Classes were going well. Patients shared their ideas and the desire to make them real. Initially, I’d fabricate parts to be assembled by Jim, Juan, and Ethan. Making practical and useful objects was great for their self-esteem. Everyone was impressed. The director of the hospital suggested implementing a pilot project which required redesigning, fabricating, and installing a new office for her. We could use recycled materials. Dolores believed this was a perfect opportunity to shine and get brownie points for us. I’d also get approval to design and build a horticultural lab.
Everything was falling into place. Creative ideas germinated. One of the most valuable lessons I learned as an industrial designer was that you get more money for fashion. I eagerly recalled the ugly green frog vases I’d seen in ceramic workshops across the state. Why not use the same materials, resources, and labor to create Classic urns with unusual finishes?
Sheltered workshops survived by producing plain outdated designs. They could thrive with smart design and well-conceived manufacturing and marketing processes and plans. Ordinary wooden frames could be transformed into exotic frames with fashionable new moldings. Beautiful mirrors and other fashionable products could revitalize a dying industry.
I began to see my vocational class as a small business having a dozen workers with talents and abilities I could never afford in the real world. I had a captive audience with nothing better to do with their time, energies, and talents than work under my direction. I could arrange for them to make money and challenge them to be responsible for their behavior. It certainly seemed clinically sound to me. I fantasized we’d eventually be the design and marketing arm for the entire Underworld State Department of Mental Health. Win, win, win… or so it seemed.
We would design products for manufacture, arrange preferential buying plans with other state agencies, and create products for the mass market. I was directing a theatrical production, a sequel to the ‘Dirty Dozen’. ‘The Dirtiest Dozen’ ~ tales of how discards from hell became social heroes. I envisioned managing a manufacturing and marketing empire using mental asylums as the foundation and framework.
‘Crazy People’, one of my all-time favorite ‘crazy’ movies with Dudley Moore and Daryl Hannah was about how crazy ‘Truth’ in advertising is. The truth is that stability and success in mental illness treatment would open new doors to working with sheltered workshops everywhere and offer sustenance and nourishment for all.
My family was supportive, but believed I was bonkers the moment I decided to work with a bunch of nutcases and freaks for next to nothing. There wasn’t anyone else around to share my inspiration and ideas with. Many of my peers in rehab thought I was weird. Sharing anything with them would add to the already uncomfortable hospital gossip. My close friends were mostly supportive, but I needed help from a mastermind group. I’d just have to stay focused, moving forward one step at a time, every thought, idea, and action bringing me closer to my goals.
Over the next several weeks, both vocational groups came up with exciting new concepts. Betsy had an idea for a line of stuffed toys for children that were perfect items for sheltered sewing shops. She called them `Love Bugs’. There were insects like spiders and scorpions. You’d be terrified if they were crawling on you, but instead, they’re soft and cuddly.
David and Jim came up with a unique new idea for modular interconnecting building materials. Unlike Legos or Lincoln Logs, they were fabricated from discarded, recycled, and repurposed materials and processes. We created several prototypes of quarter scale furniture. Potential markets were opening in our minds and hearts, and we believed that they would soon manifest.
Jack and Virginia created a very timely and clever `Women’s Liberation Survival Kit’. It was a cloth bag made of a military style denim camouflage material, hand sewn, silk screened, and featuring a collection of pockets and compartments filled with supplies like tampons, packs of condoms, birth control dispensers, a small canister of pepper spray, a compressed air horn, female paraphernalia, cosmetics, and other assorted goodies.
I made appointments with buyers and merchandise managers from major retail department stores to get feedback and gain additional insight into our products and planning. A few buyers wanted to know when they could purchase our products. One merchandise manager expressed doubt about connecting expensive merchandise with mentally unstable people. He thought it might detract from their marketability. ‘Manufactured by forensic psychiatric workshops’ was not the best-selling point.
Our team felt that wasn’t an obstacle. Like Republicans, we’d suppress bad news and glamorize alternative facts and good news. Patients were inspired and excited about the opportunity. Positive behavioral changes were taking place. I felt motivated. Everyone was beginning to notice as we made ourselves ready to negotiate with hospital administration and sheltered workshops across the state. I couldn’t believe how well everything was moving forward. The great white whale was in my sights.
Stay tuned as my white whale becomes a white elephant and all of our efforts head south…
I chose twelve high functioning patients for my vocational design classes. It took a few weeks to obtain permissions from the treatment teams. Zandor persuaded members by explaining and clarifying how my classes met clinical goals for each patient.
Most patients were wary. They said ‘yes’ because I offered an opportunity for a unique experience. Initial classes were discussions and planning sessions for future classes. I needed my teams to feel inspired and look forward to their weekly time slots with me.
David was a die-hard fundamentalist Jew. While shooting cocaine, he and his best friend fought a life and death battle, a drug-crazed rampage, a War of Good and Evil. David was God. His friend, the Devil, lost his life. David’s thick, dense, tough-skinned hands made me imagine what it might be like to get run over by a garbage truck and walk away. A hefty man, David tried to kill himself by tying a noose around his neck and jumping out of a 2nd story window. He survived and had the scars to prove it. David wanted a relationship with me because I was ‘into’ Jewish mysticism.
Jim was the `guy next door’. While high on crack, Jim pushed a stranger in front of a moving train. He died. Jim was tried and legally committed to a forensic psychiatric hospital. Jim was likable, not angry and intimidating like Gene, Benny, and Jesus. He was remorseful for his actions and hoped to serve his time in the best possible ways, hoping to be a useful member of society one day. There were three leaders and three followers. Jim, David, and Juan had no desire to lead.
Juan was resident Pollyanna. A real `brown noser’, he was always sucking up to the biggest assholes. Juan’s crooked pinkie finger dramatically curved inwardly. He secretly wanted and needed to be what everyone else wanted and needed him to be. He was a peacemaker. Most of the staff appreciated his very positive attitude. It was impossible to be pessimistic, sarcastic, or cynical around Juan. He replaced Betsy as manager of the ‘Scene’, where he found his golden opportunity to publish ‘pep talks’ for everyone. Juan’s OCD for enthusiasm was over the top.
We had a tiny 12′ X 12′ space. Two large wire glass windows overlooked razor wire topping the walls of the yard far below. All the windows on the 11th floor had bright unobstructed views of the Styx River and Purgatory. I arranged two 30″ X 60″ tables in the middle of the room to create a square conference table. We could all sit and face each other with our backs to the walls. I wished everyone to look into each other’s eyes as we spoke. I’d look into theirs. As I turned off the overhead fluorescent lighting and closed the door, the sudden unexpected lack of buzzing was obvious as natural daylight streamed through windows and flooded the room.
Our first session was awkward. Patients paused at participating. I peered into their eyes as I prepared to speak. “Thank you for being here. Does anyone have anything to say before we begin?” Labored breathing from chronic cigarette smoking dominated the anticipation and the silence.
“Gene, what would you like to get out of the time we’ll be spending together each week?”
“No offense, Mark. I’m curious to see how you’re going to fail. You’re a nice guy with good intentions, but no one has ever created anything meaningful here. At the moment, you’ve got energy and enthusiasm. People come and go. Eventually, you’ll get discouraged or be fired and have to leave. We’ll never hear from you again.”
“Are you planning to help your prediction become a self-fulfilling prophecy?”
“No. You’ll see. It’s the system. If we actually accomplish anything of value, the cabinet will create a new policy to inhibit or prohibit whatever it is.”
“Leave those problems to me. When they arise, we’ll discuss them together and decide what to do about them. I’ve promised to give you my best. That’s what I have to offer. If you have something more important to do with your time, you should do that”.
“What would you like to get out of this class, Jim?”
“I’m glad for an opportunity to do anything. I want to make things and work with my hands. I want to go into the building trades when I get out. Maybe I could be a contractor.”
“I’ll do my best to help you achieve your goals, Jim”.
“What about you, David?”
“I agreed to come here, but I don’t want to do anything. I’ve never really done anything. I had a sixth-grade education, but I study Torah. When I get out of here, I’m going to find a trailer in the woods and live in solitude and celibacy. I could maybe have a garden and grow some good pot to smoke and study Jewish mysticism.”
“OK David, I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do. When you’re ready, we welcome your participation in whatever way you see fit.”
Jesus spoke up. “I love gardening. I’m responsible for the care and maintenance of the patient garden in the yard. David, you can help us with planting this spring. We’ll have tomatoes, beans, carrots, and lettuce this year.” David nodded affirmatively.
I thanked Jesus for his offer. “Maybe we can get permission to have an indoor garden for the off season”, I exclaimed! There’s plenty of daylight and floor space on the south and east facing windows of a mostly empty 11th floor. I’ll inquire whether space can be designated for greenery. We could have a community garden and cultivate our own healthy sources for veggies and herbs which can be shared by all.
“This is so exciting!” exclaimed Juan. “I’ll write a column about our class in ‘The Scene’.”
“That’s a wonderful idea Juan, but I think we should keep a low profile until we have some thing good to talk about. Negative publicity could be destructive to our cause. Let’s achieve something of value before going public. Can you put your communications skills to work by researching other projects and other state institutions and businesses, what they’re doing, and who we can network with? I’m hoping to find people who can help us achieve our goals.” “Yes! I’ll do everything I can.”
The last member was Benny. “Is there anything you’d like to say, Benny?”
“I don’t know what I want… I want to make some money. I doubt we’ll ever see any of what we earn and we won’t see that until we’re free.”
“I have no idea how money works around here. I’ll find out. I will say this. There are many ways and means to an end. If we create something substantial, I’ll do my best to arrange escrow accounts or find ways to ensure that you’re remunerated properly for your efforts.” I hoped I hadn’t just bull-shitted everyone. I had no idea whether what I said was possible. My team of misfits felt like a union of retired vampires, ready for an infusion of fresh young virgin blood. The fragility of creating and maintaining group trust was at stake. At the moment, everyone seemed happy to be there.
You met Betsy, Virginia, and Manuel. Jack was a religious Jew with skull cap on balding scalp. Jack had led a wasted life of habitual shame, guilt, and obligation. He had always cared for his hypochondriac mother who had desperate control issues. When Jack turned sixty, her clutching suffocating neediness drove him over the edge. He threatened to kill and proceeded to strangle her. She narrowly escaped and managed to get him committed. Jack was a whole lot happier in a loony bin than he was with his mother. His plan was to stay put until she died. He told me that even if he was old, he’d use his inheritance to start over fresh.
Everyone believed Ethan was developmentally disabled. He was unable to form intelligible words. No one ever bothered to try to understand him. Meanwhile, Ethan was highly intelligent. When we placed Ethan in the furniture repair program, he was the fastest learner and best natural problem solver. He’d always choose the right piece of wood, screw, finish, or right tool for the job. Ethan was born with a severely cleft pallet that had prevented him from speaking clearly. Can you imagine how frustrating that must have been? Billy and I spoke to Ethan’s treatment team and a speech pathologist was called in. A plan was conceived to provide Ethan with corrective surgery. This was the first real and true step in Ethan’s recovery and rehabilitation.
Dick made Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Peewee Herman (God bless). Dick was a Paul Bunyan, seven feet tall and three hundred fifty pounds of solid muscle. When I first met him in the art room, he was quietly crafting teensy weensy clay sculptures with his huge powerful hands. One typical afternoon, Dick said to me, “I’m going to take this place apart tonight.” I had meant to but forgot to say anything to anyone. The day got away from me. Dick completely slipped my mind. I might have remembered if it had been a full moon. That night, as I peacefully slept, Dick went berserk.
Staff and patients abandoned the ward while Dick trashed the place. He lifted and slammed a heavy regulation sized slate pool table against the wall. He pried fastened furniture away from the floor and walls. When Dick was done wrecking the ward, he fell asleep. Hospital security crept in, medicated him, and put him in a strait jacket. The cabinet wanted to send him back to Criminal Island, where Dick would surely be murdered. He’d hospitalized several guards in full riot gear on his last visit. Dick liked me. I liked him too but was glad he was well medicated.
I needed to learn more about my twelve patients and began exploring and examining psychiatric records in the hospital basement in a dreary poorly lit room of records. I kept my research top secret. I had access, but it would piss patients and staff off to know I was poking around in their histories.
The most shocking discovery I made was that psychiatrists never appeared to argue with or modify the original diagnosis or treatment plan. The proverbial buck was passed over and over again. Some patients got much better over time, but that didn’t seem to matter. I spoke to Zandor. He said, “nobody takes responsibility”. What if you said a patient was well and she murdered someone? It had happened before and would happen again. The same old tired patient stories were told over and over again before forensic review committees. I felt hopeful and sorry at the same time, especially for patients who were really trying to grow, learn, and earn their freedom.
I was positive there was a ‘secret agenda’ to keep mental hospitals full. There were certainly enough crazies ‘crossing 42nd Street’ to fill many wards. I began to research the mental health system while attending conferences in Lilith, the state capital. I began networking with other members of rehab departments in hospitals and sheltered workshops around the state.
‘Vocational Rehabilitation’ was becoming a gigantic unprofitable industry, subsidized by taxpayers. Sheltered workshops were making the same old outdated crap they’d always made. Some were contracted to assemble items such as pens or package products for a variety of private profit-making corporations. Developmentally disabled people are best at repetitive work like assembly and packaging. Rarely is anyone violent. Loving approval goes a long way toward team building. There was a gigantic opportunity here. I had no idea of how to tap into it yet. I knew workshops were competing for pennies. They hadn’t discovered fashion.
Stay tuned as students plant seeds that germinate, sprout, and flourish…
There were only two patients in the art room. One was warily tucked in a corner, the other was a pretty twenty something African-American woman quietly cutting colored paper with a child’s scissors. I gently mused out loud. “You look healthy and normal. Why are you here?”
“My psychiatrist tells me it’s because I feel no remorse for what I did.”
“What did you do?”
“I killed my roommate”. I chopped her up in the bathtub and flushed as much of her as I could down the toilet. The rest of her I put in black plastic garbage bags that I tossed in a dumpster.”
“Did you think you would get away with that?”
“I didn’t think at all. I got the idea from TV.”
“And you don’t feel badly about what you did?”
“The girl is dead. There’s nothing I can do about that!” “I guess I’m sorry for her family”.
Mary grew up in a verbally abusive emotionally constipated family with no privacy. When Mary left home, she applied for a single room at college and was forced to have a roommate. Enduring a year, Mary reapplied, and lost the room to her roommate. Completely losing control of her mind and heart while stuck in a state of rage, Mary eliminated her problem.
Many strange stories unfolded over the next several months in the art room. Every day promised new adventure. I was glad I’d survived the bog of bureaucratic bullshit. I was yearning to examine everyone’s hands, but decided to wait. I anticipated astonishing tales of intrigue and amazing artworks. Many patients had artistic talent. There were two professional artists in the group. I supported everyone’s creativity and acquired special materials and supplies above and beyond my call of duty.
The first patient I bonded with was a refined and cultivated woman in her mid to late fifties. Bizarre circumstances led to Betsy’s hapless and senseless captivity. She lived on Treasure Island, a wealthy seaside community. Betsy managed an art gallery and was gossip columnist for a local newspaper. She loved to garden and was a member of a local gardening club.
A lawyer of considerable power purchased the land adjoining Betsy’s and neglected it. Weeds and branches drooped and draped sloppily onto Betsy’s property. Her neighbor‘s obvious dislike of landscaping and disdain for his neighbors annoyed the hell out of Betsy. One very vexing afternoon, she verbally threatened to chop off everything extending onto her domain. Grabbing her ax, she angrily severed every limb over her property line. While quietly recuperating on her porch, Betsy became alarmed and frightened when police in plain clothes marched aggressively through the gate of her yard.
Betsy grabbed her ax, attempting to chase them away. The next thing she knew, Betsy was sedated in a psychiatric hospital for further evaluation. Her neighbor had pulled strings and managed to have her temporarily committed. Then her serious problems began. Because Betsy was so agitated, Thorazine was prescribed, mandated, and administered. Betsy had a bad reaction to Thorazine. She was rushed to a local hospital. Her spleen had to be removed.
Betsy was no criminal. Nor was she crazy. She had great character references. Her son, a successful architect, pleaded fervently for her release, but no one appeared able to help her. A series of unfortunate events had led to her getting caught up in ‘The System’. Betsy’s attitude remained positive and optimistic while her mental and physical health deteriorated. She lost three productive years of her life. The lawyer tried to acquire Betsy’s property while she was locked up, but her son successfully blocked him.
Everyone admired Betsy. I was self-appointed president of her fan club. She could draw, paint, sculpt, and write better than anyone. She won several patient art awards. She was a positive role model. As editor and illustrator for the patient newspaper, The Scene. Betsy also created signage for hospital activities and events. I got special permissions for her creative seamstress work and purchased (my $) supplies like needles, threads, and unique fabrics.
Betsy designed stuffed insects. She called them ‘love bugs’. Sewing and sowing the seeds of success in my mind, Betsy inspired me to imagine a patient run cottage industry within the confines of hospital life that would serve other sheltered workshops in social and medical worlds. We could be a source for products, design, and marketing.
I got braver each day as I investigated patients’ lives. I couldn’t divulge my appetite for wanting to know more, but I did look as closely as I could at their records, hands, and gestures. I printed crude hands using newsprint paper with poster paint. I assumed madness would be revealed in aberrations of hand morphology and topography. There were many unusual hands. I saw a lot of frustration, anger, and fear, along with an uncanny clarity or lack of clarity in thinking. Many souls saw only one solution to their problem, never considering the consequences. Invoking hindsight enables most folk to harness our strengths, mindsets, attitudes, and actions, and embrace whatever challenges we encounter on the path to becoming healthier and happier.
Repressed rage, confused minds, and constipated emotions rule mental illness. I’d never have predicted from the hands that I read, that most of these people would be committed to mental institutions. Many patients lacked peripheral lines. They were less neurotic than the wounded healers with highly developed superegos and many more peripheral lines who were paid to care for them.
I only saw one club (murderer’s) thumb in the patient population. I expected to see many more Mr. Hydes, motivated by passion, lacking impulse control, and having a propensity for violence. I didn’t. Other hands were soft and supple. Sometimes their bones felt detached. There was zero energy, enthusiasm, or desire to think clearly or do anything meaningful. I observed one psychotic person’s skin as appearing splotchy purplish red. I imagined the color combo was repressed rage. Many hands were stiff in the joints, preventing the lost souls trapped in limbo between their inside and outside from escaping. I examined schizophrenic hands with two sets of head or heart lines in dominant hands that were ambiguous, ambivalent, suffering, struggling, and striving to know themselves and others.
Betsy and I loved the symbolism of the Tarot. We consulted the cards many times with many questions. We rarely heard what we wanted to hear, but always heard what we already knew. I collected birth names, dates, times, and places from patients, but didn’t explain why.
Most artwork and poetry in The Scene came from the art room. The patient newspaper was a venue for creative expression for patients and staff. It offered hospital news and provided space for patients to express their concerns and share their creativity. It was an important venue because it provided an outlet for frustration, anger, and depression. Everyone spent too much time complaining and blaming their problems on ‘The System’ and each other.
I decided to become a spiritual ambassador and good sense maker. The real enemies were our bad habits, bureaucracy, and time. We were a team whether we chose ‘to be or not to be’.
One notorious patient infected my psyche with doubt. He was a young black man in his early thirties. Fred had been mentally, emotionally, and physically malnourished via many abusive foster parents. A gentle kindness lie beneath the surface of Fred’s deeply scarred face. Fred was violent, but it wasn’t knife fights and gang warfare that got him locked up. It was Fred’s unrequited love. Fred was obsessed with a teenage girl. Allegedly, she was ‘taken away from him’ by an `abusive maniac’. Fred created realistic ‘WANTED DEAD or ALIVE’ posters of his maniac. He posted them all over town, offering a phony ten thousand dollar reward for him. Fred had no clue he was creating evidence that would lead him directly to the loony bin.
Fred’s large feminine hands, rectangular palms, long slender knotty fingers, and conical fingertips embody the quintessential ‘feeling’ type: great for empathy, appreciating art, research, organizing, paying attention to detail, and mostly for caring. Fred’s long head line sloped into the heel of his hand, revealing a vivid imagination and rich fantasy life. Fred could copy anything perfectly. He could have been a master forger, but that particular crime would never have occurred to him. I cheered Fred’s abilities and encouraged him to draw from real life. I also convinced his treatment team and security on his ward to let him have pencils and paper and allow him to draw under supervision.
Fred had a private sketch book. He produced forty or fifty sketches and drawings in the first month and showed no one. I asked to see them. Reluctantly, he showed them to me. I was blown away. The political parody above was his first. That’s Ronald Reagan and its meaning is self-explanatory. What stunned me most were caricatures of staff sexually abusing patients. Patients were pleasuring staff in the sickest possible ways. Were security, therapists, and patients actually having bizarre sex acts using objects of pleasure and pain or was Fred’s vision an artistic fabrication of his unique psyche?
How could Fred have witnessed what he was portraying? He had a graphic imagination. Maybe his friends were telling him their stories and he was interpreting them. Fred let me photocopy a few drawings. I wondered about the veracity of Fred’s artwork and shared it with Dolores. She showed it to the cabinet. Betraying Fred’s trust was my greatest blunder and regret. Fred fought fiercely as his drawings and supplies were confiscated. It wrenched my heart to watch him being reduced to a drug induced stupor, artistic genius, never to create (during my tenure) again. I was responsible and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Mary 2 was a highly functioning, extremely troubled patient. Mary believed she was Satan’s child, a bad seed. Mary was three when she first unsuccessfully attempted to poison her little sister. Then she failed to drown her in the bathtub. She tied her to a tree in a lightning storm, hoping she’d be electrocuted. Finally, Mary’s dysfunctional fundamentalist Catholic parents enrolled her in a devout Catholic school. They hoped that would save her. Mary predictably became more twisted. At sixteen, Mary set a nun on fire and carved her charring body to a bloody pulp with a broken glass bottle. She told everyone, “The Devil made me do it”.
Mary produced dark artwork. I coveted and appropriated her drawings every chance I got. While under suicide watch in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital, Mary etched `666′ in the skin of her arms and legs with whatever sharp objects she could find. She also scratched ‘666’ on furniture.
I don’t frequently see hands that frighten me. Mary’s hands were scary. The creepy hand above with very stiff fingers that curl inwardly belong to Susan Atkins’ (Charles Manson’s protege’). They’re similar to Mary’s. Mary’s skin was hard, dry, coarse, and reddish. She chewed on her nails relentlessly, leaving her nail beds red, raw, and sore. Mary transformed self-critical into self-hatred. I wished I could help her let go of irrational terror. Mary’s soul was hard-boiled from the hellish reality of growing up with hypocritical parents, along with fundamentalist codes, irrational doctrines, punitive rules, and restrictive regulations.
Mary had a huge crush on me. She was the first to arrive at the art room and last to leave. I felt nauseous when I was alone with her. I was repulsed, but always smiled and acted nice. Mary generously offered to give me a quickie blow-job under my desk. I remembered Fred’s drawings and how easy it would be to become one of his vignettes. I thought about all of the Ministers and Priests, religious shepherds, who physically and spiritually rape the innocent lambs they are entrusted to protect. Does terror, shame, guilt, and disgrace trigger erotic fantasy? Is fear of being caught a turn on? Can the Devil sow the seeds of evil in a psyche?
Mary was hovering over me and monopolizing my attention. I was abrupt and impatient with her. Dark rings appeared around her darkening eyes. Mary felt rejected. Satan was hard at work, preparing her for evil acts that night on her ward. It was a full moon. Stealing the ‘six’ and ‘nine’ balls from the pool table, Mary loaded them in a black wool sock, then beat a new patient to death while she slept. The poor woman was there for shoplifting, a few days of observation, and psychiatric evaluation. Mary said she didn’t like the way the woman looked at her. She’d certainly think twice before shoplifting again had she survived. I felt guilty and responsible. I should have said something. Staff should have been more vigilant. Mental institutions aren’t called lunatic asylums for nothing.
It’s not what you do, but what you get away with that matters. Gene was undeniably the most incredible artist in the hospital. He’d been a successful commercial artist and advertising executive. Scuttlebutt was that he created the TV ads that everyone loves to remember.
Gene was unique. A celebrity on his ward, he had the only private room, outfitted with his own furniture, library, audio tape collection, state of art stereo system, Bose headphones, and grizzly bear rug.
No one messed with Gene. Dark satanic auras shrouded Gene. Angry facial expressions and aggressive body language told a tale of uncontrollable rage from a horrible childhood. Gene was hostile. Everything about him screamed, “Stay away from me!” In a jealous fury and fit of rage, Gene slit his girlfriend’s throat from ear to ear. She survived, didn’t press charges, and forgave him. Gene couldn’t forgive himself. He told me had to stay because he’d do it again.
Gene could have been free had he wanted to be and behaved accordingly. I tried to make good sense to Gene and convince him to become an active member of the real world again. Gene wanted to stay. With little interest in worldly freedom, he was free to love his literature, music, art, and still be king of the roost. I actually felt a little jealous of his inner freedom.
Gene was charismatic in a dark and dangerous way. He was the patient Dolores caught in the art supply closet with Janice. That untimely final exit for Janice turned out to be wonderful therapy for Gene. We frequently had philosophical discussions and co-created artworks that I still cherish. This life size pastel Gene drew of me in the art-room subtly captures a very private part of me.
Benny was Gene’s buddy. Benny was uncooperative. A strong fit black man in his early thirties, Benny’s phobia of homosexuality impelled the former transit policeman to assault a bar full of gay men one night with a semi-automatic weapon. While freebasing crack, Benny brutally slaughtered eight gay men.
Benny came up bi-yearly for forensic review. He believed he’d be set free one day, but was always rejected. One psychologist told me that a ‘secret agenda’ was to never ever let him go or know. It was in everyone’s best interest to humor Benny. Otherwise, he’d lose hope, become violent, and need to be permanently medicated.
There was never a dull day in the art room. One handsome young patient, recently admitted, had cut his mother’s heart out, artfully prepared, and hungrily ate it with her favorite knife and fork on her favorite plate while drinking her favorite wine and reclining in her favorite chair.
Another man was found combing his mother’s hair on her mantel, weeks after he had cut her head off. The entire hospital was full of lunatics and addicts who committed violent acts under the influences of bad circumstances, rage, or drugs. Schizophrenics, sociopaths, psychotics, and pathological liars flourished and blossomed. One sociopath from England had a Rolls Royce delivered to the hospital entrance based on conversations he had with a dealer from a pay phone in the hall of his ward. If only I could put everyone’s amazing talents to good use…
Jesus Jefferson was the angriest patient in the hospital. Rejected countless times by forensic committees, Jesus had nothing left to lose. Everyone steered clear of him. Jesus had thrown his girlfriend, her 3 year old child, and dog from a 17th story window. They died instantly as they hit the ground. Jesus had zero remorse and never spoke of the incident. He clearly needed to be locked up, but what of his other innate talents and abilities. I envisioned Jesus as a capable production manager in a patient run manufacturing business. I shared my idea with two staff psychologists and they agreed with me. Unfortunately, Jesus was too unpredictable and angry to be given any real opportunity to take real responsibility.
Names have meaning. Many people who end up in loony bins are named after biblical figures. Jesus, Mary, Faith, Angel, Grace, and Hope haunt wards at mental institutions everywhere. Whatever their parents had hoped, wanted, or expected… something else weird and perverted happened. My parody below represents my interpretation of present-day archetypal names.
After six to eight working days, I’d met most of the patients. There were five men’s wards and one women’s ward. The wards traveled around the hospital escorted by SHTA’s. One, two, or three wards at a time would meet in the rehab department for recreational/religious services. Many patients found religion while incarcerated. Evangelists, fundamentalists, and self-styled ministers attended every service, along with agnostics, atheists, and heretics. I counted four Jewish patients in the mix. Jewish services were most ludicrous of all. Patients of every shape, size, color, and religious denomination wore yarmulkes (skullcaps) and pretended to chant pigeon Hebrew. For attending religious services, patients received extra rewards such as cigarettes, tea bags, and candy. They also hoped to earn a few brownie points with God and the Forensic Committee when they came up for evaluation.
The next several months were both enlightening and frustrating. It was obvious I needed more clinical training specific to a forensic population. I reached from the Rehab department to make allies on the treatment teams and in the cabinet. Unfortunately, protocol and position are guidelines in public service. If you go directly to someone outside of your department on your own initiative, it can be misconstrued as a breach of faith or as a failure on the part of your supervisor to control her staff. Employees generate truckloads of surplus paperwork and ask permission for everything in writing. Dolores was reprimanded. I felt dejected.
My initial impression of patients was that they were generally dull and apathetic, motivated by bribery or extortion. Cigarettes (nicotine), candy (sugar), tea bags (caffeine), and little packets of Sanka rewarded good behaviors. I believed they were ultimately harmful and destructive. Extortion was punishment for bad behaviors. Having no rewards, no activities, temporary isolation, or mandatory drug treatments is really `Pavlov 101′ in practice.
There were two types of patients. Nearly all had committed acts of violence. Some were there for psychiatric evaluation. Others were assigned for long term care by the court system because they were unfit to stand trial or too mentally and emotionally disturbed to be in a normal prison setting. There were several mass murderers and serial killers. You’d never know it as they appeared meek, apathetic, and ordinary. As they grew to trust me, they revealed hopes, dreams, fears, and tales of intrigue and horror.
I was steadily earning the trust and respect of the rehab staff. I’d read Dolores’s hands. Within a month, I was asked by other staff members to share my insights and observations about them. The rehab staff was caring and well meaning. I observed unhealthy doses of neurosis combined with fear, paranoia, and overdeveloped senses of responsibility, obligation, and guilt. Public service feels thankless and hopeless to many of the staff. I tried to be constructive, helpful, and leave everyone feeling hopeful.
I suggested to Dolores that she practice saying “NO”. I advised Zandor not to react negatively to criticism, even if it’s personal. I nagged Billy (Skinny) to lighten up and see reality as it is and not how he wants it to be. I encouraged Luscious Lips to let go of his guilt, cultivate good habits (like controlling his indulgences), and begin to schedule activities to look forward to in his life. I applauded Barbara’s ability to maintain clear boundaries and thanked her for her honesty with herself and everyone else. I cheered Maya’s energy and enthusiasm. I let her know I supported whatever she wanted for herself. I wanted Janice to clearly see and express herself creatively.
My reputation as a hand analyst spread quickly. Soon, I was in the hospital director’s office reading her hands. Dr. Helga presented a caring and friendly demeanor, but after examining her hands for a couple of minutes, I was positive it was an act. She had the stiffest hands and fingers I’d ever felt, inwardly curving pinkie fingers, and a clear simian line in her dominant hand. Knotty fingers and long index fingers were well suited for a detail-oriented directorship. Helga’s father had been a German SS or gestapo who ran a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. There was no place for emotion in Helga’s formative years. She was calculating, ambitious, and couldn’t tolerate disobedience. She ordered me to never discuss what I saw with anyone and told me in no uncertain terms to stay away from patient hands. I gained insight into the cabinet by reading several members directly and by carefully listening and observing body language at meetings and in casual exchanges without permission.
It took six months to learn the ropes while generating and accumulating huge masses of paperwork and proposals. I was ready to present my syllabus for prevocational classes to the cabinet when the hand of fate unexpectedly intervened. A quirky thing happened. Dolores accidentally caught Janice, the art therapist, in the art supply closet with her skirt up around her ears. She was dispensing her own personal form of emotional and physical therapy to one of the male patients. Janice was fired instantly.
Janice had self-destructed. I’d lucked out. There was no art therapist. I was the only staff member qualified to fill in until another was hired. I knew about art. I didn’t know the first thing about art therapy or forensic psychology. That didn’t seem to faze anybody. I was thrilled to put everything aside to be the new substitute art therapist. I’d finally get to meet patients. Nearly all the patients frequented the art room. It was a chance to play with art materials and express themselves creatively. They could sculpt with clay, draw and paint, make collages, write poetry, and play music. I’d examine their hands, astrology, and experiment with tarot on them. This was an important lesson in human nature and my nature that I’ll never forget.
The art room was small and private (14’X 14′). I was happy about that because in addition to having the potential for intimacy, I was required to inventory every pencil, crayon, scissor, and even staple. These were all considered potentially dangerous weapons. Everything in Rehab was either bolted down or fastened together with special screws and nuts that required special tools to unfasten. Every precaution was taken to protect us from patients and patients from each other and themselves.
One very crazy patient who seriously creeped me out was James. After James’s mother would visit him, staff would find him mutilating his genitals with a paperclip, staple, or whatever he could find that caused damage. James eventually died of AIDS after repeatedly letting other male patients have their way with him sexually. I stayed away from James’s hands, but I do remember ugly brown tobacco stains between the tips of his index and middle fingers from letting cigarettes burn to ash without taking a puff.
I was cautious around patients. I tried to be helpful. I spoke little except when spoken to. I’d sometimes sketch patients. They saw me drawing and sculpting and began asking for artistic advice. I happily provided tips and tricks. It took over six months to locate a new art therapist. During this time, I’d meet a dozen patients who would influence my destiny.
Stay tuned to meet the patients…
Author’s note: If you’ve read the first episode of ‘How I lost my Sanity’, you know my writing is a combo of fact and fiction. Using the same voice as my non-fiction writing may create some confusion. I break rules of grammar and syntax. A generous helping of political and social incorrectness sheds darkness on my protagonist. Made up names and characters from movies parody and give faces to characters in my story. If you have any thoughts, ideas, feelings, suggestions, advice, or whatever about my writing and story, feel free to comment.