How I committed my friend to mental health

Just over the edge

In the autumn of our senior year at the university, at the time of Kurt's delirium, we lived in a broad and ample house that was owned by rival gangsters. But this is not a story of underworld feuds or urban housing, nor is it a tale of carefree college days. During that fall season, I lived briefly with madness; not of my own, but of my friend and roommate, Kurt. Until you have glimpsed psychosis, or until you have observed someone you love become irrevocably separated from reality, it is difficult to comprehend the anguish mental illness generates among the victim’s comrades and kinfolk. But if you, as 1, end up abducting your friend in the middle of the night, as he screams and curses you; as the orderlies wrestle him to the hard floor of the hospital lobby; as he shouts with sincerity and conviction, “I’m not crazy ”; as he is strapped to a gurney in a cement room with a drain in the floor; as the nurse injects him with a soporific, and as he looks as you in the denouement of his fading mental clarity and says quietly, piercing your eyes with his, “I will never, ever forgive you” — then you will know what it is like to live with madness.

I first met Kurt in the office of the university’s student newspaper, where I had come to ask for a job. He was the production editor, in charge of the design of the newspaper. After conferring with another of the editors, he hired me as an assistant copy editor, thus commencing our fateful friendship.

The first thing I learned on my new job was that newspaper work demands time — late nights, early mornings — and the exhaustive atmosphere of a newsroom breeds an intimacy among members of the staff. Colleagues become friends by dint of excessive proximity; periods of leisure are spent discussing work, and the demands of school and home frequently are superseded by the job. The work readily devours the worker, which is the reason most reporters look ten years older than they really are, and why many of them quit before they turn forty and seek employment in public relations or advertising. It is, in some measure, the reason that Kurt’s eccentricities evolved into insanity. And he had more than his legitimate allotment of eccentricities.

Kurt was deeply involved in a sect of Christianity that apparently required offerings of physical labor such as lawn mowing and painting. He meditated soundly for an hour a day, sometimes at the office. He claimed to see auras around everyone he met, and judged them to be good or evil people depending on the color of the respective aura. He was a solid devotee of health foods. He liked to think that he resembled Paul McCartney (he didn't), and he variously wore a full beard, a goatee, a mustache, sideburns, a clean-shaven face, long hair and short — and combinations thereof — as the fancy struck him, so that one rarely knew from week to week exactly what he would look like. I was immediately drawn to him.

Our respective bank accounts increased one year later when we were both promoted, I to copy editor and he to managing editor. A mutual friend, Sammy, was named editor-in-chief, and together we dominated the newspaper. It was a heady time. We were unassociated with the journalism department, so there were no irksome instructors telling us what to write and how to write it. We were answerable only to the student council, and even then only in regard to budgetary matters. It was during this time that Kurt and I sought lodgings to share, something more in keeping with our new station in campus life than an average student flat.

The habitation we found was within walking distance of the university, was inexpensive, and was designed like a fraternity house — four bedrooms, a swimming pool, modern appliances, and a space we called the Party Room, because it contained 400 square feet and a dance floor. We corralled three other students to join us in the venture, two young women and a young man, and proceeded to make ourselves at home. Our landlords were named Tony and Joe. They had been friends when they bought the house, but an argument over gambling debts grew into a quarrel of Hatfield-McCoy proportions. Soon they were partners incommunicado. Several times they argued on our front lawn about which of them was entitled to our monthly rent check. Tony would phone us late at night telling us to give the check to him only, or we “might run into problems.” Joe, in turn, would ring us up with a similar warning, “Or I might have to introduce you to some of my friends who, believe me, you don’t want to know,” he would say. Fortunately, these occasions developed only once a month, and in any event our housing situation was relatively settled, the new school term was just beginning, we all seemed to have plenty of money somehow, and our collective outlook could not have been more optimistic.

The role of managing editor, in which Kurt had been cast, is not a creative position. Most of his time is spent with budgets and payrolls, printers’ invoices and business supplies. His kingdom is not the fast-breaking story, but the newspaper’s finances. He must warn the other editors not to stretch their expenses. He must soothe cranky printers who complain about missed deadlines. He must convince the publisher that the typewriters in the newsroom are falling apart and that new ones are necessary. It isn’t the sort of job where someone is likely to pat him on the back with a hearty, “Way to go!” But Kurt refused to see himself or his responsibilities in an uncreative light, and treated the budgetary ledger as his artistic canvas. He wielded advertising revenue as a writer would a pen, and soon determined that he could transform our modest student newspaper financially into a mighty powerhouse of journalism.

It was not until several months later, however, that we discovered his true goal, which was to compete with the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune in a mano a mano for subscribers and to make our student publication the newspaper of record for San Diego County.

His plans began simply. He always left the house early each morning for the campus so he could count the number of newspapers delivered to the various sections of the university, to ensure an equitable distribution. Frequently he could be seen lugging bundles of our daily from one area to another, perhaps shouting to a curious acquaintance, “We’re sold out at the student union!” Never was he happier than when the free newspaper was “sold out.” He often tried to convince Sammy, the editor, that we needed to increase our already bloated press run so that more students could partake of our journal. If anyone questioned his rationale, he would whip out a pocket calculator, press a few buttons, and write the results on a sheet of paper. “See for yourself,” he would say. “The computer doesn’t lie.” Then he would leave the dazed editor with a block of computations to rival anything that ever came out of Cal Tech.

“What I really want us to do,” he confided to me one evening at the office, “is to start covering more off-campus news. Then we could start delivering the paper into Ocean Beach and Hillcrest. Once we do that, it'll be easy to get some more advertising. When we get more advertising and bring in some more money, we can have even more papers printed, and maybe start distributing it downtown and at other colleges.” To Kurt it was an incontrovertible fact: the more papers you print, the more advertising revenue you will bring in, which will allow you to print more papers and thus bring in even more money from ads, ad infinitum.

The first time he ever said anything to me about putting the Union-Tribune Publishing Company out of business, I assumed he was joking. But the sentiment recurred frequently in his conversation, until it was a leitmotif. He pointed out that we could erect news racks throughout the city next to those of the U-T to enhance competition. He collected data about the Copley newspapers’ structure and finances. Two months into the semester, Kurt was a fanatic. His mission was clear; it was now just a matter of convincing the rest of us.

More often than I care to recall, I would awaken in the early morning hours to cackles of delight emanating from the Party Room. I would investigate, only to find Kurt, alone at the dinner table, issues of the newspaper and reams of computations spread out before him. And there in his hand was his ever-present pocket computer. I began to consider his calculator an instrument of evil. It wasn’t Kurt’s fault that his senses were warping; it was that damn Texas Instruments comptometer.

As if the aforementioned peculiarities weren’t enough. Kurt started making midnight forays onto the campus to count the number of unread copies remaining from each day’s distribution. Walking through the campus, though, took him too much time, he thought, so he would climb into his car, an off-brand Italian make that was about the size of a Frigidaire Frost King, and drive illegally along the sidewalks and grassy paths of the college, from one newspaper rack to another, his adding machine on the empty passenger seat, ready to urge him onward and inward into his fast-developing fantasy universe.

No one at the newspaper was willing to believe anything about Kurt except that he was, perhaps, a little overzealous. “You know Kurt,” Sammy said to me on several occasions, “he’s always been off the wall.” And indeed Sammy was right: Kurt had always been a little odd, slightly bohemian, eager to try anything that was in the least mystical. For me to say that Kurt was acting strangely was as likely to elicit a response of “So what's new?” as anything else.

But by November it was clear that Kurt was traversing the frontiers of lucidity. He shunned sleep for days at a time, until his eyes glazed over so completely and he looked so haggard and disheveled that even his most ardent defenders began to fret. He neglected such mundane traditions as regular meals and changes of clothing. For a time he even stopped coming into the newspaper office, sneaking off to mysterious appointments he refused to explain. Not only was he deteriorating mentally, but his job as managing editor was being left more and more to others of us at the paper. More than that, though, I was afraid for his safety, fearing that his frequent midnight raids through the college halls would end in his arrest, or that he might fall asleep at the wheel and crash.

My only other experience with psychosis had come several years before I met Kurt. William, who had grown up around the corner from me when we were both children, had gone to Berkeley on a scholarship in 1972 to study physics. William had not stopped experimenting with psychedelic drugs after high school, as the rest of us had, and during his junior year he underwent an acid bummer that culminated in his attempt to set afire his L.L. Bean’s Sebec Hiker backpack in the middle of Telegraph Avenue just before dawn. A couple of Berkeley’s finest incarcerated William and eventually turned him over to the mental health unit of a Bay Area hospital. William’s subsequent Thorazine treatment promoted his rapid return to the real world in the custody of his parents.

I remember seeing him during my summer vacation that year. The medicine he was taking caused him to walk stiffly, in a manner not unlike Lurch of The Addams Family. He was frequently unaware of his surroundings, prone to drift off into his lysergic nethemess. Neighborhood children taunted him as he precariously wobbled along the sidewalk. They called him “the monster,’’ and he amiably played along with them, making roaring sounds and pretending to lunge at them. His mother allowed him to walk just down to my house or to the nearby park, where he would stare off into space and speak only rarely.

William, one of the most intelligent men I have ever known, had been reduced to a stiff-jointed bogeyman, bullyragged by street Arabs, barely able to communicate. I was relieved when the summer ended and I no longer had to babysit my sick friend.

After he returned to Berkeley and earned his physics degree, William enrolled in the doctoral program at UCSD, aiming for the stars through the astrophysics program. During a midterm break, though, he sojourned in Guadalajara, where he was arrested for destroying private property, specifically a fence. It was made of stone and mortar, and he began at one end, stone by stone, tearing it apart. A curious policeman questioned him, arrested him. and threw him in jail, where he spent the Christmas holidays. His father flew down and bribed William’s jailers to free him. Later, when he regained some acuity, I questioned him about his actions. “Well, I saw this fence,” he explained, “and it was like a wall in the middle of nowhere. It really didn’t belong there. If you would have seen it, you’d know what I mean. The only thing for me to do was tear it down.’’

The surprise ending, of course, is that William went on to get his Ph D. in astrophysics, and is now married and the father of a gorgeous baby girl. And everyone has lived somewhat happily ever after.

William was lucky to have concerned parents who assumed the responsibility of his care while he was incapacitated. Kurt was not so lucky, because he had only a few young friends, like me, who could barely handle their own problems, let alone something of the proportion that he faced.

I have a photograph, a snapshot, taken with a color Polaroid. The hues have faded, but whenever I see it the memory of the night it was taken is as vivid as any memory I have. It was the night I committed Kurt. The photo shows Kurt, me, and one of our female roommates sitting in the Party Room. I am slightly drunk, proffering a glass of chablis to the photographer. Our roommate is looking at Kurt with a sidelong glance, and her mouth is forming either a grimace or a strained smile; I can’t tell which. Kurt himself has the glazed, delirious expression of someone on his deathbed who sees a host of angels winging down from Paradise.

Earlier that same evening, Kurt had climbed into his Italian refrigerator car and, with a snappy “Ciao, baby,” had headed toward the campus, which was by now his nightly habit. As he drove away from our house, his tinny AM radio was screaming out the windows, rivaling his laughter in volume. His activities of the next few hours I was to learn only later, but what happened went like this:

There was a twenty-four-hour convenience market near our house, and that particular night, standing on the sidewalk in front of the market, was a slightly embarrassed young man dressed in a giraffe costume, waving at the passing motorists. The costumed young man’s purpose in this was to lure the drivers into the market in the hope that they would then contribute to the national charity for which he was donating his time. Kurt drove past the giraffe and barely caught a glimpse of it. He did a double take and slammed on the brakes.

Surely this was significant, he thought, staring at the creature’s bobbing cranium. This was indeed an omen of some magnitude. He executed an unlawful U-turn and parked next to the man in the jungle outfit. “Do you want to make some money for your charity?” Kurt asked, after the costumed man had explained his purpose, “If you come with me. I can guarantee you a really big contribution from the newspaper I work for.”

It was Kurt’s perception at that moment that because our newspaper would soon be the pre-eminent journal in Southern California (this was no longer mere theory, to Kurt 's way of thinking; it was a virtual fait accompli), it was the newspaper’s correlative duty to support needy charities with donations. Even in the midst of Kurt’s mental turmoil he retained the ability to speak with a semblance of rationality, and the man in the giraffe suit, perhaps anxious to get off his feet for a while, agreed to go for a ride with him.

Fifteen minutes later they walked in the door of the private publishing firm that pasted up and printed our newspaper each night. Inside the office were the five employees of the company and three students from the newspaper, including Sammy, the editor-in-chief. Their utter astonishment at seeing Kurt burst in the door, announcing the discovery of a new mascot for our publication, followed by the entry of the giraffe, has been related to me many times since then, but it would be an injustice to the singularity of such an event to try to describe it, because I wasn’t there. I was at home at the time, and it was there that Sammy reached me with a frantic telephone call. “You better get in your car and find that screwy roommate of yours! ” he shouted, then elaborated on the recent encounter. “And if you get hold of him, don’t let go.”

Several hours passed before Kurt entered the house, as if nothing untoward had transpired at the print shop. He marched straight for the dining table in the Party Room — which he had early on appropriated as his personal workbench — and pulled out his reams of computations. He studied one sheet of figures and giggled; he examined another sheet and began to weep. He scribbled some numbers on a paper, then started to hyperventilate. He goggled up at me every few minutes and spoke — not any words that you could understand, but apparently it all seemed comprehensible to him. it went on like this for more than an hour, with intermittent laughter and tears, quick breathing and slurred words. I directed my roommates to keep an eye on him. and I dashed off to search his room. My immediate supposition was that he was having a negative reaction to some sort of amphetamine. I hurriedly went through his drawers, seeking telltale signs of any drug use that might explain his incoherency. I found nothing.

By 1:00 a.m. my roommates had left Kurt in my charge while they went off to their rooms to sleep. Kurt showed no signs of letting up, so I called Sammy. “You’ve got to come over here,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Kurt’s acting up.”

While Sammy was on his way, I found the telephone number of a twenty-four-hour hotline referral service, which gave me the number for a local hospital with a mental health unit. A doctor answered, and I explained Kurt’s behavior of that evening and the previous several weeks. “Your friend is having a nervous breakdown,” he said in a not-at-all reassuring voice. “There are two things you can do: you can call the police department. . .’’(It was as if someone hit me in the gut with a ball-peen hammer.) ". . .or,” he continued, “you can bring him to the hospital yourself. I’d advise you to do one or the other right away, though. Can you tell me why you waited so long before you called us?”

It was like the coroner asking a bereaved husband why he hadn’t checked the brakes before letting his wife and kids drive on an icy highway. Why hadn’t I called before then? Had my reluctance allowed Kurt’s illness to reach an irreparable level? I had no answers for the doctor, and simply said we would be there as soon as possible.

I let Sammy in the front door and we crept to the Party Room. We watched Kurt from the shadows for a moment before entering. “He’s completely gone,” Sammy observed, awed by the seeming finality of Kurt’s madness.

We approached him and said we were going for a ride. Did he want to come with us, I asked? “Go ahead. I’ll meet you later,” he said, licking his lips and breathing rapidly.

“But you don’t know where we’re going,” Sammy pointed out.

Kurt never once looked up from his paperwork or his calculator. “Don’t worry. I’ll find you. I’ve got to figure this out first. We can do it, you guys. We can really do it. The Union will soon be going down the tubes. We can have 100,000 paid circulation by next June, and I figure we can all have raises pretty soon. How does $20,000 a year sound to you, Sammy? But Mark doesn't get a raise because he thinks I’m going nuts. Don’t you, Mark?”

I started to protest, but Sammy cut me off.

“Kurt, we’re going to meet the guy in the giraffe suit,” Sammy lied. “You tell us how much we should donate, but we’re supposed to go meet him right now. He’s expecting us.”

Kurt's eyes lit up, cutting through the grogginess and glaze that had blurred his vision for the past week. The giraffe! A meeting! What a great idea, his expression seemed to say. The fact that it was now past 2:00 a.m. did not seem curious to Kurt at all. “All right!” he nearly shouted. “Let’s go!”

We piled into my 1960 Volkswagen bug and stuffed Kurt into the back, where he would be unable to climb out if he became suspicious of our motives. Kurt did most of the talking as we drove down El Cajon Boulevard, past bowling alleys and supermarkets, tawdry bars and all-nightdiners, used-car lots, and hitchhiking prostitutes. I was numb. I tried not to think about what I was doing. Eventually we drove into the hospital parking lot. Kurt stopped his patter, twisted his head to see where we were, and released a long, low breath. “You’re taking me to the nut house,” he said, pensively.

He said nothing more as I parked the car and we stepped outside. He walked like a wrongly accused man entering a courtroom. Sammy made no pretense of normality; he was crying freely. My tears were there too. but they didn’t run down my face. I desperately wanted to explain to Kurt why we had brought him to this dreary place in the middle of the night, but he didn’t ask, so I didn’t offer.

We shuffled across the dark, warm, tar macadam apron, three abreast, Kurt pinned between Sammy and me. The lobby of the hospital’s mental health annex was so harshly lighted by overhead fluorescence that it might have made even the doctors look slightly loony. I wasn’t sure if it was the sudden brightness of the interior that made my heart race or if it was the queasy realization of what I was about to do.

“You’re the boys who called,” the grandmotherly nurse remarked with a smile. She was not going to be the sort of bureaucratic hospital employee to prolong Kurt’s illness with gobs of unnecessary questions and forms, I could tell. Like everyone who works a graveyard shift, she could be trusted to act like a human being. “What’s his name? Kurt? Well that’s just fine. Kurt, you come on around this desk here, have a seat on the sofa.”

Sammy and I were left standing in the silence and austerity of the administrative foyer, glad not to be asked any questions. There was a bank of molded-plastic, Bauhaus-like chairs in the waiting room, and we went there to bide our time. Sammy was breathing in that funny, hic-cupy, hesitant way of a child who is trying to stop crying. I felt nothing — as if I hadn't eaten for weeks and still was not hungry, or as if my pulse had long stopped beating, even though I remained ambulatory, one of the walking dead, a ghoul. I studied the linoleum tile on the floor, heard the distant traffic far below us in Mission Valley, tasted the sour aftermath of bile that had somehow seeped up to the back of my throat.

An hallucination designed to torment me incubated momentarily. In this vision, I heard a scream and I saw Kurt flying through the air in front of me, and Sammy bolted from his seat. And I knew then that it wasn't an hallucination, that Kurt had leaped in a single bound over the counter that separated the nurses' station from the public area and was fleeing toward the moonlight outside.

The nurse called loudly for an orderly, but Sammy had already grabbed hold of Kurt around the waist. I jumped out of my seat and tackled Kurt at the knees, and the three of us tumbled to the floor. Kurt clamored to get free, but Sammy fell across Kurt’s back like a wrestler making a reverse three-count pin. Before I knew anything else, people ran up from behind us. Someone kneed me in the back and pushed me aside, and I saw someone else do the same to Sammy. “Let me go!” Kurt shouted. “I’m not crazy. Goddamn it, I am not crazy! I'll sue this hospital. I 'll sue all of you!”

The two orderlies who had red-dogged Sammy and me seized Kurt roughly about the shoulders and waist and stood him erect. One of the beefy attendants held a bundle in his arm which, when he shook it out, transformed into a straitjacket. I had never before been close enough to a strait-jacket to touch it. In fact, the only ones I had ever seen were of the species used by television magicians just before being locked into a wardrobe trunk. Acres of canvas and flapping leather straps. Very simple. Effective. I was overcome with nausea when I saw it, and I nearly vomited there in the vestibule.

By now a doctor had entered the madhouse scene, and introduced himself as the man with whom I had spoken on the telephone an hour earlier. ‘‘So this is Kurt,” he surmised. “Let’s take you inside where we can get a look at you.”

The doctor and the two orderlies led Kurt across the lobby to a vaultlike door, something that one might expect to operate by a timelock. Before they entered, the doctor turned to Sammy and me and suggested that we walk with them. “He might relax a bit if you boys come along, ” the doctor said, as if Kurt weren’t listening.

My visions of a cushy hospital room with a color television and an adjustable bed faded quickly as we crossed that threshold. It was like walking through a maximum-security prison ward. On either side of the corridor were doors to the patients’ rooms, solid metal, impregnable without a key, with tiny iron-mesh windows through which the hospital staff could inspect the prisoners. Our steps echoed ahead of us, to where the night-duty nurse who had greeted us upon our arrival stood at an open cell.

The heavy portal was thrown open and bright light from within poured into the dimly lighted hallway. The nurse waited for us as in a nightmare, a ghostly smile on her face. Welcome to the Horror! The clanking of Kurt's straitjacket, the stark surroundings, the echoing footfalls, the stem orderlies and the grim-jawed medico, the complete bleakness around us — it was tot) much! I had been able to stop from crying up till then, but no longer. I bawled as I hadn't since I was a child, and I was ashamed. I cried for Kurt and for myself. No one looked at me. and for that I was grateful. I tried to gulp back the tears, afraid they would upset Kurt further, but he was long past the point of caring about my anxiety. “I’m not crazy!” he shouted, again and again. “No! No! You cannot take somebody and put them into a mental hospital if they are not crazy!”

He began to sound quite sane, actually, very much aware of what was happening. I knew that if ever somebody dragged me from my home in the middle of the night to a psycho ward, I would say precisely what Kurt was saying; I would struggle just as he was struggling; I would rail against my captors and stare my kidnapper in the face, just as Kurt was staring at me, and say specifically what he was saying to me: “I will never, ever forgive you for doing this to me! You know I’m not crazy!” And for a single, shuddering instant, I wondered if he were right. Had it all been an unthinkable mistake? ‘‘My God!” I thought. “What have I done?”

The room in front of us consisted of four bare walls, a ceiling with lights, and a sloping floor with a utility drain in the middle. The only furnishing was a white-sheeted gurney with straps hanging from the sides. The nurse had moved from the doorway to the gurney and was smiling, trying to be friendly and a soothing presence, but she succeeded only in making the nightmarish environment even more surreal. Kurt was hoisted up by the two orderlies onto the porta-bed, and the nurse began to strap him down. “He’ll be all right now,” the doctor told us with a finality that said we were not needed any longer. “Just fill out the patient information form before you leave.”

Sammy and I slouched toward the lobby, through the corridor now thick with Kurt’s gut-wrenching screams, and went home. I telephoned Kurt’s parents the next day and told them what had occurred, but they seemed utterly unperturbed. “Kurt’s all right,” his father said to me from 300 miles away. “I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. Just have him call us when he gets a chance.”

I’m not hearing this, I said to myself. This man is not for real. ‘ ‘I don’t think you fully understand what I’m saying, sir. Your son has been committed to a mental hospital. Perhaps you’d better come down here and see him. You should probably talk to the doctors and get a prognosis.” “Thanks for calling,” his father said, ending the conversation. “Let us know what happens.”

Kurt was transferred after a few days to the community mental health unit in Loma Portal, where he was allowed to roam about the day room, mingle with the other patients, and receive visitors, of which he had many. I went nearly every day, and most of the newspaper staff paid several calls. Kurt was always glad to see us, smiling and outwardly normal. If there was any resentment toward me, he held it in check. He was being prescribed a great deal of medication, the nurse told me, but when Kurt showed me his room, he also showed me all the pills he had faked swallowing. “They’re dumb pills,” he said. “They just make me want to sleep and not think. ”

Kurt’s parents did come down to San Diego later, after Kurt had been released and had moved back to our house. Their visit did little to advance his recovery, though, and we were all glad when they departed. Kurt soon was well enough to resume his job as managing editor of the newspaper, although in a greatly reduced capacity and with all of us constantly keeping tabs on his behavior.

Our feuding gangster landlords, meantime, were able to sustain an armistice long enough to sell our house to a developer who planned to raze the structure. Party Room and all, and build condominiums on the land. We were summarily evicted, and each of us, separately, moved in with friends. There soon followed graduation and the inevitable faltering of communication between old school chums who are no longer bound to one another by daily contact. I didn't see Kurt for years. Maybe it would have been a good idea for us to have sat down over a fifth of Wild Turkey in the calmer months that followed and talked about the ordeal he had gone through. As know what he thinks of me, whether he’s grateful or even now consorting with gypsies for an appropriate curse. I would like to think, though, that he understands why I did what I did — that I had no choice.

A few months ago I saw Kurt at a party. He looked tanned and healthy. A publishing venture in which he had some financial participation had gone successfully and he was making a good living for himself. We shook hands and he introduced me to a friend of his: “This is the guy who took me to the loony bin.” .

Someone at the party had a camera, and Kurt buttonholed him. “Take a picture of us,” he said jovially, putting an arm around my shoulder. “But don’t smile too wide, Mark. Someone might think you’re crazy.”

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