New York, 1976 Bronx State Mental Hospital
I’m drowning in a sour-soup of disillusion, here at Bronx State Mental Hospital finishing my internship. Distracted by my misery, a good healthy finger gets squeezed in the hospital door. I shriek in pain, fearing the tip has been severed. The aides rush me to another ward and the doctor stitches me up. He drugs me to a stupor and promises I won’t lose my finger. He also treats my other finger cut badly the other day, now hopelessly infected, and re-bandages that. Now I’m wounded on both hands, like a soldier.
My supervisor is not pleased, how can I lead the drumming circle or play the guitar with two bandaged hands? Meanwhile, the young emotionally-challenged boys on the ward seem thrilled with my bandages, like I’ve come straight from a street fight. Usually they’re reluctant and squirrelly to begin but now they’re witch-doctors of importance who want to heal me. Their power brings another world into existence and they pound the drums with purpose. I start to dance and they play even stronger, louder. So strong the supervisor comes rushing in. Startled by the intense focus, she turns all shades of purple but says nothing. She’s threatened by the thing she cannot name. It’s new on the ward, this music therapy, and what’s happening with the boys is therapy at its best. This noise, this thunder, this tribal abandon, seems dangerous to her yet she can’t help see how responsive the boys are and nods a tentative approval. Once she’s gone, the boys squeal like they’ve slayed the dragon. They whoop and holler and slap each other high fives though I quickly get them drumming again so we don’t lose this grace.
Each day I fall more in love with the patients who’ve rejected reality, or rather live in another dimension, and they in turn seem to love me more maybe because I see them and understand their suffering, their courage. Their smiles leap large when I arrive with my bandaged fingers, guitar and sack of instruments. If only the doctors didn’t medicate them so much. The sessions before the round of meds are animated but right after, they’re like zombies. I mention this to the head nurse.
“Better they sleep,” the nurse says,“than have a fit and destroy your instruments.”
Is there no middle ground? It kills me to see the patients like captives during the music sessions, strapped down, tied up, immobilized by medication. Tiny slits for eyes and expressions on their faces that seem to cry for help, though they hardly make a sound.
The supervisor expects me to waltz in like Houdini, unlock these heavily-medicated patients for the half-hour session, get them moving and singing and feeling someemotion – but not too much. Her favorite words: Don’t over-excite them! What is she afraid of; an in-house revolt? The patients are so drugged they can barely hold, let alone play the light percussive instruments I hand them. The more attentive ones (who must trick the nurses and not swallow their medication) grab hold of my hand at the end of the sessions like starved children begging for more. I feel for them, but must be careful to not care too much or I shall cross that tiny line of sanity into their world.
I can’t imagine that in our secret hearts, we’re not all starved for real attention – to be alive and seen and loved. Even my supervisor, who’s always talking of dieting but only gains more weight each week, perhaps she also aches for someone to hold her. Maybe once she had that but that person went away and she’s shoveled down those feelings. Maybe she also takes one of those multi-colored pills. Better not to think – that’s what I mostly learn with the other therapists in the cafeteria, or at our meetings. Just keep it all going, like a machine.
Every morning, half-asleep, I drink my coffee, then rush out the door to join the masses. Everyone on the subway with heads down, crammed like sardines for the harsh rumble and shriek to Pelham Bay Park. We’re all crushed by the non-stop mantra keep moving, keep moving. I can’t help wonder if the mental hospital is worse than prison, for the patients have no idea what crime they’ve committed besides feeling and wanting too much.
When I catch a glimpse of sky between buildings, I think of beauty and nature and wonder why we’ve stripped so much of it away. I’m thinking of this as I enter the ward. Maybe the patients feel it, that I’m different, for they rush towards me – the ambulatory ones – to stand beside me, to touch my shoulders, my bandaged fingers. I let them, and gently touch them back. The look in their eyes is like the gorilla’s sad eyes at the zoo. Pleaseunlock the cage and let me run free in the trees and the green. There is no green at the hospital and barely a thread of sky beyond the barred and narrow windows. Their eyes tell me they’re here because they were too slow and the cup fell from their hands and shattered on the ground of the perfect world, the world with no patience for breaking things. They’re here because they refused or could not keep the charade going. Gave themselves away by their confusion. The unprofessional side of me wants to run into the big depressing room where they waddle, or are wheeled in, for the music therapy session and scream: This is a human zoo. Get up from your chairs and dance and sing, loud and strong. Don’t take the medicine they give you. Look at what they do to you, because they’re scared of you, you who are closer to the real nature. They are scared that you know this is wrong, even if you haven’t the strength nor the words to express it.