Jackson

My clinical rotation for mental health nursing included a much anticipated tour of East Louisiana State Hospital outside the town of Jackson. Throughout my childhood, “Jackson” as it was commonly called had woven its mythology into my life. Both my mother and aunt had worked there and from time to time would talk about some of their patients’ delusions and hallucinations. Jackson also made for a good way to threaten bad children. Whenever I acted up, my mother would say, “You better stop it or I’ll send you up to Jackson.”  I had never laid eyes on the facility and my imagination could only painted it as dark vortex of an entity that grabbed at life tightly and never let go. I was an adult now and looking forward to putting a realistic face on one of my childhood monsters.

The morning of the tour, I ironed the required creases into my perfectly bleached white scrubs while I muttered to myself about the ridiculous appearance standards at nursing school.  Then I collected my clinical materials and begun the hour drive to the hospital. Jackson was built on the high ground away from the swamps and mosquitoes, but also away from the cities. After turning off the main highway and onto the rural road leading to the facility, cell service waned.

I knew I was close when I saw the road sign that advised travelers not to pick up hitchhikers. I slowed to turn onto a gravel road and a guard waved me through the front gate. My car snaked up a jagged road until an impressive Greek revival building with fading whitewash came into view. Patched columns struggled to hold up the entablature. Forgotten landscaping continued to divide the grounds into sections resembling formal gardens while smaller squat buildings sprung up on the sides of the main house like poorly planned afterthoughts that attempted to bring modern amenities to the facility.

I parked in front of the main building the Union Army refused to burn it down during the Civil War because they knew the horrors that would be released into the community. I left everything in my trunk as instructed with the exception of a single car key.

Our class gathered on the front steps and then filed through the main entrance into darkly carpeted foyer flanked by walls lined with portraits of the men who kept the order over the years. An empty courtroom stood off to the side. A couple of times a month, hearings were held, mostly to extend involuntary commitments. Our group wound up and around the grand staircase until we reached the ballroom on the top floor.

A decaying drop-down ceiling revealed beautiful darkened wood paneling above and a wrought iron balcony presided over the entrance. When asked why an insane asylum needed a ballroom, an administrator began to tell us about the “idiots’ dances” that were held once a month. An orchestra would play on the balcony while the patients would dance for the pleasure of the wealthy townspeople.  Today the room served as the facility’s makeshift museum. We poured over nurses’ notes detailing women who fell catatonic after being jilted and men who drank until their brains turned to gelatin. After gawking at primitive electroshock therapy and archaic restraints, we were split into smaller groups and continued the tour.

We proceeded down a side set of stairs and onto a dimly lit back hall. The entire building had a quietness about it. It was no longer used for patient care and looming budget cuts might finally shut it down. Once we all assembled in the hall, the administrator pushed a small door open and said, “Who wants to visit the dungeon?”

We were led down a narrow set of stone stairs. Taller students had to hunch down to avoid hitting their heads.  The corridor had a dampness about it. It was dark and I held the railing tightly to avoid falling. The stairs exited into a long rectangular room made of bricks. The floor was comprised of loose soil and rock and slightly gave way with each step. It moved with me and felt alive. The administrator informed us that the basement dungeon flooded often, so recently four feet of soil was added in an attempt to prevent the bricks from eroding. Leftover wrought iron O-rings stuck out from the bricks. The chains that were connected to them had been removed long ago.

The dungeon was cold and the air stood still, but it was not stagnant. I stood at the back of the group with my back towards the far wall while the administrator told us about the type of patients confined to the area. The room had held some of the most violent souls to inhabit the institution. Before effective anti-psychotic medicines and other forms of chemical restraints were available to tame the wicked, they were given a slop bucket and chained to the wall until their will was broken. Then they could be returned to the general population.

The group began to file back up the stairs. I took my first step forward. Something grabbed at my left shoulder and tried to pull me back into the wall. I looked behind me and saw nothing.  I hurried to blend in with the rest of my group. I was very confused and breathing quickly. I touched my shoulder on the stairway. Maybe water or part of the ceiling had fallen on me. We exited and stood in the back hall. I grabbed the sleeve of my scrubs expecting to see dirt or water or some physical explanation of the event. The only thing I saw was a pristinely creased white sleeve. The administrator asked if I was OK. I said it felt like something had tried to grab me. She said, “That happens sometimes. They don’t want to let you go.”

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