Passing by Fred Pelka

“You don’t want to check this box like that.”
The kid doesn’t have to look down to know which box the man means.
Standing before the counter at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles,
he’s hoping to get his driver’s license,
but this is before the ADA, before five-oh four,
so there’s nothing in any law will protect him.
“Have you ever been hospitalized for mental illness
Yes or no?”
and honest to a fault he’s checked “Yes.”
Yes, he’s been a mental patient:
owning that label, that epithet,
those two words joined at the hip.
“You check it like that,” the man says,
“and they’ll turn you down for sure.”
He hands the kid another sheet:
“So you go back and fill it out right.”
“Right” of course doesn’t mean honestly,
with integrity or self-respect,
but with an appreciation of the reality:
Once a mental patient, always a mental patient.
So he lies, then signs below the text that lists
all the various penalties for perjury:
so many years in prison, so many thousands in fines.
Mental Patient:
the two-headed dumb-bell he will have to lift for the rest of his life:
applying for work, for entrance to college, for health insurance
and what else?
His gay friends tell him about passing;
about that limbo some must inhabit to survive.
He returns with the box properly checked
and the man tells him,
“Now you’re getting with the program.”


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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.


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