These Tales from the Looney Bin stories are not in any historically chronological sequence, but rather as I remember them and write them down, so we will bounce around in the time frame of 1968-1971. This was a strange time of a very straight-laced “establishment” and reaching for new ideas among young people. Please enjoy.
Getting Inside the “Bin”
My first visit to a State Mental Hospital was an eye opener for sure.
It started simply enough with permission forms requiring parental signatures, which in my case was accompanied by the question, “Did you do something wrong?” from my mother.
I did have a history of rebellion and doing things my own way at school, which often lead to papers being sent home for signatures, so I could not even feign indignation with a straight face; something that my own children mastered and believed that I was not on to them.
My mother did make the wise crack, “Be careful or they will keep you locked up if you mess with them.” She was referring to my habit of correcting teachers and other adults if they said or did something that I knew to be wrong — tact never being my strong suit.
That first trip to the hospital was taken in a school bus with two teachers as escorts; our Psychology teacher, and a football coach who happened to have free time and the administration thought would be a good addition for safety. It was never quite clear who the coach was protecting, the students from the hospital patients, or the hospital patients from us.
There were only twenty students total in the decidedly nerdy class (Psychology was not required for graduation.) And of those, five could not get permission to go — four girls whose parent(s) thought it too unsafe for them, and one boy who was apparently already in therapy and was very afraid of being kept inside should he pass through the gates.
Of those who got on the bus, probably only five of us were actually interested in the how and why of mental illness treatment; the others were there simply to get out of school and/or away from home.
Keep in mind that this all took place before the era of cell phones, computers and the Internet.
I had read everything that I could find in our school library, as well as our limited textbook descriptions of various kinds of illness that required institutionalization. Care and treatment of these illnesses as described in the textbooks we had (which were written in the early 1960’s) were dubious at best, even to me as a teenager. Such things as electroshock therapy and cold water “treatments” were standard and often applied “cures”.
I was concerned that I would find something akin to Bedlam (the infamously storiedLondon mental hospital) or Blackwell’s Island in New York City and would be moved to action, which would most certainly get me into trouble.
It was my objection to these “tortures” as I referred to the treatments in class, which earned me a front seat next to the coach on the bus. I was told when we got on the bus, and again when we arrived to keep my opinions to myself.
Of course I agreed, and just as certainly had no possible chance of stopping my mouth if I saw something wrong. I knew it, and so did my psychology teacher. The coach, well, there was a reason that he majored in physical education and went to school on a football scholarship, but he was happy in his world.
Getting through the outer gates was our first big challenge. As soon as we stopped the bus was boarded by security officers searching for weapons and contraband. Meanwhile, our documents were reviewed by the lead officer and we had to respond to the roll call by that man who appeared to have no sense of humor and only wanted to hear, “Here Sir!”
I was looking out the bus window to make sure the sign said “Hospital” and not “Prison” with our somewhat chilly reception. We were all feeling oppressed and dominated and hadn’t even left the bus yet; I was already sympathizing with the “inmates.”
As I peered out the glass, a man carrying a clipboard and wearing a security jacket and bus driver style hat, and what appeared to be hospital pajama bottoms and slippers, climbed into a van inside of the compound. This van went past the bus on my side as the grinning individual used the automatic opener to activate the gate and drive through, waving at me as he passed by.
I had the feeling that I was watching an escape in progress. But, after the Gestapo tactics I had just experienced, I just waved back and said nothing.
Once through the front gate, we had to sign in at the admitting desk and have a large plastic coated VISITOR badge hung on our clothing with little metal clips. I got the feeling that they would have preferred to brand it on our foreheads instead. So far the place was pretty scary and we had only met the security people.
We were taken into a waiting room and lectured on safety precautions like not letting a patient touch us, and not touching anything or anyone — no wandering away from the group, no asking questions of patients or staff not assigned to our tour, no opening doors unless we asked first, no drinking or eating anything. I wanted to ask just what it was that we were allowed to do, but decided against it as futile.
When the briefing was completed we were abandoned by the last security officer we should have to deal with and no one was sad. They seemed rather mean and sadistic, which we all supposed was required by their duties and we concluded that we did not want their jobs.
Several minutes went by and finally a bright and cheerful young man in his twenties, wearing a tweed coat and colorful tie popped into the room with an emphatic hello and a big smile. He said that his name was David and explained that he would be leading the tour and would gladly answer any questions that we might have.
As he spoke he continuously fiddled with his black framed glasses and occasionally tapped them on his clipboard, which strangely enough didn’t have any papers on it. He also did not appear to have a pen to write with, or a name tag. Looking down I could see that he had on PF Flyers sneakers, something that would be cool in today’s world, but just was not done in those days of polished leather shoes (and military looking haircuts and skinny black ties).
I made my observations quietly and waited for a moment to speak to the psychology teacher or the coach, but when I tried to get a word in they shushed me, both intently listening to David talk. I thought, “Well. OK. Let’s see where this party takes us.”
When we started to move forward with the tour of the facility we encountered a locked door and surprise, David didn’t have a set of keys. He was however very resourceful and said, “Wait a minute. I have to get the door opened,” and went back through the door he originally entered from. The smiling man wasn’t gone a full minute before he reappeared with a large key ring and started going through them to find the right one. “Well, I might have been wrong,” I thought, “Maybe they were more lax in their dress code here and I was just too suspicious.”
David was explaining how the routine went for the patients in the open ward, which was what we were approaching. There were two wire walls with gates and locks between us and the ward dayroom and on the other side was a very large black man dressed all in white, with a large key ring that had many keys on it secured to his belt, sitting at a table reading a newspaper.
As we waited for David to find the right key to open the first gate, two things happened: the huge black man stood up and started moving quickly toward us and another smaller black man, (also dressed all in white, but missing his keys) burst through the door behind us yelling STOP!
The girls in our group started to scream, which set off the patients in the ward and they all started to scream too. David put his hands up like he was under arrest and dropped the keys on the floor. I thought that it was all hysterically funny and started to laugh which made everyone look at me like I was crazy.
David was not an employee at all; he was a patient with identity problems and assumed the role of anyone that he saw that caught his interest. He was very good at his “job” and I personally was sad to have him taken away from us. They did so rather roughly, I thought, binding his hands and placing a belt like strap around his body trapping his arms against his sides like he was violent, which we saw no evidence of.
Our adults had been thoroughly duped and were not in a good mood when the nurse from Hell showed up to lead our tour and promptly chastised us all for leaving the waiting area with a patient. The two black men who grabbed and manhandled David came back and reported to our nurse saying that they had put him in the “icebox” to cool off and laughed at what we hoped had been a bad joke. They were ordered to remain with the tour so that we didn’t cause any more disruption.
The large orderly stared at us without speaking and made the skin crawl on the back of my neck with his unblinking eyes, one of which was gray all over and possibly blind. The smaller man was fidgety and picked at unseen things on his arms or on the wall and couldn’t be still. They were decidedly creepy.
Nasty Nurse led us away from the open ward where we had been headed and into a corridor with individual rooms (which looked more like cells to me) where people who were not yet ready to mingle with others were kept. Some were apparently sedated and some were restrained, even while inside their rooms.
As I lifted the flap and looked into the little window on the first door by the entrance hall I noticed the stare of both orderlies was focused upon me. So I took my time and took a good long look, knowing that I was pushing their buttons.
I nearly started laughing but managed to check my impulse before making any sound. At a casual glance nothing appeared amiss as you took in the body of a person strapped to a bed, other than I did not like to see anyone restrained in such a fashion personally believing it to be cruel.
As I was fully intending to irritate my escorts, I had taken a much longer look than I might have. By doing so, I noticed that the patient appeared to be wearing black combat boots and possibly blue trousers under the edge of the sheet covering his body. I don’t believe that would be the standard uniform of a patient undergoing such treatment, but hey, this was not my problem.
I dropped the flap on the window, smiling as I thought about what I had just seen and rejoined the group as we were shown the treatment rooms next. I can tell you that these rooms were the stuff nightmares are made of.
There was no one in the rooms which pleased me immensely, and the nurse would not answer any questions about the electrical equipment lining one wall, or why there was a chair with straps on it that obviously went into a tile pool of sorts. Or why there was a motel ice machine in the room.
I got really nervous when the two orderlies kept staring at me and grinning, as my mother’s words came back to haunt me, “…they will keep you locked up if you mess with them.”
Next up was the dayroom for non-violent (translation, severely medicated) patients.
We were supposed to be allowed to speak to this group, according to the paper from the hospital administrator that we had all read at school. It took a reminder comment to the teacher and then her insistence with the Gestapo Nurse to get this to happen.
Our cantankerous leader was not happy allowing us to speak directly with her “prisoners” and tried to monitor every conversation and stare down anyone that dared to speak. We countered this by making a concerted effort to spread our group to all ends of the room. By this time the entire group of kids was in on the underlying resentment and control issues and how crazy mean the “keepers” were to the patients.
I watched an elderly Asian man folding paper into swans and setting them on the table, only to have another, brown skinned man unfold them and smooth them out again and place the papers in a neat pile next to the first man; they had a smooth cycle going on. The orderlies observing this said that they were crazy and ignored them.
I got it and appreciated what they had going on. I sat down next to them and watched for a while before saying quietly to them, “It is good to be creative and productive and keep the mind and hands busy, isn’t it.” They looked at me and smiled, waiting for the orderlies to walk to the other end of the room before daring to speak.
The Japanese man said, “If we remain quiet and do this, they do not force more medication on us.” To which his Hispanic friend said, “Bah, those pills make you pee in the bed and then you have to sleep in it and they take you to the ice baths for treatment; the sick bastards!”
There were those in the room who had not found a way past the Thorazine or similar mind-numbing drugs and they sat and drooled as we tried to talk to them. At the time it was those poor souls who we felt the most pity for; now I wonder if those who still had their marbles had it worse. They knew what was going on.
We were invited to lunch with the patients but having spent hours watching them sputter and drool, it was more than we were capable of enduring on our first day.
As we were rounded up and herded down the hall to the exit point I noticed an emergency evacuation chart which I had not seen previously. On this chart I figured out that the door marked “towel supply” which was right next to the first patient room (the one I looked into), had an outside exit.
I asked a couple of the students to slow down the group so that I could check something out. They were definitely up for mischief by this point, having dealt with the true loonies (the staff) all day. I was able to zip on ahead as a couple of the girls asked to use the bathroom and took off back towards the ward we had just left, causing the orderlies and the nurse to follow them.
Just as I thought, the towel supply door was unlocked and on the shelf was a box full of new clipboards. I gently pushed on the outer door fearing an alarm would sound but none did. It pushed right on open and inside the hole where the latch bolt should go was a wad of paper, just like you would make swans out of. I laughed and eased the door back closed so it was ready for someone who had gone outside.
I hurried back to the group so as to not give up the secret, making sure that no one saw me. Fortunately, there were no video cameras or motion sensors in place in those days.
A huge deal was made out of turning in our VISITOR badges and accounting for each metal clip because a patient might use the little bit of flimsy metal to tunnel out with or something.
As we were loading up on the bus our security officer made sure that everyone who got off the bus, was now back aboard. Our driver was waiting on permission to start the bus and depart the area. But, our two adults were deep in discussion about missing their lunch and ignored him, so there we sat.
Coming down the long and lonesome road to this singularly unpleasant destination was the very hospital van we had seen pulling out when we first arrived. Our smiling driver was still at the wheel and he pulled up to the gate and again used the remote control to open the gate and drove inside.
The man got out, (still dressed in a security hat and jacket, with non-matching pajama bottoms and slippers), opened a side door and got several McDonalds bags out of the van. With a wave to us he went to the very door that I had checked out and pulled it open and pausing to pull out the paper plug, shut the door behind him.
What an amazing, resourceful, and considerate guy; he had made a McDonald’s run for his friends! And outsmarted all of the professional keepers while he did it!
We had no doubt whatsoever that he would find a way to get each one of them a cheeseburger and fries without them being busted by the angry men and women in white.
This only furthered the decision (made by a consensus of the students on the tour) that the really crazy dangerous inmates were the ones with the keys. The patients only needed compassion and seemed infinitely saner than their keepers.