Karen

Either you were a civilian, or you were a veteran. There was no in between for Karen. Never knew where the next meal was coming from as a kid? Beer bottles made brown explosions on the wall during fights between M & D? Veteran. Got the crusts cut off from the lunches your mom made you every morning? Taken on annual summer vacations that you complained about for being “lame”? Civilian.

While most people would consider being adopted as qualifying you for veteran status, Karen felt like she still hadn’t earned it. So she started going on undercover missions. Did shit like mess up her hair, forego makeup, wear her crappiest clothes, and panhandle. On the missions when she was homeless like this, she’d talk with the actual homeless, level with them as one of their own. When her mission was complete, she’d divvy up her earnings amongst the people who actually needed it and head back home. When she did this enough times in her hometown, she’d take the Amtrak to other cities, other states, so as not to arouse suspicion.

She’d watched Titicut Follies. While she assumed that the treatment of those who’d found themselves in the psych ward had no doubt improved since then, she still needed to know what it was like. So she stopped at the 7-Eleven that was a block down from the nearest hospital and bought three of their strongest energy drinks. Chugged them, one after the other, to induce a “manic state.” Left her ID at home so they couldn’t alert M & D. It was during the summer, so Karen was even able to tell her parents that she’d be staying the week at a friend’s. Waited a half hour or so for the energy drinks to take effect. Figured it was time to check in once her vision got hazy and her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest.

She’d psyched herself up beforehand, thought she’d need to to make it convincing. Thing is, once she got into that reception area and the lights were too bright and she met the bland indifference of the receptionist and felt like she might pass out, she didn’t need to act. Could barely get out that she’d been having suicidal thoughts, constant panic attacks on top of that. And then she was made to wait, for how long she didn’t know. And then she was led to a concrete hole of a room, a room with nothing more than a metal slab that you were meant to lie on and a smattering of cameras. The kind with a door that locked once it closed.

For some reason, they put her in the wing that housed those who were prone to violence. At least, that’s what Karen assumed once she’d witnessed two fights within a half hour of being there. Most of the people in this wing had done things you’d usually be arrested for, but had done them in a way that freaked out the cops involved to the point where they didn’t want to deal with them. Stuff like resisting arrest by biting. Taking off their shirt before getting in a fight, then dropping their pants too. These people gave the rest of the patients a bad name, Karen decided.

Maybe she’d been placed there because of her high anxiety. Who knows. But they eventually realized their mistake and placed her in a wing with other suicidals, mostly quiet types who either ate too much at meals or not enough. Who had to excuse themselves from groups because of crying spells. Who stayed in bed for days at a time. Who sported thousand yard stares and took a few seconds to respond when you called their name.

These were people who would sit down next to you and strike up a convo if they sensed that you needed one. And that’s the funny thing about veterans of that kind of shit: They could always sense that you needed one. Once you’ve been to the depths and back, you become acutely aware of others’ internal states. Sensitive to their inner sufferings.

They kept her longer than anyone else. It wasn’t because she hammed it up or anything. She ditched the act after day four, but apparently they saw something that she didn’t and decided to keep her there longer.

It’s the silent moments you have to reflect that get to you. One after another, her new friends left, slipping her their number scrawled on the backs of group therapy schedules, scratched in with the nubs of pencils.

She was encouraged to share in group, and she did. She went in with a whole character bio and story ready, but all of that fell away after she made her friends. Making it all up didn’t seem right when they were letting everything out. So she talked. About finding out she was adopted as a kid. About collecting everything she could carry in a backpack and running away. About getting picked up by a cop and brought home three days later. About not being able to talk for another three days after that, memory wiped. All of it.

Karen left with a prescription for an SSRI she’d never take, a hospital wristband she’d keep in a lockbox with the numbers after she’d put them into her phone. They gave her fare for the bus, the card for a therapist who accepted Medicaid. She hadn’t planned on riding the bus till its final destination, but that’s what happened. She got off at the end, caught a bus going back home, and looked out the window. Watched the way that dusk played with the sky, purple segueing into black.

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