Adam Strong

Angel Boy and Reenie

Adam Strong writes in his latest essay about his thirty days at Charter Rivers Hospital that included electroshock therapy, and his relationships with Angel Boy and Reenie.

 

Therapy has taught you there is a little boy inside of you, whom you are tasked with protecting. The little boy inside of you is hard to pin down.

Sometimes he sounds like you and sometimes he sounds like Gary during your worst moments. You’ve spent hours in therapy holding onto vibrating pods with your arms crossed, so you can teach your body to associate this little boy with someone other than trauma. Your inner child thinks this inner child stuff is liberal pantywaist let’s-share-feelings touchy new age crap.

In the 1980s, there was a new section in a record store called “New Age.” There was a local new age radio station in South Florida. The music was the sound of all the painful things you’d ever experienced smoothed over a sheen of studio glop. You could see being an adult to this music, being a lawyer maybe, with a wife and two kids, you meditate with a goddamn samurai sword mounted in your study.

Lots of people have an inner child trapped inside of them. You are not sure of the statistical validity of that statement, but you go with it anyway.

There’s a photo your dad sent to you recently. Something he’d scanned, a photo that you think best captures the kid that is inside of you. In the photo, you and your dad are on a beach, there are clouds in the background, there’s a little bit of sunshine shown by the bright blue. Even though you are only three years old you are lost in a reverie.

The kid inside of you is this kid. You drew a picture on a tiny canvas you keep on your desk, it says “Always” in pencil, drawn on then inked, smudged over to look lived in. You drew you to remind you of two things. One is that you will probably always have your head in the clouds, second is that you will always have this child inside of you. It’s your job to protect this kid who is you, the adult.

Which is why you became a teacher, you wanted to help out people who needed it the most, the exact teacher who was never there for you. If that teacher had existed, would that have changed the outcome, would you have still felt bleak after coming home after the date that was a joke, set up by your old friend Patrick? You sat there for an hour waiting for a date that was never supposed to show. The waiter that night, at the place the so-called date was supposed to go down, applied pity to you in that he only charged you a 200% mark up on the underage beer he served you.

After the lonely drive home, the fight with your parents, the acquisition by you of the biggest knife in the house, from the drawer to its intended place, the cold of blade on blue veins on your pale-for-Florida skin, the phone call to your therapist, that interrupted you, the ultimatum: Take the call or go to the mental hospital.

Would you have taken the call, would you have stopped when your dad grabbed your arm and the knife dropped and the ambulance came and the EMTs asked you if you were going to resist, and you said, “Do I look I could resist anything?” and they put you on the gurney with the white sheet and started the Charter Rivers hospitalization ball rolling. One month was all your parents’ insurance would pay for, 30 days of group therapy with car thieves, drug addicts, and other suicidals.

You on the first morning, after you slept in the lobby with your shoes off in case you tried to hang yourself with your shoelaces. Your no-sleep eyes were on the intricate patterns of the day room rug, no sleep because of the night screams from those confined, fists pounding on the soft walls of the rubber room. Thirty days of group therapy and too much Thorazine diagnosed to some, one kid broke a table in half, another thought he was being torn apart by demons. His leg was always in the middle of a shake, his eyes locked on the fireball of the fluorescent light. Always always the one in the corner, the one he had to himself. Thirty days of temperature checks, wrist checks, walking-down-the-hall-at-night-to-get-something-to-help-you-sleep checks, thirty days of having a roommate who tried to suck the freon out of the air conditioner.

 

Thirty days of temperature checks, wrist checks, walking-down-the-hall-at-night-to-get-something-to-help-you-sleep checks, thirty days of having a roommate who tried to suck the freon out of the air conditioner.

 

Thirty days at Charter Rivers Hospital that ended in the weekly four drops of goo rubbed on the square that connected to the other wires on top of your head and on your temples before they put the rainbow-colored cap connected to the computer. “This is going to hurt,” they said. Electronic impulses, or electroshock therapy, you are not sure what you don’t remember and what they erased.

The piles of yellow pills with giant Ns on them that your psychiatrist prescribed to you; your psychiatrist, who had an impossibly close shave, and a picture of him on his big fishing boat, “Marlin fishing, ever do it?” “N” was for Norpramin, and these Ns turned the sunniest of mornings to a sweeping vista of an Earl Gray sunrise.

After Charter Rivers, you went back to school where everyone knew you were in a mental hospital. They called you “psycho boy” for the rest of your Junior year until school let out in June. Then you went to Maine. “Outward Bound Directive” was the name of the program, and, no, it’s not the touristy two-week jaunt that rich kids go to, but the court-appointed one; steal a car, go live on crumbs with other malcontents for 30 days, let’s see how funny it is then, funny man. You were the only one not appointed by the courts to be there. Why Outward Bound Directive? Because Gary tried it, and, though it sounded like hell, it sounded like something that would build you up.

Outward Bound Directive was 28 days in the woods, with just enough food to sustain you, nothing more. You dreamed of triple cheeseburgers, of the golden dawn of fried potatoes and oil. You backpacked, you carried a canoe on your back, you spent three days and three nights alone in the woods by yourself. You pushed and pushed until you broke down and, one by one, every few days a new kid would lose the plot, cry, swear, throw shit, then they came back around, and you were no exception.

Gary’s letters were long and desperate, but they did have some moments of care in them, but then he included this picture he drew of you. In the crude single-line drawing, there was the exaggerated hunch he claimed you had, “like a ferret,” he wrote. He included a drawing in there too, with a thin line of a backpack on your shoulder, there was an arrow pointing at the backpack, the sweating face, a speech bubble over you. He conjured your stutter by cutting off your words with a dash.

You’re pretty sure your stutter got way worse then. Maybe that was it the whole time. You just let someone come along and just dictate who you are. You didn’t know it was supposed to be a battle, but how could you not when at the time there was no one else?

Took you fifteen years to figure it out. You knew, had to have known, that Gary was pulling your strings, but you were far enough away by that point. It was worse in Miami, where he was all the time. But then you graduated from high school and went to South Carolina for college. You’d still see Gary when you were back home, but your parents wouldn’t let him in the house, so at night whether it was for a summer or a holiday, you’d stand outside while you waited for him, for the front headlights of his white Honda Prelude outside on the driveway in front of your house, across the street from the mangroves, as the years went by you came home less and less, saw him less and less. But Gary was not deterred. In Columbia, Gary would come and stay with you at least three times a year. He made the whole you and him a major priority because he saw how you were slipping away.

On summer break, he came to England to stay with you, twice.

He never wanted a group around, that would dilute the message, he cordoned you off until you got tired of it. Gary’s power over you was becoming weaker by the year and he knew it.

 


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Years later, when you were at SCETV, you told him you were going to move to Portland. Gary was furious, so far away. As you told him on the phone, “This move isn’t for you, it’s for me.”

Why Portland? Because Atlanta was too close to Columbia. You had a phone interview with The Weather Channel, you didn’t know shit about what was “cumulus” and what was “nimbus,” words like that made you think about the shadow of a lady on the other side of one of those dressing shades putting her finger to her mouth, saying to you, “Shh, be quiet, don’t say anything.”

Atlanta had “Reenie” (Shireen) and it had some other friends, but it was miles of suburbs and too much traffic. When you went to Atlanta, you spent half of your time sitting in the car waiting to get from one friend’s house to the other. Her button eyes are on you, at traffic lights and traffic jams. A look to say, “It’s okay, you aren’t alone, you’ve got me.”

Reenie, she’s been a ghost, she’s been the person she was, lost in a blizzard of cocaine and crack. She’s been the one you could talk to. She’s been the pathological liar you always feel bad about mentioning. Like, if you could just ignore that one little detail, then you’d be fine. Reenie’s death put a crater in the middle of your Columbia College friends, how even now when you go back there, Reenie and Jay, that loss, it’s just too big to be real.

Jay. Jesus, you haven’t even got to Jay yet. The “Angel Boy.” That was his nickname, no shit. He had his own record label. He had gotten into a car accident that rearranged his face; doctors, nurses, and strategic surgeons put in a system of pulleys and weights, screws, and connectors to get his face back to normal. Jay got a lot of money from the settlement, most of which went into his record label, Angel Boy Records.

Jay went to every show, hung out in the back, drank beer, nodded along, that look on his face, no fear in there, just a genuine heart.

Jay kept putting records out until he ran out of money. There were the high points, the letters from Latvia, there was a record store there that sold out of the Margo/Bleedhole split cassette, and did they have any more? There were field fests in the middle of bumfuck South Carolina, a stage, a beer truck in a field, a few hundred stoned twenty-somethings, some tents, and a fire. Pass out where you land when you can’t stand up anymore.

Years pass and Jay is a cool guy with a record collection, the label gone, just some merchandise in a box under his bed, the bed he died on, a strange evening, a Christmas eve, he takes a pill, there may or may not have been a belt involved, he doesn’t wake up. He is dead and no one knows why. Or there are rumors, none of them substantiated, nobody knows the actual real truth.

Jay dies and Reenie calls, the chain of calls that will come in the middle of the night when your wife is pregnant with your first daughter. The calls will go unanswered. You call Reenie back in the morning, in the afternoon, on your lunch break, on your 4th period prep so your students can film the video announcements. The calls pile up. You turn your phone off at night and in the morning there are five and six and seven phone voicemails. The messages, when she does leave them, are increasingly desperate, you know there are drugs involved, she showed up to a friend’s family gathering and the cops had to come pick her up from her passed-out state on the front lawn.

Monday afternoon, it’s been a day, you are writing two referrals, then three, students throwing things at each other, someone almost broke a camera, a phone call to interrupt you turning off the lights to the classroom, leaving for the day, “Kari,” your phone says. You know what happened, you already know, Reenie was found dead with mirrors and crack vials and cocaine everywhere, her body new and thin after the gastric bypass surgery she always talked about getting but never needed.

How there was a time when Jay and Shireen and their relationship was an umbrella to the lonely close friends, at a time when friends spent whole weeks together on couches and floors, camping or day trips, your friends were your family, friends you never thought you would have, now both gone, craters in your chest on your way out the door, after you got off the phone with Kari, three little cube squares of windows, the only natural light in your classroom, a preview of the wall-to-wall sunshine of the afternoon you were about to step into, with a crater in the center of your chest.

 

Adam Strong

Adam Strong is the founder of the reading series Songbook PDX. His work has appeared in Entropy, the Atticus Review, NAILED Magazine, Gravity of the Thing, in the anthologies City of Weird, The Untold Gaze, and on the Storytellers Telling Stories podcast. He writes, draws, and loves in Portland, Oregon, and is a high school Digital Arts teacher.

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