Decompressing | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Visiting the psych ward at Northwestern Hospital is like a dream. You step up to the big steel bank-vault door and ring the bell. You state your business and they let you in and the hatch thuds shut behind you.

I'm here to see Jimmy. When he was in for a routine visit with his GP today, the doctor asked how he was doing and Jimmy said something about how he ought to just drive his car across the beach into the lake. So they asked him if he might want to come over here for a while and talk to somebody.

He's not as worried about it as his doctor was. If they knew Jimmy they'd know he says stuff like that all the time. He's not really serious, but he's not really kidding either. It's hard to explain. He's not a "danger to himself and others," as the shrinks like to put it. Or at least he's not a danger to others.

Jimmy's in a back room talking to the shrink. I wait in the common area. Nice carpet and a couch in front of a color TV. There's a man--not that old, 50 or so--in a wheelchair in the corner. On the tray attached to his chair is an open magazine with several pages ripped up. He points at me and says with great conviction, "Ibble dibble wibble. Ibble dibble."

I don't know what to say. I smile and nod. I wonder if he's like my friend Sue's grandfather. Sue's grandfather had a stroke, and you know how strokes are. It left him completely unresponsive except, as Sue somehow discovered, if you sang old-time songs with him. If you burst into something like "The Sidewalks of New York," he would sing along. So Sue, idealist that she is, would visit grandpa with sheet music. She organized family sing-a-longs.

Then Sue got the idea that maybe she could get her grandfather to communicate with the nurses by singing his needs. I guess she had something in mind like:

I have really got to pee

Doo dah,

Doo dah,

to the tune of "Camp Town Races." Or maybe:

Don't know why

You pulled my boxers

Up so high

Got a creeper...

to the tune of "Stormy Weather."

It didn't work, but it was worth a shot. As nurses and patients whisk by, oblivious to this guy, he says "Ibble dibble wibble" with deep determination, like he's going to keep saying it until someone gives him a straight answer, dammit. Sue would find their ignoring him as morally abhorrent as if they were ignoring cries of help coming from beneath the rubble of a collapsed building. She wouldn't last too long here.

When I talked to Jimmy on the phone earlier, he called what he's doing here "decompressing." There's another old man ripping up a newspaper, someone in a distant room having a screaming tantrum. But most of the patients are as calm as if they were just having lunch in the employee lounge. They're pretty much like Jimmy.

A few sit on the couch watching Matlock. There's nobody in the world as sane and steady as Andy Griffith. No matter how vicious and deceitful people can be, there's always Andy Griffith.

There's an aquarium of fish, jigsaw puzzles. There's a lot to be said for this decompressing stuff. I wish I had the guts to try it. But I can see while I sit here restlessly that I'm afraid to try it because if I started I wouldn't be able to stop. If I let myself mindlessly absorb just one Matlock it would spill over into M*A*S*H and everything else. One little jigsaw puzzle of a kitty with a ball of yarn would lead to one of the Statue of Liberty, actual size. Decompressing would turn into decomposing.

I know. I used to be that way. I was almost catatonic. It took years to break out of it, to do something useful with my life. I envy these people who know how to vegetate responsibly, in moderation.

Jimmy comes out from the back. He looks relaxed, like a man just back from vacation. He says the doctor suggested a little Prozac. But Jimmy doesn't want to have a "false personality" as he calls it, like this Prozac person he knows who laughs at everything. He wants to be himself and let the chips fall.

He'd like to decompress for a day or so more but the shrink told him things don't work that way any more. Medical insurance says if you're not "a danger to yourself and others" you don't need to be here. This ain't no Club Med.

Jimmy's going home tomorrow.

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