The Hospital Always Wins: A Memoir

The Hospital Always Wins: A Memoir

by Issa Ibrahim


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Issa Ibrahim’s memoir details in searing prose his development of severe mental illness leading to a horrific family tragedy, his acquittal by reason of insanity, and his subsequent commission to a mental hospital for nearly twenty years. 

Raised in an idyllic creative environment, mom and dad cultivating his talent, Issa watches his family’s descent into chaos in the drug-crazed late 1980s. Following his father’s death, Issa, grief-stricken and vulnerable, travels down a road that leads to psychosis—and to one of the most nightmarish scenarios conceivable.

Issa receives the insanity plea and is committed to an insane asylum with no release date. But that is only the beginning of his odyssey. Institutional and sexual sins cause further punishments, culminating in a heated legal battle for freedom. 

Written with great verve and immediacy, The Hospital Always Wins paints a detailed picture of a broken mental health system but also reveals the power of art, when nurtured in a benign environment, to provide a resource for recovery. Ultimately this is a story about survival and atonement through creativity and courage against almost insurmountable odds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613735121
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/01/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 401,775
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Issa Ibrahim is an artist, writer, and musician. He has been featured in an HBO documentary, an award-winning NPR audio story, and in exhibitions the world over. He has created numerous CD covers and merchandise designs, and his award-winning musical documentary film, Patient’s Rites, is showing in film festivals and has been embraced by the mental health community.

Read an Excerpt

The Hospital Always Wins

A Memoir

By Issa Ibrahim

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Issa Ibrahim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-515-2


"Oh, Ma, what am I Gonna do?"

I'm working on my latest painting, a large unstretched canvas tacked to the main wall of my place. Mom enters dancing and keeps in step with the ska, one of many retro musical touchstones that I embraced as a black teenage new waver and now, forty years later, am reluctant to let go of. Mom identifies with it too, being of Jamaican/English roots. She calls out, "Keep working, son, you'll get it," beaming with pride while gingerly pinching a joint. Guiding me through this artistic roadblock and recurring waves of memory and regret, Mom skips and shimmies, pleased at my persistence. I smile too, my mood lifted.

Less a haunting than a benevolent visitation, Mom is just as I remember her. Small but matronly, mercurial and frisky, moving like an amalgam of bohemian and dervish, seven-veiled Scheherazade and Salome, lost in the rhythm, possessed by melody, body swaying and arms waving. Never missing a beat or dropping an ash, she prowls as her reefer smoke swirls around her like the brimstone of a magician on the verge of a daring feat of prestidigitation.

When I was growing up, Mom, like my older sisters, was quite the mystic, proficient in tarot reading and astrology, treating me as an unknowing subject for pot-inspired soothsaying and prognostications. I was earmarked for greatness, or so the cards kept coming up and my chart seemed to indicate, yet I was oblivious to the doting, the preparations, and the expectations. But being born Issa — Arabic for Jesus — I had a lot to live up to.

The music is crosscut and drowned out, augmented and bastardized, by the constant bass and drum thuds that emanate from more than one loud sound system in my apartment building. The sounds continue farther down the block and into Richmond Hill, Queens, New York, a Trinidadian/Guyanese/Indian neighborhood. The music is busy, drunk, designed to get you to shake your ass and get some ass by the end of the night. The cacophony created by two or three of these deranged DJs, battling it out for bragging rights, is a true jungle of call-and-response beats, booms, and blares punctuated by unintelligible shouts, rambling and incongruous sound effects, and the occasional wail of females beckoning for a big stiff dick. As I'm not from that part of the world and am a wee bit older now, and as I was weaned on the genteel pop of the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and the Beach Boys, I bristle at the musical mélange's descent into outright noise. Yet when it does quiet down, in the post midnight hours, I can play my own songs, bluesy, insular freak-pop creations about my hard-knock life and how I've survived it, and make my own kind of din. And when I do Mom says, "I like the sound of that," listening close, head cocked and eyes narrowed to parse the details. "You may be on to something, son."

When not writing or recording, I'm immersed in painting. The magic happens after 10 PM. I am usually up till dawn and have grown used to painting quickly and not sleeping until I am finished. It's a habit I developed out of necessity, when for twenty years I had to work on my craft from the last evening head count till the morning wake-up call, at which point thirty other mental patients and I had to exit our bedrooms for breakfast and a full day of programming.


It's a lovely, crisp spring morning. I arrive at Kew Gardens Court a bit early, at 8:30 AM, so Miss Debra, my escort and a very pleasant, matronly, and supportive treatment aide I've known for years, suggests we go to the deli across the fearsome Queens Boulevard. There, where we sit for a moment with coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we encounter Judge Freed. He is cordial and upbeat, valise in one hand, morning Times in the other, topcoat slung over his arm, wearing a dark wool suit and sporting a colorful tie, which has become his trademark over the course of the trial. Large in stature but not intimidating, he drops his head and peers at me above his bifocals, then smiles.

I believe Judge Freed has heard my case and I hope he has gone over the testimony very carefully, ready today to render a fair and just decision. He impressed me from the very beginning as a wise, rabbinical fact-finder and I hope my instincts are correct. My mind races as he orders his morning meal. Should I hit him up for information on where his axe will fall? Opting to play it cool, I sit and drink my coffee and say nothing more than "Good morning, Your Honor."

In the courtroom, the spindly attorney general walks in at about 9:50. He informs me, through my escort, that "Judge Freed has called the Mental Hygiene Legal Service office at Creedmoor. Mr. Ibrahim's lawyer should be here closer to noon." This means a long wait but as I've waited almost twenty years for this, another two hours won't hurt.

At 11 AM, my stand-in MHLS attorney Leslie Boobala enters. We have never formally met but I recognize her face from her trips into Building 40 visiting other patients. She shares a suburban ordinariness with all the MHLS attorneys, saving her firebrand liberal warrior stance for the courtroom and the cases she believes are worth it.

I don't know if I will need her for any negotiations, and she asks, "Are there any stipulations that you want me to argue if it comes to that?" I hand her the list of "demands" that my now-retired MHLS attorney Barry and I cooked up that I could live with for Level 4, unescorted off-grounds privileges, if that is where Judge Freed would lean. Leslie reads the printout but says nothing.

"I still would like to hear Judge Freed's decision, though," I say, aware that only discharge or retention are on the table. I have hope that I made my case.

"OK, I hear you."

We sit in silence for about an hour, watching Judge Freed dole out justice in two quick cases. He then says, "I see Mr. Ibrahim is here, and his attorney is here, and the attorney general is present. All we need now is Mr. Mullin, the district attorney, and we can proceed. It is a very lengthy verdict and I need to put it all together, so if we can get in touch with the DA, and you can give me another, say, fifteen minutes, we can proceed."

"A lengthy verdict; that could be good or bad," Leslie whispers.

I excuse myself and go to the men's room. Here, as I deposit the residue of the coffee, I pray one final time, hoping it will count. Eyes raised to the ceiling, I whisper hoarsely to whoever will listen, "Come on, come on, let's do it. Let's do it! Justice! Let's get justice!"

Then I pause for a moment, do away with the fist-pumping and sotto voce soccer-thug hysterics, and say quietly, "Please, Mom, let me come home. I wanna come home."

Back in the courtroom, the DA saunters in, and in a short time Judge Freed steps out of his chambers. He has a stack of papers stapled and collated, fifty pages each. He asks for the three attorneys to step up to the sidebar. Handing out the papers, Judge Freed says, "Here is a copy for Mr. Ibrahim. I believe he would want one."

The three attorneys all walk back into the seating area, leafing through the great tome, all looking to the last page, where the verdict will be. Leslie, after reading the last page, gives me the thumbs-up with a broad smile. Walking back from the bench, beaming while sitting down next to me, she hands me my copy and says, "Read the last page."

"Conditional release." I read again. "Conditional release." There is a great deal of verbiage surrounding this phrase but it really doesn't matter. I got my conditional release.

Stunned, I am asked to approach the bench. Judge Freed doesn't look directly into my eyes but imparts a powerful bit of wisdom and caution. "Mr. Ibrahim, you are being given a tremendous opportunity. If you succeed that is good. However, if you fail not only do you fail on your own but you fail and let down all others, some you know, some you will never know, who will use your verdict, your footnote in the history books, to perhaps gain their freedom. So don't take this lightly. Use this as an opportunity to live your life as an example, and do so for the greater good. So go, Mr. Ibrahim. Have a good life and try to be mindful of your responsibility."

Judge Freed's caution brings to mind the final words said to me by a former fellow insanity plea patient, before we drifted apart, largely because of my humiliation and shame at still being inside. David told me, over ten years ago, "You're gonna change how people look at us. Your case is gonna be a landmark case. It may take a while but I know your case is gonna make a difference." It did take a while, and it was painful at times, but David was right.

Gathering my coat, my copy of the verdict, my mind as it reels about my head like a whirligig, I stand in the back of the courtroom, disbelieving. As the lawyers all move on to other cases the AG is trembling while stuffing the thick judgment in his valise, as if he were thinking, "Oh crap! My bosses are going to be pissed. I fucked it up!"

From the bench, as all parties pack up, Judge Freed remarks, pleased and relieved that he made it through the laborious, seven-months-long hearing, "In my forty plus years, this is the longest judgment I have ever written." He also has an extra copy for Barry, my attorney in absentia, which he gives to Leslie. "Here, give this to Mr. Newfeld. It's a tree, I know, but he will appreciate it."

The DA, a barrel-chested, hardscrabble, tough Irish cop-type, peers at me through steely, spiteful blue eyes. I am still wavering at the back of the courtroom, unsure if it is real, taking it all in, my victory. DA Mullin motions to me, telling Leslie, "His case is over. Tell him to scram, wouldja?" Leslie steps over and says nicely, "You can go if you want." She doesn't have to tell me twice.

Miss Debra and the transfer agent escort me back to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, my home for the past seventeen years. Exiting off the Grand Central Parkway, as I did as a child on Sunday drives with Mom some forty years ago, and then as an arriving patient twenty years later, I look at that big beige building differently: no longer my towering prison, it is now just temporary housing. I'll go back before Judge Freed in a month to finalize and officiate my order of conditions and then we'll see what comes next. Albany might appeal. Creedmoor forensic director Dr. Anne Maggoty might craft and attach very tight restrictions on the order for me, just out of spite, even though Judge Freed suggested no enmity or animosity should creep into the process. Either way, if all goes well, I can add my name to the list of "short-timers."

All those years inside and soon to be a free man, healthy, painting, creating, being the artist she encouraged, even ordained me to be, I think about Mom.


I am the youngest of five children, and definitely Mom's favorite. She never says this, as it is bad form, but my siblings, I, and even my dad feel it and know the truth. As a result my sisters and brothers often find opportunities when alone with me to toss taunts and epithets like "spoiled brat" and "mama's boy" in between bouts of typical sibling abuse. Upon finding out, Mom admonishes them, then soothes my unease.

Dad gigs on New Jersey bandstands every weekend, sleeping through the days of the week, while I am by Mom's side as she does housework and shopping. Many a day's grocery run finds me staring up at her from the metal shopping cart baby bin, where I sit way past age-appropriateness, chomping on an uncooked frankfurter that she slips from the as-yet-unbought package and into my mouth. She does this to keep me preoccupied and oblivious to the Saturday morning animation-inspired Froot Loops and Sugar Smacks.

When Mom has free time she works on a number of unfinished canvases placed about our small home. She usually uses acrylic paint but is also proficient in watercolor, and employs mixed media, quilting, interior decorating, and garden landscaping to express herself and offset the household expenses when Dad's Friday through Sunday bandstand gigs don't measure up.

Mom sets me down at her feet with a starter set-up of paper, colored pencils, crayons, and water-based paints. We sit for hours in the downstairs living room, decked out in jungle decor complete with palm plants, African masks, and a huge mural of the veldt featuring a noble but friendly elephant beside a giraffe and native huts in the background. In this ideal artistic setting we listen to plenty of jazz, Derek and the Dominos' Layla, and Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die (her favorites among many), and I request anything by the Beatles while I trace and paint my approximations of the wondrous feast for my young eyes that is the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. I take in a great deal of Mom's influence and it is apparent from early on that I have a gift for rendering. Mom's approval encourages me.

"That is so beautiful, Iss," she whispers. "Looks just like Paul. Wonderful. You are a great artist, son."

I bounce about the family home in a red towel that Mom pins onto my Superman T-shirt. With dungarees stuffed into a shiny pair of red, knee-high rain boots, up and down the stairs I fly, sometimes taking a nasty spill. I run to Mom, not to attend to my bump, bruise, or scrape, but just to make sure my cape is still on. When tired of superheroics I retreat to my bedroom, my Fortress of Solitude, where my art table calls me. There, with the proper pop coordinates fixed, I start doodles, that beget sketches, which grow to patient drawing. Needing an explosion of color, out come the crayons, then the colored pencils, then, boldly, Magic Markers. Finally, needing to expand, I experiment with water-color techniques, gouache, acrylics, and inevitably oils. When the paper and canvas seem too small I start a mural on my bedroom wall, usually of my latest pop-singing fascination.

I'm the type of kid who leaves the house late. What's there to see out there in the world when I can draw or paint something infinitely more compelling and entertaining? Although I have friends, I'm more comfortable with my record albums and comic books — and my paintings, which often look like a merger of the two.

Mom and Dad always light up a reefer preceding an artistic endeavor. They, like other drug-inspired artists, believe it helps the juices flow. Mom nurses a healthy joint while painting her gigantic monochromatic portraits of charismatic and controversial figures like Purple Mao, Yellow Che, and Red Fidel, with me at her feet breathing it all in. When four-foot canvases present limitations the paint eventually falls upon the walls. Every room in the house, except for my grandfather Arthur's austere residence, has a mural or painting on the wall, started by Mom or Dad and later completed by committee. My oldest sister, Lauren, is a good portrait painter but she will often use collage, which is easier for my less talented second sister, Carol, to participate in and feel included. First brother Smiley resorts to graffiti. His preoccupation with this art form reaches a point where he reeks of chemicals constantly as his propensity for vandalism blossoms. I feel most sorry for Kal: it's bad enough being the middle child of the three boys, but he also seems to be bereft of any discernible talent. He loves listening to music and appreciates art but cannot produce anything of his own.

I feel blessed that I come from this home. Dad is always into something musical and artistic, creating original cartoon characters of a multicultural bent, all set to music, which is unheard of in the 1970s. He also crafts African awareness presentations, highlighting his gifts for storytelling and creating imaginative sound effects. He encourages us all to take up musical instruments and is a collector of them, so we have an upright piano in our living room, numerous guitars and basses, plenty of percussion, several brass instruments, and a drum set in the basement. Though I was slated to be Ringo in the family, I lose interest and the drums go to Smiley, who becomes quite good. He bangs out a lot of his frustrations and issues, which, having to deal with me eclipsing him in the family's esteem, must be plenty.

Of the family staples that I enjoy, the salons/house parties my parents mount are certainly electric, but the jam sessions are transcendent. From near and far various musicians gather at our house and pick up those abused, neglected instruments and breathe fire into them. These jams of New York City's best and largely ignored jazz musicians are the stuff of legend. They play for hours, banging tune after tune out of these things that I run around the house with and use as toys. On these special occasions they are the Tools of the Gods.


Excerpted from The Hospital Always Wins by Issa Ibrahim. Copyright © 2016 Issa Ibrahim. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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