Finding Freedom


Whenever you ask somebody what love is, or peace of mind, or a happy marriage, they tend to start discussing these things from a time when they did not have them, or by defining them by what they are not. We have all seen the good thing go bad. The only thing worse than being in hell is being in hell when somebody from heaven opens up the door to hell just to see what’s going on down there; and after they see that nothing good is going on in hell, they shut the door quickly, leaving those in hell with just that little glimpse of heaven, that wants nothing to do with those of us in hell. We never want something more than when it has been taken away from us. The opposite of freedom is confinement.

Confined to

A wheelchair:

the elderly; Stephen Hawking


AWOL soldiers, disaffected youth

…these four walls/ Sent inside forever/Never seeing no one/ Nice again like you/Mama you/ Mama you:

Band on the Run, before the run


the insane, the addicted, and Carvel’s ice cream cake called “Cookie Puss,” apparently, but only on an outpatient basis, so maybe not confined

An island:

dictators in exile, Robinson Crusoe, half the cartoon characters in the New Yorker, which makes me think any place insular is some perverse Neverland fantasy of Manhattanites even though Manhattan is an island and Manhattanites are confined to it, they always say, “Why would I leave?”

This Lime Tree Bower, my Prison:


The shadows:

vampires, carnival sideshow acts, Our Forbidden Love

The margins of the text:

footnotes, minorities; strange comments you made in an old edition of Proust about paragraphs like “amazing!” or “oh brother, Marcel” or “6/26/87 3:55 I am getting weepy, getting so close to the end”


 the infant, the infirm, the incontinent, certain fetishists

Being robbed of my liberty, deprived of my rest:

that poor sap who dated that damsel fair, The Lily of the West

Being tangled in her hair/And fettered to her eye:

Richard Lovelace, thinking of Althea, from prison, that guy in the bar whose pickup line for every woman is, “Why did you stop writing poetry?” which works often enough that he continues to use it

When in your life have you felt less than free? When you ask anybody, they will answer you much more quickly than they would if you were to ask them what freedom means to them. “When I clean,” answered Kelly, who usually pays somebody else to do it. “Christmas dinner at my brother Steven’s,” John laments.

For me, all of high school was a horrible Thunderdome: two men enter, nobody leaves. Miserable marriages, unloving childhood homes, slipped discs, foxholes, bed, old age. Kathy, an old pal from Thunderdome, told me, “I had a horrible marriage and needy children, and sure, I could walk away, but culturally, I couldn’t.”

There is a there there when we speak of an unfree situation, but there is also time, which is time without time. Oscar Wilde wrote “de Profundis” from a prison term in a dank oubliette that destroyed his health and cost him his life. That prose poem begins,

“…Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons…For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us… It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again to-morrow.”

The work begins with ellipses, for this entrapment seems to have always been happening. The greatest panic about lack of freedom is not having your space taken away, but your time.

A friend of mine, mostly an upstanding citizen just like you and me, who had to go to prison for three months after a drunk driving conviction, said of the experience,

There are no good books. Not even good trash. Weird formulaic Westerns you’ve never seen in bookstores. And Bibles. They will order you books if you want something, but nobody ever wants something good to read. I put on fifty pounds. And I really felt sorry for the guards. I got to leave after three months. They never get to leave.

Prisoners do time. Guards don’t.

I am going to say something controversial now: I think practically everybody in the United States, in the year 2017, with the possible exception of Joe Arpaio, would consider themselves less than free. It’s what we all have in common. Whether put upon by other fellow citizens actually or in some bizarre negative fantasy, we are all feeling pretty confined. And not because we are all prisoners—no, it’s because we all feel we must be guards. Guarding freedom, guarding our own shameful desires, guarding because there is no damn wall so somebody has to guard the border. Which means Joe Arpaio probably still doesn’t feel very free, that ungrateful wretch.

In this, the Land of the Free, we are all feeling very put-upon. We are watched, we are over-armed with guns and fear, we are told how we ought to think (so very much I snarl at phrases like “you’re doing it wrong” and “schooled” in headlines) and what to do. But I figure it’s not because we’re all prisoners, but because we have set ourselves the unpleasant and endless task of being guards.

My brother is a prison guard. He said, “People don’t go to prison for being bad. They go to prison for being stupid.” By stupid, I think he meant “high on drugs.” Or stupid as in, “anybody who doesn’t value the things I value.” So a lot of that lack of freedom is rather self-imposed.

Imagine every human in America, and some pets, with their index fingers stuck in both ends of one of those bamboo finger traps. Tugging for dear life—tugging for freedom. And if you relax, you loser, you will be The Worst American in Americaland. Keep it up! There are certain kinds of confinements that will do you no good.

And there are certain kinds of confinements that might do us good. A pregnant woman might choose to be confined to protect a child’s life and her own. An addict might give his life over to residential rehab for a time. I was recently confined, for my own good, on a psych ward. I went voluntarily, because there were voices in my head. A lot of them.

What were they saying? Oh, you know, the usual: they chanted, “you are a loser because you hear voices” and “we knew you would give up sooner or later.” They were right, of course. But they kept me up night after night with their chanting and after several sleepless nights, the voices were even louder.

Let me use Oscar Wilde’s “de Profundis” present tense to describe a stay in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, for that experience resides in a hideous timelessness, though it lasted only a handful of days:

It is hard for me to concentrate on what the psychiatrist is saying because I am too busy hating the pajamas that tie in the back, which is what strait jackets do. But the psychiatrist assigned to my case explains my addiction like this:

You are the hobbit. You are in the cave with the sleeping dragon. You’re safe now because he sleeps, but you see all that gold, all that treasure. You want it, but if you dare take a piece of the gold, you might set off a little avalanche. That might make the dragon stir, make him roll over. Maybe not awaken him, but are you going to take that chance?

I have had a day’s sleep by the time this story is told to me, so it’s not going to put me to sleep as The Hobbit used to (the movies do a pretty good job making me slumber). His use of storytelling to heal me feels just a little corny, especially when I’ve made my own way in the world as a storyteller, but today I am grateful for any metaphor. Here in the psyche ward, everything is idiotically literal. In the medieval pageant, the parade of figures represent something else—Adam the first man, Eve and her apple of knowledge. In the psyche ward, nobody resonates beyond themselves; they are mad in all the different ways one can be mad, and the pageant never ends. Every day, two or three new characters arrive.

When you fill out your preferences for your meal, you have many choices, and you can have all you want, but if you don’t circle “spoon” with the stubby golf pencil you have to give back right after completion, you’re not going to get a spoon. Do not assume you will get packets of salt and pepper as a matter of course; you must request it. It is difficult to ask for the meat to be cooked rare or to hold the cheese on the ham and cheese. I circle the Italian salad dressing option and receive a packet of dressing—but no salad.

The golf pencils are a brief treat, for the benefit of the kitchen staff rather than us. Even then, they are all blunt. For the rest of the day, if we want to write anything, we have to use crayons. For the first three days, I only write once in my journal, because I am that ill, and I write in crayon, like a child, “THE SHARPEST CRAYON IN THE BOX IS STILL JUST A CRAYON AND NOT MUCH SHARPER THAN THE DULLEST CRAYON IN THE BOX AND IT REMAINS SHARP BECAUSE IT IS THE LEAST USEFUL.”

There is nothing sharp on the psyche ward, not even a plastic knife for dinner. I haven’t shaved because that must be monitored. And while I would like to keep a journal, my hand cramps quickly and what is left of the point of the periwinkle crayon is rubbed flat. I pick up another crayon and work a little longer. I am describing my fellow patients so I can remember not to turn up here again.

At lunch, everybody is friendly, if a little depressed. I’d say four of them are perfectly capable people, but there’s something a little too much or too little running through their minds. Every morning, Evan, who loves the San Francisco Giants, meets me as if for the first time, because even though we met days ago, and have discussed our love of baseball and all of his hobbies and family, the drugs they give him just before dinner make him a drooling imbecile, so that each morning, he comes to—Groundhog Day has begun again. Our friendship is a delicate day long, like the life of a mayfly. I am happy to talk to him about the Giants, again. I like to make him happy, which is easy, because I already know before he tells me—he lights up with joy when in the same breath I say Giants and Will “the Thrill” Clark. “I love him too!” What an amazing coincidence that must seem to him. They are trying to come up with the right combination and right dosage of a psychotropic drugs for Evan. Nobody asked me, but it seems to me like they’re not even close. In three hours I will say goodbye to him. We will meet again. I envy his glorious blackouts.

What is your idea of hell? Dante’s descriptive details are just that: details. It’s his hitting upon the cold idea that there’s a God who won’t stop punishing, ever, that creates the need for disbelief. I watched a documentary about water babies, in which parents would take their infants into a pool, blow in their faces, and dunk them, then bring them up, blow in their faces again, and dunk them again. This, Dante could only conjure, this endless cycle of trying to catch your breath and never quite recovering. When hiking up hills in high windy altitudes I think of the poor water babies, as I try to steady the gulps of thin air into my lungs and get an unexpected gust from a gale whipping over me. Poor water babies. Poor me. We are in hell.

There’s a thin, pretty Pakistani woman hogging the pay phone outside the nurses’ station. She’s suffering from something called “personality disorder,” which is both a vague and vivid explanation for her behavior. She’s the stranger who would look over your shoulder at an ATM machine. Somehow she has fashioned a businesswoman’s drag by shaping a sari out of her thin blue institutional bedspread and the blue informational folder entitled “Welcome to YOUR Psyche Ward” and she has written in golf pencil several phone numbers, and she is ticking them off, lawyers, parents, siblings, old colleagues, trying to talk her way out. If only she would quit struggling, I think. Are the numbers on her folder real? Are the conversations real? What is real in hell?

The Pakistani girl likes to try and take over a lot—your space, the nurse’s leadership role, your confidence. She finished uneaten food off everybody’s trays when we are or seem done, so I start calling her “The Closer,” and saying this to one of the nurses makes her smile against her better judgment. One morning while doing the sit-down exercises, The Closer moves her chair closer and closer to mine until I am forced to either confront her or move. I move. This enrages her. After the exercises, as we head into group therapy, she says, diabolically, “You know that now you’ve been admitted into the crazy house, you’ll never be allowed to own a gun ever again.”

I have never owned a gun, and mostly I have never been interested in guns. Suddenly, I have never wanted a gun more in my life. I want any freedom at this moment; the freedom to bear arms will do. The Closer’s devil and my devil do a little dance under the new moon.

There’s an Asian girl who must have been diagnosed with motormouth, but she’s smart and when she talks she talks eloquently and about science and math. She likes to write, too, and we find the least-blunt crayons to share. Only she likes to write on the insides and outsides of Styrofoam cups. She says she likes the feel of the Styrofoam squishing, the satisfaction of the words imprinting deep, as if she is chiseling words on stone. I see her point. She has a lot of hats. She has a lot of clothes. Most of us have been here only a short time and won’t stay long, but she has been here for weeks. She would like to go home. Everybody would like to go home.

But there’s very little difference between the two of us when we are writing with the blunt stubby crayons. We both look like desperate unkempt detectives jotting down clues, hoping to solve the mystery of what happened.

There is a nice Mexican mother here, a little spindly bird, and she has been self-destructive. I speak a little Spanish, so she talks to me. In the morning during exercise (everybody must remain seated during exercise, lest somebody make a quick run at somebody, so the exercises are the sort that you perform on long plane flights in order to avoid thrombosis—I am pretending that my time on the ward is just a long plane flight), she perks up, like Evan, because she believes today is the day they will let her go home. She is not that depressed any more, she insists. Her husband and children, all at least twice her size, come every day after work, with flowers and candy and kisses, but also with the news that she can’t come home, she has to get better. This news, oh my, depresses her. It is a feedback loop and who goes to hospitals to get better? I had friends, loyal good friends, visit me every evening, too. Some patients never get visitors. They watch me chat and laugh with my pals, a glimpse into ordinary life that we privileged people outside that hallway experience, and it is very hard for them to see it. They tell me so.

I am here to sleep. It is what I do. So many borrowed days when I did not sleep, and now I am paying back the days. Just one night, and the hallucinations are gone. Mostly. I can make them come back, even with the dose of Risperidone, but I know what they are and I can, oddly, make them stop. They let me sleep as long as I like, and I get out of a lot of art therapy and spiritual encounters. I feel like I’m taking up a much-needed bed, and my fellow patients sense I’m a short-timer.

LaTonya, a scarecrow of a girl who is mostly fun and a joker and was a ballerina when she was younger, gets weird after her experimental dosage at dinner. She spends the rest of the evening coming on to me. We are watching Schindler’s List on the big screen television, and one hour in, she pops up and says, “I thought all this was gonna be a comedy.” She was going to use the movie’s good-time laughs to loosen me up, sitting on the couch sectional piece across from her. Now she will have to depend on her own feminine wiles. She hangs upside down and spreads her straightened legs wide almost into the splits in the air, so that her crotch is unmitigated and the closest part of her body to my face.

She is barking up the wrong asparagus, of course. I would rather be watching the Academy Awards, anyway. You haven’t been to an Academy Awards party until you’ve been to an Academy Awards party on a psyche ward. My friends invited me to an Academy Awards party, but I can’t even text them to see how that party is going.

I get what I wanted: freedom of a horrid sort. I duck out, disappear, get away. And now I am as confined as I have ever been.

I also achieved what the ancients had quested to do over the millennia. Andre Breton, in his first “Surrealist Manifesto,” defined fanaticism: “The insane are merely victims of their imagination.” I had imagined, and dreamed while awake. Unfortunately, when your dreams are layered over daily life, the dissonance is the psychic equivalent of fingers on a chalkboard. Trying to believe in two totally different things—in both dreams and reality, for example—can pull you apart. It is like the disjointed voices of a many-headed gods, we don’t know what gesture to heed, which mouth to listen to. That is the overlay of waking and sleeping.

It is my mad friends on the ward who make me realize that I have done something repugnant. I have steered myself to this place, avoided every reality considering it too painful, too wearying, too repetitive, too intense. And here are a dozen people who, taken out of the everyday world that I was through with, are doing everything in their power to get to it. And then one morning at the end of chair exercises, the nurse made the announcement: I would be going home today. I wish he hadn’t done that. Perhaps announcing other people’s dismissal from the ward is a way of encouraging other patients to work hard, buck up, smile for chrissake. I think it backfires. What could be worse than hell than watching somebody else leave hell?

When one spends enough time controlled or confined, one begins to have the mind of a criminal. I have watched ex-cons walk into the room and have seen them look around to see how everything in it can be weaponized, lead pipes, ropes, trophies, the dumbbells, even Mrs. Peacock’s earrings can something to rip from her ears. When you feel cornered, you feel you need to defend yourself at every moment. And that is exhausting. And that is America: weaponized, controlling, and exhausted.

When I walked out of the ward, I would have liked to have conjured for you a scene from Shawshank Redemption—me, breathing in the sweet, sweet air of freedom (which I imagine is the smell of cotton candy and deep fried things at the state fair). But in fact my wings weren’t strong enough to lift me into that carnival ride. I took the long way home, on foot, and then on gassy old Chicago buses that labored up hills and gave way for every car and pedestrian. Bus drivers teach me that the way to live in the free world is to always assume that I go last.

The butterfly is compelled by nature to remain in a chrysalis until its “arms” are strong enough to break out of it on its own—if you “help” it by liberating it too soon, it will certainly die. And so I suggest to you, my beloved country, until and when you are strong enough: relax. We are in some sort of chrysalis as a nation, and we need to let our wings be strong enough to carry us off. And when you are strong enough, let the finger cuff slip off your bound fingers. Confine your control, and control your confinements. In your strength, set yourself and others free.


Rumpus original art by Max Winter.

Brian Bouldrey has written eight books, most recently Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica, and edited seven anthologies, including Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, published this year. He teaches creative writing and literature at Northwestern University. More from this author →