Noilly Prattle: Looking Back: 27 – losing the fear of losing one's mind

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Looking Back: 27 – losing the fear of losing one's mind

     No, I didn't commit myself to an insane asylum, I applied for a job in one as a psychiatric aide at the Worcester State Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. There was no mention of any "two-week-gap" in my resume and I got the job. I had a job and an income and the keys to the loony bin.

Worcester State Hospital (before it was demolished)
        WSH was organized into 8-hour shifts: the plum day shift, 7am to 3pm; the no-social-life afternoon shift 3 to 11pm; and the graveyard shift 11pm to 7am. I eventually worked all three. I started out on the no-social-life afternoon shift. After a few months of learning the ropes--how to tie a straight jacket--and a little seniority (with a high turnover rate advancement was fairly rapid) I moved to the day shift. Later, when things in my life fell apart, I moved to the graveyard shift. 

        I don't intend to regale you with tales from the lunatic asylum (* Ken Kessey, far better than I could, was remarkably astute in depicting his asylum characters and their situations), but rather my own evolution in the course of about two and a half years working and, in a sense, living in that singularly fascinating world and concluding that sometimes the only difference between me and the inmates was that I had the keys--and having that responsibility made all the difference. 

        In his biographical novel of the Dutch Painter Vincent van Gogh, Irving Stone put mental illness in perspective in a succinct few sentences. Van Gogh had been having hallucinogenic episodes due perhaps to epilepsy, poor nutrition, absinthe and severe stress in his relationship with another painter, Paul Gaugin, while they lived and worked together in Arles in southern France. In one famous psychotic episode following an explosive disagreement with Gauguin he cut off one of his ears and gave it to a prostitute in the brothel he had been frequenting. He, like many people in similar circumstances, feared that he was going insane and in fact agreed to go to St. Paul de Mausole, an insane asylum in St. Remy some 25 miles from Arles, on the recommendation of the local doctor who had treated his severed ear. After a few days confinement he came to terms with his fear. ** “Vincent was glad that he had come. By seeing the truth about the life of madmen he slowly lost the vague dread, the fear of insanity. Bit by bit he came to consider madness as a disease like any other.”

          So, like van Gogh, for me the “madmen” became patients with an illness like any other—people like me but who were prone to an unfortunate illness that somehow scrambled their circuits.

To be continued...

* One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kessey

** Lust for Life, Irving Stone

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