sickcage300

Sick

By

I visit him on Tuesday nights at the only time they’ll let me see him. I show the receptionist my driver’s license, confirm my social security number and home address, and sign my name on a dotted line.

“Relationship?” I’m always asked.

“Friend,” I always say.

The woman—it is the same woman every time—looks, at first, disinterested. She doesn’t even bother to raise her head. She types my name into her computer—click click, click click—but when she finds me, her face lights up.

“Oh, there you are,” she says, smiling, as if it’s possible I’ve disappeared.

Most days, I lean in while she’s typing. I like to ask my questions while she’s distracted, because there’s no filter. “How is he?” I’ll ask, as if it’s a sneak preview of what is yet to come.

She’ll say, “Oh, today he barely ate,” or, “Today he ate a bite of pancakes,” or, “Yesterday was a holiday, so they got a slice of vanilla cake.”

“Great,” I always say; I never know what else to say. What can be said of people who aren’t eating, who are only rarely allowed a slice of cake?

“Go ahead,” she says, nodding toward the door, and this is where my imagination comes in: I like to pretend that it’s a game. I like to pretend that the tiles—each big and glinting under the hallway’s fluorescent lights—are ice floes, their shape bobbing with my movement, their edges rocking from side to side.

Easy! I think. Easy!

I walk slowly, carefully, imagining first polar bears and then penguins, tiny fish, blue-green water. I imagine men in thatched canoes, rowing toward some distant shore.

“Careful,” I sometimes say. To anyone else, this might seem wrong, but I have to pretend it’s a game—having a friend in a place like this.

Some mornings, I walk to my mailbox and attempt to predict what’s waiting there: a list of the books Kevin’s read most recently, a request for photos of a Matisse painting. Send me The School of Athens by Raphael, he writes. Send me The Red Vineyard, or The Sower, or The Round of the Prisoners by Vincent Van Gogh.

Sometimes, Kevin just wants a picture—of me, of Iowa, of anyone. Send me some from college, he says. I’m beginning to forget your faces.

I oblige him every time: I head down to the public library, type in my username, print in color. Or I look up French kings on Wikipedia and print all twelve pages, including citations. I stand beside the librarian’s desk and say, “The printer’s out of ink,” or, “The printer’s out of paper.”

I pay fifty cents a page, but there’s no way for me to know the things a man like Kevin needs. If I were in a place like this, I think, I hope someone would do this for me. Because what if I wanted to learn a new language? What if I still wanted to feel moved by art?

So these games, they make this fun. They are the only things that do. They suppress the grinding panic, the feeling that a child is sitting cross-legged on my chest. This is how I refer to it now, the seizing anxiety I feel when I think of Kevin. I joke to friends and family, because it’s the only way I know to cope. I say, “Today the child is patient.”

I say, “Today, there’s a temper tantrum.”

Some days, it feels like a million tiny feet grinding deep into my esophagus—everything seizes up, and I find it difficult to breathe.

So polar bears and seals. Harpoons and men in hats.

Crazy, you might think, but I will imagine whatever it takes.

When I reach the end of the empty hallway, I always pause before the door. When I open it, I know, Kevin and I will see each other for the first time in weeks, and just what his face will do—well, there’s really no way of knowing. When I open that door, things will happen, so I always wait a second longer. There’s a pleasure in that waiting. I may not know what’s yet to come, but I know that I alone control it.

“Okay,” I say to no one. I open the door, and there he is. I take a seat in the chair beside him and try to look happy to be so close. “Hi,” I say, smiling.

“Hello,” he always says.

Our conversations are strained at first. Often Kevin is weak, lethargic, so I try to warm him up. I ask about the cafeteria food, or the holiday, or the way he spends his time.

“Are you eating?” I ask, and he nods a subtle yes. “Good,” I always say. “You need to preserve your strength.”

When it’s his turn, he asks about the weather, or he asks what I’ve been reading. On the days he feels uncomfortable, he asks these questions quicker.

“It’s not like I really know,” he reminds me. “Not really, anyway.”

Kevin is allowed outside only twice a week, and his recreational field is just a splintered picnic table and a patch of dusty grass he politely calls “the courtyard.” The rest of the time, he looks at snow or sun or rain through glass an inch and a half thick, smudged, gray and gauzy.

“It’s okay,” I say. “Today it’s hot,” or, “Today there’s snow.”

When we exhaust the subject of weather, I ask about Scrabble. Scrabble, more than anything, is what keeps Kevin calm. He says it keeps him “sane.” This is what he writes in letters and stories, and what he tells even his mother when she asks him how he’s doing.

“He loves that game,” she told me once, as if I somehow didn’t know.

Kevin sends me a letter once a month, even despite my visits, because, he says, the written word affords him a certain sincerity. On the page, he can be more honest—he can say that no, he is not eating. That he thinks of it as a silent protest. That Scrabble helps him remain articulate and keep a sharp, fine-tuned mind. That most of all, he likes it because it reminds him of when we were students in college together. “Placate,” he writes. It used up all my tiles.

In letters, Kevin can tell me, too, that he is lonely, or that lately he feels scared. On several occasions, he’s used the word “diseased,” as in, “I feel like something diseased.” Like an animal, he says. Like something locked inside a cage.

But when I visit, Kevin smiles. He is mild-mannered. He asks what I’m listening to or for a recap of his favorite shows. What’s new in True Blood, he wants to know, and what does Sookie Stackhouse look like now?

“Straight hair,” I say, or, “Curly. She’s wearing a lot of dresses.”

Kevin has a crush on Sookie, although he will not admit it. He jokes he wishes he could read minds the way that she does, but I am very glad he can’t.

“Anyway, Scrabble is good,” he says. “Yesterday I beat Vinni.”

Vinni is the man who lives across from Kevin, and though he has only a ninth grade education, he usually puts up a pretty good fight.

“He almost got me,” Kevin says. “But I had a triple letter score on a y.”

Neither one of us knows why Vinni is here; we are both afraid to ask. But it is these moments, more than any others, that make me feel relieved. I am glad to hear about Kevin’s games. There are worse things Kevin could be doing with his time than playing a game of Scrabble, like, for example, not playing a game of Scrabble. On the days I don’t visit, I imagine him sitting on his cot, staring up at that blank white ceiling, imagining not ice floes at all but the days, endless as glaciers, and how he might not make it through them. Kevin sees a therapist here, someone who is coaching him through this process, this strange new lifestyle. She is supposed to make the transition easier, but it seems she only makes him angry. In his letters, he sends me updates: she’s diagnosed him with depression, or she’s diagnosed him as suicidal. Do you believe her? he writes. Of course I’m depressed, living in a place like this.

On the days I don’t visit, I see Kevin holding a plastic knife, the one they give him at every meal. It is a knife meant for frozen pizza or a baked potato, and it is dull, but still, I imagine him carving it somehow, flicking the plastic against the cinderblock until it is clean and sharp and smooth. I see him pressing it to his skin, so thin and white as paper, and I imagine him scraping. Digging. Carving.

I think, The next time I come to see my friend, he will no longer be living here.

The woman at the front desk will tell me he’s not eating, that now he’s not even breathing.

So I like to think of him playing Scrabble.

“What about you?” Kevin asks me, and again I don’t know what to say. Sometimes, I think of telling Kevin the truth: that life is good, very good, because I can move around and walk through alleyways and eat a sprinkled donut. I can put on headphones and listen to Bon Iver and pretend the world is my movie, that what I’m seeing is only mine, that the way the light bends across a cemetery or the way a bird angles in flight are things given to me because I am not sick like Kevin. I can feel a moment of melancholy and trust it will go away. I can eat apple pie, even if it’s not a holiday, and I can wear green, or red, or rings carved from emerald or jade. I can ride a bicycle or spray paint it blue or kiss a boy for hours on a fraying couch while a TV plays. I can stay up all night if I want, eating Raisin Bran and watching cartoons, or I can drive to Niagara Falls or hike a mountain or tie my shoes. I want to say to Kevin that life was better when he could do these things beside me—see a midnight movie, just drive around—and that since he’s been away, I haven’t ordered Chinese once, because who will eat the water chestnuts? They would just sit there on my plate.

Instead, I tell him work is work and that often I’m very tired. “Life is exhausting, frankly,” I say, because I want him to remember what it’s like outside of this place—how it can be good, but it’s not everything.

That sometimes I, too, feel very bad.

“I work until six most days,” I say. “I get out, and I just want to sleep.”

“I know what you mean,” he says, nodding. “That’s all I do with my afternoons.”

Kevin tells me things like this, and of course I feel awful, because of course I know it’s true. At least, I think, at least my day ends, and I can come home and watch Toddlers & Tiaras, and it doesn’t matter the show is awful because at least I can choose to watch it.

But Kevin can do none of these things. He cannot even hug someone, which is why, on my last visit, we decided to make a secret gesture. What happened was this: I was leaving, and I told Kevin I wished I could hug him right then, because he was making a face that broke my heart. But in this place, that’s not allowed, so I said, “How about I squint my eyes and mush my face and round my upper lip into my nose, and this can be our own no-contact friendship hug?”

“Like a bunny,” he said, laughing, and then he mushed his cheeks and twitched his nose.

But now I see rabbits everywhere and always think of him.

“The good times,” Kevin says. “Do you remember all the good times?”

I do. And there were years like that, I remind myself when I need to. There were four whole years of friendship before this happened,and yet when I think of Kevin now I only ever think of this place, this smell, this lighting.

“Well,” I say, “I should get going,” and as I head back down the hallway, I always make my footsteps loud. Klunk, klunk, klunk, klunk, because I want Kevin to hear the weight of me. I want him to know that I am there for as long as I am there.

In the parking lot, in my car, I sit and look up at his building. There he is, I tell myself, and there he’ll stay. And then I drive home picturing it: how now they’re dimming the lights, now they’re checking he’s in bed, now they’re ensuring he’s blinking and breathing and present and alive.

I slip into my house, or I slip into a bar, or I slip between the cushions of a couch next to a body, and because I visit with regularity, eventually people ask. They ask, and I always tell them that my friend Kevin is in a hospital.

“He’s sick,” I say, shrugging, and the place I go to has specific hours because it is a ward, not a prison. He’s a patient, not an inmate. “He needs me,” I say, though I’m no longer certain that’s even true.

Of course I don’t admit what really happened: that my friend Kevin experienced a psychotic breakdown three weeks before our college graduation. He walked me home and then returned to his own apartment, where he murdered a young woman with a kitchen knife from a set bought at Wal-Mart. Kevin stabbed that poor girl twenty-seven times in the neck and upper torso, then phoned the local police, saying he was so sorry, and would they come?

He said, “I’ll be waiting for you outside.”

It would sound far-fetched even to me—the idea of a psychotic breakdown, of a dissociative episode that renders a man unaccountable for his actions. Even now, I watch the news and see a violent man—Jared Loughner, James Holmes, now Adam Lanza—and think, That’s exactly what happened to Kevin.

My friend is not Adam Lanza, of course. He did not walk into an elementary school and shoot children, one by one. There are many, many differences. But what happened to Kevin is, for all intents and purposes, the same: he was sick, and no one knew.

In a mental evaluation completed just weeks after Kevin’s arrest, one doctor wrote, It is my professional opinion that Kevin demonstrated signs of impaired functioning prior to and at the time of the offense, and therefore lacked the capacity to comprehend the wrongfulness of his actions and conform his behaviors to the requirements of the law.

I believe, reads another, he had no thought of ever killing her.

And finally, there is this: This is truly a tragic case.

In the days immediately following the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the Huffington Post published a provocative article by mother Liza Long, who articulates her own experience raising a mentally ill, gifted but oftentimes unpredictable, violent teen.

“I love my son,” she writes, “but he terrifies me.”

In her article, Long articulates the difficult moment of involuntarily committing her son to a psychiatric hospital after he threatened himself and his siblings. Later, Long discusses her options with her son’s social worker, who states the only real solution is to charge him with a crime, thereby creating a paper trail and inviting the possibility of incarceration—a long-lasting, consequential measure. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done,” the social worker tells her. “No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

“I don’t believe my son belongs in jail…” Long writes, “but it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people.”

And the inverse is true, as well. Because of our own refusal to eliminate the stigmas of mental illness and advocate effective, long-lasting treatment, prison is the inevitable ending place for those who are mentally ill and suffering. According to the Human Rights Watch, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times that of the general population, and since 2001, it’s been rising steadily with every year.

I knew Kevin was suffering from depression. I knew he had once been suicidal. During the fall of our junior year, he was required to take a medical leave of absence to resolve suicidal ideation. That was the official term. But what happened, when put simply, is that he filled a tub with water. He took the radios, stereos, and speakers from the bedrooms of his roommates, placed them along the rim, and prepared to enter.

And yet, after his return in the winter of 2008, just a little over a year before his psychotic breakdown, I never discussed that experience with him. I never asked him how he felt, or how it was that he felt now. Mental illness seemed too taboo, too intimate a conversation to share between two friends. It seemed some secret, private burden—one I, and many others, thought he could carry on his own.

Now, in the three years since it happened, I myself have been diagnosed with PTSD, as I was the last person Kevin saw that night, the last woman before he killed her. I’ve been diagnosed with depression. I’ve seen my own relationships fall apart as a direct result of that trauma, that fear, and I’ve flinched when a man touched my neck a bit too firmly. I often go for walks. I have been told, again and again, “You have to stop thinking about this.” Once, on a very turbulent flight, I watched as mothers clung to daughters, couples to one another, and my first thought was not, God help me, or I love my parents, or even No, but At least if we go down, I’ll finally stop thinking about what he did.

In the meantime, I am incapable. I think about it all the time. And it seems impossible to me even still: how somehow, in some way, a mind can break, as if it were a toy.

Worse yet, I don’t know the solution. I don’t know what to say. I often thought that by this far out—over three years—I’d be able to look at what Kevin did, and it would seem a distant pinpoint, something small on the horizon, something I could identify as a pivotal moment in my development that I experienced and then moved on from. The past is, after all, the past. Instead, it remains large and looming, shaping not only my own experience of our friendship—my silence and that hesitation—but my very present and inevitable future. I walk my dog now beside the reservoir and of course I think of him. It’s like momentum, I want to say, and what I mean is how it looks when a rock strikes a body of water—how ripples can form and move even long after the stone has sunk. I want to say that this is not the case. You were not the one affected, I often think. But my friend is in jail, and will be for twenty-seven to fifty years, and I still don’t understand what happened. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, and so I visit. I write letters. I ask, “How are the Scrabble games going?”

It was easier when I could think the way that everyone else seems to think: that a brain is just a brain, iconic in its structure. I used to picture gray strands, film, all of it looped and loped together. Now I see apartment buildings, poorly constructed and impossibly built, the kind you find along highways. I picture homes stacked above other homes, people cooking omelets on broken burners, heaters plugged in and oscillating. Most days, the residents of these homes live peacefully among one another—they take showers, sing songs, and bake brownies—but one day, an oven’s left on. Or someone forgets to unplug the iron. Or maybe that’s not it, either—maybe the people have nothing to do with it at all. But still come these chemical explosions, far too small and too complex to see, sending red, sparking embers into the drywall of our minds.

“Fire!” we say. “Fire!” But still we stand there and watch it burn.

***

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Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Amy Butcher is the current nonfiction fellow at Colgate University and is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays and stories have appeared recently in The Indiana Review, The Colorado Review, The North American Review, and McSweeney's, among others, and she lives and teaches in upstate New York, where she's at work on her first book. More from this author →