The bad thing about being in the mental institution is that everyone there is crazy.

It really wouldn’t be so bad if not for that: it’s clean, it’s quiet, the food isn’t bad, and on top of that, there are plenty of doctors, so if you choke on something or have a stroke or a heart attack your chances of survival are increased.

But then, on the other hand, everyone’s crazy.

And when you’re crazy, that’s not what you need.

They don’t let you just sit around in there. You always have to be doing something. Sometimes it helps to hide in the bathroom. Then when they come to drag you into group therapy they don’t see you and you escape for a moment. But usually even then they figure it out after a while, and the thing is there are no locks. There are no locks on the doors in the mental institution.

Except the ones that lead to outside.

Lots of the people in the mental institution are aware of things you might be missing. There are people around, invisible people, and always these people are speaking. The people in the mental institution find themselves in a bind, because they know these people are not there. But still, these people keep asking them questions, and saying things to them, and it’s rude not to answer. So often what you find are people talking to people you don’t see, and also denying it. Passing it off as a joke or a theory.

“If Satan was here I’d want him to know I’m not guilty,” they say. “Not guilty! I’m just saying!”

Satan is big in the mental institution. The lady next to me was telling me about him. Actually I think she was telling herself– or maybe Satan– or then, maybe me.

Sometimes it is hard to tell about Satan. He’s everywhere, you know. All around.

One time we had to fill out these worksheets. The worksheets had a drawing of a lake on them.

“Every action is a stone,” the therapist said, “a stone that you throw in the water. You think it’s just a little thing, but then it causes ripples. I’d like you all to think about that.”

We all sat there and stared at our lakes-on-the-worksheets.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” someone said.

The rest of us sat there. We had to fill out the sheets. We had to describe an action we had taken and then explain the ripples it had created and how those had affected other people.

I wrote about an unfortunate incident I had experienced regarding a pair of scissors. I don’t know what the other people wrote about, and what’s more I don’t want to know.

The girl to my right was very inventive.

“My stone is illusory,” she announced.

“What?” said the therapist.

“Illusory,” said the girl. “Wherever I throw it, it doesn’t matter; it has no effect.”

I was very scared of the girl with the illusory rock. She kept talking to herself about what she had and had not said aloud and if she had or had not said it aloud in the future or the past or in the minds of others. I was glad her rock was illusory; that meant she couldn’t hit me with it. But still I missed sitting next to the lady who liked to talk about Satan.

I had a roommate in the mental institution. I don’t know his name, though, and he didn’t either.

“I’ve had ECT 54 times,” he said, “and it’s great, but I can’t remember things.”

One time he searched the room for a long time.

“What are you looking for?” I said.

“Oh here it is,” he said, taking his wallet from his pocket.

He found his ID. It had his name, but I don’t remember what it was.

There was a clock on the wall over the armoire. The clock said 11:59. There was a second hand, too, a little thin red one, and it kept bouncing off the 12.

11:59.

11:59.

11:59.

11:59.

“Hey,” I said, to the guy in the other bed, “is that clock broken, or is it me?”

The two of us sat there and stared at the clock.

“I think it’s broken,” he finally said, “because the time is staying the same time.”

I went down the hall and explained this to the nurse.

“The battery’s probably dead,” she said.

“Yes,” I said, “but could it be replaced? I am dealing with issues of reality.”

“A janitor will be right up,” she said.

But the janitor was not right up.

I went into the bathroom and stood there for a while. It was hot in there. My roommate took lots of showers. Personally I did not like to shower in the mental institution. I don’t know, it made me nervous; it was weird.

After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore.

Actually, it was only a couple days.

“I need to go home,” I said to the doctor. “I can’t be here, these people are crazy.”

“These people?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “They’re crazy and it makes me really nervous.”

“And you?” he said, tapping his pen on the table. “Are you not, in your words, crazy?”

“Me?” I said. “Of course not,” I said.

“Does it seem like a strange question?” he said.

“No,” I said, after a while, “No, I guess it isn’t. But the thing is, I’m fine. I was crazy for a while, but then I got better, and now I’m fine.”

The doctor sat there and stared at me.

“You’d know if you were crazy?” he said.

“Of course,” I said. “It’s kinda obvious. Why, have you never been crazy?”

“No,” he said. “No, I have not.”

I didn’t know what to say to him after that.

The next day I got to go home. I’ve never been so happy to leave a building in my life. Outside it was cool and there were trees and lots of noise. I sat staring out the window in the car.

Back home, everything was the same as before. There was a lot of dust everywhere, but that was as per usual. I went into the kitchen and sat at the table.

It was good to sit there again.

Over the next couple months I had to see a lot of doctors. They all wanted to talk about the mental institution.

“It’s a great place,” they said, “and you shouldn’t be afraid of it. You should go there any time you feel like it.”

Out here in California the loonies run the state, and as a result we have laws. These laws make it very hard to commit someone or hold them against their will. You can’t make people take their medication; you can’t chain them to the wall.

The doctors wanted me to sign away my rights so my family could commit me if things went wrong.

“No,” I said. “That’s not going to happen.”

People argued and cried but I ignored them.

I tried to explain about the clock on the wall; they all looked at me like I was the problem.

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BEN LOORY's fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, on This American Life, at Word Theatre, and on Selected Shorts. His book Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011) was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

53 responses to “The Bad Thing About Being in the Mental Institution”

  1. […] Hall of Fame In a piece entitled “The Bad Thing About Being in the Mental Institution,” author Ben Loory talks about what it means to be institutionalized. “They don’t let you just sit […]

  2. Ben Loory says:

    oh god, i’m famous.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    How much do you charge for an autograph?
    (love the piece by the way… loved it the first time around)

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Okay. I’ll take six please.

  5. Megan DiLullo says:

    I love this story. And it would appear that there are some VERY important people awake at this hour.

  6. Megan DiLullo says:

    We are over the age of consent… but just barely.

    Zara can be Pompey. I don’t know who I am. I’ll be a Roman Doughnut, and Ben you can be babbling in your beer hat that you use for Diet Coke. Because that’s what important people do.

  7. Ducky says:

    I bet they never even changed those batteries. Fuckers.

    • Ben Loory says:

      i’m pretty sure it wasn’t even a real clock. i’m pretty sure it was a camera. i’m pretty sure there were cameras all over that place. i’m pretty sure my computer is a camera.

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    TNB 2.0 didn’t have the application that examines you through your screen, without your being aware of it, regardless of whether you have a webcam or not, and sends images and sound, well, never mind where.

    TNB 3.0 does.

    It only runs when famous people are in front of the screen.

    I would suggest that you put a Richard Nixon mask on when accessing TNB 3.0.

    Then, note the time at which your posting appeared on 3.0 (remember, you were not at risk with 2.0). To be safe, use the hundred-times rule: 15 minutes of fame x 100 = 25 hours, or just more than a day. Tomorrow, sometime, you can take the mask off.

    • Ben Loory says:

      you’re trying to make me go back to the mental institution, aren’t you? that’s not very nice, don mitchell. this is all because of that tattoo business, isn’t it? i already said i was sorry!

      • Don Mitchell says:

        You did, but I didn’t believe you.

        Plus, you didn’t show enough surprise that a 66 year old man knows the use of pwned.

        • Ben Loory says:

          “pwned” is scary. i don’t know how to say it. it’s kind of like when dagwood’s boss says things made of planets and dollar signs.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Pwned again.

          And, all kidding aside, I forgot to say how much I admire your piece, especially the part where you said ” . . . I was crazy for a while, but then I got better, and now I’m fine,” and how the guy didn’t seem able to understand why that made sense.

        • Ben Loory says:

          i imagine he hears shit like that all the time. usually from people who are completely out of their minds.

          i’m glad you like the piece, though, thanks. it was a weird time. the other day i almost had to take a friend there. couldn’t do it.

  9. Thomas Wood says:

    Really love the clock bit. I think it’s just the kind of thing I might focus on, and wonder about. It’s little bits of irony like that, that something within the mental institution might reinforce the crazy, that I really love in life. Of course, like most things I love, they scare me a little, but only at first.

    • Ben Loory says:

      nothing reinforces the crazy like the mental institution. except maybe crystal meth.

      • Janine Adair Kohanim Ferrell says:

        That is the one thing that my obsessed mind obsessed about the most when
        in “the ward.” What could be done to make it a place of HEALING instead of
        the most insanely reflective reflection of insanity ever devised? I mean…
        florescent lights?…walls painted non-colors?…no reading lamps?…thick sound-muffling
        walls….?
        I think even Dante would shiver in his grave pondering that kind of hell…..just sayin’…

        • Ben Loory says:

          dante’s not in his grave, he’s in paradise, janine! jeez, i have to explain everything.

          but yeah, it’s true… the place was a nightmare. i mean it was all warm and plush and comfy and everything, not unlike a motel 6, but, on the other hand, there’s a reason people don’t live in motel 6s.

          they also confiscated my pens and my notebook the day i entered, which is no way to make a writer feel at home. also they took my ipod, which, you know, FUCK THEM.

          but hey… it’s a hard situation for everyone.

  10. Becky says:

    This is my favorite story ever.

    Boy, Interrupted. Kind of. Which isn’t a dig. I really enjoyed that book. Which might make me a sadist.

    I might have made that reference the first time I read this story, actually, which may have been the first time I read one of your stories at all.

    Ah, memories.

    • Ben Loory says:

      i never read that book. or saw that movie. cuz it had whatsername in it. the lady whose face looks like a skull. also it had heather in it. or the girl who wasn’t one of the heathers. anyway i didn’t see it. or read it. should i?

      glad you liked the story. there was a lot more to it. sometimes i think about writing a book all about the weeks leading up to that and then the aftermath, but there was just so much going on, it’s hard to figure out. plus then what i’d end up with would be a book i didn’t want to read, much less give to other people and make them go through it.

      but it’s pretty enjoyable when you narrow it down to the above.

      one of my roommates in there was named was tommy and he was really paranoid because the who had stolen his name for one of their albums.

      • Becky says:

        I enjoyed it. The book. I saw the movie later, but it wasn’t as good, in my opinion. I can’t think of any reason why you should have to see Skeletor or not-Heather. The book is enough.

        It made me laugh a lot, or maybe more smirk. Strange humor. Maybe I was smirking at things that weren’t supposed to be funny, but the narrator is whip smart and stuck in a loony bin, so her observations are sort of wry and amusing without much effort on her part.

        I think you might like it. It has sad parts, obviously, because it’s a true story of crazy people, but my general feeling about it is not that it’s a sad book. Not comedy by any means, but it didn’t bum me out for days or anything.

        I would totally read your book if your wrote it about this experience. I know people say that kind of thing all the time, but I really would. I never say that to people.

        Call the book Tommy. Just to mess with him.

  11. […] …and the down side of mental institutions… […]

  12. Dana says:

    More points for Ben Loory!

    They took your iPod and your writing implements? I would love to know their reasoning for that deprivation.

    • Ben Loory says:

      i believe they thought i was going to stab myself with my pens. not sure what they thought i was going to do with the paper. maybe paper cut suicide isn’t the impossibility it seems?

      god, it makes me fidgety to contemplate it…

      the ipod, yeah, that was annoying. the nurse said “the others might be jealous.” which at the time i took to mean “THEY WILL KILL YOU!!!!” but now i think it was probably just an excuse and they thought i was going to bludgeon someone with it. someone like myself.

      they were very uptight in there about everything.

      i’m really glad i don’t live there.

  13. Jiminy Cricket says:

    Your writing feels like I had written it. I mean that as a sincere (and jealous {and narcissistic}) compliment. I just got finished reading your story The TV in the New Yorker, with my jaw dropping with every line, and my mind exploding with every other line. Truly amazing. It has so many similarities to a film (or at least at its present stage) a series of graphics, I’ve had spinning around for way too many years. Maybe I should just illustrate The TV!

    And then I came across this story. Having been a graduate of The Place myself, I could relate, although my experience (at least the second one!) differs in that I actually made some friends in the place. I think they knew they just had a momentarily whacked out artist on their hands when, A) I spent my free time drawing cartoons, and B) I helped orderlies subdue a guy who was raging out of control; who turned to me, as I grabbed him, and said “You too?”. I felt like such a turncoat.

    There is something about clocks there isn’t there. I don’t remember broken ones as much as surreal ones that just didn’t seem to keep up with the correct era, which I’m sure I went through a few of while I was there. I still remember a moment of extraordinary beauty as I emerged.

    Thank you for writing, and being.

    • Ben Loory says:

      my pleasure! (i mean, most of the time…) i’m glad you liked the stories. this one happened about a month after the tv one was written. if that helps you situate things in time. (sometimes helpful.)

      i really honestly truly can’t ever imagine going back there. things would have to be really bad. which they were, so it’s not out of the question.

      anyway, i’m think i’m going to go eat a popsicle. i hope you’re having a good night. nice to meet you.

  14. […] BEN LOORY hips us to the bad thing about being in a mental institution. […]

  15. Irene Zion says:

    Ben,

    If that had been a good place to be for you,
    at the very least,
    they would have sent up the janitor
    with batteries
    stat
    because you
    told them
    you were dealing with
    reality issues.

    It was good that you left
    and
    that you didn’t sign
    their
    sneaky
    paper.

  16. […] Ben Loory isn’t crazy […]

  17. Aaron Dietz says:

    Lovely, lovely piece, of course. And being reminded of how many awesome people found their way into institutions always makes me wonder what’s wrong with me (that I never have been). Not that I want to go. But still. I don’t like clocks with hands, for this reason.

  18. Jessica Blau says:

    This is great–very funny! I laughed out loud at, “I’m dealing with issues of reality.”

    Glad you didn’t sign away the right to NOT be institutionalized by a bunch of crazies who think you’re crazy.

    And, CONGRATS on your new book!

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