Existential Terror and Breakfast: 21 - revfitz.com

Existential Terror and Breakfast: 21

Epiphanies taste better with toast.


It was Malcolm’s third full day at the ward, and he was starting to get paranoid. Normally a sense of paranoia would not be a problem here, but “normal” was also different here. Crazy is normal here, and that was the problem. After spending two days coming to terms with the fact that he was not normal, something that was central to his identity and his core values, the idea that he was an oddity had started to appeal to Malcolm Steadman. The problem was that Malcolm blended in at the psych ward too well. What if they kept him here?

Of course, the reasons for him being here were different from that of someone with a psychosis. Those that were here because of a suicide attempt (something Malcolm did not actually try) were kept here for 5 days for an observation period. After that, they were free to go, unless, of course, there was a reason to make their stay involuntary, which was a scary possibility. The staff had to have a reason for this, and it usually was only used if the patient was a danger to themselves, but what if it was clear that Malcolm did not just blend in, but that he belonged here?

The thought was terrifying, and yes, this was the beginning of his frequent panic attack.

Cereal was in his bowl again today, like it had been yesterday and the day before. As a creature of habit, it was remarkable just how quickly Malcolm had adapted to life here and how easily he had settled into a routine. He could finally admit that he was not normal, but being a part of the “day-to-day” and blending in was something he had sought out so often in his life that it had become instinct, and without realizing it he had become too comfortable with his situation. Malcolm could blend in, and right now he was surrounded by desperate people and crazies, did that mean he was crazy and desperate? If he blended in too well, if he looked too crazy, would they let him leave? Had Malcolm’s anxious, nerve-wracking need to be average just doomed him to a life inside of these sterile urine yellow walls?

No one noticed how tense he had become, and that was what was most worrying.

Malcolm tried to busy himself and tried to do something to take his mind off it. The problem was that he was now too aware and self-conscious of his actions. Did he get up too suddenly? Would that look crazy? When he walked to the shelf with the incomplete board games and puzzles did it look alright, or were his arms too stiff at his sides? Would stiff arms make him look dangerous? Would swinging them make him look too eccentric? His mind could not be quieted. After scanning the shelf for what Malcolm suspected was too long for anyone with a clear head he settled on a jigsaw puzzle, knowing ahead of time that it did not have all of its pieces. In the corner beside him was a man too emaciated to not be a junkie huddled over the payphone. They made eye contact. There was now a second judge on Malcolm’s actions.

Returning to his bowl of cereal, Malcolm Steadman placed the box carrying the puzzle down as normally as he could and pushed away the thought that it was maybe too normal. The junkie was no longer staring at him, now content to just making whatever pleas he was making to the person on the other line. Malcolm lifted his bowl and drank the remaining milk out of it because he liked to and it was a thing normal people did and he wasn’t crazy and it didn’t matter that crazy people liked to as well! It did not matter damn it! Malcolm really needed to calm down. Trying to be normal was making him look crazy, and if he looked crazy he may never leave. He took a deep breath hoping that the action was therapeutic and would help him calm down, and opened the box.

After rummaging through the box Malcolm found a corner piece and started his daily ritual of assembling a puzzle. There was an amorphous thought nagging at him, something ineffable that had not had a enough time to ferment or bloom. Knowing what was about to happen, as this was always the precursor to a dire epiphany, he dove into his puzzle with an urgent intent. He knew that this sudden intense fixation on the puzzle would look absolutely damming to anyone watching him if he wanted to appear to be normal, but the distraction was a necessity. Yes, this was damming, but an episode of pure paralyzing existential terror would be the nail in the coffin. He absolutely could not have his usual panic attack here.

The thought started to become more concrete. Trying to be normal was making him look crazy. He desperately shuffled the pieces in the puzzle box, trying his best not to let his mind explore the thought. Trying to be normal- No. He found a piece with an edge to it, one that could help him create a border to fill out. The junkie was nervously eyeing him. Anticipating the terror was making him sweat, and he was vaguely aware that fearing what was about to happen might be feeding into it. Normal was crazy, Malcolm thought, not here, please not here-

“You okay dude?” The junkie asked, now away and done with the phone and an uncomfortable foot away from him. Malcolm looked up at the man, but avoided eye contact. The junkie shifted his weight nervously. “I mean, I know no one is okay here” the junkie continued “you jus’ look ah, you look real nervous. I dunno, small talk is hard in here”.

“I’m fine” was all Malcolm was able to manage.

“‘Heh, you know what ‘fine’ is? What that stands for?”


“In rehab they tell ya that fine is an acronym, it stands for ‘Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional!’” The junkie stated nervously, now with a hallow laughter to assure Malcolm it was funny. Malcolm Starred.

Motioning around him the junkie continued “I guess we are all jus’ ‘fine’ here huh?” his hallow laughter following it. Malcolm, still avoiding eye contact admitted sincerely: “that’s funny”, his deadpan disposition and anxiety making it sound anything but.

“It is funny” said the junkie, “my name’s Garry”, said Garry.

Garry’s skinny arm reached towards Malcolm, an uncomfortable alliance of pockmarks and bone. What little hair Garry had on his arm was especially noticeable as there really was very little else on it. A grin that did not look forced cut across Garry’s shaved head that would make the Cheshire Cat’s look amateur, the words “Fuck Authority” tattooed under his eyebrows. Malcolm took Garry’s hand and shook it politely. Everything Malcolm did was polite. “I’m Malcolm, Malcolm Steadman” he declared with little esteem.

“I’m here because I couldn’t get off dope for the third time. I feel worthless, and suicide seemed like a perfectly good way to end my problem” Garry explained. None of the other’s had been this forward, nor did they ever offer what brought them here. Everyone was either too ashamed, or too involved in their own self loathing. Garry, apparently, had no issue with it. Garry raised an eyebrow, and Malcolm realized that the interaction required him to reciprocate and return with an explanation. “Customer Service” was all that Malcolm could muster, not wanting to admit to an actual junkie that he was using something so innocuous as an emotional “fix”. Garry nodded as if he understood, but the position of “Fuck Authority” on his head said otherwise. The conversation had come to a halt.

“It’s nice to meet ya Mal, I’m gonna go watch some TV” Garry said, pointing to the set on a swivel as it blared “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on a volume somewhere between aggressive and a hurricane. “It’s my favorite show, join me if ya like”. Despite the awkwardness, Garry’s offer seemed genuine, but the last thing Malcolm wanted to do was what he did best: blending in, and in this case, he would blend in with a junkie. Malcolm sighed and nodded his head as Garry moved toward a different chair, Malcolm let him and did not follow.

After a tentative moment, Malcolm reached back into the puzzle box, forgetting his original and urgent need to pursue it as a distraction. Garry’s interruption had broken Malcolm’s train of thought, but Malcolm’s subconscious had just worked on it without him. Without Garry to absorb Malcolm’s attention, the nagging ineffable feeling suddenly bloomed into a miserable epiphany: acting normal, meant he was crazy.

Sweat returned to Malcolm, cold and stale. Despite the aggressively loud TV, Malcolm heard nothing but the beating of his heart. For a moment There was only the thought.

Of course, only a crazy person would need to act like they were normal. No one who is normal acts normal, they are just normal without trying. Anyone who tried to act normal would therefore be crazy, and if they succeed in appearing normal in a place like this, wouldn’t that be a red flag that they were in fact batshit insane. By trying to act normal, Malcolm Steadman was actually broadcasting that he wasn’t, and the harder he tried to appear normal the crazier he would look. People can tell when an action is forced or faked, and now that Malcolm was in his own head about every action appearing to normal or crazy, now that he questioned the validity of his every move his actions would be too tentative, too calculated. Only psychopaths calculated their moves. By trying not to appear crazy, Malcolm had unwittingly nailed his own coffin.

Malcolm was engulfed in his panic, he was completely seized by his terror. Whether he looked crazy or tried to look normal, surely they would label him the former. He was doomed. They would keep him here forever. Maybe this was where he belonged.

Except, no one noticed.

No one was paying attention to Malcolm.

It had not occurred to Malcolm that the staff was simply desensitized to eccentricities, and that his suicidal peers were too involved in their own woes to notice him. He took a moment to breathe, hoping once again that the action was calming and therapeutic. Garry watched the TV silently, his leg restless and jittery. Even the man who came to check on Malcolm earlier had forgotten him.

With resolve, Malcolm stood, walked over to Garry, and sat next to him. The corner of Garry’s mouth twitched upward in a smirk, the closest thing either of them would do to acknowledge the other.

Malcolm watched TV with his new friend.


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Rev. Fitz
M.P. Fitzgerald (Rev. Fitz) is an author, illustrator, and amateur Mad Scientist who lives in Seattle.

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