Robert Ratman is Well and Optimistic

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
After three years on Criminal Procedure law, I am finally free - well and optimistic :)

Submitted: April 06, 2019

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Submitted: April 06, 2019



Hrrrakkkh, hssssh. The tires of my bike are fighting their way through the inch-deep snow that settled overnight. I try to avoid the patches of ice and the deep snow banks that litter the sidewalk. It's about 5:50 am. The sun has not yet come up, but the white blanket of snow makes the night bright, helping me find my way. It's early March and very cold—about 5 degrees Fahrenheit—and I can see my breath coming in foggy bursts through the scarf around my mouth. I don't feel cold, though; I'm dressed well and pedaling the bike is keeping me warm. I've been biking this 45-minute trip from home to work for the entire winter. I enjoy riding my bike to my job as a cashier at Home Depot. Even the ride back home isn’t awful, despite being exhausted from having been on my feet for eight hours. Riding to and from work gives me time to reminisce about…things.


Right now, I am thinking about the clinical review I received in January, a month ago. I was in trouble several years ago because of my bipolar disorder. The long arm of the law got involved, and I ended up being locked up for a while in jail, and then eventually in a mental hospital. I was sent straight to prison for hitting a police officer, but in accordance with Criminal Procedure Law, I pled “not guilty” due to my mental illness. After agreeing to the plea deal, I was sent to a forensic psychiatric hospital. After just one month—and believe me, I am proud of that short period of incarceration, unlike the average five-year stay—I was discharged, and transferred to a civil hospital where I was kept for another six months. Ultimately, I was released, receiving a relatively strict probation sentence for the next five years, with the possibility of release after three if I was doing well. The probation was an irritating business. I could not leave New York state without permission from my probation officer, who also happened to be my psychiatrist. I also could not consume alcohol or use drugs, and I had to take my medications regularly. I guess I did well.

Back to the clinical review. Last month, I went again to the hospital so I could be evaluated. During that review, a commission board of three people looked at the evidence of my treatment—reports from my psychiatrist and psychologist—and asked me questions. They then decided if they would release me from my probation.

I had arrived at the hospital half an hour early for my clinical review, and rode my bike up the road leading to the hospital campus. When I entered the campus of the General Binghamton Health Center, memories rushed through my head. It felt strange and disorienting to be back there after three years. First, I saw “the Castle”—a gray stone-facade, constructed of twists and turns, its stones faded, cracked, and broken. The gothic building emits the feeling of randomness and disorder.


When my brother visited me in Binghamton and saw it, he said that there was absolutely something psychically odd about the building, but it was hard to say if it was healing or not. Whatever the strange aura was meant to be, the architecture of this building definitely did not feel “neutral.” The Castle was better known as the New York Inebriate Asylum, or the first asylum in the United States that treated alcoholism as a mental disorder. Its patients were alcoholic, feeble-minded persons, as well as lewd women who were all considered mentally ill in the middle of the 19th Century.


John, one of the therapeutic aides, used to take four to five of the most stable patients in my ward on walks around the campus, telling us stories about the Castle. He told us that people arrived at the train station in downtown Binghamton, walked up the road to the Asylum, and never left. The campus of the Castle had fields where the patients grew their own vegetables and raised animals. There was even a morgue and a cemetery, so the patients truly never left the Castle once they arrived. In the basement, the psychotic and belligerent patients were kept chained to walls.

John liked to tell the four or five of us patients that took walks with him these stories multiple times. It was nice going on walks with him. We would stroll around, passing by small buildings overgrown with bushes, and John would offer up tidbits of interesting information. “That used to be the blacksmith place,” or, “Twenty years ago, patients used to work here. That was the morgue.” The structure he pointed out was a dark, ominous-looking building, but maybe it only looked that way because I knew it was a morgue. Ten years ago, the front of the Castle had collapsed; the administration closed it and moved its patients to the new hospital. There are plans to now repair the old building, and bring it up to modern safety standards for use by the Upstate Medical School. I hope that they do this, because the building is beautiful, even if it is a bit strange.

While we walked around the campus, John told the patients other stories, too. He liked talking to us as much as I liked listening to him. We grew to be friends, actually. Once, on one of our walks, he spoke to me unexpectedly. “I am getting a divorce, you know.” He said this as if it was the most normal, natural thing to say.

Oh! I am sorry to hear that, John. What happened?” I asked compassionately.

Well, you see…my wife moved out of the city for a better job. At the new place, she met someone and she fell in love with him, and now she wants to be with him.”

I walked next to John, wondering what should I say to him. I’m not really good at saying the right thing during moments like that. I tried to find something soothing, searched my brain for useful advice. The group of three patients strolled leisurely behind us, oblivious to John's troubles. At last, instead of my bumbling out something that was bound to be awful, John spoke words that have stuck in my mind.

You know, it’s all right. They say that when your heart breaks, it opens again, and a new love can come in.” To illustrate his point, he stretched out his arm, clenched his hand into a fist, and then opened it.

I was glad he had accepted his circumstances in this way. I have learned that it is helpful to reframe situations for yourself in terms that will help you through trying times, to accept circumstances as they are, and to find a philosophy to help you survive. I think John felt better after our conversation, even if it was short. Part of healing is sharing your problems with others, even if they cannot offer advice. It is just as helpful if others are simply listening, trying to understand, and showing empathy. Maybe this is even better than any advice.

It is hard to be alone in these moments of brokenness; I learned this while facing my own precarious situation in my cell in between going to the civil hospital twice. Looking through the tiny so-called window towards the outside, and watching all those cars roll along the road, I imagined I was in one of the cars driving towards Front Street, going to Binghamton. In my imagination, I was leaving everything behind me, both the criminal charges and my disease. I would no longer have to face all the shit I was dealing with. Eventually, I found a real way out. Instead of escaping into a fantasy world, I made friends, both in the hospital and in jail. Some were what people would consider insane, others had done terrible things. Somehow, though, I got along with them, found myself belonging with them. They were people to whom I could confide my fears, and I listened to their advice. I never took their advice, actually, but in the end, it was nice to have someone to relax with and talk to. It is better to have these “undesirables” as friends than to have no friends at all, especially in my circumstances. It made my life so much easier.


I chained my bike to a pole in front of the new hospital building and looked up. The cold, indifferent brick facade depressed me. I felt like…I don't know. A soda can that had been run over by a car, only to be immediately run over by another… and then another. The huge stone edifice in front of me seemed to crush me, the institution it embodied making me feel small and unimportant. I brushed aside this thought and entered. In the lobby, I signed the visitor's log at the guard booth and was given a visitor's tag. When I was a patient there, I had been visited in the hospital primarily by two friends; needless to say, it felt strange to be a visitor myself.

I went to the third floor, and waited in front of the conference room where the clinical meeting was going to take place. I felt as if I had never left the hospital. The sterile corridors, walls painted a dirty white color, and locked doors brought back memories. These memories weren’t all bad, not really. I remembered the food, which tasted alright, particularly the desserts. I remembered John, a few other staff, and the few friends I had made among the patients in the hospital. My negative memories centered mainly on my having been confined within the main building of the hospital, in one ward specifically. With the exception of short walks on campus, for about six months I had been unable to leave the building. I had also been surrounded by sick people whose illnesses constantly reminded me of my own.

While I was waiting at the end of the hallway, a door opened and Sally Irving, the hospital’s lawyer, appeared. One of the patients told me she had never won even a single court case, nor managed to release even one patient whom the doctors did not want to release. I thought she was probably a good lawyer, and that it was not her fault she had never won a court battle. The problem was probably that if the doctors say you are crazy, and they think you belong in the hospital, it is really hard to prove them wrong.

Sally was glad to see me. She greeted me cheerfully. “Hi, Robert. You look great. I hear that you are doing great, too.”

Hi, Sally. Thanks! Yes, I feel good,” I said with a smile.

I heard from your probation officer that you are doing everything according to the conditions of your probation. She recommended that you be released, and her opinion is what weighs the most. Now, you will meet with three members of the hospital administration, and they will ask you questions about how you are doing. Just relax, and answer them honestly, the best that you can. Knowing you, I think it will go well.” Her confidence in me was encouraging, despite her lack of courtroom victories.

After a we had a short talk, Sally went into the conference room where the meeting would be held. The three people on the commission board showed up. I knew two of them, women who held administrative positions in the hospital; the third was a man I had never seen. They said they would call me in the room later, after discussing my case.

While I waited to be called in, a group of patients appeared from the far end of the corridor. They reminded me of prisoners of war—hunched over, slouching, dragging their feet on the floor in silence. Most of them were dressed in worn-out, donated clothes that were either a bit too big or a bit too small for them. It was a command of around ten people. I did not know the “Therapeutic Assistants”—that is what they call the wardens here—who were with them, but I nodded to them anyway. However, I knew one of the patients. He appeared as a big colorful shape among the group of gray, emanating cheerfulness and friendliness in my direction.

Dressed in a bright red T-shirt, as round as Mother Earth herself, Charlie shouted gleefully. “Robert!”

Charlie was an enormous man. He was blond, not very tall but very overweight, with a baby face and red cheeks, as if he had put on some rouge. His body appeared to be perfectly round, like a ball with a head, arms and legs sticking out. I'd sometimes wondered, when I and the rest of the patients lined up to take our medications or to go up the stairs, and Charlie appeared late, breathing heavily and sweating, whether he would simply roll over if I tripped him, wiping out the whole ward like a bowling ball. Of course, I never did it because it would have been an unforgivably mean thing to do. Charlie was a nice guy. I also would have gotten in major trouble if I had done it.

Charlie came to me and we shook hands. The TAs stopped the group and waited for us to have a short conversation.

We did not talk much. Charlie had been in the hospital for more than ten years; he had done something substantial enough that they had to keep him so long. He thought that if he blamed it on his sickness, he would get away with it easily. However, that did not happen. I didn't think he belonged in the hospital, but there he was, for fourteen years.

I did not want to stick it to Charlie; I didn’t want to tell him how well I was doing and how nice it was on the outside. When I was at the hospital and friends visited me, it was nice to have their moral support, but sometimes, listening to stories about their lives outside of the hospital—their careers, girlfriends, and schooling—brought me down. Still, I had to tell Charlie that I was there to appear before a commission to be released from the CPL. When he heard this, he congratulated me and shook my hand again. I could tell that he was happy for me, but that the same thoughts I had when my friends visited me also passed through his head. He viewed me as being on the outside, and he was in the hospital. He was silent for a moment, then spoke.

Did you know that Sally moved my case to the court? Finally, I can fight the hospital if the doctors don't release me soon.” He looked miserable there, an enormous man, with his rosy cheeks, stepping from foot to foot, trying to sound optimistic. He tried to be proud of this little bit of progress in his life, and this made me little sad. I didn't show it, though, and I spoke encouragingly.

I am sure that it will happen Charlie as it happened for me. Just keep it up man. Don't do anything stupid. You will also need to get off of all that shit.”

He smiled. The TAs seemed to be getting impatient.

Okay, I have to go. Good look at the review,” Charlie said, and we shook hands again.

Thanks, Charlie. Good luck to you, too!” He waved and the whole group started again, him dragging along. They reached a door at the opposite end of the hallway from which they appeared and went through it. The door locked behind them.

My review went well. The two women who knew me were nice to me, and it was clear that they were going to vote for me to be released. The man was more difficult. He asked me the majority of the questions, such as whether I was working, if I had been drinking, or if I had been taking illegal drugs. I answered affirmative to the first question, and negative to the second two. The other questions seemed not to carry as much weight. At the end of the interview, the man told me that it might take a month before they would notify me about their decision.

Once out of the conference room, I was sure that in a month, I would finally be a free man. Happily, I jumped on my bike and pedaled down the hill, going as fast as I could, the wind whistling by my ears. That evening, I decided to celebrate. All of my old friends, who I knew from college, had scattered away. No one remained in town. The friends I had made after I was released did not know I have bipolar disorder, for which I had been in the hospital and in the jail.

I did know that I would have to keep this secret. People are sometimes judgmental about these sorts of things. I realized that there was no one around who I could celebrate this occasion with…so I celebrated it by myself. See, when I was on CPL, I was not supposed to drink alcohol. I did not mind not drinking beer and liquor, but I really missed a bottle of good, dry red wine. I had been tested regularly for my lithium levels, as well as the presence of any illegal drugs and other substances, so I never risked drinking. However, I knew that there would be no more testing now.

I went to the store and bought a bottle of my favorite wine. I cooked myself a savory meal, and had a nice dinner. Within an hour after drinking two glasses of wine, I got a terrible headache that migrated from the front of my head towards the back. I am still not sure which medication had interacted with the alcohol—probably the antipsychotic—but it felt as if my brain was swelling. I could imagine dying during the night from a swollen brain, like Bruce Lee, or a friend of mine. I went to bed and spent the night in pain. The only thing stopping me from going to the hospital was that I would have to tell them I was drinking, and this might trickle to my psychiatrist and eventually the commission board, putting my freedom in danger. The headache subsided the next morning; I felt slightly manic, though, and could not sleep well for the next two days. Clearly, I would not be able to drink wine anymore. That’s really something to be sorry about.


On the bridge next to Walmart, I look at my watch. It's 6:25 am. I must have slowed down, and now I must make up for lost time or I will be late for work. My shift starts at 6:30, and it takes me 15 minutes to get there from where I am now. If I am seven or more minutes late, I get an “occurrence” on my employment record. I can only have a certain number of occurrences before the managers let me go. Since I already have a few occurrences, I start pedaling fervently, swerving to the left towards the street, and I start riding on the road. I’m hoping I make it on time.


Yesterday, I received the letter stating that I was officially dismissed from the CPL. My celebration did not involve alcohol. Instead, I had another idea. The confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna is five blocks from where I live. I go there to reminisce and relax sometimes. Yesterday, after I got the letter, I walked to the river and I stood holding onto the railing of the bridge and staring at the water passing underneath. There is something magical about this place. The coming together of the two rivers is like a metaphor for some sort of conclusion, some finality—as if all paths merge finally at the intended place.

It was like that for me, too. After the insanity, the hospital, the jail, and the time on CPL, everything had reached some sort of conclusion. The CPL was removed. A period of my life was, in a way, “wrapped up” and put behind me. Of course, you can’t truly wrap up anything completely in your life; the past is always part of your present and future. Regardless, I decided to draw an imaginary line between that moment and what was next.

So now what? What is next? The water kept moving underneath me, flowing towards places I did not know, and could not foresee. Tomorrow will be different from today. Always. I wondered where the current of the river of my life would carry me after this. I didn't know. I had no long-term plans. Maybe I would find a serious job, and then we’d see how well I would do. At that moment, though, I was alright—sound, sane, and optimistic. And that is something.


At last, I reach the crossroad in front of the Home Depot. The traffic light is red, but there are no cars, so I cross the street and then make my way through the parking lot; in the end, I chain my bike to the pole in front of the parking space reserved for people with disabilities. I guess it's not meant for me, but cars can still park if they need to. Before entering the store, I turn around.

It is dawn now; a new day has just been born. The air is fresh and cold, the sun low on the horizon. The parking lot has a yellow-gold wash from the sun’s rays. The sky is a sapphire blue, the clouds glowing pink and yellow. It is beautiful. I wish I could stay and look at it, taking in all of the small beauties; instead, I turn around and go into the store.


© Copyright 2019 Rosko I. Tzolov. All rights reserved.

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