Life & Liberty: A Triumph of the Will


Here I am in a nut house. Many times in arrogance and perhaps in fear, I had vowed never to go to a psychiatrist. But I had walked unshackled into this university hospital ward clearly marked "Mental Health." It wasn't bedlam, nor snakepit, nor the cuckoo's nest. But the doors at each end were locked. Security guards, I would learn, were on call against violence. There would be no brainwashing, but it was no place for reticence.

My problem was chronic insomnia. Insomnia, I later learned, is not an illness but a symptom of depression. Not uncommon in post-retirement, it has to do with introspection and a lifetime of memories. In my case the aggravating memories had to do with the cold editor, the unsold story, the bombed-out book, the unkissed girl, the unfought fight, the "road not taken," just as in every human life.

Under medical advice I had swallowed many prescribed sleeping pills and gained only an addiction and shattered nerves. Simpler advice—to get up from a sleepless bed and go for "a walk around the block"—took no account of the crime wave in our capital city. "Sir," a uniformed policeman accosted me, "what's an old man doing out here alone? My partner and I are looking for a guy with a gun. Please go home."

After two years of pillow-punching I decided to see a specialist. This alienist asked me to subtract 7 from 100; he had me recall the names of my grade school teachers; he questioned me about sex activity and death wish. I was ready to cancel this sophomoric psychology when he mentioned the Sleep Clinic, at which I leaped like a trout at a fly.

Soon after the corridor doors slammed shut behind me, I felt entrapped. The resident physician explained that this was not only a sleep clinic, it was an all around problem-clinic. Had the alienist resorted to a white lie to get me here? Or had my subconscious rephrased his words to fit my desperation?

A problem clinic? It was that, all right. My first roommate (a sweet, gentle fellow when I got to know him) was a purple African who would rend the darkness with shouts in a mix of his native lingo and colonial French. Next I roomed with a puzzled lad who dreaded his bar exams. My third roomie was a realtor in distress over the high interest rates.

Here was a floating population of 20-odd—the black and white, the college kid and college teacher, the confused adolescent and tough-guy laborer, the soft-spoken ingenue and obscene loud mouth, and a polite Oriental who spoke no English and was taking the cure by osmosis.

Some of us were in for a short stay calibrated to our Medicare and private insurance; some were transfers from better or worse places than this; still others were serving a third or fourth term. You could tell which ones were capable of accepting help and which were beyond it.

Call it a benevolent police state. We had wake-up calls and clean-up duties. We met in group therapy classes. I didn't see any paper dolls, but we molded clay, danced to instructions, performed playacting to reveal our repressions, told our troubles aloud, and commented on those of our fellows.

It was all compulsory. There were no black snake whips or cattle prods, but there were persuasions. If you didn't participate, the staff wouldn't allow you "pass-and-privilege," which permitted restricted and accompanied freedom outside the locks. Only by cooperating could one earn his discharge. A recalcitrant patient could leave on 48-hour notice, but only A.M.A.—against medical approval.

When told that I must kick the sleeping pills or else, I toughed out some sleepless nights and broke the reliance. I learned that, with will power, much is possible. Human beings are gifted with free will and have the potential to select and reject their thoughts. Insomnia cannot be expelled like spittle, but through practice and diligence it can be defeated.

It took a while to acknowledge the causes of my depression. A beloved wife had died in this same hospital after a distressing mental illness—I had never talked it out. A scribbler since prep school, I became a professional writer without setting the lake afire—and I'd balked at saying, "So what?" A syndicated columnist for 34 years, I had supposed that at 75 the transition back to free-lancing would be a cinch—it wasn't. I had stubbornly persisted at this advanced age in writing creative fiction—yet how to explain those two unpublished novels? "So you're not Shakespeare," I was told. "Come off it."

In sum, I'd grown older but not wiser. Let me say to all who come after—even that isn't so bad once it's admitted to one's self.

Holmes Alexander is a free-lance writer.