Victims of Dolphins and Sea
by Winter Goebel
On the blue line toward downtown I watch a woman hold the back of her hand, fingers extended, toward her face to inspect each lacquered nail of a plum-colored manicure. She tilts her head, dissatisfied, and tells her traveling companion, “These nails are a nightmare.”
Words and things are worlds apart in the talk on the train, in this town, life itself. Life as words and things in the world, the spoils of forced eavesdropping during public transport, a miniature nightmare on the tip of each finger: What is real? Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When we say, ‘I love hamburgers,’ we are not talking about love. We are talking about our appetite, our desire for hamburgers. We should not dramatize our speech and misuse words like that.” We should not. But we do, we do. We say “This omelet is awesome,” and “This burger is amazing” and “This bread pudding tastes like a cloud from heaven” (said verbatim and in earnest by an adult) when we like the tastes in our mouths. We say “This job’s a nightmare” when we don’t respect ourselves at our jobs or our boss, when we are at work and would rather be elsewhere, not working for a living, eating manna in burgers and puddings, getting a dreamy manicure.
I’ve worked for five years with the mentally ill, work that shares a sense of horror, sexual preoccupation, and unreality visited as actuality upon the consciousness with actual nightmare.
I’ve worked for five years with the mentally ill, work that shares a sense of horror, sexual preoccupation, and unreality visited as actuality upon the consciousness with actual nightmare. As an inpatient mental health counselor I’ve spent many waged hours with those whose “magnitude of deviant behavior is not tolerable to the patient or society” because they are acutely or chronically what we call, in the absence of the euphemistic hedging of professional language, crazy.
I hesitate to write about the work. On the whole work stories run boring, and writing about the mentally ill tends to color them as characters, sentimental figures in lessons the writer’s learned or wacky goofballs, often both. Or neither, and boring. Nonsense in monologues and bizarre dialogues are easy to ply for laughs and spirit-wrecking sadness a tired string to pull, its knot fixed in the heart. Mental illness powerfully afflicts those affected. But then they aren’t screaming inventive obscenities, the company of the mentally ill can be the sort of scream you want to be around, a riot. How to separate the illness from the individual if that’s desirable or possible?
A woman approaches me in the beige hallway at work. She is young, pretty, slow. She is diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s disorder and crying.
“Everyone wants me to go to group but I don’t like group. I like video games and animals and they don’t have those here!”
I respect her distress as genuine while laughing as loud as one can in one’s head at its cause, and suggest that she attend the group in question. It focuses on coping skills, which might be helpful here.
Some patients experience months worth of overly intense emotions in a single eight hour shift, or they have one emotion and it’s too sad or all furious. Others never learned not to catapult to their full extent of assholery at the slightest perceived slight, so wound up on emotions and badly regulated brain chemicals that an intramuscular injection of thorazine calms them to the extent that a single deep breath calms me. A good number of those admitted are “cuckoo” in the sense that Sonny was “cuckoo for cocoa puffs,” but instead of cocoa puffs, opiates. After withdrawing from illegal heroin addicts nod off on prescription heroin, their lids heavy, their central nervous systems bottomed out.
Asked to lead an end of evening relaxation group, I’m directed to a video titled Dolphins & Sea. Its content is just that, footage of dolphins swimming in the sea, tumbling in surf, footage of surf. Given the emotional extremes of the milieu, I can’t fathom who appraised this as therapeutic. But the video, as it is locked in the narcotics box of a medication cart, must offer high-caliber relaxation.
Dolphins don’t relax me. Male dolphins have twelve-inch penises, not technically prehensile but muscular and flexible enough to seem so, and rarely but truly molest divers and swimmers. Coupled with their intellect and apparent smile, this is as repugnant as the pastel psychosis of Lisa Frank’s cartoon renderings. The Christmas my family bought a Sega Genesis I unwrapped one game for myself, Ecco the Dolphin. The game is conspicuously girlish and stomach-twistingly difficult. Ecco’s family disappears while he’s midair in a playful flip; the separation is genuinely wrenching for a video game. His air supply is finite, its depletion indicated by an increasingly rapid, panic-inducing series of sonar blips. Navigating him through marine time-travel tubes in the sky ended always in the dolphin’s terrified squeal as he fell again and again from future to sea. Objectively tortuous and personally torturous, the game brought me just before adolescence to the fruitless heights of anxiety and rage that adolescence itself later would. Developed as an empowering segue into gaming for girls, Ecco, for me, presaged the more or less subtle dysphoria of life in a gender hierarchy desultorily camouflaged as an equality with an unpleasant array of incompetence, powerlessness, guilt, confusion, anger, and sadness, which is an emotional constellation common to personal investment in a difficult situation, which aligns with life working with the mentally ill. The marks on your head look like stars in the sky…
I introduce Dolphins & Sea, and the patients’ response is universal and remarkable. The phrase “put-upon” captures the spirit but not the intensity of their reaction, which is as if I put upon them the bloody, freshly flayed body of a real dolphin, vivisected in their presence not for the sake of science but my own demented sense of fun – their faces pained as if they were that animal. They are outraged, victimized by this infringement. They are already watching a movie. They are in the middle of this pirate movie, victims. In the middle of this pirate movie, look at him he’s on the plank, he’s swimming. They are both set in the brine of the sea. They are wrecked and cursed, relaxed. There are dolphins, there are pirates, there is awesome. There are women in institutions. There are cartoons. There is the brine of crying, there are real animals in the ocean, there are countless nightmares and good food on the hierarchy of land, there is I let it go. I let it go. I’m going home.
Winter Goebel is from Delton, Michigan, and loves her parents. She has a degree in English literature and works as a mental health counselor. She believes in stars behind the orange light of night skies in big cities, literacy as an instrument of popular education, and most likely you.