S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Altered States,” Park recounts his experiences spent in mental institutions.
I’m always surprised by people who think the twenty-first century will turn out well. I mean there’s more and more of us, the climate is changing and resources are running out: it was a prescription for disaster before we became dumber and disconnected.
And yet we hope. And treat the increasing craziness around us as an aberration instead of an outcome, demanding a return to the mid-twentieth century, when we stashed undesirables in mental wards. I’m on board with that … look what it did for me. The state-run nuthouses in particular (those dungeons that never cured anybody of anything), where a drunk could waggle drugs, three squares and a bed just by showing up.
Not to mention a weekly disability check. I had to waive those during my first commitment (at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley) because it was a private hospital and the money went directly to them. That seemed fair enough: the place was tricked out like a motel, which made it nicer than anywhere I’d lived on the outside, plus money is the last thing on your mind in the d.t.’s.
It turns out my withdrawal was as severe as it was because I lacked a certain liver enzyme. That wasn’t readily known back then (I only learned about it a couple years ago) so, like the shrinks, I was left to speculate.
“All those weird hallucinations?” I told them. “It’s because I’m a cartoonist.”
They nodded along but what did they know … they didn’t walk around with an army of weirdos in their head. So when the d.t.’s knocked the fences down I was stampeded by my own imagination. Particularly that first go round, when in keeping with my “full immersion” approach I opted to go cold turkey. It’s a decision I’m grateful for now, but it nearly cost me my sanity then and proved a mental ward was right where I belonged.
I’d certainly nailed my preparation, though: I’d long hailed my heavy psychedelic use as “practice” and given the shadowy origins of most mind benders I’d had my share of freak outs. The Dread was worse with the d.t.’s but the underlying principle was the same, i.e. there was nothing to do but wait it out. (To which I acknowledge my eternal debt to Hunter S. Thompson for Buy the ticket, take the ride. It saved my ass many a time.)
Pretend you have a choice, in other words. And then one morning you wake and the cartoons on the back of your eyelids are gone and you’re looking around and you feel like a regular person, the very clown you drank to avoid, and you pull on your clothes and step out of your room and there it is: you’re a sober guy in a nuthouse. It’s a shock, believe me (like moving to L.A.), but I’d had plenty of experience with crazy people by then. Plus I was easily institutionalized. When you’ve been living on raw hot dogs there’s nothing like three squares a day, much less a soft bed or the daily visits to shrinks (they all wanted a crack at the young alkie, a true rarity back then).
I was down with that; all I sought in return was pharmaceuticals.
“Experiment on me,” I’d tell them, “make me your lab rat. You must have samples you’ve been dying to try on people, and who better than a young drunk.”
It took some convincing, but in the end they mostly obliged; during my Herrick stay I swallowed a cornucopia of mood changers (mostly downers). I liked to pop the flavor of the day with lunch, then settle onto a couch and watch the sideshow. Before long I’d be glassy-eyed and slack-jawed, with drool running down my chin (except for the company, it wasn’t much different than my life on the outside). I even attracted the attentions of Sarah, a suicide who’d tried to cut her throat with a can opener. It looked worse than it sounds, so most days she wore a turtleneck (otherwise it was hard to tell what kept her head attached).
Fortunately we were both too numb to speak, so we’d lean against each other and chain smoke. It was a perfectly innocent relationship until the attendants dragged her off for electroshock treatments. To the amazement of everyone, they worked: not only didn’t she recognize me the next day, but she seemed offended we’d ever met.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed, clutching at her turtleneck. “You didn’t … take advantage of me, did you?!”
I had a clever retort in mind, but was so numb from an anti-psychotic that I barely managed a snot bubble. Which made it just another day in the mental ward and what can I say? I liked the place, I was a nuthouse natural. Was any of it, including the group therapy and shrink sessions and different drugs, helping with my alcoholism? Absolutely not. But I hadn’t really expected it to, I’d simply sought a warm and safe place to withdraw. Because the future was the same no matter what anyone told me about why I was a rummy, i.e. I loved to drink and I had to quit and in the meanwhile I was looking for the easiest way to do it. It could be drugs, rehab, cold turkey, willpower, spirituality or a little of each. It didn’t matter to me, any more than being in a mental ward did. Unfortunately it wasn’t as easy for my friends. They’d drop by for a visit and something about Sarah snarling at them, or the groaning of the schizoid chorus, or the old woman in a nightgown selling tickets to Alcatraz unnerved them.
Well, except for Ned Gumbo: like me, he fit right in. I left Herrick after a month, worked in a cannery in Watsonville, California, then a paper mill in San Leandro before doing a term at a junior college in Washington. When I returned to the Bay Area that winter I was hired as an (oversized) copy boy at the local newspaper. Mostly I washed down drugs with booze until one Spring evening I left a dump called the Lava Pit reeling from mescaline and a dozen Salty Dogs, and saw it was only seven p.m. Which meant that, just like usual, I’d pass out in my wino hotel room, wake at dawn to the heebie jeebies, then spend the day misfiling stories at the newspaper. I needed a break in routine. It took a bit of finagling, but the next day I committed myself to Agnews State Hospital in San Jose.
I’m always surprised by people who think the twenty-first century will turn out well.
It was a grim, gray, prison-like structure with a special ward for addicts. This is more like it, I thought. We had them all in there—burnouts, boozers, junkies, glue sniffers and speed freaks—and their yarns were hilarious. On my second day I was introduced to the “Sandbag Circuit.” This was a group of mental ward vets—alkies mostly—who’d work a quarter year or two (locking in the benefits) then disappear on a bender. When the money was gone they’d commit themselves to the nearest institution to play poker with their disability checks.
They all knew each other, and talk about gaming the system … the State of California was paying us to be drunks. Better yet (as I noted in High & Dry) this was looney bin poker. Any of those old pros might have cleaned my clock on the outside, but in Agnews they were, like me, on a multiplicity of drugs (particularly Sinequan, a creepy upper/downer). Which didn’t just level the playing field, but gave me a distinct advantage. I’d spent my adult life convincing bosses, coworkers, cops and friends that I knew what I was doing, even as my mind cheeped like a parakeet. (If I had a shtick in life, that was it.) Now I turned it around, let the slobbering flake loose while the rest of me retreated behind my eyes, carefully charting the tells and tics of my opponents.
Or so I told myself; I was up five hundred in two weeks, so maybe I was just lucky. In the meanwhile there were the therapy sessions and menial chores. What I remember most vividly is sitting in the lounge one evening with fifty other guys, watching The Johnny Cash Show on the small black and white television. The setting sun was streaming through the bars in the windows, casting long stripes across us and lending a certain poignancy to the moment. Cash had done his Folsom Prison shows by then, so this was our guy, he knew what it was to be a washed-up loser in a hellhole. When he started crooning “Green, Green Grass of Home” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Well, except for mine, of course. Other than time and a few teeth, I hadn’t lost much yet, and there’d be no sweetie on the outside waiting for me. The youngest of my fellow addicts was twenty years older than I was and most of them had really screwed the pooch, ruining marriages and families and careers in pursuit of one high or another. I, on the other hand, pretended my undesirability was a choice. I liked the Sandbag Circuit so much, in fact, that after three weeks I went to the head of staff, told him I wanted to re-up for another thirty days.
Like I was doing him a favor or something.
“Oh, I bet you would, High,” he scoffed. “Unfortunately the gravy train’s over. A week from now, you and your card shark buddies will be out on the street.”
“Governor Reagan’s shutting down every mental ward in the State.”
“But … what’ll happen to the real crazies?”
He laughed. “It’s California, bucko … who’ll know the difference?”