The Night Clay Aiken Saved My Life

A room full of depressives, schizophrenics and recovering addicts will almost never agree on what constitutes “Must-See TV.” The only options that night were “American Idol” and a Mel Gibson movie, the one where the kids make tinfoil hats to ward off alien mind control. Watching anything brain-related in a mental hospital—forgive me, behavioral health facility—is pretty much verboten, so we decided on “Idol.” Personally, I was more interested in my proximity to Mike on the couch, and how his hand had crept toward mine under the edge of the stiff, synthetic blanket on my lap. It was August, but you wouldn’t have known it. The air conditioner was set to “arctic,” and the skylight in the rotunda only registered day, night and rain.

In the course of three months, I had been hospitalized three times. The first time was fairly straightforward; I was depressed, and wanted to feel better. On my second trip, I still complained of depression, but something far more frightening was starting to shimmer around the edges of my vision. The world just didn’t look right. Unable to pinpoint the problem, I checked out of the hospital and headed home, thinking I could shake it off. It only took me a few days on my own to figure out exactly what was wrong: I was crazy. The word “crazy” pulsed like blood behind my eyes; it saturated the air through which I moved. I had no evidence that I was crazy, other than that I thought I was crazy, but it was enough. I began to tell people, cautiously: “I think I’m going insane.” They assured me otherwise, and in a sense they were right. I wasn’t seeing or hearing things that weren’t there (as far as I knew). But I couldn’t work, I stopped eating, and I was afraid to be alone. Less than a week after my second release, I was back in the hospital.

I had been there about three weeks when I met Mike during Activities. Everyone lost their lake privileges when another patient—my roommate in fact—pulled an Ophelia act and tried to float to her doom, so I signed up to play basketball instead. It was just him and me and one of the orderlies in the gym, and we shot some hoops. Mike and I passed the ball back and forth, taking turns hurling it in the general direction of the basket, jogging placidly after it when it went astray. I was surprised to find myself flirting. Then again, I was surprised to find myself breathing, most of the time. I even wondered how I looked, without quite making it to the point of caring. The few mirrors the hospital had were made of some sort of industrial plastic instead of glass; they flattened our faces and deadened our eyes and as a result were pretty accurate in their own warped way.

Mike looked like a slightly younger version of any guy in an Irish bar at 5:05 on a weekday—not exactly down and out, but well on his way. He was in the DD wing of the hospital, meaning Drugs and Dependency. I didn’t know too many of the DD people, just enough to predict that few of them would stay clean for more than a week after discharge. When I first earned my rotunda privileges and could mingle with everyone else, I expected to hear a lot of one-day-at-a-time talk, but there wasn’t any. It seemed as if some of them had only checked into the hospital to get back in shape to drink a little longer. I sort of envied them. I thought it must be nice to have a calling. I, on the other hand, was supposed to get better. Threatened with intravenous feedings, I had started to eat a little (contrary to popular belief, you can in fact lose weight while consuming only cake). And three times a week I rode in the hospital van to an outpatient clinic for electroconvulsive treatments.

The best part about ECT is when they put you under. After I got used to it, I was an anesthesia junkie, waiting wide-eyed and eager for the doctor to sink the syringe into my IV. It became almost erotic, an eerie nexus of drugs and sex that literally knocked me out. I liked counting to ten, knowing I’d be slurring by three, blind by four, and out by five. The drug felt like a sudden frost, as if someone was threading a tiny ice-cold wire through my vein. They told me to close my eyes, but I enjoyed watching the faces leaning over me grow fuzzy, then disappear.

Waking up was another story. Without unconsciousness to look forward to, I was just a crazy person lying on a stretcher, divided by nothing but a plastic curtain from other crazy people, hearing the moans and whimpers as they, too, swam reluctantly back to the surface. Nobody wants to come out of anesthesia. We fight the return of consciousness, mentally and physically; we thrash and wail; we vomit. We cry. Or maybe it’s just the depressed people who don’t want to come back, frustrated to find ourselves still in the world we’d been briefly, blissfully out of. Later in the day, they used that same room to perform abortions. The continuity made sense to me. Another procedure, “minor” in the surgical sense, with a wide range of potential repercussions; another operation after which you’d never be quite sure what you’d lost.

The medical community prefers to call it “ECT” but let’s call it what it is: Shock treatment. Treatment with shocks. No one knows exactly how or why it works, although it often does. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it works but sizzles out memories along with the depression. In all, I would lose about a year of my mind to ECT, but I didn’t know that yet. Right then, I just needed a reset button. A jumpstart. A jolt that would send me, like Frankenstein’s monster, staggering back into life, make my mind process normal messages again, instead of endless anxiety and pain.

Amid all that was new and, frankly, awful, Mike seemed normal. Safe. He had close-cropped hair, a little longer in front, and unlike most of my summer companions he wore clean, preppy clothes. He’d even been to a college I’d heard of, although he didn’t graduate. He looked like someone that, back in the real world, I would have liked, so I liked him, or tried to. We became a Thing. Despite—or maybe because—of the fact we were never alone, we became enough of a Thing for some crone in stirrup pants to hiss at me in the hallway, “Maybe you should think about that sweet man who brings your kids three times a week.” I didn’t see the need to tell her that thinking about “that man,” about men in general, had put me here in the first place. I had no libido to speak of, so I’m not sure what I thought I could offer anyone new. But it seemed silly to feel guilty when the situation was so absolutely asexual. Any urges I had in that area had been fried right out of me; if Mike sent any signals, they went unreceived.

By now there were about a dozen people clustered around the TV, and Mike and I were holding hands under the blanket. This made me feel special in a way I knew was completely and utterly whacked, as if I’d been picked first for Crazy Kickball, crowned queen of the Crazy Prom. If you’d asked me why I was playing handsies with a random guy under a scratchy blanket, I wouldn’t have had a reason. I’m fairly certain it had nothing to do with Mike himself. Maybe it was because he liked me, which meant there must be a me to like. Logic, in the form of my therapist, suggested comfort, but back then I believed that solace from other patients didn’t count. If they were messed up enough to be in there with me, what the hell did they know?

On the television, a bristle-headed blond man was singing. I didn’t have a TV at home, but I knew his name was Clay Aiken, and that the show was in its second season. Other patients, more recent arrivals, knew more: who had been eliminated, who the competition was, that tonight’s episode was some sort of finale. Aiken looked like a dapper angel stuck in a big purple Slinky of a stage. The Slinky was encircled with television sets in a variety of sizes that, weirdly, weren’t displaying the stage, but instead what appeared to be screensavers, as if they’d been left on too long. Aiken’s voice was a bit trilling for my taste. The spectacle itself, though, all those circles, mesmerized me. So I watched.

The song was “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers. You know the one: he’s far away, he misses someone, there are seas and streams, time goes by, he sends love and asks her or him to speed some back. What with all the water, it’s not clear where anyone is, and if you stop to think about how anyone’s supposed to catch all that flying, floating love, the whole thing makes no fucking sense. But the song somehow matched the stage, which, while blue and soothing, also looked improbable. The big screen behind Aiken circled calmly, as if about to suck him gently into a slow-moving vortex. He sang on.

I panicked. I wanted to warn him. He looked so small, so frail, so plaintively purple. And it suddenly struck me how crazy that was. For weeks I’d felt nothing but anxiety and fear; now I ached. I ached because, at that particular moment, the mass-market carnival I was watching was somehow, incomprehensibly, more normal than I was. “Normal” was a scrawny white closet case screeching on a neon stage, waiting for cell phones to shape his fate. No distance or diagnosis could account for the space between there and here, that garish platform, this half-moon of mental patients huddled around a TV. If that was normal, seriously, how hard could normal be?

I forgot all about Mike’s hand. My rigid shoulders rose up around my ears as an eerily cheerful (it’s a sad song, asshole) Aiken strode toward the song’s mid-sentence, one-verb climax. That motherfucker nailed that high note. His crowd went bananas, my crowd went bananas—well, more bananas—and ZAP, right then, Aiken’s wail did what shock treatment didn’t. There I was, as if someone had dropped my old sane mind back into my dwindling body. I wasn’t my roommate, breathing through tubes in a windowless room. I wasn’t the random guy holding my hand under the hospital blanket. I definitely wasn’t in a Hollywood audience, weeping, waving a sign I’d made myself to help a singer win. Yet amidst all that not-me I felt myself again—not like myself, but my actual self, my insides and my edges. Clay Aiken shrieked “I need,” and I remembered who I was.

“He has to win,” whispered Mike.

“I have to go,” I answered. “I just had the lamest epiphany in the history of the world.”

It has taken me eight years to realize that my recovery from that moment forward may owe as much, if not more, to ECT as it does to “American Idol.” If so, I definitely gave up part of my brain to get the rest of it working again, but that’s another story. I prefer to think of it this way: you can’t pick your epiphanies. They find you when they feel like it, in their own good time, in whatever form fits the knowledge you didn’t know you needed. Rarely ideal or elegant, real epiphanies are often inconvenient, if not downright undignified. If you wait for the lightning to work, you risk missing the messier truths that show up in unexpected, embarrassing places … like, say, Date Night in the loony bin.

Clay Aiken didn’t win that night. I can’t recall who beat him. I never saw Mike again. I still hear that note, though, that one purple, piercing word.



Beth Boyle Machlan teaches writing and rewriting to college freshmen, has blogged for Nerve, and now writes for The Faster Times. You can guess where she lives.