The Winter’s bite was better than the numbing hum inside. So I would stand out at night barefoot just to feel the air’s tang while I smoked. Pulling heavy on my cigarette beneath the stars.
It was like a miracle cure. The therapy stirred up my shit and the medication deadened my senses. The open air kept the ward out of your system. I’d sit out there breathing in the world with my cigarette smoke. Taking in the smog and nicotine.
The air in the smoking area flushed the psych-ward out. Smoked it out of your system. No matter how polluted it was from fumes and cigarettes and shit-talk there was a life to it that there wasn’t inside. Outside there was dirt and sunlight and you could feel both against your skin. Tastes of normality. Small reminders that I didn’t belong on the ward. That I was just stopping by.
The ease of life on the ward snared you. The lack of responsibility was a pitfall trap camouflaged by your illness. As you were edging your way around one pit the other swallowed you. But where the first was spiked the second was cushioned and heavily medicated. Anyone would want out of the first. And anyone would want to crawl into the second.
The smoking area was our slice of the world outside. It was a step up out of that complacency-pit. From the outside looking in that hole’s treachery was clear. And I would sit outside smoking in the shelter listening to my walkman and watching the ward shuffle by in its pyjamas and slippers. Some patients were as much a part of the ward as the walls or that numbing hum. Patients that had been swallowed whole. Like Melvin.
Melvin’s brain was addled from schizophrenia and ecstasy. All day every day he’d walk up and down the ward talking to people only he could see and not all of them were friends. I once saw him roll up his sleeve to flex his bicep at an invisible guy that was picking a fight. He clenched his massive fist and growled “Y’see that? I’ll bust ya with it.”
If you didn’t laugh what would you do?
Samantha was another. She was always trying to fuck me and I was having none of it. I’m no silver-tongued devil. I’m suave as a punch. But Samantha’s flirting was a blunt instrument. She had no class. No eloquence or humour or grace. “I can tell by a guy’s jeans whether or not he’s got a big cock.” Word-for-word, she said that. Staring at my crotch as she did.
She practically jumped on me as I walked out to the smoking area on my first night. I had no cigarettes and she leapt up to give me her last few. Repeating “I’m a nice girl – I’m a nice girl – I’m a nice girl.” She gave the game away with her first move. A lusty gut-punch.
I was on the ward to get well. Not to get laid. So I brushed off Samantha’s advances. I was only in to get out and I figured riding one of the patients wouldn’t shorten my stay. I ducked, dodged and ignored her clumsy come-ons. Edging my way out the door. Back into the world.
Samantha was addled with anxiety and depression. On the ward she put up a hard front – flirting and cursing, joking. But outside she couldn’t keep it up. Sam didn’t manage a weekend after she was discharged. She left on a Friday and reappeared on Sunday night. Streaming tears and begging for her bed back.
I was allowed out with family so long as I came back. And after a week ward-bound there was only a fine line between me and Samantha. Then the small town outside the hospital became as daunting as New York and as overstimulating as Las Vegas or Tokyo. It was no more than a fistful of lights but they etched themselves into my mind vivid as any big city. Just as exciting and just as frightening.
The smoking area was a start. And while “a good start is half the battle” as they say there was still that other half to worry about. It was much bigger than the first half too. Everything beyond the ward was alien and chaotic after a week on its clock. Outside it all moved too fast. Outside the world sprinted a marathon. The ward shuffled a sprint.
We all came together to smoke. That little smoking area was the nexus that connected all us patients. And out there we shared stories and leg-ups and laughs. You had to laugh on the ward. If you didn’t there was no hope for you. Laughter strips away the bullshit and the fear so we laughed. It was a tangible piece of sanity. When you’re on the ward the odds aren’t in your favour. Laughing gave us a head-start and a boost over the first hurdle. Every one of us on that ward needed all the help we could get so we swapped jokes and told stories and gave each other the sane laughs that we needed. Trying to beat our odds.
Lives were laid bare in the smoking area. Out there I learned about the horrors Jack Fallon saw driving food trucks through Ethiopia. I heard about how Frank’s illness drove away his wife and how she took their kids with her. Bernie babbled to the sky about the devils that came in the night pulling her hair and clawing at her skin. Ben explained that he could see the whole planet. And one night Agata broke down crying that her only child hated her.
“‘Stupid mommy!’ she says ‘Stupid mommy!’” Agata stared at the ground as she told me that. Feeling too inadequate to even lift her head. I lit her a fresh cigarette and told her it’d be OK. That I said some stupid shit when I was a kid too and did stupid shit to go with it. She cracked a grin. And a small victory was won.
If you couldn’t laugh what could you do?
There were often only the two of us outside. She liked the wintry bite as much as I did and we’d sit in the smoking area at night neither of us saying a word. Nothing romantic or sexual about it. We just sat there in our private silences.
Privacy wasn’t an issue. You learned to read the air on the ward. If you got the vibe that someone wanted to be left alone then you left them alone. But if they looked desperate you sat beside them and talked and smoked. There was precious little sanity around. What there was of it was shared and sometimes that meant being alone. You gave your fellow patients’ their space and they respected yours. I sure as Hell wasn’t going to make life any harder for them. And nor were they for me.
We pulled each other up. Every time someone walked through the ward’s great wooden doors for the last time it was a victory for us all. It meant that they were ready to try the next step up from the smoking area. That they were climbing out of the pit.
It was a sheer climb. Almost vertical and the fall back down was long. But as mountaineers tie themselves to each other we patients left no one behind. All of us were scaling peaks. We each had our own climbs to conquer and no one would feel the rocks cut the same way I did or as Agata did or as Samantha, Melvin or Bernie did. They were individual climbs. But not solitary ones.
Frank was very good to me in there. His feet were firmly on terra firma where mine couldn’t get a grip. He took no shit off anyone or their sickness and he wasn’t afraid to give your ass a kickstart. Sometimes he was coarse and tough. But that was needed sometimes. So when he talked I listened. And when I spoke he took his turn to be silent.
We were out smoking that day. Swapping our stories, chipping time away. I had only been on the ward a day or so and I was explaining how I got there. About how my OCD beamed violence and voices and hurt into my head. And about the irrational guilt. I felt responsible for crimes that would never be committed. It had me floored like a kick to the back of the knees but Frank wasn’t having that. And with only a sentence he pulled me up:
“So you had a conscience about it.”
That sentence was more healing and more memorable than any counselling. Right there I realised that I wasn’t evil. That I wasn’t a potential assault or homicide or rape like the sickness said I was. I was just scared and confused. Neurotic too – accepting responsibility that wasn’t mine. I would have hated to make Frank angry. If he could cut to the bone like that with good intentions then angry he could probably flay skin from flesh. But he was a gentle soul, just firm. A dose of tough medicine that we all needed sometimes. To be taken with cigarette smoke, dirt, and sunlight.
The smoking area kept us tethered to the world outside while luring us out of our own ill heads. We started singing out there once. Someone sang a bar of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through The Night and we all took up the tune. And up until we forgot the lyrics we were miles away from our troubles. Even Bernie’s devils disappeared. And she sang through a smile.
One night I saw Bernie ask a nurse about how best to snap her own neck. And next morning she had a dirty-purple bruise on her forehead from her unsuccessful attempt. She would wake up every night screaming at those devils and looked like she hadn’t slept in years. She’d been on the ward longer than anyone else. Except maybe Melvin. And they all said she was there when they were admitted and that she had always looked like that.
Frank helped her out too. They would sit outside every morning “talking bollocks and smoking like chimneys” as he said. And for a while she improved. She didn’t mumble incoherently and smiled a lot more. She could sit still instead of walking agitated up and down the hallway. Things looked good for her.
Then she snapped.
She stopped talking to Frank, didn’t even acknowledge him anymore. Not out of meanness or cruelty. She simply didn’t see him through the fog of hallucinations and sadness. And that smile had to sneak out. Like it did that day we broke into song in the smoking area.
That was a little freedom. It was the small insanities that put us there on the ward and it would be the little freedoms that got us out. The world many of us couldn’t face would provide the handholds we needed to climb out of the holes. The smoking area wasn’t just where you went to feed the addiction. It was where you went to taste emancipation.
The smoking area was a manageable liberty. While we patients’ lives were neither manageable nor free, outside in the dirt and the sunlight we could rise up and out of those pits. Rise up and out on the breeze just as our smoke-cracked voices did that time we sang the floodgates open. And let ourselves feel human again.