“Today’s topic is relationships,” I announced to the group of ten or so patients at the Bright Haven Psychiatric Center. They were either sleeping or talking among themselves. Very few had enough focus to be able to look at me directly. But they would all respond when I asked them a question.
“Does anyone have a difficult relationship issue with a parent, sibling, or friend?”
Not surprisingly, every hand in the room went up.
“What’s your issue, Jose?” I asked.
“My grandma never visits!”
Another patient said, “My sister always buys me clothes that are too tight!”
The group all laughed after the patient stood up and demonstrated how tight his pants were around the crotch. And they laughed even harder when he could barely sit down.
Another patient added, “When I asked my dad to take me out of here, he said this is the best place for me right now. He just doesn’t want to see me come home.”
I took my time commenting on all their responses, and I could sense the patients were becoming more agitated by the topic. I told everyone to take a couple of deep breaths and to follow my lead in a relaxation exercise. Most of the patients were cooperative, following my simple
instructions as best as they could.
Except for one patient. His name was Huey.
Huey was by far the biggest and the most threatening of the patients on the locked unit. He often responded to internal voices that made him angry and belligerent. He distrusted
everyone, especially staff members who he thought were his enemies.
Most the time, however, the medications and some kind words would help in calming Huey. Today nothing seemed to slow him down. He was like a runaway freight train.
Huey shouted numerous obscenities and flailed his arms, which triggered rumblings and tension in the group. Most of the patients were paranoid or anxious as it was. Now they had a good reason to be afraid.
Huey abruptly stood up, pushed a couple of chairs aside, and called me the “anti-Christ.” He said that I was sent here to destroy the world, and that he was going to save everyone from the apocalypse. He moved toward me like a lion stalking its prey.
“You’re not going to destroy me!” he yelled with eyes wide open.
I slowly backed up, moved behind a large metal desk, and tried to persuade Huey to return to his seat or to leave the room if he couldn’t control himself. In the meantime, I was hoping that the psychiatric technicians stationed outside the door could hear the commotion and quickly intervene. But that was not the case. The techs were too busy deescalating another patient in the hallway and unaware of my predicament.
It was the perfect storm. I was the only staff member with a violent and psychotic man in a room full of scared patients.
I retreated as far as I could. Huey’s hot, snarling breath indicated that he was about to devour me. My heart pounded in my chest. I looked at the second hand moving around the big wall clock as Huey grew more determined to rip me apart.
“Relax, Huey,” I said. “Think about what you’re doing. Make a good choice. You don’t want to lose any more privileges. You won’t be able to have visits with your family.”
“I don’t care about my family!” he snarled, and cocked his thick arm backward, balling up his fist in preparation to throw a punch; a punch that would no doubt destroy my face and shatter every bone inside of it.
At that instant, another patient moved behind Huey. I shook my head, indicating to Elijah to stay away, far away; it was dangerous to get any closer.
Elijah was one of the chronic schizophrenics who drooled strings of saliva from the side of his mouth. Diagnosed with catatonia, he was on massive doses of mind-altering medications to reduce his troublesome voices and thoughts. Most of the time, Elijah sat in the corner and
didn’t move, sometimes resembling a lifeless manikin. He was so preoccupied with the world
inside his head that he was oblivious to everything around him.
Except on this day. For some reason, Elijah suddenly came alive.
“I’m going to pulverize you,” Huey said to me with flaring nostrils. “You’re not going to take my soul!”
Huey had me cornered. Unable to run to the door or reach for the wall phone for help, I tried to talk him down as best as I could while preparing to roll-up into a ball should he start
attacking me. Too big to restrain alone, there was no other choice but to go into defensive mode until staff arrived.
Elijah rarely moved out of his favorite spot and must have spoken two words in the past year, but today he groaned like an elephant seal and punched Huey in the small of his back
several times with his bony hands. Huey reacted by hitting Elijah in the face and followed it up with another blow to the belly. The force of the last punch sent Elijah’s tall, skinny frame falling backward as his forehead caught the sharp corner of a wooden chair.
Elijah passed out instantly on the floor.
He never opened his eyes.
By the time the psychiatric technicians were aware of the commotion and restrained Huey, Elijah lay lifeless in the corner of the room with a pool of blood spilling out of his mouth like a tumbled can of red paint.
I took Elijah’s head in my hands. I held him until the nurse rushed in. She pushed me aside, and attempted to resuscitate him. 911 was called, but it was too late. Elijah was dead.
A few days later, I attended Elijah’s funeral. It was a small gathering of friends and
family inside a large, Victorian funeral home in Germantown. I was greeted at the door by Elijah’s parents. I feared that they’d blame me for not protecting him but, instead, his dad shook my hand and said, “thanks for all your help.” His mom hugged me and whispered, “Maybe now he doesn’t have to suffer.”
I sat in the back of the funeral home, looking at the casket and thinking that Elijah died trying to protect me; he was my guardian angel, an unlikely hero. If only there were something I could have done differently to have saved him.
Then, at the cemetery, I watched the casket being lowered into a deep hole; with each crank of the lift, the casket dropped deeper and deeper into oblivion until Elijah was eventually covered in dirt. His mental illness was buried in the ground with him. It was the only place where he could escape.
About the Author
Mark Tulin is a former family therapist who lives in California. He has a poetry chapbook, Magical Yogis, published by Prolific Press (2017). He has an upcoming book entitled, The Asthmatic Kid and Other Stories. His work has appeared in Fiction on the Web, smokebox, Amethyst Magazine, Vita Brevis, among others. His website is Crow On The Wire.