By Debbie Hagan
I pause at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the teenage residents hall in this psychiatric hospital where my thirteen-year-old son has spent the last few weeks. Though I’m in a hurry, with an only an hour to have dinner with Connor, I stare at the fortress-like balustrade. For the first time it occurs to me, from the bottom I can’t see to the top. The stairs go up, curve at the landing, then disappear.
Then I realize these stairs were boxed in to keep mental patients from hurling themselves off the top. A cold bead of perspiration runs down my spine as I edge up the stairs, turning blindly around each corner—almost as if I’m in a funhouse where the floors are slanted and the water runs uphill. When I reach the top, a curious eye peers through the wire-mesh. The latch releases, then the steel door groans open.
Inside the air is thick and moist like a locker room smelling like dirty dishes and teenage sweat. I turn left, past the common kitchen, hurry through the boys’ living room and down a dark, narrow hall.
Connor’s room is the last one on the left. Inside, he’s sitting on his bed, perched on a pile of rumpled sheets, his ash-blonde hair gelled straight up held by something he calls “glue.” He wears tan cargo pants and a white T-shirt hand-lettered with the words: Counter Clockwise, the punk band he formed last summer. Now he stares into space, his eyelids between open and closed.
The room looks more like a college dorm than a hospital: two twin beds, a wooden desk, and an armoire with the door hanging cock-eyed from one hinge. In the corner, a mouse has chewed a half-circle hole that looks like a sketch from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I notice something on the floor. When I edge closer, I see chunks of the homemade brownies I’d baked a few days ago.
“I can’t stay long,” I tell Connor, setting the Taco Bell bag on his desk. “I’m teaching a class at eight.”
Connor moves sloth-like, an obvious side effect from the new drug. The psychiatrist says it will take the edge off of his explosive moods. My son picks through the paper bag, pushing aside the napkins and sauce as if he’s not really hungry.
I look down to Connor’s desktop. Someone etched into the wood, with a pen, a chubby marijuana joint with smoke curling from the tip. It reminds me of a 1960s Robert Crumb cartoon—a bit too sophisticated to be Connor’s.
“What’s four-twenty?” I ask, pointing to the numbers above the joint.
“It’s the international pot smoking time,” Connor says in a tone that says, Stupid, everyone knows that.
I laugh. “So everyone’s supposed to light-up at 4:20?”
He shrugs, “I guess.”
Maybe he has smoked a joint, but I doubt it. He’s just thirteen. He looks older, being six feet tall with a youthful fuzz of beard. On his arms, he writes punk lyrics, such as, “I have a heart full of napalm, babe.” With his spiked hair, black leather trench coat, eyeliner, and “Fuck off” attitude, he gives the impression that he’s a tough street kid.
I look into his face, and I’m reminded of what the middle school counselor once told me: “He’s so thin-skinned. He has no armor to protect himself.” Now it’s as if I see it—faint lines of blue crisscrossing beneath an ivory scrim.
I stare at the marijuana drawing, and I wish he were in a more nurturing environment. Connor is the youngest of the twenty or so boys on this hall; all seem to have a history of drugs and petty crimes.
While McLean Hospital has the reputation for being the world’s leading psychiatric research hospital, I’m not sure this is a good fit for him. His stories about this place scare me. First there were the boys who stole a spray bottle of cleanser from the janitor’s closet and huffed it. A counselor found them delirious, sprawled over a bed. Two other boys bragged about having sex in the bathroom. This week, a boy became violent and beat another patient.
The atmosphere here is a little prison-like and makes me wonder how Connor can get well. I’d bring him home, but I worry, would he just go back to running away, cutting, and trying to kill himself? I don’t think I can live through that again.
“Are you sleeping okay?” I ask.
He raises and lowers a shoulder, biting his burrito. He chews a little and looks as if he needs to pick through the cotton in his brain to find the answer.
“Last night the strangest thing happened,” he says. “There was this blue streak of light that came into the room. It was right about here.” He gets up and stands in the middle of the room.
“I was asleep,” he points to the spot where I’d first seen him. “And I saw it…there was something here.”
“Was it a ghost?” I ask.
“Hmmm. I don’t know, but it was something.”
He’s staring into space, curling into himself, pale and nervous.
“So what did you do?” I ask. “I prayed to God that it would go away and leave me alone.”
I watch my child, standing in the middle of his room talking about ghosts, and I feel more alone than ever. No one can help me, not even my husband who’s angry with Connor for acting out. I try to tell him, it’s not Connor’s fault. Even the doctors don’t seem to get it. They tell me he’s obstinate and defiant. I argue, this isn’t my son. It’s as if someone stole my son and replaced him with someone who looks like him. They stare at me as if maybe I’m the one with the problem.
I look at Connor, searching his room for ghosts, and I’m feeling alone and scared, and I don’t know what to say. I change the subject.
“So how was the Fall Fling?”
All week he had practiced his cello for the patient variety show. He had chosen William Squires’s “Tarantella”—a strangely hypnotic tune about a woman bitten by a tarantula who falls into a zombie-like trance, which seemed apropos for here.
Connor raises and lowers a shoulder. “Ehn.”
“Wasn’t it fun?” My voice sounds insistent, practically begging Connor to say, yes. His lips quiver. He can no longer wrap them around his burrito, so he sets it aside. The back of his hand wipes away a tear. Dear God, please give my child one moment of joy.
Connor is crying. I close the door and sit next to him. I place my arms around him and squeeze his shoulders. I’m amazed when he doesn’t brush me away.
“It’s okay,” I murmur. “Just tell me what happened.”
He gives me bullet points. The patients on the third floor—boys and girls—gathered under the trees, on the terrace behind East House, for a picnic. All of the kids sat with their friends. They laughed. They talked. They ate. They played games, like the three-legged race, but no one wanted to talk to him. No one wanted to be his friend.
“Surely there was someone,” I say.
Connor shakes his head and tells me that one of the boys on his hall said something mean.
He shakes his head. His face twists into a painful grimace. He cries, “I can’t even get along with people in a mental institution.” He bats away tears.
There’s a thickness in the room, making it difficult to hear or speak or feel anything—as if I’m bound motionless in my chair. I try my best to keep a poker face, because I don’t want Connor to suspect that I’m confused and frightened.
“Let’s face it, Connor, a mental institution isn’t a great place to make friends. Everyone here has issues and trouble interacting with people.”
Frankly, I don’t know a lot about mental illness. Over the past few weeks, ever since Connor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’ve read a stack of books. I’ve learned one thing: mental illness strains all relationships. It makes those with the illness behave unpredictably, and those who love them afraid, frustrated, and sometimes angry.
As for kids, this has to be the cruelest part. Kids with mental illness stand out profoundly, and, thus, become bullying targets. That’s why Connor is a victim no matter where he goes—even here.
“I know what people think,” Connor tells me. “I can look at them and tell what they’re thinking.”
“Oh, Connor,” I say.
“No, it’s a gift and a curse!”
I stare at the broken dresser, the mouse hole, and my son who now believes he can read minds. I zip up my jacket but it doesn’t stop my shaking.
I’ve forgotten about time. When I look at my watch, I see it’s already past seven. I have to cancel my class. When I call the school, the administrator warns me, canceling a class at the last minute violates my teaching agreement. I apologize and say, “It’s a family emergency.” Still, I know how these things work. I’ll be taken off the roster next semester.
My whole life is derailed—my teaching, my graduate studies, even my relationships with my husband and other son.
I dig through my purse and find a pen and a small notebook.
You’re going to take notes?” Connor asks.
“This will help me remember,” I say.
I notice Connor is now sitting forward, almost leaning into me, rather than slinking back into the folds his hoodie.
“You should be a psychiatrist,” Connor says.
I’m a little surprised by the way he has perked up and wants to talk. I decide to seize this opportunity, but I remind myself: Play this cool. Be calm.
Right away, Connor tells me, “One of my friends cut himself today.
“Hmmm,” I respond and write it down.
“What do you think will happen?” Connor asks.
“Well, he won’t be going home.”
It lingers too long, and when I look up, I see Connor’s lips are chalky, his gaze far away. My heart sinks.
“I cut myself.”
“Just before you got here.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“I didn’t know your number.”
He had it, but he likely acted first, then thought.
For about thirty seconds, we stare into the void, searching for how to move on.
I go back to playing psychiatrist, writing random words in my notebook.
Connor tells me that after the boy said something mean to him, he grabbed a plastic knife and ran to the bathroom.
“I stood staring in the mirror, and I couldn’t even control it,” he says. “It was my choice. I could stop, but I didn’t want to. Sometimes the dark side takes over, and I’m not at all me. I lie to people to make them think I’m in a good mood, but I’m not.”
I write, and I wonder if this is new or has he always been this way? Could I have misunderstood my son…all these years?
“Where did you cut yourself?” I ask.
Connor points to his thigh.
“Can I see it?”
I’m acting like a mom again. That won’t work—not tonight. As long as I’m playing psychiatrist—open and emotionless—he will talk.
Still the mom in me worries about the cut. I look at his pants. I don’t see blood. I decide he’s not going to bleed to death.
I push on, because there’s one subject I really want him to talk about. It’s the seventh grade school trip. That’s when Connor’s behavior changed. He had told me that he was bullied. I’d mentioned this to his psychiatrist, but Connor refused to talk about it.
I scribble as I gather my bearings. Then I take a deep breath, “Can you tell me what happened on that trip to Washington D.C.?”
Connor squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces. I expect him to explode, order me out of the room, and then bury himself under his covers.
Instead, he’s silent for a long drawn-out minute. Then, to my shock, he begins telling the story. He picks up from what I already knew, how his roommates made him sleep on the floor, so they could have the beds. Then they refused to share their sheets and blankets. They made fun of his deodorant, calling it “women’s deodorant.” In fact, it was a unisex deodorant, which I had bought, thinking it was more fitting for a thirteen-year-old—better than Old Spice or Axe. I couldn’t imagine it could be turned into a joke.
Now he begins talking about the second day of the trip, when all of the seventh grade buses pulled up to the U.S. Mint, and the kids gathered in groups. Suddenly Connor’s roommate, a boy named Mark, shouted to the entire group: “Connor wears women’s deodorant.”
As Connor tells me this, his voice rises in pitch, exaggerated and sing-songy. I stare at him as he clenches his fists and bares his teeth. I’m frightened, because, in this second, I don’t even recognize him.
As if he’s reliving the moment, he shouts out, “Shut the fuck up, man! I don’t use that stuff.”
The fury in his voice makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
Connor composes himself a little, telling me that everyone laughed at him. They looked at him and pointed. Then Mark repeated the phrase he’d read on the side of Connor’s deodorant: “strong and beautiful.” The boy said it mockingly, girly, and the crowd laughed even harder.
Connor told Mark to stop, but he wouldn’t. He kept shouting and laughing, spurring the crowd on. So Connor grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. Joe tried to pry his hands off, but Connor said he wasn’t about to stop.
“I wanted to kill him.”
“So what happened?”
“One of the teachers pulled me off and told me to take some space.”
“That was it?”
“No one ever does anything,” Connor says. “The teachers saw what had happened, but they don’t care.”
I am stunned. How could this have happened in front of teachers—chaperones who are supposed to keep kids safe on these trips? And no one said a word to me or even tried to find out from Connor why he acted this way?
“Did you really want to kill Mark?”
“He’s a sadist. He deserves a spot in eternal damnation!”
I fall back in my chair. To think my son could have killed this boy—over deodorant. Connor’s a big, strong kid and given his level of anger, he might have done it. This scares and confuses me. How could this be the same boy who gives brownies to mice, who sleeps with a rainbow-striped dolphin?
Connor continues, “I heard it everywhere I went. I heard it in my hotel room, at dinner, on the bus all the way home. Twelve hours I listened to it in my ear: strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful. I thought I was going to explode.”
By Monday, all the kids in school knew about the deodorant. They ran up to him in the hallways and yelled, “Strong and beautiful.” They shouted it during homeroom, and at lunch. Two of the popular girls handed him a present tied it up with a bow. Excited, he tore off the wrappings only to find a stick of girl’s deodorant and a Cosmopolitan magazine. They roared in laughter. He ran to the bathroom and cut himself with a paperclip.
“I don’t like to talk to people anymore,” Connor tells me. “I can’t make friends without thinking how they hate me. I can’t trust anyone.”
For the first time ever, I understand how this chain of events unfolded and how my son ended up here.
Connor grabs me and hugs me hard. When I start to let go, he grabs me again, tighter, his breath moistening my hair.
“I want to go home,” he whispers, “but I’m not ready.”
I realize, he’s afraid too. He’s afraid of being hurt again.
I bury my head in his T-shirt, soaking up his warm, musky scent.
“It’s okay. You’ll come home when you’re ready. It will be soon.”
On my way out, I’m not so sure. I look back down the stairs, dark and boxed in. A few hours ago I couldn’t see my way to the top. Now I can’t see my way to the bottom.
Author’s Note: The notes taken that night enabled me to recall our conversations just as they occurred, in addition to the other small details. Connor spent about a month in the hospital, followed by four years of working with therapists and psychiatrists who helped him deal with the pain caused by school bullying. Today Connor is 22 years old, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and enjoying his life—without medication.