My time in ye ol’ Mental Institution

Catharsis, that’s really all this is about. A type of emotional purging; in good Aristotlean fashion… How? By relating a drama of course. Just a little secret story, hidden away behind a false sense of anonymity. Just keep the word in mind going forward – “catharsis”.

I’ve been to four psychiatric care facilities – the fancy yet categorically more accurate way of saying “mental institutions”. If you haven’t been, let me spoil it for you. It’s not like movies or what you read in a thriller novel – they’re actually incredibly boring places. You wake up, you take pills, you eat, and you sit. Occasionally someone referred to as your “case worker”, “social worker”, “councilor”, etc. shows up to do preliminary diagnostics. Every so often these are sent to your psychiatrist. You’ll never see them. With systemized precision they’ll glance at your file and ask you questions primarily related to your medication (e.g. prior usage and current effects of medication). Then they disappear down some hallway behind a locked and weighted door.

Round 1: The first institution visit was a case of youthful exuberance and attention seeking. Ain’t that always the way? Some gal whose name I’ve long sense forgot was interested in someone else. In a misguided attempt to get her attention I told her about my recent plan to murder a family friend and commit suicide. Yuck… those are the types of people you actually encounter in psych wards. It’s not filled with Hannibal Lectors or Chiefs; it’s filled with anxious self-centered people who made petulant and otherwise impulsive decisions because they thought whatever they did was the best course of action at the time. The few who hallucinate are usually drugged up enough to seem polite and calm and the violent ones are just little powder kegs who leave you alone if you make it clear you’ll stay out of their way and mortally wound them if they don’t stay out of yours. It’s a simple language to be perfectly honest – like talking to a honey badger that has been momentarily granted the cognitive ability to process human-to-human interaction.

Now was I actually planning a murder-suicide? Not really. I was fantasizing about it, sure. But to go through with it would have been both a literal and figurative pain. But you tell one person and boom – the cops are at your door in under 30 minutes or the next one is free. But seriously they arrived shortly after I mentioned my so-called plan to this poor girl online.

Whilst at this Mountain of Madness (Lovecraft anyone?) that we call a psychiatric hospital, I shared a room with a kid named Travis. A taller gawky teenager who, in the dead of night, once asked me, “Everyone hears voices, right?” In perhaps the most calm and serious tone I’ve ever heard such a question asked. He disappeared after a week or so, and I had the room all to myself. None of the other patients talked about him. A comically fitting end to the boy who hallucinated – I joked to myself that perhaps I had hallucinated a hallucinating boy as a roommate.

I was there for a few weeks – 3 sounds right but time sort of stops in places like that. No clocks or calendars as I recall. Maybe one clock in the dining room area. In any event, I read The Catcher in the Rye (solid book by the way, bravo to Salinger), a few Garfield books, and eventually asked one of the ward techs for a Bible (he seemed like a religious gentleman). I didn’t actually want to read the Bible; Garfield is significantly more interesting and genuinely more humorous, but demonstrating some level of Christian solemnity got me a few perks and freedoms my fellow inmates didn’t receive. I think I finished a good portion of the New Testament – spoiler: Jesus dies near the beginning.

Round 2 in the psych ward came a few months after my initial release. It wasn’t attention seeking this time thankfully. No, it was just good ol’ fashion assault with a deadly weapon. Normally you just go to jail for that sort of thing (I did), but because the targets were my parents (my father and my step-mother) I ended up in another mental health center (see all the absurd names for these places?). To say that the impetus for my actions was born from youthful exuberance would be a bit too charitable of a description in this case. More like, pent up (albeit justified) rage finally being released. Don’t worry, I didn’t stab them. Hell, all I did was hold a large knife up to them, yelled at them a bit, and stabbed a staircase as I sprinted out the door and laughed maniacally. Probably a comical scene if it were staged, but alas the gods had not willed it to be so.

No, I sprinted out the door and into a nearby forest corridor. In my haste I had forgotten my shoes. Quite the predicament. I briefly considered mugging a passerby but ultimately decided I would hike to a nearby store and spend a few dollars on a cheap pair of sneakers. My dear sweet father and my step-mother had been moderately panicked, and in their confusion called the police – I noticed a patrol car circling my exit of the forest path. To be honest I’m not entirely clear on why I surrendered myself. The cruiser would have been easy enough to avoid and I could see the officer from the trees long before he would’ve spotted me. In hindsight – and I kid you not this is the only semi-rational explanation I have for my decision – I think I was just bored. Fleeing the state and ultimately the country sounded like the exact sort of adventure I didn’t want to have, and becoming a professional vagabond lacked so much of the charm I think it would’ve had in the seventeenth century. So I sauntered up to the car, gave the officer a little wave and a weak smile as if to say, “Hi, I’m here, let’s just do this.” I was promptly arrested. He did, however, stop to grab my shoes. Lovely fellow.

A brief aside: Fate is a funny mistress. We have a love hate/hate relationship, she and I. She knows how to tempt me with her charms and I amuse her with my antics until eventually we end up fighting and breaking up for a few months. I always considered myself lucky at the right time – never sooner and certainly never consistently. Instead Fate always shoots me a drunken text right as I’m about to crash into oblivion. She’s crafty like that.

After being arrested I was hauled off to jail – I had never been to anything like jail before. It was different then the mental institution and filled with notably more detached people. The goal of jail is apparent to all who walk through the door in chains: you are to be understood as a delinquent and you have entered into the place of punishment so that you may suffer and understand your failings. I was stripped naked and told to squat, finger printed, given a jump suit far too big, and sent to little multiperson cell with a pay phone. Once in the cell I did the first thing anyone would do – I called my work. It was becoming increasing clear that I wouldn’t be making it in that day. My manager, the kind little bugger he was, offered to bail me out. The sweetheart. I think $100k was a tad out of his price-range though.

Eventually a judge called me back. I was escorted to a room that I swear was the darkest working office I’ve ever seen. The only light came from the window counter where the judge sat – the poetic irony of which was not lost upon me. He asked me how I pled – to which I responded, fairly adamantly, that I didn’t know. He gave me a quizzical look, repeated the question and told me to make whatever decision I thought I deserved. I have no idea why I didn’t have lawyer present, but I said, “guilty, I guess?” Yes, upward inflection and all. He handed me a little yellow sheet – of sweet Fate we’ll get to you – and sent me on my way. I sat briefly in the multiperson cell before I went to “County”.

County jail for a youth was essentially a large high school gymnasium where the bleachers were replaced with tiny cells and instead of a wooden basketball court the walls and ceiling are made of concrete. The youth facility was divided up into four separate holding areas so as to disperse the incarcerated population. Each of the four parts was appropriately referred to as a quad and housed around 50-75 kids. Overcrowding at the time had resulted in several kids sleeping outside of cells on the concrete (which was both a blessing and a curse given the smell and comfort of the cells, respectively).

Now before I go any further, I should note that there are very few things in the world I’m genuinely afraid of. Swimming in the open ocean is probably one, being stalked by a tiger in the Sundarbans would likely be two, but three is almost certainly angry muscular black guys with a history of violent crime and gang affiliations. Seriously it’s not even a race thing – it’s just that I was the only (seriously out of like 70 people) white guy in my quad. Needless to say I was not popular upon entering.

I was escorted in and uncuffed around what amounted to “free time” in the quad. I was greeted with three comments presented verbatim and in sequential order: (1) “What the fuck that white boy doing here?” and (2) “That white boy is a fucking cop.” (3) “You gonna fuckin die cop!” I have a strict policy to never show that I’m afraid. I was genuinely terrified I would get stabbed for simply looking older than eighteen (I’ve always looked old for my age) and for being a well-built, clean-cut, white male. Within minutes I was surrounded by at least ten tough looking black kids each with tattoos signifying their status and affiliation with the Bloods (as I was to later learn). The next several minutes consisted of these fine gentleman yelling, “give me yo papers white boy.” Eventually I folded and handed over the yellow sheet of paper the judge had given to me. “Oh shit, bruh.” And “My bad.” Were the next two comments I heard as my interlocutors handed me back my papers and walked away.

Oh sweet Fate… You see, the judge was clearly having an issue with his pen, and in an effort to get the multiple sentences he was delivering that hour on to the yellow carbon copy now effectively known as my “papers”, he had pressed down so hard that the previous man’s sentence appeared neatly printed next to my own. The result: “Assault with a deadly weapon, possession of cocaine with intent to sell.” In addition to my name being spelled the way it is, my dark hair, dark eyes, and a slight tan; I was told by one fellow inmate nicknamed “Cali” that everyone believed I was connected with the Mafia. I obviously didn’t bother to deny it.

Within in an hour I was teaching the head Blood in the quad and his top  enforcer how to play 7-card Stud. No joke though, Lord of the Flies hierarchy for these kids. The enforcer, nicknamed “Butters”, had apparently shot several rival gang members and was going to prison for a long time despite the fact that he was only 17. The leader, whose nickname I’ll leave out for his potential safety, had been with him during the altercation. I was told the leader would get out in 5 or so years. His formal title amongst the inmates and himself was “King Blood”.

I don’t know why he was the King Blood; the title only made sense because everyone seemed to respect him and leave him alone. Butters was routinely celebrated by his fellow Blood members but King Blood had a sort unspoken power and he carried it with him. Both he and Cali struck me as the most intelligent of the group there. Cali (whose name seems ambiguous enough to not hide), was a dealer and hustler. He had the swagger of a salesman, he talked fast, and he beat me at every single game of Connect Four we played together. King Blood was the most stoic of the group, but also the most generous and – in a weird way – the most caring. He’d rap sometimes, make jokes about all the “pussy” he got, but really wasn’t very loud or mean about it. He seemed people savvy, patient, and like he wanted to have all the information in the quad. An interesting and profound character.

Within 36 hours one Blood named “Rollin” or “Rollins” (I was never clear or not whether it ended in an “s”) was convinced I was a cop and was trying to convince his fellow Bloods that I was undercover. The threats started to ramp up and the officer in charge of the quad obviously noticed because I went from sleeping on concrete outside the cells to suddenly having my own cell in an hour (a turn of events that was not lost on Rollin[s]). As I sat in the cell I started to ponder how to get out. After some time I determined the best way was to convince my parents that I was emotionally broken and this was all some cry for attention. I know that sounds a bit callous and possibly meets some of the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder, but it is what it is, and in that situation you do what you have to.

The plan was five-fold. Part 1: I needed writing utensils. I got a pen and paper and wrote out my script. Having read the Bible (remember that part?) I was familiar enough with the types of ecclesiastical language common amongst Christians like my father to demonstrate some level of divine repentance and a “coming to the light” as it were. In theological doctrine “sin” is counteracted with purity; either “washed away” by the “blood of the lamb” (i.e. the life of the pure being that is Christ), and – in human interaction – whence exposed to truth. The act of “bringing to light” or “shedding light upon” the darkness that is sin is how to best purge it of its power. You get the idea – it was this type of terminological distinction that would be necessary to convey in my script. That was Part 2.

Part 3 required a calculated risk. One I wasn’t proud of, but one I needed to take so as to secure my safety via Part 5 in the event that my script didn’t pay off while also generating additional emotional impetus in selling my story to my father. Part 3: I had to cry in my cell. Loudly enough for the inmates sleeping outside to hear. It’s a weird move. Purely tactical and, hindsight being what it is, a useful skill to have in one’s back pocket as we’ll see. Not to sound too psychotic, but my rationale was fairly simple: crying would likely demonstrate to Rollin(s) that I wasn’t an undercover cop, protecting me in the event that I didn’t get out soon. It would also embarrass me enough in front of the other inmates to the point where I would have desperation in my voice when I called my father. Finally and most importantly it would give my words a genuine force – like a method actor, it would bare a portion of the soul so that the audience couldn’t help but believe it was real.

A bit of a tangent, but let me assure you that I’m not psychopath (not clinically at any rate). I was, for all intents and purposes, sad about my circumstances and scared for my life. But it was not the time for those types of emotions, and my decision making process had to be rooted in a concrete delineation of the practical information I had at my disposal. Impulsivity, decisions based purely out of emotion, a lack of calculation; those things would have been foolish at that time. I had to get out of that place and/or survive. I had to use whatever cognitive ability I could muster to guide me in that task.

Anyway, Part 4 was the actual phone call itself. It had to be timed properly, and it needed to be perfect. One damn mistake, one “of course I’m still angry with you” comment was all it would take and I would be stuck there until whenever they decided to ship me off to the state looney bin. No, sadly for this to work. I had to be vulnerable and I had to be wrong. Which for the record. I’m wasn’t. (Tangent Time) My parental guardians probably did deserve a good stabbing for all there nonsense. I mean nowadays I think they’re just obnoxious and avoidable, but back in the day they needed a healthy dose of fear. A lesson to the kids out there though: it doesn’t take. Both my father and step-mother are still the same horrible human beings they were all those years ago. The real lesson, quite possibly, is to either murder them or disown them. A grim reality, but c’est la vie. In either case, calculate out methods and consequences beforehand – under no circumstances should you make your decision impulsively.

Part 5 was just contingency. Nothing too exciting or significantly complex to note. Basically in the event that my father spurned my apparent blindness-in-the-light-of-reason, then I would likely need to either request a few dollars from him or someone else and quickly work to make allegiances in the quad. Crying would set a bad precedent but at least it would buy me time with Rollin(s) and all I would need to fill that time and insure my safety was a bit of pocket money and a few more games of poker with King Blood and Butters.

I’ll spare you the details but the plan went perfectly and with an added bonus. One of the people sleeping outside my cell during my crying-fit was King Blood himself. Who immediately sought to comfort me through the door and guarantee my protection (Rollin[s] didn’t make eye contact with after that). Perhaps I was just lucky that we were all under eighteen and fraught with emotional instability, or maybe he really was just a genuinely good human being. What I can definitely say is that I completely understand why he was considered the leader in there. He knew when to protect, when care, when to talk, and when to be silent. In any other context he’d be a lion among men; a king, a statesman, a business leader, a general. But alas, he was born poor and black in America. I do hope he’s doing well wherever he is.

Upon leaving jail I was still under some legal scrutiny (apparently), and was subsequently sent to a private mental health clinic. A far cry from freedom, but isn’t everything these days? The private facility was certainly more relaxed than the quad. The rooms were carpeted, the beds were small but comfortable. We had private showers, decent food (which the more charming among us were able to get extra servings of), a tiny library, a small TV, and lots of other things I could otherwise describe as miniscule. With only a few exceptions, the children at the private facility were from wealthier families. In some cases insurance covered the costs for others, but they were easily identified and tended to be released as soon as the payments stopped coming in.

An important side note here: these types of clinics are, functionally, profit focused rather than patient focused. Make of that what you will. The point is that doctors are happy to stuff you full of pills, have orderlies change your bed sheets and read you bed-time stories so long as you can pay the several thousand dollars it costs to be there for a week. In a way I was fortunate – removed from the potential dangers of the jail and substantially more comfortable than the state facility. Oh but the downside… the medication.

Prior to the age of 17 I had never taken any sort of psychiatric prescribed medication consistently. I had them recommended to me once, but prior to Round 1 with the state, I had never been essentially required to take medication. In the private facility whatever my dosage was of anti-depressants was summarily doubled with an additional medication added. The feeling was miserable.

I want to take a minute and talk about the medication procedure in mental institutions. Let me start by saying that you have absolutely nothing to be afraid of in a mental institution other than your medication. As a person who prizes my cognitive faculties, my capacity for abstract reasoning, and my creative mental flair for theory and conceptual analysis; I can say that the medications were utter Hell. You’re given your pills once or, often times, twice a day. You take them, you have your mouth checked, and you go about your business. Suddenly you start to feel strange. Cloudy. In my case the world stopped making sense, words lost their content, and my usual way of interpreting language (through a series of semantic rules and aligning linguistic semiotics with observable behavior) collapsed. What made this process significantly more terrifying was, perhaps, that the doctors themselves seemed to think it was normal – that it was “working”.

If I might make a slightly more inflammatory statement: psychiatric drugs are for the mundane. The idiots and dullards among us who, for whatever reason, have found that upon barely scratching the surface of their own cerebral complexity, it would best and easiest for them to retreat into the world of sedation. A boring bunch in need of constant placation; trained idiomatically toward a standard of emotional and mental normalcy by the psychological institutions they believe themselves so detached from. Obnoxious. Horrifyingly and utterly obnoxious humans who apparently, in their pitiful little lives of watching reality television and incessantly reading about the emotional perturbations of the Hollywood elite, never thought through the antecedent claims behind the message “Don’t do Drugs.” I.e. that instability amongst the unstable is not cured, but marginalized and exacerbated, through the mind altering properties of chemical substances introduced to the brain. I have a suspect feeling talk-therapy has more potential as a therapeutic modality, but pharmaceutical companies aren’t funding that research for obvious reasons.

Anywho, the medication was awful. And to make matters worse the doctors and my parents thought that my bemused state was an indicator that I was beginning to break through the fog rather than become enmeshed in it. Scary stuff folks. If you do ever end up in one of these institutions and you value even the tiniest part of your mental functioning or creativity – find some way to avoid taking your pills.

After a few weeks I was removed from the facility. My dad told me that he was going to put me on a plane and send me back to live me with my mom. I was overjoyed. My mother is a lovely, intelligent, acentric woman. She’s a professor, you see… prone to all sorts of lapses in judgment and flights of fancy. In my medicated haze I barely realized we were driving out of the state. When I asked I was told were going to another city in another state to catch a flight from there for “legal reasons.” If you’re sensing something is wrong with this scenario you would be correct.

In the dead of night we arrived at an outdoor mental health program (you’d think they’d just have a generic name by now, right?). My father had been told by the directors of the program that it was best to deceive you child in the event that you believed they were a flight risk or potentially a danger to themselves. Sounds mildly sane on the outset. It isn’t. It’s deceptive and infuriating. Yet there I was – feeling betrayed by my own father, given a pat-down, a pair of boots, and a gear bag and stuffed into a little truck. The truck must have drove for an hour. I was too shocked, furious, and exhausted to remember. We were at a small temporary encampment in the mountains. Who the devil knows where exactly. They didn’t make a habit of handing out GPS coordinates to patients.

Round 3: Upon exiting the truck I sat up against a tree and stared into the darkness. It was below freezing but I didn’t want to go anywhere near the fire, near people. I just wanted to sit and think. My medication prevented me from doing so. All I could do was stare. Eventually a young guy approached me and introduced himself as “Alex”. None of us had last names so far as I can remember. He was simply Alex. At various times the other members would call him “the Senator’s son.” He was only around for two weeks after my arrival so I never confirmed it with him.

These were the wealthy kids though. None of these kids were there on an insurance plan. No this was thirty grand out-of-pocket. A place where fiscally sound parents can send their unsound children when they don’t know how to raise them with money at them anymore. The solution is to spend more money correcting their behavior. So there we all were.  Me, Alex, Todd (a super wealthy brat who got into a little too much coke and crashed his brand new Escalade), Chris (some plucky son of a banker I think), Eric (a paranoid anarchist from some obviously old money family – probably the most sane person there incidentally), Jacob (some well-to-do stoner whose parents had obviously caught him smoking weed and skipping school), Steven (a pampered little rich boy who had never had to lift a finger), and several other kids whose names escape me at the moment. Weston? David? They’re all the same little snobby kids from families with private jets who you’ll never meet because these sorts of little episodes have been hidden from the public eye. These kids run your life now though. They own the company you work for, the state you live in, and legal team you’d try to hire to free yourself from them.

I spent the next several weeks adjusting to the cold, vomiting, hiking, learning how to start fires with little more than a stick, making rope out of tree bark, and writing. I fell in love with writing in the mountains. It was the only place left for me to think since my own mind had been invaded by whatever chemicals were being pumped into me on a daily basis. It was the only place safe from the eyes of those paid to watch our every move. Writing became a sanctuary.

The details of the program were fairly mundane. I could go into greater detail regarding the nuances of their therapeutic methodology, but really it just consisted of wilderness survival camp with a weekly visit with a psychologist for forty minutes to an hour. It’s a total scam in actuality. Your kids are fed little more than peanut butter collected from drop points that they hike 5-10 miles to get to. You drink tons of water and you’re pressured into participating into all sorts of group/community activities (setting up the community tent, fire collection duty, plant scouting, etc.).

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t like it there. I wanted out. I wanted to go home. It started to build. The medication has turned my mind into a murky puddle rather than the vast sparkling sea I could once set sail upon. Every single day drug on. We had a specific way of complaining when we were irritated with another group member – “I feel that X is doing Y…” blah, blah, blah. It always bothered me that they would say “I feel” when they clearly meant “I think”. Misguided explorers  at the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft would have gotten a laugh from that I think.

Remember when I said to never act impulsively? Well I say that from experience. I broke that rule in the mountains. To be completely and totally honest I blame my medication. I couldn’t think – not clearly anyway. While on an eight mile hike one day we stopped because little Steven was tired. Then we stopped again, and again, and again. Every single time we stopped a group member would call a little complain session… ‘Steven, I feel like you’re slowing us down…”, “Steven, I feel like you’re not acknowledging that we’re all tired…”, Steven-I-Feel-Like’s again and again. I was sick of it. So incredibly sick of the process, the pandering, the inculcated format of the complaint system. So I made a decision.

While standing at yet another complaint session, I turned to look at Steven. In that moment I hated him. I hated the rest of them more. They all disliked him just as much as I did, but they were just going to sit there and complain. So I turned toward Steven as another kid was talking and punched him as hard as I could in the stomach. He flew back a few feet and dropped down like a stone. If I had been more cognizant I possibly would have considered the potential damage to his kidneys or the possibility of internal bleeding but, again, medication.

As I was whisked away by the crew I called him a “little bitch”. I then quickly realized the precarious position my impulsivity had put me in: I was turning eighteen soon, I had just committed assault, and I was clearly in some otherworldly form of trouble relative to the program (they don’t assume soft rich kids are fighting). It was then that I made another impulsive decision, but this time I based it on prior reasoning. I assumed my logic had been sound around my jail time and within a few short minutes of complete separation from the group I summed up every tear I could muster and cried. I think I tried to come up with some incoherent excuse about how I was angry with my dad and I was taking it out on Steven. It wasn’t my finest moment strategically, but I couldn’t think of a better move at the time.

What followed was odd. Much to my legitimate surprise, I was informed that my attack on Steven was the first assault in the program’s history and they didn’t know what to do with me (i.e. rich kids are pampered babies and the people paid to care for them don’t know how to react when they get into fights like normal teenage boys). I was put on “isolation”. A pleasant state of affairs for me as it turned out. I hiked around with two social workers constantly by my side, I prepared my own meals, dug my own latrines, and filtered my own water. Oh and I wrote. I had all the time and silence I wanted to for my writing. It was beautiful.

I started this little essay out by invoking the word catharsis. Indeed, this time on isolation was my first real experience with catharsis. I felt as though I could purge myself on paper. Pour my soul into my writing. I wrote poems, wrote about the landscape, the trees, the sun, the sounds of a nearby creek. I cried because it was beautiful, not because I was sad. When all was said and done I started sleeping better. I resolved myself to quit these irritating mental-blockage inducing drugs, get off the mountain, and continue looking for quite spaces to think and meditate.

As luck would have it, because they couldn’t think of how best to punish me, I was told I would be sent home. The program was clearly no place for someone as dangerous as I was, and they had asked my father to pick me up. I was eventually driven down the mountain where my aforementioned parental figure picked me up and drove me to an airport. Within a few hours I was home with my mother. She was neither mad nor surprised by my tales. She seemed to find most of them amusing. As I hope you did as well reader.

So see? A happy ending. That was over a decade ago of course. I haven’t murdered anyone sense… Ah ha! I said four institutions didn’t I? Yes there was one more. Round 4: Nearly three years later. A perfectly fitting tribute to Round 1 actually. Pretty much the same basic concept – youthful exuberance directed toward eliciting the attentions of an uninterested female. I was there for a few days. I realized it was no longer for me. That part of my life had passed. They offered me medication which I refused. I told them I have my insurance cancel payments, at which point I was almost immediately sent me home – never to return again.


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