I knew this woman, called Janna for our purposes, who had been found mentally incompetent or some other type of such bullshit, simply because she loved her daughter with a kind of unlimited passion and she was a little too energetic and compulsive for some people.
She would do things like go out and buy a thousand dollars in clothes for her daughter, for instance, and send them to her. Her daughter lived with her father, and it seems that Janna had done something wrong — like visit when she shouldn’t, perhaps, or something like that.
And that was it, basically. That’s why they had her in a psych hospital. She’d said or done some stupid things here and there, and they said she was mental, and now she was locked up for months, waiting for her trial. Incompetent? She’d made a hundred thousand a year before all this happened — more than the psychiatrists who were “treating” her.
What I tried to tell her once, even though she didn’t seem to take me seriously, was that it was better to just go to jail for a while than it was to plead insanity and then be stuck in one of these places for an unpredictable period that might last for years. Seriously, you can get out of prison in half the time it will take to get out of a psych hospital. Psych hospitals are run by doctors, and doctors have liability and the public trust to think about, and so they’re very reluctant to release someone who might ever be “a danger to society.”
But that was just the beginning of our acquaintance.
Janna was, even more than most people, an endless pacer, and she was a relentless nicotine gum chewer as well. This was a problem because the nurses had decided, in all their infinite wisdom, that the nicotine gun made her manic, and so they had reduced the amount of gum they gave her to just one piece every four hours, which is enough to drive anyone crazy. As anyone who knows how real nicotine works would know, it is actually the opposite: nicotine calms you down. Taking nicotine away will only drive someone up a wall. So she was pacing her hallway one day when she came up and asked if I had any nicotine gum I could sell her.
It happened that I had a lot more nicotine gum than most people because I had been honest about my smoking when I was admitted. I had smoked three packs a day, so they gave me the same level of nicotine as about three packs’ worth. More nicotine, more gum.
And Janna was offering like ten bucks, or even twenty bucks, for just three or four pieces a day.
Well, fuck yes.
The truth was, I could use the cash. For instance, I needed to buy coffee all the time (only available in the cafeteria), I had barely any money for anything else half the time, and I said, “Hell, yeah I can give you a few pieces of gum every day!” Cause God knows I’d got plenty of them, and this seemed like a marriage made in heaven.
So every morning, after I’d saved up my extra pieces from during the night and a couple during the day, I’d give her three or four or five pieces of gum. It was a plan that worked for everyone, and it pains me a little bit to think of her now, because the truth is that I don’t actually know what happened to Janna in the end. One day they released me, and as psych ward friends sometimes do (but not usually: you’d never want to see most of them again) we exchanged addresses and phone numbers.
But the problem is that, once people actually get out, they don’t ever actually seem to contact each other, so even though Janna was important to my life on the psych ward, I don’t know what happened to her in the end. Is she still endlessly pacing those hallways? Has she been moved to another ward pending some kind of further proceedings, or has she even been moved to another facility? On the other hand, what if she got off completely and is roaming the streets of the world somewhere even now?
The guy who was your best friend on the psych ward for months vanishes like dust in the wind.
But let’s get back to the black market in New Hampshire Hospital for a moment.
It’s weird, because it was all run by this sort of short, little, gay Neo-Nazi wannabe who stole shit all the time when he was on the outside, and who had brought a sort of thievery ring into the hospital, or at least into our ward.
Everyone’s music player and jewelry and valuable belongings kept disappearing, and this was a problem since you weren’t allowed to search anyone’s room in New Hampshire Hospital anymore to find out if anyone had your stuff.
As with Janna, I tried to explain a simple fact to this weird Neo-Nazi, which was that the very first people the Nazis purged from their own party (i.e., killed them off) after they took power were the “degenerates” like criminals and gay people. Gay? asked the Nazis. You’re dead. You might degenerate my children. That’s how it worked.
But the young Neo-Nazi just stared at me in non-comprehension. He just didn’t get what I was talking about.
But he was a thief of the first magnitude. What he did was have a couple of the inmates hang out at a time in the main area, where you could see down both the residential hallways at the same time. And when someone came out of their room, down to the main area, they had someone waiting in the hallway, and since they already knew you had an iPod or a bunch of jewelry and maybe some cash, they just cleaned out your room.
So what you do with these stolen goods? This is where the Neo-Nazi was valuable.
First of all, he had hours of off-unit privileges, if you combine actual off-unit time and time in the rec room, the library, and the garden outside. Plus, he made friends with everyone. He felt you out, and he offered to sell you some nicotine gum (his friend smuggled whole boxes of it in) or maybe he’d offer you the latest iPod he’d acquired. He knew a lot of people chewed nicotine gum and needed some music to listen to as they paced the halls of their wards. And because the wards were all separate, no one would know where that new music player came from. He always had something for sale, that guy.
The last time I saw him, I was back in the state hospital because I had just had lithium toxicity and they were just holding me for a few days to make sure the new drug they were putting me on actually worked. (It didn’t, of course, but I wasn’t about tell the self-appointed authorities that.) Anyway, Bret, as we’ll call our young Neo-Nazi, had been informed by the hospital that he needed to be out of the hospital in a certain time. Apparently he insufficiently displayed the kind of serious oddity that the powers that be had decided were required for residence in the hospital — and maybe they even thought he was just going along for the free ride. The last time I saw him, he was sitting in the cafeteria, drinking a soda and staring off into space, as though picturing the homeless life he was about to experience when he got the boot out of this place.
Like Janna, he too vanished from my life, although I am sure there are others who have taken his place.
So what is the real point of these stories? Why have I dragged you this far, through a series of tales that led nowhere?
It is perhaps to make the point that a psych hospital is like any other institution of total control. You have locked doors around you, there are guard-like mental health workers who will take you down like a football team, and you only have so many ways to get by. Some people choose to sleep all the time. Some people choose to pace. And some people choose, given the right time and the right opportunity, to learn to steal or to get by in other ways. And because this is a total institution, the only people to either victimize or exploit are the other inmates (who else is there?) as long as they can get away with it. In the end, the people themselves may go away or disappear, but the institution itself remains, in all its brutal totality, and what goes on inside is the same as what happens in any other total institution.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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