My first day of actual work, after training, was in the ward that would be where I spent most of my time at Met State. On the sprawling, 400-acre complex, it was a wing of yet another giant building, designated by a floor and direction. Between the staff, it was known as “chronic, long term,” which I was never quite sure was an official description or not.
Wards operated under the nominal control of a nurse, who usually sat in the “infirmary,” a little room with a half-door where medication was handed out. Operational control of the ward was in the hands of my immediate supervisor “Dan,” an MHA-3 (the number indicated seniority and pay grade), a large, genial man who introduced me to many of the patients, and outlined the basics of the job. We parted so that he could take care of something, and one of the patients I had just met pulled me aside.
“Donna” looked like a mental patient. Older and somewhat scrawny, she had a tired and haunted look. “You’re new here,” she said in a low voice. “You’ve got to help me.”
“Certainly,” I said cheerfully. “Just tell me what I can do.” We walked into the day hall, a kind of semi-open porch where there were open windows covered with bars and chain link fence.
“I don’t belong here,” she sighed, “I’ve been here for thirty years, and nobody will listen to me.”
I sat down to listen. I was determined not to judge her by her appearance — 30 years of living in a mental hospital would surely make anybody look like they belonged there. It was also my first opportunity to do some good; I assured her I’d listen, and do what I could.
“When I was a girl,” she continued, “my mother had me committed. You see, I’m a …” she glanced around to see that nobody was listening, and whispered, “lesbian.”
“In those days it was considered a mental illness; it wasn’t normal, and my mother had no idea how to cope with it. So she committed me to this place, and at first, being a lesbian was enough to keep me here.” She looked defeated and sad as she went on. “But now I’ve been here so long, I can’t get anybody to review my case or listen to me, and I’ll be stuck here for the rest of my life. My mother died a few years ago. There’s no reason for me to be here.” She went on to provide details of her plight.
I told her I’d do what I could. There were procedures for these things, that had mostly been alluded to in training rather than detailed. There was paperwork to fill out to request a case review by a psychiatrist, which requires case histories to be reviewed by the person filling out the paperwork — me. I asked Dan the MHA-3 where to find what I needed. He helped me locate all of it. “You’ll learn,” he said, with a knowing smile that wasn’t quite a smirk.
I finally located her case history — all on paper of course, in those days — and I checked with Dan to make sure I had the right one, because it didn’t appear to match at all. “Donna” had been there about thirty years, but the case history said nothing about being a lesbian, and said she’d been brought in for “incoherence and confusion” by the police as a young woman. Her file was also marked “voluntary,” which meant that she had not actually been committed, but was there on a voluntary basis. I looked through all of it, but for thirty years of being institutionalized, her file was surprisingly thin.
I located “Donna” in the day hall to talk to her before I continued with the case review paperwork. When I sat down next to her, she asked anxiously, “did you read my case file?”
“Yes…” I started, not sure where to go from there.
“Well, it might not do me any good,” she said, handing me a postcard. The picture was of an electric bus outside a library in Waltham. It was crumpled and worn, postmarked from Waltham about a month ago, and addressed to Donna, care of Metropolitan State. The handwriting was cramped and artistic, in blue ball point pen.
It read, “Dear Donna, please do not leave the hospital, we will come for you soon. — The Aliens”
Donna took back the postcard and waved her arms in an expansive gesture, “So I can’t leave yet, the aliens won’t know where to find me.”
She looked at the postcard for a moment. “Ahhh, I forgot to put the date on here.” Taking a pen from her pocket, she crossed out “soon” and wrote “tomorrow” in the same handwriting.
“They’re coming tomorrow,” she whispered in a conspiratorial voice. “Don’t tell anybody.” She then shouted, “IT’S OKAY, EVERYBODY, THERE ARE NO ALIENS COMING TOMORROW.” She gave me a wink, and left the day hall.
Dan walked up and put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let that discourage you,” he said. “In a place this big, there’s bound to be people here who don’t belong here.”
That was to turn out to be true.