Patients howling out of caged windows often got my attention, but the grounds of the institution intrigued me more. Before going there, I never knew about the complex maze of tunnels running under and between buildings of the state hospital for the mentally ill.
Nor had I ever seen the metal tubs of yore, the ones whose rims were fitted with metal collars to keep in steaming hot vapors. They sat against the walls of the tunnels, unused, bleak reminders of a time when doctors had no drugs to calm patients. Instead, they ordered hot soaking baths to pacify.
When I was 17 and 18, I worked summers as an attendant at the institution, at a time when that facility operated at full capacity. It wasn’t quite a “Snakepit” experience, (the 1948 movie that portrayed the horrors of hospitals for the insane, in a pre-enlightened era). But that job most definitely enlightened me.
The first summer I was assigned a supervisory position on an ambulatory ward. There, I doled out medication to patients who shuffled up to my Dutch-door window, arms extended, hands cupped (as if to receive Communion). Despite having no medical training, I gave them the wonder drugs (Thorazine, Elavil, etc.) from a bank of little paper cups set up in a 5-tiered dispensing station. And because they were close to discharge, those patients told me their difficulty–living in a world that made little accommodation to the mentally-ill.
The next summer some 12 of us young people reported each morning to central administration for assignment to all different buildings on the grounds. We feared B Building the most, where the stench of urine hit, upon entering. Here, patients walked mindlessly around the perimeter of a big recreation room for hours, unresponsive and catatonic. It was there I learned the extreme effects of mental illness.
Sometimes I was directed to the admittance building. I remember the day I stood watch over a girl no older than I, as she convulsed, repeatedly, sustaining 5 seizures in 8 hours. I held her hand to comfort her. During one brief period of calm, she told me a gang of girls (former friends) had beaten her with pipes because she was gay.
When they strapped her down on the gurney to give her shock treatment, I heard the crackle of the charge and smelled the electricity, out in the hall where I waited. I thought it barbaric, but I knew, too, the seizures were destroying her. That night I cried for her and her suffering.
And a pretty young woman (of 25) I remember most for her song that haunts me still. She sat on a side porch of a locked ward, gazing out through the bars, rocking…rocking, singing low: “It’s summer-time….. and the living is ea-sy.” Her life was anything but: She had a young husband and two little girls who fervently hoped she’d get well.
She never did…..In fact, she never even recognized them. But they continued to visit her weekly, in hopes she’d recover.
Those summers taught me to appreciate my own mental health. Moreover, I developed deep compassion for those who are afflicted, realizing there’s a fine line, indeed, separating “sane” and “insane.”
Biddy believes the best jobs for the young are those that foster empathy.