James M. Flammang, author of more than two dozen
books (including six for children), is at work on
several more, including the title described below.
A veteran automotive journalist, Flammang concentrates
on the "big picture," whether he's writing about cars,
consumer issues, simpler living, or any other topic.
During 2013, Flammang is expanding his efforts into
the areas of work/labor, consumer concerns, and travel.
As the attendant turned the lever, an icy spray of piercing waterdrops assaulted my skin, each one stabbing the surface like a frozen needle. For me, it was tantamount to torture–though persons accustomed to cold showers might not have minded the liquid attack.
Even they, on the other hand, would have objected to the indignity of the procedure. For a shy person such as myself, troubled by the sight of his own body, standing naked in the presence of a bored orderly, after being ushered abruptly into the shower stall, evoked images of past humiliations that stemmed from public nakedness.
Swimming class in high school, for instance. Young people today can barely believe it, but in the 1950s we had to learn the crawl and breaststroke while stark naked,. No swim suits allowed, ever. As a 12-year-old unmatured twerp in the presence of older boys with five o’clock shadows and threatening penises, swim class stretched beyond discomfort into an ordeal of uninterrupted distress.
Never did learn to swim in high school, though it’s hard to say how much the lack of swimwear contributed to that failing. I hadn’t learned at the YMCA, years earlier, either. We were naked there, too, but because we were all six or seven years old, it wasn’t quite as embarrassing.
On this day, my first in the mental hospital, the orderly didn’t seem to care about the size of my penis, or whether I had one at all. He didn’t care how frigid the rat-a-tat water droplets were, or whether I was comfortable or not. Neither did he care how thoroughly I washed, as long as my rapid actions qualified as a shower.
As it turned out later, he was a pleasant enough fellow. On induction day, though, his orders were simple. Right to the point. Step by step. New patient: Shower. Clean up the new arrival.
Showering was among the final steps in the process, before being handed plain pajamas and a thin robe, which would be my total attire–backed by soft slippers–for the next day and a half.
In the dayroom, I’d seen that nearly everyone wore street clothes. The only exception was a shaky middle-aged man who, I soon discovered, had been admitted only shortly before me. He was holding a cigarette as if trying to keep it from biting him: obviously eager for its nicotine-laden smoke, but barely able to hold the cylinder still enough to place it between his lips.
He was an advertising man, he later told me. Pretty big in that field, I gathered. Until he couldn’t take it any more, and suffered what was euphemistically called a nervous breakdown in those days.
That was a catchall phrase for just about any kind of mental disturbance that prevented a person from carrying on with his normal life. Some of those who broke down pulled out of it themselves, though God only knows how. Most of them had to seek professional help of some sort.
Arthur was definitely one of the latter: a voluntary patient like myself, but not at all eager to get back into the dreaded outside world. Here, despite the occasional inappropriate yell or aberrant response by one or another of the patients, it was more peaceful. A lot more.
The hospital was brand-new. A showplace of mental health treatment, more like a luxury hotel than the stereotype of a mental institution. Public, too, which meant I was paying nothing. It’s gone now. Gone for years, in fact, which shows how much the government cares nowadays about doing anything for the mentally ill.
Note: This chapter is intentionally incomplete at this point, intended to serve as a sample.