Dr. Harvard and the Black Hole of Calcutta

DING DING DING

 Out in the hallway, the woman with the sour smoker’s face is ringing a bell mounted on the wall next to the nurse’s station. It looks like the bell you ring to signal you’ve had enough of Navy SEAL training. I want to ring it and go home.

DING DING DING

SMOOOOKE BREAK TIME FOR SMOKE BREAK
The zombies perk up and gather on command.
I am wrapping my blanket again. Why do they keep it so cold in here?


 As she fumbles with her keys to let the smokers out on the patio, the sour woman looks over at me. “Chris J, it’s time for your meds.”

Sweet Jesus, not a moment too soon.

I stand at the nurse’s station, eager to comply as usual. I’ve always wanted to be a “good” patient, and not just because I know medicine from the other side and want to help, though I do. Some addicts find they get what they need by being arrogant jerks. Squeaking wheels. Others get what they want by being super-star good patients. Yes, the same thing as last time, Doctor. Whatever you gave me before worked fine. Perco-something. Something-acet. Guess which kind I am?

A fat old woman who looks like she would be more at home at the Walmart customer service desk than a hospital fumbles with another bunch of keys and pushes buttons on the keypad-locked door to what must be the medication room. With all this security you’d think they kept the missile codes back there. I can tell by the way she hoists herself around she’s got a bad hip. I learned enough orthopedics to know she needs a replacement. It’s a brutal surgery. Saws and hammers and glue. You have to wear a hooded astronaut-type suit because there is so much aerosolized bone and blood floating around the room. But I never liked surgery and I didn’t belong in the OR like I don’t belong here like I’ve never belonged anywhere.

The woman barricades herself behind the medication room counter like a flight attendant guarding the cockpit and starts laying out the drugs. “Take this,” she says handing me a clear plastic cup full of pills.“What’s this for?”
She looks offended.
“Fer yer blood pressure and the dia-bee-tease,” she says as I put on my I’m-not-disappointed-I-didn’t-want-drugs-anyway face. “And this here is for your aaazma.”
She dumps a blue-gray albuterol inhaler in my hand. Strike two.
“And this here,” she says and hands me another plastic cup, “—this is for your detox.”

Score. It’s Depakote and Tranxene, a tranquilizer like Valium. I toss the pills in my mouth and wash them back with the sample-sized water cup she’s put out for me. Good little patient. I think about what that faggy jerk of an admissions counselor said. We don’t like to use Suboxone here. What the fuck do you use for opiate detox then? A bullet to bite on maybe? This place wants to punish addicts. I’ve seen it a million times. The former addicts become sadistic pain dealers.

Everybody is addicted to something, right?

I feel like the Tranxene tablet is calming me, though I know that’s impossible. That puny benzodiazepine is no match for Fentanex withdrawal. Still, there’s something encouraging about the idea that I have an actual drug-drug in my body. I can’t think of much else anyway. My mind can only handle the immediate problems, like where do I go now…
Where I have to go.

DING DING DING
SMOKE BREAK OOOOOHHH-VER.
DING DING DING
VIIIIIITAL SIIIIGNS. EV-REE-ONE for vital signs NOW.

I sit on the bench in front of the nurse’s station and the sour-faced woman wraps a blood pressure cuff around my arm. She presses a button and the machine does a farting noise while the cuff strangles my arm. It finally emits a long sigh and lets go. I look over at the reading: 180 over 110. Dangerously high. The nurse rips the cuff off and motions to the next zombie, totally uninterested.

As I get up I notice an ungainly brown bug of a woman moving across the hall. She’s wearing some kind of crazy Indian dress and carrying an enormous black bag, which is awkwardly slung under her stumpy brown arm. Everything about her looks floppy—her floppy hat, her floppy arms, her stunted torso, her wildly-colored dress dragging awkwardly beneath her. She scoots along the hallway like an insect, arms and legs flopping as she goes. This place is full of weirdos.

CHRIS J TO THE DESK CHRIS J TO THE DESK.

I’m already at the desk. Jesus, what kind of a hospital is this?

“Here I am,” I call, meek as a lamb. A nurse I’ve never seen before, a guy with spiky gray hair, shouts across the nurse’s station. “It’s time to see yuh doctuh, Chris.” A honking Brooklyn accent! It reminds me of my beautiful New York City.

I fell in love with the city the first time I stepped out of JFK airport and was picked up by a Pakistani cab driver who muttered to himself in some Pakistani language but yelled “Cocksucker!” in English every time we hit a traffic jam. I think of Madelyn’s apartment on the Upper East Side, just a couple blocks from the Met. New York was one of the few places I ever felt like I was home.

“Chris,” he says again, bringing me back from 5th Avenue. “Yuh doctuh.”

I glance at the guy’s name tag hanging on the lanyard around his neck. It’s twisted backward so I can’t see his name, but I notice it has the letters Y E T on it in bold silver print. YET. I don’t get what that’s supposed to mean, if it means anything at all.

Nobody tells me where to go, but I’m pretty sure which room the doctors use. You can always tell who they are—visiting deities from some remote Olympus. They generally look like they’re in a hurry. Time is money to doctors, while to everyone else time is the relentless, merciless enemy. I’ve seen them rushing in, grabbing charts from behind the nurse’s desk and disappearing into that room around the corner.

I don’t know if it’s the drugs they just gave me or what, but I catch a glimmer of hope. I know how doctors think. Surely I can bamboozle some kooky head-shrinker into letting me go. I’ll apologize to the Love Defenders for missing the poetry reading and tell the story later like it’s some hilarious adventure.

I turn the corner and see the door to the doctor’s exam room is cracked open. But it’s not even an exam room, which would have otoscopes and ophthalmoscopes plugged into the charger base like toy soldiers. No anatomical charts yellowing on the wall. No crinkled butcher paper on an uncomfortable slab and the chair of waiting next to it. No, all I see is a shabby desk and a couple of chairs that look like they are left over from the Nixon administration. One has a broken back and the other one has chair-guts spilling out everywhere. Cheap shit. This place is entirely furnished with cheap shit.

I don’t see anyone in the room, so I push the door further open and stick my head in. Then I see her. Squished into a corner on the far side of the desk, the June Bug is flopping papers around.

“Chris!” She stands up and flops out a hand to shake mine and just as quickly flops back down. “Have a seat. I’m Doctor Harpreet.”

I sink down into the chair. The seat cushion is so worn out it feels like I’m being lowered into a hole.

It hits me now. Being in this room with a doctor. This wasn’t some mistake. I wasn’t just conscripted here in a perfect storm of institutional incompetence and my wife and co-workers’ misguided and perverse motives. I have had only a few hours of benzo sleep, knocked out and knocked down by withdrawal and injections, and the stress of seeing my life fall apart, but finally I get it. This is no dream. This is no movie. This is really happening.

In stark contrast to her patient, ass stuck in an old chair, head in his hands, his eyes suddenly leaden, this Dr. Harpreet is a ball of goddamn energy. She fidgets and flops and adjusts herself in her chair and flips through the file on the table that must be my chart. Even though her dark eyes burn with intelligence, I size up her floppy figure, her clothes, her manic demeanor, and wonder what kind of quack they’ve stuck me with.

An Indian doctor. Probably went to med school in the Black Hole of Calcutta and they brought her into the States as a diversity hire. Whoever takes call for a place like this must be a fucking loser. Whatever.

“I’ll be your doctor,” she says. “I know you’re wondering whether I’m qualified to take care of you, so I’ll just go ahead and tell you. I’m a board-certified addictionologist. I graduated Harvard Medical School and did my residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as a fellowship in addiction medicine at Johns Hopkins. And I’m also a certified yoga teacher.”
Okay, so I was wrong. I feign a condescending attitude. Of course, I don’t belong here with this riff-raff. Shouldn’t we grab lunch and discuss neurology and our shared pity for addicts, those horrible patients?

I rally my strength for the pretend insouciance of a fellow Ivy Leaguer, “Color me impressed,” I say, my body stiffening in a show of faux formality. But that’s all I have. One last shot at being a fake human being. I sink back down, re-defeated.

“How much do you drink a day?” she asks.

I suddenly can’t find the right words, like a stroke victim. My brain, which I could always rely on, seems to have forgotten how to process language.

“I don’t. I mean. I don’t…drink. Every day.” I don’t know how to answer her question and I don’t know how to explain I don’t know how to answer her question. She sees me sputtering and her voice gets louder.

How much does it take to get you drunk?” she demands, like a parent who has caught a child doing something naughty. But somehow I know she must have seen my type before and she’s doing her job, asking emphatically since my brain is stuck between the fog of war and trying to invent a minimizing lie.

“A pint,” I say.

I know that answer. I told the truth. For the first time in a long time I told the truth. The shock brings my brain online again and I begin pleading.

“This other drug I’m on, this stuff Fentanex, you don’t know what that is. It’s an opioid but it has other properties—the withdrawal is MUCH worse than heroin!

She waves off my impromptu lecture on pharmacology. “How much opiates does it take to manage your withdrawal from this stuff?”

I know the answer to that too. I might be the star junkie. “A gram or two of heroin. Or two Oxy 80s, snorted.”

She notes something in the chart. I thought this would impress her but she looks totally unfazed.
The adrenaline of last night is completely gone now. I feel the defeat overtake me completely. I’m so cold and so tired. I surrender.

“Do you have any questions for me?” she asks.

I lift my head off my chest. Speech has become a great effort again. All my beautiful, magic words, all my lies, have abandoned me.

“You do see people recover from this?” I ask humbly. What is she supposed to say? No? I already know the answer, but I need to hear it. I need my surrender to be acknowledged.

“Yes,” she says. “All the time.”“Okay.”
“I’ll be out of town tomorrow but Dr. Lynn will see you. He’s the head of psychiatry here.”

Again, she has my number: I’m not any old junkie, I need the top people on my case.

She says nothing and continues writing in my chart. I assume we’re done, so I extricate my ass from the sagging cushion and reach for the door.

“By the way,” she says, without looking up from writing, “we found the drugs you hid in the trashcan.”


Chris Jansen is a recovering heroin addict. He lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear.

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