I’ve learned a lot in my 78 years on this Earth, but the leanings of madness have been the most impactful. Madness is truly only erroneous perceptions from which one comes to justifiable conclusions. And those erroneous perceptions are only based upon the veil of reality: a standardized perception we expect all to employ. But you see, madness is only ever just a rock’s skip from sanity for each of us. We spend our lives teetering on the edge, tightly walking down the thin corridor of mental stability, trying not to slip. But when I was only 14 years-old, I took a slight but rather costly detour off that corridor to find a certain slice of Hell awaiting folk like me on this otherwise decent Earth.
For the first half of my childhood I lived on a little farm in a town called Alamuchy, New Jersey. I expect to die on that same farm just as my parents did and Papa’s parents before them. I say the first half of my childhood because the second was marred in darkness.
All it took was one evening stroll past Miss Paula’s house where I saw her legs wrapped around Papa’s hips through the bedroom window. It was contrary to everything he told me about our faith. A good Catholic doesn’t cheat on his wife. A good Catholic never even so much as looks at his neighbor’s wife, he’d tell me. So that night I brought it up to him when he returned home. He got back late: probably around 11, but I waited up for him. What I’d seen wasn’t a sight for any 14-year-old’s eyes, especially when it involved her own father. He didn’t take kindly to my questions, to say the least. He said, “Alma, what were you doing at Miss Paula’s house?”
“I thought we were good Catholics,” I replied, tears rolling down my cheeks. “You had sex with Miss Paula. What’s Momma going to say about this?”
He grabbed my arm and looked into my eyes, with the same blackened stare he gave the cattle before taking them to the slaughter. “You didn’t see nothin’, you hear?”
But just as much as he’d cheated on Momma, I felt he’d cheated on me as well. I felt no obligation to keep his dirty secrets, rather a duty to tell Momma and punish his sins. I never wanted to see him again. I refused to keep his secret. And the next morning, I got what I wanted, just not in the manner I wanted it.
Poppa started up the ’51 Chevy Styleline at around dawn and told me we were going to see a play called The Music Man in New York City. I’d never seen a play before, but I’d heard of how magnificent they were: the sparkling lights, the beautiful orchestras. I packed a couple changes of clothes in my school bag and hopped in the car without a second thought. I was too young and dumb to consider the timing.
And so we drove, but as we crawled further into our drive and the silence between us grew more ominous, I began to question the veracity of the trip. But I didn’t say a word, I was too afraid to pierce the silent air. About an hour later, we pulled up to the biggest building I’d ever seen, but it sure wasn’t in New York City. To get there, Papa drove down a long dirt road, not too different from the farm’s driveway. The building was so big I could see it from miles away. It stood with its gothic walls alone in a clearing at the end of the lengthy road, hidden from society in a seemingly tranquil cove of trees.
When we finally reached the building, a woman in white opened the front doors and gave my father the whitest smile this side of the Delaware. But when she saw me, her lips turned to a concerned frown. “Go ahead sweetie,” she said. I walked through the front doors as she’d commanded, expecting her and Papa to be close behind. I was once again sorely mistaken.
When I was one step in the building, admiring the vastness of the foyer, I felt Papa’s hand lightly slap the back of my head twice. “Be good, Alma,” he said. He handed the woman in white some papers and the doors slammed shut behind us. That was the last time I saw him.
“What is this place? What’s going on?” I cried, my head darting every which way.
Beyond the foyer were the dead, only they hadn’t quite passed yet. The porcelain white hallways were riddled with the shuffling, drooling victims of their own minds. One scratched at a door with bloody fingertips mumbling, “howdy neighbor,” over and over again, each iteration followed by a high-pitched laugh. Another went patient to patient asking, “has anyone seen my sweet little boy?” Each time she asked, she placed a soft hand on their shoulder and gave them puppy eyes, poking out from her frazzled dark blonde hair. A third woman had her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, rocking back and forth on the muddied tile floor. Actually, I could never tell if it was mud, blood, accumulating saliva, or a mix of all three. Her face was obscured by her disheveled black hair covering her sobbing eyes.
“You’re going to stay with us for a while,” the woman in white said. “My name’s Wilma, but you won’t be seeing much of me. I usually handle the back-office work. We have a lot of friends here at Cedar Grove, as you can see.” She forced out a nervous laugh. It wasn’t New York City, but it sure was crowded. “I’ll just show you to your room and then the doctor will come see you shortly. He’ll explain more about your –”
I shook my head vigorously and interrupted her. “No, no, this is a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here. You don’t understand. I was supposed to go see The Music Man and the orchestras and the City and…” I trailed off, not able to string my thoughts together coherently as we grazed on by the insane. We passed by a man who caressed the wall with all his fingertips and looked straight up towards the ceiling as if he was climbing it. Another shook his head with a look of pure bliss on his face and his tongue hanging from his fat lips, like a dog with its head out the car window.
Wilma more or less ignored it all. I could tell this was all routine for her – just another day in Cedar Grove. But it was the predictability of the madness that worried me the most. This was how life would be on its good days. No better, but maybe a little worse. “Alma, sweetie, it’ll all be okay. We’re only here to help you. Don’t you worry, you’re in the best of – ” her words were drowned out by a piercing scream from the room on the right. I’d never heard such terror from a man in my 14 years, but it wasn’t nearly the worst I’d hear over the next six. We reached a door, indistinguishable from the rest, and stopped walking. “Here we are,” Wilma declared. When we stopped I felt like a chicken in a coop. If you’re a chicken packed in wing-to-wing with the next and you stop moving, it’s only a matter of time. Papa would always take the one that was the easiest to grab.
Wilma fumbled around with her oversized keyring and cycled through each one. “No, that’s not it,” she mumbled. My head darted every direction again, anticipating to be plucked from the coop, the only question was by whom. To the right of my room stood a girl not much older than me, maybe 20 years-old. She smiled with her over-bitten jaws, lips collapsed inwards. Her smile looked more like a first-grader’s pencil drawing, with a single harsh line curling beneath her flattened nose. Though it was strange and I didn’t know her yet, I could tell it was genuine. Her eyes squinted against her rising cheeks. Once I made eye contact with her, she slowly rose her elbow and positioned her open palm parallel to her head, then waved. Seeing her wave was the first time I felt truly welcomed in the place I should have never been. My shoulders relaxed and my fear briefly subsided long enough for me to wave back and afford the girl a light smile.
Just then, I saw a set of fingers creep over her left shoulder like a spider. A head of dark blonde hair edged closer to her from behind. My wave turned to a pointing and gasp, but the girl ignored my fright and continued to wave. “Has anyone seen my sweet little boy?” the woman said from behind her. I thought we had walked far enough from her that I might never see her again, but she’d wandered right along with us.
“Here we are,” Wilma said. She twisted the key in the handle of the iron-enforced door, then pulled it open. I could tell by Wilma’s light grunts that the door was abnormally heavy. “This will be your room during your stay here. Dr. Quail should be in within the hour. He’s very busy today so I’m afraid I can’t give you a better estimate than that.” Wilma gestured for me to enter the room and I did. As frightening as it all was, I was relieved to have my own space away from the chaotic hallways we had walked down. Just before leaving, Wilma turned back towards me. She looked straight at me, but only for a second. “Oh, and Alma – all the best to you.” She couldn’t bare look at me for too long. A certain sadness or pity overwhelmed her. Wilma darted away with her gaze stuck to the floor as if she was embarrassed by the interaction. The door slammed shut behind me, but Wilma didn’t lock it. I’m couldn’t tell if she forgot to, or if it was customary for the patients to wander the halls.
As heavy as that door was, it wasn’t sound-proof. I could still hear the incessant screaming echoing down the hallway and a man banging his head against the wall outside. I could even faintly hear the blonde woman searching for her son.
It took about two hours for the doctor to arrive. When he finally came into the room, he was looking as distraught as a patient. He shook his head, then shut the door behind himself. He patted his striped black suit and quickly composed himself. He untucked the wooden clipboard from underneath his arm and pushed up his round glasses with his other hand. “Hello Miss…Darry. I apologize for being late. I’m Dr. Quail and I am the head doctor here at Cedar Grove. We wish you the warmest welcome and will do everything in our power to make you better.” His words were kind, but his tone was rehearsed. There was no inflection, no passion left in his elderly voice.
“Dr. Quail, it’s nice to meet you. But with all due respect sir, I’m not supposed to be here.” I motioned with flailing arms around my whole body. “I mean look at me. There’s nothing wrong here.”
He nodded with tight, stern lips and jotted something down on his clipboard.
“What are you writing there? I don’t understand any of this. I’m just a little girl. I’m not supposed to be here.”
For a moment he appeared to ignore me, continuing to write on a few lines of the first page. “I’m sorry Alma, but you’ve been committed here to Cedar Grove by people who love you and care about you. We are here to rehabilitate you and prepare you for life in polite society as best we can. You will stay here under our state-of-the-art care and supervision as long as you need.”
Just then I caught a glimpse through the door’s etched window of a woman zipping by the room strapped to a standing chair, wheeling down the hallway. She panted and heaved, and when she opened her mouth to cry I saw she was missing at least half her teeth.
The woman’s panic made me nearly as frantic, as if it were me wheeling down that hallway. Somehow, I knew one day it would be. “But Dr. Quail, you have to let me go. We have to run tests or do an assessment or whatever it is you do here. I’m fine, I’m mentally stable, I’m not supposed to be here.”
Dr. Quail didn’t write anything down this time. “Miss Darry, let me be frank with you. Your father committed you here for schizophrenic tendencies and I’ve been doing what I do long enough to tell you he isn’t wrong. In my short few minutes with you, you’ve already exhibited half the signs I’d need to commit you for life. You’ve shown me your bizarre hand motions, darting eyes, inability to maintain eye-contact, disorganized speech, aggressive mood – need I continue? This facility serves over thirty thousand patients and is quite too busy to conduct a needless assessment on our patients showing obvious symptoms.”
I scoffed with a shocked smile. “Schizophrenia? No, I’m here because I caught my father fucking –”
“Inappropriate laughter, visual hallucinations,” Dr. Quail interrupted.
I almost scoffed again, but caught myself, and just shook my head. “When can I leave?”
“You’ll stay as long as you need.”
“What is the minimum amount of time I have to stay here?” I annunciated each word harshly, hoping to not again be branded with ‘aggressive mood’ or ‘disorganized speech’.
“I don’t have time to repeat myself again, Alma: you will stay under our care until you are better.” He began to leave, but kept talking. “Now we will start treatments immediately, and depending on your reaction we will gauge your overall treatment plan. We will start you off with light dosages of opium and chloral hydrate twice a day – once in the morning and once at night. Any outbursts or refusal to take your medication will be dealt with accordingly. You need to help us help you. Understand? A patient doesn’t get better without the will to do so.”
It was at that moment I decided I would try to set the record for getting out of the loony bin. I’d do it faster than anyone had ever done before me. I’d behave myself, take the medications when I was supposed to even though I didn’t need them, and show them all just how sane I was. “Yes sir,” I said to him. For the first time, Dr. Quail appeared satisfied with my response. He nodded and saw himself out.
When the door shut again I made my way over to the desk in the corner of the room beside my bed. There was a box of fresh Dixon Crayons in the drawer, atop a stack of 10 sheets of white paper. I opened the box of crayons to reveal the six colors inside: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. I removed the red one and held it firmly in my left hand. I proudly scrawled a single tally on the top left corner of the desktop, then slipped the crayon back into the box. I took a moment to soak in my modest work. It was day 1 of my record escape. I’d be out of there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I told myself.
But silly little me always got in the way of my own success. Mama always said I’d still manage to trip over my own feet even if I only had one. On the night when only 3 tallies were etched into that desk, I sat in the bustling cafeteria, feeling strangely lonely. There was nearly no room to find a seat, and there definitely wouldn’t have been if a quarter of my fellow patients weren’t writhing on the floor. It was as if Dr. Quail had accounted for those folk when figuring Cedar Grove’s capacity. I tried to focus on the mixture of beans, lettuce, and peas on my plate, but it was admittedly difficult over the sounds of screaming and deep laughing. A man beside me tried to pet my hair. Luckily, I caught him in the act when his spraying saliva projected into my ear from his coughing. I squealed, grabbed my tray and stood from the table with my shoulders locked. When I turned around to find somewhere else to eat, I found that young waving girl from earlier standing behind me. It was a relief to see her – a familiar face. I grinned back at her, more broadly than I had any time in the last 3 days. “Hi, again. My name’s Alma. What’s your name?” I asked her, unsure if she’d understand me at all.
The girl’s mouth contorted, her maligned jaw springing into action and lips poking from out from her taught chin skin. “Tc-ah-ruh.” she said, struggling with every syllable.
“Cara?” I asked.
She shook her head and tried again. Th-thc-a-r-thcaruh.” It was equally incomprehensible.
She was getting frustrated, but she rose her hand with her index finger and thumb close together “Cloa-c. My mame ich…thz-ah-ruh.”
Her smile sprung again and she nodded with glee. She would have clapped if not for the tray of food occupying her hands.
“What a beautiful name,” I said. But I thought of how twisted it was that her name required so many teeth to pronounce, of which she had very few. I didn’t want to trouble her with more talking so instead I pointed to the end of a table around thirty feet away where there was about a foot and a half of open space. “Why don’t we eat together over there?”
She nodded, eyes squinting. Her thin red hair swayed with almost as much jazz as her face displayed. She was as lonely as I was. I had so many questions for her, but I thought it’d be better for us if we just sat and ate in silence.
But before we reached the table I heard a loud snorting coming from my right ear. Zara turned in disgust and cocked her head backwards. She let out a shrill cry of rage. I turned towards the snorting and saw that man who’d coughed in my ear only moments earlier finishing off a hearty sniff of my hair. I stepped away from him and squealed again. He chuckled deeply and wiped his snotty nose. Zara threw her tray to the ground, peas scattering everywhere across the dirty floor. I stepped backwards just as she lunged. When she flew forwards, Zara’s hands stayed by her side and her head catapulted towards the sniffer. She sunk her remaining teeth into his neck, her shrieking muffled against his skin. He wailed and cried out, “Nurse, nurse. Bited me, she bited me.”
Zara twisted her head like a gator on his neck, then pulled away. Blood poured from her loose lips, mixed in with her drool. The bite mark looked less bloody than her mouth and mostly consisted of slightly discolored skin from the pressure Zara exerted. She only had about six teeth left to wield against him after all. Nonetheless, a nurse in a white cap and gown came darting through the crowds, trying to poke her head out from the masses. “Is someone bit?” she called out. I could hardly hear her over the nonsensical chatter of the cafeteria.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed another two nurses converging in on us. One wheeled over that standing chair I’d seen roll by my room earlier. As I saw it approach, I remembered the horror contorted into that woman’s face. I grabbed Zara and pushed against the crowds away from the nurses. “Come on Zara, we have to go.” The man continued to dramatically scream and point at us. I realized he wouldn’t rest until we were apprehended. “She bited, she bited me.”
The crowd was too dense for us to push past, but the nurses managed to slip through with ease.
Something pulled at Zara from her other arm, and she was yanked from my grasp. I turned to see the nurses restraining her flailing limbs and strapping her to the standing chair. She twisted and struggled, crying out to me. “Ah-ma, Ah-ma.”
All my plans of an early escape fled out the open fence like the horses used to. My only concern was saving Zara, as fruitless as it seemed. “She didn’t do anything wrong. Let her go!” I cried out. I slapped at one of the nurse’s robes.
The nurse turned around and looked down at me, not delaying her efforts to strap Zara to the chair even a bit. They tossed a strap across Zara’s forehead and pulled it tight so the back of her head sunk into the cushion and her face turned pale. “A-ma.” They tightened a strap across her chin, and then all that came out of her mouth were sorrowful shrieks.
“Let her go, you witch. She was protecting me from that barbaric man!”
Two people suddenly grasped at my arms from behind me. I felt each arm slam into a cushioned chair. My eyes widened and lungs burst open. “Help, help,” I screamed. “She didn’t do anything wrong! Let us go.” The straps tightened around my wrists, then my ankles and thighs. Then they made their way towards my forehead and chin. As much as I cried out for help, the best I got was an aloof drooling expression from a woman with rail thin arms and her jaw hanging open, while the worst I received was childish clapping from the sniffer.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea as we were wheeled out one behind the other on those chairs. Why couldn’t they have done that for us when we tried to escape?
We wheeled through the halls to the background sounds of moans and screams and continuous clapping growing further and further away. I caught a short glimpse of a man painting on the wall of his cell with his own feces.
Zara’s chair forked down one hall and mine continued straight. I never saw her again – or at least not the same Zara.
A ways down the hall, my chair suddenly jerked to the side and into a room. The nurses lowered me on my back and extended the chair’s legs to create a makeshift medical table. With my face pointed towards the ceiling, I saw Dr. Quail waiting with crossed arms. “What did I tell you, Miss Darry? Any outbursts will be dealt with accordingly. It appears our dosages were not enough. Now, you have forced us into more extraordinary measures.” He turned towards his masked assistant and said. “Give me 100 units of insulin.”
I squirmed in the chair and screamed. I recognized my own screams from days past. They were the same screams I heard all day echoing down the corridors of Cedar Grove. “Let me go,” I cried out. “What are you doing to me?”
“The time for questions has passed, Miss Darry,” Dr. Quail said. The assistant handed him a long metal syringe. Dr. Quail slid his fingers into the rings on either side of the plunger, then shuffled down towards my legs. I couldn’t see anything below my chest with my head strapped to the chair. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pinch dash from my thigh and resonate from my toes to my forehead. I hollered in pain and began to feel delirious. The room around me spun lightly like a merry-go-round starting up.
“100 more, quick,” Dr. Quail demanded. “She’s a stoic one.”
All I could see were the shifting tiles on the walls and warping light fixtures. All I could do was wait for the second needle to pierce my thigh. I continued to moan, unable to exert a scream. Only moments later, that long needle pierced my thigh again. It dug deep through the muscle – so deep I thought the needle might come out the other side. The room spun more quickly, my eyelids collapsed in on themselves, a chill beneath my skin ran over my body and –
I tried to sit up on the flattened chair, only to realize I was still tightly restrained. Four nurses stood over me this time. Each stepped back as if they’d awoken Frankenstein’s monster when my eyes opened. I heaved for air like I’d never breathed before. At that point I noticed a tube sticking out of my nose. It was buried deep down my throat. I started gagging at the realization and tried to twist my head away from it to no avail. “Where am I? How long have I been out?” My voice came out with a nasally tone.
“She’s awake, doctor,” a nurse called out.
“Excellent,” Dr. Quail’s voice answered with eerie triumph. “150 more units.”
“No, no, no, no, no –”
Awake. Again. And again. And again. Over and over they’d knock me out with varying doses of insulin, then wake me up. I never knew how long I was out. Time grew hazy, reality subjective. I was never sure what they hoped to accomplish, and I was never awake long enough to devise a plan to feign success.
Again. 150 units. Again. Again. She’s awake. Alma’s up. 200 this time. Again. Again. I’d awake more delirious, in a growing pool of sweat each time.
Then, after countless injections, countless times awoken and put back under, I awoke to the songbird words from Dr. Quail I thought I’d never hear: “Ok that’ll do.”
The straps on my legs loosened first, then on my forehead and chin, then finally my arms and torso. Two nurses stood at either side of the bed and lifted my body upright. One of them looked much older than when I entered the room. If they weren’t holding me I was ready to collapse like a sack of potatoes.
When I was sat up, I saw my own body for the first time in God knows how long. I was at least 40 pounds heavier than when I’d arrived, or so I thought. But at that point I didn’t know up from down, left from right, reality from fantasy…sanity from insanity.
The nurses gently rested me upon the bed in my room sitting up. When they let go I fell to my side and groaned involuntarily. The groans were coupled with my breathing. I wondered if they were the same thing now, if every time I breathed from then on it would be followed by a groan.
In truth I wasn’t sure if I was even alive. I only figured out I still was when I decided no afterlife the Lord would provide could be as evil as the cell I laid in, not even in the deepest reaches of an icy Hell.
I’m not sure what Dr. Quail meant to do to me, but I could go as far as to say it worked. I never again spoke out of turn. I hardly spoke at all. I decided it was safest to communicate in nods and limited head shakes, never look around, and always keep your gaze pointed towards the floor.
When I was finally able to stand I made my way to the desk in the corner of the room opposite my bed. The first thing I noticed was three red wax tick-marks in the top left corner. They were quite faded, and smudged so much they nearly touched each other. It took me a moment to realize what it meant. Someone had been counting the days they’d been in the asylum. I couldn’t help but smile a bit. Whoever had been in my room before me had gotten out of the asylum in record time – only 3 days. Kudos to them.
I rubbed my bloated stomach and groaned along with every breath, sitting back on the bed. I couldn’t remember when I arrived at Cedar Grove. I didn’t know what day it was – never mind that, I didn’t know the year. All I could remember was a set of diagnoses floating aimlessly through my chaotic squashed mind alongside pictures of cats, pigs, and barn mice. Aggressive mood, disorganized horse, scurrying eye contact, chicken coop speech and…hallucinations. I thought about that person who’d gotten out in 3 days again and wondered why they’d ever want to leave such a lovely facility. I couldn’t imagine the terrors of the outside world. I couldn’t even imagine my name.