Tuesday, August 03, 2004


When I was 17 my dad took me along on a field trip to Metropolitan State Mental Hospital - Metro for short. He was teaching a class at the Long Beach Police Academy, educating the cadets on how to deal with the mentally ill population. This field trip was a mandatory part of every graduating class, so that the soon to be police officers would have an idea of what a 5150 looked like. A 5150 is police code for walking wounded and this was back in the day, right about the time Ronald Reagan started decimating the state funding for treatment and care of the mentally ill people that now live on our streets.

Back in the day the police used to be able to pick up the howling schizophrenics and suicidal manic depressives and deliver them to a state facility like Metro, where they would be checked in on a 72 hour hold. Those that wanted to stay and try to get their meds straightened out had that option, those that didn’t were given medication and turned over for out patient care.

So that winter day I skipped school and went with my dad and about 25 police cadets to visit the looney bin. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had come out a couple of years before and that was pretty much what informed my idea of who the mentally ill were. None of the guys in that movie seemed too nuts. Nurse Ratchet was the scariest person in the hospital. Still I felt a little anxious as the door to the first ward slammed shut behind us, and the bolt slid into place. The place looked exactly like your worst nightmare of a mental institution. Built sometime in the late 19-teens, it had been updated sometime in the 50s with grey linoleum. The walls were painted a glossy shade of beigy-yellow and all the windows had safety glass with wire criss-crossing the panes and bars – just to be sure.

The first ward we visited was a women’s ward and most of the patients were heavily medicated, shuffling along with glazed looks on their faces. Some sat in chairs in the glow of a television sitting in the community room – their jaws slack, their eyes dull. A couple of the women came over and flirted with the police cadets, one of them making outrageous sexual overtures until a psych tech came and dragged her off to god knows what kind of punishment. There was nothing threatening about her behavior. She was like a little girl mimicking a seduction scene from a 1940s era film. Except she was wearing polyester stretch pants and a sweatshirt and her lipstick had been applied drunk girl style. I had visions of her strapped down to a gurney with a black plastic paddle jammed in her mouth and electricity coursing through her body until she passed out. They probably just made her go to her room, but I knew that at one time they performed lobotomies in that place as a “cure” – it was creepy.

We all sort of huddled together as we followed our tour guide down the hall. He explained that she was acting out and she could’ve gotten the rest of the women riled. It was probably best that she went on time out even though we could hear her wailing as we headed outside to a co-ed recreational area. Basically, it was a couple of cafeteria-style tables on cement sitting under leafless trees. It was windy and cold, but there were 8 or 9 patients sitting or standing out there smoking or talking, actually more like ranting. One guy was on his knees passionately professing his love to a slight young woman. He was wearing jeans with a white t-shirt, a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves. His hair was slicked back like a 50s greaser. She looked to be in her early 20s with mousy brown hair. She was very thin and delicate. She stood up as he held her hand and then I guess she passed out, the combination of anti-psychotics and gravity getting the best of her? We all stood transfixed as the psych tech whom, I guess was like the recess coach for this group scooped her up and carried her inside. The guy stood there watching as she was carried off and then he started bellowing, “Stella! I love you Stella!”

Which gave me the nervous giggles. Which spread amongst our group. Which motivated our tour guide to move us along. The Stanley Kowolski guy followed us muttering and making threats under his breath. It was a relief when we got onto the next ward until our guide advised us that this was where the criminally insane males were housed, each in their own locked room with a small window in the door. He instructed us to walk down the middle of the hallway, stay away from the doors please. We paused in the hallway and he explained that most of the men here were violent and had to be heavily medicated. There were no women working on this ward. Crazy faces leered at me through the little windows and I jumped about 10 feet in the air when the guy in the room behind me threw his body into the door, his faced smashed against the window as he screamed obscenities at me. My police escort closed ranks around me and we marched quick like to our next destination.

We met with a psych tech who discussed methods used to physically manage someone in a full psychotic fit – basically the choke hold, using the arm around the neck until enough oxygen is deprived from the brain to cause the person to pass out. The police are not allowed to use this hold any longer because some of the people they used it on died. I can’t help but think that a tranquilizer gun wouldn’t be a bad thing, but I guess tasers can do the same thing now. If you think about it getting hit by a taser isn’t that different than electro-shock therapy.

Although the hospital is still open the mentally ill population makes up the majority of those people who live on the streets and in the parks of Los Angeles. There are so many of them to whom treatment is inadequate or not even available. And while the hospital was grim, the streets are much worse. At least at the hospital they had a roof over their heads and food to eat. Someone would make sure that they took their medication so that they didn’t hurt themselves or anyone else. I am not as frightened of my homeless neighbors as I would be if I hadn’t had the experience. I know their names. When I see them digging in the trash I offer to buy them something to eat and I leave them alone when they’re really psychotic.

They are human, all too human, even with their broken psyches. I think about that guy with his greaser hair do and his cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve, bellowing his love for that wisp of a girl as she was carried away from him in full swoon. And how in that place, loaded up with anti-psychotics he found himself crazy in love.

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