Memoir, Personal Essays

Asylum, Part 2

Here’s a continuation of my 3-part story, Asylum. To read part 1, click here. And check back on the blog next week for the final installment of my time spent in the Brainard State Hospital.

Asylum, Part 2

Before the first court hearing, most of my time at the University Psych ward was filled with these conversations with The Voice. I began to see a pattern in our talks, a purpose in all the seeming strangeness, not only in regard to my own little world, but to the world at large. Step by block, my spiritual house was taken apart and analyzed down to its foundation — its fundamental intuitive self. I began to see that I was being re-made through the drama of these dialogues with what appeared to be an all-knowing, purposeful mountebank.

But The Voice in my ear was not content simply with dialogue alone. Before being locked up, it had challenged me to drop my social decorum and call people on their dishonesty. At a board meeting where I was a member, The Voice asked if it could ‘take over’ and give hell to a member whose smugness had always irritated me. Hesitantly, I agreed to allow what I, myself, would never have contemplated doing on my own. WHAM! The Voice took off on a diatribe fit for my father’s Manhattan schmatah business. On four or five more occasions, The Voice led outbursts that caused serious concern among my colleagues. But what really got me into trouble with the Mind Police was when The Voice told me I was God.

Initially, I objected vehemently — I was absolutely NOT God! No way, no how. I was just one of the 6 billion schmucks on earth with no special talents or successes. However, The Voice persisted. Being a good human, not superhuman, was all that was necessary to be God. Any human could be God too, The Voice helped me realize, each with a unique ability to express godliness. This line of reasoning impressed me and I began preaching it whenever I felt there was a reason to do so. To talk of God is, of course, anti-psychiatry, which is a religion of its own, built on atheism. Fundamental to psychiatry is the belief that hearing voices (known as auditory hallucinations) is the most dire symptom of psychosis — not a spiritual intervention.

During the time I was entranced in dialogues with The Voice, I tried, as a scientifically trained professional, to figure out what it actually was. Could it be a telepathic alien who’d come to infect me as a means of establishing itself on planet Earth? Or could it really be The Voice of God in my ear?

I wasn’t much of a believer in God but I wasn’t an atheist, either. I considered myself to be more of an a-religious Jew. It was difficult to buy that The Voice, who at times cursed and threatened me in a very un-God-like manner, was really a spiritual voice in my ear. Maybe it was an alien being reaching out from another world? Or just my own mind playing tricks on me? But try as I might, I could not reconcile The Voice’s brilliant explanations and insights with those of my own. It constantly enlightened me on new ways of seeing the world, and possessed information that I could not have known on my own. After a while, I was convinced that The Voice had to be a superior intelligence that had somehow, for whatever reason, slipped into my mind and was speaking through my deaf ear. Or else, I really was cuckoo.

Regardless, The Voice was certainly trying to be useful. It promised to bail me out of my commitment hearing, and as we were filing out of the courtroom it suddenly told me: “Tell the judge you have a brain tumor.”

So I did. But I had no idea that my ‘off-the-record’ comment would create a major dilemma for the judge. If I was acting strangely due to a ‘real’ medical disorder, then incarceration and the use of neuroleptics were actually dangerous. If a tumor was my problem, the court couldn’t permit the university to force anything on me. The judge was compelled to grant the University only the right to incarcerate me, but denied them the right to force neuroleptic medications on me until they had proven that I did not have a brain tumor.

I had won an advantage: unless I allowed them to examine me, the University could never prove that I didn’t have a brain tumor. At that point, I became psychiatry’s Catch-22.

For two months and two stalemated trials, I remained incarcerated at the University’s psyche ward. Then, early one morning, I was shanghaied to Brainard State Hospital.

That fateful morning, I was awakened violently by two sheriff’s deputies who ambushed me with handcuffs and threatened to get rough if I resisted. I’ll never forget the helplessness I felt as those two hostile officers threw my possessions in a bag and dragged me to their police van, where they locked me in a steel-mesh cabin.

Ten years earlier, I’d been a medical consultant at the very hospital they were transferring me to. I remembered the vast, isolated and desolate campus of archaic institutional buildings. To be locked up at Brainard State meant you were beyond hope. Now, it was my turn to be on the inside of this somber hell.

The university psychiatrists had made a final appeal to the Attorney General and won. His signature erased my human rights. When I arrived at Brainard State Hospital, I was held down by six aids, injected with a sedative and forced through a CAT scan to prove that my brain tumor was a hoax, which, of course, it was. I wondered how many of those aids would have denied their actions under penalty of perjury if I had taken them to court. But for now, like all prisoners, I was forced to accept that the system held all the cards.

Throughout my tribulations, I always felt that I was in control of the seemingly out-of-control me. Even though I went on to try and outsmart the system, to this day I believe that my loss of freedom and nearly all hope were my destiny—one I desired on some level and brought on myself.

After the CAT scan found no tumor, I was put on a multi-drug neuroleptic cocktail that was in vogue at the time. Even though the drugs severely impaired my thinking, I still had the wherewithal to know I would die unless my medications were changed or stopped. I wasn’t wrong. Not long after they started the medications, I was rushed to the area medical hospital with a toxic reaction.

My medications were adjusted, but the manic pacing continued. I still knew I had to persuade the rarely visible wizard of our Oz, Dr. Walker, into changing my drugs or I would crash again. I’d wait in ambush for him, obsequiously badgering his nurses on his whereabouts within the hospital. Was he even here yet? Was he in a meeting? Would he be here by 3 P.M.? Why was he delayed? I worked them over daily, but it only seemed to fuel their disdain for me as some annoying and disenfranchised creature.

I tempered my own anger until it became a white glow in the middle of my brain. I knew that the day would come when I would ensnare them all — Dr. Walker and this infernal, inhuman monster-machine of psychiatric incarceration. One day, I would try to destroy it. But for now, guerrilla warfare was my only available tactic. If I bit the monster directly on the neck, it would label me untreatable. Then it could crush me with more drugs, solitary confinement, shock therapy and lock-up forever.

I finally succeeded in cornering Dr. Walker, who listened to my pleadings for all of 30 seconds and later changed my medications. But to what? The new mix, of course, was none of my business, according to the nurses — after all, I was incapable of any rational comprehension.

Four times a day, the announcement blared out: “Medication time!” All of us inmates lined up dutifully for drugs at the tellers’ windows. Only then would we know our medication had been changed as the pills and liquids changed colors and shapes and turbidity.

I balked at being forced to swallow them and crossed an invisible line by asking questions. The drug teller tersely rattled off the names of a half dozen drugs. When I objected, she threatened to call the guards, who would gladly force my medication on me.

How I dreaded swallowing those multi-colored toxins that had caused me all forms of psychological and physiological aberrations! Once downed, the side effects were unavoidable. In truth, they weren’t side effects at all, but effects of poisons. I adapted, somewhat, to the debilitating effects of the drug regime, but I braced myself for new horrors. After a while, Walker put me on another concoction, and this time the results were less devastating. The anxiety, the pacing and the showers all stopped.

With my medication stabilized, I searched for a way out. Day after day, I beseeched my social worker, Tom Littlehawk, to clarify my status. He was a busy man—which meant, in his limited vocabulary, that a mere stroke of his pen could cause me either great harm or great good.

In the end, Tom Littlehawk turned out to be one of ‘us.’ He’d returned to the system to milk it for dough and power. He now had the best of all worlds, considering the blows life had dealt him as a Chippewa Indian who’d been alcoholic and ‘crazy’ to boot. He knew the system inside and out. He had the power to torment us or help us. He did both. But I found that he generally kept his word when he gave it.

I begged Tom for a transfer to Sector B, and got it.

My new room faced north. The summer sun no longer inflamed my bed. Best of all my new roommates were old-timers who’d calmly settled into the horror, with savvy and without guilt. My new compadres.

These new roommates taught me the art of mouthing pills so I could spit them out later. They taught me about radios and tape players and how to hustle our keepers to get batteries. They showed me the secrets of getting smokes day or night, how to protect your coffee stash, who to share it with, how to tap hot water from a myriad of out-of-bound faucets and—most vitally—how one should act if one is caught. In short, they taught me how to retain my humanity while trapped in the belly of the monster.

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