Sunday, August 28, 2016

An Artist's Evolution, Part II

In 1991 it was difficult to meet the requirements for discharge from a mental hospital.

In order to leave the hospital I had to first demonstrate that I could hold a part time job.  I must live at the hospital and work outside of it.  Ideally they wanted me to have a job and take a class at a local collage.  There was another schizoaffective patient who did this.  She had a job, she took a collage class, and she lived with me on the locked ward.  She was very busy.   When I bumped into her years later in a clothing store she told me she had become a paralegal in a lawyer's office.

The first job I had while living at the hospital was working with brain damaged children.  It was a volunteer job.  The Institute of Living had a children's day program.  Most of the children were just a bit over kindergarten age.  They were old enough to walk and be mobile.  But none could talk.  It was explained to me that most of these children had been born to drug addicted mothers.  Almost all would eventually go to into institutional care when they matured.  Never I had I ever imagined human life could go so wrong, that brains existed that were so unsuitable for living.  The pain that these children bore in just their simple, simple existence was beyond belief.  The volunteer job was a nightmare.

The room where I met the children was large.  It had a square marked off on the carpet in blue tape.  The children were instructed to follow the line of the blue tape.  That was all they had to do.  Walk round and round the square of blue tape.  My job was to gently steer a child's body along.  Every volunteer was given one child.  And I quickly discovered that it was only a matter of a short time when the child would try to leave the path of the blue tape and have a crisis.  It would be an emotional meltdown.  The child would flap hands and make loud  distressed noises.  Sometimes the child would throw itself on the ground and thrash.  The volunteer must make soothing conversation and try to get the child up on its feet, quieted down, and focused again on walking the line of blue tape.

It boggled my mind that after the children's day program, these children would go home to caretakers (had the drug addicted mothers all recovered?) and in their mute world, in their mute distress, with their loud freak outs, exasperate a parent for hours on end.  And the children were at home all weekend! These special children required adults to take care of them who had endless patience and endless compassion.

What could I hope to offer the abnormal children of The Institute of Living?

As a patient at The Institute of Living I was an emotional wreck.  My problems were more than just dealing with the onset of the schizoaffective mental illness.  It was only after I had left the hospital and I could experiment with my medication that I really understood the big picture.  There were two strong side effects of the high dose of antipsychotic medication the hospital had me one.  One was akathesia.  But since this word is technical and I did not know what it was, all I could do was describe the effects to my therapist.  I described overwhelming anxiety.  It was the feeling that reality was a pane of glass.  A clear pane of glass that I could see through.  And this pane of glass was on the verge of shattering.  All that was real was going to break into shards and fall apart.  My anxiety was due to my perception that reality was on the verge of shattering.  I understood clearly that this new anxiety had no specific cause and no known reason.  Yet with restless, unrelenting intensity it intruded upon me several hours after taking my morning medication

And I became very depressed as my new medication started.  I wanted to die.  Life had little value.  I cried.  I cried a lot.  The other patients in the hospital did not cry.  Undeniably all the patients I lived with were all in tremendous pain.  Some were there because they had slit their wrists or tried to hang themselves.  I could see the body language of a new patient.  Many new patients came in in a fog. What were they feeling?  It could only be described as dense.  Very dense, overwhelming emotion.  But they did not come in crying.  And from my perspective as a patient who cried a lot it was madness in and of itself when a person was in pain and could not cry.  I believed I was sane for crying and all the dry eyed patients were not.  I was anxious and depressed and I had no problem about being vocal about it.

My therapist was adamant that medication only made me better.  She told me that it was uncomfortable facing reality.  I should feel anxious facing reality.  I should feel depressed facing reality.  These negative experiences were really signs of progress and healing!

The months passed.  Months of group and individual therapy.  My parents were brought in to have therapy with.  And I did not get better.  I quit my volunteer job with the children.  And then the hospital became fed up with me.

My therapist said that there were now no more issues left for therapy to discuss.  She said the issues had been resolved with my parents.  She said that I was on the maximum dose of antidepressant and I should not be depressed.  So she had a new theory.  Her theory was that I liked living at the hospital and I did not want to leave.  I liked not working and having all my meals prepared for me.  I was refusing to grow up.  I did not want to be an adult functioning in the real world.  So my "mental illness" was my own fault.  But the hospital was going to give me one last chance.  I had been on the unit for a year and a half.  On our unit they only intended for a patient to stay six months. The one last chance they were going to give me was to get a new job, outside the Institute walls, and keep it.  If I could get a job and keep it then they would discharge me to a half-way house.  Otherwise they would discharge me to a State Hospital.  Apparently my family medical insurance no longer wanted to pay for keeping me at the Institute of Living.

At this crisis point in my life I met an Angel.  Oh, he was a real human being.  He was a retired lawyer.  Very elderly.  He was a volunteer for the United Way.  I met him at the United Way offices.  He was supposed to find me a job.  This one meeting with a stranger would alter my life forever.  That is why I call him an Angel.  An Angel of mercy.

When I met with this fellow I imagined I was only fit for janitorial work.  Pushing a broom.  Washing a chalk board.  Mopping a floor.  Truly I believed I was the lowest form of human life.  Having a mental illness and not being able to recover felt like some sort of sin just above criminal.  Criminals were locked up in jail, and I had been locked up in a mental hospital for a year and a half.  Since I could not recover maybe I did belong in the mental hospital.  Maybe I was a bad person like a criminal is a bad person.

The retired lawyer had a hard time getting me to describe what kind of work I wanted.  Because I really didn't think that I could do anything.  So he asked me to sit back, relax, and take a moment.  In that moment he wanted me to dream.  I should dream that if I could have any job in the world, what job would I have?  With his encouragement I took a moment to dream.  If I could work at anything, anywhere, then I wanted to work in an art museum.

He smiled.  With a twinkle in his eye  he said he would find me a job in an art museum.  And that is what he did.  I got a job at the Wadsworth Atheneum.  The Institute of Living and the Wadsworth Atheneum are both in downtown Hartford, Connecticut.  I was able to walk to work.

At first I worked at the museum as an exhibit monitor.  There was a special room designed by an artist.  It had boxes of sand on the counters.  This sand had object in it, like little plastic cars, barbies, and plastic soldiers.  The artist expected that people would come in and play in his sand boxes.  This was the "art experience" - playing in sandboxes.  I was there to make certain none of the loose knick-knacks in the sandboxes were stolen or that people did not throw sand or sweep it out of the boxes and onto the floor. 

Once this exhibit had ended the museum offered me a new job.  It was a mini-promotion.  My new job was working at the information desk by the front doors.  While working at the information desk I took entrance fee money and answering such questions as "Where is the bathroom?", "Where is the restaurant?", "Where is the Caravaggio?" and "How many Picasso's do you have?" 

The experience of leaving a locked psychiatric ward and then walking across town in my high heels to work at a museum transformed me.  The front of the Wadsworth is very old and looks like the front of a castle.  The Wadsworth will forever be for me a palace filled with priceless treasures.   And while working at the information desk, as I greeted the public and answered their questions about the museum's art, I became much more than just a simple mental patient.  Becoming an ambassador for the museum transformed me into art royalty.

The newly discovered sense of pride filled holes in my tattered soul. 

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