This Is Us

Your Chin Is on Backwards

A psalm of sleep apnea, shit in the shower, and life

Photo: Luke Price/Flickr

“And besides,” he said, “your chin is on backward.”

The burly man with the accent-from-somewhere turned, almost looking dismissively at me — which, I guess, I’m used to — and smile-frowned. At least, I think he did; he was wearing a mask. And a spit shield. We used to put them on the faces of patients at the psych hospital — now people are just… walking around with them like it’s a pair of Oakleys. Of course, as a poor, nonprofit psychiatric hospital, we frequently ran out of spit shields (spitting is always tres en vogue at those kinds of facilities, even when there isn’t a pandemic). When we did, we would use pillowcases. On their faces.

Because we were the animals, not the patients.

Anyway. So.

I learned, maybe two months ago, via a pulmonologist with an accent-from-somewhere that my “chin is on backward.” That’s funny, I thought. I have the sense of humor of a six-year-old, so I had the impulse to make a comment about that statement coming from a urologist but was able to resist the urge. This is why I don’t drink alcohol.

I was seeing this pulmonologist on suspicion of sleep apnea.

“Oh, you have it,” he said with the confidence that people who wear long white coats seem to carry in their pockets, amid tongue depressors and giveaway pens from Big Pharma. “You definitely have it. Probably a very severe case, I would think.”

He said all this before a sleep test was even ordered — just by looking at me. My anatomy. My bits and pieces or, at 40, what’s left of them. My chin.

I admit, after four decades of obsessing about my Jewish nose and my monobrow (thanks, Middle Eastern Father) and my knobby knees and my dubious penis and my janky teeth that look like the collection of toothpicks dropped to the floor in that scene in Rain Man, that my chin wasn’t something I had thought about much — negatively or otherwise. I realized, maybe 20 years ago that, when I grew my beard out, my chin looked more… full? But I never thought of myself as having a… I don’t know. What’s the word for it — a “weak” chin? Like an incestuous Hapsburg monarch who drools into his soup bowl. I mean, I do think my paternal grandparents might have been cousins but, hey, it was rural Iraq. What do you want?

If you Google “sleep apnea weak chin” you get around 884,000 results, which makes it easier to understand why the pulmonologist looked at me and was like, “yah, beetch.” He lazily ordered the sleep test, but only to confirm what he already knew. And I do have it. And it is severe. Apparently I stop breathing an average of 71 times per hour. An acceptable number (hard to believe there is one) is between five and eight.

So now I sleep with a Carnivale mask on my face, and it’s kind of like I’m in an intensive care unit every single night—except that there is no incessant beeping to let apathetic nurses know there’s an air bubble in my IV line because there isn’t one, and there is no nurses’ station in my bedroom with nurses doing crossword puzzles and talking about pissing in their showers.

That’s the first conversation I… I guess, eavesdropped on as I was documenting a group at the psych hospital: A group of maybe four or five nurses, sitting around the table in the chartroom after dealing with a patient who had taken a shit in the shower and then tried to squish the shit through the shower drain with his foot.

“I have to admit I understand,” one of the male nurses said. “I mean, who wants to get out in the middle of a nice warm shower and sit on a cold toilet seat? Nobody wants to do that.”

“Right,” a female RN replied. “It’s natural to just want to do everything all in one place.”

“Maybe we should start bringing their dinners to them in the shower, too.”

“Yeah, with their fuckin’ trilogies.”

The “trilogy” is an injection consisting of Benadryl, Ativan, and Haldol administered into a patient’s rear end as a STAT means of behavioral control during an aggressive and/or assaultive incident. Ha. Ha. Ha.

They laughed.

“You ever do that — at home?” another male nurse asked the group. Heads all turned to him. “Not shit, but, ya know — piss in the shower?”

“Oh, are you kidding?” a female nurse with a wedge cut and tattoos replied. “All the time. Every time.”

“To me,” the first male nurse said, “if I’m standing right over the drain and pointing down, who cares? It’s not like I’m putting out a fire on shower walls with it.”

“Well,” another female nurse said, turning to get up, “I don’t.”

As she walked away, everyone at the table rolled their eyes.

“She does.” They all unanimously agreed.

I kept on documenting, pretending I hadn’t heard anything. Pretending I was working at, like, an office. Or a quaint nonprofit that dealt with clean water action or voting rights.

What the hell was I talking about? Oh! Right. My chin.

It’s weak, like me. Like my inability to remember lines in a play or not break character and laugh when another actor starts goofing around with me. I was always the first actor off book in rehearsals—now I can’t remember shit. And I have absolutely no ability to maintain my composure if someone is trying to make me laugh — or even if they aren’t and something funny just pops into my head.

Weak.

Victim.

Jew.

Hm. Now there are CPAP tubing on that nose every night. For how long? Forever? I don’t know. I don’t want it. I want to run it over with my car. The CPAP, not the nose. Well, maybe both.

I am interested in these moments where we are told something pivotal. When your mother calls you on the phone to tell you your aunt just killed herself in Israel. When your 12th grade astronomy and geology teacher, whom you loved, dies suddenly and his widow Facebook messages you to tell you. When a doctor wearing a spit shield and a mask tells you, kind of while looking down at you, over his shoulder, that your chin is on backward.

We get told things. We get assaulted. We get built up and we get broken down and we get called a “kike” and we get called “Dada” and we get called on the phone and we get called by the panic button and we go running and we go running and we are breathless and we are seen and we are hurt and we are here.

We are here.

Here we are.

Heeeeeeerewego.

I have told people that when my mother called me to tell me about my Aunt Rena’s suicide that I hung up and stared at the numbers on the telephone on my desk and they all looked warped — grotesque. That’s part of the story that I tell people.

I tell people things. And I wonder if their worlds are the same. Whispered, voice trembling. Or assertively — maybe actually or maybe it’s an act — with a firm hardness to my voice. But I am really just shaking in the shower, trembling as I try to shove the shit down the drain with my foot, terrified that someone will notice and observe my foulness and my otherness.

Who is this Jewish person, doing this thing, saying these words, walking around in that hat and that coat?

I remember my first day on the unit at the hospital. I took a patient to the floor during my first hour, after he had assaulted a staff member who I later grew to loathe. It was a terrible first day, and as I was leaving, finally leaving, for the day, I put my L1 key into the lock of the door on East Wing and a female staff member, seated in the East Wing monitor chair (stationed so as to prevent horny male patients from prowling around the women’s hallway looking for psychotic/vulnerable pussy) looked up at me with scorn and said, “Why the fuck do you get to have so many keys?”

And I didn’t even know, back then, that my chin was on backward, too.

Gabe is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online mental health publication. He owns far too many ties.

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