It was a beautiful day in September. The trees were losing their leaves, and acorns, stones, broken twigs and pinecones were scattering in every direction underneath my feet. And each step was bringing me closer and closer to a sacred, and yet familiar curiosity. Many years had passed, all reflected in deeply hidden memories, some of which I would choose to forget. But nonetheless, there it was again, all at once appearing as flashing images and brightly colored passages bringing me back again to another gated, window barred, long term psychiatric facility.
Unlike other psychology majors enrolled at the university, I was very comfortable spending time with mentally ill people. I had a lifetime of experience, and was given the secret spark of wisdom and understanding, at the tender age of four. I was told that people who were mentally ill were no different than people with the stomach flu. In my young mind, I clearly understood that mentally ill people did not always” throw up” the same way people did from tummy aches, because they did not have sick tummies. Mentally ill people, would at times, act or say things that sounded scary, or confusing to us not because they were bad people, but because they were “sick in the head.” (That is the way it was explained to me as a 4 year old by my mother who helped me to understand my dad’s behavior, and it made sense to me.) However, what I haven’t been able to understand my entire life is, “Why do people in social situations treat people with mental challenges differently than people who appear to be without mental challenges?” Some of the greatest artists, scientists and geniuses in the world have been known to suffer from mental illness. Without the contribution of these beautiful and unique souls, our society would not be the same.
I was in my second year of college. I was studying pre-med and psychology, and although my first experience visiting a mental institution was as a four year old, my first project in college was to spend 3 months detailing the behavioral habits of mentally ill women living in long term psychiatric facilities. Little did my professors know, was that my childhood experiences alone, observing behaviors of patients at psychiatric institutions in the 1960’s, far outweighed the limited knowledge gained from a 3 month psychology behavioral assessment assignment.
My father was institutionalized in the 1960’s. I was four, and remember visiting him during one of his stays at a state run psychiatric hospital. People strolled freely on the grounds shadowed by nurses in cat-eyed glasses, ratted up hair and white, starch- ridden, bobby pinned cardboard caps. The halls were filled with psychotropic sleepers wearing soiled t-shirts, striped robes and polka dotted pants. The women wore lipstick lines up to their noses, with too much rouge holding half lit cigarettes with pampered Hollywood gestures of imagined elegance. People sat in smoke-filled rooms, grouped together by the staff in self-created isolation. There was pacing in repeated patterns of lines and circles, screaming at the walls, talking to the air, and dancing with invisible strangers. Like a gallery on display exploding with colors of raw emotions, unique and uncontrolled artistry was at play right before my eyes. I breathed in these colorful expressions slowly and reflectively with child-like excitement. I had never seen adults behaving this way. And in my innocence, having an unfiltered world view, I only saw a beautiful playground full of unique and creative souls, held together as one in a special place far removed from the limitations of the world. It was fascinating to see as a four year old. I thought everyone had bloodshot eyes because they were happy. I thought people danced and talked to the air because they were free. The bars on the windows left questions. ” Why were so many grown -ups wearing their pajamas?" and “Why couldn’t my daddy come home with me?”
The happiest day of my life as a four year old, was when my mother told me to sit on the front porch one day to wait for a surprise. In less than 5 minutes a car arrived and dropped off my dad. He picked me up in the front yard underneath the maple tree and swung me around in his arms. He wasn’t mentally ill to me, he was just my dad. And I loved him enough to look beyond his suffering, and the suffering his mental illness had brought to our family. It was just the raw and pure emotion of unconditional love between a father and his daughter.
Signing in with the receptionist to start my college project on that particular day, left a chill running up my spine. I knew, there was no doubt that my father needed to be institutionalized back in the 1960’s, but hearing the loud reverberating echo of thick metal doors, and jingling keys closing behind me left me wondering, “What would it be like to have someone sign away my freedom, shutting me off to the world outside, bringing me into a sanitized, highly medicated society with tall fences and metal bars on the windows?” The loud metal doors closed with a “crash,” followed by an echo reverberating through a long corridor.
I spent three months visiting the women’s ward of the sanitarium and after watching hundreds of episodes of “Wheel of Fortune” and getting to know some of the women who had been institutionalized there for 30 years was left questioning why so little had been done other than medication and isolation to help people suffering from mental illness over the years? With budget cuts, the sanitarium was soon closed down and I never heard what happened to the women who lived on the ward. Perhaps they were relocated to nursing homes. (Unlike the thousands of mentally ill across the country who are now hungry, homeless and sleeping in cardboard boxes. Or others who may need hospitals or specialized outpatient counseling and treatment which are no longer available to fill their needs because of government cutbacks.)
What I would like to see, regarding the treatment today of people suffering from mental illness? Many things. But mainly love, compassion, patience, understanding and a return to dignity.