The Short Life of Johnny Apocalypse

by Mel Waldman


Johnny Apocalypse (pseudonym) was an addict and I was his counselor in a Harlem methadone clinic almost twenty-five-years ago. He was transferred to my caseload because of “scheduling problems,” according to a colleague. Apparently, he had difficulty keeping his appointments and both counselor and patient had agreed to make the change.

Johnny was a tall, thin African-American male in his early-to-mid-twenties who described himself as a poet and a young man with many goals. He attended college, denied having any problems, mentioned his enormous love for his mother, and told me he was very excited about life. Like a grand magician, he created a positive image of joy and purpose. His enthusiasm was contagious and I was infected with a vicarious joie de vivre. Unfortunately, the image was false. Johnny was dying of Hodgkin’s disease.

I only knew him a short period of time. During that interval, he missed a lot of sessions. Although he denied any current drug abuse and had “clean” urines, I suspected he was using drugs. He exhibited extreme mood swings. And sometimes he expressed thoughts that seemed distorted and twisted, the gnarled, bent branches of a diseased tree, almost ready to break. There was also a strong paranoid flavor to his thinking, which worried me. I was quite concerned about him and felt a strong sense of urgency.

In search of clues on how to treat him, I reviewed his chart many times. He had a long history of drug abuse, including heroin, methadone, and cocaine; and a criminal record, too. He had been mugged by a group of boys. Subsequently, he had been arrested for possession of a gun and got three years’ probation. He was also diagnosed as schizophrenic.

With much concern, I presented Johnny’s case to the clinical team which included the Director, other methadone counselors, the staff psychiatrist, the P.A. (physician’s assistant), and a nurse assigned to his case. (Whenever possible, the head nurse attended, too.) Although I was alarmed about his behavior, the team emphasized his current progress, noting the positive changes in his life since he had suffered from various traumatic events. The team recommended that I explore some of my concerns with him and obtain further information. My colleagues also suggested he give weekly mandatory urines. A follow-up case conference would be conducted in 3-4 weeks.

When I recommended more immediate action, my request was denied. Furthermore, the team members noted that Johnny Apocalypse was a very charming, bright, articulate, and gifted young man who had come a long way, despite having a life threatening illness and a long history of trauma. In short, Johnny deserved some slack. And he got it.

I adhered to the team’s clinical recommendations. But Johnny did not. He continued to miss most of his sessions and avoided giving weekly urines. Still, we met a few more times.

In our final sessions, he talked about his conflicted thoughts and feelings about his beloved mother, his cancer and chemotherapy, the mugging, his emotional pain and drug abuse, and the injustice of life. At times, he cursed his mother and called her a witch. He also cursed his cancer, chemotherapy, the muggers, and life. His moods swung back and forth like giant waves in a raging ocean. Near the end of his phantasmagoric journey, he commented on the omnipotent power of drugs and his unfulfilled greatness.

After venting his emotions, he seemed absolutely calm and very distant, as if he had sailed far away to a private, unreachable shore. Then he spouted poetry and philosophy, sometimes in a sing-song rhythm, lost in an introspective Shangri-La of safe abstractions and revelations. Indeed, in those final poignant moments, Johnny Apocalypse seemed to reveal everything and yet nothing at all.

Who was Johnny Apocalypse? I suppose I’ll never know. He seemed to search for a lost identity he could not find or create.

After he dropped out of treatment, he entered his Heart of Darkness, a psychological landscape within, where he confronted his dark self. But his Waste Land was a chemically-induced labyrinth of false confrontations and revelations. And in his altered state of consciousness, he chose an unspeakable destiny.

One day in Harlem, he decided to cook for his mother whom he invited for dinner. His mother accepted the invitation and visited him.

Something happened. There was a disagreement, which suddenly became an altercation. Grabbing a pot of boiling water, he threw the seething water in her face. Then he picked up a bat and pummeled her. After beating her repeatedly, he carried her into the living room and tossed her brutalized body out the window. It sailed several stories to the street.

He went downstairs to look at her body. Standing over the corpse, he said: “Mother, now you know how it feels to be lying on your back. Goodbye.”

Upstairs, in a trancelike state, he cleaned the bloody bat and then continued to cook. When the police arrived, he welcomed them. “Hello. I’m cooking dinner. But come right in.”

He called me from Bellevue. At first, I did not recognize his voice. A soft, disembodied voice communicated with me and whispered: “It’s Johnny.”

“How are you?” (The story had been in the papers. But I played dumb.)

“Lonely. I’m here at Bellevue.”

I was silent.

“They’re observing me for a few days.”

I did not respond.

“Don’t get many calls or visitors. And there’s something I can’t figure out.”

“What?”

“My mother hasn’t visited me. I miss her. Don’t understand why she hasn’t come to see me. Don’t understand.”

I was silent. I dropped into a chasm of disbelief.

“And she hasn’t called. Don’t know why.”

I still did not speak. The chasm was unfathomable. I had entered an abyss.

“Maybe you could check it out and get back to me. Okay?”

“Okay.” I was numb and I wanted to escape.

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Johnny.”

At Bellevue, they determined he had been high on angel dust. He did not remember killing his mother.

After he was transferred to Riker’s Island, he died of Hodgkin’s disease.

* * *

I suppose I could tell you all the clinical gems I learned from this horrific but intriguing case. I mean, Johnny Apocalypse taught me a lot about denial, the complexities of diagnosis, and a drug-induced altered state of consciousness. And of course, I learned to trust my intuition in future cases even when the team disagreed with me.

Beyond trust, I also learned to buttress my clinical recommendations with as much clinical justification and facts as possible. A strong case presentation is advised and certainly, a comprehensive review and exploration of each case is always necessary, whether one practices in a clinic or independently.

Having said all that, I want you to know how Johnny Apocalypse affected and changed me. Our phone conversation was chilling and has haunted me all these years. His hollow words cut through my bones and even assaulted my soul.

Against my will, he invaded my universe. Terrified, enraged, horrified, disgusted, shocked, saddened, confused, numb, deceived, depressed, and defeated, I was overwhelmed and possibly traumatized. I needed time to bring order and understanding to the emotional chaos I experienced. Although I would ultimately be enriched and empowered by our eerie phone conversation and the total experience of working with Johnny Apocalypse, I was unable to perceive these positive ramifications for a very long time.

Johnny Apocalypse had launched me on a journey into the Heart of Darkness, where I became intimate with his dark self (and my own) and evil.

In reality, being a counselor and/or a therapist is an act of courage. You choose to enter your patient’s universe or you psychologically run away. If you choose to enter, you risk losing your mind, identity, and/or soul. You risk going mad. On the other hand, you learn to trust yourself and the power of good, sustained by the belief that you will return to this world after completing each journey into your patient’s reality.

Being a therapist is a sublime and dark journey. It is also a joint spiritual voyage in which you hope to heal your patient and yourself. Embarking on this journey, you must be courageous and creative, and open to the vast possibilities of the imagination.

Before he died, Johnny Apocalypse aggressively entered my private universe, evoking strong negative feelings in me. Yet after his death, I chose to enter his violent wilderness. In retrospect, I struggled to understand what had happened. Why had he murdered his mother? Was his violent behavior partly or completely caused by angel dust? Could it have been prevented?

Tentatively, the team concluded that angel dust had made him violent and cited other similar cases. Most likely, it had chemically altered his brain, resulting in bizarre thoughts and violent behavior. My colleagues also hypothesized that had he not avoided treatment, he could have been helped. Possibly, his mother’s life could have been saved. But he died after murdering his mother. And we will never completely solve the mystery of his behavior.

Yet the story of Johnny Apocalypse lives on, in my mind, and in yours now. He made me feel his pain and madness and although I silently protested, I became a better person and clinician as a result of his psychic invasion. When I look back, I see the vastness of the past with all its mysteries and challenges.

Even today, I try to fathom the incomprehensible universe of Johnny Apocalypse. Thus, I choose to re-enter the Heart of Darkness, where I am intimate with evil again, especially on the day of the Harlem Blackout when a young man with much potentiality loses his soul for many reasons unknown.


Copyright © 2007 by Mel Waldman

First published as “Harlem Blackout” in BIGNews 7:51 (winter, 2006)

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