In 1966 my father came to Syracuse for several months to work on a proposal for a major federal educational grant. He stayed at the Mayfair Motel on the edge of downtown Syracuse. There was, elsewhere in the city, Twin Elms, a privately owned psychiatric hospital (not to be confused with Twin Trees, a privately owned pizza joint). Somewhere in time, the owner of Twin Elms—Francis Xavier Somebody-or-other—bought the Mayfair, moved Twin Elms in, and changed the name to Benjamin Rush Center. Dr. Benjamin Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, and was called the “Father of Psychiatry” and creator of “moral therapy.” (For an interesting and highly entertaining review of Bush’s life, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Rush .)
In the early 1980’s the Syracuse Newspapers cast me as the “star witness” in the case of the People versus the Onondaga County government and Republican Party. The newspapers worked closely with the defense attorneys to break down my testimony. I held true throughout the trial but consequently had a major emotional breakdown. At the time, I was working for the New York State Office of Mental Health. My job was in continuing education in the Central New York Regional Office. That meant I had New York State employee’s superior health insurance and when I broke down it paid for private hospitalization: I went inpatient at Benjamin Rush Center (BRC).
My first memory of BRC was the dining room: it had waitresses, linen tablecloths and fresh flowers on the tables. No cafeteria or tray service here: real fine dining. They advertised for a maître d’ with psychiatric experience, which was kind of kinky. It was, as all hospital care is, two-bed rooms, but this one had maid service. What Benjamin Rush called “maid service,” St. Joe’s called “housekeeping”: they cleaned rooms. The only difference was that at BRC, the maids made the beds in the morning and turned them down at night. I put a sign over my bed that said, “Please don’t make my bed ‘cause I might need to get back in it real fast in a crisis.”
The staff members were wearing normal clothes; at St. Joe’s they were still wearing nursing uniforms’; now, at St. Joe’s, they wear scrubs as an affectation.
The biggest difference between the private hospital and all the others—St. Joe’s, Upstate, Community General, Hutchings and NIMH—was that at Benjamin Rush nothing was locked. In the other places, the kitchen, showers, bedrooms, telephone and toothpaste were locked up. At Benjamin Rush, they locked up the drugs, not the people. You could make a phone call, get a cup of coffee, or go sit in the lobby without anybody going prison-guard on you. The front door was not locked, but the lobby door was: you could get off the street and into the building’s private space before you had to state your business.
The therapy was a real learning experience. We had groups for psychotherapy, music therapy, and art therapy. If you didn’t show up for a group, they didn’t mark it against you and use it to deny you privileges. At Benjamin Rush, if you didn’t show up for a group then they would come find you and ask what was up. If there was a problem then they would try to solve it. If you were in crisis, they would know it and deal with it. In the other hospitals, you could be hiding in your room because you were in such torment that you couldn’t come out. They didn’t care.
We would play outdoors. There was a large, walled outdoor area where there was a more-or-less constant volley ball game going. Some people would run laps around the perimeter. Most of us just sat in the sun and talked. At other hospitals, you might get twenty minutes to go outside with a staff member and then be marched back in. At Benjamin Rush, the courtyard would be open for a couple hours each day. Staff members would be assigned to the courtyard, not to the patients. We could come and go as we pleased; “outside” was part of the hospital, not another world.
At BRC, I bonded with the head of the activities department, who had a master’s degree in art therapy. Instead of me being directed to an administratively chosen “primary,” the administrative hierarchy adjusted itself and made him my primary. I didn’t have to fit into their structure; they structured themselves around what worked best for me.
I had hard times there but the hard times were because of what was in my head, not what was in the hospital. I was cared for, not traumatized. One of my lingering memories is of the lounge—which really was a room, not a three-sided “day room” open to all who passed by—on a cold winter morning. The windows were half-covered with frost and the sun was shining warmly through the ice crystals. A nurse had brought the medication cart down to the lounge and we were singing along with Abba’s “I Have a Dream” as she passed meds.
I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
Other hospitals had the sound of screaming; only Benjamin Rush Center had music.