Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Time in the Mental Institution

In a recurring dream, I walk the halls of a sprawling mental hospital well known to me. The 19th-century institution is lined with many windows, but is dark inside. No one is trimming the old trees pressing against the building in this dream. The leaves and huge trunks crowd out the light.

But I am not caught up in a nightmare. In fact, I feel a yearning when I wake up. I would go back there for a bit, if I could. I'd like to check up on a couple of people.

After I got to college, I had a brief change of heart about my major. I decided I was a psychologist at heart. So, armed with this conviction, I signed up to volunteer at Bryce, the state mental hospital adjacent to the University of Alabama's Tuscaloosa campus.

The hospital had been named after a progressive psychiatric pioneer from South Carolina. But during the 20th century, patient levels grew and standards of care fell. In 1970, Alabama ranked last for mental health expenditures. Bryce had more than 5,000 patients living in conditions that a newspaper editor likened to a concentration camp.

It was into this I walked with great purpose -- young, innocent, full of ideals and conviction. Ready to serve.

Marching up to the imposing Italianate main hall, I saw a tiny chipmunk near some bushes. Oh, cute little thing, I thought. But then I saw the drops of blood. Did it fall? Get accidently stepped on? Then, a cat shot out of nowhere and snatched up the prey. "Stop!" I shrieked. But the cat ran with its its tiny catch to some low-lying branches and up a tree. I darted around the chipmunk's prison, lustrous with huge leaves and blooms, looking for someone to help. But not a soul was in sight.

Then reality intervened. I was a country girl. I'd seen this kind of overgrowth. I would never be able to catch the hunter cat in that thicket before it scampered up the trunk with its lair.

Calm enveloped me, like a cool wave, and I walked inside.

An assistant handed over a big metal ring of skeleton keys. She then took me through a series of hallways, unlocking and locking the connecting doors, until we reached my assignment. I was helping out in a womens wing, socializing with the patients, doing crafts if they wanted. I fired off many questions about how I could best be effective.

But there was no training. And my instructions were simple. This was saddest aspect of my time there. "The best thing you can do for them is just showing up. Just talk to them," a caregiver told me. "They are so isolated from the world."

Some of the women on the hall never spoke. I remember one, dressed colorfully, with thick, well-coiffed hair and skin a beautiful dark black. This was a woman who was cared for by someone. I sat beside her and introduced myself. Silence. No flicker of recognition that someone was speaking to her. I blithered on about myself, about her clothes, the confidence carefully banked in sociology and psych I classes trickling away, drop by drop, like the chipmunk's blood.

Then Daisy strode up, to the rescue.

A grandmotherly type, friendly, bristling with personality, she introduced herself and took me by the hand, leading me to the craft table. "Okay, what are we going to do today?" she asked. I was confused, at first. Was this a staffer?

But no, Daisy was a patient. The staffers were barely in evidence, sequestered, I thought, behind the locked doors and windows of an enclosed nurses station in the back of the room.

Daisy was out of luck. One of my accomplishments, at that juncture, had been successful crafts avoidance.

So she taught me. She laughed, talked, drew, constructed this and that out of old magazines and glue, whatever we could find. I couldn't imagine why Daisy was at Bryce. Obviously a mistake. And she did say that. She talked about being there only for a short time. Her family would be there soon to take her home, she said.

Another patient was Joyce, an artist. She was young and beautiful. Like Daisy, she was perfectly lucid. Another mistake, I thought.

She drew on planks of wood provided for her by staffers since there was no money for authentic art supplies. She talked about her family, about "being in solitary." She showed me the stark room where she had been placed, alone, for days, a small bed the only furniture. And places on the wall where she scribbled, pouring out her heart in tiny hand-writing.

I asked questions about the patients. Why was Daisy there? Why had Joyce been in confinement? I never got answers. The wing had many patients and few caregivers. I rarely saw other volunteers, or family members. Where was everyone? Where were the family members? Where were the students, a resource of thousands on the campus adjoining the facility?

Some of those questions were answered. Others were not.

One day, I was talking to another patient and Daisy began interrupting. I said, "Just a second, Daisy, I want to finish this and I'll get right back to you." Or something along those lines. The next thing I knew she was angry, rude, shouting, then rage boiled over. Before I could even process this outburst, orderlies were with us, taking her by the arms, leading her away. She wasn't there for my next visit, then she was. But she was subdued, heavily medicated.

I had failed to see that Daisy could not share me. That any attention to another person, however slight, would trigger a rage that would escalate without medical intervention.

And Joyce was not always there, either. She suffered terrible depressions. I took my childhood friend J. to see her when she visited from Auburn. They established a friendship. J., who became an award-winning teacher, the kindest soul I know, wrote to her for a good long while. She asked about Joyce for years after.

Joyce's writing and art had to do with her visions, which tortured her. She might have taken her own life without hospitalization. And sometimes she had to be protected from herself, the reason for the confinements.

Another thing I discovered: I wasn't cut out for this. The patients followed me, in a sense. They tapped ever so lightly on my shoulder at the library. I caught glimpses in deserted dorm hallways. As twilight became night, misty outlines I recognized in the distance would silence me suddenly during the long rambles K. and I loved to take all over campus. At dances, I saw patients standing in shadows. Their eyes hollow, mouths in a grimace, they watched, waited for me to come and talk to them.

I knew in my heart I could not separate, put up the boundaries that would allow a life apart. "It would eat you alive," an astute friend said. So I did not change my major. Working for my first newspaper, as a summer intern, I began the difficult process of standing apart, of not becoming emotionally involved, entangled. Of not showing emotion. Of stifling what I was feeling inside, no matter the circumstance.

I needed to protect myself, I thought.

Years later, a boss said my experience at a storied international wire agency had not impressed him. That it had been my time in the mental institution that had made me suited to dealing with the eccentric personalities drawn to the British news service we were working for at the time. He was only partly joking. And I understood what he meant.

Because any of us could step across that thin line separating the functioning from those who are not. It's really not that big a leap, or even predictable. In my opinion. Because we all have a Daisy inside -- fine one minute, wild with jealousy and rage the next. And a Joyce -- sweet and loving, artistic, but too sensitive for this world.

And if we need to kid ourselves about those matters to keep going, that's fine too.

I don't. But then I have a place I visit in a dream, as a reminder, a reality check. I walk down long corridors with a clanking set of old skeleton keys, unlocking doors all night long. I wake up and I'm a little sad.

But then I'm out in the world, where the sun shines and I can go where I want, anytime, with people I love. And that's enough. For today, that's plenty.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Birdy Weekend: Part 2

I didn't tell all in my Birdy post. Putting everything down then felt like too much. So this is a P.S. of sorts.

But please read the previous, "Birdy's Lesson." Also, for the full meal instead of a taste, "A Boy's Long Strange Path Here" on May 24.

So, to recap, we visited Birdy only a few weeks before she left this vale of tears. She was cheerful. She whispered to me that her cherished mother, long dead, had been calling her on the telephone. Then in the dark night, in the old farmhouse where no streetlight penetrated the deepset windows, Birdy's mother paid a visit to her old bedroom.

Perched on the foot of the bed, clad in a white nightgown, the lady of the hair watched me, seemed about to speak. Then I woke up and she vanished. A few weeks later, Birdy passed away. Before she died, though, something amazing happened. One friend called it a miracle.

My son was conceived.

I had grappled with and come to terms with not being a mother. I had tried to conceive and a specialist said don't risk it, in fact, get your tubes tied. The pregnancy did not happen on the night of the Birdy visit -- that would have been, well, rude. But it happened right after the visit from the lady of the hair.

We were thrilled. But I was stunned. My doctor immediately sent me to a high-risk practice. The pregnancy was easy, except for four months of nausea, which was not the scary kind that puts a woman in the hospital. Mine required me to eat constantly. I know. Go figure.

I sailed through delivery. The obstetrician was ecstatic. "You were a champ! Let's have one more, maybe two! Come on, this was easy for you."

Hold up. Fate had been tempted once. And there was only one visit from the lady of the hair. And that resulted in what one friend called "the miracle baby," who was born right before Christmas, even. If you can stand it.

One more thing. After Birdy died, the large family gathered in Pennsylvania from all over the country for a good old Irish wake. At the graveside service, our friend D.'s girlfriend F. was speaking. She had gotten along beautifully with Birdy. They were sympatico.

Soon after, a bird flew into the circle and started to tease F. Divebombing, in a way. Not threatening, playfully. The family laughed, the symbolism not lost on them. Birdy was there, saying hello to a favorite.

And what happened the following year was even more surprising.

D. married F. Well into his 40s, a longtime confirmed bachelor, this was beyond a shock. But they tied the knot and before long they were the parents of two children.

So this is the thing. The four of us, J. and I, D. and F., walked into a portal of sorts on that cold winter weekend in Pennsylvania. Birdy was on the verge of leaving this earth. The lady of the hair was somewhere in the ether, waiting to escort her daughter home. She showed herself to me, at least in a dream, seemed about to tell me something. At least in my narrative.

My son was conceived. Birdy died. Another life. And then, in such a short time, two more. Life and death.

Can you see it? Miracles, magic, coincidence, your call. We all die. We don't know when, how, what happens next. No details or specifics. Change is the certainty, that's the scary part. I think a big picture, though, is right in front of us, playing out everyday. A Birdy weekend happens maybe once in a lifetime, giving us clues on a marquee signboard.

I see it now when I spy a bird in flight, because it takes me back to that weekend. I don't know but feel we are unending, in some way. I remember that lesson. Circle of life.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Birdy's Lesson: She Was Not Alone

My favorite uncle died last week. Truth be told, I was glad. Uncle M. was 96 and had stopped eating. In a nursing home, he didn't recognize his own daughter. When he did talk, it was to relatives long dead. Dementia had stolen his mind.

Yes, his passing gave him release from his earthly suffering. But my reasons go beyond his personal situation. Their roots are ancient, timeless, something I can't pinpoint precisely. But I'll give them shape with a narrative that revolves around a visit with an elderly woman named Birdy, some 16 years ago.

You could call this a ghost story. I call it a revelation. And it changed me to my very core.

The weekend began simply. After work on a Friday, J. and I drove out of the city into the hills of Pennsylvania. The constraining hours in the office, which had encircled us like coils of rope, faded with each mile. Our voices, strong with rich new breath, flowed freely. As we hurtled through the darkness, we grew bright inside the cocoon of the car.

Our friends waited for us beside a little store in a tiny town that had rolled up the sidewalks at twilight. They led us through winding lanes to D.'s grandmother's, a big old farmhouse. We had to drive the last miles slowly, watching for horse-drawn buggies caught out late, without lights. We were in other-worldly Lancaster County, home of many families adhering to Old Order Amish and Mennonite faiths.

D. introduced us to Birdy. He had talked about her with enthusiasm for so long and wanted us to meet her. "Before it's too late," he said. She was in her 90s, still living on her own in the big stone home of her birth, looked in on by neighbors, the parish, meals-on-wheels feeding her once a day.

She was delightful, just as D. had said. Charming, high lilting voice and laugh. I looked her straight in the eye, but also off to the side a bit, an old trick of mine that somehow allows me to imagine the young woman she had been -- sharp-featured, vibrant with energy.

Using her hands for emphasis, she directed her grandson and his girlfriend to get this and that from the kitchen and told J. to find something in a far corner.

Then she turned to me, lowered her voice to a whisper and said, "My mother has been calling me on the telephone. She calls alot. We have so much to talk about." She also told me something else. And I remember this quite distinctly. "My mother has been calling me. Because, you know, she's coming here soon."

She raised her voice again when the others drew near. She obviously did not want them to hear her talking about her mother, who had been dead for half a century. Those words were for me only. I was not surprised. People sense in me a sympathetic ear for lost causes, for what others know to be impossible.

The evening continued pleasantly, and several more times Birdy had the chance to whisper to me about her mother. She said she needed to stay close to the phone, that she was sleeping on the first floor because of the stairs. But also because she could get to the phone faster that way.

So, when we retired for the evening, J. and I went to the old master bedroom on the second floor. This had been Birdy's bedroom with her husband and the room belonging to her mother and father. It was the biggest bedroom in the sturdy house with walls a foot thick. Tired, we quickly fell asleep in the dark room.

But I woke up in the middle of the night. And I saw a small woman sitting at the foot of the bed. She had very thick, curly black hair flowing over her shoulders and down past the small of her back. She was small-boned, sharp-featured. Her frame was nearly overwhelmed by this thick mass of hair.

We watched each other for a few moments, I don't know how long. I sat up, with the idea she was about to tell me something. But J., a very light sleeper, startled awake, which scared me and I gasped. Or, I simply woke up from my dream. I'll never know. Because she was gone.

The next morning, I told D. what had happened, describing the apparition. He looked surprised. And started off through the house. He came back, finally, and said I had described, exactly, his great-grandmother, the former owner of the house. Birdy's mother. He was looking for a picture of her, to see whether I had seen it. And then conjured her up in a dream. Or something.

D. and his girlfriend were astounded. People always talked about this woman's hair. Thick, curly, black, masses of hair that nearly overwhelmed her small features. The woman at the foot of the bed in her old bedroom. And no, they had never talked about her around me and I'd never seen a picture. No one had a picture that I could have seen.

All of a sudden, my head began to pound. We were nearly through with breakfast and I just couldn't pretend I wasn't in pain. So J. gathered our belongings and made apologies, we thanked everyone and hustled out the door. I was really sick. I held my hands over my head and groaned as J. drove down the hills, alarmed.

Ten minutes later he pulled into a store parking lot to try to find something to help me. But the pounding stopped as soon as it started. The pain just lifted. I was fine. No explanation. We drove home and resumed our lives.

A couple of weeks later the call came.

Birdy had died.

She passed away quietly, at home, in that big old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills. She was pushing 100. She had not wanted to leave that home, ever, at least while living on this Earth. And she hadn't.

And I knew with absolute certainty that Birdy had not been alone at the end. Because she had told me so. Her mother had been calling her, on the telephone. And the mother was on her way, after all. And I'd seen her myself.

I don't know how to explain this kind of thing. I can't defend my idea that "we" simply do not end when it is time to leave this life as we know it, here and now.

I don't know how it happened or where they went, exactly. Or what they became. But the lady with the big hair came, when it was time, and took her daughter home. That much I know, in the very core of me.