I was a teenager on the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Sixteen years old, to be exact. And I was incarcerated on the maximum security ward of the now-defunct State Hospital Number 3 in the town of Nevada, Missouri. I had been a patient there for a little over one year.
Why was I locked up on Maximum Security, alongside the “criminally insane?” I kept running away, that’s why. Call me crazy, but I did not want to spend the rest of my life trapped inside a human warehouse. Or an inhuman warehouse, as the case may be. And I knew that I was most likely destined to be there until the day I died. Why did I believe this? Was I paranoid? No, I knew this was a fact because Dr. Conn, the psychiatrist who did my intake interview a few days after my parents left me at the institution, had very plainly told me so.
My conversation with Dr. Conn went something like this:
Conn: “Okay, Miss Linda, now that you have answered my questions, do you have any questions for me?”
Me: “Yes, just one. How soon will I be able to go home?”
I was expecting him to say something along the lines of: “maybe in a month or two.” This would fit in nicely with what my mother had said on the way to the asylum, when I pleaded with my parents not to take me there. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be there long. In a few weeks, after you are well, then you can come home.’
But Dr. Conn didn’t say anything like that. Instead, this is what he said, reeling off the numbers in a bored, robotic tone:
“According to the current statistics, 97% of the patients committed to this institution are never permanently released. And, those odds go down after the first year. If you are still here one year from now, your statistical chance of ever being released from this asylum will be less than 1%. So, if you ever want to get out of here, you need to hurry up and make yourself well. Because, you see, nobody can make you well, except YOU.”
He must have seen a look of shocked disbelief on my face, because at this point, the doctor got huffy. “If you don’t believe me, go ask the other patients on the ward how long they have been here,” he said. And with that I was dismissed, never to speak with this psychiatrist again. Therapy wasn’t done in this institution during the late 1960s, at least not on most of the wards I was on. You were made to swallow pills twice a day. That was it.
I did ask several of my fellow patients how long they had been in the institution. Eight years was the shortest answer I remember hearing. The average was more than twenty years. So, I started running away at every opportunity. Each time I ran, I was quickly caught and then punished with at least two days in solitary confinement, usually while strapped down to the bed with four point restraints. Of course, this treatment only made me even more determined to escape.
Once, I managed to elude recapture for two whole days and my escape was broadcast on the news. Later, my father told me how embarrassing it was to come home after a hard day at work and turn on the evening news, only to hear my name announced, along with the fact that I had escaped from the insane asylum.
Yeah, poor dad. And also poor Mom, who had the hard job, as I later learned, of going home and hauling everything I owned off to the town dump. Because she certainly never intended for me to come home again, and “looking at all the reminders” was upsetting to her.
That time when I ran and was gone two days, after I was found, tackled to the ground, and returned to the institution, an irate hospital administrator cursed me out, then ordered me to be taken immediately to maximum security.
Which is where I was when the first astronaut walked on the moon.
The thing is, I didn’t know anything about the Apollo 11 moon mission. I’m sure there must have been plenty about it on TV. And yes, the wards in that institution at the time all had one black and white console television, down near the nurses’ station, which was kept on nearly all day, every day, for the patients to watch.
Prior to my parents’ taking me to the mental institution — against my doctor’s advice, I might add — I had loved to watch television, especially comedy shows. But after Dr. Conn informed me that I had less than a 3% chance of ever leaving that “hospital” alive — a dismal statistic that had regressed to less than 1%, when I reached the one year mark — I simply could not bear to watch television anymore.
Why couldn’t I stand to watch TV? Because most of the shows and even the commercials depicted people living their lives: going to high school, going out on dates, getting into college, falling in love, getting married, having children, having a career, having FUN — all of those things that I knew I had virtually no chance of ever being able to do. My life had ended at the age of fourteen and a half, done before I was old enough to drive a car. Knowing this, I found that sitting and staring into space all day, at the quiet end of the ward, hurt my heart a lot less than watching television.
One hot and muggy July day (the institution had no air conditioning), one of my fellow patients came running down the hall toward me, calling my name. I did not know her name, and I was surprised she knew mine. Like the majority of patients there, she did not speak to me, or to anyone, ever. I don’t know if our silence was due to the zombie-like effects of our twice daily forced drugging, or to the utter hopelessness of being incarcerated for life in such a sad place, or both. Whatever the reason, on a typical day, only the manic types talked or moved around very much. The rest of us either quietly walked the floors or sat on a hard wooden rocking chair, trying to be invisible, and trying not to feel any emotions.
But here this woman was now, running toward me and calling my name. “Linda! Linda! Come quick, you have to see this!”
“Uh, what — what do I have to see?”
“A man, an astronaut, in a space suit. They blasted off in a rocket a few days ago, and now he is walking on the moon! It’s on the television, come and look!”
I am ashamed and embarrassed to remember what I said next. It was something that you never, ever said to another patient in the mental institution, not unless you wanted to get into a fight. And I was far too skinny and too much of a ‘fraidy cat to want to fight.
But I said it. I don’t know why. The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. Blame it on the Thorazine, maybe?
“You’re crazy!” I told her. Augh, regrets. Just writing those two ugly, hateful words makes my heart ache. I can’t believe I really said that, to a fellow patient in an insane asylum. No!!
This woman whose name I never did learn looked taken aback, but only for a moment. Then, God bless her, she grinned.
“Yes, I guess I am crazy,” she said, kindly refraining from adding ‘and so are you, you little brat’. “But there really are astronauts on the moon right now. Come and see for yourself!”
So I followed her down to the television alcove and watched in disbelief as a U.S. Astronaut took his “one small step — one giant leap” on the lunar surface.
For many years, I had assumed that what I saw on TV that day was happening live. Almost seven and a half years earlier, I had sat spellbound with my third grade class, watching and listening, live as it was happening, when John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth. I had written a lengthy, detailed report on the event, which so impressed my third grade teacher that she had featured my report at the school’s Open House that fall. She told my parents they “absolutely must” find a way to put me through college, to keep from wasting my talent.
But, instead of getting on the fast track to college, my high school education had come to a standstill in the middle of my Freshman year. And now here I was, watching Neil Armstrong bounce around on the moon, not knowing that the live event had happened the night before, when we were all in bed, sleeping the sleep of the heavily drugged.
But I saw it, in any case, soon after it happened. Our country had landed a man on the moon!
Five months later, after a series of events both terrible and wonderful, I was released from the mental institution. And all of those things that I had thought I would never get to do, like drive a car, continue my education, marry, have children and grandchildren — I have been able to do all of those things, and more.
But I was no more deserving than the 97-99% of patients who were never released from the Nevada, Missouri State Hospital Number 3, before it was permanently closed and shut down in the 1990s. I am no one special at all. And sometimes, the survivor’s guilt grieves my heart. I am grateful, so very grateful. But a big part of my heart is permanently broken for the multitudes who were never given the chances that I have had.
Last weekend, I flew to Connecticut for my granddaughter’s wedding. I got to hug two of my three adult children, I hugged all three of my grown grandchildren, and I ran up and down hills and up and down stairs with my six year old great-grandson.
My granddaughter and her brand new husband wrote their own vows. His began: “To the woman with long brown hair, a shy smile, and one dimple, whom I met four years ago at Harvard . . .” His vows ended with the words: “I promise to love you forever and ever.”
Fifty years ago, none of this seemed possible. Then a man walked on the moon, and a young woman, broken like I was, cared enough to tell me about it.
It’s not about the moonwalk.
It’s about the caring.
PS. Yes, I am writing a book. It’s entitled Growing Up Crazy, My Life with Complex PTSD. I hope to have it published in 2020.