November 28, 2016: ELEVEN DAYS IN THE LOONY BIN
People always look at me a little strangely when I mention that I spent eleven days in the state mental hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. I hasten to explain to them that I was doing research for a book I wrote on the mental health system, that I wasn't a real patient but had faked my way in with the help of a friend, and had barely escaped the locked ward where they keep the violent people but had been sent instead to a ward where they let you out in the morning and left the door open all day. I used to walk over to the store on the grounds in the morning, buy a Times, and do the crossword puzzle on a bench just to get out of the ward. Which turned out, naturally, to be full of unbalanced people.
Adventures in writing. Anything for a story. This came to mind today when I was thinking about my career, all the things I've covered for magazines and the places I've been, and the loony bin was a highlight of sorts, possibly the most dangerous story I did, since they might well have tried to keep me there against my will if I had in their presence actually done something crazy. I was careful not to. Except for not having a job since I was 35 and living by my wits, I'm quite sane.
But I think about that place once in a while. The people. They were a motley bunch, all of them on drugs of one sort or another, mostly thorazine, which I also took--you had to, they gave it to you, you put it in your mouth and swallowed it, and then they looked in your mouth to make sure you had--that were supposed to keep you passive and quiet, and indeed they were not violent in any way. One I remember, a young man who complained that his parents had committed him because he'd taken his stuff out to the garage to lay it out on the floor and arrange it. He was manic depressive, had a portable cassette player he took everywhere with a bunch of tapes, and he would jam a tape in, play it for thirty seconds, then jam another one in and drive the entire ward crazy with the noise. He was restless. He also had his own room, where he brought women in off the female wards at night, paying the attendants off for the privilege. Plus he had access to other drugs, the illegal kind. A resourceful young man, in a manic phase.
Others gave little impression of being insane, but only pathetic. Unable to handle everyday life; they were taken every day to a nearby IBM plant where they put cardboard boxes together, in a program designed to make them useful to society, and thereby to themselves. I remember at lunchtime, which was served on a cafeteria basis, one man would go up to the table and take ten or eleven pieces of bread, and nothing else. Another was catatonic, did not speak, walked around in a trance. I saw him one day drop a turd from under his hospital gown, reach down to the floor, pick it up, and try to put it into his mouth. The whole ward groaned at that, and the attendant rushed over and prevented him from completing this grossness. Yes, there were people there who were quite seriously mad.
I learned a lot in those eleven days. For one, madness is not literary. You do not find characters out of Dostoevsky, say, or Baudelaire, passionate to the point of unreason, in mental hospitals. It is also for the most part not violent. The culture characterizes the insane as killers, but they actually commit less violence, statistically, than the general population. Mostly it is their ineptness that impresses you. They have not mastered the simple art of living. Something going on in their heads prevents them for focusing on the ordinary.
After a week it started to get to me. The ward had a large TV set and it went 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that the place was always full of noise. I don't do noise well. The food, not surprisingly, was execrable. They put me in a therapy group and that was a joke. And being surrounded all day and all night by people who were seriously troubled was difficult. We slept in dormitories at night, on beds that had rubber sheets under the cotton ones. My first night I was given a shot of Thorazine, which made me thirsty, but when I tried to get to the water fountain I could barely walk, had to hold onto the wall to get anywhere. I had it all planned, knew the law, and went through the formalities of leaving, which entailed writing a letter announcing my intention of leaving. They had three days to commit me against my will, but didn't bother. My wife drove out and picked me up--I had checked in with a story about our separation, and hearing her voice over the radio when it was turned off--and drove me home. I lay down in the back seat and cried, not for myself but for all those people who couldn't leave so easily. It was so sad. I'll never forget the really bad cases, patients with tardive dyskinesia, which is a permanent side-effect of taking drugs like Thorazine. It affects the brain in such a way that their tongues, their faces, their limbs move uncontrollably, their tongues in and out of their mouths, their faces in constant distortion, their limbs jerkily, in every direction. Thorazine tames the hallucinations, but it also destroys the life.
I'm told, by the way, by people whose experience of the mental health system is way more recent than mine--the book, Reality Police, came out forty years ago--and have read the book that very little has changed. The mental health system still relies almost exclusively on drugs to control the behavior of the people it serves, and psychiatrists are really no closer to understanding what mental illness is or where it originates. For some people, life is tragic every day.