“Crazy Hallowe’en, huh?”
“Really. Quietest one I’ve had in years.”
My fellow THC test subject, Hal, and I had figured on a wild Hallowe’en in the psych ward, complete with visions, spirits, demons, and various hallucinations. Not a chance, it turned out. The real patients paid no attention to Hallowe’en whatsoever and had all hit the sack at the usual time, so we were the only people up and moving on the psych ward at 10 pm.
No, it was just another boring night at the end of another boring day of dreary routine. Each day passed like walking on a slow treadmill of amazingly mundane repetition. 7am meant the wake-up call to line up to check our weight and vitals — then straight back to bed for me, since breakfast was optional for THC subjects. Next came the dreary grind of nothing happening at all, all day long. I truly do not remember what I did most of the days for the time I was locked up.
Lunch & dinner meant leaving the locked ward to go downstairs to a dining area — exciting only in exiting the ward briefly, even if still under close supervision. After one of my test sessions, they finally gave us a real dinner I could sink my teeth into: steak, baked potato and green beans. Okay, the steak was a tiny one but it was steak, sure better than most of what we were served routinely. My post-THC munchies certainly enhanced my culinary pleasure as I savored every bite of that steak.
Then, I heard sobbing from the table behind me. I glanced over to see one of the teen-aged girls staring at her steak and sobbing. Back in 1977, like most people, I had never even heard of anorexia nervosa. This was my first awareness of it. This girl’s treatment included having to eat every meal seated at a table with a staff member. She could not leave the table until she had eaten all of the food on her plate at each meal. And right now, the steak that so delighted me left this young girl in tears. She and the staff were still sitting there, waiting for her to eat, as we left to go back to the ward.
Our mundane routine was interrupted one day, when Chris returned to the ward after his last test session to discover that staff had moved him into a different bedroom. He blew up in righteous indignation at them packing and moving his belongings but his angry protests rolled right off the backs of the staff, who seemed genuinely surprised he was upset. “You’re leaving in 3 days anyway, what does it matter?” Just another example of the many little ways your dignity is constantly stripped away from you as a resident of a psych ward, something I will never forget.
One day, we went on an outing to a bowling alley. While the bowling was basically boring, the outing proved memorable for me because the staff asked me to help keep anybody from wandering away. You see, they knew I could be trusted to not run away — I’d lose my pay! Sure, I was a “volunteer,” so I was free to leave the program at any time. But if I did, my promised pay of $25 a day would be slashed to 10% of that — $2.50 — for the days I had already stayed in. Yeah, that was a definite incentive to stick around, so staff knew they could trust me to watch the patients during any outings.
My 5 test sessions spanned two weeks. The high — which was never that great — only lasted an hour or so after the test, so I mostly just hung doing nothing out on our locked unit. I had listened to From the Mars Hotel dozens of times and read every word in the ward’s only copy of Rolling Stone. I started plinking around on the old piano they had in the dayroom. It was slightly out of tune and I was way out of practice. But after my final test session, I sat down at the keyboard to celebrate, banging out the chords to a simple song I knew.
Startled, I turned around to meet the glare of the so-far-silent woman who often sat on the dayroom couch. “Sorry,” I said and left, still surprised by her outburst and the revelation that her apparent silence was chosen.
We had free movie privileges on Friday nights next door at the UC San Francisco Medical School. If we could persuade a staff member to go with some of us, a small group of patients could attend the scheduled evening movie — which happened to be “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” my second week.
Yes, you read that right. I watched Jack Nicholson strut his stuff in the “Cuckoo’s Nest” movie while sitting with my fellow residents of the locked psych unit.
Yes, it was surreal.
When I realized they wanted to keep me locked up through the weekend after my last test day, I argued to be let out on Saturday morning instead. They explained I’d lose two day’s worth of my “pay,” $50. Fine, I said, just let me outta here. They said I needed to be debriefed on Monday morning. Fine, I said I’d come back. They reluctantly agreed.
The next day, I walked out into the morning sunshine a free man again. My friend, MacNaughton, living and working in the South Bay area, planned to pick me up, but not until late afternoon. So, I spent the day strolling westward along Golden Gate Park, occasionally stopping into a bar for a beer. I made it down to the ocean and wandered my way back, drinking in the intoxicating air of freedom.
At the Monday morning debrief, Allison explained what the research team was looking for and what the tests entailed . She once again expressed surprise both at my consistently low “high” ratings as well as my accuracy in time estimation. She did get a little annoyed when I told her about “cheating” on the count-backwards-by-7s task. Seems that might have negated some of the readings taken during that part of the test, as I was supposed to remain engaged in a repetitive cognitive task.
At the end of the debrief, I asked Allison out.
A couple of nights later, we went to a small coffeehouse near her place in the Haight to see Kate Wolf and her band, the Wildwood Flower, long before she became famous enough to have an entire music festival named for her. This night, the place held about a dozen of us there for the music with plenty more seats open. I’d heard her debut album before, but hearing her live far exceeded my expectations. I knew I would be hearing more from her.
We walked back to Allison’s place, but we parted at the door with only the briefest of goodnight kisses — wonder what my heart rate did then! But with both of us aware I would be leaving town with my pay in just a matter of days, it almost felt more like a bit of kiss-off to be left standing at her door. No nightcap, much less anything more. Ah well, a sweet memory, nonetheless.
I returned to Texas and worked a few weeks at a blue collar factory job in Houston to get enough money together to move back to Austin. While desperately seeking work in Austin, I picked up a hitchhiker heading to his job at the Brown School Ranch Treatment Center. “You should apply for a job here — they’re always hiring!”
But when I did go to apply to work there, I showed up for what turned out to be a group interview with 8 or so of us applicants. Looking for some sort of advantage I might use to draw attention to my application, I spotted the “Additional experience” blank. Smiling, I wrote “Volunteer on a psychiatric ward.”
One by one, the hiring manager asked follow-up questions to our written applications. He looked up at me and asked “What did you do as a volunteer?”
“I helped with the patients on outings.”
True enough, if somewhat misleading. But it did help get me the job. And that, my friends, is how my use of massive amounts of psychedelics led to my career in mental health.
Follow your dreams!