Behind closed doors



When I was discharged from a state mental hospital to what they called "the community," I was given literally five minutes to decide between living in a boarding house and a nursing home, "for the rest of my life," they said.

At the boarding house, the staff treated us to beatings and sexual assaults. One lady was murdered. Old women were tied to chairs 16 hours a day.

Only the mental patients got out at all, to a day program five days a week.

I only got free because I managed to convince a psychologist that I didn't belong there, this after 14 hellish months of fear and pain.

-- Rebecca S., Nebraska

A page from an official instructional manual on how to manage inmates in care facilities. This page shows how to apply a head restraint. illustration


Every night I have these dreams. I'm back in the lock-up, the hospital, the State Correctional Institution for the Criminally Disabled.

The televisions are tuned to three different channels, they're stuffing breakfast in me fast, and I have the Scary Nurse, the one who swings me around by my feet in the Hoyer lift.

I remember, dimly, another place where I rented an apartment, paid the people who washed and lifted me, and turned on the TV only when I wanted. But that other experiment had failed.

The nursing home industry fretted before congressional committees about our quality of care. Professionals wrote articles noting how quickly we withered without constant supervision by doctors, nurses, and social workers. The citizenry was offended by our spastic, drooling, motor-driven ubiquity. So they got those buses, the special ones equipped with wheelchair lifts, and rounded us all up.

The nursing home industry appointed a committee to guarantee quality of care, we got tin medals, and the President shook everyone's hand. And I'm here in the lock-up lying in my quality-assured shit waiting for some nurse to clean me up.

Funny, that other place seemed so real.

-- Mark O., Berkeley, California




Another page from the manual shows how to move the client by surrounding him.


This nightmare began as I awoke, as if from a nap, in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers. They behaved toward me as if I were crazy, dangerous, and at the same time a person of no consequence.

I overheard one of the strangers say, "She wrote a book once." Another stranger chuckled to hear that. "Well, she won't be doin' none of that fancy shit no more."

I have never remembered the accident itself, or the weeks I spent in the hospital. I have only the memory of awakening in The Home. I slept, I woke again, I slept and woke again, but the nightmare persisted.

In The Home, I was not permitted to have a notebook or a pen, the tools of my lifelong trade. When finally I managed to get my hands on pen and paper, I was written up for "compulsive note-taking."

The Home had absolute power over every hour of our long days. The Home could grant or withhold any of life's ordinary favors: food, clothing, toothbrush, toilet, the U.S. mail. Today I do not sleep well in my own bed, for fear that I will awaken in that place.

They keep saying that people with disabilities are different. We are. We live in the shadow of The Home.

-- Lucy G., Topeka, Kansas

This page from the manual shows how to maintain
touch control.

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These articles first appeared in Mouth magazine in May 1999.

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The photos shown here are from a client management handbook published by the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability.