This is the first of a three-part essay about my time spent in Brainard State Hospital.
Asylum: Part 1
“How can it be,” asked the spider of his brother,
“that the fly ensnared only one of us?”
“Good fortune,” lied his brother.
For five days I had suffered an overwhelming drug-induced anxiety that didn’t allow me a moment’s respite. I fed my body in five-minute forced spurts, afraid of starving, but unable to alight for a second longer. I hobbled about my prison corridors in a daze, sleep alluding me. I lay down a thousand times, but only tossed and turned in agony.
At some point I hit critical mass and my sweat-drenched body frantically righted itself — fatigued beyond fatigue — pulled on its clothes, shoes and socks to, once again, thrust itself into the openness of those shadowy corridors. The incessant anxiety drove me to pace my confinement: down Corridor A, the suicide protection unit, then through the blue fumes of the Smokers’ Inferno where bleary-eyed lobotomized puffers hid in its smoky recesses. On to Corridor B, rank with the piss- stench of communal toilets. Past the stark 4-bed dormers strewn with other prisoners. Creeping by the cloudy surveillance mirror, I barely recognized my reflection, seemingly headed in an opposite direction. Lastly, I’d reach the padded lock-up room that marked the end of my pilgrimage and the beginning of my next revolution. The only relief from my jangling nervous fits were the 15 or 20 cold showers I took daily, dutifully charted in my dossier by the nursing wardens.
And so it went again and again.
I existed. Period. My mind was full of mandatory medication and involuntary exhaustion. My bedroom was filled with stifling August heat and three menacing strangers who were also newly imprisoned and besieged by ominous tomorrows.
Like me, my cellmate, Nervous Cat, performed his own yo-yo-like ritual. He’d fling himself violently onto his cot, thrash about amidst his sheets, kick his locker and then curse himself into a frenzy, only to finally bolt upright and disappear down Corridor A, dressed only to the waist, to vent his rage in the Smoker.
My other two roommates were barely visible. We communicated to one another in grunts and gestures — each of us recently trapped, caged and helpless. Our four bare cots were each adorned with black striped mattresses of 2” thickness, a coarse pillow, a sheet that no one bothered using, and a thin cotton blanket. Each cot had matching rickety, green metal lockers, battered by previous inmates as their only legacy — perhaps in hopes someone would remember them. We each had a crude, waist-high dresser with four sticky drawers and no mirror. The two large windows, sans drapes, welcomed in the summer swelter, with only smaller-than-human-girth transoms to prevent suffocation. This was my ‘personal’ space in captivity.
Brainard State Hospital was my fall from grace. At 50-years-old, I’d gone stark raving mad (so some said), to the horror and intrigue of my family, business associates and friends, who had never expected this emotional rock to crumble.
Personally, I sensed why, but how it came about had shocked everyone, including myself. Spiritually, I’d been pregnant for some time with an overwhelming need to change my life. Now this pent up force had taken over. Frightened, but willing (did I have a choice?), I plunged forward.
Those around me, many of whom were in the medical field — psychiatrists included, assumed that I was in the throes of an attack of mania. Not unexpectedly, four months into my evolution, I was arrested by a psychiatrist at the behest of a good doctor friend and my brother, both of whom assumed I was mad. I was locked up in the rather gentile psychiatric ward at the University of Minnesota. My prevailing impulse was to resist any and all treatment offered by my jailers — a common reaction among those like myself who are involuntarily detained.
The psychiatrists’ protocol was to threaten resistors with a court commitment hearing, which almost always resulted in being committed for six months. I was told that if I voluntarily committed myself, I would be treated less harshly. But I firmly believed in myself, my sanity and my purpose for changing. I refused to volunteer.
The ensuing series of unfathomable, legal maneuvers first allowed a doctor to lock me up for 72 hours (actually 120 hours because weekends don’t count), and then be brought before a county mental health judge for a “dual-commitment hearing.” It all seemed like a mad comedy of errors to me, but evidently, it was standard operation for the University Psychiatric Department. In this hearing, the judge would decide not only if I should be locked up for a prolonged period, but also whether or not the psychiatrists could use their frightening neuroleptic drug arsenal on me.
The day of the hearing, my lawyers told me that my chances of avoiding commitment were one in a hundred. But I had done my own research. I hired my own psychiatrist to examine me and testify in my defense. I never allowed the psychiatrists from the University or the county psychiatrist to interview me. In spite of this, both of them testified at the hearing that I was seriously ill and needed commitment as well as neuroleptic medication.
My own shrink came to my defense. He testified that I could easily be treated as an outpatient and expressed his doubts that neuroleptics were necessary. Out of the three expert opinions, none suggested that I was, in any way, a threat to others or suicidal, only that my behavior had become bizarre and was “disrupting” my societal status. A few other witnesses: my brother, my ex-girlfriend, and a close friend gave ragtag testimonies under oath, which, considering their own character twitches, made the hearing more of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta than a serious decision about my destiny. Not that their testimonies mattered. Apparently, standard procedure dictated that only the doctored-evidence gathered while I was imprisoned at the University and the arresting psychiatrists’ statements would actually be considered by the judge.
Just as we were leaving the courtroom, I was suddenly inspired to tell the judge I had a brain tumor — shooting an arrow into the Achilles heel of psychiatry. The inspiration for mentioning a “brain tumor” is another story.
One evening, months before my commitment, I heard a voice in my deaf ear. Although it terrified me, I was also intrigued by this sudden presence. Over the next four months, an on-going dialogue with The Voice took place and ransacked every nook and cranny of my belief system.
These were not benign conversations. Initially, they were full of The Voice’s threats, accusations and seeming attempts to degrade me. But I soon recognized that The Voice was unearthing all my secret pockets of shame and inadequacies.
The first issue that The Voice had made me tackle was the question of whether or not I was a good person. I insisted that I was. But The Voice responded with a single haunting word: “Evil.” I defended myself with a litany of good deeds, but again, The Voice only said, “Evil.” Again and again, I protested, but the answer I got was the single word: “Evil.” Finally, I succumbed. Maybe I was evil? All the times I had acted selfishly, ignored others in need, lied, came flooding in. But after an agonizing moral inventory, I realized I wasn’t evil. Just human. Full of human frailties. I was not exceptionally good or exceptionally bad — merely perfectly imperfect.
I came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as “Evil” or the “Devil” but rather that everything was about love and God. What we call “evil” I concluded was really the inability to express love. Once I understood this, I felt no further need to focus on my unworthiness. I also felt a contentment that I had not felt before in my life.
Following this, I developed a repartee with The Voice that was filled with humor, delight — even wonder. Each conversation was like an advanced yeshiva on the Big Picture: What is our purpose as human beings on this planet? Did the future already exist? How did spiritual forces give form to the material universe? And always, these were integrated with intimate dissections of my own relationships. I examined the nature of my personal loneliness, which in turn, gave me insight into the loneliness of others.
Check back on the blog next week for Asylum, Part 2!