Editor’s note: This is the first chapter of Charles Thomas‘ 2017 novel “Headcase,” and the first in a series of chapters Watershed Voice will publish weekly until the story is complete. What you will read is not the first or second edition of Thomas’ debut novel but the third, with editing from WSV Executive Editor Alek Haak-Frost. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this murder mystery from local author and columnist Charles Thomas.
The year is 2007, Jack is psychiatrically stable and living in his own apartment, finally starting to put his life back together five years after his first psychotic break. Jack was forced to drop out of college after struggling with his mental illness. He became angry, hateful, and bitter. But 2007 seems like it might be the year that Jack turns the corner into recovery. However, when Jack finds a dead body and becomes the prime suspect in a murder, it isn’t just his recovery that’s put at risk. It’s his life.
“Sick, Mr. Plowman. You’re sick, sick, sick. You have a bad chemical imbalance and you are in deep denial about it.”
Dr. Patel stared at me but I said nothing. A dense fog of awkwardness descended on the consulting room. I felt like I was at a junior high school dance. But really, what did Patel expect me to say? We’d played this game before. Patel gave his “chemical imbalance” lecture followed immediately with a “these-pills-correct-the-imbalance” spiel. I’d heard it many times before. Patel seemed to think the words “chemical imbalance” would make me feel better about being crazy.
Just so you know, chemical imbalance is shrink talk for what everyone else calls crazy. It’s psychiatric sleight of hand designed to motivate patients to take pills. To get the “buy in,” as they say. I knew the game well.
By the time of that interview with Dr. Patel, I’d been a mental patient long enough to know how psychiatrists ticked. I’d observed the movement of their wheels and springs close up during my time in the state mental hospital in Kalamazoo, and could predict their movements just like I could predict a watch’s.
My ability to understand psychiatrists worked as well here at the Community Mental Health Center as it did in the state hospital. Not to be immodest, but I could have taught a class for the newly crazy if I’d wanted to: Jack Plowman’s Guide to Succeeding as a Mental Patient.
But the system being like it was, no one was going to let me teach a class like that. I was crazy, messed up, the part that gets removed from the assembly line by Quality Control.
They brought a bin full of us defectives here so they could shine a bright spotlight onto our defective psyches. The cracks were so pretty to them. Patel, like most mental health people, seemed to see everything that was wrong with me but nothing that was right.
So I had my reasons for sitting there wordless as the Sphinx that day. My silence was my armor. But Patel didn’t give up easily. He waited a moment and then came at me again.
“You seem to continue in your denial of your symptoms, Mr. Plowman. You do not acknowledge that you have very bad problems. Just because you take a bath does not mean you are well. You do not take your medication every morning like I ask you. What is to be done with you?”
I knew better than to respond.
“Take your medication or I cannot help you.”
I sat there with eyes as dead as a cadaver’s. But as always, he wasn’t going to let me go until I said something.
“Yes, doctor,” was all I could muster.
“You will see improvement; this I promise you.”
“Dr. Patel,” my social worker, Tiffini, broke in, “Jack says that the medication makes him gain weight and feel like a zombie.”
Tiffini was the case manager C.M.H. had assigned to me. Case managers are babysitters who “monitor” headcases like me so they don’t upset sane people.
“It is just a side effect,” Patel said in an offhanded way.
I wanted to slap him but I kept my cool. I knew how to play the game. I was a professional.
“You see, Jack,” Tiffini smiled, “it’s just a side effect. I told you.”
A side effect? Those damn drugs are stealing my soul and they call that a side effect? Not for the first time, I began to wonder who the real crazy people were.
“Fine,” I said.
“I do not still believe you, but your 15 minutes are almost up and I have another non-compliant patient to attend to,” Patel said as he typed up a prescription I’d never fill.
“Thank you and come again,” he said with a wry smile.
I didn’t get up right away. I was not anxious to leave the place even though I hated Patel. That cold government building with its neo-Stalinist architecture was actually a palace compared to the place I now called home. Concrete walls were better than the walls in my apartment, walls so porous they were almost alive with the moving civilization of roaches that lived within them.
The apartment was a place that Tiffini had gotten me into about six months before, and it was barely better than the mission where I’d been living. Although one nice thing about the apartment was that no one ever pissed on me while I slept at night. That had happened at the mission not once, but twice.
No, nobody was pissing on me here, at least not yet.
I have a new roommate and he is the kind of guy where pissing on others cannot be ruled out.
His name is Johnny Chen, and he is a fellow headcase.
Tiffini found me the apartment with the expectation that I would find a roommate. In spite of what a dive the place is, I couldn’t afford to live there alone on my disability check. I needed someone to split the bills or I was going to end up broke, and on the streets again.
Tiffini arranged for Johnny to come over and meet me one afternoon after me and the roaches had had the place to ourselves for a couple of weeks. Tiffini and I were sitting together on my white plastic chairs in the living room when a knock came at the door. In Johnny walked, wearing a bright pink shirt, badly dyed blond hair, and speaking with an outrageous lisp.
He looked me up and down, and then gave me the world’s weakest handshake saying, “Nice to meet you.”
I actually longed for the mission for a second. The guy was a walking punchline but I had little choice. I needed someone to help me pay rent for the worst place I’ve ever lived. What the hell has happened to me?
A few weeks later I was back in Dr. Patel’s office.
It was Tiffini, calling me back to her reality.
“We need to go so Dr. Patel can see his next patient, Jack.”
I got out of my chair without a word of goodbye to the good doctor, and walked into a hallway filled with other people like me, people with glassy looks in their eyes and the shuffling gait that some of the social workers called the “Haldol Shuffle.” Most of the other crazies were wearing clothes stained with a world map of filth. Their hair looked like someone had electrified it. What scared me was I knew that with a few more years of “treatment,” I’d be just like them. They’d once been 25-years-old just like me.
When I’d been homeless a few years back I was like them. I totally let myself go. I stunk, was dirty, and my clothes looked like they belonged in a thrift store from the 1970s. I lived like that for almost half a year before I stabilized and got my apartment. The apartment had a shower and I started to use it, stepping back from the edge. At least for now. Looking back, I guess I just felt so terrible about myself and my life when I was homeless that the effort to clean myself seemed better spent on something else, like smoking cigarettes.
The Community Mental Health Clinic was a buzzing hive of chaos as usual. The wide hallways were painted a putrid yellow that always made me slightly nauseous when I looked at it too long. There were only two doctors in the clinic, Patel and a woman I hadn’t met yet. She was from India just like Patel. They served every single one of our county’s poor mentally ill in the downtown location. People like me were shipped in by our social workers from all over Kent County to the clinic to get our drugs, and have a little face time with our case workers.
“Jack, I need to talk to Dr. Patel for a second. Can you wait in the hallway and then we can go upstairs and work on your treatment plan?” Tiffini said to me in her sweet and condescending way. Apparently, she wanted to rat me out a little more, this time in private.
With her long, silky blond hair, I often thought Tiffini must be part angel. But then she did things like this, and I was reminded she was also part demon.
It was par for the course for a social worker to gossip about clients behind their backs to the doctor. I wondered what she was saying about me as I walked back to the waiting room. “He’s so angry and resentful” or “He seems to have a chip on his shoulder.”
Unlike many of the social workers, Tiffini really liked to dress up for work. Whenever I met with her she had on a crisp business suit, and had her hair pinned up in a bun. By looking at her you’d think she worked at a bank originating loans and not carting around crazy people. If freshman year hadn’t happened, I might have been just like her.
I had to wait about five minutes before Tiffini came out of Dr. Patel’s office and took me to one of the meeting rooms.
“Well, Jack,” she said to me as she sat down at the green metal desk in the consultation room, “Dr. Patel wants me to start dropping off your medication every morning and watching you take it.”
“Tiffini,” I protested, “I am not a child.”
I knew I was a few years older than Tiffini, which made her patronizing that much worse. Tiffini may have had her college degrees, but I had more mental health smarts. I saw her hair sparkle in the light of the old lamp on her desk, and thought that back in high school, I would have had a shot at dating a girl like her. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen in my current situation. Pretty girls don’t go for mental patients.
“I know, and believe me, I’d rather not do this either. I work out in the morning.”
“So, let’s just forget it,” I said. It was worth a try.
“No, Dr. Patel wants me to keep a med journal, and he’s going to want to see it at your next appointment, which is in three months.”
The room was the dreary beige of old newspapers and didn’t have a window. It did have a security camera though.
“Jack, if you just took your medication, neither one of us would have to go through this.”
“I told you, I don’t like the side effects and besides I’m not as crazy as Patel thinks. The voices only come once in a while now, and contrary to what you people say, I am not religiously preoccupied. I’m just a very spiritual person.”
“Jack, you totally stopped eating and drinking for Lent.”
“We had to put you in the psychiatric unit and force feed you through a tube.”
“You would have died, Jack,” she said in that patronizing tone of hers.
“Honestly, I’m afraid this religion stuff is going to kill you someday, Jack,” she said to me in all seriousness.
“I think that your lack of religion might land you in hell,” I shot back.
“Well,” she said, trying to backtrack, “let‘s just agree to disagree on that one, my friend.”
Tiffini smiled at me like I was a dog that kept chewing the furniture.
“Let’s talk about your treatment plan,” she said, changing the subject. “You have a pretty nice apartment now and have your medication. What else do you need?”
The things that I needed were not things that Tiffini or any psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker could give me. What I needed was enough money so I could afford my own apartment, get back into college, and maybe find a girlfriend.
I was really lonely back then, still in love with a woman that no longer wanted me. Much like everything else good in my life, she was little more than a memory.
“I want to go back to college,” I blurted out.
“Well, that’s something we could talk about.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, Jack, you are still not very stable…”
“Now listen here!” I screamed, standing up from my chair. “I am stable! I can handle college.”
Tiffini looked at me with what had to be pity. She wasn’t afraid of my rage. She knew I’d never hit anyone.
“I’ll put in the treatment plan that we’ll explore college when you start taking your medication every day as prescribed.”
We’d make a deal: this for that. Maybe Tiffini had learned a little bit more in social worker school than I gave her credit for.
“I’ll take my medication if you promise to take me to Grand Valley so that I can sign up for a class.”
“I’ll take you after you take your medication for three months…every day.”
Tiffini had the upper hand. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have a car, and I sure as hell didn’t think I’d even be able to take classes with all these medications fogging up my brain. But a sliver of hope is better than no hope at all.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I told her.
Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].