Loco Parentis: Crazy Love

Some of what gets handed down from generation to generation, you hope bypasses your kids. Pass the bell jar, please

IT’S SUMMER, AND I’m visiting a relative, one I used to be oh-so-close to. He’s been institutionalized, and it wasn’t his choice. His eyes are blank until anger makes them blaze at me. He accuses me of betraying him by spilling secrets to his doctors. As punishment, he insists I walk three steps behind him as he shuffles down the hall. “I painted this in art therapy,” he says, indicating one of the soothing Monet prints on the wall, then sweeps his arm: “I painted all of these.” In his room he has notebooks in which he’s keeping track, he says, of  “everything that goes on in this horrible place.” He hands me one. There’s nothing in it at all.

I’m cowed by the breadth of his delusions. He has lost his mind — can’t locate it, can’t find the familiar pathways that told him what was real and what wasn’t. His confused pain is a fathomless abyss. As much as he needs me, I find myself staving him off a little, as though what he has might be catching. I’m embarrassed to be here with all the other weary, bewildered relatives for whom madness has come home to roost.

I never thought much about what happened when family members came to hospitals like this. I never visited before. The stays were short enough that I could take the coward’s way out; I wrote letters, sent packages, called. That way, I could imagine my loved ones in a sort of sedated country club. This place is something else again. Everything is so raw: The lighting is glaring; the security is harsh. Patients rock and flail and scream, fighting the system that stuck them here as well as the demons in their heads. When I leave, I walk fast down the hallway to the doors. Outside, I breathe and breathe.

On my next visit, I take Marcy along. I want to impart the message that mental illness isn’t anything to be scared of — that coming here is no different from going to see my dad when he was in the hospital with pneumonia. I want Marcy to believe this. I want my sick relative to believe it.

I want to be convinced myself.

In front of my daughter, our inmate pulls it together, more or less. He gives another tour of the premises, but this time without mention of the artwork or accusations of perfidy. He introduces us to fellow patients, plays ping-pong in the solarium. He’s like some genial host showing us around the family mansion — one that happens to be populated by zombies being lined up for their drugs. These are “them” people, the sort I don’t think much about ordinarily. They lie on subway grates in winter and hold long conversations with themselves. Now, though, one of us is one of Them. I find this profoundly disturbing. Reflexively, I’m aligned with management — Nurse Ratched, not McMurphy. Just go on and take your pills.

Marcy has a different vantage. From what she’s seen, the mental hospital is dreadful, yes, but also exotic, and vaguely romantic. “It’s like Girl, Interrupted,” she says as we get back in the car. Thanks, Angelina Jolie. Still, I understand. I used to find madness glamorous too, when I was Marcy’s age.

Now, it’s a barrier between me and people I love. After my relative is discharged, he’ll tell me: “It was fun being crazy, but now it’s time to be sane.” And smile like a sphinx.