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The Doors of the Ambulance Closed

by Josh Greenfield


Psychiatric medication is a wonder, a wonder that has helped millions of people. But these drugs must be accorded the highest degree of respect. There is, I believe, no way of conveying this fact to the patient taking them for the first time. Aspirin can be taken for a while and then stopped. Vitamins certainly, even antibiotics can be halted abruptly without consequences. With these psychiatric drugs, that just is not the case. I don’t know how many people act out and stop taking their medicine. I don’t know how many people wind up in the hospital as a consequence. It is not likely that many break off as radically as I did, but I don’t know even that. I do think it is probable that most psychiatric patients screw around at least once. I would like to think that most get a little phased and learn their lesson without serious con-sequences. In my case, the lesson did not come easy. There was a support net in the city of New York, but I was letting go of the trapeze at the highest point in the arc. I was falling.


By this point it had been days since I’d gone off the drugs, and with each passing hour my system was going further into collapse. My limbs were moving, but the circuits upstairs were jammed. Electrons were firing in the wrong direction, and chemicals were flooding areas they had no business being. The whole thing was a big mess. It was not a sustainable situation.


I must have walked south through the park. I don’t recall. I do know that by some system of advanced path-finding I made my way to the grassy area adjacent to the Wollman Skating Rink. The rink has a different name now. It was rebuilt with Trump money, I believe, but this part of the park also held rich associations. It had once been the site of the Shaffer Summer Music Festival, which later became the Dr. Pepper Summer Music Festival. The concerts took place inside the rink, but the music could be heard by people sitting on rocks outside. I’d heard my share of concerts both inside and outside the rink.

The concerts had always been about fitting in with the big kids. The afternoons I had spent playing softball or throwing a football with my friend, not far off, were not. On a Thursday morning in early autumn, the crowds had long ago dispersed. The ice had not been laid down for the winter. The rink was empty. Individuals walking dogs and the occasional tourist strolled about. The sky was slightly overcast. It was cool, but not cold.


Slowly, steadily, I walked down a sloping black pathway that led from an upper level toward the plateau adjacent to the rink. It’s easy to feel lost in Central Park. That’s part of its charm. You never know exactly where you are. But I must have still felt I was on the way to the chess sets. As the path curved its way downward, my mind must have become increasingly stiff. All was not well. I reached the foot of the black path with the grass and dirt on either side. I looked down at a medium-sized round stone on the ground to my right. I continued to look down at the medium-sized brown stone to my right. I had no inclination to do anything else. I stood at the foot of that black path with the brown dirt and scruffy grass at my feet and fixated on that stone. I don’t think I was inclined to pick it up. I don’t think I was inclined to walk past it. I just stood there and looked at it. The obsessive gets stuck on one idea. The obsessive who has gone off his medicine without a doctor’s consultation gets stuck looking at one rock.


I don’t know how long I stood in that position, staring at that damn rock, but at some point, I fell to the ground. I fell to the ground and stopped moving. My eyes were open. I could hear the sounds around me. I just stopped moving. I was frozen. It is tempting to look back on this behavior as some form of temper tantrum of a spoiled child. I concede that may have been a part of it, but there were also chemical problems. I had a lot of growing up to do. There is no question about that. But on this occasion my behavior was facilitated by the chemical imbalances inside my head. The circuits were shorted out. The mixture of components that make it possible for the human being to function normally was profoundly screwed up. I would like to say that this was my most embarrassing moment, lying still on the ground beside the Wollman Skating Rink, but unfortunately, it was just the beginning.

New Yorkers will come to the aid of someone in trouble. At least that was my experience. From all sides, people came running. I heard their voices. When they were in my line of vision, I saw them, but I didn’t move. One young man called out: “He’s well dressed!”


Maybe I should add that New Yorkers will come to the aid of someone in trouble if he is well dressed. At any rate, a small gathering of people stood around, and some moments later, an ambulance pulled up beside me. You would think that at this moment I would stand up and say, “Hey, thanks, but I’m OK. I just fell down. I must have hit my head. I’m OK really. I can just walk it off. No, I’m really OK.”


You would think I would say something like that. No such luck. Knucklehead that I was, I just lay there. I lay there stiff and still without moving a muscle. My eyes darted around to the left and the right, and I was aware that I was being placed on a stretcher and lifted into the back of the ambulance, but I didn’t move, at all. The doors of the ambulance closed.


It was symbolic, I think, the doors of that ambulance closing. They were closing so that the ambulance could drive to the hospital, but they were also closing on my chance to walk around as a free person. The word ‘freedom’ comes up frequently in discussions of Patrick Henry and the founding fathers. You also hear it in the context of debates about the Cold War and the Berlin Wall but using it in the context of daily life in New York City sounds pretentious. It just seems inappropriate to use such a grand word to describe going to the deli to pick up some bagels and a half a pound of Munster cheese, or taking the 7 Train to Flushing to watch the Mets. These things are so ordinary, so commonplace, that the word ‘freedom’ seems overblown. But that is what it’s really about.


I’m just saying that once these basic liberties have been taken away, their value can never be taken completely for granted again. Once the door of that ambulance closed, I was in the custody of strangers. I was in the custody of men and women who were operating according to an agenda of their own, an agenda regulated in part by a fear of massive lawsuits. Not even Dr. Rubin had the power to dictate the actions of these people. Through my own actions, I had placed myself in the control of the mental health system of New York City, a better mental health system than is found in most parts of the world, I imagine, but a system with its own rules and regulations.


So the ambulance pulled out onto the park drive with me strapped in the back. We drove south and out of the park at Fifty-Ninth Street. I know we turned right and traveled west to Ninth Avenue. I know we turned left on Ninth and went south to Fifty-Sixth Street. I know all this because I know we wound up at Roosevelt Hospital, which lies between Ninth and Tenth on Fifty-Sixth Street. All things taken together I would re-commend taking a taxi for a trip of this kind. You get to sit up, and when you arrive at your destination, you can pay your fare and get out.

Josh Greenfield is a graduate of Cornell University. His work has been featured in The Cornell Daily Sun, The Riverdale Press, Appalachia, Word Catalyst Magazine, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He is the author of Full of Wonderment, a novel.


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