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.


  1. i'd like to be a psychologist, but i'm also unsure if i could seperate myself properly from it.
    this was so beautifully written,i loved it

  2. Thank you for saying that Amp! This one took me a while just to write. It takes a special person to do that work. I think maybe they are born to it and then work extra hard, no coasting ever.

  3. Glimmer, this post really is touching. My mother suffered from a terrible depression later in life and was hospitalized many times in psych units. I felt such compassion for the patients. It was sometimes hard to get through a visit without feeling like crying. Often I seemed to be the only one who did visit. Bless you for the work that you do.

  4. Thank you, Syd. It must be time to volunteer again in this area since the subject keeps popping up in my psyche.