Karaoke on the psych ward

Crushed to learn he was still too sick to go home, he found salvation in a paranoid schizophrenic's wise words
Illustrative photo of a psychiatric hospital. (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a psychiatric hospital. (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Lunch is at 11 every morning, and as soon as we’re finished on Tuesdays and Fridays, it’s karaoke time. It is noon on Friday, five hours until Shabbat comes in, and I am in my sixth day on the locked psych ward at St Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, California.

The previous Sunday — Valentine’s Day 2016 — the police brought me in after my therapist reported me as manic, disoriented, and suicidal. I was placed on the standard three-day involuntary “hold” known as a 5150.

I’ve been held on at least 15 5150s since I was 19. As they often do with me, the doctors have extended my stay, “upgrading” my three-day confinement to a 14-day one known as a 5250.

A psychiatrist can lift that hold at any time. And this Friday at noon, as our little school of some two dozen paranoid schizophrenics, the severely depressed, and the otherwise fragile gather in the dining room for karaoke, I’m watching the door.

Dr. Aquino is on her rounds. If my lithium levels are high enough, and I’m stable enough, perhaps I can go home today. That’s what she’d said on Wednesday as she’d hurried past me, a tiny woman of barely five feet, tottering on impossibly high red plastic heels.

I want to go home.

I’d missed Tuesday karaoke, asleep and whacked out on Haldol. Despite my anxiety, I’m curious to see what kind of music our herd likes.

The first choices are predictable. A suicidal young woman with face tattoos steps up shyly and chooses “Shake it Off.” The next two selections are Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” and the theme is obvious. Hope and defiance are universals, and all the Abilify and Thorazine the doctors can pump into our bodies cannot entirely suppress it.

As two middle-aged women finish chanting the Platten song, Dr. Aquino comes in and pulls out a patient for a consult. I’ve watched her do this three times now. She’s going in alphabetical order; a third of my fellow inmates are on her charge list. I’m guessing as an S, I’ll be near the last.

With each passing minute, the logistics of getting home from Lynwood in time for Shabbat seem more daunting. I’ve talked to the kids on the phone the last two days — only adults can visit — and Heloise and Chuchi have asked repeatedly if I’ll be home by Friday night.

I’ve told them I don’t know. They tell me they’re praying for me and miss me. I feel like a guilty wretch for putting them through this, over and over again. It is not my choice to be ill, but it is my choice to put off help, time and time again, until confinement is the only safe solution.

“Angelique! Angelique” The group chants the name of one of our favorite psych techs, beloved for her kindness and her humor and her willingness to give extra snack. Angelique has one side of her head shaved, the other in cornrows that fall to her shoulders. She shyly takes the microphone and whispers something to the tech running the karaoke machine.

She closes her eyes, and in an earthy, loamy alto slides into Anita Baker’s “Caught up in the Rapture.” All shuffling stops; we all lean forward; I forget Dr. Aquino. Angelique rocks back and forth, seemingly effortlessly rekeying the song to meet the strengths and limitations of her own voice.

I hear the clickety-clack of heels. “Dr. Hugo?” Since she saw on my intake chart that I have a PhD, Dr. Aquino has insisted on addressing me with the honorific. I try to imagine she’s being respectful; she’s at least 10 years younger than I am. It feels mocking. Her Tagalog accent is strong.

“I’ll make this quick. Lithium levels aren’t where I need them to be. You were still at .6 this morning, and I need you closer to 1.0. I think you’ll be ready to go Monday.”

Disappointment and panic. I stutter. “Doctor… I have a very fast metabolism, it’s hard for me to build up levels.”

“I know, I see your vitals. Your pulse very low. Runner?”

“Yes, at least I was. Please, it’s almost Shabbat, it’s very important in our culture, I need to be home.”

“I am a runner too, Dr. Hugo. And I know what Shabbat is. But your family needs you to be well, don’t they? “

Dr. Aquino doesn’t wait for an answer, taps something into her iPad , and clickety-clacks away.

Angelique finishes. There is wild applause, and she offers an awkward bow. For three seconds, Angelique’s joy sucks everything out of the room, and I forget everything except the thought that I want to spend the rest of the day watching her.

It’s momentarily comforting to remember that part of myself is nigh-on impossible to medicate away.

I walk to the pay phone. I promised I’d call as soon as I knew. I speak to my ex first, and as she’s done all week and throughout our entire relationship, she urges me to stay calm and patient. “If it needs to be Monday, it’s Monday.”

Heloise and Chuchi vie for the phone next. My son wins.

“Abba, are you coming home today?”

I shut my eyes. “No, baby. It’s going to be a few more days.”


The next voice I hear is Eira’s “Oh no, honey, no, no.” For an instant I’m confused. Then I remember: when my sweet boy is at his most upset, he crumples in utter silence, his mouth open in a mute howl, tears springing from his eyes. The greater the upset, the greater delay before the sound comes; we sometimes count the seconds from first tears to first sound, like the space between the lightning flash and the thunder clap.

My ex comforts our son, and Heloise comes on the phone. I can hear Chuchi’s sobs now, and my body trembles with the effort of holding back my own. I am determined to wait until I’m off the phone.

“Abba, if you’re not coming home, don’t worry. Chuchi and I will say all the brachot. Everybody prayed for you at school again today.”

“I love you so much. Abba’s coming home soon.”

“I know, Abba. I miss you. Shabbat Shalom.”

She hangs up, and my hot tears hit the handset before I can put it in the cradle.

Two of the more volatile schizophrenics, Miguel and Jeremy, are up, sharing a microphone. Hoots of pleasure as they launch into “Hotel California.”

Of all the damn songs to sing on a psych ward in L.A., and wouldn’t you know it, this is the one that this multi-ethnic, chronologically diverse assembly of the damaged, the forlorn, the medicated and the resilient all seem to know. Angelique excepted, no one can actually sing properly, but it doesn’t matter.

Welcome to the Hotel California, such a lovely place.

It is a mournful, defiant dirge. It’s perfect, and as I cry, I laugh.

I want to ask for extra anxiety meds, but I’m afraid that request will get charted and count against my discharge. As I hesitate, Linda walks up to me.

Linda is a paranoid schizophrenic of an uncertain age with long gray hair and a distended belly. She has black fuzz on her chin and always carries a book; best I can tell, she’s the only patient on the ward who reads. At the moment, Linda’s clutching a slim Gossip Girl volume, the binding stretched by the fat little yellow pencil which serves as a bookmark. I stare at the book rather than meet Linda’s gaze. The tears fall straight to the floor.

“Are you upset about the cameras too?” Linda asks softly. With her left hand, she points towards the ceiling, twirling her fingers. Her right hand reaches out as if to comfort me, stopping an inch from my arm. I look up; I’m not quite prepared to believe in secret cameras, but what I do want is to push the image of my son’s heartbroken face out of my mind.

“They’re turning them all on tonight. 6:00. If they see that you’re angry, they’ll give you shots with mercury. And then they’re inside your brain.” Linda leans closer, and I fight not to recoil. Her hair and breath are equally rank, but her tone is sweet.

She cocks her head to one side.

“Your children understand more than you know. They just want you to get better and come home to them. Don’t worry about how long it takes.”

Linda walks away, humming. I’m left grinning, my tears gone. Spend any time with us, and you’ll learn the mentally ill see what others can’t. Sometimes, we see phantasms and hallucinations; other times, we see the truths no sane person can.

A sudden swell of protective love for Linda and all my fellow patients comes over me. I am scared and sad and tired, and still I’m safe, safe here with my people.

I take a nap. At sunset, I stand in my room, face the west, and sing “L’cha Dodi” to welcome in Shabbat, imagining my ex and my daughter lighting candles.

A few others hear me sing, and by the time I finish, I have a small audience standing respectfully at the door. This too is my tribe.

I am released on Monday after eight long days.

Monday night, home in my bed at last, I dream. In my dream, Dr. Aquino and I are running the L.A. marathon together. I am shirtless, as lean and strong as I’ve ever been; the doctor is all in red, from her sports bra to her shoes.

We run the streets of Los Angeles side by side, our breaths and our pace synchronized. We are fast, and we push each other on, on, on.

In my dream, unlike reality, the final mile is uphill. We start to labor. The pain comes. 200 meters from the finish, Dr. Aquino can’t go on. She’s hurt and kneels down.

I stop. She waves me off. “No, Dr. Hugo, go! I’m fine! Go!”

And I turn and run again, and I see everyone is there — my children are there, and Angelique and my father, dead these 10 years, they’re all there at the finish line. They are releasing balloons into the air and cheering, and somehow, after 26 miles, I break into a sprint and I cross the line, raising my hands to the sky — and Linda jumps into my arms. She smells so good.

“I told you!” she exults! “I told you!”

About the Author
Hugo Schwyzer is a freelance writer and editor and father of two, living in Los Angeles
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