Some high schoolers coach soccer the summer before senior year, others lifeguard. I knew a few kids who worked as camp counselors, and several of my best friends toiled through sticky heat and stickier ketchup packets while manning concession stands at various local swimming pools.
I worked at a mental institution. On purpose. For free.
My own "crazy," while occasionally action-packed, was starting to bore the sh*t out of me. I found other people’s "crazy"—the diagnosed variety, but especially the kind that lingered and lay in wait just beneath the surface—fascinating. Consequently, when my high-school sociology teacher, Ms. Printz, announced a volunteer opportunity at Woodville State Hospital, my hand shot straight up.
Some of my fellow classmates signed up to volunteer at Woodville, too. Perhaps they sought service hours in hopes that doing so would help make them appear more well-rounded on future resumes ... maybe they took on the gig because they were just decent people—who knows. What I do know is that they weren't schlepping over to the local "loony bin" a few days a week on some sort of a reconnaissance mission like yours truly. I believe that the real reason I was drawn to Woodville was that a part of me needed to see firsthand just how dysfunctional a person had to be to land in state custody—surely any issues I had would pale in comparison? God, I had such high hopes.
What does one wear to volunteer at a state institution?
When I get nervous, I always focus on the best outfit for the event in question: pants or a dress ... casual or fancy? I actually swung by Marshall's one day hoping that there might be some outfit that would feel right for volunteering at Woodville. I chose a couple of slightly irregular Ralph Lauren polo shirts that were plain and preppy, but not too preppy.
Clothes mattered very little at Woodville State Hospital, I would soon learn. Actually, on some of the units, "crazy" was clothing optional. A couple of patients wore blue hospital gowns that weren’t so much as secured in the back.
As it turned out, fashion was embarrassingly threadbare at the end of the line.
That's what I saw Woodville as: the end of the line. It never occurred to my 17- year-old self that some of these people could and would get better. I saw the world as a mostly dark, dank hole where I plodded about looking for ways to not feel like such a piece of sad, sorry sh*t. My mental illness presented itself as a fog so thick and steely gray that there was no way and no how that it could ever lift. Until it did ... and then it was really hard to describe what it had felt like when I had been in its debilitating clutches.
If it sounds like I vacillated between thinking I was "crazy," and not "crazy" in the slightest, and thinking that I was like these patients, and not like them at all ... then ding, ding, ding. I was completely uncertain in which "crazy" box any of us fit, or from which we could emerge.
But at least I didn't hear voices, right?
On one of my visits, a very large psychotic woman got in my face and told me that a little girl like me should not be at this place. She had way more spunk than most of the patients I encountered; most of whom were sleeping in chairs, chain smoking or pacing; and a few of whom were muttering to entities I could neither see nor hear.
Absolutely nobody in this place was dressed to kill, although there was a rumor that one of the patients had actually killed someone.
It was not my experience that anybody at Woodville was dangerous; dangerous to themselves, maybe, but not to me. Docile is a way better word to describe the most profoundly unwell among them. My hardened, "I'm better than you self" from my suburban bubble felt compassion that I didn't know I had for most of the overmedicated shufflers in the common areas of Woodville. The more practical side of me wanted to tell the residents to snap out of it, which is comical because snapping had never accomplished much during my own periods of darkness.
There were times at the hospital when I felt vulnerable and not sure what to expect, but I was never alone. I usually shadowed some aide or therapist, not that anyone could have saved me if the aforementioned psychotic woman had failed to resist the urge to toss me like a Nerf ball. But the thing about her that amused me so: she was worried about me. She didn't think I should be exposed to this place and people like her. "Why would a perfectly 'normal' kid be hanging out at a state hospital on a sunny summer day" was what she couldn't put her finger on.
Things were lighter in the Occupational Therapy Room where I spent most of my volunteer hours lending support to high-functioning patients who were “crafting” their way to mental health.
Occupational Therapy was really a euphemism for: let’s make potholders until we get your meds right.
Some days I'd get to join the crowd at the Life Skills group. We'd chat about the weather, quiz each other on current affairs and pop culture and try to keep our collective focus on the here and now: what was the date ... who was president of the United States ... what holiday was coming up? Keeping it simple seemed like a really good approach for wandering and occasionally paranoid minds; including my own.
During my Woodville visits I came across patients who have been etched in my memory ever since—like the totally "normal looking" twin brothers with wet brains. If you don't know anything about wet brain, check out WebMD, but here's the gist: a person soaks his or her brain in booze one too many times and his or her brain never quite recovers. In some cases, like with the twins, the person becomes so compromised that the lights are on, but nobody's home ... and they're never going to be coming home either.
Seeing wet brain in real life was disturbing, but not quite as troubling as watching a young pregnant woman listlessly pace the halls. Eerily ethereal, it occurred to me that she was way too out of it to be charged with carrying a human as I spied her just beyond the double doors of a locked ward.
There was also the partially paralyzed guy who cheerfully introduced himself to me as I was heading for the parking lot one day. I had noticed him from afar several times. He was face down on a low gurney using his functioning arm or leg, I can't remember which, to navigate the hospital's main lobby. At some point I summoned the courage to ask someone what had happened to him. I was told of his failed suicide attempt. He had shot himself and done plenty of damage; just not enough damage to get the job done. Now his fate was this ... here ... a fate worse than death if you would have asked me at the time.
But by far, the scariest patients I met at Woodville were the ones who I couldn't diagnose. How did they end up at the end of the line? Was the end of the line closer than I had ever imagined it could be? Were we all way closer to needing the care and compassion of strangers than I ever thought possible? Um, yes.
So although Woodville was f*cking sad, the strange thing about that was this: I felt like I had something to give to those patients ... and I gave it. I was able to be helpful and useful. I acted like a better person when I was there—kinder ... gentler. It was as if the hospital gave me a temporary reprieve from being consumed with myself.
On the other hand, the people I encountered at Woodville made my heart extra sore. After many a morning of volunteering, I drove around aimlessly in my mom’s car smoking cigarettes and crying hysterically.
I felt the pain of those mentally ill men and women as if it were my own—and in a way that I couldn't fully grasp at the time, it was.
One of my slightly less soul-crushing volunteer posts at Woodville was with a guy who was some sort of researcher or clinician. He was attempting to compile data on the hospital population to determine which patients classified as dual diagnosis.
He said that many of the patients were mentally ill and had abused or were abusing some sort of substance.
He said that many of the patients used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.
I listened closely to every single syllable that rolled off that guy’s tongue. I was riveted—a captive audience among actual captives. I would go with this guy, whose name I can’t recall, to interview various patients. He would ask them detailed questions about their medical, mental health and drug and alcohol histories. I hung on every word.
Many of the patient interviews were disjointed and inconclusive for any number of reasons. First, some of the interview subjects weren’t capable of engaging in a coherent exchange. Second, some of the interview subjects were completely incapable of telling the truth about themselves. They would say one thing and follow it up with something totally contradictory. Third, some of the patients we attempted to speak with wanted nothing to do with us.
The doctor (I don’t know if he was a doctor, actually) told me that it was so difficult to get accurate data to back up his hypothesis that a significant number of the patients in this hospital suffered from mental-health issues in addition to significant impairment caused by addiction. Essentially, he knew it was true, but he couldn’t prove it. I also remember him saying, “It’s hard to tell where one problem ends and the other begins.”
I wanted to say, “Amen, brother,” but that probably would have been inappropriate.
One beautiful day when I was volunteering, several patients, the doctor (or whoever he was) and I boarded a white van for an awesome field trip to an AA meeting. It was very exciting. I wondered if it was okay for me to attend since I wasn’t an alcoholic. They said it was fine at this particular meeting. I thought to myself that it would be nice if I could wear some nametag that read: Beth, not an alcoholic, or Beth, visitor. I didn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea about my being there. I was here in a research capacity as the doctor’s (or fake doctor’s) helper.
The noon meeting was packed. There were lots of old people. I don’t remember much else. I do recall having some random thought in the back of my head: you are going to have to come to these meetings some day as an actual participant. I immediately batted that thought away.
Even if I had the potential to drink like those people at that AA meeting drank, I was far too smart to end up in some church basement at lunch time.
I didn’t mean to be unsympathetic to their plight; I simply believed that no matter what your problems in life, it was important to soldier on. The idea of sitting around in a circle and sharing how you felt … was that really going to change anything? If these wimps wanted to hold hands, that was on them.
Although I let some tiny rays of sunlit self-awareness slip through whatever cracks I had while I roamed the grounds during my summer at Woodville, the comfort of denial always loomed larger. It's funny the things I thought I had to do to protect myself. How lucky am I that I don't have to do them anymore?