|A Novel By Max Rabinowitz|
|I stayed on Ward Seven for two months and then I was transferred to Wards Three and Four.
There was no difference in the all-pervading stench on Wards Three and Four. The smells of disinfectant and drying urine mingled into that distinct aroma that can only be found within the confines of a state hospital. I have since been to many jails, prisons and city hospitals, but never have I come across that particular odor.
Other things were different also. For one, I no longer had my own room. Instead I had a bed in a fifty-five man dormitory. Nothing is less conducive to relaxation than trying to sleep in a dormitory filled with fifty-five insane old men. Those old bastards had their own particular brand of humor. One of their favorites was to approach someone's bed in the middle of the night and urinate on him while he slept. Another was to lurk around a corner and when you turned that corner slam a handful of shit into your face. Then they would run off, cackling madly, while you tried to hold in your rage. If you were young, as I was, you knew better than to hit one of them because a single blow could kill any one of them. That was no big thing, but the consequences were.
Consequence number one was called a seclusion room. This room was a miniature torture chamber. It was eight feet long, eight feet wide and ten feet high. There were no lights, nor were there any sanitary facilities. It was a plain, bare room and victims were thrown into it naked. The door to the seclusion room was made of one-inch-thick hardwood and contained two openings - Judas window so that you could be observed at times and a slot in the bottom portion of the door for the food to be passed in. The food usually consisted of a single bowl of soup and four slices of bread once a day. These were passed through the slot and five minutes were allotted to eat it all and push the bowl out. If the guy inside was one second late the door would open and a bucket of ice-cold water was thrown in. After the first bucket one learned rather quickly to shove that bowl out when the slot opened. If it was necessary to take a piss or a crap you used the corner of the room furthest away from where you slept. The smell in that enclosure after a week was simply incredible. There were no sounds and no means of communication with anyone for the duration of your stay. This could be anywhere from a fifteen-day minimum to forever. Usually it was thirty days. Once I got ninety days and it almost blew my mind. I survived that ordeal by singing songs and telling myself stories. One loses all track of time within a seclusion room because there really is no way to tell time, except for those once-a-day meals. After awhile even those blend. You sleep a lot during the winters and try to sleep a lot during the sweltering heat of summer. If I had a choice I would've preferred the seclusion room in winter because the cold held the smell down to a minimum. In the summer it was hard to breathe. Sometimes the sensory deprivation caused hallucinations, but if you were strong you could survive more or less intact.
There was one man named Davy who spent thirteen straight years in a seclusion room. It was almost impossible to get him out of his room for the once-a-month shower and room clean-up. He was a little guy, about a hundred and twenty pounds, but it took at least four attendants to drag him out because of the tremendous fight he always put up. The staff usually resorted to a fire hose and flushed him out. The attendants hated the job and sometimes they made us do it. That room had broken Davy's mind and he would remain there until he died. He was not the only man to go bats in this manner. I'd seen it happen to others several times.
The second consequence was known as a "straight sheet." This device was a combination straight-jacket and canvas sheet - hence the term. Punishees were placed into it and then the canvas sheet was buckled down to a bed frame. It was impossible to move without ripping your neck raw on the edge of the canvas sheeting. Sheet time was usually seven to fourteen days, although I once had a three-week run. I knew one man who spent fifty days in one. The sentence, of course, was passed by the doctor-in-charge. Since you weren't released from that sheet for any reason you had to urinate and defecate in the bed and lie in it until you were released. This practice resulted in huge bedsores and leg ulcers that ate into you like acid.
Also, in order to keep you quiet or to prevent you from ripping your throat open on the edge of the sheeting you were given thrice-daily injections of Thorazine. These injections were administered, by one of the two ugly nurses, right through the canvas sheeting into your arm or hip. Sometimes this resulted in terrible abscesses. The medicine knocked you out for about a five-hour stretch and that was great because it was the only relief possible.
The third consequence was a combination - placing you in a straight sheet and also into the seclusion room. The maximum sentence was never more than seven days at a run because it was too easy for someone to die. There were many who never returned from "sheet/seclusion."
The fourth was a real beaut. It lasted rarely more than one day. We called it the "wet sheet," though there was probably some other more scientific name for it.
There was a huge sheet that was made out of some kind of strange materials. We'd be stripped naked and then the attendants would tightly wrap a soaking wet sheet around us up to the level of our shoulders. One had to be careful not to struggle during the wrapping procedure because the sheet might be wrapped higher than the shoulders. If that happened the patient was as good as dead. I personally saw three men die because the sheet was incorrectly placed. This was probably the reason wet sheets were rarely used. Anyway, after the sheet was knotted in the back the real fun began. As the wet sheet dried it shrank dramatically, growing tighter and tighter until it felt as if every bone in the body would be crushed.
During the crushing action the circulation would stop, causing these prickling sensations everywhere. If someone wasn't wrapped exactly right he was a mess when he finally did get out, with big black and blue bruises from shoulders to ankles. Sometimes the wet sheet would break an arm or a leg when it squeezed, but that never happened to me. I always cooperated and made sure that the sheet was on good when they tied it on.
Then there were the electroshock treatments. The hospital referred to these as EST's, pronouncing each letter separately: ee, ess, tee. To us patients it was simply "shocks" or "buzzers."
Shocks, by state law, could not be administered without the consent of a parent or guardian. The way the authorities got around that was to tell a patient's parents or legal guardian that he was in dire need of shock treatments, and there was a good chance electroshock would bring him back to normality. So dumb and trusting parents eagerly signed papers and presto, the electric chair on the installment plan! The procedure entailed first an injection of sodium pentathol to slow the heart and breathing. This prevented the massive shocks from stopping the heart. Then they strapped the patient onto a stretcher with heavy leather belts. There was also the extra precaution of having several attendants hold one down. A piece of solid rubber tubing was placed between the teeth so that no one would bite his tongue off during the convulsions and choking that ensued. A small amount of conductive grease was rubbed onto the temples and then the doctor would place a rubber headband across the forehead. Attached to this headband were to half-dollar-sized metal plates and each was fitted to a temple. From the backs of plates ran two wires that were, in turn, connected to a small black box on a rolling table. The box had three dials and a switch attached to it. Finally, the doctor plugged in this small black box to a wall socket and set the dials to some esoteric reading. On signal the attendants grabbed on firmly. The doctor threw the switch and a current of electricity was shot from one metal plate to the other, from temple to temple, straight through the brain.
Everyone is told that it doesn't hurt, that it's a small sting lasting only a fraction of a second. To this I say - BULLSHIT!!
Pain isn't a strong enough word. The entire body feels as if it has been thrown into a burning fire and the scorching within the skull is incredible. Even with the leather straps the body rises off the table, with convulsions. The solid rubber tubing in between the teeth is usually bitten in half. Mercifully unconsciousness comes in seconds and remains for as much as five hours. When one awakens the entire memory is gone. This state persists sometimes for days and for a lot of men and women it becomes permanent and they grow into zombies.
The theory behind this barbaric treatment is two-fold. First is the quasi-scientific theory that the patient's memory is causing insanity. Therefore, by blanking out the memory temporarily, chances are that the disturbing segment might not return with the rest of the thoughts and, ergo, you have a cured patient. I don't put down this practice because I've seen some people who have been straightened out by shock treatments. What I do put down most vehemently is use of electroshock treatments as a punishment for those who transgress against hospital rules.
The final consequence was something labeled hydrotherapy, we called it "the tubs." This inhumane form of therapy existed for decades until it was finally outlawed by the State of New York in 1960.
The main reason "the tubs" was outlawed by statute was the fact that so many people were being killed by that practice. The final straw was the death of six patients during the span of a week, in another state hospital further out on Long Island.
"The tubs" was just that, a bus, about seven feet long and three feet wide, with six water jets along the inside. These water jets are now known as Whirlpool baths, but are certainly not used the way they were in those tubs. The entire tub was about three-and-a-half feet high and had a series of metal buckles running around the outside circumference. On the inside, suspended about halfway down, was a canvas webbing that acted as a cradle for the body. People were placed in this tub naked and a thick canvas covering was placed over the top of it there was an opening in the canvas for the head to fit through, then the entire cover was buckled down to the tub. The cover was stretched taut, like the skin top on a drum and the water jets were turned on. Usually this water was ice-cold, though on occasion it would be lukewarm, but both had an adverse effect on whoever was in the tub.
As the tub filled to a level just below the canvas covering, the body would float in the webbing like a bar of soap. The rushing water prevented anyone from feeling anything. The smarter patients always tried to rub their legs or some other portion of their body with their arms, just to keep the blood circulating. If a guy was extra stupid or crazy he wouldn't rub himself and, maybe, he died.
The reason for death in the tubs was quite simple. They left people in a tub for days at a time, using an idiotic excuse like "it will calm your nerves," or some other bullshit. The body first gets numb and then it begins to soak up water like a sponge. Next goes control of the muscles. The body floats and floats while a desperate attempt is made to retain some feeling in the limbs. Food comes only once a day and no one gets out of the tub to eat or go to the bathroom. It is humiliating to have to perform bodily functions and then float in the refuse or days thereafter. Sometimes the lack of sensory feeling, combined with the absorption of water by the body tissues strains the heart and mind to the breaking point. At this point death could enter the picture.
I didn't mention beatings in the list of punitive consequences for misbehavior because we've already established that beatings were part of the course. These were administered either by hand or with an attendant's favorite weapon. Some preferred belts, others the slats of a chair, and still others used things like sawed-off baseball bats, shoes, bars of soap wrapped in old socks, broom handles, or mop wringers. It was easy to get used to the beatings because they were so frequently given.
I also did not mention insulin shock treatments because they had not yet started to use that for punishment. It wasn't until much later than that came into being. During my stay at the hospital the IST approach was pretty much experimental.
The treatments are basically this: A man is tied down to a bed with strips of sheeting material. Then the doctor injects into him a carefully measured amount of insulin. This drug streams through the body and destroys all the sugars in it. The effect throws the man into an insulin shock coma which, like in the electroshock treatments, is a form of artificially induced epilepsy. The man's body heaves and twitches and finally he becomes totally unconscious. This lasts about three hours. Insulin does not cause as severe a loss of memory as electroshock; memory returns a few hours later. When a man regains consciousness after these treatments he is ravenously hungry and his body screams for the burnt-away sugars. This reaction is apparently known because there are always large pitchers of Blackstrap Molasses waiting. I tried some of that stuff once and it was so damned sweet it made me sick. But the men who have undergone insulin shock treatments drink an entire two-quart pitcher non-stop. I also remember the time a guy named Buchanan ate four pictures out of Good Housekeeping magazine because the molasses hadn't been prepared for him as usual and he was so hungry.
A full course of IST lasted six months before it was halted. I guess too much of it would ruin a guy for life, but at least it wasn't as dangerous as the electroshock treatments. I even saw a few men that were brought back to normal by the IST method and so, perhaps, for some it was a good deal. However, my final comment on IST is that I am very glad I didn't get it.
When I first arrived on Wards Three and Four I noticed a very old man who walked around naked, except for a straight jacket of the canvas variety. He had no teeth, no hair, and flat feet that caused him to walk with a shuffling motion. Felt bad about seeing him like that and asked a patient named Forrest why the attendants put the old man in the jacket every day. Forrest told me that Nick, the old man, was a dangerous character. I got mad at that because even a fool could see that the old man was totally incapable of being dangerous to anybody. He couldn't have weighed more than one hundred pounds and stood only about five-foot-five.
One morning I went over and removed the straight jacket. Instead of "thanks" he said something like "dimme shmoke," which I correctly interpreted as "give me a smoke." I lit one and gave it to him. I watched in amusement as he shuffled off. His feet never left the floor and his skinny little arms, their fists balled, pumped back and forth. With the cigarette puffing away in his sunken cheeks he looked just like an old man playing choo-choo train games. I though it was very funny.
A few minutes later Nick interrupted a Tonk game with Forrest. He nudged my leg. "Dimme shmoke." I told him to get lost. Shit, cigarettes were at a premium in there and I wasn't about to give Nick one every time he got it into his head to ask. I pushed him away from the table very gently and resumed play, wondering why Forrest was smiling so strangely at the by-play between Nick and I.
A minute later Nick shuffled back with his same demand. I told him to beat it and then shoved him away from the table quite hard, maybe too hard, but I was annoyed.
He came right back and once again demanded a cigarette. Before I could say "No" I felt as if I had been hit in the face with a chair. I slid across the floor while the entire left side of my face swelled rapidly. My left eye was closed and hurt real bad. I peered at Nick with my good eye and tried to shake the bells out of my ears. He didn't have pipe or a chair in his hands and it was my thought that someone else had struck me, but no one else was anywhere near except Forrest and I had been facing him.
I asked Forrest what the hell happened and he laughed. He explained that the old man had hit me with his fist: I would not believe it. Forrest decided to show me. He put his hands on Nick's shoulders and turned him around so that he faced a large black man at the far end of the room. Forrest pointed to the black man telling Nick that he had cigarettes. "Cigarettes" must have been the magic word because old Nick immediately shuffled off toward the black guy.
I watched Nick all the way and when he gently nudge the black guy's leg I knew he was demanding a cigarette in his usual fashion. The black guy pushed Nick away and that was when I got to see just what had happened to me.
Nick jumped up in the air with a leap that had to be seen to be believed. His legs were three feet off the ground when his right fist connects with force on the left eye of the black guy. The man hit the ground, already out cold, and just lay there unconscious while Nick shuffled off in his eternal quest for a cigarette.
Regretfully, I retrieved the straight jacket and went over to Nick. He knew why I was there because he put his arms out and made it easy for me to put the straight jacket on. He didn't struggle or put up any kind of fight about it. As I slipped it on, I took a close look at Nick's hands and noticed that his knuckles were all large and extremely bony, that his hands were much larger than mine. Those fists were weapons in themselves.
Also on our ward was a man named Fritzie. He was, of course, of German descent and he had a very peculiar delusion. There were a lot of guys that thought they were Jesus Christ and some that thought they were the President, Napoleon and stuff like that, but Fritzie was unique. He thought he was Adolph Hitler! He used to tell everyone that he had never killed himself and it was a double that'd fooled the Allies in Berlin.
Fritzie was incredible. And if you listened long enough you got to wondering, otherwise he'd have you believing that the Third Reich was on its way back!
Fritzie didn't look anything like Hitler and he didn't sound like him either but he knew all the phrases. He'd spout things like "Deutschland Über Alles," and fling up his arm in a perfect Nazi salute at the slightest provocation. He was always talking about "cooking the Jews" and that didn't set too well with me because I am Jewish. However, I convinced him I was a German or he'd have probably tried to do me in.
Eating was another thing that was always chancy on Wards Three and four. In that mess hall I could never be sure what was going to happen. At some meals things would be perfectly all right and at others there was pure madness. The man next to me might reach over and just snatch the food right off my tray. Or maybe the man across the table would spit into my food. Or someone would get up and throw a chair across the room for no apparent reason.
Like I said, eating was always chancy . . . .
Recreation was another zero consisting of playing cards, walking in circles around the day room, teasing the really sick guys, or just plain fighting. Mostly it was fighting.
A fight would last no longer than a few seconds if it was between a young man and an old man. The young one would simply punch the old man and that was the end of that. If it was between two old men then it might last a minute or two before they ran out of steam or forgot what it was they had been fighting about. The only rumbles that lasted any length of time were when it involved two young guys. The excuses for fighting were varied: a slighting word about a member of somebody's family, over food, over clothing, over speaking styles and even fights over fights! Sometimes a two-man rumble sparked a free-for-all with everybody picking a side. Usually the friend of the loser ran over to the winner an busted him in the mouth. Then one of his friends would jump in and then everybody's friends would jump in and ZOWEE! These mini-riots didn't last too long and usually died a natural death, but on certain occasions the attendants would have to break them up. It's not an easy chore to separate fifty to sixty men who are swinging away at each other, but the attendants always seemed to handle it without too many problems. They would simply wade in swinging at everything in sight and one blow was enough to put a guy out of it. They sure were big, those attendants. Another good policy was to keep a chair slat or a pipe from the mop wringer beneath your pillow or in a handy a place as a possible. If one of the old men decided to use you for a toilet bowl in the middle of the night he could be discouraged easily with a chair slat across the face. I only had to employ that method a few times before the nuts got the idea that they should maybe try someone else less handy with a chair slat. Of course, if one of them decided to push a handful of shit into your face while you were sleeping, there wasn't much that could be done about it. That happened to me more than once and all I could do was go into the bathroom and wash myself off.
The very worst incident that ever happened during a sleep period was with this guy named Murdock.
He had just been sent to our hospital from upstate and was as pleasant a man as you could ever meet. I'd never known him to refuse anyone a cigarette or to walk away during a conversation, even if he had no interest in it. He never got into any fights and that too was unusual. All in all, he was a quiet, inoffensive man who didn't seem crazy at all. Many men, including myself, would sit and talk with him for hours. He always had something interesting to say and was very articulate. The only thing that struck a jarring note was his constant mention of that upstate hospital and how much he liked it. He used to tell us how he missed his friends there and how much he wanted to be with them. He told us he had spent fifteen yeas there and knew everyone and everything about the place. He said that he felt lost at our hospital. I had heard stories about how terrible that place was, but Murdock assured us that it wasn't such a bad place at all.
I was asleep one night when I felt this warm splash on my face and naturally, I thought one of the crazies had pissed on me again. I jumped up, chair slat in hand, and looked around the dormitory, but no one was close.
The dormitory was in semi-darkness and the only illumination came from three small red bulbs that were spaced out across the ceiling. I rubbed my hand across my face and noticed that the liquid looked black in the red glow of those lights. Another startled glance and I saw that the man in the next bed had his throat cut from ear to ear. It was apparent that he was dead. Next to him was another man whose hands clutched his neck. Streams of blood spouted between his fingers and it was this blood that had splashed onto my face. I stood there, frozen, and then I saw Murdock moving in my direction. I don't know where he got it, but he had a straight razor in his hand.
My brain took off like a rocket. I grabbed up my top sheet and wrapped it quickly around my left forearm, got a firm grip on my chair slat, and then without losing my cool, I ran all over the dormitory screaming my lungs out. I jumped from bed to bed waking everybody up, and started them yelling and running around too. Murdock stood in one spot, calmly watching the bedlam taking place around him.
The night attendant must have been awake for a change because he got into that dormitory in seconds. When he spotted Murdock holding the straight razor, he crouched slightly and spoke in a very soft voice. He told Murdock to put the razor down. I was shocked to see Murdock obey him without hesitation. Murdock dropped the razor on the bed of the second man whose throat he had just cut wide open. "I want to see my friends," he whispered and let the night attendant lead him out.
So two men died that night and Murdock got his wish. He was sent back to the upstate hospital and we never saw him again.
It was months before I could sleep other than short naps, but shortly after that incident I was sent to Ward Five and Six and most of the nightmares faded. I guess that it was due to the fact that the guys on these wards were about my age and weren't really that crazy. Most of them had been sent to the hospital by the courts, as an alternative to prison or a reformatory. This was a common practice and it wasn't unusual to meet a guy who had nothing wrong with him other than the fact that he had stuck up a store or mugged someone. Some judges thought it was better to incarcerate these men in the hospital because upon release they wouldn't have the stigma of a prison record to ruin their lives. I wonder if those judges really knew how damaging a mental hospital history was? It was worse than any prison record could ever be.
Perhaps the reason I did so well on Wards Five and Six was because I was reunited with my only friend, Steve.