Three and a half years and many moons ago, three friends and I embarked on a summer during which we would research, write, workshop and perform a play about 3 characters in a mental institution.
Our girl Sheila had been a counselor for the two previous summers at a camp for mental patients (I’m not sure what the p.c. term for that is now, but no one hit us when we put it so.). When she mentioned we might be able to visit, we all yeah yeah-ed the idea, but put it off for another 2 months. The time leading up to that day was jovial and chatty, throwing ideas around like a nerf ball about what it was actually like to be a mental patient. On the drive to the camp, no one said a word.
It was certainly not what anyone expected. There was nothing sterile about this countryside, nothing Clorox white. We arrived at a clearing and put the car in park. With a turn of a car key, there was a collective sense of ‘here we go.’
“This is it,” we think, “research.”
The scream came round the side of the building, swiftly growing nearer and arrived in the form of a young woman who promptly tackled Sheila to the ground with hugs.
Sheila laughed, “guys this is Sarah, one of my old co-counselors.” She added with a giggle, “she’s a bit nuts.”
An hour later we were taken to a cafeteria (circa 1970) and were casually instructed to make ourselves at home and join in craft hour. Ah, craft hour. 60 year-olds with crayons. Hockey helmets with cotton balls accidentally glued to them. Santa Clauses in May.
We spread out, all picking up that proverbial colored pencil and set about doing what it was we had intended to do: get to know these guys. ‘These guys’ included a lady who kept popping her fake eye in and out and showing it to me because she found it funny. Not sure whether she meant the action of the pop or my reaction to said pop but it did manage to make me laugh. Then we colored a picture of a bunny for her niece.
A man wearing a bow tie and refusing to participate in craft hour sat poised like the king of his craft table. Without so much as glancing at me, he told me all the Beatles trivia I could ever wish to know.
A man in a helmet at the other end of the room was singing and calling everyone beautiful.
Lunch was brought out, nothing too crazy about that, and there was a camp-like feeling to the meal. Then the trays came out. Orange plastic ones. The man in the helmet went silent and started rocking. A woman to my left started screaming. The eye-poppin’ lady looked down. Something trembled throughout the room. “Meds,” whispered Sheila discreetly in my ear, as if the signs weren’t clear enough.
After the group swallowed together, life slowed to a halt and all returned to ‘normal.’ We got a tour of sleeping quarters and the staff lounge and shortly thereafter left the camp. Whether or not any of the circumstance or chaos that we encountered on that day were correctly rendered in our play, no one can be too certain.
Call me crazy, but I never felt more unconditionally welcomed by a group of people. I think that they were so used to being judged that it had become taboo for them, useless and perverse. You just colour, and you’re in. Or nod at 1963 being the year that Ringo did somethign bizarre and you’ll hear more. Just to ‘fit in’ with those who have been deemed incapable of ‘fitting in’ makes you kind of giggle at the whole shebang.
Little Forks Theatre Company
Late last year during December exams the shit really hit the fan for me. My personal life suddenly became unmanageable and I ceased to function as a normal student. Call it whatever you want — burnout; stress; depression— on the inside I was basically fucked and I needed a break.
Telling the doctor the real story involved removing the mask I often wear in public. Underneath it all, the real pain of human suffering was revealed in a torrential flood. He decided for my own safety to send me to a place I’ll never forget: the 1F Psychiatry Inpatient Unit at the Grand River Hospital.
Upon arrival at the hospital, I was escorted down a long hall and a couple flights of stairs into the psych ward. Its placement in a deep recess within the building smacked of Freudian logic. A nurse took away a couple personal items that they figured I might use to harm myself and showed me to my room, which I shared with three other patients.
“Are there any violent patients here?” I asked, referring of the already morose scene, which involved half-sane, half-insane and half-drugged people stalking through the ward like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
“No,” the Nurse reassured me.
Later that night when my roommate hurled a chair across the room and threw a flurry of kicks and punches at an imaginary attacker armed with a sword, I decided that I’d stay up till the morning and log more thoughts about my surroundings in the lounge.
The whole time I was writing in the wee hours of the morning, the staff was manhandling a woman desperate for a cigarette. They were failing to verbally convince her to return to her room, as her withdrawal from drugs spurred even more disobedient and child-like behavior the more they tried to reason with her.
A man who appeared disheveled and unkempt sat down across from me and we conversed about life. He told me about how he was a professional student until his 40s while he worked part-time in security. He knew several languages and even played pro Tennis for a year. From his appearance, I never would have guessed.
The most heartwarming moment for me came when an older woman in the ward opened up to me and explained to me why she was there. “I’ve tried to kill myself a dozen times this year,” she said. “I just can’t help it…after a car accident four years ago, I turned to alcohol to deaden my nerves, but I was never the same and my depression just got worse and worse…”
It turns out she had been a model in her youth. The problems associated with clinical depression arrived in her twenties and were peaking now that she was in her 40s.
When a man has his leg broken, you can tell he’s really hurt and needs medical treatment. Many people with mental problems go untreated because the nature of their illness defies conventional assessment, not to mention the scarce resources for dealing with such problems, and preconceived notions of mental illness.
Even though I came to the hospital of my own volition, until I saw a psychiatrist they wouldn’t even let me go to the Tim Hortons on the ground level floor of the hospital. My doctor had issued me a ‘Form One,’ which is a mandatory three-day stay at the hospital. The two burly security guards at the entrance checkpoint warned me that if I tried to jump the fence surrounding the outdoor smoking area, the police would come after me.
Morning finally broke. The man who had jumped the fence the previous morning was walking around with a huge bandage on the back of his head. Not having slept in two days, I slumbered till noon and then saw the psychiatrist.
Our meeting lasted only a few minutes in a small office. She quizzed me and I told her that I though I should go home, because most of the things that were weighing on me were no longer issues. Not to mention the fact that the Psych Ward was more of a danger to me than I was to myself or to society.
I was issued my discharge papers and said goodbye to everyone. As the cold air hit my face, freedom had not quite hit me yet. I trudged slowly through the snow and returned to the land of the living. Or was it merely the land of denial and hidden pain?
Anonymous WLU student