My Aunt as I envisioned her suffering, inspired by an old photo, late 1950's
During the late 1950's my grandmother and I would periodically travel from Washington Heights to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. It was the initial part of a journey I did not fully understand at the time. Our destination was a small town named Amityville on Long Island (yes like the movie). We would eventually arrive at this somewhat frightening place, a large old ivy covered building constructed for the rehabilitation of the "mentally ill.” The intent of our outing was to provide an opportunity for my grandmother to visit with her daughter (my aunt) who had been hospitalized with “schizophrenia.” I was never informed regarding all the details or even comprehended what initially led to my aunt’s illness. The family circumstances revolving around her suffering were kept "secret" especially from the younger children. I now understand that at that time the treatments of the mentally ill were harsh and yet to evolve into some of the more humane methods currently in use, There were far fewer options for the treatment of schizophrenia back then, especially regarding medication.
I would sit quietly in a waiting area that was barely a short distance away from the cafeteria. I watched as several women walked in and sat with their visiting mothers or other family members. I was a bit frightened by the strangeness of the environment and some of the patients who appeared. Many women had shaved heads that were partially covered with scarves. My grandmother eventually explained that my aunt was very ill and that she would be visiting with her for about an hour.
Electroconvulsive therapy was prevalent back then and it still is in use. I was never told if my aunt had been subjected to this ‘treatment” but I strongly suspect she had experienced it. Having some knowledge of psychiatric treatment, I am aware that some professionals still favor this method. During her hospitalization, and following her discharge, “A” who was married, was denied visits with her children by her husband. There was no doubt this greatly increased her suffering and her level of despair and anxiety. I was a child, but I can still remember her futile search for her young children and her frequent questioning, “Where are they?”
Schizophrenia is complicated and the characteristics may vary from individual to individual. Among some of the most profound and disturbing, are visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoia, fear, delusions, speech disorders, and mental confusion. As a result, these and other problems generally evolve into loneliness, social isolation, and often disorientation.
Sadly, one of the lingering memories I still have of my aunt is of the day she apparently walked past a pre-school nearby our home and believed she saw her child inside. She proceeded to enter past the gates and into the school grounds calling out his name. The police were notified and there was much confusion. Needless to say this escalated into a serious matter which required the involvement of family members and professional intervention. Fortunately she was released after this highly emotional experience. I should point out that by that time her children had grown much older, yet in her mind they remained the small children she once held in her arms. Aunt A lived out the remainder of her life in France, she was fluent in Greek, English, and French, and was able to find help at an assisted living residence. It was not until many years later that her grown children were able to reunite with her in France, and assist her as she grew older.
I spent much of my adolescence attempting to understand life while in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Some of my recent photographs are evidence that I am still lost in those mesmerizing woods. It is a comical and puzzling community, to this day half of the residents argue with the other half as to whether Riverdale is in fact part of the Bronx. Another point of contention is whether North or South Riverdale is the "authentic" Riverdale. Then of course to further complicate matters there are the bordering neighborhoods of Spuyten Duyvil, Kingsbridge, and Inwood.
Somewhere within the unofficial South Riverdale area, I was once involved in a quasi-baseball game with an assorted group of young adults. Indeed a motley crew we were, as we attempted to play a game of baseball on the school field. When it was my turn to swing the bat, I accidently managed to hit a fairly solid ground ball and proceeded to step on first base and run towards second. There, I was confronted by a young man named Gene, who I had not met. He stood on the actual plate while playing the position of second baseman, thereby blocking my path. I explained that this was not the correct location for his position. This turned into an ongoing friendly argument for many months, and we became friends for the next fifty years until he recently died.
A few weeks after the game, Gene introduced me to his older brother who I will call “S.” Gene explained privately, that his older brother was not well since his final year at college, and that he suffered from Schizophrenia. I did not feel frightened or alarmed since I had experienced similar circumstances with my aunt, and thought perhaps I would be able to befriend him.
Gene and I ocassionally attempted to include S in some of our social plans and interactions. Unfortunately this effort became increasingly difficult. During our conversations, S often spoke of “martians” spying on us, he especially avoided any contact with physical objects, such as a basketballs, frisbees, or softballs, because of “germs.” One afternoon he accompanied us to a dance club in Manhattan.Many potential dance partners avoided him, yet he pursued them and asked inappropriate questions, such as “Do I smell badly?” “Don’t you like my haircut?” or "Is it my breath?" Several times we attempted to assist him in his plight by suggesting a different approach, but the evening became increasingly unpleasant and we eventually headed back home..
For a several years after this experience, S managed to deal with his disability, then one day he was discovered by the police urinating on a Manhattan sidewalk. He was almost arrested, his family was contacted and he was released. The family was instructed to seek professional help. S had apparently avoided taking his medications on that particular day and his condition deteriorated.
Schizophrenia began to manifest itself while he was attending college. He was a very hard-working math major and about to graduate when his illness changed his life. Men typically begin to experience symptoms some time between their late teens and early twenties. Women typically experience similar symptoms between their mid-twenties to their early thirties. In either case it was a devastating experience for him and his family.
Eventually “S” ended up in an “institution” at an upstate psychiatric center. He was permitted to visit home periodically on pre-planned weekends. One weekend I was invited to ride along with the family as he was returned to the hospital. I considered both S and his brother to be friends and didn't mind the short ride. S's mother packed two large over-filled shopping bags with assorted foods and a few clothing items for him to take back to his ward. I remember that there were several large Kosher salamis, long loaves of Italian bread, and apples and bananas. An attendant looked over a printed "pass" and permitted the three of us to walk through the long corridor leading up to the ward. We walked past many huge steel doors prior to arriving in front of his "home." Not knowing what to expect, we backed up and observed as two tall double doors were unlocked and partially opened. The scene inside was alarmingly chaotic, noisy and upsetting. Locked behind those doors, dozens of men meandering throughout, walking in and out of the maze of bunk beds, in various stages of dress and undress and apparently experiencing different levels of uncertainty. Some seemed to wander about in circles around the room, others spoke out loudly seemingly to no one in particular. As we bid S farewell, we watched him enter into the unknown. Two individuals greeted him at the door and took the bags from his hands, "Welcome back S" they said, "Let us help you with that." The attendant closed and locked the steel doors, putting the heavy ring of keys into the pocket of his discolored white lab coat. It was an eerie feeling, listening to the sound of our own footsteps and realizing that behind all those other steel doors, there were hundreds of human beings separated from their lives and their families. We tip-toed through the empty hallways as I silently thought about S being locked away in such a vast and cold room with so many other patients, What would become of him? My own anxiety increased as we slowly approached our seemingly distant "escape." The attendant had barely spoken to us the entire time, yet he kept staring at us as if we could easily become permanent residents or perhaps his latest victims. It was a frightening thought but we were ecstatic upon our own "release."
There are many theories pointing to differing causes of schizophrenia, some have discussed the idea of living within a "double-bind." A situation where there is no way out, there is no way to win, or no way to make the right choice. Frequently after S was eventually released, I heard his mother shout, "If you don't do what you're told to do, you know where you will be going." He never returned to the institute and managed to live with his mother while attending several day-treatment programs. S now resides in a retirement home near Hanover in New Hampshire where he was originally rejected by the other residents for being schizophrenic.
Following those early encounters, I became increasingly "comfortable" and unafraid of the disease. I learned a great deal about the schizophrenia and the difficulties that individuals and their families must face. Sadly, it is still a very misunderstood illness, among other things, frequently mistaken for multiple-personality disorder. Many individuals fear the unknown and choose to confront rather than comfort.
During the 1980's I worked part-time at a day-treatment "half way house" for formerly hospitalized schizophrenic patients. The program served approximately 40 participants. Twice a week a psychiatrist would arrive to medicate the patients individually in his tiny office. After their medication was injected, the patients often became sleepy and would recline on one several couches. The director usually came out of his own office, usually shouting, reminding everyone that they were not permitted to sleep on the sofas.
It was at this center that I met a young man by the name of Paul. I worked with him for about a year and did the best I could to help him. There were many challenging characteristics that made Paul particularly unique. Paul's fascination was the world of light bulbs. He could look at any light fixture and identify the type of light bulb, it's intensity, it's color, lumens, temperature, etc. This obsession with light bulbs did not manifest itself as a minor interest or hobby. It was the dominant topic of his thoughts and entered into any conversation Paul would have at any time. Paul owned an old IBM Selectric typewriter that was clearly his proudest possession. The typewriter provided the writer with the ability to change its font by removing a "ball of letters" and replacing it with another. On a weekly basis Paul would type out a single page "newsletter", make copies, and distribute them to all of the 39 other patients and the staff.
The problem was not in the concept of a newsletter, but the constantly repeated content. Ninety percent of every issue was devoted to the world of light bulbs, manufacturing, quality, his favorite brands, and detailed descriptions. The newsletter was written in a cryptic language that only Paul understood. I attempted in my work to learn understand his language, to respect and accept him, to "meet him where he was." This was not an original idea but rather an approach I had read and learned about from many therapist's including Carl Young, Milton Erickson and others. Jung once encountered a young patient who insisted she had been on the moon. He did not reject the idea or confront her, he accepted the fact that her abuse and trauma resulted in her retreating to this far and distant place.
I was pleased to have made considerable progress with Paul, until one particular week that I was away for a week. When I returned, I found Paul, unlike himself, speechless and reclining on one of the sofas. No word of his lightbulbs, no greeting or acknowledgement, no social interaction. He appeared extremely depressed as if he had lost a good friend or a family member. I inquired as to the reason for this regression. I was informed by the director that one of the other patients became aggitated by Paul and his obsession with light bulbs. Tired of listening to Paul's stories, the patient took Paul's IBM electric typewriter away from him, carried it to the window and dropped it down the four stories, It was the end of the typewriter and the end of the newsletter. It was also almost the end of Paul who was never the same, even months later when I had to leave the program, he remained depressed and sat in the same lonely place.
Just prior to my leaving the program the staff met and discussed the possibility of organizing a day-trip to the Bronx Zoo. It was located nearby and it was an affordable option for the group. I made a suggestion to the staff that we might use the outing in part to implement photography. At that time there were numerous proponents for the use of photography in therapy. When questioned as to how this could be done, I explained that I was a camera collector, and that I could bring in twenty cameras loaded with film. My plan was to carry them around my neck on my shoulders, and loan them out individually to those interested. To my surprise there was considerable opposition by the staff. Among other objections there was a concern for the "privacy" of the individual and an argument that schizophrenic patients would not be comfortable being photographed by one another or even being in photographs. In contrast, advocates at the time pointed out that photography was an excellent tool for schizophrenics. The controls of a camera, selecting an image, choosing an f-stop and shutter speed, and focusing on the subject, could all be helpful in transferring these abilities to individual self-control.
When we arrived at our destination the cameras became very popular among the patients. While this was prior to the current "selfie", practically all of the group members enjoyed taking turns "being the photographer" or volunteering as a "model/subject." To everyone's surprise, the group members were not self-conscious and a good time was had by all. As a token of my appreciation and due to my departure I distributed the processed prints a few days later.
My first cameras were an 8mm Keystone and a great big box containing a tiny Kodak Brownie "Holiday Flash" and all the equipment necessary for lighting and film development. I recall jumping for joy when I viewed my first self-processed image including fingerprints, dust marks, and faded grey edges! The joy of my chemical darkroom work had begun!