When Depressed, Play Poker
Another excerpt from my essay collection, Memories A La Carte, Essays on a Life. New marriage, new house, new step children, new depression. What more could a girl want?
A short year after we settled in upstate New York, and after the decorating was done, I fell into depression. I tried my best to quit drinking. John was not ready for that and often came home in the wee hours drunk or didn’t show up at all until the next day.
It seemed living in that idyllic setting only highlighted the problems we tried so hard to ignore. The nagging truth was, if we couldn’t be happy in that beautiful fairytale setting, how would we ever be?
As it turned out, the best psychiatric hospital in the state was ten miles from our home. Our neighbor, Bill, recommended I go there for a while to get help. Since we had full medical insurance, John agreed. Crying my eyes out and scared to death, I submitted myself to a month of mental rehab.
At that time, 1974, Craig House was considered one of the premium psychiatric hospital in the country. I was shocked to find out that such famous persons as Jane Fonda’s mother, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Rosemary Kennedy had spent time there. On the one hand, it seemed like the perfect place to get help and on the other, it looked Gothic and frightening. The buildings looked like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story.
My therapist was Dr. John Baker, 35 years old, good-looking, self-contained, confident. At first, I wouldn’t talk to him. I had to write to him. Dr. Baker patiently worked through reams of my randomly-noted thoughts and feelings until one day I just started talking. With that, Dr. Baker and I rambled through my childhood with a temper-prone father, a drinking mother, and six siblings who made fun of my singing. I said I was unappreciated and wanted to get in my car and drive to Oregon, where I had sympathetic friends and family. (They all drank too.) Of course, these discourses took place under the influence of four different kinds of drugs meant to keep me from causing any trouble for the nurses and staff.
The essence of my situation was that my mother had been a drinker, my husband was a drinker, most of my siblings were drinkers, and I was a drinker. The situation meant that amongst my lovely childhood memories, I had some stinker ones related to abusive interactions with others. What to do?
Dr. Baker chose to pop me into the dorm for alcoholics. There I met my people. I had a ball there because alcoholics are forever charming, full of laughs, and experts at denial. I and we denied we had any problems for the whole four weeks I was there. But while there, I engaged with my people in poker, which I wasn’t good at, but I loved the company.
I’m not sure a bunch of alcoholics is the crowd one wants for a poker game, but we had no choice. We were all we had. I called us the Derelicts. There was Billy, who, even on enough meds to subdue a tiger, had a habit of trying to crush our skulls with the ball in the daily volleyball game. There was Theresa who was a kindly nurse by day and a terror in the bars at night. I was the singer and offered up tunes when things got too quiet. Bernard was the gay who agonized over his life choice but was not against proselytizing as well. And there was Daniel, the lion, six feet three, maybe 300 pounds, size 14 feet, and loud.
Daniel dealt the cards.
“You’re not doing it right, Daniel.” Billy was protesting, as usual.
Theresa kept moaning, “Oh, for just one little drinky-poo.”
Bernard said, “I think I’m gonna win tonight, I know I’m gonna win toniiiiiiiight,” to the West Side Story show tune. With that, I sang the whole song for them until Bernard told me to shut up.
“I don’t know how to play poker, I just want to warn you,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter, Daniel said, “with the drugs we’re on, we’ll never know who won anyway.”
He was right. With one hand, someone would get a straight or a flush, and leap up shouting. With the next hand, we lost track of who had what. Then we would just laugh and get up to go pee or dance around the room.
John came to visit one night. Having been a sharp card player all during his colleges days and after, he begged to be included. After a few hands, the Derelicts realized they were losing to an unmedicated card shark. Though we only played for pennies, nickels, and dimes, Billy got insulted.
“You’re not supposed to win all the time! You don’t even live here!” and he got up to his full 5’2” and challenged John to a fight.
Having also been an expert in bar fights in places like Nampa, Idaho and Ensenada, Mexico, John showed no fear.
“Sit down, Billy, I’ll teach you how to play this game right,” John said.
Billy melted, having found someone who didn’t pin him to a wall or tie him up in a straitjacket.
John looked around at all of us as he shuffled the cards and said, “You know, I wish I could come here and stay for a month. You guys are having too much fun. And I’m out there fighting the fucking crazies outside. When you finish your stay here, Kathryn, I think I’ll check myself in. Billy and I can play poker all day long. Right, Billy?”
“Right, John,” Billy said, slapping John on the back. “You’re welcome here.”
I couldn’t help thinking, Not a bad idea, Johnny boy.
After a month of daily therapy sessions and nightly card games, Dr. Baker got me out of there and put me in out-patient care with only one drug to keep me calm, and we began to make some progress. In another eight weeks, I pronounced myself able to try life on my own.
From there, I held press conferences with my neighbors, trying to explain why my husband kept telling everyone I was “certifiable.”
Such a joker, that John.