THE GUM BALL BANNISTER STORY
I have to apologize for not giving this blog the attention it deserves. I know many of you have been waiting patiently. I promise to try to do better in the future. So for starters I thought I’d tell you story about the first indication I had that something was bad wrong with the mental health system. This is a true story.
It was on Tuesday morning, April 2, 1975. My rounds were completed. I descended the worn, steel-capped steps of the Whittle Psychiatric Unit at Central State Hospital. My footsteps echoed off the towering, paint cracked, concrete walls. I stepped onto the yellowing tile of a large day room and retraced the path of psychotic Oscar, who after a week of shadow boxing, yesterday made the determination that he was ready for the fight he had been preparing for all week. When the enemy topped the second floor stairwell; Oscar sprinted like a speeding torpedo from the cavernous, dimly lit hall of B ward. Oscar locked onto his target through a milling sea of mental patients to land an explosive blow to the face of Dr. Kaz. The impact dropped the psychiatrist to his knees before he crashed to the floor, trailing a stream of blood. Oscar didn’t much care for the anti-psychotic drugs the good doctor had forced upon him. Later that day, I found Oscar slumped against the day room wall, eyes half opened drooling.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Fook Kaz and his damn medicines. He really screwed me up the asshole.”
Months later, while making my rounds, I grabbed the top of the second floor banister. The hands of thousands of wobbly psychiatric patients had given it a highly polished sheen. It was the only banister in the building that was missing a steel cap at the top end.
I made my way down the dank, dimly lit stairwell and saw a maintenance man cutting the cap off the lower end of the banister with a grinder. He stopped briefly as I ducked by, then resumed cutting. The deafening noise of the grinder was accompanied by a cloud of white smoke and a shower of orange sparks. A group of inquisitive patients began to congregate. They were mesmerized by the glowing sparks careening wildly through the air; ricocheting off the walls and bouncing on the floor. Curious about both the reaction of the patients and why maintenance was cutting the cap off the banister, I tucked myself in among the crowd and watched.
The shrill scream of the cutting wheel echoed down the stairwell and the smoking cap dropped from the thick pipe. The cap hit the floor with a loud thud followed by a cascade of multi-colored pills. It was like a broken gum ball machine as thousands of pills rattled out of the banister and careened all over the floor. Like a hoard of panicked locusts, they leaped, flew and collided as reinforcements continued gushing from the banister. The heavier capsules remained near the drop zone. The smaller, more rounded ones ranged far afield. Startled mental patients reacted as though the pills were attacking their feet.
Thorazine pills tapped the side of my shoe. An Amitriptyline tab wobbled among the observers and fell over. The smell of smoke and burnt metal filled the air.
I saw that the majority of the pills were psychotropic drugs used to treat schizophrenia. The second most numerous were tabs of Lithium Carbonate and the rest a smattering of everything in the hospital pharmacy.
Unknown to us, psychiatric patients for decades had been dumping their medications into the top end of the banister. I realized that each pill was a vote by a mental patient to remain insane.
The banister incident was an indication of a larger, seething resentment that schizophrenics had toward psychiatrists who forced them to take medications that enabled some semblance of sanity. I was baffled and wondered why in the world schizophrenics were choosing insanity.