Expect the expected. Bad shit happened. Dolores was forced to resign. Too many personal problems got in the way of her being able to properly perform her duties. A spanking new supervisor synchronously arrived as Dolores departed. Aside from Do, Dorothy was farther from Dolores than Kansas is from OZ. Dorothy, a Jewish American Princess (JAP) of the mental illness world, looked a lot better than she was. In her mid-thirties, she was petite, pretty, and shapely. Her personality was hard, cold, and phony. She was instantly disliked by patients and staff but had no clue how anyone felt. Most of us smiled to her face, turned away, made weird faces, or stuck a finger down our throats… a sadly laughable situation.
I felt nauseous as I wondered if Dorothy’s sucrose smile and pasty complexion resulted from too much institutional food and florescent lighting. Dorothy was spiteful, contrary, and a stickler for rules and regulations. She was angry that she hadn’t made it to the top of the trash heap yet. She had also failed after many attempts at getting pregnant. ‘Thank god’, I mused. Dorothy might actually be a mother of an anti-Christ. As I got to know her, I began seeing her as a festering canker sore from hell. She sabotaged patient progress and undermined my success at promoting class participation. I hated her.
One day after work we drove away from the employee parking lot at the same time. I followed her onto the Styx River Parkway heading south on Purgatory’s east side. High speed traffic wove perilous webs of chaos betwixt lanes. I imagined myself as Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior and tailgated Dorothy within inches. I’d surely have rear ended her had she braked, but I was confident she’d stay cool.
Glancing nervously in her rear-view mirror, Dorothy wondered what I’d do next. I’d pull up beside her, smile, and drop back on her tail again. That was the beginning of the end of my time working at the hospital and of my letting go of undying idealism and optimism. I decided I wasn’t going to let anyone get away with anything. I felt protected by the Public Service Union. It’s not easy to get rid of anyone who doesn’t want to leave. You have to make a person so miserable that they choose to leave. I returned to work the following week.
Dorothy acted as though nothing had happened. She used the rules to attempt to force me to quit. She hit me hardest in my most vulnerable spot. My desire to work with high functioning patients had been my primary goal since I’d arrived. Dorothy insisted I must devote myself to serving the whole patient population. The Cabinet knew Dorothy was an asshole. They were deaf to my argument that the obvious lack of meaningful programming for the dozen highest functioning patients needed addressing. I’d built trust with this group and made considerable progress. My other argument was that my salary was less than two percent of what those twelve patients were costing the state yearly. What a fabulous investment!
I began flooding Dorothy with memos justifying my self-created career. I copied Zandor, rehab counselor, the cabinet, and the big wigs in Central Mental Health Care in Purgatory. My public relations strategy to save myself was poorly received. Aside from the fact that no one but me was willing to take responsibility, I was kicking the cabinet below the belt by confronting them.
Dorothy countered with an attack on my schedule. She insisted I work three days instead of two. She chose days when she knew I had other teaching jobs and personal business. I tried to compromise, but could clearly see my efforts and circumstances were becoming futile.
“Perhaps you are too creative for the rehab department”, Dorothy told me. “There’s no room for your pioneering spirit”. I was soon summoned to the hospital director’s office for a private conference. She wanted to discuss my dissatisfaction with Dorothy’s supervisory actions, a pretense to warn me that I had better keep hospital business within the hospital. I clenched my teeth and fists and readied myself for battle. The head of rehab for the entire underworld had told me that our hospital was not permitted by law to operate a sheltered workshop under the plan the cabinet had previously encouraged and approved. They’d scammed everyone to enhance next year’s budget.
For several months, Dorothy continued to be abusive and oblivious to my needs and the needs and concerns of staff and patients. She pulled rank on everyone as often as she could. Not only did we feel unappreciated, we were degraded and looked down upon. Every member of the rehab staff was eventually forced to resign. Though I was there the least, I held out the longest. Dorothy had been mandated to clean house. The hidden agenda was obvious. I wrote the following letter of resignation.
It saddens me to be writing this, but I’ve been given no choice. Dorothy was mandated to clean house and fulfill your hidden agenda. This may sound paranoid, but Dorothy has forced every dedicated staff member to leave. Everyone was aware of Dorothy’s physical handicaps and personal problems. We tried to empathize and made allowances for negative attitudes, but that’s no excuse for her complete lack of caring and support. Dorothy has been oblivious to the needs and concerns of her staff and the needs and concerns of patients.
It’s ironic to say that your staff felt underappreciated. They felt degraded and harassed as Dorothy relentlessly made counterproductive and unreasonable demands. She attempted to delegate her responsibilities to Zandor, who received a counseling memo when he objected to doing out of title work. Billy (the other half of my position) received a counseling memo for his generosity in rewarding the dedicated and hardworking maintenance staff a ‘THANK YOU! ‘ Plaque that he paid for himself. They graciously helped us set up the woodworking shop.
Enclosed is a copy of my latest correspondence with Dorothy. Her response was that I’m “too creative” for a rehab department that has “no room for my pioneering spirit”. She insisted I must change my schedule to a Monday or Friday, knowing these days conflict with my other work. She threatened to assign me tasks which clearly don’t use my obvious abilities to their advantage. I’m still waiting for a work evaluation that was due weeks ago.
I’m no longer concerned with the future of my career. I’m concerned about the future of the patients. They’ve been deprived of caring and capable staff members including Dolores, Bruce, Barbara, Billy, Maya, Carolyn, and Zandor. I plan to expose your cruel injustice and confirm your complicity in Dorothy’s horrible behavior and bad management practices.
I sent copies to Dorothy, the cabinet, and other department managers around the hospital. Cabinet members were hostile as they interrogated me behind closed doors. They were on the offensive and squirming in their seats as they attempted to put me on the defensive. They all agreed I was projecting my unresolved conflicts with my mother onto Dorothy. They suggested I seek psychiatric help for my problem. I said I was planning to write a (this) book about my experience and approach the media. They told me they’d find a way to ruin me.
I found my “I don’t get mad, I get even” button and pinned it next to my “Since I gave up hope, I feel much better” button on the lapel of my jacket. I couldn’t believe I’d let down the patients who I’d so eagerly promised to help and champion. Gene’s prophecy had come true. I’d disappear and never see anyone again. I had strengthened everyone’s fear and distrust of everyone’s everything all the time.
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.
“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…