by Neesa Suncheuri
I’ve always been a guy with a temper. As a kid, I proved my worth by beating up kids on the playground. Even older kids who tried to mess with me…they all learned to run like hell when I came around. I never cared about what teachers and adults thought about me either, and as soon as I could see behind their lies, I started talking back. Real young. I got in trouble a lot, and was pegged as a “bad kid.” And I was.
One time in high school, I picked a fight with a kid in the neighborhood. His dad had been onto me for a long time, and finally he had a reason to call the cops. And then I ended up in the mental hospital for teens. I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and that was it. For the rest of high school, I was in and out of mental wards. They put me on Zoloft, and then Seroquel, and then Depakote…nothing seemed to work, though. Nothing took away my anger. I just seemed to get more angry. I’d spit with rage, as orderlies held me down to shoot me with a sedative, hoisting me up onto a stretcher, putting me into restraints. Sometimes I’d wake up, and realize that it was two days later. Shit like this made me enraged.
When I hit eighteen, I aged out of the adolescent system. Once I got in trouble again, they put me in with the adults. And then, during my first meeting with my psychiatric treatment team, they told me that they were going to move me to state. That meant that I’d be in a mental hospital, for years, or even forever. I was so pissed, I cursed venom at Dr. Hemingway, the head honcho. Before I stormed out of that room, they gave me one final message:
“The application to go to state will take several months. You will stay here until that goes through. If you improve, you can be released. But you can’t continue like this and go back into the community. You are a danger to others. At this time, we are not optimistic about your being discharged, given your history of aggression and non-compliance with treatment.“
I stood up and kicked my chair at the doctor. I slammed the door behind me and yelled and cursed. And when I went in my room, when nobody was looking, I cried. In my soul, I shouted out to the God in the heavens, asking why I was being punished. But He didn’t answer. I had never prayed before, so I guess He didn’t hear me. I kept getting angry with the staff. The workers who took my blood pressure, the nurse who gave me my meds, even the lunch delivery guy…everyone faced my wrath.
Then I started to shut down and withdraw from everyone. I was beginning to understand that, no matter how hard I fought, I would never leave. I would never have a job, or live on my own, or have a girlfriend, or get married, or have kids…all the freedoms a regular person has, I would never get for myself. As this sunk in, I stopped talking to the other people in the ward. There was no point anyway. Other people would just stay there a week at a time, or maybe a couple of months at most. But I was the village idiot that stayed longer than everyone else. But eventually I stopped caring. I was too depressed to be embarrassed. All I knew was that I would die behind the walls of an institution.
I know a lot of people might have just given up and glued themselves to a couch while watching episodes of Maury and Oprah forever. But me? My mind was racing. I needed something to do with myself. Board games and cards always needed a second player at least, and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. And jigsaw puzzles? Just a headache. I looked through the rusted metal cabinet that held the board games, and on the bottom shelf I saw stacks of books. Most of them were yellowed and worn. Reading seemed better than talking to people, so I started to read. I wasn’t the best reader, since I didn’t really pay attention in school. But surprisingly I picked it up fast. Maybe I had talent, or maybe I’m smarter than I think I am. But I just spent hours and hours with books. I kept on reading, past my mistakes, past my stumbling, because I wanted to. I knew I was getting better when I was able to read and understand the easier books. I just kept going. I knew that I would never see the outside world again, except through books.
Books also helped me escape the world around me. I couldn’t trust anyone in the ward, patients or staff alike, so I started befriending the characters I read about, all in my mind. The spider Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, she was the best. We had many conversations together about all sorts of things. Animal cruelty, fate, friendship…she knew it all, and she really got me thinking. She also taught me creative ways to escape my reality in the hospital, all with the power of my mind. I had to escape mentally, or else I really would go crazy. I remember that she was able to save Wilbur the pig from being slaughtered, by writing words into her webs. Maybe I could spin my own webs too.
That’s when I started to write. At the time, I didn’t have anything to write with except for a golf pencil and a napkin. But still, I wrote little quotes for myself to keep me going, trying to be poetic:
When the apple disappears off the dinner tray, health follows.
Try to understand the television the way it is meant to be. It is moving art.
After a couple of weeks, a nurse noticed my new hobby, so she gave me a notebook. But still I had no pen, because I could not be trusted with this potential weapon. But it was strange…fighting didn’t seem to matter when I wrote. I filled the first notebook in a month. The next notebook, I filled in two weeks. And then another notebook, another two weeks. The more I wrote, the less violent I became, and after a couple of months, I was able to stop fighting completely. That’s when I earned my very first pen.
Every day, I wrote and wrote and wrote. My little quotes became poems, and then my poems became stories. People started noticing me, always sunk deep in reading or writing, so they called me “Bookworm.” After a while, leaving the hospital started to not matter. My life in the outside world was just as bad as prison, me getting in trouble all the time. I figured out that I love to write, and I could do this just as easily in the hospital as I could outside. I was even able to harness my mental illness as a tool for inspiration. I realized that I became angry because I was trying to cover my fears. And instead of being scared by those ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes,’ they now became plots and themes for stories and poems.
One day, my treatment team asked me to read a poem I wrote. I didn’t think they’d like it, but they were actually really interested, so they asked me to read another one. To my surprise, they then asked me to help run a writing class with other patients! They told me that the art therapist, Mrs. Preis, was going on vacation for the next couple of weeks, and that it would be nice to keep the class going with a creative activity. I thought to myself: Me? Running a class?
I didn’t know how to teach the class, and I was afraid that people would laugh at me. I sort of had the reputation of “village idiot,” since I had been there longer than everyone else. And I barely even knew anyone’s names. When the group started, an orderly stayed in the room to supervise me, and to take care of matters if things got out of hand. When the group started, I didn’t know quite what to do, so I just read one of my poems:
I live here, but I am not here.
I am not anywhere, because here is drear.
My mind escapes, but my body stays.
There’s not much to do, I lost count of the days.
I have a past, but I have no future,
I’m still left with these wounds to suture.
Nobody has found the cure for my mind.
Folks move on, while I’m left behind.
When I ask for help, people just say words,
That are boring and trite, I’m left for the birds.
People say, they don’t want me to cry,
But they have no reason to back up this lie.
And who thinks that words can heal a soul?
Therapy solves only part of my whole.
I wish upon stars that I could be cured,
Instead of thrown behind bars secured.
This madness continues every day
But this is my life, there’s no other way.
And if you think you get me, don’t think you’re immune,
If you walked in my shoes, you’d change your tune.
I had the silent attention of a few people. Maybe a few of the people were asleep, but that was what I expected. To cut through the silence, I read another poem, and then someone called out to me:
“Hey, you got any funny ones?”
I thought of one right away. But it was a little too funny.
“Yeah… I don’t think I should read that one.”
“Oh man, come on. No one’s here! Just read it!”
There was enthusiasm in the room so I figured, what the hell? It was poetry after all. Shouldn’t poetry be brave?
I see these doctors every day,
They know me very well.
I’d say they were my family,
But they create my hell.
There’s Doctor Grant, with his pen and pad,
And silly stethoscope.
He tells me how my hygiene’s bad,
Yet never gives me soap.
And then there’s Doctor Hemingway
Who says I’m non-compliant.
He keeps me under lock and key,
But my soul is not defiant.
And then the orderly who yells
And makes us call him “Sir.”
He tells us we belong in cells,
Forever, seems it were.
The only woman, Mrs. Preis,
Comes in to run art class.
She uses total shit supplies,
Our artwork looks like ass.
I want to live a normal life,
With dignity and rights.
I want a job, I want a wife,
I wanna turn off the damned lights.
Yet my brain is weak and handicapped,
So I live in this catacomb.\
I know, forever, I’ll be trapped,
‘Cause this hospital is my home.
People really started digging me at this point. There was even a little bit of snickering here and there. I mean, I was brave enough to diss the staff, and I did it well too. When I finished, people clapped, and then started erupting with requests and inspiration:
“Hey, you should write a rap! Can you freestyle?”
“Write something about that nasty ass shepherd’s pie!”
“This is a poetry class, right? I have an idea…give me a pen!”
People started getting ideas, and many had something to say. And even the quiet people…they were now listening instead of sleeping. In that room, there was a feeling I had not felt in a long time, or maybe never. Maybe it was what people called God. Something powerful, and beyond myself. I decided to call it happiness.
The doctors heard about the success of my group. They allowed me to run the group even when Mrs. Preis came back. First it was once a week. Attendance was so good, that they let me teach it twice a week. Soon, people were writing poems left and right. A couple of people even requested notebooks and pens, like I did before. Everyone was so filled with inspiration.
The psychiatrists were really amazed at my teaching skills. When I least expected it, they asked me a strange question:
“What can we do to help your class?“
Suddenly, they cared about what I thought. They were actually asking me a question, instead of just telling me what to do.
Before answering, I thought hard. I didn’t think about what would make people’s poems “better.” I just thought about how the class made people happy. And then I thought about what would make people even happier.
“We need some more books. Nice ones, that aren’t falling apart. All kinds of stuff…novels, stories, poetry, biographies…and some classics too. Like Dickens, or Oscar Wilde.” I wasn’t sure if I could read either of those myself yet, but I knew that outside the ward, those books were just out there. A person could just go to a bookstore and buy the books they wanted, or even read them online with computers. I thought about asking for computers with internet access, but I didn’t want to bite the hand that was feeding us.
A couple of weeks later, we got a small bookshelf put in. There were those old rotting books rotting in the metal cabinet in the day room, but it didn’t matter. I took them out and put them on the new bookshelf neatly. Seeing those books all lined up made my heart smile. Sure, I already read all those a couple of times through over all the years, but they looked brand new on there. And then I saw a couple disappear. I never saw anyone reading in the common rooms, and I was pretty sure that the books just lay in people’s rooms unread, but still…I was proud that this all happened because of me.
Finally, there was a shred of culture within those walls. It wasn’t just the TV on all day, everyone rotting their brains out. There is more to life than this. It’s so sad…we talk so much about how the classes are divided, rich from poor. You could say it’s the same with normal and crazy. The normal people have everything, and the crazies have nothing. But…does that mean that we, the “crazies,” can’t make meaning in our lives? If that were the case, there’d be no point in trying to help us get better. I know that for my entire life, being angry, and then being in and out of hospitals… my soul always yearned for something.
I knew that there was something else out there beyond what was in my own life, but because I didn’t get it, I was sad. It was almost like a joke that everyone got it except for me, because they were able to live normal lives, and I couldn’t. My voices just got in the way.
I know what I was thirsting for now…the freedom to express myself. The freedom to be able to write what I want, without fear of being judged or punished. I’m even surprised that the hospital lets me do this, but they seem to think I’m becoming more independent and motivated, the more I write. I’m lucky that they think that way. I guess they see that my behavior has improved. Now we have two bookshelves, and they’re all filled. People read here and there…nothing amazing, but there is a change. And I run my poetry group twice a week too. I’m trying to get us to write an anthology of poems. Maybe we can get it published and even get it sold. I want to leave this place, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know if that will happen for a long time. But I still want people to hear my voice. I still want people to know that I’m in here, living, breathing, existing. All of us.
My life isn’t amazing, or even interesting. Even though I got big dreams now, I’m still in this hospital. This is my reality. I still am stuck with people I don’t care about, am unable to go out freely and I only get visits from my sister once a month. I think to myself though…she’s lucky that she turned out okay, and is free, unlike me. Everyone out there is lucky. Because my mental illness…it could happen to anyone. It probably is happening to people out there, but those people are lucky enough to have a family that care enough to support them. Maybe they got a house. Maybe they got money, enough to afford to put them in a better place. I just got the shit-end of the stick. There was never anyone to pay the bills. There was never anyone to put a roof over my head. My sister…even she stopped giving a shit, when she realized that I was getting in the way of her having a husband and kids.
But things are changing for me. The doctors tell me that all this poetry of mine is helping me get better. They used to frown at me all the time, but now they give me big smiles. They say that if I continue to go the way I am now, I’ll be able to leave. I will attend a psychiatric day program, and that program might even help me find a job. I could be a janitor or a salesperson at the airport or something. That would be my dream come true. Finally, I feel like I’ve been given a chance to live a life of honor, dignity and respect. And one thing I know for sure: I will always write, because writing is the best cure for me. And I know that, if I keep writing, everything is going to be okay.
I hate how people think we, those with mental illness, are an inconvenience. That’s why they throw us in here, probably. That’s why I want to write. I want to write, so that people don’t forget about us. It’s like the trash in the landfills, talking back to the people who made them trash. Called them trash. But you know what? Maybe I became trash, because shit happened to me, shit caused by other people. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Staff Writer – Poetry
Neesa Suncheuri works as a mental health peer specialist at a housing agency in Queens, New York. She is the founder of a Facebook discussion group for peer specialists and other recovery enthusiasts, entitled “What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group.” Much of her creative inspiration is rooted in her now-tamed schizophrenia. She writes poetry and fiction, and maintains a blog called Unlearning Schizophrenia. She is also a singer/songwriter, and an enthusiast for the German language and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @neesasuncheuri.