Ward 13

Posted by on Apr 28, 2010 in psychology, Survival, TheMachine, Truth, WAR

The best two weeks of my life was spent sitting with the “crazies”. We would talk about our lives and what it meant to be alive and about why we were here. The universe. God or lack there of. We had group session in the morning and in the afternoon. We were taken for walks after lunch around the hospital like pets. Sometimes they would take us out to play basketball. We were so medicated usually it never really amounted to one drop of sweat.

The airman in the room next to me was a pilot. He flew A-10 Warthogs and had recently become a Buddhist and a pacifist. I would walk by his room in the morning on the way to breakfast and he would be practicing yoga. He was caught crossing the border into North Korea. Legend has it he was caught hugging North Koreans telling them that Americans really love them. I’m not sure if I believe that. I believe he would have been shot on sight.

We were both allowed to bring our palm pilots into the hospital ward. He shared Thoreau’s Walden with me. I’ll never forget that moment in the hallway with him as he bluetoothed over such a symbolic book into my now worthless Sony Palm Pilot. That book kept me sane among the supposedly insane. We are all isolated in a little cabin in the woods. Most just don’t know it yet. Our pajamas were blue. Our slippers too. Most of us were there on our own accord. Of course we were coached to submit ourselves. There are repercussions for being mentally ill in the military. You are given a chance to get better or else. Most prefer or else.

The basic premise of therapy was to get everyone back on a regular schedule. Early to rise. Early to bed. We were all fed. Group session was a joke as we usually ended up telling jokes. A person in the group would take turns fighting the system. Usually it was the pilot. He was our self-appointed leader and was seemingly leading an uprising. From what I’m still unclear. He wanted us all to take off our watches and we did. One day he took his shirt off in the day room and covered the clock on the wall. Time does not exist he announced. We are all slaves to something that we invented. Time is like the Tooth Fairy. The nurses quickly took the shirt off the clock. The pilot went on a one week hunger strike.

Another airman thought he was Jesus and he heard voices. He was found in the air bay not answering to his name. He only answered to Jesus for weeks. He loaded planes with ammunitions. I think Jesus would have been a good airman. Everyone was kind to each other. We all sat quietly and told stories of the military and how we had all gotten screwed over. We listened to a one week series on tape by Tony Robins about healthy living. The pilot always made us learn while we drooled in the day room. He wanted us to all become vegetarians. We listened as we dozed in and out of consciousness. It takes a couple of weeks usually to adjust one’s meds.

The food would come in like clockwork on trays. We would circle what we wanted to eat early in the morning on little pieces of paper with little pencils that could harm no one. We were asked daily how our pain was. On a scale of one to ten how do you……. feel in the blanks. The scale became maddening as we were subject to it once in the morning and once at night. Each number had a smiley face attached to it. 1 was extremely happy. 10 was frowning, almost crying. Life was bad for number 10. I felt like a 10 when I went in.

When I got my turn I would speak with my mother on the phone in the hallway. My father had passed away suddenly so we had a lot to talk about. I spoke about how cut off from the world I felt. How I didn’t feel like I would ever belong. I still feel that way. She promised to help me start a business when I got out. Promises are nothing if you don’t follow through with them. It’s interesting what you will promise someone who is in a psyche ward. The psyche ward was number 13. I felt that was either just a silly mistake or a dirty trick by the psychologists. The doors were locked all day and night. We were trapped by our own accord.

On the second week a vietnam vet was brought in. He was manic and had been up for three weeks without sleep. It was truly terrible to watch. He was brought in late at night on a stretcher kicking and screaming. It’s hard to hear a full grown man scream. It was more of a yell. He was tied down and under 24 hour supervision in a padded room. Two days later he was sitting in the day room with everyone else happy as a lark. He quit taking his meds and he lost it for a bit. Nothing he hasn’t done before from the looks of it. Thank goodness for medication.

Another airman was admitted the second week as well. The day before he was having a barbecue at his home. All his friends were over. The story goes that he silently cut his wrist. He then taped them up and laid in his bed to slowly bleed to death. He was always super happy. I saw no signs of depression. I liked him. He drew on the dry eraser board all day making funky tribal designs. They would have made nice tattoos. I have a picture of him somewhere. I really enjoyed talking to him. I was depressed myself and saw no signs of depression in this man. I had no idea how someone could just cut their wrists and lay down to die and be happy doing it. I asked him why he did it and he would say it just felt like the right time to go. I was intrigued.

The pilot was absolutely brilliant. He had a real magnetism to him. The kind of magnetic attraction I’ve heard that leaders of cults sometimes have, like Jim Jones maybe. He wrote down all the statistics of the GAU-8 Avenger gun that is on the Wart Hog and how many people it could kill and how quickly. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He shared how he was sickend by the killing mantras that the Air Force had taught him. He grew up in Colorado and had wanted to be a pilot his entire life. He had smuggled in his Statement of Conscientious Objection on a 64 megabyte thumb drive. He gave it to me. I promised to change his name if I ever published it.

One day I was told I could go home. That the experiment was over. I didn’t know what the future held. Things seemed better. I wasn’t drooling anymore in the day room. I was now circling happy faces although I’ve never circled number 1. I had become a vegetarian thanks to Tony Robbins and the pilot. I still had no idea why the other airman slit his wrist so we talked once more before I left.

He opened up to me because I wasn’t a nurse. Because I hurt too. At the barbecue he hit his daughter in the face. His daughter was three. He felt so ashamed. He felt so much pain from that. His father had hit him often while growing up and he had promised himself that if he ever hit his children that he would kill himself, in order to end the cycle of violence. He never wanted to inflict that type of pain on someone else. He was only following through with a lifetime promise. I was amazed by the calmness in which he made the decision. He was in tears while telling me the truth that he had been dodging for days. I was moved as well. I still am.

Hours later I was released into the wild. I was brought back to active duty for a few months. I did mostly guard duty. I never had another open conversation about the meaning of life while in the military. The only people I could share so deeply with were considered insane. I feel that made me sane. I miss Ward 13 and especially the pilot. We had grown close. All of us had.

I called the ward a month later to check on the pilot. The nurses still remembered me. I missed them as well. It would seem the pilot was sent back to active duty after being forced to take a months leave back home in Colorado. Instead of going home he purchased a one way ticket to South Korea. He was planning on going back across the border. He was detained at the airport and soon after discharged. There is something impressive about a man on a mission. I’m glad he was not shot. I still think of Ward 13 and the lessons learned and the stories told there. I can still see myself sitting in that day room listening to Tony Robins. I can still see the clock with the shirt over it. I believe the pilot was right. Time does not exist and if it does we are definitely its slaves.

The pilots writing:
Fall from Grace
Intent to Serve
Operation Peaceful Initiative
Conscientious Objection



  1. roboboy
    April 29, 2010

    What is the definition of normal?

    Perhaps it is the world that is crazy and the people in ward 13 are the only sane ones left…

    I read this post and the power of it really hits me.

    The world is being de-humanized and everything is turned into statistics of how much money it will make or how many people it can kill.

    Perhaps these reactions are the normal ones and it is the people who can see “100 people killed in car bomb” and emotionally write it off as a half-joke or another statistic.

    And yes, I do believe the pilot was right

    “Time does not exist”

  2. ward13
    April 29, 2010

    I was worried no one would take the time to read it. Your quote from fight club put me off in a research phase on Chuck Palahniuk. From there I read this in wikipedia:

    Palahniuk began writing fiction in his mid-thirties. By his account, he started writing while attending writer’s workshops, hosted by Tom Spanbauer, which he attended to meet new friends. Spanbauer largely inspired Palahniuk’s minimalistic writing style.

    From there I read about Tom Spanbauer wikipedia entry and about the writing approach he teaches called “Dangerous Writing”:

    “Dangerous Writing” is an approach to writing championed by Spanbauer. He teaches a fiction writing workshop by the same name in Portland; Chuck Palahniuk is probably Spanbauer’s best-known student.

    Dangerous Writing is a brand of minimalism that utilizes many literary techniques pioneered by Spanbauer and other Gordon Lish-influenced writers. The emphasis is on writing “dangerously” — that is, writing what personally scares or embarrasses the author in order to explore and artistically express those fears honestly. Most “dangerous writing” is written in first-person narrative for this reason and deals with subjects such as cultural taboos.

    And read this article by Chuck about the technique:
    and the short story “The Harvest” by Amy Hempel:

    Amazing how the ideas we share feed other’s ideas. That’s what I enjoy most about this site.
    Thanks for the quote and the feedback on the post. I’m glad it had power for you. I also believe the pilot was right as I believe there is no time in infinity.

    As to what is normal? I believe we all have levels of insanity. The normal ones are the ones who actually admit to it.

  3. Logocentric
    May 2, 2010

    Poignant piece. It conjures a few memories of my own experience in a psych ward.

    In 2007, I checked myself into a place in Queens, NY. I was having thoughts of stepping off a train platform, in front of the Queens-bound W at 59th Street. I see it clearly, the vision I had. It was November. Snow on all the curbs. Even underground, in the tangle of tubes below midtown, I would tighten my scarf above the V of my wool overcoat. I would step off the platform, near the tunnel’s entrance, when the train was still moving pretty fast, before it started braking hard. My face would smack the flat steel nose of the oncoming car. There would be no time to brake.

    I told the intake nurse simply that I had “suicidal ideations” and a history of depression. She clicked her pen and made notes on her clipboard. They gave me a huge dose of sedatives the first night, and I sweated them out over the next couple of days.

    Somehow I got a private room. No roommates. Me and a bathroom and a bed. That was the layout. More than one night, I sat in the bathroom with the shower running full-on, looking at myself in the mirror and crying, praying on the bathroom floor.

    Three meals in the cafeteria. You went to as many as three group activities a day. And you spent the rest of the time on your own. Reading. Doing crossword puzzles. Making phone calls. Meeting with the social worker. Meeting the psychiatrist, who looked at you peculiarly and snickered when you told him what you were thinking about. Being reassigned to a different psychiatrist. And another one. Standing in line for medication. And more medication. Having an after-dinner snack in the rec room. Talking with other people. The bulk of your time you spent making a choice between either hanging out by yourself, reading and cleaning up, or meeting the neighbors on your floor. I split my time pretty evenly between the two.

    I drew a tree on my first day of art therapy. A leafless tree that stood outside the window of the meeting room. I don’t remember what I said about it when I shared about it. It must have been something about having hope that the leaves would grow back. Either that, or that I would never sling rope around its limbs and try to hang myself. Everybody liked my tree and complimented me on it. That was some day. My cohort consisted of a guy addicted to crack who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, several people admitted for suicide attempts, and other unrulies and miscreants of society.

    There was also a very energetic, overweight black teen named Cordero. I think he was from Washington Heights, but I don’t remember all of that as well now. He got up in your face and told you everything he thought about you. He didn’t give a shit about my tree, by the way. But every possible fear or point of paranoia you could have about yourself, he yelled it directly into your face. I could say that he was a savage, that he behaved savagely. But that would only go to compliment what he apparently set out to do. He was complete anarchy. Cordero didn’t give a fuck if you were from Washington Heights or Queens or black or white or brown. He wanted to tell you exactly what he was feeling and thinking at the moment. Maybe he did have compassion, but I wasn’t concerned about that when he was talking to me. All that mattered to me in those moments was listening to exactly what he had to say.

    I realized later, after the paranoia of the first days and of the new medications wore off, that he wasn’t saying anything to me that wasn’t already in my mind, in my memories, or on the tip of my tongue. I realized that he was not mean and vicious, but keenly observant of people, of their mannerisms, their quirks and comments. And he often meant to say only what he observed in others. It sometimes got intense—there is no questioning that. More than once, the nurses threw him into the isolation room, a padded affair, preceded by an emergency tranquilizer. There was no escaping that Cordero wasn’t going back to school that semester. He wouldn’t see his grandmother, who tried to take care of him. He was practically dead to the world. It felt that way in there sometimes. He was looking for a way to make sense of his senseless situation. I identified.

  4. akbar lizightning
    May 2, 2010

    wowzers, heavy stuff indeed…it does seem that the dividing line between sanity and insanity represents the modern equivalent of society and the desert, and that in order for one to come to a conscious means of engaging fully, in participating in society with philosophical vigor, one must be accepting of those occasional transgressions into the chaos of psychic annihilation…even though such states threaten to destroy all hope and/or security. i am currently addressing some of this in the book i am working on…

    it is so good to see the presence of logocentric…i encourage you to pop out a post on your latest research…would love to know what ideas are orbiting your current symbolic solar system…

    here’s to happier times, and the emergence and concentration of our jedi brethren into a supportive family that can enter into the coming singularity singing hymns of salvation!

  5. Krs
    May 5, 2010


    It is funny, I too had a similar experience to yours with regards to suicide…

    First of all to put things in perspective I should explain that throwing yourself in front of a train should be considered the main way of ending ones life where I reside in the world.

    I had never understood why people would choose this particular way until one day when I was waiting on the platform to catch the train home.

    Wait, let me rewind…

    At 27 I was the envy of most of my peers.
    I had a job in the finance industry that not only paid well but had me managing 5 people who actually had to listen to what I said. I could afford nice clothes and to take my wife on a nice holiday to pretty tropical islands whenever the urge came on…

    But something was wrong…On the week-ends I would rebel against my situation, finding solace in going out amongst the gangsters and the social derelicts and taking their pictures as I interacted with them. I saw this as my only release for having to get double approvals for buying pens for my division when they needed them.

    As time passed I found myself living only for those moments when I could be myself and express myself in any way I wished without having to worry whether my boss liked it or not…

    Then one day, when I was standing in the same place waiting to catch that same train to nowhere on the same time I did everyday I finally got it.

    All I had to do is step on the train just a little bit earlier (in front of it that is) and it would take me somewhere else, somewhere far from this world. Perhaps a great adventure without cornflower blue ties and pin-striped suits.

    I was shaking as I got home, shaking to the core of my very existence. I knew I could not keep living this double-existence…that it would either kill me or completely split my personality in two…

    I typed my resignation that night and the next morning I was born again.

    I have never looked back but still remember seeing that train coming thundering down the platform…waiting to take me somewhere else…


  6. globatron
    May 5, 2010

    The comments here prove to me the power of digital communication. One thought. One comment. One post. One word can open doors that have been closed for years.

    We all suffer similarly from the human condition.

    It is the norm to be medicated these days. Commercials preach the value of a pill to cure all one’s ills, physical and mental.

    And yet we hide these stories we all share and bottle them up for years.

    We didn’t take that step off the subway platform did we? We continued on to learn and to share.

    Thankfully we are all here now.

    Here’s to us never experiencing such loneliness and despair ever again.

    Thanks all for sharing. Truly beautiful.

  7. Upward Spiral #2 – Sanity and Society | Ken Vallario
    February 1, 2013

    […] Byron King’s story of his stay in Ward 13 […]


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