I have an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I arrive at the old Weston asylum, but not for reasons you might think. There are dark clouds circling the massive stone building, with beams of sunlight trying their best to break through. Storms are brewing all through the area today, and the unpredictability of driving through severe weather has me on edge.
I’m deep in Appalachia, in West Virginia, unfamiliar territory. And let’s just say, this isn’t the West Virginia John Denver was singing about on Country Roads. The harsh realities I’ve seen so far are as dark & dire as what I’m about to confront behind these stone walls. I’m on high alert and high anxiety before I even get out of the car.
I glance up at the sky once more, before I push through the building’s heavy oak doors. The sun keeps trying. But the dark clouds are winning.
It’s important to understand that for most of human history, the majority of people who ended up in mental hospitals weren’t actually mentally ill. At least, not in the way we like to assume. The bulk were simply living in times where normal human feelings were painfully suppressed, and common struggles were veiled in denial.
What today we’d call eccentricities or mere individual expression, was back then considered disease. SECRECY was the name of the game. And if you didn’t play the game, well, you’d be sorry…
Congestion of Brain. Gathering in the Head. Overheat. Disappointed Affection. Dog Bite.
These were some of the documented conditions that could get you committed, in 1864-1889.
I notice Bad Company among the common ‘afflictions’, and this one continued well beyond the 1800’s. From the books it’s not clear whether they mean keeping such company, or being it. What is clear is that it didn’t really matter. There wasn’t exactly a high threshold when it came to putting people away. If someone wanted you gone badly enough, then gone you would be. Especially if you happened to be a woman…
THE BEAUTY PARLOR
There was a hair salon in the medical ward of the hospital, the idea being that it would provide a sense of dignity & normalcy to dysfunctional women. That maybe, possibly, it would assist them in overcoming their demons & other unacceptable traits, by providing them a glimpse of ordinary life.
I stand here staring at that chair, and I start to think about my own hair and how much a part of me it is. Of all the things they could take away from you, hair isn’t usually what first comes to mind. But as I stand there, the realization grows. It’s not about hair, but rather about what happens when they take away your ability to control your own narrative. Who are you then? What’s left? I stand there a long time, in the beauty parlor, long after everyone else has left.
LOVE IN A HOPELESS PLACE
There’s a scene in American Honey where Shia LaBeouf jumps onto a cash register at WalMart & dances to a Rhianna song, while the main character Star watches him from across the store. The simple act of his boldness & silliness makes her world light up, despite her having just been rummaging through a dumpster for food a few minutes before.
I never stopped to think why that scene always stood out to me so much. Maybe because it shows how when you’re in a dark, dark place, the most simple of things can make everything come alive, in a way that it couldn’t otherwise. A tiny flicker in the vast dark has an intensity that just can’t be replicated when all is shining & bright. What is the impact of turning on a light in an already luminous room? And yet, most people seem to prefer it that way.
I’ve thought a lot about what happens when we try to make people into something they’re not. This doesn’t come from just society at large; this isn’t just ‘the culture’ at play. It’s often the people closest to you. Parents. Family. Significant others. Some are manipulatively subtle about it, some aren’t. Some know exactly what they’re doing, some legitimately believe they’re just steering you toward ‘what’s best for you.‘
I think about the ways this unsaid nonacceptance & rejection manifests in people’s lives.
I think about how many problems could be avoided, how much human suffering & conflict could be prevented, if everyone was just allowed to be who they are.
The light briefly returns, coming through some torn curtains on a rusty window. But it’s gone as quickly as it appears.
A lot of people compare Grief to a disease, something that takes hold in your body and infects you. But I never felt it that way. A disease can be cured, an infection cleared up. Grief doesn’t work like that.
I’ve always felt it more like an organ transplant, a new force that changes your cellular structure. Something burrowed deep inside until the end of your days, beating and alive. And just like a foreign organ, your body either dies from it, or your body accepts it – and against all reason, somehow learns to live with it.
A LONE ROAD
It’s no secret that sustained isolation can make a person go mad. Considered one of the worst forms of punishment, prolonged isolation was reserved for the most uncontrollable or violent of patients. The mere threat of the seclusion room was often enough to reign in whatever behavior needed reigning in.
A prison within a prison. It’s interesting how removing a person’s ability to escape their own mind is akin to torture. But when all you have is the never-ending company of your own thoughts, there’s no limit to the depths of darkness those thoughts will take you.
The sky still has not made up its mind hours later, as I drive out of the hospital grounds and thru a small run-down town on my way to the interstate. The air is calm for now, but there’s a heaviness to it that just won’t lift, like the knots in my stomach.
As the asylum disappears in the rearview, and I pass by the sights of a region stuck so severely in the past, I can’t help but think about what it means that a woman like me is able to do this. To be here free and autonomous, as an observer, arriving and leaving at will. On the way to somewhere better.
The clouds loom up ahead, and I know at some point they’re going to unleash. It’s not an omen or premonition or even a problem, it’s just how it is. Storms are coming.
I don’t know what the drive ahead holds for me, so the knots remain. But I accept there’s nothing I can do, except keep going. One way or another, I’ll have to find my way through it.
I make it to the interstate and press hard on the accelerator; I need momentum to climb up these mountains. The dark clouds linger, moving around. They darken and they lighten, at their whim.
They never go away. But they don’t stop me either. I just keep going and going, and going – fueled by the certainty that I’m heading somewhere better.