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Visiting Day at the Madhouse


In case anybody thinks I’m particularly good at visiting the sick… well, my brother’s been in the hospital for going on a month or so, and I finally, FINALLY worked up the I-don’t-know-what to go see him.

For anyone reading this who doesn’t know me, here’s the catch:  it’s a mental hospital.

When people hear “hospital,” they get all worried.  “Ohmigod, what’s wrong with your brother?”

When they hear “mental,” they tend to sigh like it’s a false alarm.  Yeah, it’s a hospital, but it’s really basically a prison, right?  Keeping people who deserve it safely locked up until they can no longer harm anybody…so all’s well with the world.

The last part is a little bit true:  all is well with the world when he’s IN.  At least for my mother.  She’s more relaxed, and the rest of us too, can know that unless he goes AWOL (like he did last week), for as long as he’s IN, we can find him and visit him on a normal schedule.  Bring him stuff, do him favours, make him happy.

When he’s OUT, he comes and goes on his own terms, at his own times.  He could come over for supper – or at four in the morning.  He could be friendly and silly and bring gifts for the kids – watches, bracelets, bicycles – or he could be mean and threatening and beg for money or just bring bad beer stink into our lives.  He could be fine, just fine, on his own for weeks on end, or – my mother’s unspoken fear, I’m guessing – he could be dead for weeks before we know it.

When he’s out, he self-medicates.  He drinks, he smokes.  When he’s in, as much as he hates it, the enforced meds keep him balanced.  As he explained to Gavriel Zev today, “the medicine makes me feel bad and I have to stay here until I start feeling better.”

That’s the most he’s said directly to one of my kids in a VERY long time (except YM – he’s crazy-full of advice for YM most of the time).  The sanest sentence I’ve heard from him in forever.

It was our best visit in a VERY long time.

It almost didn’t happen.  I dropped off Naomi at yoga class and I was going to go home but decided to visit this garden centre on Roncesvalles that I’ve been meaning to get to all year.  I took a round-about way, down Ossington to Queen, and then I was going to go up Roncesvalles.

But then, suddenly, we were right in front of CAMH and I knew I’d been brought there:  I had to go in.

My sisters have visited more often while he’s been there; at least Sara has.  I don’t blame them – it’s like a gift, this safe, sitting-still, non-stinky, making-eye-contact, blue-gowned piano brother-person (their big brother; my little brother) back in our lives for a fleeting few weeks every couple of years.

Last year, volunteers from CAMH came up our street asking for donations and, softie that I am, I signed up to give them $7 a month.  Seven bucks.  When my mother found out, she was actually – I don’t know what.  Mad?  Dismayed?  Like I shouldn’t give them any money; they haven’t done anything for us.  Like they’re all fools and morons.

The way I see it, the organization has a tough and mostly pointless job, yet every single staff person I encountered today was friendly and helpful.  To me, that’s worth $7.  It’s worth $7 to have a place where my brother can be safe for a couple of months, every couple of years.

Safe, however, was not quite what I felt.  Even the surrounding neighbourhood is full of wandering crazy people out on passes.  The halls inside contain the ones who aren’t quite ready to go outside.  And the locked units contain the ones who are still considered too much of a risk – either to themselves or to others – to be allowed outside.

My brother’s in a locked unit. 

I have never thought about safety before, but today I had Gavriel Zev with me.  I could have left him in the car, but I thought of the chance he might have to meet his friendly medicated uncle and also that it might be nice for my brother.  And maybe also, selfishly, so I’d have less work visiting; I could let GZ do the talking.  I had brought Naomi Rivka once, when she was a newborn:  I guess it’s not the same thing as an actual talkative inquisitive toddler.

As we were looking for the unit, some staff gave us odd glances.  Not a lot of kids go in there.  Is it justified, or is it just some silly stigma?  I stood there wondering.  Nobody hanging around seemed in the least bit threatening.

When we got to the unit, I asked Eli if we could go straight to his room instead of the common area.  He wanted to play the piano, but I said GZ might be upset to see the other people, so he agreed.  But the nurse saw GZ:  she intercepted us and shooed us into a locked conference room.  Eli started to argue, but I pointed out that the nurse was looking out for Gavriel Zev, and he let it pass.  (I was surprised and happy that he didn’t make a fuss.)

A couple of minutes later, the nurse came back with the Security Device – the one that always makes me feel nervous even if I wasn’t before.  The emergency call button so that in case something scary happens, I just yank the cord and help arrives.

I think of how lackadaisically call buttons are answered in some hospitals and wonder whether this staff is trained to come a bit quicker.  I hope so.

The something that might happen is:  my brother might snap.  He might try to hurt himself, hurt me, hurt GZ, smash the room, I don’t know what.  I feel ashamed, holding the Device right in front of him.  It feels personal, like holding someone’s toilet paper.  But I guess he’s used to it.

The visit itself was anticlimactic after the lead-up:  finding the unit (they couldn’t tell me, for confidentiality reasons, until I told them – no ID – that I was his sister… and then they did tell me:  yay, confidentiality!), getting buzzed in, getting settled in the conference room. 

After a few minutes, Eli started getting a bit jumpy, but I told him I wanted to sit for five more minutes and he sat still and chatted, showed GZ his watch (bought, I guess from another patient, 2 for $15) and explained the dumbwaiter system that brings his lunch.

Sara was supposed to bring him spinach and nectarines, or something, this afternoon (they don’t let them have any fibre, and a host of other nutrients, was his theory).  He was getting excited about her visit, and still wanted me to hear him play, so I agreed that I’d listen on the way out.

I gripped the Device and held GZ tight in my arms as we walked to the no-longer-smoky common room (they used to have a “separately-vented” but still stinky smoking room off the common area for patients who can’t go outside – now they apparently all just suffer until they get their privileges back). 

Anticlimax again:  there was only one other person drifting around the area.  Didn’t look closely – I’d make a lousy spy – but I’m betting it was a lumpy-looking slightly pale fatty woman.  They all are.

The piano?  I’ll be honest:  I didn’t hear it.  I wasn’t listening.  I sat GZ on top of the piano – I figure they’ve seen worse behaviour and the nurses won’t complain – so he could listen and feel the vibrations. 

I’ll bet the piece was short and very, very sweet, with no precise beginning and end – just a segment, a short burst of profound beauty in the middle of an imprisoned day.

It was over quickly.  I picked up GZ, turned in the Device and the nurse buzzed me out.  The door was opening  by the time I realized I hadn’t hugged Eli goodbye.  Hadn’t said I loved him.  Don’t know if I do, but I usually say it anyway.

I don’t regret not saying goodbye or I love you.  He doesn’t notice, doesn’t remember, doesn’t care.  But I wish I’d listened to the piano.

A hospital is a hospital, and Hashem is the healer of broken bodies and troubled minds.  Please daven for Eli Melech ben Zelda Devorah.


  1. It's very sad that care afforded by mental hospitals ends up being like a jail. It's painful to watch lives wasting away. There is such a long way to go in treatment. I wonder if we ever will get the idea that these patients aren't any more at fault or 'deserve' this kind of treatment than a kidney patient on dialysis. Just think what could be accomplished (and I believe it could) if your brother had a intensive treatment several hours a day several days a week and not just meds to keep him in his place. It is a great chesed that you do when you visit him, even if he doesn't seem to notice. Maybe he doesn't but when the staff sees that family cares enough it to come even though it is so difficult they respect and treat the patient just a little nicer. It goes a long way.
    Gmar chatima tova!

  2. Jennifer - you're quite the writer.


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