It was the middle of February and it was dark and snowy outside. The snow lay in great heaps and its shiny, uneven surface was barely disturbed by footprints. We had arrived in an ambulance van. There were five of us in all: two orderlies, my mother and the driver. The entire ride took us almost an hour. The clinic stood well in outskirts of the city so I had plenty of time to get used to the idea that I was going to be hospitalized in a nut house for only God knew how long.

The van stopped. The orderlies opened the rear door and walked me into an admission building. My mother trailed behind. I was under legal age therefore her presence was required during my hospitalization. The orderlies told us to take seats then one of them approached unmarked white doors, knocked and handed a bungle of papers to a nurse, who opened the door. The nurse scanned the papers and disappeared inside without a single word. I knew that the papers contained a summary of my interview with a shrink. He had talked to me earlier and I had seen him writing something down. The story I spilled to him was pure fiction I concocted earlier. There was nothing wrong with my head, as far as I was concerned. The truth was that I was hoping to dodge the army conscription by pretending psychotic accident. So far, it appeared that I performed my job well. My mother seemed to believe me and so did a shrink.

I looked around. The place did not much differ from an ordinary waiting room in a clinic. It was furnished with wooden benches. Bare walls were painted in dull institutional color. Doors, leading to an inner part of the building lacked handles and the silence around the place was incredible. Mother was sitting next to me. She was clutching at her purse and sighing. We barely exchanged a few words since afternoon.

We sat there for a long time then the entrance door swung open and different pair of orderlies brought in a guy in soldier’s uniform. The guy seemed to be out of it completely. The orderlies dragged him across the room and dropped him on the bench. The soldier leaned against the wall and stared in front of him with glassy, dead eyes. I did not think he saw us or realized where he was, or what was happening. He grunted and dribbled saliva all over the front of his tunic. His lips were indigo blue.

A nurse reappeared and told my mother and me to step into the office. While my mother was given a form to sign, I was told to step into adjoining room full of cloth sacks, piled here and there but mostly on a floor. An elderly nurse told me to take off my clothes and to store them into the empty sack. I hoped they were not going to throw my clothes into incinerator.
‘You will get your things back upon your release,’ – The nurse intoned.

We proceed into the next room, equipped with two bathtubs and a toilet bowl. There weren’t any screens, partition walls or curtains. A nurse approached me and said:
‘Let me see your head, son.’
She ran her fingers though my hair and nodded.
‘No louse, huh?’
‘Your hair is too long. I can cut it short right now. With the hair like this you might get a louse in no time at all.’
‘I’d rather wait till I’ll get them.’
‘Why do you insist on having a hair that long?’
It suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to act mental. I cracked an idiotic smile and said:
‘Jesus Christ wore his hair long too.’
‘No he didn’t.’
‘Yes, he did.’
‘All right. All right. Whatever.’

She handed me a hospital gown, cotton pajama and slippers. The gown smelled of something putrid and it was covered with numerous discolored stains, as it had been sprinkled with chlorine solution. The pajama looked clean but the slippers were horrible, the cheapest oil cloth kind, flattened at both hills and completely worn out. They kept falling off my feet with clacking sounds, like pair of snowshoes.

Finally, I was transferred to yet another nurse who walked me into small hospital van, parked outside. We rode across the hospital compound then drove up to a three-storied building. A teenage ward was on an upper floor.

We approached a metal door. It too lacked door handle and it looked more solid than any other door I had already seen around this place. I stepped closer and heard screams and laughter coming from other side. I licked my lips. The nurse produced a door handle out of her pocket, inserted it into a hole and turned.
‘Come in, guy. Do not be shy.’
I walked in. It did not look like anything I had ever expected. The closest resemblance was of a high school lobby during the break between classes. Guys of all ages were running around and screaming, fighting and horse playing. Once I crossed the threshold, some of them froze and stared at me. Someone yelled:
‘Hey, look, a new one! Who are you, freak?’
‘Musician,’ – I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind.
Everyone roared. The nurse walked me to the nurse station. She unlocked it with her door handle and said:
‘I’m going to give you a set of bed clothes. How old are you, guy?’
‘And you’re a drug user, right?’
‘Not really,’
‘What do you mean – ‘not really’? Are you hippie or what? What’s the deal with your long hair? You wanna catch louse or what?’
‘No, I don’t want to catch louse.’
‘If you do I’ll shave your head clean. Are you a trouble maker?’
‘No. I’m a pacifist.’
‘Oh yeah?’
‘I see. So you are one of them, longhaired dorks with weird ideas about freedom and such, huh?’
I did not reply.
‘Do you have cigarettes on you?’ – She asked.
‘Give them to me. Patients are not allowed to keep cigarettes. You’ll be receiving two fags during a smoke break. Smoke breaks are once in two hours. Is that understood?’

I received a bed in a corridor. There were plenty of other hospital beds standing in a corridor, all lined up against a wall. Some of them looked occupied and some did not. I unrolled and spread bed sheets, sat down and started to watch crazy guys hopping around. There seemed to be plenty of old patients as well. It was unclear why the ward was called ‘teenage ward’. Some of the loonies looked ancient and nearly all of them were in bad shape, bent and withered, with ugly, shaved heads and toothless mouths. All of these people were dressed in identical dark blue outfits. They kept eyeing me but kept their distance. The air was filled with heavy, disgusting odor. I remained sitting where I was, paralyzed with fear, not knowing what to expect next. A pair of middle-aged loonies on my right began to fight, hissing and shooting spittle into each other faces, but producing very little harm. It looked almost comical. Nurses seemed to be nowhere in sight.

I saw a small guy roughly my age with mop of black, curly hair and cunning brown eyes heading in my direction. He looked sane to me. He approached, winked and sat down on my bed.
‘Hey there, a new one! How’s going?’
‘All right.’
‘I see you’re not one of them nuts. Dodging the conscription?’
‘Relax, man. There are plenty of guys doing the same thing around here, you know. I guess everybody knows it including God damned medics but nobody gives a shit. Plenty of long haired guys like you on this ward.’
‘Are you dodging the conscription too?’
‘Nah. Cops brought me here ‘cause I had been acting up too much, you know how it is. It was like I took a bunch of pills and I washed them down with booze. So anyway, I was feeling fine then until I decided to go for a walk. I dunno what the Hell had happened but it seemed that I tried to kick someone’s ass or something. Honestly, I don’t remember. So cops took me to the station and then they called ambulance. So here I am. What’s your name?’
‘Greg. What’s yours?’
‘I’m Valera. Well, as I say shit happens but it’s OK with me to stop around here for a while you know. I mean, who the fuck wants to join the army, anyway? Not me and that’s for sure. And dig this: once you’ve been brought here they won’t let you out again without some kind of diagnosis. I mean: once you’re here you’re certified nut that’s all. I recon it’s pretty convenient.’
‘How long you’ve been here?’
‘A week. Man, it’s so fucking boring you wouldn’t believe it. I mean, it fucks your brain right off. There is nothing to do all day long except maybe to kick some nut’s dumb ass. See that dude over there?’
He pointed to some guy standing near the window, barefoot and dressed only in pajama pants, twitching and scratching window glass.
‘See him?’
‘His name is Igor. Although I bet my boots he can’t tell his name from his ass. Dumb as a brick. Can’t talk, can’t do a shit. Mooing and jumping all day long. Watch!’
Valera approached the guy, patted him on the shoulder, said ‘Igor! Igor! How’re doing man?’, then hit him in a jaw. The idiot blinked and shook his head.
‘See? He doesn’t understand a shit. You can punch him all you want and he just stands here. Stupid fucking cow!’

He hit the idiot repeatedly, with sickening wet sound. The idiot whined and rolled up his eyes then started to back away. At this moment, his pants fell down and caught him around his ankles. He fell down but managed to get up again and hobbled down the corridor, drugging his pants around his feet.

I heard a roar of some machinery. It sounded as if the airplane was about to take off. The sound was coming from the end of the corridor. Everybody started moving in that direction. I got up and walked after the rest.

I saw the nurse sitting on chair outside a nurse station, with huge tray on her lap, full of cigarette packs. She was distributing fags to their prospective owners. Each pack bore a name, scribbled on the side with ballpoint pen. The nurse fished out two cigarettes and handed them over to the pack’s owner. When my turn came I asked:
‘Can I have three cigarettes?’
‘Why not? Aren’t these my cigarettes?’
‘Because I say so, OK? Two is enough for you, my crazy friend. Besides, smoking is bad for you. Didn’t your mother tell you that? Now push off. I’m not going to sit here and argue with everyone till morning.’

I took my smokes and proceeded into the toilet. It was packed tight with people sitting along walls, standing in the middle, or sitting on three toilet bowls, mounted along one wall. The bowls lacked seats and looked dirty but several guys perched on their rims, balancing on them, as if on chair edges. The air was so sick with the smoke that it seemed a bit silly to light your own fag.

I elbowed my way inside, found a tiny space to squat down and tugged on my cigarette. I did not have a smoke for a very long time and it felt wonderful.

I saw a guy approaching me slowly. He was about my own height but square in shoulders and he had completely round head. His oily hair was closely cropped and stood on ends like a wire. He had thick lips, tiny eyes, short neck and oily skin with lots of pimples.
‘Hey, ya! Shithead-ho! Wanna me kick’ ‘o’ ye’ balls or wha’?’ – He growled in my face. His breath stunk of rot. I shrugged and tried to move out of his way. I heard somebody started sniggering behind my back then I saw a flash. A pain shot through my temple. I flew over to the wall and heart a low thump. The second later I realized that I hit the wall with my head.
‘Hey, you guys! What are you up to again?’

I opened my eyes and saw nurse standing at the threshold of the toilet and scanning the space suspiciously. I could not see my attacker anymore but there were other guy’s faces, grinning maliciously. My fag lay on a floor, neatly squashed by somebody’s foot. I got out of the toilet and headed back to my bed.

* * * *

The time in nut house went incredibly slow. Igor was right: there was absolutely nothing to do. I had expected more talks with shrink but they seemed to forget about my existence. It was my third day on the ward and all I did was lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling. The only divergence was the dude who had attacked me in the toilet. Since then he was trailing behind my back constantly. A couple of times he tried to hit me but I evaded him as long as I could and was careful not to hang around him without nurse’s presence. Perhaps, all I needed was to try to kick his ass but I was not sure I was physically capable to do it. Several guys arrived to the ward from prison. Shrink’s job was to find out whether they were legally insane or not. Meantime, they tried to have their fun by picking on everyone. I was unlucky to attract an attention of one of them.

It was during breakfast when one of harmless loonies I struck conversation before said to me:
‘Hey, I saw how this crazy fuck was bothering you. Why didn’t you tell a nurse?’
‘I don’t want to talk to a nurse.’

He looked at me and nodded. We sat next to each other at the long table in a crowded dining area. I poked a content of my plate with my spoon and sighed. I couldn’t eat any of it, no matter how hungry I felt. The usual hospital fare consisted of mashed potatoes, watered down so much that it was almost transparent, with plenty of rotten particles, skin and such, and beetroots on the side, gone bad. The whole dish smelled like shit and looked like vomit.
‘You should’ve fought him back,’ – A loony said between mouthfuls.
‘Oh yeah?’
‘Sure man. Why don’t you fight? You don’t know how to fight?’
‘I know how to fight.’
‘Then why didn’t you?’
‘I’m pacifist, OK?’
‘Too bad man.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Hey, relax, man. The crazy fuck was taken down to another ward this morning.’
‘Oh yeah? What ward? Why?’
‘To that one, for violently disturbed, you know… How do they call it? I forgot. Anyway… He was taken down there this morning. I’ve heard a nurse said they won’t let him go. He had a row with a shrink on duty, you know. You’re safe now man. Don’t worry.’
‘I don’t.’

He nodded at my plate.
‘Are you gonna eat that?’
‘Can I take it then?’
‘Go ahead. Take it.’
‘Hey, thanks man. You’re real good, you know.’
‘Oh shut up.’
‘No you’re real good man.’
‘Take it and stop babbling.’

I returned to my bed and lay down. I started to receive some medication recently. The nurse told me it was antidepressant but I hardly believed it worked that way. It was a tiny yellow pill and it knocked me off right away. Now I could sleep anytime I wanted. It was good because it helped to kill the time.

I woke up late at night. I had no idea what time it was but it looked like it was pretty late. The lights in a corridor were off except a small one above nurse station. It was bluish and it created strange effect to the whole surrounding. It seemed like the entire corridor was underwater. I pushed my blanket aside and sat up when I heard a whisper.
‘Hey pal!’

I looked up and saw a guy sitting on a nearest bed down the corridor. I didn’t recognize his face. Perhaps he was a new one.
Hey,’ – I whispered back.
‘How’s going pal? How long have you here?’
‘It’s my second week.’
‘Shit. That’s a long time.’
‘No it’s not.’
‘They brought me in only this evening. Is this a bad place man?’
‘Shit. I didn’t want to be here.’

I shrugged and didn’t reply.
‘Is it pretty fucked up place to be here, huh?’ – He asked after a while.
‘It depends.’
‘Sure. Where can I have a smoke around this place, man?’
‘You’ve got some on you?’
‘No but I thought maybe you do. They took mine.’
‘I’ve got some.’
‘Do you mind if I bum one from you then?’
‘No I don’t mind.’

I got up, put my gown on and walked toward the toilet. The guy followed me close behind. The toilet stayed open during the night and nurses weren’t around. It was OK to pop for a smoke at night if you have any fags and matches, hidden earlier and then saved. Even though having your own matches was prohibited, many guys carried them in their pockets. We walked in and squatted against the wall. It took for me a long time to light a match by striking it against the side of the heater. Finally I succeeded. I lit my smoke and handed the guy one of the fags I saved then let him light it from mine. We smoked in silence for a while then he said:
‘It’s so nice to have friends in place like this.’
‘I guess.’
‘I was scared shitless when they brought me here.’
‘I was scared too.’
‘Let’s keep together so nobody would pull any shit on us, how ‘bout it?’
‘Huh. We will see.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Greg.’
‘Ah. Am Tolik.’

* * * *

There were occasional escape attempts among patients that always ended with guys being caught after a few minutes and then beaten up mercifully. I saw a couple of them in a corridor, being dragged away by two orderlies, their faces smeared with blood. Apparently, quite a number of people were committed by either relatives or the police. Once you were committed that way, you could stay under lock and key for years. Therefore, it was not surprising that some of them tried to run away despite possible beatings and all. The very atmosphere of the place poisoned your mind very quickly. Sometimes it occurred to me that personnel of the hospital were no less crazy than some genuine loonies. They screamed and laughed in such a way that it really made you wondering about their sanity.

I tried to keep to myself except casual conversations with Tolik and a few other guys. In fact, I did not feel like talking to anyone. Before coming to the hospital, I did not know what the real depression was like. Now I felt depressed at all times. I ceased to leave my bed except for short trips to the toilet, and for breakfast. A breakfast was the only time when I could get myself something edible. As a result, I was always hungry and dreamed about food constantly. Once a day I looked at myself in small mirror hanged in a washroom. I still managed to avoid catching loose so my hair remained long but my face began to turn greenish and it looked emaciated.

* * * *

I noticed Tolik was nicking my fags from a pocket of my gown. He tried to do it when I was asleep but once I woke up in time to see it with my own eyes. I rose on my elbows and told him to leave my smokes alone. He mumbled something and retreated. Then he repeated it the next night. I was expecting this so I made sure not to fall asleep. I got up and followed him into the toilet. He sat in a corner and smoking my fag absentmindedly. I approached him and said:
‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing, going through my pockets like this, huh?’
He looked at me and grinned.
‘I’ll kick your ass, pacifist,’ – He said.
‘We hate you pacifist mother fuckers.’
‘Oh yeah?’

I stepped closer and hit him with my foot right into his grinning face. He squelched and landed on all four. I grabbed him by the collar and started punching him with my fist. I did not particularly care where my fist landed but it felt good. He whined and yelped, trying to get away but I took my time. Finally, I let him go and paddled back to the bed.

In a morning, I received my very first punishment for violent behavior. A nurse tied me to my bed and gave me two shots in my buttocks. The shots consisted of preheated serum. It was called ‘two points’. ‘Next time I’ll give you four points, with two more under your shoulder blades, do you hear?’ – She hissed.

I grunted and turned away. Soon I was burning with high fever. It hurt like hell but I hardly cared.

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