This vignette is part of Ted Chabasinski’s autobiography in progress.
I was fifteen. My birthday had come and gone and, as always, no one had noticed but me.
I was fifteen, and I had been in Bellevue and Rockland State Hospital for more than half my life. I knew that I would be there until I died, becoming one of the crazy patients in Building 58, hanging from the bars of the porches — raving, screaming, making noises like animals in the zoo.
It was Easter now, and I was home in the Bronx for a visit with my father. It took me several days before I could get up the courage to buy the bottle of aspirin. I had asked Doctor Nicolau about whether you could kill yourself with some common things. Like, could you die if you ate too much salt? Too much cheese? A lot of aspirins? I had hoped he would think I was only expressing a kind of scientific curiosity. He assured me that, yes, if you took enough aspirin, you could die. You could kill yourself with almost anything if you took enough of it, he said. I was glad that I had not aroused his suspicions, and that he had told me what I needed to do to kill myself.
I went to the drugstore and bought a pack of Kent cigarettes and a bottle of five hundred aspirins. I wanted to be cool like everyone else, like the other boys smoking in the section, like the tough guys in the movies. And I knew these cigarettes were the best, because it said in the newspaper ads that they used a very scientific filter, made of asbestos, just like the filters they used in atomic energy plants.
That night I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, inhaling smoke as best I could, choking and coughing but trying very hard to look cool. I tried to blow smoke rings like a movie star, but I could barely breathe. I tried hard for several days, and I never got the hang of it. But it helped me distract myself from what I needed to do, and was terrified of doing.
Finally I realized that I couldn’t put it off any longer and I took a big glass from the kitchen and mixed over half of the tablets in lukewarm water. My glass of poison tasted terrible, I could barely swallow it, and I had to leave some in the glass. I went to my room and waited to die.
I felt a little dizzy, and very afraid. I couldn’t face going back to Rockland, but death was beginning to feel even more scary.
I went to the living room, where my father was drowsing on the couch as he always did, smoking his pipe and watching television. It looked like a wrestling program, where Gorgeous George was prancing about, pretending to wrestle people but just putting on a very weird but popular show. I thought it was just as crazy as anything I’d seen in Rockland, except that people liked it, I suppose.
“Daddy, I just took hundreds of aspirins, and I feel sick.”
“What? Sit down and watch TV with me. Gorgeous George is on.”
“Daddy, I just took two hundred aspirins so I could kill myself.”
“What? What? Kill yourself? What?”
I felt dizzy and sat down on the broken easy chair. When I tried to get up I nearly collapsed.
My father helped me to the bedroom and called the doctor.
Soon the doctor arrived, and asked me what had happened. I was still able to talk sense, and said I had taken the aspirins.
“Why did you do that?”
“I wanted to kill myself.”
“Well…” The doctor began talking to my father. He said that two hundred aspirins would make me very sick, but my life was in no danger.
I don’t know whether I was happy or disappointed to hear that.
“Ordinarily I would send him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped,” the doctor said, “But if I do that, they’ll put him on the psychiatric ward, and I want to protect him from that.”
Even in my increasingly dazed state, I almost laughed. Still, I knew better than to say anything more.
The doctor told my father to try to get me to drink soapy water so that, hopefully, I would throw up and get rid of some of the aspirins. My father tried this but my stomach was insistent that I keep the aspirins, my deliverance, in my body.
For several days, I lay in bed, semi-conscious, barely aware of my surroundings. Then Rockland sent a car and a couple of attendants to pick me up. One of the attendants was Mr. Carville, the man who played the saxophone. On the way to Rockland, he kept patting my knee. I knew he was gay, and I got slightly freaked out, wondering what he meant. Eventually I realized he was trying to comfort me.
But you had to be careful about things like that, because if people thought you were a faggot, it was one of the worst things that could happen to you, almost as bad as being a crazy patient in Building 58.
They took me to the infirmary in Building 10, and I think I was there for several weeks. After a while I could walk around, but I was in a state of great confusion, and I was having hallucinations. I heard the voices of crowds outside the building saying “We want Ted!” I heard my followers demanding me day and night, I who was a hopeless schizophrenic, someone barely human. Every sound whispered to me, making me feel I was a person of importance.
And, apparently, because I was not fully conscious for a long time, I was wandering around to other inmates’ rooms, not able to take care of myself, the closest to being actually crazy that I have ever been.
Finally, they sent me back to Building 37, and almost as soon as I arrived in the familiar place my mind cleared of the delusions and hallucinations, although often in the background it sounded like voices whispered to me, even though I knew they weren’t real.
I was still only fifteen, and still trapped in Rockland, and still completely despairing. I had tried to escape my fate and I had failed.
Now I am much older, and I wish there were some way I could go back and comfort myself, and tell that child, still inside me now but sixty years away, that his life was going to be better. But at least I can comfort other children now, fight for them, give my life the meaning that the psychiatrists tried to deny me. Yes, in some way Rockland and Bellevue left me with something worthwhile, some knowledge of how I should live, some direction to my life that even now keeps me moving forward.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.