I wish to convey a message that I respect the mental health profession and in no way mean to make fun of anyone of different mental abilities or conditions. I use humor and story telling as a means to bring a smile to anyone who reads my writing, never to hurt feelings.
Let me state clearly that I have never been a staff member at any mental hospital, nor have I been a patient… yet.
My usefulness to the hospital in this story was my ability to communicate with and relate to the people, not some “Doogie Howser” gift of medical prowess. Perhaps it was my youth, or simply that I reminded them of someone that they remembered, that made it work. I don’t know. It could be that I respected the people and listened to them, that has always seemed to work.
Please read and enjoy, and if you like the story or have feedback or questions, let me know.
Note: If there are grammatical or punctuation errors, they are not the fault of my volunteer editor, I can make mistakes faster than she can correct them.
I was doing very well in my high school psychology class (highest GPA); so well, that the teacher was speaking with colleagues at the university about my ability to communicate with patients at the state hospital, trying to “grease” my way into their program.
She had her own personal visions of me going to her alma mater and becoming a shrink. I was being lead into the idea with promises that I could help people and make a difference. So, I was entertaining the career choice, without really thinking about having to spend many years more in school. You might say that I was in the “dream phase” of future planning. I have been told that psychology classes are rare in high school, but having gone to three different schools (two in FL, one in GA) and been in psych classes in all of them, I didn’t know that.
Getting to go to the state hospital on a special (no bus) field trip was a treat for me for multiple reasons: it happened on a school day, required a road trip, and allowed me to operate on my own with a sense of both purpose and importance. It was that rare occasion where a high school student feels like they matter.
I was feeling pretty special as my teacher even allowed me to use her own private automobile to make the trip. My parents had two cars but were not interested in being without their wheels all day for whatever reason. They also were very skeptical of this choice of career fields, alternately seeing it as “voodoo medicine” (mother) or something that I would never stick with (father). Regardless of their feelings, they still signed the papers allowing me to go unsupervised once my teacher called them and assured them it was for real and I wasn’t just looking for a “free” day off. I was a senior with more credits than I needed to graduate (I needed 18, I had 24); it really would not have mattered what I did, I couldn’t fail.
On the day of this visit there were supposed to be three of us going, but at “go time” there was only myself and a girl named Barbara. The third person being absent was not really a problem to me; in fact I didn’t care if I went alone, as long as I got to go. Barbara was upset as the other girl was a friend and she was worried about why she didn’t show up. There were no cell phones in those days so you couldn’t just text or call and see what was up.
Later we found out that Ashley (the missing girl) had used the opportunity to skip school with her boyfriend, believing that everyone would think that she was on the field trip and not question her absence. That would have worked IF she had bothered to sign out at the main office like we were required to do when leaving school grounds. She was found out and lost her field trip privileges for the rest of the year.
Barbara and I stopped at the gas station to fill up the teacher’s VW bug and then hit the convenience store for munchies and cold drinks before setting out across the state. Hey, we were teenagers and we all know that kids that age eat constantly!
We conversed on many topics during that drive, the first of which was why our teacher who had a PhD in psychology would drive a VW and teach at a high school. I happened to know that Mrs. B. had practiced her profession in the state’s largest city after graduation from college, but then married a military man and elected to move with him as he was reassigned. Teaching high school allowed her to move anywhere (like their assignments to Germany and Panama.) In some locations she was even able to pick up college teaching jobs. The VW was simple economics; teachers and military men do not make much money. The dark green bug was new (1970) and had an automatic transmission and an air-conditioner plus an AM/FM radio; we thought that it was very cool!
Our teacher, Mrs. “B”, was a walking, talking contradiction; she was a hippie married to a military man! At school she dressed in conservative, even “frumpy” looking dresses that our grandmothers would have worn: drab colors, lace around the neck and no shape to them. Her clunky black old lady shoes with three inch stacked heels (which made her stand 5’5”) were the only shoes she ever wore to work, and her hair was always put up in a bun on the back of her head with a hair net over it. She looked the part of a teacher from thirty years (or more) in the past. It made the administrators feel all warm inside like their grandma was there to take care of them again.
Under that façade was a totally different person, secretly (a few of us were in her confidence) being proud of always being braless under those dresses (It was 1970-71) and having a “scandalous” tattoo on her chest of a heart with her husband’s name across it (very “not done” in those days!)
If you ever saw her away from school (she lived on the nearby military base) you would scarcely believe that the little 5’2”, one hundred pound, pony tail wearing woman was the same person. She was perpetually dressed in a tank top and cutoffs, usually barefoot or wearing flip-flops, and always wearing a peace sign pendant around her neck (which she tucked inside of her shirt while on the base).
Mrs. B. was a civil and human rights crusader living and working among some of the worst rednecks on the planet. She played her part so well at school that she was accepted by them all as one of their own. This was my mentor and a breath of fresh air in the ultra conservative climate of where I lived.
I asked Barbara if she wanted to stop at the diner for coffee or tea, (as I mentally counted the funds in my wallet) but she was happy to just drive straight into the lion’s den and get to it.
We both had assignments which were on-going: Barbara’s was a female patient who was suffering from severe depression and repeatedly tried to harm herself which she was chronicling, mine was a male who was schizophrenic and was unable to communicate effectively or interact with others.
I had established a rapport with Joshua (the male patient I was assigned) on my last visit and the doctor who was treating him had asked Mrs. B. if I would please come back to talk to him as he had improved since having contact with me. If there was ever a way to make a guy’s head swell or his ego inflate, having something like this happen was it. Mrs. B. was quick to point that out to me when we talked about the request and whether I would take this project on.
These visits required huge amounts of note taking and then a report to be written which counted for the majority of a grading period score. It could make or break your report card grade for that class in one shot. We had a big exam every grading period to show what we had learned in class, but it was the projects we took on that carried the main weight. You could elect to write numerous lengthy reports on other topics which required countless hours in the library researching and had exacting citation requirements to meet, but I always opted for the riskier and decidedly more fun field trip choice.
After having my balloon burst by my very honest and direct teacher, I was actually more comfortable taking on the assignment as I didn’t feel like I had to be a miracle worker. Just go there, talk with Joshua and work some questions in that the doctor wanted answers to, and then try to remember and write down everything that transpired. The last part has never been difficult with my crazy memory abilities.
We got the car parked and locked as per hospital rules which had been stepped up since the incident “that shall never be spoken of” (see “Tales from the Looney Bin”) and made our way to reception to pick up our visitor badges and get a briefing on our respective assignments.
Barbara’s assigned patient, Geraldine, was worse and wearing restraints due to tearing out chunks of her own hair the day before. This earned her a wide belt around her middle to which her wrists were strapped. She also had just had her finger nails trimmed very close as she started to claw at herself once strapped into the belt. I was feeling a little bit guilty because I was very glad that I did not have to deal with her very sad problems; it felt somewhat “chicken” on my part.
My guy Joshua had been improving. And, and even though he wasn’t wearing any restraints, he wasn’t exactly free to walk out the door either. In his present state it didn’t look like that would happen any time soon.
His strange ramblings and odd speech patterns had become the usual method of communication for him since a breakdown a few years earlier. Only since my last visit, had he put a few words together in logical or acceptable sequence. I didn’t know why; they didn’t know why; we just wanted to help Joshua get better. So, here I was.
Joshua was brought to me in a visiting room that had a choice of comfortable chairs or a rectangular table that sat six. We always sat at the table with Joshua sitting at the head and me at his immediate right. This was by his choice and it made him happy to be in this arrangement. Since he was formerly a corporate business man, it (the seating arrangement) must have made him feel like he was in control of “something” in his life.
There was a steady stream of babble coming from the man until the orderly who brought him exited, shaking his head at the situation. Once the door closed, Joshua turned his head to look all around the room to make sure that no one was in there but us chickens.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when Joshua turned back to me and said, “You’re not from around here are you?”
It was the first sentence that I had ever heard from him that made any sense. Fact was that it was the first coherent sentence he had uttered since being brought to the hospital. I was unsure of whether to celebrate, run and tell the doctor, or what?
Before I could decide what to do, the orderly came back in to tell me that the doctor would be unable to join us due to other problems and for me to just do what I could. Joshua was babbling like a tape recorder eating tape and turning his head back and forth while he did it. Now I began doubting that I had really heard him speak those words, so I said nothing to the orderly about it. I was wondering if I was losing my marbles by exposure.
The door closed behind the orderly and Joshua once again looked around the room for other people and looked back at me. “You know that they spy on you twenty-four hours a day in here and mess with your thoughts if you don’t keep them confused, right?” said the man who no one believed could talk intelligently any more.
I had to speak to claim my own sanity at this point and I said, “Tell me more Joshua,” which was about all that I could muster at that moment. But, I was getting a grip, slowly.
He said that his friend Herbert had clued him in to the way things worked in the hospital and he and his pal were working hard to not become part of any of the treatment experiments. That got my attention after what I had seen at other hospitals with the scary rooms and mean orderlies. I guess that I was already on his side from the beginning but now he had me hooked.
If Joshua heard anyone in the hall outside of the door he would babble and say words that didn’t go together at all until he was sure that the coast was clear. He told me how the staff read all of his mail and that he never got any of the money sent to him. I asked him if they didn’t just put it into an account for him or something. He said that his friend Herbert had contacts in the kitchen and staff lounge who had heard the talk about using patient’s money to buy their beer on Saturday nights.
I was dreaming of a big report exposing corruption in state mental hospitals and seeing a bright future as a reformer and etc… I was a teenager; reality was often far away.
The orderly once again interrupted us and said that it was lunch time and Joshua had to keep to his schedule and that required him to eat and get his medication now, but that we could resume our “talk” (said in a very sarcastic way) afterwards. My friend did his imitation of a pinball machine and looked everywhere but at anyone, and was lead away.
I watched the seemingly nice staffer walk Joshua down the hall and just like he told me, the man grabbed him roughly and yanked him sideways at the corner. Maybe he wasn’t crazy after all; maybe it was a big mess like he said.
Barbara joined me in the staff cafeteria and we went through the line and got some fried chicken and French fries to go with our sweet tea. I must say that the food was excellent if nothing else was right.
I asked her about Geraldine and she nearly burst into tears. The woman was so miserable and tortured that Barbara was in agony herself just talking with her. In spite of the torment, my classmate had written twelve full pages of comprehensive notes that were part clinical terms and part description of emotions. I was totally impressed and would have feared for my number one position in the class, if it were not for the bombshell that I was sitting on.
I wasn’t sure what to choose to report from what was happening in my room: would it be the coherent speech from Joshua, or the story blowing the doors off the building about corruption? I didn’t really get the opportunity as Barbara launched into a whining, worrying jag about her friend Ashley and what might have happened to her to make her miss the trip and that took up the rest of our lunch period.
Lunch over, the two of us separated, heading back for our second sessions. I walked along the cold, stone corridor thinking that I really had to get to Joshua’s friend Herbert to talk to me so that I could verify what I had been told. Just like the rules for our reports, we had to have more than one source to make it stand. If I was going to take on the establishment over the maltreatment of patients, I had better have my ducks in a row. I had a real David taking on Goliath mindset happening and not enough common sense to even realize what I was doing. Youth is a powerful weapon indeed!
Joshua was brought back into the visiting room where I waited and he had a different shirt on. I asked the orderly why and he said that as usual, Joshua had spit his lunch all over his shirt “talking” (again, sarcastically) as they fed him. My friend was mumbling and making noises the entire time, as if to punctuate what the man said. The orderly left the room without a look back and slammed the door a little bit, like it was all exasperating to him.
My man, Joshua, did his look around the room and said, “The bastard poured hot soup on me.” I was totally in his camp by then and made notes in my notebook of the time and what was said. This was taking on Crusade status with me and I was getting my facts in order.
“Joshua,” I said, “I need to speak with Herbert about what he knows so that I can expose these slime balls for what they are– thieving pigs who abuse their patients!”
He looked at me for a moment and then got up and walked around the table and sat back down in exactly the same spot. I just waited for his response. He got up again and walked the opposite way around the table and once again, sat down in his chair. I figured that it must help him think, or something– no big deal, people pace, right?
I wasn’t getting a response so I asked again, and made it clear that it was absolutely necessary to speak with Herbert so we had more than one witness, more than one story, to support our claims. Gone was my simple claim to success of just getting Joshua to speak, I was committed to going for the big score.
Finally Joshua gave a big sigh and said, “OK, but the staff can’t know where you got your information until the big showdown or Herbert will be in great danger. They might set a trap for him, or poison him to keep him from talking and getting them all in trouble.”
“Absolutely,” I said in all honesty and gleefully grinned at how we were going to bring the bad guys to their knees.
I left Joshua for moment and stepped out into the hall where the orderly was quickly at my side expecting trouble of some sort. “Can I take Joshua for walk around the inside of the hospital,” I asked, smiling and adding that it might give the orderly a chance to take a smoke break or use the restroom in peace. That was certainly to his liking and he said that he didn’t think that it would break any rules.
I stepped back inside and told Joshua that he had to be on his best behavior for us to make it through the building without attracting attention, but I was sure that we could get to Herbert without getting caught if he would just be good.
Joshua said, “Don’t worry. I deal with these guys every day, I know how to get around them. They aren’t too bright, if you know what I mean.”
Out the door we went and walked along with Joshua making noises like a two year old with a mouthful of marbles. I would ask him which way to turn when we hit an intersection of hallways and he would nod the direction without ever speaking the words.
Now, I wasn’t as lost in the hospital as you might think; I had learned it fairly well on my previous visit and knew that Joshua was playing games with me. The second time he directed me into a repeat pattern I said that we were done and he would be taken back to his room if he didn’t take me to Herbert right away.
He nodded yes and this time directed me right to his own room. “Great,” I thought. He misunderstood what I said to him and now I have to start all over again. Time was running out for this visit at the hospital; Barbara and I would have to hit the road soon to get back to school.
Joshua shut his door and looked around the room for a minute to be sure that we weren’t followed or something. Once that was done he said, “The rendezvous place is right here.” That got my attention and I thought that maybe I was back in the game after all.
He stood with his back to me as he talked to the shelf where his few books and a photo of his family sat and acted like he was listening. I was getting impatient and asked him when Herbert was coming to meet us.
I should have known immediately that there was a problem when he said, “What are you talking about?” but I was a little slow.
I said again, “When is Herbert joining us? I have to leave soon.”
Joshua laughed and said that Herbert had been there the entire time. Who did I think that he had been talking to? I had to have had a surprised look on my face and I must admit that I did look around the room in a complete 360 degree turn before I answered him.
“Where is he Joshua? I don’t see him anywhere.”
It was then that he turned to me and held out his hand with a little brown mouse sitting on it.
“Here he is, right here. Herbert this is Ken; Ken, may I introduce Herbert.”
I confess to having automatically said, “Nice to meet you,” before I could stop myself.
He brought his hand back until the mouse was a few inches from his face and “listened” for a few moments, before turning to me to say, “Herbert says that your friend Barbara is in trouble.”
I don’t know how long I stood there with my mouth hanging open; it is impossible to tell. The mention of Barbara being in trouble woke me up a little, and I asked him how he knew that.
“Herbert has friends in the kitchen and they sent word that she was in trouble,” said Joshua with a straight and sincere face. I asked if Herbert knew what kind of trouble and Joshua listened again for a few seconds and said that there was screaming and someone was injured.
To nearly anyone, psychology professional or not, it should be apparent that I had reached the end of the Wonderland Express and it was time to get off the train. However, I was still caught up in the conspiracy of bad treatment and robbing the poor that had so enthralled me as the tale went on, and was desperately trying to make sense out of what was going on. The nagging possibility that my friend Barbara was somehow really in trouble is what finally allowed me to break free and leave Joshua talking to Herbert in his room.
I went directly to the kitchen by the staff cafeteria (I didn’t know where else it could be) as quickly as I could walk without raising alarm or calling undue attention to myself. I already felt like everyone in the hospital knew that I had just been fooled by a Looney tune and was looking at me.
When I turned the last corner I found a small crowd of staff persons gathered around Barbara as she sat in a chair at a table. Her face was streaked with tears and damaged make up. She was looking overwhelmed as I pushed through, excusing myself as I did. Once in front of her, I knelt down and took her hands in mine and made her look at me as I asked if she was hurt. No, she was not hurt, but there was blood on her skirt. I asked where it came from and everyone started talking at once.
It seemed that Geraldine had gotten a pencil from Barbara’s notebook and managed to hide it for a while. When the moment seemed right to her troubled mind she plunged the pencil into her own leg trying to hit the femoral artery, but fortunately missed it. Barbara had wrestled the pencil away from her before she could try again. Geraldine was still wailing and carrying on down the hall in the infirmary where they had taken her to provide immediate first aid. The cries of “I just want to die” were very distressing and had us all squirming as we listened, unable to do anything to help her.
I said that I thought that it was time to leave, and we would be in touch if any further statements were necessary, and that we would be on our way back to school. I grabbed Barbara’s hand and lead her out of the building, by way of the reception desk to hand in our visitor badges. We didn’t want to do anything that might start another escaped inmate rumor in that armed and dangerous community.
All the way back to school Barbara was writing in that notebook of hers; she had more than thirty pages by the time she was done. Her report was exceptional and earned a well deserved A+ for the grading period.
As for me, I spent a lot of time on the drive back pondering just how Herbert knew that Barbara was in trouble– yes, really. It is a good thing that the doctors at the hospital didn’t know that or I would have gotten my very own room next to Joshua and they wouldn’t have let me out.
My dreams of pursuing a career in psychology were fading as I had doubts of being able to help others when I could be so easily fooled myself.
For what it is worth; I also got an A+ for my report on Schizophrenia and how overwhelming it can be.
Barbara did go on to become a very successful doctor who helped many depressed women learn to cope (her specialty). She is now retired and living in Hawaii, which has to be one of the best ways to deal with life’s frustrations.
Mrs. B. had her wishes come true when her husband retired and they moved back to the town where her alma mater is and she got a teaching job at her old university– no more granny disguise for her. Rock on Mrs. B!
The state hospital was still operating the last time I was in the area and I have no doubts that it is still a Looney Bin. You can bet that I won’t be going through the doors to find out; I am not sure that they would let me out.