Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

The Institution

Location: Austin, South of Congress

Mileage: 1899

Meal: Tex Mex and a shot of tequila

Music: “She Talks to Angels” by The Black Crowes

Although I was mainly staying with Stevie for the unique conversations he offered, I did have a secret hope that he could also introduce me to some of his patients at the mental hospital where he worked.

Part of the hope was to better grasp and document the inner workings of the mentally ill, a segment of society that is often shunned without empathy.   Another part of it was selfish.  My Grandmother had been schizophrenic.  Although my mother is the one best equipped to tell the traumatic stories of 1950’s medicine trying to diagnose the diseases of the brain, I too have a few childhood memories of breakdowns; one in an Arby’s restaurant over my roast beef sandwich order.  However, it wasn’t the breakdown itself that lingered in my mind, but rather its aftermath.  My Grandmother would never remember her anger, paranoia, or the other person that seized control of her mind.  But she knew something ‘bad’ had happened and would slink around the house for hours mournful, deeply apologetic that she had allowed “it” to take over her again.

Stevie said “It’s easy for us when someone breaks a leg.  We know what it is, and how to fix it.  But mental illness…..well, it is still a mystery.  And ‘fixing’ is all trial and error.  Even when we find a drug that works, it only treats the symptoms.”

Unfortunately Stevie wasn’t able to get me any alone time with a female patient.  Mental institutions are not a zoo or a  ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ free for all.  Legal regulations, privacy issues, and regard for personal safety prevented my entry into the minds of the troubled.

However, he did introduce me to another hospital ward, Stephen, who chatted with me about the men and women in his care.

I asked the Stephen about the differences between male and female patients.  “Well, he said slowly, “the female hospital workers don’t like working with the female patients.  They claim they argue more, demand too many drugs, and are just more difficult.  But I do not know if I feel that way myself…..”

I asked him if he could tell me about any of the patients that particularly moved him.

“Ariel.” He said without pausing. “She wasn’t like the other female patients.”

Ariel started coming in after her husband left her for her sister.

This emotional chaos was bit of trauma that could put anyone over the edge.  I remember being quite torn up myself after a particular breakup.  I asked him what her condition was.

“Self Mutilation,” Stephen responded.

Oh.  This was a bit different that my mournful sessions with red wine and Damien Rice CDs.

For some reason the physical pain of disfiguring herself helped Ariel cope with the emotional pain of her loss. “She needs to be able to find own self worth, but she cannot,” said Stephen. “She is stuck in this bad emotional state and she cannot find the strength to pull herself out of it.”

Sometimes Ariel will come in for a few days and sometimes when it’s worse she will stay for months.  In some ways Ariel is like all of us, reveling in pain.  But why is it that while I can find a ladder to climb out of myself, she remains stuck in a cesspool of hurt and self-loathing?

Stephen mentions that self-mutilators don’t mutilate in secret—with tiny unnoticeable cuts on their upper thigh as portrayed by media such as the film ‘The Secretary.’ “Oh no, said Stephen. “She wants people to notice.  She wants everyone to be acutely aware of all the pain she is in.”

I ask him what is the worst thing she has done to herself in mutilation expression. He thought for a moment.  “Well,” he said, and looked down at his plate. “It is pretty hard to come into someone’s room and see them hanging from a sheet.”

There is a fine line between mutilation and full-on suicide attempts.

However, in all the pain and depression there must be something beautiful about Ariel.  “Yes, of course,” he said.  “She is always very pleasant.  She knows she needs help and is always grateful to be under our care.  Once she wrote each one of the workers a personal letter expressing her gratitude.  No one ever does this.“

“Alright,” interjected Stevie.  “Enough of this talk. Let’s go see some music.”

We left thoughts of Ariel to join other writers and artists and engage in more uplifting conversations over music.  We went to the famed Continental Club (a whole different type of Austin ‘institution’) to listen to some rockin’ country.  Stevie promptly bought me a shot of tequila, which given my own mental state, was exactly the medication I needed.

Cole, a writer, looked at me and asked me where I was going next. Apparently mental hospitals were ‘crazy lite.’ “Sweetheart, you are going through the bowels of the deep south.  There is some messed up shit out there.  Are you ready to be demolished?”  I assumed he was talking about my heart.

I already knew that the muscle tissue in my corazon was regenerative.  “I’ll be fine.”

And then I went off to dance the Texas two step, grateful for a strong leading hand on the small of my back.  I hoped that by all twirls and spins no one would notice that I can no idea what actual steps to take.

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