“The lips of wisdom are closed, except to the ears of understanding.” Hermes
This is a tale of how I tempted fate and lost my sanity. You may think you know your dark side, or you may know someone who has been devoured by theirs, but until you’ve been seduced into madness, breached your sacred boundaries, and tasted the forbidden fruit; you won’t experience the boundless breadths and desperate depths of darkness in your psyche along with the stark realization that you can’t turn back.
Black and white are metaphors for oppositions that fuel our awareness and allegories that guide us between our whitest whites and blackest blacks. Love and hate are extremes of the same basic substance. Like and dislike are varying degrees of gray between black and white. If insanity is black and sanity is white, where does happiness end and misery begin? When does pleasure stop and pain begin?
As a life-long student of craziness, I coveted the opportunity to serve criminally insane people. I might never get another chance. Back in college, I studied Industrial Design. I minored in bizarre psycho-ideologies and isms. As an active member of a twice weekly study group at a Gestalt psychology institute for two years, I whetted my appetite for more knowledge and understanding of human behavior. I finally had a real chance to explore authentic craziness incarnate.
Criminal minds fascinated me. I learned from my study of astrology that each of twelve sun signs has its own unique criminal style. Take this with a grain of salt, but here are a few gross generalizations. Gemini / Mercury rules con artists and pickpockets. Taurus / Venus commits sex crimes and breaches of trust from petty theft to grand larceny. Aries / Mars loves warfare and commit crimes of passion. Sagittarius / Jupiter wears white collars. Capricorn / Saturn rules master criminals. Aquarius / Uranus rules arsonists, terrorists, and unexpected bad shit happening. Pisces / Neptune rules drug dealers and users. Scorpio / Pluto rules seduction, rape, murder, and betrayal. Pluto lustily awaits you at your final destination.
Our outer planetary pictures provide a karmic backdrop for past and future generations of actors and actresses striving to learn their roles. Life is a play of plays. Unconscious creates drama. Subconscious directs plot. Consciousness is stage manager. Sun enlightens. Moon reflects. Mercury connects. Venus senses. Mars energizes. Jupiter expands. Saturn limits. Uranus disrupts, Neptune dissolves, and Pluto destroys. ‘God’ is Master Playwright.
Before proceeding with my vocational classes, I need to regress and provide background material for my year of preparation preceding my choice to teach classes. It may take a couple of posts, but I promise you’ll be glad I did.
I entered the hospital from my first day through guarded locked doors, metal detectors, a bag inspection station, faded institutional beige paint, and buzzing fluorescent lights like parasites that sucked my vital essences. Hospital staff appeared to be the dregs of humanity’s helpers. Most had physical handicaps like limping, scarring, splotching, or gazing in hopeless desperation with myopic eyes. I hoped it wasn’t contagious. I had easy access to patient records and treatment plans. I could attend treatment team meetings with psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists. It felt too good to be true and it was.
Forensic hospital life is about rules, regulations, and self-defense. There are many more don’ts than do’s. Employees are sworn to secrecy, fingerprinted, and instilled with awkward feelings of mistrust. Orientation had been designed to help new staff members understand the organizational goals, policies, and procedures affecting job safety, security, performance, and delivery of care. We filled out a lot of questionnaires, surveys, and evaluations. We were briefed on the nature, structure, and policies of the facility. We learned about patient rights and privileges, rights and privileges of staff, and hospital policy.
The largest portion of hospital staff were security called SHTA’s. They accompanied patients to every activity. I attended life safety training with them: CPR, First-Aid, and Management of Violent Patient Behavior (MVPB). A violent person could `go off’ and all we could do was to defend ourselves. We weren’t permitted to be aggressive. We were taught Judo style moves by serious martial artists and laughed heartily as we fell, flipped each other on gym mats, and got to know each other. We were encouraged to nickname one another to help us connect. Based on obvious personal peculiarities our nicknames stuck. There was `Skinny’, `Luscious Lips’, `Gigolo’, and `Tortoise’. I was `Smiley’. Forever after, we addressed each other by our nicknames.
Fighting with patients was a scary idea. Despite my comprehensive training in self-defense, I envisioned myself grabbing the nearest chair and clobbering a violent patient over the head in a crisis. I’d be instantly fired and then indicted on criminal charges. Fortunately for everyone, most of the furniture was anchored to the floor or walls with specially designed hardware to prevent that kind of violence.
When I wasn’t watching over my shoulder for violent patients, I was cautioned to be on the lookout for ‘bacterial pathogens’ which cause disease. A lot of patients have hygiene problems and are unhealthy. Samplings are taken regularly from surfaces around the hospital in order to monitor disease. There were patients with AIDS. In 1986, that was scary! What if a patient with AIDS bit a staff member? We were briefed extensively on care and prevention. This job began to seem more than a little risky.
When I first met the patients, they appeared to be the most motley crew nature had ever assembled. They looked like R. Crumb characters. Many had deranged eyes. They were so whacky that I felt like laughing. Some had been given massive doses of thorazine. I couldn’t wait to find out who had done what. I’d heard there were a few notorious celebrities in the mix.
I was given a photo I.D. (I had to wear it at all times) and keys for areas I had access to within the hospital. Keys were given upon entering the hospital and deposited before leaving. Patients observed me with random glimpses, furtive glances, and glaring gazes. They saw me as one more ‘keeper of the keys’ who was attempting to figure them out, discipline, rehabilitate, or fix them. One thing for sure, I wasn’t one of them (yet).
I was directed to sit in on patient activities, assist rehab staff, and familiarize myself with patients. The first few days were uneventful. Important goals were getting the patients to brush their teeth, comb their hair, and to try not to be generally disgusting. Another important goal was to get them to stay awake and participate in activities such as art, music, education classes, and exercise. There were no interesting conversations yet.
The rehab staff consisted of nine members. As Director of Rehab, Dolores was beaten down by too many years in state service. Her sad name complemented her careworn face. A telltale twitch made me wonder whether she was smiling or frowning. Her unhealthy-looking teeth were yellowed from too many cigarettes and too much coffee. A deep raspy voice coughed her words. I was concerned she was ineffective. I was right. Dolores was caring but couldn’t say ‘no’ to anyone. She promised me full health benefits and then let me serve my half-time position by working two ten-hour days while the hospital’s needs would have been better served if my time were spread over three days.
Respiratory, pulmonary, and circulatory health problems could be seen in her bulbous whitish nails. Her square palms and short square fingers revealed a practical nature, while her dry, reddish, dishpan skin had weathered many storms that seemed to endlessly arrive from every direction. Despite our differences, Dolores and I liked each other.
My `other half’ was a furniture maker and restorer named Billy (Skinny). Billy was tall, thin, and bony. He looked like a scruffy middle-aged Abraham Lincoln. Billy was one of the hardest working, enthusiastic, and idealistic persons I’d ever met. Like me, he’d never had ‘a job’. An eccentric renegade from societal rules and regulations, Billy maintained a furniture restoration and refinishing business on the side. Like me, Billy had a hidden agenda. His was unselfish and equally unrealistic. He believed that he could actually rehabilitate lunatics and transform them into functioning members of society.
Billy’s ‘feeling hands’ had rectangular palms and long fingers. A hardness and stiffness ruled his fingers, and knotty joints enhanced his compulsive need to control his physical and mental life. His especially long middle fingers bent towards the top of his ring fingers. Billy had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, obligation, and guilt. An oversensitive perfectionist, Billy spent endless hours thinking about the best thing to do next.
Billy and I tried to set mutual goals, but my hidden agenda clashed with his righteous cause. Billy wanted to turn patients into furniture restorers. I wanted to help, but I wanted private time with them. Billy committed to creating a sheltered wood working shop. I chose to offer design classes to higher functioning patients. I’d also help Billy set up a workshop that would serve the entire patient population.
The Rehab staff was a smorgasbord of affirmative action. Zandor was Estonian. He was a rehabilitation counselor and second in command. Zandor should have had Dolores’s job, but upper management didn’t want a person they couldn’t control in that position. Zandor’s ‘thinking hands’ correspond to his strong handshake, firm elastic skin, long straight fingers, square fingertips, and open and frank nails. Zandor had also been abused by too many years in state service, but it didn’t break him. He had grievances pending against the Public Employees Union for obvious discrimination against him. Despite unfavorable circumstances, Zandor always presented himself with pride, integrity, and dignity. We became comrades.
Bruce (Luscious Lips) arrived at the same time as Billy and me. His meaty practical hands had square palms and short square fingers that were soft and supple with dominant plump third phalanges. His head and lifelines were tied together at their beginnings. He was a Taurus and a huge procrastinator. Bruce was in charge of recreation. He’d served state social service agencies throughout his entire work experience. Sweet and mild mannered, his desire to make a real difference had dulled from too many years of compliance to authority, rules, and regulations. Bruce had gone as high as he could in institutional politics. He was caring and attentive with the patients but seemed depressed and resigned to mediocrity the rest of the time. The only times Bruce revealed real passion and genuine enthusiasm was when we talked about gourmet food or going fishing together.
Barbara was the schoolteacher on our team. Her goal was to help as many patients as possible reach high school equivalency. She was a large boned middle aged Afro-American woman and a very kind person. I don’t remember her hands except for her large broad nails and the sparse clear lines engraved in her palms. Barbara had spent many years in state service. She was one of a very few state employees who managed to maintain a sense of humor and a life outside of her work. She complained the least of any full-time staff member and always kept her cool. Once during English class, one of the male patients pulled out his huge erect penis and started jerking off. Barbara walked over, looked him straight in his eyes and without raising her voice calmly said, “please excuse yourself and go to the bathroom”. He did. I wished I could have read her report about the incident.
Bob was the librarian. He reminded me of a Spam and Velveeta Cheese on Wonder Bread sandwich. Bob was a real life Walter Mitty. He was helpful when asked, but most of the time, gazed into the distance under thick lens wire rimmed glasses. As I think of him, I can still feel his cool damp mashed potato hand shake that confirmed a total lack of will power, energy, and enthusiasm.
Andrew was art therapist when I arrived. His tenure was short. The only thing I recall about him is that he sent his estranged daughter a gross of condoms for her sixteenth birthday. He quipped in his southern drawl, “If she’s going to do it, might as well be safe.” The new art therapist was Janice. She was an unsuccessfully aging frustrated starving artist in need of a steady income. There was a frequent staff turnover for art therapists.
Maya was recreational therapist. She was young, very private, and a very athletic Afro-American woman. Maya managed sports activities and the patient newspaper, the Scene. All of the staff liked Maya. Patients loved her. Her powerful ‘intuitive hands‘ were well suited for sports like football, soccer, and wrestling. Everyone thought Maya was gay, but that was nobody’s business.
I was a card-carrying member of a band of misfits in search of a fit. On the whole, I liked the rehab staff and felt like I was becoming part of a team. I looked forward to our working together and began to imagine that we might actually make a real difference…