It was a hot day in July, the summer of 2015, and I happened to be in New York. I was house-sitting for a friend, spending a week in her apartment at 145th and Broadway. It was the closest I’d been in years to the hospital that had once been my home. One morning, I decided to walk north. My best days are those that I walk the city, unfettered and directionless, and so it took me a minute to understand where I was going. We are drawn back, aren’t we? Even when we don’t mean to be and don’t want to be. The past is there, waiting for us. I walked the mile or so up Riverside Drive, until I reached my one-time address: 722 W 168th Street.
Of course nothing in this city remains as it was, and this is no exception: the building, with its grand architecture, is no longer the home of the State Psychiatric Institute. Now it is the School of Public Health.
This is where I lived, I want to say to someone, as I point up to the fifth floor. But who would care?
In the archway over the entrance, I can read the original name of the building, the Romanesque lettering etched in stone: new york state psychiatric institute + hospital. It is a vestige, for which I am grateful. I look for another: the benches out front. One stone bench etched with the Roman numeral mdccxcv, the year of the building’s founding. But it’s not there.
Just a year or so after I left for good, the State Psychiatric Institute moved into a new building, larger and grander than the original, with a walkway crossing Riverside Drive toward a second building, which looked out to the Hudson River. By then the program was defunded. No longer would anyone live there as we did.
I find the department of records. I ask a woman at the desk about the old building, the state hospital connected with the Presbyterians of Columbia University, the institute referred to as PI. She looks at me flatly, uninterested. Yes, she says. That’s the ‘old PI’.
I tell her I’d like to get copies of my medical records.
Were you an inpatient?
A long time ago.
How long ago?
Twenty years ago, I realize as I say it.
She considers, then explains the process of retrieving records. There are forms to fill out, fees to pay, permissions for release. Once this is approved, the papers will be copied. You’ll receive those copies in the mail.
I fill out the paperwork. I pay with my credit card.
It’s nearly a year later, I’ve almost forgotten, when I receive a packet of ten or fifteen pages. A summary of my stay. A stack of narratives, really. Different doctors write different summaries. Each doctor has his or her particular angle. Did I think it would be objective? No, but I hadn’t realized how subjective it would be. These character descriptions have much in common with the work of the students in my creative-writing classes. There are consistencies, recurring themes: dysthymia is used over and over again. I was told I had chronic depression, or major depression, or bipolar disorder, but dysthymia is the diagnosis that is repeated throughout the records.
I was disappointed by the stack of papers, which I put away in a drawer. On the one hand, these pages bring up the great shame I feel for the waste of those days, the extent of my abjection. At the same time, I wanted more – daily notes or details that could fill in the gaps in my notebooks, in my memory. I want the banal details. I don’t want the official language, the axis one or axis two, the list of medications and symptoms. What I want is the story of our long, dull days and years in that hospital. Those days, those years. It is the quotidian I want to recover.
Years after I was discharged, I found a photograph on the internet. It is a photograph of Allen Ginsberg from 1950, standing in front of that old building at 722 W 168th Street, near Riverside Drive. He’s been a patient there for one year. In the photo he stands next to Marilyn Monroe, who stands next to Arthur Miller.
I don’t know why I have such a clear memory of this photograph. I look for it now but can’t find it. No matter, I still see it: Marilyn Monroe leans into Miller and looks away from the camera. Ginsberg stares straight into the camera’s lens; a doctor stands on the other side of Monroe.
And one more trick of memory. I see now that the man standing next to Marilyn Monroe is Joe DiMaggio, not Arthur Miller. How I recognize him as DiMaggio I’m not certain, but I know that it is a husband who escorts her; I also know that it doesn’t matter much which – either one is viable in this photograph.
Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Allen Ginsberg, though he did dedicate Howl to Carl Solomon, the friend he met in that hospital. A friend who got shocks and a straitjacket. The way he and Solomon tried to decide if they were crazy or the doctors were crazy.
And he said something about leaving the hospital, about the self rejection, the way you’ve internalized all that you’ve been told is wrong with you; how you bring that out into the world with you. How he walked the streets after discharge, seeking validation everywhere, not finding it. How he had to get out of New York.
And if I say anything about Ginsberg and madness, I should say something about his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, whose story didn’t just begin in an institution but ended there, too. Naomi Ginsberg who was institutionalized, who was lobotomized, who died in a state hospital. If her son was the exception, the young man whose year inside led to the richness of a long life in literature, then she was the rule.
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