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Sunday, 05 May 2013 19:51

Mental Hospitals

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hebephrenic-child-dwg  schizo-dwg
Drawing by a Hebephrenic Child                      Drawing by a Schizophrenic
 
The following reflective piece was written in 1969, during a period when I was researching the effect of the environment on mental health. I was involved in visiting and researching behaviour in a number of mental hospitals, in the hope that we would be able to design a brief that would support the supposed therapeutic intentions of the institutions. It came as something of a shock to realise that in most instances, the role of the institution was custodial and the theory of therepeutic treatment seemed like a far away dream as I conducted my research. It was at a time when the renowned Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing was raging against the cultural politics of sanity. In this, he was in advance of Foucault, who would later trace the history of the asylum back to its custodial origins in post-Revolutionary France. Anyway, this is how it seemed at the time.

 

M. S. N. or A DAY AT THE ZOO.

Our party had. been visiting a new Rumpus Room at the Mental Hospital. 15,000 Pounds of top-lit, cubic social therapy. Our next port of call was to be the Mentally Sub-normal childrens’ wing some 200 yards along, in the same direction. As we came into the Rumpus area the doors were opened to receive us, releasing an all-pervading stench of excretion, stale sweat, and. animal fear. It lacked that background smell of damp sawdust, otherwise it might well have been a zoo. But it was even more disgusting. I found myself having to breathe through my mouth to avoid retching. And even then, I noticed that the other members of the party had averted their faces so as not to be seen swallowing their own vomit.

We stand there on the threshold, myself, a male “nurse” and four of my students. Framed by the open door, the putrescent fog pouring over us in mounting waves in its eagerness to be purged by the fresh spring air outside. We are all afraid except for the nurse, who looks as if he's just visiting a holiday camp. For perhaps three minutes we stand there; too embarrassed to refuse to enter, too disgusted to actually do so. The others are forgotten. There is only myself  and the icy feeling of dread in the pit of my revolted stomach. Carefully measuring it, watchful, hesitant, I step forward…..into a plain brick room about 15 yards square. I examine it carefully, microscopically. Concentrating, to keep down the bile.

In the centre, another nurse, complete with billy-club and a big bunch of brass keys. He is rattling these irritatingly in away which would do justice to the most hardened “screw”. Around him, fifteen or sixteen inmates. Some seen as young as eleven or twelve; others as old as seventy. It is doubtful if any are over thirty. Young and old, they are spread like maggots around the perimeter of the room, leaving glistening drops of sweat to trickle down the walls at the point of contact. Many wear those padded leather helmets used by sparring boxers. It’s like coming into a gymnasium full of circus chimps, limberlng up before the act. Occasionally one or two relinquish their limpet relationship to the wall to slouch tangentially across the room, arms dangling, gorilla-like, staring vacantly ahead, chewing, perhaps, at a bit of old clothing, moaning and wailing, sometimes grunting as they shamble back and forth like clockwork. Neither hope nor purpose evident their stride. If there is a “hell”, then surely it is here in this bright snail-slime dungeon. Half-¬crumpled wrecks in the prime of their ”treatment”. And this is a new building, echoing we are to presume, the very latest care for the sick and the poor in our community. God forgive us! Our entry precipitates an almost (but not quite) imperceptible change in attitude. They don't stare at us. Oh no! They don’t even see us, it seems. But they know. We have come to watch the animals go through their tricks.

The door we have entered is one of two. The other, axially placed also, beckons to me from the far wall. For the first time in minutes I remember that I am not alone. The others are still held by the entrance door, crowding their own, very private silence with empty pointless words to keep out the fear. A pause, and then a step. Into the unknown. Across the void. My hair beginning to prickle down the back of my neck, as I make for the far exit. A feeling of panic. An almost insurmountable desire to turn and run. My eyes have a will of their own. They lift themselves from the spot I have marked about two yards ahead of my groping feet. Eyes!  Eyes! Eyes all around me! Vacant eyes! I try to look at the floor but my gaze refuses to budge. What do I see? Hate ? Is the horror and guilt I feel emanating from these poor people around me? Or is it of my own creation? I try to speak. “Hello!” The words stick in my throat. A second time I try to croak a greeting but I can’t say it. Physically, it is impossible. I concentrate on one face, but it is too far away for any personal contact. All I can make out from this distance is a vague outline. The eyes are quite invisible and I can’t face the thought of taking on a1l the inmates at once. I feel as if they would immediate1y fa1l onto me, and begin to gnaw my flesh with their rotting bespittled-teeth. The far door! And now I must wait trembling, for the rest of the party so that we can be let out.
 
Outside I vomit. A little later, one of the students is accosted by a little geriatric old lady. She’s a gentle, inquisitive old bird. complete with carpet slippers, and a dirty floral dress. With great enthusiasm and no lack of volume she begins to jabber away nonsensically (or at least in some private language of her own). The student turns away, turns back twice, obviously embarrassed and at a loss to know how to react. Finally (smug smile) he finds a compromise solution, intended, no doubt, both to satisfy the old girl. and to impress us with his boundless humanity.

“Yes!” “Yes. Yes!” “Mmmm!” (embarrassed, hollow laugh) “Well look after yourself !”
He never listened to a word or sound she uttered. I know the feeling. If this kind of experience is exhausting it isn’t because of the foot-slogging. It’s because of the tremendous strain of resistance to an authenticity that simply won’t be denied. It’s amazing the lengths we will go to avoid the reality, to literally withdraw behind a blanket of social responses, couched in hollow, empty sounds.
 
After the Rumpus Room we went to the Kiddy Section. Little children, some. hardly from the breast, wearing the same protective head-gear above large, sad, injured eyes. Cast out of their families like last week’s dirty linen, Unwanted. “MY CHILD IS A CRETIN!” Just think what the neighbours would have to say about that. Not to mention the amount of work involved. One beautiful little girl came over and began to tug at my trouser 1eg.
Somehow it’s easier with the children. They don't yet seem to have accepted the lousy hand they’ve been dealt from a crooked pack. They don’t know their place. 
 
Every nurse is only allowed one half-day a week in the rumpus area.  After that they put him with the children, to give his life some meaning. After a while with this little girl I notice a cot. Inside it, a tiny baby girl, about two years old, bandaged from her fingers to her shoulders. They had to do that to her because she ate her arms. When I saw her, she was gnawing vacantly at the bandages. I stood rooted to the side of the cot for twenty minutes. All the time she never uttered a sound. She just stared right at me over her bandaged wrists. I must have tried twenty times to find-some way of saying goodbye to those wide, silent eyes, before I eventually turned, drained of hope and. energy, towards the exit without a word.

But still more fun to be had - the adults’ section.

We’re walking through a ward with beds ranged along the far wall in line with our path. All of the twelve beds are vacant, except one. The lone patient in this vast room calls out to the nurse as we pass. Except this is an exaggeration. He babbles incoherently and the nurse translates for our benefit.
 
“Have you brought that fella back?” (He’s obviously lonely).

The patient is grotesque. One ear, if you can call it that. Two canine teeth, protruding between thin, saliva-dripping lips. His nose is steadily dripping mucous onto the blanket

So we can better appreciate the lot of our hard-pressed nursing staff he is asked to repeat the question. Which he does. Leading the way to the bed, the nurse begins to apologise to him. This must come hard to him. He’s a rough, thick-necked bastard, recruited during the depression when secure jobs were hard to get. Even this kind.

“No! I haven’t brought that fella back! I’ll bring him next time!”

This time! there is no need for translation. We all get the message!

“But you promised! We had a good talk!” (The man is obviously distressed at the broken promise)

Patting his grotesque head, the nurse says again that he'll bring the fella next time. Then, drawing back the covers, he reveals two shrunken twelve-inch, jelly-like legs, which he waggles.

“Look at these!”, he says, showing us his prize specimen, “Marvelous aren’t they?”

“Don’t worry though! He’s quite happy!” (patting the head again). “No feeling at all! Just a vegetable!”

“Aren’t you Joe?”

In a month, I'm told, we’re going to get a T.V. spectacular of the Men in the Moon brought to you by courtesy of God's Own Country, the United States of America. Just sit back, and let it happen to you! They’re going to step out and do a lunar Hokey-Cokey, just for the videotape record. And when they get back, we’re going to quarantine these erstwhile voyagers just to make sure that they don’t bring any nasty killer germs back to our Oh so hygienic globe.

Yes, we have to be pretty careful to make sure that this wonderful planet of ours remains clean and uncontaminated. And of course, there’s no risk at all, just watching it on T.V.

Now we can venture to the top of Mount Everest, or to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean without ever leaving our armchairs. It’s called PROGRESS. A no-risk existence where everybody wins, and the prize is a place of honour on the good planet Schizophrenia. For the cost of you’re your soul, you can have a cheap one-way ticket to the land of YOUR dreams”

What we can’t do through the magic console eye!

Well I have a word of advice for you all.

If you want to see some real progress spend a day at the zoo., They have all kinds of Phantasmagorical creatures there. Something to keep you amused every second. Urinating old ladies, naked mutants, dwarfs, hunchbacks, monguls, nymphomaniacs, monomaniacs, paranoiacs, depressants, flagellants, buggers, psychotics, eroticists, pathophobiacs, necrophiliacs, patho-neurotics, voyeurs, sadists, scopophiliacs, kleptomaniacs, insomniacs, hydrocephalics, syphilitics, and a whole gamut of weird. and wonderful cartoon characters, larger than life itself, and calculated to keep you rolling in the aisles for many a day. And. if you get bored you can always ask the keepers to stir things up a bit. Arrive at feeding time, and see the antics of the dung-eating Encephalists, of the Phylogenus Man; or see the auto-Autistication of those who won’t play their part in the Electro-Convulsive Puppet Show. Twice- nightly. Matinees Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Then, as a last resort, view the Homo-Hystericus through the safety and security of a one-way mirror, as she tries to smash her brains out against a padded wall. And by way of a bonus see the babies.

Yes, if your bored, if your life has lost its zip, take my tip and pay a visit to the zoo. There’s all kinds of things to amuse you there. But a word of warning!

Be careful you don’t get contaminated. It can be pretty catching. One word to a cretin, and there’s no telling where it might end. And a wink is as good as a nod to a hysteric. You might even get around to thinking that things on our beloved planet aren’t perhaps as hunky-dory as they might seem. They might even keep you in, if they see you’re really worried. And that would-never do. You’ll miss the Venus installment! Or worse still, the Russians might get there first.

 

Tony Ward. June 1969.

 

 

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