- The Trial Cat Kidd
It’s not quite like you were raised in a refrigerator crate,
fed on fossil cubes of crusty bread, cheddar cheese and grapes
left over from your best friend Molly’s father’s trade conventions,
with not a stitch to wear but that hideous pair of blue & yellow
striped institution pyjamas. You weren’t brought up in a box
like Caspar Hauser or B.F. Skinner’s daughter, set loose on
the world like the sole surviving member of your own species,
though these scenarios come pretty close to describing the time
you went AWOL from Cedar Grove, that damn psych unit which
took huge bites out of your so-called formative years.
It’s a wonder you even got as far as Molly’s bedroom closet
without getting caught and brought back to Cedar Grove,
but back in the early eighties there was nothing so strange
about pale-faced fifteen-year-olds with hacked-up hair,
wearing hideous pyjamas and stolen bowling shoes, hanging
around Kootenay Loop in the wee hours, trying to conceal
what resembles a series of festival passes, or hospital bracelets.
But just five days later, Molly’s father detects your presence
in his daughter’s closet, but only because it’s very difficult to
piss silently in his missing roast pan. You’re found crouching
over it when he goes to investigate the source of the sound,
like rain on a hot tin roof – and is lead to Molly’s bedroom closet,
where he opens the door and looks down.
Too soon you’re picked up in that crummy white van
and carried back to Cedar Grove, where it’s noted in your
Treatment Plan that you’re a “runner” which really sucks
because you’d much rather have been a “sneaker”.
The name “Cedar Grove” makes it sound like the most charming
place on earth, while the names of the individual units are similarly
misleading. “Cottage Three” at Cedar Grove is also known as the
“Locked Unit”, intended for the violently disturbed, kids who pull
knives on other kids or teachers. They don’t put you in there.
Cottage Two is for the behaviourally impaired,
maybe they refuse to eat, bathe, or get out of bed.
You’re not put there, either. You’re assigned to Cottage One,
instead, which appears to be the unit for the true blue loonies.
You soon feel fairly at home, if one’s sense of home includes
severe perpetual embarrassment and a paranoid sense of being
watched at every moment.
The characters who people your life in Cedar Grove
are characters indeed. Running down the hall just now
is Pamela, who’s plump and pink and dashes about barking
like a dog. Once, when men come to fix the vents, Pamela
spreads a rumour they’re planning to gas us all to death,
claims it’s some new provincial policy regarding the mentally ill.
She whispers this to each of us by turn – about half, believing it,
begin to wail endlessly.
Another Cottage Oner, call him Ned, has an alleged
group of little men living in his closet. According to Ned,
the men resemble jawas in brown burlap robes, about two
feet tall with red eyes. Ned tries to provide the little men
with a reasonable quality of life. He brings them half his
dinner every night, sausages and potatoes in the pockets
of his robe, and he sings to them. Their favourite song
seems to be Friends of Mr. Cairo by Jon and Vangelis,
a 30’s-gangster-fantasy about the chase to find the
Maltese Falcon, which Ned knows by rote, word for word
and note for note, with sound effects, machine gun fire and
reasonably fair impressions of Peter Lorre and James Cagney.
Ned also involves himself in clandestine sexual
experimentation with another patient named Kyle,
who styles himself after Freddy Mercury and claims
to have been sent Cedar Grove because he’s able to
fellate himself and just won’t stop doing it. Kyle is kept
on community confinement, meaning he’s not allowed
to leave the common areas. Not that it makes any much
difference, he isn’t particularly modest and always finds
his opportunity. Once, they caught him doing it behind
the Christmas tree.
Then there’s the new guy, whose name is Steven King.
Steven King is the most depressing person you’ve ever met
in your life. He’s in Cedar Grove because he jumped off the
Lion’s Gate Bridge and survived. Someone saw him do it
and called 911, then a rescue craft dragged him out of
the water, sobbing and trying to bite the rescue workers.
So they brought him here, where he says he’s even more
depressed, which he seems to hold against all of us.
Then there’s Vanessa, who’s curvy and pretty,
thrown in here for being a rock’n’roll groupie
to whom Tom Petty is sending naughty messages
through the airwaves. And Parvati, who’s madly
in love with her boyfriend Aamir, but her parents
have chosen someone else for her, so on her wedding
day she collapses in a heap in her red & gold sari
and starts banging her head against the sidewalk.
Parvati writes a poem entitled My Life is a Ruined City
and tapes it to the plastic bathroom mirror.
Then there’s Donovan, who’s tall and thin,
the spittin’ image of Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter,
which resemblance he enhances whenever he
can get the face paint. Whenever Donovan’s
forbidden to wear make-up to Group, he sits there
holding a newspaper in front of his face and refuses
to participate. And those are just the staff. Ha ha.
Seriously though, it’s no joke that certain staff members
are just as bizarre as the patients, which is a source of
frustration because any one of them can write whatever
they want in that big book in the nurses’ station known as
your Treatment Plan. One staff member writes you have
the habit of hiding behind your hair, after which the entire
staff harass you about it so much, you have one of them
hack it all off. It looks awful. Your mother doesn’t even
want to look at you when she comes to visit and that’s
how you know.
Then your case worker, whose name is Andre,
catches you coming out of your room one day,
and stops you with the comment, Oh, come now.
As in, Let’s be reasonable, here. It’s apparent he
has some new problem with your appearance,
but as usual you’ve got no clue what it is.
“Oh, come now. Why don’t you go take a look at yourself?”
says Andre, pointing toward the plastic mirror in the hallway.
You already know you’re a lot bigger than when you
first got here, with pale spotty skin and hacked up hair.
You’re wearing a floppy green t-shirt of Molly’s, with
your blue & yellow striped institution pyjama bottoms.
You’ve got one pierced ear from which dangles a clear
plastic earring resembling a fishing lure or an Astropop.
You reckon it must be the earring Andre has a problem
with, because nothing else is your fault.
“Is it the earring? I can take it out,” you say.
Andre makes an incredulous sound like deflating
a cushion. This is when he tells you maybe you’re being
deliberately obtuse. That he’s obviously referring to the
strip of cloth missing from the bottom hem of your floppy
green t-shirt. And he’s right, a strip is gone from there,
not so as most would ever notice.
It was Molly who’d cut off a strip of the hem,
to make ears for this bunny-rabbit sock-puppet
she’d made for your birthday. Andre, however,
thinks you should start taking better care of your
appearance, and should not pretend not to know
what he’s talking about –
so he writes down in your Treatment Plan
that you’ve got a tendency to be “deliberately obtuse” –
after which, you can no longer get away with not knowing
anything. Any time you even try to say, “I don’t know”,
the staff eye you suspiciously and state that maybe
you do know perfectly well. And so you do know,
that you are in hell.
It becomes as alienating as deep space
to be stuck away in a place where you’re
put on drugs which make you sluggish
and slow your gait to a pitiful shuffle
as though you’re suddenly ninety-seven
instead of only fifteen.
You’re just lucky to have been deathly allergic to Haldol
or who knows how you might’ve ended up. Initially this is
the drug they prescribe, until one day when you’re sitting
with Pamela the barking girl, eating popcorn and staring up
at news on television, which is suspended from the ceiling
like Arrivals and Departures. You have fairly departed,
are largely concentrating on closing your fist around the
popcorn in such a way as would enable you to actually
pick it up and lift it to your mouth. The tricky parts are
picking up the popcorn and chewing with your mouth closed.
On the tv is something about soup. It’s increasingly difficult
to pick up any popcorn, you notice, because your fingers
are curling up like fiddleheads, and you can no longer open
them. Soon your neck and head take on the same motion,
a compulsive curling up as though a fractal equation were
curdling your bloodstream.
Pamela stops watching the soup and is now watching
you, because your head’s bobbing back and forth like
you’re sneezing repeatedly. It’s not until your eyes and
tongue roll back as well, that Pamela realizes something’s
wrong, because now you look quite frightening, eyes and
tongue rolling back, crooked limbs and thrashing.
She starts flapping her arms and pointing at you, making
noises of general distress. With difficulty, she gets up from
the couch and starts barking, running and barking toward
the Nurses’ station. Now two nurses run over to you,
one kneels on your arm and sticks her fingers in your
mouth to move your tongue, while the other flips you
on your side and pulls down your pyjama bottoms.
Sharp jab in the butt and your body quickly goes limp.
After that, they don’t give you Haldol anymore.
You wonder what good came of it in the end.
At times there seemed ample evidence maybe you
were better off to have spent some time in captivity,
rather than out in the wilds of East Van in 1983
where so many school-mates and acquaintances
were experiencing violent nose-dives in their young
lives. Maybe being put away saved you from worse
fates such as those preying on some your peers,
like that childhood friend whose brain got fried from
solvents, now sits glassy-eyed in a vegetative state
with who knows what kind of inner life.
But on the other hand, it was a year after
you were released, you ran into Donovan,
downtown on Robson, doing a lot worse than
he was before, working the street and so thin
you could scarcely see him anymore.
Even your best friend Molly, for the longest time
things didn’t turn out that great for her. Ironic it was
you who got put in a mental institution way back then,
while Molly just got transferred to another school in
a so-called better neighbourhood, when it would be
Molly who’d wind up developing schizophrenia plus
a crack addiction, who’d spend lost years in Lock-Up
before being turfed out on the street again, by order
of the provincial government.
Proximity to these stories used to be a source of
something like survivor’s guilt but now just makes
you grateful it was not the fate you met with, when
you could quote chapter and verse at least a half-dozen
stories that turned out so much worse for the person.