I don’t know how or why this young kid named Dennis became my best friend but he did. He was a couple years younger than I was, perhaps 14 or 15 years old, but I could tell he was definitely stronger than I was. Something in the way he walked. When he moved he had a swagger to his step that suggested a boxer or fighter, and the look on his face added to his bravado. He was always smiling, and he never hesitated to laugh even when no one said anything funny.
Only a few hours into my new home which was Brattleboro Retreat, an old mental hospital, and I was scared to death. After the strip search I got dressed and made my way to the front desk. I was a lost sheep, cattle, wandering around until someone shepherded me into a pen. The lady behind the glass wall asked if I was allergic to any medications, I told her no, and she wrote something down on a clipboard. I looked around the new surroundings. The ward was two hall ways perpendicular to one another. The main hallway with the patient rooms stood in full view of the glass bunker. The adjacent hallway ran to the bathrooms one way and the group room the other. That is where I first saw him.
He saw me first, and when I looked over into the group room he quickly moved out of site behind the door. I chuckled to myself, and wondered who this character was that would act so silly in such a serious place. I pretended not to play along and turned around. I waited a few seconds and whipped my head around toward the door. I jumped back a few feet when I saw him right in front of me! My heart raced and at first I was afraid he would attack me or do something crazy, but he let out this laugh that was kinda creepy but genuine. I put down my guard and laughed with him. He stopped laughing abruptly. I did the same.
“My name’s Dennis.” He said, his voice much older than his age.
“My name is John, nice to meet you Dennis!” I held out my hand. Dennis looked over at the lady behind the glass. She was staring at both of us.
“No physical contact is allowed between patients!” She said in almost perfect robot.
I put my hand down and smiled at him, and he smiled back. From that moment on he didn’t leave my side. Wherever I was, he was right next to me and walked around like he was my bodyguard. Anybody who said or tried to do anything would be threatened and ran off by this 15 year old monster of a beautiful soul named Dennis.
Everyone had a different story for being in the psych ward. Every one of the “patients” had a series of events that led them to be locked down and sedated. There was no happiness. There was no peace. There was no freedom. Only moments of relief and forgetting brought on by the patients themselves, the only hope they had was each other, and they stuck by one another obeying an invisible code of honor that they followed without even realizing it.
Dennis had been institutionalized for most of his life. He tried public school and living at foster homes but he kept getting in fights. The way he looked made him an easy target. He was born that way, and he was okay, but society is cruel and kids are even worse. So he had to fight back and he had to protect himself. The only place for this poor kid was a psych ward. He wasn’t the only one. But something about him told me he was special, told me he was different in a way that nobody could understand nor wanted to understand therefor…lock him up and medicate him.
“Hey John…Hey John…Hey John…Look! John! Look!”
If I didn’t look he would keep doing that until I looked, so finally looked over at him sitting on the couch next to me.
His face was contorted, and his hands were spreading his eyes and lips to make him look like an alien or some sort of silly monster…he must have done this 100 times, and it never failed to make me laugh.
Looking back I see that Dennis was not a “retard”, not a “mental patient”, but an angel sent to Earth to help souls like mine get through hard times.
Dennis was a Psych Ward Saint.