The huge building loomed over a hill and around a circular drive, a metal monster glaring at me.
This was my welcome to a new home for the next two months.
It was July 23, 1980. I remember the date because that was what was inscribed in raised lettering on the white card I had to carry around with me whenever I wanted to eat in the cafeteria.
I was 14 and being placed in Georgia Mental Health Institute (GMHI), the state hospital, for anorexia on the adolescent wing with about ten other teenagers with various problems from mild to severe, from mental retardation to juvenile delinquency. At GMHI I met people who had been there for years and some who would get out in a few days. But it didn’t matter the length of time. The object was to get out no matter what if you could.
Charlie was 15 and had Autism. He liked to run his fingers through my hair, laugh, and smile. My dad, when he visited, didn’t like it and would tell me to make him stop. I never did because I felt sorry for him. He had a beat red face, shaggy bright auburn hair, and lots of freckles. He was chubby and alone. He never got visitors.
Robert was an African-American 17-year-old who was brain damaged. He used to wet his pants a lot while walking the tiled corridors as the nurses would get mad and clean him and the floor up. He would simply smile not knowing why they were so upset, what he had done so wrong.
Kerry, 15, was simply a juvenile delinquent who used to argue with me about my taste in music. His was more heavy metal and mine leaned toward Billy Joel. We got in an argument once in school held on campus about who was the better artist as the mild-mannered teacher played our various music on a turntable. I really had a crush on him but he “dated” another patient, Laura, who brought an entire entourage of stuff to make her new “dorm room” home including a complete stereo system. She was just a juvenile delinquent, too, and neither of them belonged there.
Katrina, an African-American, age 17, had been a patient for years and years. She just seemed mentally slow to me and not necessarily “insane.” A proud and boisterous nurse named Karen who had blond frizzy hair and a ready smile, used to bake cookies with Katrina to bring her out of her shell.
Visitors had to be buzzed in the front door which kept patients on their toes with its annoying sound like an alarm. I hated that door especially since it was so close to my room. The living room consisted of a few patches of carpet, foam furniture that looked like it was taken straight from a doll’s house, and a small t.v. There were bookshelves but no one ever read the books that now I can’t remember any of the names of. The t.v. was always on, no matter the time of night and it was also right next to my room, first door on the left. There was a ping-pong table but not many people played although I liked the game and sometimes Kerry and Laura would play each other. A large free-standing blackboard listed the patients’ names and what level they were on. Each level denoted certain privileges, Punishment Level being the one you wanted to avoid with no privileges whatsoever. Whenever a patient did something wrong they were bumped to this level and had to earn points to move up to the next level. Level One afforded you very few privileges, Two increased your allowances, Three allowed visits, Four allowed Leave of Absences to visit your family, and Five allowed overnight stays.
The nurse’s station was always abuzz with activity. Either someone was getting put in Isolation for bad behavior, getting their blood drawn, or being weighed. The rest of the time the nurses were talking about the patients within earshot of people, flipping through magazines, making calls, writing notes, or paging doctors. If a patient wanted something they had to tap on the glass window like an animal and wait for a slow nurse to meander her way impatiently to the door. She would poke her head out, ask what you wanted, and abruptly tell you yes, no, or wait.
My first day my mom, stepdad, and sister, Cindy brought me to the facility at the direction of the children’s’ home I was in. Since I had anorexia and refused to comply with the rules I was to stay in this hospital until I gained enough weight to go home.
My stay lasted a nightmarish two months, one that still haunts me today.
My sister, being such a great salesman she could sell ice cream to Eskimos, tried her best to make me feel good about the fact that at least I had my own concrete room and privacy. As I unpacked my battered blue suitcase which would become my trademark baggage through foster homes and other places in the next few years, I surveyed my scene.
Twin bed, windows with no latches, Venetian blinds, small nightstand, trashcan, tile floor, small desk and closet, and four drawers underneath a metal mirror that distorted my reflection. A patient was only allowed the necessities except for books and music but no metal or sharp objects, of course, no shoes with laces, and no watches or jewelry.
My first shower was witnessed by a large African-American nurse who made sure I didn’t slit my wrists as I absorbed the shock of the stinging water against my sensitive skin and washed with the smelly Lice preventive shampoo. She handed me a white towel without looking at me and told me to “dry off good.” No sooner did I put my powder and deodorant on, she whisked my shower pail away with my toiletries in it and took it back to the nurse’s station – a requirement for safekeeping. The rest of my showers would be taken in solitude but they would be timed and hurried.
Once I was put in Isolation for refusing to play volleyball with the other kids. I hated sports though liked tennis and air hockey. The nurses thought I’d put on a show like the others and have lots of fits behind the one-way glass so they could write volumes of notes for the doctors to peruse. But I just curled up in the corner and slept.
No show today, ladies.
The kitchen consisted of small generic things like you’d find in a tree house maybe – bitter juice, crackers, cookies, milk, Jell-O, and on a good night, ice cream bars.
There was a pay phone down the hall but if you didn’t have money that your parents or someone gave you you were out of luck. Everyone had a limit but no one paid attention. I called my sister Cindy a lot but sometimes had to wait my turn.
During the week we had “school” in the basement in a small room which consisted of reading, writing, and math. It was all pretty basic and all really boring and only lasted a few hours. The only thing I think we learned was how to tolerate each other given the circumstances.
The hardest part was eating in the cafeteria because then we were exposed to the adults, all kinds of people with far more severe problems then some of us. I tried to shut it out but I can still picture this one heavy scary guy’s face that used to make horrible grimaces and loud noises with his arms.
Some images you can’t erase no matter how hard you try.
At night a nurse would shine a flashlight in each patient’s room as they slept, making sure they were in bed and not doing anything weird.
I was always awake during this time but they never knew that as those bright rays shone down the length of my bed. I was in my own fantasy world of celebrities and high times, pretending to be a famous writer somewhere in another time and another place that did not include DeKalb County, Georgia. It became my way of survival as did voracious reading and writing while listening to “The King Biscuit Flour Hour” late at night on my little radio I got for Christmas a long time ago. But to this day I can’t stand the song “Shining Star” because it reminds me of that time period.
We had field trips – to lakes, pools, parks, movies, and other scenic places. It should’ve been fun but to me it was just an embarrassment because of some of the company I had to keep. And if one person acted out, which invariably happened, the trip was cut short and we were hauled home banished to our rooms or bad t.v., depending on the charge nurse.
One time we had a tornado warning so everyone including the sick adults was walked down to the tunnel by the basement for hours while we waited it out. The storm never came but we had to sit with our backs against the cold metal walls and I observed many weird happenings, behaviors, and downright out of this world sicknesses I can’t even begin to describe. Everyone’s psychosis was amplified, disorders magnified, fears realized, and panic set in for me. I just took it all in as usual, observing, telling myself I was okay somehow. It seemed to last forever.
I saw a therapist at the time named Rhonda Traylor, who I later wanted to sue for medical malpractice when she convinced me of some crazy diagnosis that I carried around for seven years: That although my father molested me, I wanted him to do it deep down inside. She threw Freud at me to back her theory up as she perched with a feline-like smile in her well-decorated office of plants and books and I looked out the window seeing the garden for the first time. I kept telling her no, it wasn’t true, that I never wanted my dad to ruin my life the way he did but all she did was hammer me until I said yes – anything to make this sorry session end. Then she told me about this other poor little girl who really did have problems, another patient who was much better than me. Someone who didn’t waste her time. Rhonda would come get me every day for therapy and I soon learned to play the game. If I tell her what she wants to hear, I’ll get out, I reasoned. And I was right.
Every morning I would hear her Dr. Scholl wooden sandals click-clacking down the long hallway, coming to “capture” me for an hour. She had dark, piercing eyes, black frizzy hair and dimples that screamed innocent but were far from it.
Once she painted my nails and told me how gross my hands were.
It seemed to take forever to get out of this place. At first she wasn’t buying my little act but I finally convinced her I knew I was “bad” and she liked that a lot. Then it became her task to prove I was even worse as she worked on me in short sessions, telling me how to be a good girl for my parents and everyone around me.
My mom and step dad didn’t visit much and when they did they brought a few things and hurriedly left. Once I got to go for a weekend with them to the lake but not a word was spoken as to what was going on in my life. I didn’t know till years later why my working poor cousins snubbed me during that time period. For every institution I was in, Mom told them I was away at boarding school. At one point I became so frustrated that I would never get out that I became sullen and pouty, something that did not bode well with the nurses. I rebelled briefly but realizing I must get back on track to get out, I soon bounced back into that obedient child everyone wanted me to be. I realized no matter how much I starved myself I was never going to have my mom’s love so I might as well eat this greasy food in this sterile place. I saw that no matter how bad I was it wasn’t going to get me the attention I always craved from my mom, a woman who had five kids but should’ve had none. So I became the good patient. I did not argue and I kept my thoughts and feelings to myself. I took those pills they gave me that were supposed to “keep me from being negative” and pretended to swallow them. I wrote stories and poems, was quiet as a mouse, did all my chores, and worked my way up to all my levels, becoming the good little patient on the adolescent wing. It was what everyone wanted except my sister who just wanted me home.
The sad day came when she left for college and came to see me, disappointed to see I was still living in this Decatur hospital. It was hard to say goodbye to her knowing she would write but with the knowledge that she would be in another state starting her collegiate years. She later became a successful therapist and though I could not sue Rhonda Traylor since she was only a behavioral therapist and there was no license to be yanked, I could look at my sister and marvel at her gifts. If it hadn’t been for my sister I’m convinced I would’ve wound up in prison, a prostitute, or dead. She was my sanity, my saving grace, my reason to go on. She kept me alive and hoping and everyone needs that.
Finally the day came in September that Rhonda told me I was going to go home! I was so excited, happy, thrilled that I could leave this place behind. I remember her waving goodbye to my mom and step dad as we drove out of the parking lot in Mom’s blue station wagon, the one that my step dad tried to teach me to drive in. I waved goodbye, too with my perfectly manicured nails courtesy of Rhonda who seemingly shaped me into this good little teenager to be brought back into the world to behave. Deep down I knew I’d fooled everyone, even myself. I hadn’t been rehabbed into a model citizen. If anything I was worse with depression, increased temper, and more behavioral problems coming in the future.
When I tried to go back and get my records in 1989 I found out GMHI had shut down much to my surprise. I tried to picture it abandoned and quiet and could not and I wondered what happened to “stop the madness” as the saying goes. When each patient left there we were to be all shiny and new but each of us came out the same as we went in. The most important thing was they didn’t kill my spirit. I knew even at 14 they could not do this, that I must not allow that, that I would be a writer no matter what. I would be me. I’d like to say that I didn’t lose my sanity in that place but I know a small part of me died there because there’s only so much you can do to a person’s soul before it is damaged.
I did leave GMHI, I did ride away back to a children’s home I lived in before but I did not leave that giant hospital in my mind, in my heart. I carried it with me through college, marriage, and childbirth. It served as a ghost ship for all my memories packed in an empty treasure chest at the bottom of the ocean. It was heavy and worn and corroded with shame and self-hatred courtesy of a field that prided itself at the time of “fixing” things that aren’t wrong and filling young kids’ heads with messed up messages.
So now I aim to be “free by 40” as I put it – my spirit finally set loose before my 40th birthday in two years.
I set sail across the creative sea of my mind and heart and I put these words to paper in hopes that that ghost ship I have driven through rough waters all these years will finally sink to the bottom for good.