There are many ways to discuss mental illness. Some authorities focus on the biological – such things as neurotransmitters, medications, and genetics. Others use psychology, which may mean exploring learned habits, irrational thinking, or psychodynamics – which often are about sexuality. There are those who choose a religious view and focus on driving out demons. All of these approaches and more can be found in our hospitals, our asylums. But they do not tell the story.
The real story is of lives – perhaps lived in desperation, certainly lived in deprivation, but still lived. The portrayal of those lives is the task of literature. Memoirs From the Asylum is my attempt to perform that job. Underlying it is one of the key ideas that I used during my career as a psychologist, the idiom of distress. It was always my belief that symptoms bespoke the great distress that individuals feel. Through symptoms people are able to speak of that for which they either have no words or for which they have words they have been told must never be spoken.
In Memoirs From the Asylum I try to capture the world of the hospital and the inner lives of its denizens, not just patients but various staff as well. Memoirs is the story of their pain and their small victories. It is filled with tales of retreat from the world and ultimately of reengagement in it. It is a book about incarceration and about freedom.
The world of mental illness is often funny – perhaps not intentionally but still funny. And it is tragic, sad and filled with irony as people who are attempting to find sanctuary are instead caught in a world of institutionalized irrationality. It is the basic material of literature.
A world of institutionalized irrationality – here is a short example, on of the main characters, a new resident, is being take to task by the head nurse:
“Never refer to a staff member by name around patients.”
“I don’t understand.”
“God, residents.” She sighs for the tenth time during their brief encounter. “You told Michelle that Mrs. Whittle had noticed that she looked a bit shaky.”
“I know she did. Of course, she did.” Her tone is getting even more exasperated. “A good nurse notices those things.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“You should have said, ‘nurse noticed that you look a little shaky.'”
“Why?” Unconsciously, he is scratching his left forearm. That had been where he had had poison ivy during the spring. It no longer itches, but under stress he still scratches. This morning he notices it is looking a bit raw. He wonders why, but dismisses it as a scrape. Tomorrow morning, he will notice it has gotten even worse, but he still won’t know why.
“That way they can pester.”
“Ask ‘Why did you say that?’ You know, bother us.”
Nurse Teraso stares at Buford – waiting for and not expecting to see comprehension. With a snort of exasperation she continues, “If ‘nurse’ said it, they don’t know whom to bother.”
“Rightttt.” Buford’s tone makes both his uncertainty and dawning comprehension audible. He pauses for a moment and then asks, “Won’t they bother everybody?”
“No, they get too confused.”
He thinks that is a strange goal, to confuse the patients in a psychiatric hospital. On the other hand, he has been at the hospital for a week and has only been getting more and more confused himself.
Memoirs From the Asylum may be set in a psychiatric hospital, but it is a story filled with realistic characters, people who are wrestling with themselves and with their world. I hope it will bring smiles to your lips and tears to your eyes as they play out their lives.
Let me tell you briefly about some of those characters. Besides Buford Abrose, the resident in the excerpt above, there is a narrator who has taken refuge from the world and especially the Vietnam War, Marilyn a catatonic schizophrenic who watches a weird life unfold in a crack in the wall opposite her bed, Jamul, a young black man who was abandoned by his parents and who plays the air-guitar with great skill and verve, and Mitch whose Alzheimer’s Syndrome reminds us that we may all yet end up in the asylum.
Memoirs From the Asylum will introduce you to, and help you understand, the world of the state hospital, the universe of the mentally ill and their caretakers, and most importantly to that which goes unspoken in yourself.
If you have any questions or comments, I will be happy to respond.