journey

Playing games in a mental hospital

There are a couple of games you get tired of quickly. One is noughts and crosses. Once you’ve exhausted all options you realise that whoever places their mark in the middle is going to win if they want to. Another is scrabble. It was entertaining for a season to see people get a kick out of spelling out swearwords and nonsense but after a while its just not that funny. Connect 4, however, no matter how repetitive, was one of Carl and I’s favourite games.

I know I don’t really need to explain to you how to play Connect 4. But just to debrief, its a simple, two-player game where you take turns dropping colored coins from the top into a seven-column, six-row vertically-suspended grid. The aim of the game is to connect four of your own coins of the same color next to each other vertically, horizontally, or diagonally whilst also blocking your opponent’s attempts to do the same. In combinatorics, it is found that there are 4,531,985,219,092 ways to connect four of your coins. Most people only need to suss out a couple before they find a winning strategy.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have Connect 4. We had some shady little knock-off, something along the lines of 4-In-A-Line or Link-Them, which ticked me off a little every time I read the box. We had a shelf full of random games, gimmicky figurines and romance novels but this time when I went to collect the games, Link-Them was missing. To my great chagrin I fished out the old dingy card set which I knew had a few too many aces and not enough Jacks. But Carl was optimistic as always and didn’t really care that the cards that he was snapping were not of the same integer. With Connect 4 he never actually won anyway, he just liked the coloured coins and dropping them into their slots.

It wasn’t a date, although it wasn’t uncommon for volunteers to be asked to get married, perhaps on the hospital lawn before morning tea. He probably didn’t remember that I had been visiting him for weeks and was a bit confused why I was sitting across the table from him, avoiding placing my elbows where day-old coffee spills and drips of mayonnaise laid to rest.

What Carl didn’t know was that I was secretly attempting to ‘play Connect 4’ with the personalities that inhabited his frail body. As irreverent as that thought may be, it was fascinating, riveting but equally devastating to see him fight with the minds that all wanted control over who he was inside. It pained me to see him day by day never getting any better, not really getting any worse, but stagnant at a four-pronged fork in the road every second, minute and hour of the day. He was never visited  by family and the hospital had on and off been his home for several years. But he seemed content at least, and pretty okay with his life.

Carl One looked a little bit like this. Incredible, creative genius. Whatever Carl One said was pure mushroom magic to him but unfortunately, unintelligible utter gibberish to the rest of us normal human-folk. It was a shame that we did not understand because he probably had come up with ideas that would have shaped humanity but instead they incurred more crosses on his check board and time in recreation therapy.

Carl Two, however, was a vindictive professor that would tell him things that should never be thought of let alone whispered in public.

Carl Three was intensely competitive, a superstar ping pong player and training for the next Olympics. He was “almost there” he told me. Just “a little more practice”. Carl Three was in cahoots with Carl Two, you couldn’t really have one without the other.

And my favorite Carl was Carl Four. Kind, caring, and a little aloof. Carl Four would read rule sheets most people ignore in board game boxes, would open the door like a gentleman and always encourage me that I would one day become a good ping pong player…even though we both knew I should never be allowed near a ball that bounces and I was a disgrace to my ethnicity.

Strangely enough, the four Carls, whilst unable to come into agreement with each other, were capable of seamlessly orchestrating escape plans that actually worked. When I came into the hospital one afternoon Carl had been sent into intensive care, as he had gapped it across the hospital lawn to a restaurant, ordering and demolishing a three-course meal, only to disappoint the waiter with his cashless pockets.

Sometimes I would wonder why the hell Carl was in the mental hospital in the first place. What had caused his mind to birth people out of fractions of himself? What had happened to him? What did his family do to him, and how dare his parents treat him like this! Or more importantly, how on earth was he going to integrate back in to a society that struggles to even accept ‘single’ personalities, let alone a quadratic one?

But my job wasn’t to think about Carl and his future and how he would, if ever, return back to the real world. My only job was to keep him company and occasionally find him clothes to wear when it was cold.

And whilst Carl lived there day by day, abandoned by family to choose his own expiration date and adopted half-heartedly by volunteers like myself wanting to get an edge on our resume, it didn’t matter to him that he wouldn’t ever get married or find a job or reach Nirvana. It didn’t matter to him that he never won any board games because at least he was amazing at ping pong. It didn’t matter to him that gas prices were increasing and there was a housing crisis on the rise or that half the population had not turned up to vote because he was so grateful to me for getting him a new puffer jacket and it would be great for Winter although Carl Two was adamant it was unnecessary. He was (mostly) content.

Carl played Connect 4/Link-Them/4-In-A-Line all the time. But out of the 4,531,985,219,092 ways to win, Carl was not able to find any. But somehow he was happy anyway.

 

(Names have been changed.)

 

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