“Brainwashed” for Sanity’s Sake? (Sheltering Crazy in America)

As, I suggested yesterday, mental illness for me meant an ever-evolving sense of place.  It meant, more specifically, my middle class experience of home quickly degenerated, as I found myself in the most secure and restricted units of state-run psychiatric facilities. 

And what was most strange about this already bizarre devolving was the feeling that I belonged there—that I was safe.  I not only felt secure, I felt contained nowhere else, believed I belonged in those narrowed limits of opportunity and options. 

Tell me where to go; tell me when to eat.  I was fine with all of that.  Just don’t make me face a time-is-money world where feelings mattered less than what one earned and the kind of car one drove.  This all drove me to the brink and back, and I wanted to be nowhere near the edge where “me” met world, where folks felt fine that I was on the edge of nowhere and falling off.

At Parkside Hospital in Oklahoma, I wrote about feeling okay with my incarceration, recording on March 19, 1990:

. . . I worry a lot about the outside.  This place feels so safe and secure—except for the fact that my animals are not here.  They’re really the only thing I miss . . . .

I remember that the hospital, ironically, allowed me a feel a glimmer of hope—less like a complete failure, since I didn’t have to face the fact that I couldn’t function—that I couldn’t complete the tasks of daily living.  In the outside world I faced my inadequacies on every front.  Since even brushing my teeth felt like an over-whelming task, I couldn’t manage to do much else, let alone cook or clean.  In the hospital, however, I only had to brush my teeth—nothing else was expected of me.  So I was free to feel success even on these very limited terms.  Once I’d showered or combed my hair, I didn’t then have to face fixing myself something to eat, seeing that the dishes were done, the floor was swept. 

In the hospital’s shelter I could actually luxuriate in having accomplished a shower and change of clothes, since sanity was a huge enough task in and of itself.  I lived moment by less-than-sane moment, reaching for some semblance of sanity—some semblance of safe, if only in the ritual of bathing.  The hospital was where I managed to literally bathe, so that my thinking, as well, could be baptized in the basics of sanity.  Here shelter meant washing (brainwashing even), a sacrament of clean.

 (to be continued)

Note:  We just found out that our 20 foot container from Haiti should be delivered to our home in Lexington on Thursday or Friday.  This could impact my ability to post later in the week, as we will have 66 boxes to unpack in an already full house.

Also, I forgot to mention yesterday that my post “Leaving the Seclusion Room” was published as an op-ed in this past Sunday’s Lexington Herald Leader.  Editors at the paper changed my title and a few sentences here and there, but if you’d like to take a look, click here.

Blogs Go Ghandi

Blogging is about community.  It’s about sharing and interacting and telling our stories.  It’s about friendship and honesty and all that’s good about people meeting people.  Blogging is about change, about language launched into action.  It’s about hope, about faith, and sometimes even about love.

So it’s happened in the past week, since I’ve been recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month, two bloggers have visited my site, two women who have fabulous and important blogs about mental health that put Ghandi’s imperative into action—they are “the change” many “want to see in the world.”

Sandy Sue’s “A Mind Divided” explores what it means to live with bipolar disorder and uses mixed media art to image its message of hope in the midst of struggle. Just the other day Sandy wrote about the poverty that often accompanies mental illness, about having to choose between meals and medication, since sometimes she can’t afford both.  She rightly suggests that those who say money can’t buy happiness . . .

. . .  aren’t considering those of us who walk to the grocery store when we don’t have enough money to get gas for the car.  Or who simply stay home, because funds for the groceries aren’t there, either.

Reminding us that “in all the ways that matter, money does buy happiness,” Sandy focuses a light on an ugly underside of mental illness, the poverty that often prevents patients, no longer able to work, from getting the medications they need and sometimes even food to eat.

However, “Suicide Ripple” delivers an even more sobering message—that, indeed, some don’t live long enough to go without medication or become hungry, because a hard, cold fact remains: mental illness kills.  Begun by the friend of a bipolar-diagnosed woman, who committed suicide in January of this year, “Suicide Ripple” is about

the effects such a suicide has on a family, a community, even people who didn’t know the person who completed suicide. This one act by one individual causes a ripple effect that can reach hundreds of people all over the country, even the world.

 The writer hopes her blog will prevent others from ending their lives, showing the impact such deaths have on loved ones left behind, as well as comfort the survivors themselves, creating a community of support.

The bottom line is this—social media has massive impact, affects the way we think about ourselves and the communities we’re part of.  As such, blogs should be used to lessen isolation, loneliness, depression and despair.  If blogging can create the very thing so many suicide victims lack, the very thing that drives them to end their lives and hurt the ones they love, if blogs can build community, create caring environments where sharing can be safely and anonymously undertaken, then  more mental health professions should exploit this potential, and many more who live with mental illness should tell their stories, talk about their struggles, share the hope and joy, peace and comfort that come with recovery.

May more of us use our blogs to affect change.  As Ghandi so wisely advised, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

A Poem from Parkside Hospital (for Mental Health Awareness Month)

Today I’ll take the story of my 1990 admission to Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one step further, passing along a poem I wrote as a patient there.

One of the things I find most striking in the poem below is evidence that my associations had loosened–a common symptom of psychosis.  Here, in fact, they’ve loosened  to the point that the poem, I think, lacks cohesion in literary terms.  However, I believe the piece provides some clues about the way my mind processed information at that time and how my sense of reality was largely based on loose leaps in logic.

mental illness

the edge of this
is not like other
edges.  I approach
it from the angle
we associate with
bent sticks stripped
of bark and the inner
coating which comes
off in layers against
the flat edge of
fingernail pressing:
     paint peeling
     orange peeling
     skin peeling after
and all of this only
to reveal error and
a false start.
so stripped i enter
naked into the oblivion
and am washed
ashore along with tomb
stones on which we read
about the deaths of
certain navigators.
sailors are a special
breed of the explorer—
straining toward the edge
of anything—crazy to
believe in spheres
they say—all is as it
appears to be—flat as
slate and born of one
dimension—folded not
pleated—pleats are
said to complicate the

Notice that an image I now call the “event horizon”  has crept into my description of mental illness–“the edge of this/is not like other/edges.”  I seem to believe I’m approaching a kind of emotional frontier, not knowing what’s next, what’s beyond, comparing my experience of “crazy” to that of the early explorers fighting the misperception that the world was flat.

I wish I were able to recall more clearly and concretely what I was thinking during these weeks in the hospital.  However, most of what I wrote was like this poem, a web of loosely linked images, a gauze in the guise of information, more evocative than overt.

Does anything about this poem seem important to you?

Asylum Seekers (Another Chapter in the Chronicle of Crazy)

Note: This piece continues the story of my psychiatric hospitalization in the spring 1990 (begun two posts back).  To read part 1 of this sequence, “Another Chapter in the Chronicle of Crazy,” click here.  To read part 2, “Forgetting the Seclusion Room ,” click herePart 2 concludes with the following sentence:

But mostly I walked that hospital hall alone, alternately fighting and forgetting a psychosis that whiplashed between extremes of nothingness and nowhere . . . .

. . . . This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of myself a huge hole swallowed and indeed devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.

I was nothing.

The world around me a vacuum—nothing but emptiness sucking.

Suddenly my experience of myself shifted.  I was not who I thought I was.   

I was nobody.

I was nowhere.

I saw myself stripped of all seeming substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall.  I was naked and drowning—bare to the glare of what others called crazy.

If I was indeed, out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean?  And if I couldn’t trust my own mind, what could I trust? 

Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust myself terrified me.  And my mind, though insane, was adaptive enough to not consciously fear itself.  Instead, I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything—terrified of nothing.   I couldn’t articulate at the time exactly what I feared.  I was only and always overcome with dread.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

As I look back on it now, I imagine I wanted out.  But not so much out of the hospital, as out my own mind, a mind that, if insane, was no longer an asylum in its own right.

As Anne Sexton said:

O mother of the womb
did I come here for blood alone?
O little mother,
I am in my own mind,
I am locked in the wrong house.  (“For the Year of the Insane”)

So in the end, it was terror that made me walk that hospital hall alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.

This is the terror of mental illness–terror from which we seek the ultimate asylum–an asylum that ends stigma, increases awareness, guarantees hope for all who suffer.

Ultimately, this is what it means to “reinvent the event horizon”–to bring back from the brink all who suffer, all who are marginalized by any stigma, especially the stigma that is mental illness.


Since May 1st marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month, I will republish this entire 3 post sequence as one on Monday, May 2nd, along with art that illustrates my journey.   In an effort to raise awareness and erase stigma, please share these posts with those you love sometime over the next month.