Twenty-one years ago, a week before Thanksgiving, you were admitted to Dorothea Dix State Psychiatric Hospital in Raleigh, NC. You were fourteen and manic and terrified. That night, two men drove you in a beige van with bright yellow tags to Williams building, the locked adolescent processing ward. You passed Spruill, the criminally insane ward surrounded by barbed wire. You thought, Please don’t stop here. They didn’t stop there. You leaned your head against the glass and swallowed the lump in your throat.
From the top of the stairs, you throw a Zenith remote at your stepmother’s head. She ducks and it smacks the front door.
“That’s it,” your father says, and calls the cops.
A cop arrives ten minutes later, but you’re already numb and he decides not to cuff you.
“It’ll be okay—we’ll get you help,” the cop says. “Let’s go.”
How do you make sense of this scene? You’re fourteen and sitting in the back of a police cruiser in your gravel driveway and your brain’s on fire and you disappoint people, including yourself. You are lonely because of your illness and your father’s divorce from a woman you barely know and will never see again, though you don’t know this yet; you don’t know you’ll stop visiting her entirely, that you two will talk once or twice a year on the phone when you’re an adult, that she’ll have a habit of calling you crying on your birthday. As far as you’re concerned, you’ll still visit her in Alabama and she’ll still talk shit about your father and you’ll leave feeling gut-punched, thinking, She’s right, I can’t trust my own goddamn father. You’re paranoid, too, and sometimes hallucinate and your entire body shakes in bed and your teeth chatter. People at school want to kill you, and tomorrow is always the day it’ll happen. It never does, but trust me, the voice says, it will. Watch. Did you see the way he glared at you? Maybe now it’ll happen in the hospital, this murder, and you wonder if the neighbors are thinking, Who’s this monster in our midst?
The cop tells your stepmother goodbye on the front stoop, and she cries. Your father will follow you to the hospital. Because your life will change forever, you look outside the cruiser window one last time before leaving.
There is the front yard where you played football by yourself because there were no boys your age in your dinky cul-de-sac neighborhood. Your parents and neighbors would smile and shake their heads at your one-man show. You played the quarterback, wide receiver, announcer, coach, and the opposing defense who “tackled” you. You’d run toward daylight and suddenly fall or dive to the ground to the cheers of the crowd. You were football crazy. You are still football crazy and hope the hospital will show the games.
Your first night is spent on the floor of a “quiet room,” a fancy term for solitary confinement: one wire-screened window and a mattress on the floor with a green plastic piss cover, made with sheets stamped “DDH.” Your shoes are kept outside to prevent suicide by shoelace. The metal door is dented from other pounding fists, and there’s a small observation window in its center. You wake and it’s the worst morning of your life. Nothing will ever compare. You stare out the window at the field, the endless field that would be perfect for football, but you will not be playing football today. The crowd won’t cheer; it’ll boo. Instead of football, there are keys jingling in the hall, a boy screaming that he wants to blow his brains out and a stocky man knocking on your door with clothes your father packed.
“Get showered,” he says. “Breakfast soon.”
The stocky man who will later be known for slamming boys up against Quiet Room walls shows you the bathroom, and the first thing you notice is the absence of mirrors.
Two decades later, you’ve finished writing a novel-in-stories, Crybaby Lane, based partly on your Dix experiences. No one wants the book, but you can write a killer query letter and wonder if the letter is better than the book. The letter yields a high manuscript request rate, which makes the rejections worse. You lived at Dix for a year and a half, moving from Williams to Cherry, the locked long-term ward up the street, and then to Ashby, the unlocked long-term ward run like a group home. There are fenced rec yards behind Williams and Cherry and an open basketball goal and field behind Ashby. All three drab brick buildings sit on a large hill with the rest of the campus that overlooks Raleigh’s skyline. “Dix Hill,” Raleighites call it. There are many Dix Hill stories to reimagine through fiction.
There’s the girl on Cherry ward who runs and never returns. The word “ran” is written beside her name on the whiteboard in the nurses’ station. It’s rumored she contracted HIV from the older man she ran with, the one she whispered to on the hallway payphone every night. He waited for her in his car at the Circle K across the street from campus, at the bottom of Dix Hill. In the day room, you all gossip and dismiss her fate over Cosby and People’s Court. But at night, in bed, you stare out your wire-screened window and wonder if she’s in the streets because her boyfriend treats her so terribly. You once saw her return from an off-campus pass with a black eye, and the day-room gossip confirmed your suspicions.
There’s the beloved healthcare tech who throws an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the kids. The staff donate and prepare food. For some of the kids, it’s the best Thanksgiving they’ll ever have, and you realize how lucky you are: you have a father and stepmother, a middle-class home, and a grandmother who pinches your cheeks and cooks splendid holiday spreads. Years later, when researching state mental hospitals, you find an article in the Raleigh News & Observer about the beloved healthcare tech. Dorothea Dix is closing. He’s devoted his life to Dix, and now the state wants to transfer him to the new hospital forty miles away. He must decline because he can’t afford to move or commute.
But there are still a few Thanksgivings left before the hospital closes, still kids to serve. Some of the kids will be orphans. Some will have pulled time in juvie. Many will be poor and will cycle through the system forever. A few will have mental and physical aliments. You remember one such girl: she was schizophrenic, a cutter, on dialysis for kidney failure. She ate alone in Cherry’s basement cafeteria with her clunky dialysis equipment, and you still see the scars and scabs running up her arms.
There’s the Canteen in McBryde building, the main adult ward on central campus, with pool tables, shuffleboard, table tennis, multiple TVs, and a snack bar. You stand in line for a snow cone behind a woman who turns and smiles, and you try not to laugh at her lipstick-smeared face. You see many women on campus who can’t apply their makeup.
“Hi,” she says. “I love you.”
There are the geriatric patients and the Christmas shows you perform for them. They wait all year for the arrival of the children.
“Here come the children,” one woman says. “My babies.”
You are always someone’s grandson. Many of them have lived here for decades. Some have been abandoned by their families, and you and your friends are happy to be their grandchildren, to sing them Christmas carols. Most of them clap, some stare out the barred windows and a few reach for your neck as you leave.
When writing the book, you realize it’s a book about community and place. You’ve read similar novels and collections: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, and Edward P. Jones’s Lost in The City. Your book will not be a snake-pit mental hospital book or a book that romanticizes madness. Instead, like your favorite books, it’ll reunite old friends.
So you’re thirty-five and a struggling writer. You were convinced your manuscript would be picked up immediately after you graduated from Western Michigan’s creative-writing PhD program. Within a year, you told yourself.
But, in addition to numerous agents rejecting the book, you lose every major book contest. You don’t even place, for God’s sake. You are despondent and humiliated. Your life has been one humiliation after another, and it began the night you sat in the police cruiser. You’d be lying if you said you’ve never considered suicide. You have. The thoughts are symptomatic and the medical term is suicidal ideation. The dirty little secret about suicide is that its potential is a source of comfort.
One night, after your latest rejection, your brain is racing from a mixed episode of mania and depression. You walk into the living room of your fourth-floor apartment and consider running through the double window, allowing the street to tackle you after you explode through glass. Pretend you’re playing football. But a voice says, Stop, Michael. It’s Ms. Crews, your favorite healthcare tech on Ashby ward, who doted on you and believed in you and treated you like a normal human being. You’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. In your book, you worked hard to show the good staff as much as the bad staff and now she’s saying No, no, don’t do it. You can’t let her down. You return to bed. You cry, wishing you could hug her. You desperately need someone to hug. You haven’t seen Ms. Crews in two decades, yet you know you two would embrace immediately. That’s a love story.
Here’s another love story: There was a library on Cherry ward. Once, before you left with your father for Christmas Pass, you checked out Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. You fell in love with Dickens and Little Nell and returned to the hospital a week later happier than when you left, because the book was profound and you could discuss it in hospital school. Little Nell’s death destroyed you. You were too young to articulate your writerly ambitions—you were fourteen and still obsessed with sports and making the NFL—but now, in bed, this same night you almost ran through the window, you remind yourself that a writer is a reader first, that whenever you’re alone and humiliated, there’s always a book to read. There’s always a Little Nell. You realize books have always been your best companions, your old friends, that Dix and its people are a book that never closes.
Ms. Crews would be proud, too, because she valued literacy and reminded you to think beyond sports. You realize that when you played football by yourself, you were a reader before you were a serious reader, you were engaging your imagination. You realize the only way to live tonight is to get out of bed and return to the living room and read until you fall asleep with the city’s lights shining through your window.