Monday, September 17, 2012

The Asylum

(An abbreviated version of this essay was published in the Concord Monitor 3/14/13)

New Hampshire opened the N.H. Asylum for the Insane in 1842, the 17th such hospital in the U.S. The Asylum’s name was changed to the N.H. State Hospital after the turn of the century. By 1930, the hospital had a population approaching 2000, reaching its pinnacle in 1953 when the population hit 2,750.

The population was still near its all time high when I worked here as a hospital attendant in the summer of 1964, after my freshman year at Columbia where I was majoring in psychology.

The coming tidal wave, spawned by the cultural revolution of the 1960s to deinstitutionalize patients – and restore their value as human beings by returning them to their community, family, and friends for treatment – had yet to swept over these hospital grounds.  Things were still done the old way.

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage back to that site, the now, long-abandoned old N.H. State Hospital grounds, to take photographs. I found the experience haunting, resurrecting vivid memories, prompting me to write the following.

All the following photographs taken 9/16/2012: © J. Stimmell
This photograph reworked in Photoshop

Through crisscrossed bars and tattered screens, reflections on my old ward windowpanes reveal ghosts of patients I once knew, working here in the early sixties at the same time Ken Kesey was researching “One Flew Over a Cuckoo Nest” at a kindred institution in California.

One of my patients, a frustrated “deaf-mute,” once in a fit of rage, lifted up a supposedly immoveable, immense oak chair – not to break the window and escape like Kesey’s Big Chief – but to smash the skull of a fellow attendant.

Another patient was the “retarded guy” with a sinewy but broken body swaddled in diapers; he was dubbed “The Animal” because he growled, but could not talk. Unable to walk from breaking too many bones falling out of bed, he was sequestered 24/7 in a steel crib “for his own protection.” Yet, when the mood struck, he was still able to prevail: wriggling and willing himself over the railing to slither to the window and howl at the moon.
This photograph reworked in Photoshop
Like Kesey, I had my own “Big Nurse” who was determined to educate me –this wide-eyed, naïve, 19-year-old psychology major –by taking me on rounds.

She introduced me to a cast of characters including: A very erudite gentleman holding forth every day in the dayroom, sonorously lecturing like the college professor he once was, but, while he still used the same big words and his delivery was spot on, what he said now was total gibberish –an exquisite word salad.

Oh, the Big Nurse gloated,  How the mighty have fallen!

On another occasion, she took me to meet a fellow who could recite all the evidence, more convincingly than a trial lawyer. To hear him tell it, there was absolutely no doubt, I'm locked up here on orders from the CIA because I know who killed JFK. But the Big Nurse wasn’t fooled, smirking she said, I can tell he is a paranoid schizophrenic by his smell.
This photo also reworked in Photoshop
And then there was the night Big Nurse excitedly summoned me: Come quickly: a patient is dying in the next ward. You must see this as part of your education. We found a wild-eyed, graying, older man, half out of his clothes, writhing in pain, who, as I approached, seized my hands to pull himself up, transfixing his terrified eyes on my soul, shuddered and gasped once, before falling back on the bed – Dead.

But my ordeal wasn’t over. I need your help preparing the body, Big Nurse commanded. Cut his fingernails! Being clumsy, left handed and in shock, I snipped a nail deeper than I should have, causing his cooling, dead finger to bleed… cutting my lesson short.

Although the staff suffered from the prejudices and the stereotyped thinking of the time, almost every one was well meaning and kind. The worst cruelty I witnessed was the very nature of the system itself: Institutionalization or human warehousing had became the preferred remedy for a catchall of ills – disability, stroke, personality disorder, psychosis, bipolar disorder, senility, you name it. And the tragic part was that no matter what the perceived malfunction, inside these walls, it all too often didn’t matter, the verdict was the same: A life sentence without parole.
Grave marker from unmarked N.H. Hospital Cemetery
All these faces of patients I once knew, reflected in these windowpanes, are indelibly etched into my brain, including another I’ll never forget: a sweet, old man dropped off by his family without a backwards glance, lost and afraid, clutching just a small bag. At first, wanting to succeed, he jumped up early each day, washed and dressed, ready to immerse himself in activities and friendship with other patients which would never happen and welcoming family and friends who would never come. Soon, when the true hopelessness of his situation sunk in, he gave up: forgetting about dressing and hygiene, he joined with his disheveled comrades, shuffling like zombies up and down the halls or just swaying gently together back and forth in a medicated trance like exotic seaweed in a brackish lagoon
One section of the unmarked N.H. Hospital Cemetery off Clinton Street