Dr. Patel thought the Baha’i book I lugged through the psych ward all day was a Qur’an. So did the young Lutheran minister who roomed with me for one day, who tried to strangle me in my sleep that night with a twisted-up wet towel.
Patel and I became religious antagonists, in a sense, and since he knew the book was important to me—a source of strength—he made a point of separating me from it. That was a simple task. He made the decision that it was interfering with my treatment and had the nurses take it from me and put it in the staff area, behind the bulletproof glass, in the bin reserved for my belt and shoelaces, which had been taken from me upon arrival. Since no one at the ward knew what a Baha’i was, I’m sure the only assumption he could make, seeing a thick green tome covered in gold tracery, was that I was reading a Qur’an. I knew he was Hindu, and I can only imagine how many times he’d seen someone he disliked or feared back in India carrying one of those green books. But it never occurred to me at the time.
The “holy war” was my fault. Every time I ended up on the inside, subject to his abuse, I tried to think of any possible means of stealing some of that power back.
During my previous admission I discovered, quite by accident, that if I ended some of my sentences with a comma and the word “then” that it would frighten him. Only briefly, but noticeably. For instance, if I said to him, as he passed me imperiously in the psych ward hallway, “You can’t say when I’m getting out, then?” I would see that fear in his eyes. It was a British way of speaking. I had picked it up unconsciously from my dad.
And how much abuse had Patel suffered, when he was a young boy in India, trying to wrest his own personal power back from some towering British authoritarian? It was a cruel joke I played on him, but I was already convinced that he was the cruelest person I’d ever known. His method—of relying on his unquestionable position, to discredit our own claims of abuse—was so clear to us patients, and so impossible to explain to the nurses under his command, that to cause him pain was only fair, to my mind.
After I tried that trick one too many times, he caught on. His abuse became more frequent, more blatant, and there was nothing I could do about it. He would draw me in to a discussion, for instance, then turn it into a chance to quell my spirit. One day he asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”
“Don’t bother trying,” he told me emotionlessly. “There’s a lot of writers out there with a lot more going for them than you. You should resign yourself to your fate.”
“Yes. You will end your days sitting in a group home, staring at the wall. I can guarantee you that.”
During my earlier hospitalization I told that story as often as I could to the nurses, but they were unmoved; stories about Patel were nothing new. One of my fellow patients had leaped on to his desk once, grabbing his tie, trying to choke the life out of him, before being subdued. Others tried taking him to court, to circumvent his authority. According to the public defender, that only worked one out of a hundred cases. Never worked for anyone I’d ever known in there, including myself. It was our right, though.
I cemented our holy war one night, during closing group, when I referred to him as an ‘untouchable’. It threw the room into an uproar, despite the fact that no one knew what it meant, aside from the Indian nurse I had been speaking to. I told her, “You’re the only one here who knows what I mean,” and she nodded her head sadly.
It’s true. She was the only one. I had no idea what it meant, truly. I had taken a few Indian studies classes in college, so I knew of the term. I knew the untouchables were the shit-sweepers of India, the lowest caste. I just didn’t know what it would mean to him. But the nurse must have charted it. The next day I was discharged.
When I returned to the ward a couple years later, having been petitioned by my therapist and picked up on the street by the police, I became determined to resist Patel’s cruelty. I wouldn’t allow him to disempower me again. I had my mother bring me one of the Baha’i holy books, and I spent my time studying it. Patel and I fought over that book the whole time, and it was because of that book that my silent roommate tried to strangle me in the middle of the night. He mistook me for a Muslim.
When I had first gotten in, Patel would only take jabs at me. He would walk in to the empty dining area in the mornings, announce himself to me with, “How are you today, Mr. Rastall?” not wait for a reply, tell me, “Stop reading your bible,” then walk away, triumphant.
Triumphant, I should say, because he was required by law to meet with me every day, not counting weekends. He couldn’t avoid it but he still managed to get around it. He knew I complained to the staff; I did every day. “You can’t be serious,” I would say. “He’s charging Medicare for those ‘sessions’, isn’t he?”
They wouldn’t tell me, of course.
“But he is,” I would continue. “He’s charging Medicare for a fifteen-minute session, and he’s only meeting with me for ten seconds, in the dining area.”
It was true. He had to chart those required meetings, and fifteen minutes is the smallest increment of time he could charge Medicare for. But he only walked into that dining area when I was alone, always with the same line. And the staff couldn’t have cared anyway. No matter what anyone said about Patel, it was always, “Dr. Patel has a terrible bedside manner, that’s all. He’s tough, but he’s fair.”
As much as I hated Patel, I yearned to see him and speak to him, since every morning was another roll of the discharge dice. Would this be the day? Would he walk in and say he was discharging me? Would he walk in and at least say he was starting to think about it?
The fear of being trapped is a powerful one. So is the anxiety of being locked away indefinitely. The rage of having no choice, no ability to “earn my way out”, as one often thinks about places like this. There was no real way to know how close I was to discharge. Each weekday, after breakfast, I had to look up expectantly, the intense boredom mixed with obvious fear all over my expression. I’m sure that fueled his cruel smile more than anything. The wretched power that he fed on. My look of helpless agony. We all felt it. No one was there out of choice. Everyone wanted to get the hell out. We couldn’t make it to a different hospital—not in this area. There was a time I could go to Chicago and check myself in to a really nice place on the north side. That was the 90s, though. Things were a lot different then.
Eventually, Patel took away my “bible”—just like he had before—and right away, this time, I used one of the community phones to call Rosemary, the rights advisor over at the community mental health center, to help get it back. She was quick about it; she called the nurses right up and told them it was against the law to do that. The nurses still went through Patel before giving it back to me, but I got it back. It was the first real triumph I’d ever had over him.
While the ward census had been low during the time I’d been there that time, meaning I had a two-bed room to myself, I eventually had to make room for someone else. The roommate in question was the young Lutheran minister, fresh out of seminary. He had a new wife, I later learned, and a new child. He was also severely psychotic. Not sure how he made it through seminary, but there it is. He was thin and clean, completely silent, and never got out of bed. When Patel came in to see him on the day he arrived, the “bible” sat on a table between the two beds, while I strained to hear what Patel was saying; he was speaking so softly to him that I couldn’t make it out. I was on the bed trying alternatively to sleep and to listen. My roommate never spoke. I actually don’t know what his speaking voice sounds like. I never told any of the nurses about Patel’s conversation with him that day, even after the kid tried to kill me. It would have sounded paranoid. Perhaps it was.
The presence of someone standing over me that woke me up at four in the morning. (Thank God I’m a light sleeper.) My unadjusted eyes couldn’t make him out too well, but it was my new roommate, standing over me, holding a wet, screwed-up hospital towel in his fists, pulling it tight.
I reacted instinctively by placing my hands over his, and trying to hold his arms away. He was stronger and younger. He was grinning. I started to scream for help, in exactly the way that I remembered from childhood, when I would wake up from a nightmare and scream for my mother. Never loud enough. Nothing close to what I had imagined I was capable of. More just a shout for help, with the intense need to actually scream choked off, as if squeezed up in my throat like a crush of people escaping a burning building.
But I didn’t freeze up. There was absolutely no time spent considering the situation. Just acting. All those years of panic attacks and anxiety added up to nothing when I was faced with death. I acted.
I shouted for help again, in that same feeble way. No one was coming—the nurses were at the nurses’ station down the hall, separated from us, as mentioned, by a thick wall of bulletproof glass. I couldn’t hold his arms away. The more I shouted and the harder I pushed, the weaker I became. I was never able to push him off. First, my arms buckled, then I strained only to keep the towel from closing off my windpipe. It was on my throat, but with my arms bent and jammed against him, I could still breathe. Not shout anymore, still breathe.
The minister himself was the one who saved my life, quite unwittingly. The nurses simply couldn’t hear me shouting. But they heard him. He began to howl. A war cry. The sound you make as you kill someone. He was making his final push to dislodge my grip. It was his wordless, unbearable scream that brought the nurses in.
They rushed in through the open door, from the well-lit, empty hallway and pulled him off me.
There were two nurses on the night shift. The male nurse handled my roommate. Dragged him down the hall to the “quiet room”, where the sedation finally stilled that mute rage. The other nurse, this small, cute girl with an unfortunate love for Aerosmith (and wearing the 80s concert tee to prove it), only told me, over and over, “I’m so sorry this happened. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Holding up her hands as a way of both apologizing and pleading. Yeah, I knew what she meant. She meant that I should let it end there. Her apology was supposed to be enough.
Wide awake, free, safe—suddenly, I was furious. I was out at the nurses’ station at a shot. They quickly took their places behind the bulletproof glass and locked the door. I demanded through the slot that they call the police. They didn’t, though. They refused.
“Look, this sort of thing happens sometimes, Ian. Just go back to your room and go back to sleep.” Their faces were shadowed by the partial lighting in the nurses’ station.
“No! I know my rights. I demand that you call the police!”
“Sorry, Ian, but we’re not going to. Go back to bed.”
I wouldn’t back down. I insisted. I knew they had nothing to stand on. They had to do it. Even if it meant they might get fired, they had no choice. The alternative was worse for them.
“Fine. We’ll turn the community phones on, and you can call.”
“I thought you couldn’t call 911 from these phones.”
“We’ll dial 911 and put you through. Just hold on a second.”
The phone rang and I picked it up.
“Yes. I want to report an attempted murder.”
The ward’s number, of course, was on the caller ID. That must have made all the difference to the dispatcher. She might have even wondered how one of the patients had managed to call through.
I explained the situation clearly, firmly, and I was patched through to a police officer. He told me, “I don’t think you understand what attempted murder is.”
“My roommate attempted to murder me. I don’t know how it could be more clear.”
I had to insist with him, as well. He (also) had no choice. I read in his bored condescension the truth of the matter: this sort of thing did happen sometimes, and there were special rules for the hospital. We were mental patients.
He came to the unit after a while, took down my statement. That was that.
The charge was assault.
In only a bit, it was time for breakfast, then morning group. The minister was already out of the quiet room. He had only been in there for a couple hours. I stared over at him in disbelief, in morning group, and he grinned at me. I remember where I was sitting, where he was sitting, what that grin looked like. That’s actually the clearest image of them all, and that’s what motivated me later on, when I was going through the process of talking to the courts, filling out a victim report, etc. That grin made me determined to follow it through to the end. He was not going to get away with that smug-fucking-grin.
But then, it wasn’t really him. After that morning group ended, when I was alone in the room, Patel walked in. Didn’t even ask, “How are you doing today, Mr. Rastall?” Just came up and said to me, with an equally chilling grin, “I told you not to read your bible.” Then walked away, blooming with his triumph.
Probably charged Medicare for that one, too.
My revenge was to never attend any of the subsequent hearings. Some cold-blooded Tarantino revenge, in my mind. I filled out the victim report, sitting at the common tables in the dingy, gut-churning group home Patel had placed me into after he released me (the very day of the attack). I talked to the prosecutors over the phone. The minister, when released from the ward, had initially fled to another part of Michigan, with his family, but later turned himself in. He was wealthy, apparently. He had an expensive lawyer representing him.
My mom showed up at the sentencing hearing, while I was still in the group home. She gave an impassioned speech, replete with mom drama: “If that towel had gotten just an inch closer … if the nurses had pulled him off just a few seconds too late, my son would be dead today.” The judge’s only real problem was figuring out how to smash this kid into the ground on such a flimsy charge. This judge was outside the mental health machine. To him, the charge of assault was absurd. It was attempted murder.
So he gave the kid the maximum. The kid’s fancy lawyer did manage to squeeze out one concession: the minister could go out to eat on Sunday, with his family. Other than that: a year and a half probation and house arrest for six months.
I don’t know what happened to him, but I doubt he’s a minister now.
Ian Rastall lives in beautiful St. Joseph Michigan with his awesome cat Auggie.