Today’s blog post is written in response to the WordPress Writing 101 writing prompt: “…choose a place to which you’d like to be transported if you could — and tell us the backstory. How does this specific location affect you? Is it somewhere you’ve been, luring you with the power of nostalgia, or a place you’re aching to explore for the first time? Today’s twist: organize your post around the description of a setting” (Huberman, 2014).
I’ve had to think quite a bit today about this writing prompt. I’ve wondered where I would want to be transported to, if it were possible. Reality plays with my mind. I know that it isn’t possible to be transported physically back in time or even propelled physically into the future. So, how do I possibly write about it? Writer’s block attempts to sneak up on me. It lurks in the shadows of my mind. For now, I’ve decided to get rid of the writer’s block by illuminating my mind, as if it were a dark sky at night in Glacier National Park in Montana, and flooding it with the light of fresh thoughts, kind of like stars, about those things that are important to me.
When I think about what’s important to me I find that I start to feel energetic. Thoughts pop up in my mind like my family, my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, learning, volunteering and the list goes on! The next thought that I have is that I wonder about how I can reach out to others in an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and to educate others about the facts pertaining to mental illness and to help create empathy where there is none. That’s it! I’ve landed on the location that I’d like to take my reading audience. Are you ready? It won’t be easy. The experience may be similar to riding a roller coaster ride. What I have to share with you may tug at your heart. You may not like it. You may even feel sick to your stomach like when the roller coaster you are riding in flips upside down. If needed, you are welcome to leave and get off of the ride now. However, I sure hope that you stay for the ride, and I hope that you share what you learn here today on Stacy’s Flutterings with everyone you know. Who knows? Maybe they will want to join you and go on the reading adventure too by reading this post! Hang on! Are your seat-belts adjusted? One last call to leave!
I imagine that you are feeling the pressure of being held back in your seat from pure curiosity. Ready or not! Stigma…step aside! Education and empathy… begin!
So where am I, figuratively speaking? I’m sitting on creaky, wooden planks in an old, dusty attic in Willard, New York. As I breathe in the air, thick with particles of dust, I smell a musty smell. My nose and throat tickle as the dust makes its way through my respiratory system. I try not to cough or sneeze knowing that it will only stir up more dust than I can handle yet a hoarse cough escapes from my dry throat. The year is 2014 yet the room I sit in showcases the remains of the past as evidenced by suitcase after suitcase sitting partially organized on shelves along the walls of the room. The suitcases just sit there. It’s kind of odd. It is obvious that they are very old. Some are as small as traditional curbside mailboxes. Others are so big that it had to take two people to get the large suitcases into the attic. The colors of the suitcases range from different shades of brown to different shades of black, and many are made of leather. Some are wooden trunks complete with leather trunk buckles, straps and antique brass hardware. One of the smaller, black leather suitcases, that sits like it was forgotten on the dirty floor, looks like a doctor’s medical bag. How did the suitcases get here?
My curiosity gets the best of me. I decide to stand up. As I rise, from a sitting position, I dust off my hands and rid them of the mix of fine dust as well as sawdust that has stuck to my hands. I walk up to the lone, black leather suitcase and bend down to grasp the brown leather clasp handles. A small, wispy, brown spider runs off as I lift the bag. I quickly straighten up my posture as I lift the bag. I notice that it’s not very heavy. I walk with the suitcase over to a vacant shelf. I then carefully set the suitcase down. As the bottom of the suitcase meets the bottom of the shelf a poof of dust swirls up and around the suitcase, and it engulfs it yet again. I brush any dusty residue off near the leather handles that I can. Again, the dust sticks to my hands as if it’s trying to get my attention. It’s like it’s desperately grasping at me. My eyes now focus intently on the suitcase. Before I open it I take a deep breath. I breathe in slowly…I exhale out slowly…a feeling of fright wells up inside the pit of my stomach. I ponder about opening it. After-all, I don’t know what I’m going to find! I decide that I want to open it because I’m here. There must be a reason I’m here.
The room is quiet. The only noise I hear is the sound of ringing in my ears. As I pull the leather handles apart I see old books, yellowed envelopes that look like they contain letters, a delicate tea cup and saucer, stained photos and other interesting belongings. I realize that the suitcase I just opened belonged to perhaps a woman.
My friends, here’s where the ride escalates as we jolt from imagination to reality. The story of the attic and the suitcases is true. I only conjured up what it may have been like to be there in the attic when the suitcases were discovered by workers after the Willard Psychiatric Center in New York’s Finger Lakes closed in 1995 (Penney & Stastny, 2014). Items inside the suitcase that I described above were discovered inside the stored suitcases in an Attic at the psychiatric center. The asylum first started taking patients in 1869 (Penney & Stastny, 2014). Can you imagine what must be inside those suitcases? You can learn more by going to The Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online website. What are you feeling right now? I know that I was very sad to learn this. At the same time I felt relieved for the patients who had checked in their baggage at the center upon admittance. Finally, their suitcases were discovered, and their stories would at long last be told. Each suitcase, that belonged to admitted patients, represents lives lived at the psychiatric center. If you go to the website you will discover that oftentimes many of the patients died at the center. What is so heart wrenching is to learn about 9 of the patients story’s. You can learn about their stories by going to the Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online website webpage titled The People Behind the Suitcases. I find all of the stories not only sad but also incredibly interesting. I was amazed to learn that many of the patients “…were basically discarded by society” (Penney & Stastny, 2014). One patient, Miss Margaret #25682, had immigrated to America in 1921 and was sent to Willard by her doctor who thought she had “emotional problems”(Penney & Stastny, 2014). She took all of her belongings with her. She died at Willard (Penney & Stastny, 2014). Her suitcases remained after her death for years stored away in the attic where they collected the dust and residue of time.
I hope that I have shook you up a little. Of course, today, our mental health care system is better than it was then by leaps and bounds, but we still have serious problems. For example, it’s not uncommon for a person living with a mental illness to move between living on the streets to receiving care in the hospital, and then the process repeats itself. It seems that this began with the community mental health movement and deinstitutionalization. In reference to the community mental health movement and deinstitutionalization, Nevid, Rathus and Greene (2011) noted that “the community mental health movement and the policy of deinstitutionalization were developed with the hope that mental patients could return to their communities and assume more independent and fulfilling lives” (p. 14). That was back in 1963. Why do we still have mentally ill patients living on the streets? What’s just as concerning is that currently many parents can’t find the help that they need for their children when their children are in need of psychiatric care. So, not only have mentally ill patients been cast to the streets, literally, but we are not even helping our parents who seek help, get the treatment they need for their loved ones.
For clarification purposes, I don’t believe in institutionalization. We’ve been there as a society. It didn’t work. It’s inhumane. Anyone living with a mental illness deserves the same treatment as anyone else. To do different is discriminatory. There has to be a healthy way to meet the needs of all people regardless of physical or mental illness.
I apologize if by now you are upset. Will you turn any feelings of upset you may have into advocacy efforts? Will you help me and others do something about it? Let’s give a voice to a community that needs us. Miss Margaret #25682 needed us, and we weren’t there. We can do something about it now. We have the knowledge. Join me in advocating for change to our current mental health system. It’s as simple as heading over to the Care For Your Mind Community and sharing your thoughts and ideas and/or you can visit The Alex Project website and ask for Alex Project Crisis Line Texting Cards and share them with those you know. If you want other ideas feel free to peruse Stacy’s Flutterings for other ideas I’ve written about in previous posts or check out the Care For Your Mind blog. There is an “Advocacy Resources” tab at the top of Stacy’s Flutterings that you can click on. There you will find a list of helpful websites that provide detailed information pertaining to mental health advocacy. In honor and remembrance of those now deceased, and in acknowledgment of those in need now…now is the time for change.
Huberman, B. (2014, June 3). Re: Writing 101, day two: a room with a view (or just a view) [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_assignment/writing-101-day-two/
Nevid, J.S., Rathus, S. A., & Greene, B. (2011). Abnormal psychology in a changing world. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Penney, D., & Stastny, P. (2014). The Willard suitcases. The lives they left behind: suitcases from a state hospital attic. The Community Consortium, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org/index.php?section=about&subsection=suitcases
Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online: http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org/index.php?section=about&subsection=suitcases