S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Something Fine,” Park recalls his time at the “Great Asylum for the Insane.”
Like most people I can’t afford to live in the Bay Area anymore, but I still read the San Francisco Chronicle online. I was glancing through it this morning when I noticed a photo of an old mission building. It was surrounded by weeds and seemed familiar somehow, so I checked out the caption:
“Great Asylum for the Insane” To Be Torn Down
It was an article about my alma mater, the Agnews State Hospital in San Jose. The first thing I felt was a surge of pride: I wasn’t a mere mental ward vet, but a “Great Asylum for the Insane” alum. That had a much nicer ring to it. Then I read on and discovered the complex was built in 1906 to house “friendly lunatics.”
What? Why hadn’t I thought of that? It describes my fellow inmates perfectly. We were the Section 47 gang (the Addicts’ Ward), and though we had our share of burnouts, most of the drunks and junkies were very affable characters.
And they should have been, given the pharmaceuticals available. There were the old standards (valium, librium, phenobarbital, etc.), along with an assortment of upper/downers and mood enhancers. I pressed the shrinks for new and experimental stuff: “Anything you’ve been dying to try on a patient? Make me your lab rat.”
It was safer than the psychedelics I bought on the outside, because I was already in a nuthouse. I’d fill up on starches at lunch, then sit in the lobby and wait for the Flavor of the Week to kick in. If I was lucky it was a teeth grinder, as I enjoyed entertaining visitors. We didn’t get many in that ward, maybe three or four a day, but it was obvious that being there made them anxious.
So I tried to give them their money’s worth. I’d rock back and forth, knead the arms of my chair, contort my face in a series of weird expressions I’d first used on sightseeing buses in the Haight Ashbury: “Oh God, Jerry! Look at the big one in the Levi jacket! His eyes are crossed and he’s trying to lick his nose!”
I wouldn’t have pulled a stunt like that in my first mental ward, Herrick Hospital in Berkeley. I was treated like a specimen there, while the Agnews staff were mostly babysitters. I figured the Addicts Ward was the end of the line for them, the last stop on their way out the door.
Not that it mattered to the patients: as long as we got our meds on time we were good. (And it turns out the staff knew something we didn’t, i.e. Reagan was shutting Agnews down soon.)
So it was up to me to maximize my stay. I suffered no mental ward stigma, of course, not with the free drugs, three squares and a bed. (Or better yet, the disability checks we received for being drunks: I’m sure that kept Ronnie up at night.)
Plus self-pity wasn’t my shtick. I can’t remember, during any of my commitments—even in the throes of withdrawal—looking around and thinking, Oh nooooo, this is the worst! I’m a looney bin loser!
Perhaps I should have. Maybe if I hadn’t treated nuthouses like funhouses I’d have sobered up faster than I did.
But I doubt it. And it’s odd, looking back on my Agnews stay, that I can’t remember my room. I guess it’s because I was rarely there (except to crash, and I was pretty zonked on meds by then.)
I filled my days with poker (and the occasional, if grudging, group therapy session). There was always a game in the rec room; we bet our disability money, and it was my first exposure to players better than I was. Ordinarily I’d search for opponents’ “tells,” for instance, but that’s pointless when you’re all riding the rainbow. We’d sit there for hours at a time, alternately herky-jerky or nodding off (or pretending to be one or the other for bluffing purposes) and it was great, easily the most entertaining poker I’ve ever played.
Not that Agnews was all fun and games, of course, because once a drunk dries out he’s just another guy. (Well, more or less.) We were given two choices in the morning. Either: (a) attend Occupational Therapy classes, where you drew with crayons while ogling the OT nurses; or (b) volunteer elsewhere on campus. These were my non-drawing years, when I never so much as doodled, so I signed up for the work assignments.
I resented them at first; they were, after all, harshing my buzz. But it worked out okay. My favorite was the “Mongoloid Ward” where I wheeled around patients with huge heads and wizened bodies. The nurses were a little older there but I was a twenty-two-year-old alkie with a beer gut, bad hair and a drug problem: I figured that evened the score.
But no … those nurses treated the heads better than me. Then I spilled spaghetti on a bald one and was banished to the Violent Ward. I don’t know what they do with psychopaths now, but back then they pumped them full of Thorazine and left them drooling in the hallway.
I kept my distance: they didn’t shower much, the meds gave their skin a purple hue and they were too numb to speak. This led my fellow trustees to smack them around a little (there were a half-dozen murderers in there) but I, fortunately, had better things to do.
Like finding dark corners where I could sit, smoke and think. That’s what I was there for, after all. I hadn’t committed to Agnews for therapy (as I had little faith in psychiatry even then), but to get reacquainted with sobriety, see if it was as bad as I remembered.
I hadn’t committed to Agnews for therapy (as I had little faith in psychiatry even then), but to get reacquainted with sobriety, see if it was as bad as I remembered.
It was, even if I was only partly sober due to the pills (they skewed things, but not enough). I was fine with being a drunk: the problem was the d.t.’s. I quizzed the other rummies about their withdrawal experiences, but even the oldest of them hadn’t had a tenth as many episodes as I had. This baffled me, as I couldn’t know then that I lacked the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. (I waited forty years for that revelation.) Even worse … I had a sneaking suspicion that terror was my ticket out.
When I’d begun my alkie experiment I imagined a grim, dark denouement decades down the road (maybe in a trailer park somewhere), when—my life in tatters, and all my friends and hopes gone—I’d come to an existential reckoning with booze and quit.
Turns out I was reaching too high. Not only did I enjoy being shitfaced, but other than writing I had no serious dreams or ambitions; and as much as I loved my friends and family I was better off alone. So the only thing between me and the morgue was my fear of madness, the very element the d.t.’s. provided.
Which left me looking out those nuthouse bars and thinking, It’s about resolve now, not endurance, and when I cross the finish line is up to me. I can keep drinking and be there soon, or I can temper my intake and maybe, just maybe … make it to thirty.
It was only a plan and, as regular readers know, not much of one: I went on the worst binge of my life after leaving Agnews (see Last Licks), and ended up in still another commitment.
But that’s how addiction works: you swing and miss, swing and miss, and eventually you connect or die.
I liked my chances. I always had, even sitting there in mental ward khakis, even when I had no reason to. Because I knew the drinking was just a dodge, that I was staving off the real me and why not?
If I’d had any faith in that loser, I wouldn’t have read The Power of Positive Thinking at fourteen. (Example: Worry is a rocking chair that never gets you anywhere.)
Better than Norman Vincent Peale, though, or a doctor sussing out my liver malady, would have been knowing how potent pot would become. I might have had some real hope then.
But you use what you’ve got, and my fellow addicts kept me entertained in the interim. The main difference between Herrick and Agnews was how, instead of suicidal schizoids, I was caged with my own kind now. It made me the apprentice, the kid learning at the feet of the masters (the youngest of them was twenty years older than I was), and their tales of misadventure were hilarious.
I’d laugh so hard I’d gag, the way I did at A.A. meetings later.
But then … I’ve always been a sick fuck. I know that Chronicle photo of Agnews brought a tear to my eye, remembering the boys of Section 47.
Like Reagan they’re all gone now, making me the last of the friendly lunatics.