The Myth of Mental Illness and the Truth About Mental Health: A Man’s Journey to Freedom

Part 2 – An Atheist Checks into Gods Hotel

            In Part 1, I described my experiences visiting my father in the mental hospital when I was five years old and my desire to help him and other men like him. I met an iconoclastic doctor, Thomas Szasz, when I was in graduate school and read his book, The Myth of Mental Illness. Here I will continue with what I learned about my father when I found journals he had kept during the time leading up to his hospitalization.

            In graduate school I learned the standard medical view of mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. DSM contains descriptions, symptoms and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders. It is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and is revised and updated periodically.

            When my father was hospitalized at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, the doctors told my mother he had some kind of “psychotic disorder.” In the DSM, I found the following information grouped together:

             (1) affective disorders, characterized by severe mood disturbance, with associated alterations in thought and behavior, in consonance with the affect; (2) schizophrenic reactions, characterized by fundamental disturbances in reality relationships and concept formations, with associated affective, behavioral, and intellectual disturbances, marked by a tendency to retreat from reality, by regressive trends, by bizarre behavior, by disturbances in stream of thought, and by formation of delusions and hallucinations; (3) paranoid reactions, characterized by persistent delusions and other evidence of the projective mechanism.

            These descriptions touched on my experiences with my father, but seemed cold, clinical, and somehow missing his spirit. More helpful were the journal entries I read describing his own experiences at the time.

Here is a note from my father’s first journal, written when he was his old self, full of confidence and joy for life:

            “A traveling troupe is putting on a show not far from us.  I know them from earlier times when I first came to New York.  They are gay and exciting and have an enchanting flavor of holiday.  I look at Kath and marvel at her sweetness and beauty.  You often forget how lovely feminine youth is.  The cream-like texture of skin, a verve and a buoyancy.  Henry is a perfect type of company manager.  He has great big floppy ears, that inevitable cigar, and a certain softness.  Charm is not the exclusive province of youth.  Henry has it as well as Kath.

            “I feel full of confidence in my writing ability.  I know for certain that someone will buy one of my radio shows.  I know for certain that I will get a good part in a play.  Last night I dreamt about candy.  There was more candy than I could eat.  Does it mean I’ll be rewarded for all my efforts?  Has it anything to do with sex?”

            Journal number ten was written three years later.  The economic depression of the time and the depression going on within his mind had come together.  His entries are more terse, staccato, and disheartening. I still get tears when I feel how much was lost in such a short time.

    “June 4th: 

                Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work,  Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.

    “August 15th:

                     Faster, faster, faster, I walk.  I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family.  I try, try, try, try, try.  I always try and never stop.

    “November 8th:

                    A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried.  All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. 

             I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying.  Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.

               Six days after his November 8th entry, my father swallowed sleeping pills and he ended up being committed to the mental hospital where he was locked up for seven years receiving “treatment” until he escaped and never returned.

My Father Finds His Way to God’s Hotel

            After he escaped from the mental hospital, my father survived. He proved the doctors wrong when they told us that he needed to remain in the hospital longer and the treatments he was getting would cure his “disease.” He still had his problems, but they were better treated outside the “mental health” system. I wrote about his journey and mine in my book, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound.

            I learned about my father’s re-hospitalization from someone who had read my first book, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man and sent me an email.  

“I read about your father in your book and I know where he is now. He is at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco.”

            When I arrived at Laguna Honda for the first time, I felt a shudder of remembrance from my visits to Camarillo State Hospital so many years ago. Laguna Honda also looked like an old California mission with stucco walls and red tiled roofs. But once inside I knew I was in a different world. The walls were lined with beautiful murals by the artist Glenn Wessels painted in 1934 depicting the four elements—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

People were friendly and two chickens greeted me as I asked directions to Clarendon Hall where I was told my father stayed. Yes, chickens in a hospital. This was my first clue that this was not your typical medical center.

            I asked the person at the information desk about the chickens. “Yes,” she told me,

“That’s definitely different from what you’ll see in most hospitals.  We actually have other animals as well including rabbits, ducks, guinea pigs, and cats that live on the ground and occasionally wander inside.”

            When I looked surprised at animals in a hospital, she continued.

“They really raise the spirits of the patients here. Even those who are withdrawn in their own world and won’t talk to staff seem to come alive when the animals visit.”

            I learned that the animals have a long history at Laguna Honda which first opened in 1867 as an almshouse for the Gold Rush pioneers, at least the ones who didn’t strike it rich. The almshouse grew its own food and had livestock on the 87-acre complex. The hospital had changed over the years, but the animals were still there.

            Clarendon Hall, built in 1908, was one of the first hospital buildings constructed after the 1906 earthquake and the hospital grew around it. Mayor James, “Sunny Jim,” Rolph officiated at the groundbreaking of the Spanish-Revival style buildings that would become Laguna Honda Hospital in 1924. Designed by John Reid Jr, the building features eight “Florence Nightengale”-style wings each ending with circular bays, tile roofs, and an inner courtyard.

            I met my father in Clarendon Hall and I was directed to the well-lit visitor’s room. My dad got up and walked towards me. He had a smile on his face and gave me a hug. I was surprised. He had never hugged me since I was a child. His embrace was strong, yet gentle. “I’m so glad you came,” he told me with a strong feeling of warmth and welcome in his voice. I felt hopeful for the first time since I was five years old, but I held back. I wanted to see more before I got my hopes too high.

            He asked about my family and I told him about Carlin, our marriage in 1980, my two children, Jemal and Angela, from my first marriage, and Carlin’s three sons, Dane, Evan, and Aaron. I asked about his life at Laguna Honda.

“I’ve been here for five years,” he told me. “And I’ll be happy to spend the rest of my life here.”

            I was surprised.

“You escaped from Camarillo State Hospital and said you’d never be locked up in a hospital again. What happened?”

            “This place isn’t anything like Camarillo,” he told me.

“That place really was like a concentration camp. Whatever problems I had at the time, just got worse there. Here I’m not locked up. The staff respect us and the other people here are just people like me. I come and go as I please. I usually have breakfast in the morning, I take a bus out in front of the hospital and go into downtown San Francisco. I put on puppet shows anywhere there are people. When the kids see me coming, they cry out, ‘puppet man, puppet man.’ I make people happy. I come back at the end of the day feeling like a million dollars.”

“Wow, that’s not like any hospital I’ve ever seen.” I told him. I was beginning to understand the changes I was seeing. Maybe there was hope for a real reunion.

“Someone called it ‘God’s Hotel, and I can’t disagree,” he told me. “I’ve never been religious but since I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve been touched with the spirit of God. It’s really the result of being seen, cared for, and respected by the people here.”

I learned that the person who called Laguna Honda Hospital, “God’s Hotel” was Dr. Victoria Sweet who wrote a book about the time she worked there. The book, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine described a new way of treating people with a lineage going back hundreds of years.

I met Dr. Sweet at a book signing where she told a bit of the history.

“San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital is the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s shelter) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages.”

She remembered my father and described the kinds of people to ended up checked in to God’s Hotel.

“We get ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves—anyone who had fallen, or often, leapt, onto hard times and needed extended medical care—ended up  here. In the relatively low-tech but human-paced environment, these extraordinary patients began to transform their world and ours.”

My father had come a long way from Camarillo State Mental Hospital and healthcare had, it seemed, gone “back to the future,” drawing on ancient traditions to create a new kind of healthcare.

I will continue the story in Part 3. If you’d like to hear more about men’s mental health and other important issues, I invite you to join our online-community and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. It is free and you can easily unsubscribe if you ever find it no longer meets your needs.

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