Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hospital on a Hill

I found this beautiful and haunting picture at this site I went looking for it because I remember touring the grounds of the old Northampton State Hospital, sometimes referred to as the Northampton Lunacy Hospital, when I was a graduate student studying on campus right next door. Dean Hartman (recently retired that year) had told many stories of how professors had taken first year students on tours through the "back wards" to give them a feel for the pain and suffering of the chronically mentally ill. With a bit of research, I realized that a variety of patients were hospitalized in the history of that storied institution: homosexuals, outspoken women, anyone who did not fit within the boundaries of their class, race, or gender. Of course, this also included folks who were struggling with mental illness.

The facility closed in 1993 and so had been vacant for two years when I took a tour. One could still feel the desperation and melancholy within the walls. To this day, I have these mental images of that day: the bucolic setting against the backdrop of the bars on the windows; rows and rows of gray doors; institutional sinks, the beautiful architectural style; and the energy that pounded throughout that place. Over a thousand graves are unmarked on that hill and thousands more stories untold.
I left school at the end of the summer to begin my first year internship in a big city hospital. I was assigned to the child/adolescent unit, a modern day psychiatric institution. I worked as a family therapist and my job was to guide parents through the bewildering terrain of having a child who was ill enough to be psychiatrically hospitalized. The average stay for a patient was under two weeks. So, some things have changed. Some have not. You can still see terror on a child's face when the door automatically shuts on a locked unit. At the time, you could still hear screams from restraints although I understand that is changing. I have recommended hospitalization many times during my career. It is absolutely necessary when one is spiralling out of control and can't stay safe. I'm not biased against a hospital stay, in fact I think it is often the ultimate act of courage and resilience.
Still, there is a price our most vulnerable and at times,most radical citizens have paid. I wanted to go back to Northampton and take a look around, take some pictures and mostly just honor the people who lived and died there. Sadly, I found out today, that the Northampton State Hospital was demolished several years ago, ostensibly to make room for a multi-use housing complex.
Today, the land stands vacant. I don't know if the souls that roamed there the day I visited have found peace.
Our prayers tonight should be for them.

1 comment:

  1. Such an eerie photo, a shame it is gone forever. I'm also praying for the people who purchase a home on that land--sure to be teeming with unsettled spirits.