Mira Gerges (2015)

[North Shore Hospital]

Taharoto and Tobacco

The entire bus ride was spent knotting my earphones tightly, and when the bus stopped in front of the wire fence, the driver gave me a worried smile. I watched the bus speed away, probably rushing to get out of here as fast as possible. I wanted to stay on it, telling the driver to hurry past and never come back. The old familiar sign spelling TAHAROTO in scratched letters read not so much as welcoming as “Hey, sorry you’re here. We’ll try to minimise the unpleasantness as much as possible.”

I walked past the wire fence and the little entrance to The Garden to the heavy front doors of the main building. They were bulletproof glass, with six locks to the side. I pushed to see if they were unlocked. They were. Must be a calm day today. I turned left to the Nurses’ Station window. Susan was on the phone.

“I gave her three megs of clorazapa - wait, wait hang on,” She covered the mouthpiece. “My-ra! Are you back? We didn’t get any notice.”

“No, no, no, I’m not back. No. No, I’m just visiting. Artie. He told me he was back.”

“Oh thank goodness! You’ve been out for a while now haven’t you? Good girl! We’ve missed you! But that’s a good thing! You’ve been good, sweetie? You’ve been feeling alright, honey? Life on the outside not getting to you?”

She made a thinly-veiled attempt to glance at my arms and I made an effort not to point my middle fingers at her.

“Yeah it’s been a while. I’ve been alright. Just visiting Artie.”

“Good girl, My-ra! Well Artie’s in the art therapy room, I think, and everyone’s still at breakfast. Do you remember where art room is? Do you want me to take you, honey? Do you need anything?”
Imaginary Scenario #1
Me: *Takes out umbrella*
Susan: We’re indoors
Me: Yeah well I’m drenched from the
condescension you’re spitting on me
Susan: But honey
Me: Say it don’t spray it
“I remember.”

“Ok well if you need something, I’m here at the Station all day!”

I need a smoke.


It was exactly as I remembered. The yellow fluorescent bulbs were dim and buzzing, but most of the light wafted in through huge panoramic windows that looked over the forest and the lake at Takapuna. The walls were painted a dingy, ugly shade of yellow that I assume were supposed to look bright and cheerful but instead looked sickly, especially complemented by the pale green floor. There was an overwhelming smell of citrus bleach. Every inch was scrubbed clean, but instead of looking modern and shiny, it all just looked like a faded painting that has been in the sun for too long. Or a shirt that was once vivid but had its colours wash off in the laundry. The patients dragged their feet aimlessly in fluffy slippers while the nurses marched around them, armed with their clipboards and medication cocktails in little plastic cups. At least Susan put on airs of care and concern. Most of the nurses here were just downright apathetic.

I noticed a familiar thin shape shuffling towards me. “Anna!” Anna has been here for years. She’s been my friend in my stays. I think she’s going to grow old and die here.

No no no no no! You broke my concentration! Now I gotta start all over again! Fuck you!”

“What’s up?”

“The Holy Spirit told me that I have to walk down all the hallways touching the walls and counting and if I lose count or stop touching the walls then I have to start all over again.” She looked as though she would burst into tears.

“Hey help me find Artie. I’m only visiting for a while.”

“Artie?” Her eyebrows furrowed. “Yeah, he hasn’t been good. The demons took hold of him again. I told him so. He’s in the art room.”

“Come find him with me. Then let’s all go to the garden.”

“But the Holy -“

“I’ve got tobacco.”

There is a phenomenon in these institutions, and its name is tobacco. Every single patient here smokes tobacco. This is not an exaggeration. I read somewhere that it’s to self-medicate. Personally, I think it’s because there is not much else to do. You wake up, make a coffee, drink it while having a smoke, and repeat. Smoke before and after meals. Maybe go watch TV for a while. Then make another coffee and have a smoke. Repeat. Do some art. Then back to the smoking. You do it to bide the time until the happy moment when they give you sleep medication and you can finally fall into a deep drugged sleep. Then you wake up and do it again.


Technically, you’re only supposed to smoke at the wire gate. But there’s a little garden inside with its entrance hidden from view, in which most of us secretly smoke. Every once in a while, someone would have a burst of motivation to plant something. But it would always soon die of neglect and cigarette butts. We bartered cigarettes for goods and services. “Hey I’ll give you a smoke if you get me a Coke from the vending machine.” “You have Going-Outside Privilege right? Here, buy me a pack and I’ll give you a couple. They won’t let me outside for another week. And don’t steal none, neither, or I’ll know.” “I’ll give you a smoke if you don’t tell the nurses I’ve been smoking in the bathroom.”

We were in The Garden, Artie, Anna and I. I had bought an extra pouch with just for the occasion, and we sat and smoked.
Imaginary Scenario #2
Nurse: *taps baton* Give it up! Smoke at the gate!
Be compliant!
Me: You’ll never break our will nor our autonomy
Nurse: Oh yeah? We’ll see how strong that remains
after some … lithium
Me: *Spits out blood and teeth* Fuck you
Every once in a while a nurse would threaten us with fines if we don’t go smoke at the gate. Every once in a while someone would saunter here, ask for a smoke, chat with us for a bit, then go back inside. Their eyes all looked milky and docile, their movements slow and meek.

“What happened Artie?”

“I can’t remember. I was really drunk and stoned and I think I had another episode because they found me naked on the street. I texted you from Robin’s phone.”

“Shit, man.”

“Yeah I think I’ll be here for another couple of months. Maybe longer. Who knows, though.”

Artie has a condition that is similar to mine. We usually always happen to be inpatient together. The last time we left this place, we promised each other we’d never come back. I felt almost guilty for sitting across from him as a visitor and not as a fellow patient.

“You’ll make it out, bud. Don’t you worry.”

“Yeah. Hey. Listen. The dairy’s selling legals again.”

“No, Artie.”

“Please, Mira! Please! They’ve got me on so much shit here, I feel like a zombie. Please.”

“Artie, no. Jesus Christ, that shit is so bad for you.”

“Look, I’d buy them myself but I don’t have Going-Outside Privilege yet.”

“Yeah and that’s why I got you tobacco but I sure as hell am not going to buy you that shit. It’s so bad, Artie.”

“I thought you were my friend! You’re being such a hypocrite! Last time you were here you smoked so much legals!”

That was true. Two streets away from Taharoto is a dairy that sells legal highs. As soon as the patients are allowed outside (for half-hour stretches at a time), they go to this dairy and buy legals. You can buy 20 grams for just $10, making it much cheaper than weed. Mixed with all the other drugs they give you, you can’t notice nor summon up the effort to care about how terrible they are. When you already have psychosis and seizures, it doesn’t make a difference whether the legals add to it or not, because the high helps you cope.

“Look dude, I’ve had symptoms from it three months after I quit. It’s so bad. I’ve learned my lesson, man.” “You sound like the nurses now. You think you’re so much better than us because you got away and we’re still locked up in here. I thought you were my friend.”
Imaginary Scenario #3
Me: Yes hello, geology centre? I would like to volunteer
my body to be thrown into an active volcano
Geologist: You would die
Me: Please
Thankfully Anna interrupted us. “God just told me that that’s just the demon taking over your voice box, Artie.”

“Fuck’s sake Anna, God doesn’t speak to you, you just smoked too much P and now you’re crazy like the rest of us except for Ms Normal over here -“

“Can I have another smoke, Mira?”

I rolled Anna a cigarette while Artie paced in a circle around us.

“How’ve you been, Anna?”

“I’ve been alright. God’s not been happy with me lately though, that’s why the Holy Spirit is telling me to do tasks. She says I shouldn’t be taking smokes from you. As soon as I finish paying my overdraft, I’ll pay you back.”

“You don’t need to -“

“No, no, no. I’ll do it. I’m so close to finishing it. My social worker says I’m two payments away.”

“Keep the pouch. Don’t give too much away though.”

Anna has been two payments away from repaying her overdraft for three years now. Almost everyone here is in debt, and almost all have social workers who seem to enjoy keeping them in financial straits. At the worst of times, you’d see them picking cigarette butts off the ground to roll the ashen tobacco inside them into new cigarettes.

“I guess I’d better go,” I told Anna. “I don’t think Artie wants to talk to me anymore.”

“God is telling me that that’s just his demon talking and that he’ll text you again later. I tried to pray over him but he wouldn’t let me. That’s his demon talking too.”

“Thanks Anna.” I hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “You both take care of yourselves ok? I’ll be visiting soon.”

I waved goodbye to Artie and started walking back up to the wire gate.

Wait!” I heard Anna yell.

What?!” I yelled back.

Bring more tobacco with you!”


When I got on the bus again, the driver glanced at the TAHAROTO sign then back to me uneasily. He seemed to ponder whether I would cause trouble on the bus, but then after a moment of hesitation, he seemed to decide that I was harmless enough. Strangely, I almost didn’t want to leave. Almost. That place was terrible and soul-sucking, but it was safe. You knew who was around and you knew what to expect. There was routine. Stability. Comfort. Our tight-knit group of patients versus nurses was secure. The real world outside is a lot more dangerous and unpredictable. Scary, too. Anna once relayed to me a message from ‘God’ that the big bulletproof glass doors weren’t to keep us in, but to lock out all the demons and nonbelievers. I think that has some truth in it. I untied the knots in my earphones and braced myself for the real world.

[Lake Alice]

© Mira Gerges

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