Noilly Prattle: May 2015

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Looking Back: 30 – I meet a mentor

     The several conversations I had with the Art Therapist at Worcester State Hospital marked an end to my period of drift and pointed in a new direction. I discovered by chance something that interested me enough to consider going to graduate school. The combination of working in a psychiatric environment and becoming acquainted with the field of Art Therapy as a non-analytic therapeutic process that seemed ideally adaptable to troubled children encouraged me to look into graduate programs for educating and certifying special needs teachers in the area of emotional disturbance in school age children.

        As I had done years earlier working full time at a printing company and taking evening classes at a junior college, while working full time at the State Hospital, in 1970 I enrolled in the graduate program at Fitchburg State College in the town where I was born. I attended classes in the evening continuing education program for a Masters Degree in Special Needs Education focusing on what was labeled “emotionally disturbed” children in those days. That designation may no longer be considered politically correct; it seems to be termed “social/emotional disabilities” nowadays.

        I had the great good fortune to meet a very special teacher by the name of Eleanor McKuen who was also studying for her Masters Degree in the evening program. She was already a special needs teacher working in the Worcester Public School System, and had a class for emotionally disturbed children in one of the city's neighborhood schools. She was a fountain of information and insights into education in this area and invited me to visit her class to see for myself firsthand whether it would really suit me or not.

holding my newborn niece and my
"Little Brother" Lance
        I took her up on the invitation and spent a day in her classroom and quickly realized how suited she was to the job. She made me feel welcome and communicated that welcome to the eight kids in the class who reciprocated it. I wondered if I had the character and patience to do as wonderful a job as she did. I suppose I was a little in love with her. I was also in a relationship with someone else at the hospital that seemed to be taking a serious turn, but that's another story.

        I was much impressed with Eleanor and her class and decided to pursue my diploma. I also joined a “Big Brother” program in Worcester and worked with one of Eleanor's boys named Lance who was in foster care in a group home in the city.

        In due course I had to come up with an idea for the Masters Thesis and conceived of the idea of doing research and an experiment in art therapy in a classroom for emotionally disturbed children. I consulted the Art Therapist at the hospital and discussed the feasibility of such a thesis and whether he would be willing to help me. He was most enthusiastic and offered what help he could. Then I discussed the idea with Eleanor and asked her if I could work with her students for the experimental part of the thesis. She was also supportive and excited by the idea.

       Now, all I had to do was convince the department head at the college.

To be continued...

Friday, May 22, 2015

Looking Back: 29 – a window of opportunity opens

     In due course, I was able to move from the second shift to the day shift. Being on the day shift gave me a wider diversity of things to do besides playing Pinochle. There were more activities for the patients in the daytime and more of a need for the aides to take them here and there in the hospital.

Art Therapy with children 
       One day I was told to escort some patients to “Art Therapy”. Immediately on hearing “Art Therapy” I was intrigued. I had taken some Art and Psychology courses at the university, but I had never heard of using art as a kind of therapy and was curious to see what it was all about. I brought a few of our patients to the Art Therapy room. While they were there I had to wait for them, so. I had a chance to look around and watch what was going on pay particular attention to the Art Therapist. I didn't talk to him that first day and when the time was up I took the patients back to the ward.

Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night
       The next time I brought some patients to the Art Therapy room I introduced myself to the Art Therapist and asked him if he minded talking to me about what he did with the patients and how he used art as a therapeutic device. He was surprised, I suppose, by an aide showing an interest in his work so I told him that I had a B.A., did some drawing myself and thought the idea of art therapy interesting. After that, whenever I brought patients to the room, he was delighted to show me their work and explain how they often expressed their fears and anxieties symbolically in the forms and colors they chose or in magazine or other pictures they might choose for a collage.

       He explained that he didn't “interpret” the pictures, that the process itself was therapeutic and sometimes cathartic. He would also let the patients talk about their pictures and how they felt about their work. The picture on the right is pretty self explanatory about the boys feelings towards his parents. The therapist might nudge the conversation towards exploring why the boy is so angry with them. This process could help patients to resolve some of their issues and improve enough to leave the hospital.

       We talked about symbols and how they work in the sub-conscious mind and can be difficult to interpret. Some symbols are thought to be universal, as in Carl Jung's archetypes, and can be interpreted fairly consistently. One of the most easily recognizable archetypes is the Marlboro Man. He represents the virtues of masculinity: strength, independence, self-reliance. Furthermore, he is the warrior and hero of myth descended from Odysseus and Achilles. The highly successful Star Wars movie series owes much of its popularity to archetypal symbols. The most endearing one, of course, being the Sage personified or caricatured by Yoda. Other symbols can be highly personalized and may not even be understood on a conscious level by the individual creating them. Discussing an individual's work can lead to a surfacing of the symbol into the conscious mind and contribute to an understanding of the issue(s) that led to the patient's being in the hospital.

       An idea began to germinate in my mind. I started thinking about the possibility of going into a graduate school program in special needs program for primary school children with emotional problems.

To be continued...

Friday, May 15, 2015

Looking Back: 28 – the cuckoo's nest

main tower of the old WSH
     It was probably not something you would want to approach on a dark stormy night. There was something about the aura of the building complex that gave it the aspect of a Gothic horror film. It was a huge labyrinth and resembled a prison more than a hospital. It was, in fact, both.

        In the days of my employment there, Worcester State Hospital, a.k.a. Worcester Insane Asylum and Worcester Lunatic Asylum, housed thousands of patients either on voluntary or on involuntary court-ordered commitment. Mental illness is completely impartial and democratic. It strikes all classes, all races and all ages. Some patients were “chronics” and it was actually their home. Others were “acutes”, having an episode of Schizophrenia or Manic Depression or any other not clearly diagnosed illness, who would stay for the duration of their episodes, be treated (mostly with drugs) and released back into the community until their next episodes. Many “acutes”, after years of such episodes, became “chronics” and stayed in the institution until they died.

        I don't remember clearly, but I suppose it was with some trepidation that I started my first day on a locked ward. I was accompanied by the second shift nurse supervisor who escorted me to the ward to introduce me to the nurses and other aides on duty. She unlocked the door and opened it and showed me how to work the keys and emphasized the importance of not forgetting to lock it back up. It was at that moment that I fully realized that this was, indeed, a kind of prison and wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into.

Louise Fletcher's brilliant portrayal of Nurse Ratched
        The door opened onto a long corridor with either doors or openings to small ward rooms along the right and left walls where the patients slept. There was a young man sitting on the floor unmoving and unresponsive to a “Hello”. The corridor was painted in nondescript institutional green and we proceeded down to the nurses station adjacent to the day room roughly halfway down the corridor. The head nurse, an RN (registered nurse) was a largish pleasant matronly woman of about 50. The LPN (licensed practical nurse) under the RN was all business, no nonsense and the real ruler of the roost. Think Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest * without the intellectual pretensions. She was more on the mop and bucket level. She instructed me on my duties and the rules and regulations of the ward, emphasis on the “rules and regulations”.

Paul Cezanne - The Card Players
        The job was basically taking care of the non-medical needs of the patients. Aides escorted patients to off-the-ward activities such as meetings with doctors, occupational therapy, recreation activities, etc., interacted with them in the day room, chatting, playing cards, etc. and, of course, supplying the muscle when a patient got violent or otherwise out of control and had to be physically restrained. This aspect was the part of the job I detested, but I think that certain types of aides liked the sense of power it gave them.

        And so began my first full afternoon on the no-social-life 3 to 11pm shift—unless you consider playing pinochle with Schizophrenics and Manic Depressives a social life. I learned that the young guy sitting on the floor was a catatonic named Rick. Rick was still sitting there in the same position when I got off my shift. I said: “Good night, Rick.” No response. I unlocked the door and let it clang shut behind me.

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

To be continued...

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

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 21 – End of the Line

our very economical Mazda Demio -
slightly dusted with volcanic ash
     Our son had to return to Tokyo after a short weekend getaway so we left Ibusuki around 10 o'clock in the morning and drove him to Kagoshima Airport for an early afternoon flight. I would inject a word of praise for our GPS equipped rental car which also turned out to be surprisingly good on gas. The car was a compact Mazda Demio model that I was very impressed with. (This is not a plug for Mazda, simply an observation.) I drove the car for three days (413 km.) and only filled the tank once in Ibusuki for about $35. The tank still showed full when I returned the car to the dealer in Kagoshima after driving 120 km. We drove about 533 km. for about $35.

        After dropping our son off at the airport, we headed back towards the city of Kagoshima, which is now the southern terminus of the Shinkansen, the Bullet Train, for which we had return tickets back home. Just before arriving in Kagoshima we stopped off at what was the summer “home” of the Lord of Satsuma during the Edo Period. I put “home” in quotes because the property is more like a small palace and commands one of the most unique backyard views that any amount of money can buy.—a volcano—Sakurajima.

a smoking and belching Sakurajima volcano

main house of Senganen with "borrowed scenery"
        Known as Senganen (仙巌園), it is a Japanese style landscape garden built by the powerful Shimazu clan in 1658 during the Edo Period (1603-1867) when Japan was ruled by the Shoguns of the Tokugawa clan. The Shimazu clan ruled the Satsuma domain (present day Kagoshima) for almost 700 years until the end of the Edo Period. The landscape garden uses the usual elements of a Japanese garden, ponds, streams, flora, rock and stone and, of course, Japanese style buildings including a shrine, tea houses, and the main house.

there were several of these huge, uniquely shaped
stone lanterns strewn about the garden

        These features can be found in most Japanese landscape gardens, even more modest ones in ordinary peoples homes. What is astounding about Senganen is the so-called “borrowed scenery”--a volcano and the sea—Sakurajima and Kagoshima Bay. As one walks around the property these elements of borrowed scenery are almost always in view.

typically simple tea house for tea ceremonies -
the tiny entrance door is designed to show proper humility
in preparation for the ceremony

sweet potato flavored soft cream -
refreshing after walking around on a
surprisingly hot day 

        One thing that caught my attention while strolling around the garden was a lovely bamboo grove. The grove was obviously well tended, thinned to give it an airiness, dead and broken stalks removed—a kind of idealized bamboo grove. According to a posted sign the grove was originally composed of a couple stalks imported from China. Bamboo, it turns out are not native to Japan. All of the bamboo currently rampant in Japan are descended from the the original stalks imported into this grove. 

Japan's "ancestral" bamboo grove

our lovely view from the "Dreamy Inn"
a slightly distorted view of the
Kyushu Shinkansen
at Kagoshima Chuo Station
        After leaving Senganen, we returned our rented car to the dealer in Kagoshima which was just around the corner from our budget hotel, another "Dreamy Inn" (see Getting Reacquainted 17). The next morning we boarded the Shinkansen at Kagoshima Chuo station and returned home.

The End.