Father, I’ve Died and Gone to Hell
“In the earlier days of the Hospital, even down to quite recent timesthe mode of commitment of the insane was so easy and free from formality that a few words hastily scribbled upon a chance scrap of paper were sufficient to place a supposed insane patient in the hospital and and deprive him of his personal liberty. If he did not remain passive, chains or some other form of mechanical restraintwere used … Once in the cells, or quarters for insane, the patient had no appeal from the opinion of the attending physician ... Once confined, the very confinement is admitted as the strongest of all proofs that a man must be mad. When, after suffering so much wrong, he has an opportunity of speaking to the appointed visitors of the house, -- supposing him to be confined where he can be visited, and supposing him not to give way to his feelings, but to control them, -- his entreaties, his anxious representations, his prayers for liberty, what do they avail! (Written by John Conolly (1794-1866) a distinguished professor of medicine in the University of London and superintendent of the Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum) . Found in The Age of Madness by Thomas Szaz.
My second hospital experience was to be the worst of all. As my parents drove me up to the aging white and red brick building situated by the Reversing Falls, I knew that I was at the mercy of whoever had the keys to the locked door. When I was a child and used to visit my aunt in Saint John I think I remember seeing large iron cages sitting on the lawn at what was called Centrecare. There were spooky stories that divers found skeletons of patients with chains around them at the bottom of the Reversing Falls. When I was eighteen, there was a month when I had worked at Centrecare as a psychiatric ward attendant , and I had all the keys to the wards. I knew that the inside of the institution would have been a good place to film a Stephen King movie. There were creaking, ancient elevators, winding basement corridors, iron barred windows, and always the din of people moaning and crying. In very bottom of the institution it was said there were actual dungeons. It used to be called The Lancaster Lunatic Asylum. I remember when I was a prison volunteer that an imate told me that he spent time on the forensic unit and he excalaimed, “I was damn glad to get back to jail!”
My experience as a ward attendant did not prepare me for what I was to endure as an inmate of Centrecare. After being admitted, I spent a sleepless night in a small room with two beds. One bed was occupied by a manic depressive patient who talked and giggled constantly until the sleeping pills knocked her out at night. I was exhausted, but a hard boiled nurse got me up early for breakfast which consisted of rubberized toast. The food had lain inside the metal tops that covered the trays, it reminded me of cartoons I had seen where someone had tried to eat a rubber chicken and it snapped back in his face. As I picked at cold lifeless eggs, a small woman named Jenny vomited up her breakfast, while the staff yelled at her.
Willie, and old man with Alzheimer’s disease stood up and urinated on the floor. Darrel, a young parapelegic was fighting with the orderly who was trying to get him to eat, while Gertie, an obese geriatric patient kept up a constant moaning noise. In the background was the swearing of the staff and the loud clanging of meal trays being quickly stacked up in the portable tray racks. They never gave you much time to eat, you were always rushed into choking down whatever you could quickly.
My psychiatrist was a black man whose accent was hard to understand. He treated me like I was a bad child. When he was going away for a couple of days he overdosed me with 30 mgs of Haldol, to “keep me out of trouble”. You had to stand in line for your pills and I had no option but to take the medication or else the staff would have gotten nasty and forced me. You didn’t want to buck the hospital staff or you would end up being pinned down with a needle in your butt.
I heard that political prisoners from Russia complained to the Western media that they were tortured with a horrible drug. That drug was
I was sitting in the T.V. room slumped over, asleep from all the Haldol I had received and I was told that the psychologist wanted me in his office for some testing. He literally shook me to wake me up. I tried to answer his questions, but I fell back asleep again. I told him that I was too drugged to continue, but he insisted that I do the tests saying that the drugs made no difference to the outcome. Days and days of testing went on. I was supposed to put wooden puzzles together, remember flash cards, and retell stories while being completely stoned and only half conscious from all the heavy drugging. In the end the psychologist told the psychiatrist that he suspected I had brain damage.
They sent me off to the Regional Hospital for a CAT scan on my head to see if this was so. However, the neurologist could find no anatomical abnormalities.
All that Haldol put me into an oculorgyric crisis, which is what happens when the medication causes your eye balls to roll back in your head and stick there. It is excruciatingly uncomfortable and terrifying. When this started to happen to me I went to the nurse’s station and begged for the antidode – the side effect pill Cogentin.. She rudely informed me “You’ll have to get a lost worse before we’ll do anything about it.” My neck arched back and my eyeballs were stuck staring up at a lightbulb. I was in physical agony and could not believe the cruelty of someone who would leave me like that. This bad reaction to the medication went on for days and days.
The pay phone was my only contact with the outside world, but the competition for its use was fierce among the patients and it was difficult to hear over the din of the ward. I remember calling my parents long distance and begging them to get me out of Centrecare, but I was certified which meant that legally I couldn’t leave. Sobbing into the phone I told my father, “I must have died and gone to hell.”
Things on the ward seemed to get rougher and you were always scared of getting a punch in the head. A mentally handicapped teenage boy hit an old lady with his fist one day and I was always terrified of a three hundred pound woman who was ranting and raving and always being dragged off to seclusion. Gertie’s moaning kept up all night without any breaks at all. An old skinny patient that had a bad rash was always getting into my bed under the sheets. Every time she did that, and it was always several times a day I had to strip the bed and make it over again. When I tried to take a bath they had the water fixed so that it was never hot, it only got lukewarm. I was in there bathing one night and a senile old man wandered in while I was naked in the bath tub. Both men and women were kept on the same ward with no partitions.
My only solace was reading and playing guitar. Someone had loaned me a book I was very interested in, but the staff would not let me sit in my room quietly and read it. I was forced to stay outside on the word were it was impossible to concentrate because of the danger and the noise. When my roommate went home I was the only one in my room, so I hoped that I could keep the light on and read all night.
I never slept anyway, so why not read instead of just lying there tortured by my disturbed thoughts and boredom. I got away with it for a few nights, but the staff discovered me and forbid me to have the light on past 10 a.m. .
Nights were always filled with continual conflict with the attendants that carried the flashlights and checked in your room every hour, shining the light in your eyes. Being hyper and unable to sleep made me hate staying in bed. However, in the institution the cardinal rule is if it’s officially bedtime you have to be lying on your bed. The psychologist to make a behavior modification plan for my insomnia. He told me that if I was not sleeping I should get out of bed so that I would not associate my bed with insomnia. Of course the night staff would not believe what I said and herded me to bed anyway.
One Sunday morning my friends were allowed to take me out for part of the day. It was like I was being let out of prison. They took me to a restaurant where the food was very greasy and then we had a bumpy ride to their camp. I did not enjoy the trip, because I felt suddenly nauseous. When I got back to Centrecare, I did nothing but vomit for the next three months. I could not even keep water down.
Shots of gravol were useless. To make mattters worse, the windows were always open and the rotten egg smell from the pulp mill nearby was always pouring in like a thick yellow, noxious fog. As the weeks turned into months I became weaker and couldn’t dress myself. My roomate walked by me on the bed and announced, “Your’re going to die, I know it!” However, the psyhicatrist and staff blamed me for making myself sick. I knew they were wrong, but they almost had me convinced that I was so crazy that I couldn’t even perform a natural function like eating.
It really did feel like I was going to die. I did not have the strength to sit up in a chair anymore, but the staff would not allow me to lie on my bed in the daytime. They would yell at me when I slumped over the chair due to my physical weakness and they tried to force me to sit up straight, which was impossible. Just as I had given up hope of recovering, the psychiatrist called me to his office off the ward. Somehow I summoned the last bit of strength I possessed and made it to see him. He told me that he had been reading that if the antidepressant Elavil is withdrawn too quickly it could cause the vomiting and shaking and weakness that I was experiencing. Before I was admitted to Centrecare I was on massive amounts of drugs and on 350mgs of Elavil.
The psychiatrist had taken all of the old medication away without tapering it off. He had almost killed me and there was no apology.
After months of the hopeless atmosphere of Centrecare, I was a broken woman. When I was allowed out for a walk on the grounds I looked across the lawn to the white water cascading below in the Reversing Falls. It was swirling down in eddying pools and it mesmerized me. There wasn’t a fence or barrier of any kind between me and the Falls. I wanted to jump over and I knew that many Centrecare patients before me had jumped. I was almost off the grounds when my roomate yelled at me, “ I heard that you are getting out today, congradulations!” At first I couldn’t believe it, but yes it was true. I was being released from the jaws of hell.
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I'm kind of sorry that I read the whole thing ... as it left me void of understanding ... and the meaning just seemed obsolete after awhile. Well written, from a writers stand point, could use some paragraphs and spell check. I will have to read a few more of your articles to see what perspective you may be coming from. Thank you for sharing this. It is "insightful" to say the least!