We rolled into Milledgeville, Georgia in 2002; straight off the little highway connected to many other little webbings of other tiny highways with their distincly black and white signs declaring you have just entered into nowhere land. I will never forget passing onto the street that was one long strip mall of cheap clothes and fast food wrappers. I sank and swore under my breath as I died just a little. I was trapped on this ant farm of tiny highways that led to nothing of substance. This big city girl was being squeezed and stuffed into small town life. I couldn’t breathe and only did some of the strangest things breathe life into my caged up heart.
Milledgeville, it turns out, is an icon in lunacy. Growing up in Georgia meant that you may be threatened with being sent to Milledgeville to live at the Asylum. Taking up some two thousand acres, The Georgia Lunatic Asylum established in 1883 was once the largest mental health facility in the United States. Then called many other less kind things, it housed between 13-15 thousand patients. Practices, much less medicine was scarcely humane and people were sometimes chained to walls, children placed in crib cages and overall treated with less decency than my own pets. Legend has it that some of the less ill could be taken home to clean and cook for you and the residents had their own garden. It was said to have one of the largest laundry services on site making the hospital more like its own city. Some physicians and staff lived in tiny houses settled right next to the massive buildings that housed room after room of mentally ill patients. Without much regulation, most anyone deemed ‘sick’ could be left there and because of the lack of staffing, sometimes the patients became the workforce treating the other patients. Now some twenty five thousand patients are buried on the grounds of the hospital creating fuel for the often haunted gothic stories that have become apart of Georgia’s history.
By the 1960’s a governed decentralization of mental health facilities began and the onset of stabilizing medications for the severely mentally ill along with recognition that mental health issues did not constitute removal from society, created the slow disinegration of the once massive city. By the time I arrived for my volunteer orientation at the Powell Building in December 2002, less than half of the community was being used and many buildings were already condemed and haunted by its past.
I was sent to work with a professor and part time psychologist where the acutely physcially ill were housed and made an apparent impression that quickly led to a paying job, office and a behavioral health partner to work with. Stationed with the severly mentally ill geriatric patients, I was schooled in how many mental health disorders looked in their clearest diagnosis and through this lens, I learned more than I could ever offer them, affording me the ability to learn and understand their world view from living with them eight hours a day, five days a week.
And it was the little things that even school could not teach me that informed me of their world view. It is true that with the onset of major mental health disorders like schizophrenia and Bipolar I disorder, the brain is more suspectable to dementia due to the malformations occurring physiologically. Some clients liked to hoard wads and wads of paper while others wore their lipstick wild, drawing farther outside of the lines when less stable. Others signed their name as famous presidents and during the difficult times, many would yell, call me names and wildly run naked through the hospital. I loved them all dearly.
Over time I would find ways to be supportive without being overbearing. I learned to slowly slip out some of the garbage hanging about my patients clothing. Of course it always gave way to more later, but at least there was room made for the hunt to continue later. I would politely ask to help adjust my patients makeup as she went for a big outing like a dance at the auditorium or to shop. And I considered it a compliment to receive a good tongue hammering from one of the once stotic church ladies who kept loads of waded up tobacco in her mouth while spewing her ugly fuck language at me. Perhaps I learned a thing or two about flinging around my foul language from her.
I realize now what a debt of gratitude I owe them. Being a part of their lives gave me the foundation for what I continue to use today as I am in relationship with so many who will never exhibit the extremes I have known, but perhaps, like all of us, have a touch of madness that can be connected to those that showed me what it was like to live with in its most pure form. We would like to believe we are really somehow eons away from the Central State Hospital resident. I believe this is a disservice to my people then, as it is to us collectively now.
I would be entirely remiss to not mention my fellow behavioral specialist and friend Charles. He was known as the quienessential ‘jack of all the hospital trades’. It would not be odd to see him on his way to a treatment team meeting for a resident with three different tools in his hand and some part-a-sum-em that he was steadily fixing that broke. He had his way of making life in the hospital run smoothly, whether it was to create a calming effect on an irrate resident to fixing the dishwashers so the cooks could carry on with their work day. He would often make sure the once entirely too godly church woman had her tobacco, a vile behavior to her visiting friends. We were amused at her way with cuss words, especially when the tobacco ran out. I learned so much about how to be a good human in his presence and offer love where it often faded away in our quiet and isolated world of Central State Hospital.
All these distant memories occurred long before my own kiddo was born and in just these past few weeks did the two collide……And I promise, this next thing, I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.
Fast forward to 2016. It’s a cold and dreary evening and my daughter and I are so excited to get ready for her first middle school dance. We prep with a new dress from Grammie, ballet slipper style shoes and a sparkly purse to make all the pretty things shine. Just a week before we execute our marvelous plan, I realize where we are going…….I am taking my kid and dropping her off to the newly acquired auditorium AT THE CENTRAL STATE HOSPITAL. RIGHT NEXT TO THE MAIN BUILDING ENTRANCE. I have died and died laughing. I wanted to call up Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess and beg her to listen to this story. I always understood that southerners joked about happily parading around their crazy, but I had no idea that they would send my kid right up in it!
As we ride into the back side of the campus, I squeal in delight showing her the building I worked in, where my office was and the people I adored there. I can see her rolling her eyes from the back seat as she says, “Mom is taking herself a trip down memory lane.” She is not amused and said, “This is why everyone said I was going to a dance at the asylum.” Lawd. What could I say but ‘Yes honey, yes you are.’ We passed the main hospital where residents stayed when they were physically ill and told her stories of life on the inside.
We cruised right by the Powell Building, the main entrance and I pointed and said, “This was where the residents went if they became actively psychotic.” Lyra gasped and said, “That sounds scarey! Did you have to handcuff them?” I unknowingly but nonchalantly said back, “Nah, we would sometimes just wrap them in a sheet, especially when they got naked.” Silence. And the next building over is the drop off point………… I swear, I swear, I CANNOT make this shit up. I still remain amused and astonished all in one.
Still….none the less…How can you not be in love? ❤ ❤