“I’m fine,” She Lied: Part 9 – Doc Pomus 


Doc Pomus singing in the 50s

For the next couple of posts, I’ll be writing about some of the patients, which are both sad and funny.

As I said previously, I made up nicknames for the other patients. One of them was Doc Pomus. Obviously not the real Doc Pomus. I’m referencing  singer from the 1940s and 50s who sang in blues clubs who happened to be caucasian, Jewish, and a victim of polio who was bound to a set of crutches and later a wheelchair. He was later on an amazing lyricist who wrote many, many songs that you know, including “Lonely Avenue” by Ray Charles; and “Viva Las Vegas,” “Suspicion,” “Surrender,” and “Little Sister” for Elvis. Probably the most heart wrenching story behind a wonderful song is this one of “Save the Last Dance For Me”:

In the song, the narrator tells his lover she is free to mingle and socialize throughout the evening, but to make sure to save him the dance at the end of the night. During an interview on Elvis Costello‘s show Spectacle, Lou Reed, who worked with Pomus, said the song was written on the day of Pomus’ wedding while the wheelchair-bound groom watched his bride dancing with their guests. Pomus had polio and at times used crutches to get around. His wife, Willi Burke, however, was a Broadway actress and dancer. The song gives his perspective of telling his wife to have fun dancing, but reminds her who will be taking her home and “in whose arms you’re gonna be.” (Wikipedia)


Doc Pomus singing in the 50s

Nick Hornby and Ben Folds wrote the song “Doc Pomus” and that’s really what I’m referring to in this post. The lyrics referenced an excerpt from Doc Pomus’s uncompleted memoir, February 21, 1984: “I was never one of those happy cripples who stumbled around smiling and shiny-eyed, trying to get the world to cluck its tongue and shake its head sadly in my direction. They’d never look at me and say, ‘What a wonderful, courageous fellow.’” It was released on September 28, 2010. In the song, Ben Folds sings, “And he never could be one of those happy cripples/
The kind that smile and tell you life’s OK /He was mad as hell, frightened and bitter /He found a way to make his feelings pay.” Doc Pomus made the best out of a literally crippling situation. He made beautiful music that has lasted and will last for generations.

On my unit in the hospital there was a wheelchair bound man I nicknamed Mean Doc Pomus (MDP). In all my 41 years, I have never met such an ugly and bitter man. He was what I imagined to be the opposite of the real Doc Pomus; even though Pomus had every right to be mad at the world. The first time I saw him, which was my first morning on the unit, he was being wheeled by his roommate to the “green bands line up” line and wore black jeans, a POW/MIA tshirt, scraggly dirty blond/gray hair past collar, and a permanent frown. He constantly muttered under his breath. He did it when anyone spoke. He only made it to half the Group sessions, and the ones he made it to, he left early or muttered angrily. I was scared of him. Three days into my stay, he started to reveal bits about himself in Group and they weren’t just bits – they were major life events that would bring the strongest person to commit themselves to a psych ward.

Mean Doc Pomus said in Group, while we were talking about loss and after I talked about the loss I’ve had in my life, as well a few other patients, he rolled his eyes. He rolled his eyes particularly hard and muttered swear words whenever I spoke. I’m not sure why. He seemed to hate me more than most of the others. Maybe because I was the only caucasian 40s housewife who couldn’t possibly have any problems because I seemed to have everything. I don’t know. Then out of nowhere, he decided to speak up. No one dared to correct him when he interrupted. He spoke with such anger and there was pure violence and vitrol in his voice and eyes. His eyes were particularly disturbing. When he spoke, I was caught between wanting to listen and wanting to stick my fingers in my ears and hum. It seemed like everyone else in the room felt the same. You didn’t want to stare while he was talking, but it would be rude not to look up from the floor occasionally. He opened up by telling us we didn’t know loss. I don’t remember how many times he had been married, but it was several. He had been divorced and I believe one wife died. He had 11 children, but six had died over the years. MDP said how much he wanted to trade places with his dead children. He only mentioned how three of them died. I know one of them drowned. He had also lost most of his military brothers, several in combat. Another day in Group, we the topic was negative thoughts of feelings and how we don’t have to let people make us feel a certain way. MDP opened up about the guilt he had over losing his fellow Navy Seals. He opened up, but it was clear that he didn’t want any feedback from the group or our therapist. And when he finished speaking no one wanted to say a word – the therapist as well. Our therapist was very likeable, a little hippie-ish, long blond hair, little makeup, sensible shoes. She was also a little afraid of MDP – we all were. He never answered the “what brought you here” question we all answered in morning Group, but he did say he had PTSD at one point and that he could never forgive himself for the death of the daughter that drowned or his Navy Seal buddies. Another day he said he lost count after his 27th kill in Vietnam. We all sat in a circle in silence. If I had been the therapist, I would have said “well, that should about wrap it up for today!” and ran out of the room. Our therapist just nodded and said things like “losing people we are responsible for is hard.”

A couple of days before I was released we went to breakfast and MDP wasn’t there. Someone said he had gone to electroshock therapy, now called Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I didn’t know what to think. Awhile after we came back from breakfast, he was rolled back to his room to rest. The rest of us had Group. Sabrina started talking about how she wanted to ask her doctor about ECT because nothing else had seemed to work. Jem, Topher, and I cringed but didn’t say anything. Our therapist said she would write that she requested it in her chart, but that she couldn’t order it. Remember this – it will be important in another post. When we came out of Group, MDP was sitting at one of the tables and Sabrina and someone else went to sit with him. Jem, Topher, and I sat on our usual couch. Topher had come into our little group a few days earlier, but was sleeping in the Quiet Room. I think he was there for three days. He had been awake for a week or so and had started hallucinating and talking to friends who weren’t actually there. The hospital let him sleep it off. After he woke up, he was a pretty nice kid of 20. While we were sitting on the sofa – no doubt reading food magazines for the umpteenth time – we overheard MDP saying that he didn’t know where he was or who he was. Clearly, the ECT hadn’t worn off or he needed more rest or something (I don’t know, I’m not a doctor). He looked way out of it  and for the first time, he was the one who looked scared. I’ll never forget that look. He was having his breakfast tray, but didn’t seem to know what was going on. I felt badly for him. I felt for the fact that he had to have ECT to forget or to deal with his emotional pain or grief or PTSD or depression. I felt for the fact that he would most likely never get better. I felt badly that no one came to visit him. I felt badly that he viewed the world through angry eyes, except after having ECT and viewing the world through frightened eyes.


Lovely Rita Meter Maid

Rita missed all of this. She never went to Group in the small room, only the informal morning and evening Group with the techs where we repeated daily why we were there and what our emotional word for the day was and all. After Group we would have to fill Rita in on what had been said. She only gave odd looks when we talked about MDP. It seemed Rita was only there to look after Sabrina, but by the time Sabrina announced that she wanted ECT, Rita had been released. No one was left to protect her. Except MDP. He took her in like a child. I didn’t quite understand what Sabrina was about – more on that later.

While Rita was still in the hospital, she would sing and she had a great voice. She would call out “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” and I would answer “ain’t no clouds when she’s away.” We’d sing Biz Markie. There was nothing to do on the unit. My second day there, I got a new roommate I first nicknamed “Sad Eggplant” because she only wore purple. She was clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed. She had tattooed on eyeliner, but not the nice way they’re doing it now – this was tattooed on the way it was first done years and years ago – Tammy Faye Baker style. Her hair was black and thin and she left her hairbrush on our bathroom counter, which I thought was disgusting because there was hair in it. A friend came and dropped off more purple clothes. It was a lot of purple and that’s a color I hate. After she repeatedly talked about her “crying spells,” I decided to call her “Purple Rain (in a bad way, not in the cool Prince way).” When Rita told us that she had been a singer with a Mariachi band and did very well with it when she was younger, we asked her to sing in the Mariachi style and she performed for us. We enjoyed it. Purple Rain asked her to sing Mariachi in English. Rita stared at her in half-shock, then said “maybe Kerry could try doing that.” I laughed hysterically and said I could try “La Bamba.”

On Purple Rain’s first day, she told Rita that she “spoke good for being Mexican.” Rita said she hoped so because she was born in Houston. That same day, Rita’s son and daughter-in-law came to visit and I asked him if he was Jesus because he had a tattoo of Jesus on his arm. Rita burst out laughing. I half expected Purple Rain to ask the question for real. Making fun of her became a favorite pastime. Purple Rain would interrupt any conversation anyone was having – it didn’t matter who it was or if they were welcoming or not. We ignored her. It got on Rita’s nerves and she often said she was going to punch her. No one was punched. Rita was pretty great. Witty, sarcastic, and able to laugh at the situation we were all in. For instance, when another patient would ask us advice, we’d said “dude, we’re patients in a mental hospital, maybe you should ask a doctor.” My big think was saying “I only had three psych classes in college.” Rita’s son brought her flowers and (of course) the nurse took the vase away and gave them to her in a styrofoam cup with water. I took a small paper bag, put the cup and flowers inside, rolled down the top of the bag and tied the short ribbon (that for some reason wasn’t taken away). I like to think Martha Stewart would have been proud of my prison/hospital decorating. Rita gave me the flowers when she was released and almost immediately a nurse told me they weren’t allowed on the unit and asked who gave them to me. That shows you how different the rules were from staff to staff. I hated it when Rita left.

MDP was still there once Rita left. Right before Rita left was when things got worse with the patients and staff. Then all hell broke loose. One night before Rita was released, we had a new older weekend tech with very pronounced African accent. She stressed that she was “by the book” and wasn’t tolerating and funny business (which made me laugh because here we were on the Funny Farm). When she began speaking, she turned off the tv, during  football game that half the group had been watching – that sealed her fate right there. It had not been done at informal evening Group and told us she was going to go over the rules of the unit (which I couldn’t figure out was suicide watch or high functioning depression). She opened up Pandora’s Box when she started talking about rules. She said we were adults and needed to start taking responsibility of ourselves. A few minutes later she said we needed to keep the game room and our rooms clean at all times, including not leaving cups out; a few minutes later, she were there for treatment and shouldn’t be picking up after other people who leave out cups.

Sabrina took a golf pencil and started nibbling on it, then chewing, then had broken it in her mouth. She was clearly disturbed. The tech told her to spit out the pencil. Again, she said she was by the book. I assumed she meant the coloring book I saw each day on one of the tables. She kept talking and Rita would ask questions. She asked which book the tech was going by because there seemed to be several books. I couldn’t help but laugh. Informal evening Group turned into a 2 and a half hour lecture/question period. Pandora’s box was opened and the tech was not ready for it. Sabrina kept taking golf pencils and chewing them. I don’t mean how students chew on the end of a pencil nervously in a class – I mean the whole golf pencil in her mouth as if she were going to swallow it. At some point I got up and brought the container of golf pencils to the nurses’ station. How the tech sat there with Sabrina in front of her eating pencils was beyond me. She lectured that no one should hook up in or out of the hospital because inside the hospital was not real life. No joke. The whole night was beyond bizarre. I was clearly the most normal person on the unit. I looked forward to 9 o’clock lights out and my medication.


  1. I just have to say that the mental pictures of these people that you are giving me are amazing.. in my mind, MDP is Lutenient Dan plus 50 pounds and a leg. Rita is Rita Moreno. Sabrina is Lisa (Angelina Jolie) from Girl Interrupted, and the no funny business nurse is Sophie Goldberg from Clara’s Heart. This needs to be a book.. a movie…

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