People are like roadkill. You encounter disturbing masses daily but they rarely form lasting impressions. Every now and then, however, a squashed squirrel or demolished deer or flattened fox proves so memorable, you can’t shake the mental image.
Thus was my experience with Swallows,* whose name will make sense in a moment, and whose memory recently resurfaced during my daily ritual of “I’ll get that damn calcium tablet down my throat if it kills me.” Not a good pill taker am I.
Picture me circa early 1990s, permed hair forgotten, shoulder pads retired, teeth still crooked (no braces until age 33, remember?), a lowly student in training. Now travel with me as we board a rickety bus with the rest of the young’uns and drive to the forensic psychiatry inpatient unit, home to killers, rapists, and armed robbers mentally unfit for prison. Yes, class, that’s where we’re headed today.
Although we white-coated munchkins receive counseling on what we might see, nothing quite beats reality: Institutional, kitcheny scent; unadorned white walls; barred windows; glossy, heel-scuffed floors. Oh, and look, peeking around the corner is Sharpy. We’re told he stabbed his friend with a butcher’s knife. Twice. And over there is Jesus. Well, sometimes he’s Tonto, and sometimes he’s Elvis, but today he’s Jesus. We take this as a good sign, no?
But the real treat comes when we’re divided into groups, each unit of four to observe a psychiatric session with one of the patients. Mine, and by default yours, will be with Swallows.
Swallows is very honest. When asked by the psychiatrist to reveal why he’s in the institution, he tells us he killed his mother. He says this with a giggle and a shy glance at his audience, now frozen in our seats like wide-eyed cake pops.
We then go on to learn that during his long battle with mental illness, Swallows has devoured hundreds of different items, many of which pass through, but many of which don’t, prompting surgical removal on twenty-eight different occasions. In case we don’t believe him, Swallows lifts his shirt and reveals a scrawny, diffusely pink- and white-scarred belly. One of the cake pops murmurs.
The unfazed psychiatrist describes a list of the obstructing objects, ticking them off his fingers as if trying to count them all: A couple of spoons, a small hairbrush, a toy airplane, plastic containers, batteries, rolls of coins, and numerous sharp objects like nails and open safety pins not safe to pass through on their own. And then the good doctor pauses, smiles, and waits until Swallows catches on and grins back. “Tell them, Doc. Go ahead.”
So Dr. Seen-It-All tells us a tale of one of his earliest interviews with Swallows. By that time, the staff had wised up to the deep-throated fellow and kept everything bolted down, locked up, or out of reach. No personal grooming items allowed unattended. Food only by finger or mouth. Television viewing without remote. But on this early occasion, Dr. Seen-It-All made a grave mistake. After all, the session was long; he was getting nowhere; Swallows was uncooperative. Defeated, Dr. Seen-It-All removed his eyeglasses, set them on the table, and rubbed his weary eyes.
The doctor looked up in time to see the wire-rimmed frames disappear behind chomping lips, Swallows’s esophagus working overtime, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a coked-up Russian dancer.
After telling the story, Dr. Seen-It-All and Swallows share a good laugh. The cake pops exchange nervous glances.
The eyeglasses required removal—surgery number twenty-five or twenty-six—leaving only a fun tale for Dr. Seen-It-All and his patient to tell. I don’t know how long Swallows remained institutionalized, but clearly he’s not been forgotten. And although his story offers humor, his life was sad, and we cake pops can certainly see that. Which means this post started out funny and ended up gloomy.
But although our field trip has ended, I refuse to leave readers in a melancholy state. So for your enjoyment, I will add one final tidbit. Luckily for Swallows, Dr. Seen-It-All’s glasses were small and compact. If Swallows had chosen to sample the ginormous frames I once donned in the eighties, those babies would have never gone down so smoothly…
What about you? Anybody from the past still on your mind despite only one encounter?
*Names of all individuals are my own creation, and some facts have been distorted for protective purposes.
- Pica: The Eating Disorder That Reality TV Loves Needs Real Attention (blisstree.com)
- Girl eats 4,000 washing-up sponges (thesun.co.uk)