Off Their Nut: Reflecting on the Third MN Hospital for the Insane

Preface: Thank you for your patience in waiting for this new blog! I have been swamped with moving, starting grad school, and an unexpected trip back to Bismarck for a funeral.I plan to typically update more often. 

I am split open like the tree outside my window. Poor miss tree was struck by lightening in a recent storm. She looks so vulnerable, cut open like that without her bark to protect her. Raw. The tree equivalent of scars, bruises. I feel for her. And yet- she also looks so beautiful, so unique.

cropped-20525331_1406876776063929_2198710542886899372_n.jpgSurely that tree knew the storm was coming, but there wasn’t a damn thing that she could do about it. I ran into the proverbial storm asking the lightening to strike me.This is where this metaphor ends.

 The storm was the asylum, its dark history, and madness itself.  I knew that I needed to chase this storm so that I might understand our past, the past of us mad ones. So that I might draw my version of the map and a compass. So I stepped dead center in the swirling eye of this storm when I decided to do this artist residency at the former MN insane asylum. When I arrived, the hairs on my arm stood at attention.

It is 85 degrees, but I feel a surge of cold. I feel spirits move through me. Not ghosts but the electricity and energy of all the people who were here before me.

In 1886, The Moorhead News wrote that Fergus Falls was preparing for “a big immigration of people who are ‘off their nut.'”  “Minnesota’s Third State Hospital for the Insane” in Fergus Falls.  Back in those days, the hospitals were usually referred to as asylums and patients were called inmates. Addiction was called intemperance; depression was called melancholia; Alzheimer’s Disease was senility.

The hospital was designed in “The Kirkbride Architectural Style” by a Minneapolis architect named Warren Dunnell.  Dr. Kirkbride was the founder of the American Psychiatric Association known as a pioneer and visionary for creating more humane mental healthcare. Kirkbride architecture was based upon the doctor’s vision and prescription for healing patients. Large windows and towers to provide patients with abundant natural light. Giant day rooms in each wing for socialization. Plenty of green outdoor space and gazebos so patients could get fresh air.

In addition to revolutionizing construction of asylums, Kirkbride also was one of the first to classify insanity as a disease and wanted it to be treated as such, discouraging restraints like straight jackets.

Original cost in 1890: One million. Upon completion, the hospital would be the length of five football fields on 65 acres. They originally were self-sustaining, with gardens and a farm. At it’s peak, the cows produced 3,000 pounds of milk per day (more to come on that later).

tumblr_lncop9R4BC1qd4993o1_400.jpgFirst documented reasons for hospitalization to FF Hospital: “epilepsy, intemperance, injury to head, disappointment in love, and overwork.” One patient speculated in 1910 that he was committed because of his “long hair” and “the way he pondered.”

As I wander the grounds, I wonder what it would have been like to be a patient here. There are signs of decay, rubble and ruin.  I cannot go inside the buildings because of mold and other old stuff.  I feel the old spirits moving through me as I unpack in my apartment for the week which was most recently a residential drug and alcohol treatment branch of the hospital.

Deja vu? It feels eerily like other centers where I have stayed. I keep expecting a staff person to bust in the door to shine a flashlight on my face at night for a bed check, to rifle through the drawers and search under the mattress to search for contraband, to IMG_6400flick the lights up at 7 and tell me it’s time to stand in line to get my meds or blow in a tube for a breathalyzer or pee into a cup. Every time I walk around the grounds, I notice something different. A door spray painted: “HELP ME.”

But it would be insulting ot immediately associate this with a place of ruin and collapse because we have to remember too that this is a place where people came to heal.  Many amazing doctors, nurses, groundskeepers, social workers, and other staff devoted their lives to making patients feel safe, accepted, cared for, to help them get better. My friend speaks proudly of her mom who helped people in the acute unit and transition to the community. Another friend says that residential drug and alcohol treatment here “changed her life” when she was a teenager.

The grounds are green and lush. Several of the former nurse’s quarters/ treatment buildings have been remodeled into residential apartments that preserve the historic nature of the grounds while adding modern touches. Wild flowers grow out of cracks in the cement. Fergus Falls community members are devoted to preserving the hospital and Hinge Arts has been an amazing use of the historic space.

Signs of healing and holding on are there when we look hard enough, when we are willing to redefine what those terms mean, and to see beauty in rubble.

Works Cited:

  • Historical Research thanks to Ottertail County Historical Society and Fergus Falls Daily Journal
  • Header image of Postcard: MNHS.org
  • Anonymous Portrait of a female psychiatric patient, “Melancholia” 1875-1885 (ca) via luminous-lint.blogspot.com
  • “HELP ME” Image courtesy Tessa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fergus Falls Daily Journal Profile

Fergus Falls Daily Journal features a profile today about me and another Hinge Artist Sharon Mansur.

It was interesting being interviewed for a newspaper since I am usually the one asking the questions! The writer did a nice job. “Torgeson had an open suitcase set up in the corner of Springboard for the Arts. It included various items from her times spent in treatment. From pill bottles to cards written by family and friends, the suitcase contained insights into her life and also her writing… This residency is Torgeson’s first and she came about it in a special way.”

What Not to Wear: Asylum Edition

“You’re gonna have to put these on now, sorry this is the smallest size we have for now. When you get upstairs, we’ll check if they have any smaller sizes.”

I had surrendered. It was time to trade my street clothing and along with it my freedom and dignity for the obligatory bright yellow uniform.

category-uniforms_1

No, I was not in jail. I was voluntarily checking into a psychiatric hospital/ detox center. Yet the obligatory psych patient uniform bore a striking resemblance to inmate’s jumpsuits.

“You know, yellow really isn’t a flattering shade for my pale skin tone, I look better in blues and pastels, don’t you think? This color sorta washes me out,” I said.

I know this because my friend who sat with me through the whole excruciating process, verified it, along with the erratic notes that I kept on the hospital’s stationary.  Yes. The hospital has stationary. And yes, I am the kind of person who writes shit down. This was the first time that this happened, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The nurse wasn’t amused by the jokes of a mental patient. She shoved my street clothes into a sturdy white bag that said, “PATIENT BELONGINGS.”

It was curious as to why I had to wear an outfit that resembled a prison jumpsuit for voluntarily checking into get help. I was just told it was “policy.”

Although it may seem vain or vapid to begin the series of Off Her Rocker blogs with fashion, I thought it would be an interesting way to examine the ways in which mental health care has in some ways, not evolved and even regressed.

In 1895, The Fergus Falls Daily Journal reported that the administration at the MN Asylum, “discouraged patients from dressing alike, thereby distinguishing them from prison convicts.”  (Via archives obtained at Ottertail County Historical Society).

20689844_1416011235150483_7339173117355517429_o

Photo via CBS rare photos from mental hospitals late 1890s.

Let that sink in for a minute. 125 years ago, “mental patients” were distinctly being encouraged to wear their own unique clothing because it would help them feel more like themselves and not be stereotyped.

After all, clothing is a valuable way of self-expression and identification. Plus, my mom is after all a fashion consultant so it seemed fitting. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I wanted to make lots of bad puns to ease or way into the topic of mental illness.

Although they were as tattered and worn as I felt, I remember feeling shiny and relieved when I got to change into my skinny jeans and band t-shirt. They were mine and I didn’t need a rubber band to hold them up like I did with the yellow ensemble. I was happy too to trade the slipper socks with my converse all stars even though they too were sans shoelaces which were considered contraband.

What not to wear: psych ward edition courtesy hospital pamphlet: drawstrings, belts, shoelaces, jewelry.

Being that I was away from home and going through an effing breakdown, I thought I could be at least comfortable and dare I say fashionable, while doing it.

But for real, even back in the late 1890s and early 1900s, visionaries realized that taking care of one’s appearance, self-expression, and learning to sew one’s own clothes could be a valuable way for improving mental health. 

A hospital administrator’s wife even started a sewing circle and a sewing room was opened in the early 1900s. Although they were allowed and encouraged to wear their own clothing from home, many of the patients even sewed their own clothing and helped sew for patients who had  brought little clothing from home. Patients who tore or ripped their clothing on purpose had to wear clothing of heavy denim, only for practical reasons.

I’d rock a Canadian Tuxedo any day over yellow scrubs.

20729120_1416011231817150_6915482624258649781_o

Beauty parlor in Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane, circa 1926. Photo courtesy Ottertail Historical Society Archives

In fact, they even opened a beauty parlor at the Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane in 1926 that offered hair styling, manicures, and facials. Mrs. Blanche L. La Du who was the only woman member of the State Board of Control for Insane Asylums, said, “Next to occupational therapy we believe this experiment in which personal hygiene is our most successful means of restoring mental health to our women patients at Fergus Falls.. .Any normal woman experiences a pleasant mental reaction from a visit to the beauty shop: in this monotonous life on an institution, the reaction is all the stronger.”

In an article about “Beauty Culture at the Hospital,” the Fergus Falls Daily Journal reports that the beauty salon took a while to catch on because patients had not been used to such luxuries and had their “vanity destroyed through misfortune.” A trained “beauty culturist” was in charge of the parlor and even trained patients in how to be beauty assistants.

I realize the language and stereotypes for women are antiquated. Mrs. La Du’s evaluation of women’s mental health based on adherence to certain beauty ideals seem very outdated and kitschy now, but I think considering this was over 100 years ago she had her compass pointed the right direction.

It is far different from when a male psychiatrist asked me why my nail polish was chipped in a psych eval or when another (who luckily I never had the pleasure of having) asked some of my fellow female patients, “You’re a pretty girl- why do you drink?”

It is of my professional opinion that if this doctor was so damned concerned with our appearances, he should have opened a damned beauty salon on the psych ward just like Mrs. La Du. After all- Missy Elliot said,  “If you a fly gal, get your nails done. Get a pedicure. Get your hair did.”  And you can bet we’re fly gals who’d rather have our nails done and sew our own clothes than wear yellow scrubs and not be allowed make-up.

Coming up next: Burning straight jackets, how the MN hospital for the insane was like a commune, how accurate are movie’s depictions of insane asylums & MORE.

 

 

 

Welcome to Off Her Rocker

WELCOME TO OFF HER ROCKER.

Greetings! Thank you for visiting my new blog OFF HER ROCKER- Misadventures in Madness!!
This is inspired by my artist residency at the former Minnesota State Hospital in Fergus Falls, also known as The Kirkbride Building, thanks to Springboard for the Arts. It’s been an amazing experience so please let me know if you’d like to apply.  This place is fascinating and I can’t wait to post more about it! Yet this blog transcends the Kirkbride Building itself.

On this blog,  I plan exploration of what society calls “mental illness,” asylums and institutionalization, the evolution of mental health, medications, addiction and the spaces in between.

This is not self-help, nor is it entirely objective history, nor is it all about me. I will offer a glimpse inside what life was really like in asylums. I write from my research of history and pop culture; and also from my experiences working in treatment centers and with people who have struggled with mental illness. I have been one of them. I often identify more with patients than staff (side note- I have a story coming out in a British literary journal called Doll Hospital soon.
With the recent deaths of musicians Chris Cornell and Chester from Linkin Park who both struggled with mental illness and addiction, it seems more people than ever are discussing these issues. And yet at the same time, we have only just begun. So often we skim the surface or else we get trapped in a rut of discussing these illnesses from the well-worn perspectives.

We speak of them from black and white dichotomies- “mental illness/ addiction are diseases stemming from our DNA and broken brains that need to be treated with medications” or the other extreme the these things are choices, moral failings, weaknesses. Or alternatively some blame society and claim mental illness is a cultural construction and form of cultural coercion. I want to talk about the shades in between.

From where I sit, sadly silence, shame, and stigma prevail. But as we have seen~ these are insidious things that kill and make the pain of living with them even worse. We’ve come a long way, but but we still have a long way to go.

I want to write about resilience and the power and beauty of darkness and rebirth, what we can learn when we see self-destruction as a lesson instead of demonizing, vilifying, or criminalizing it. We need to move beyond defining ourselves beyond our illnesses, beyond the stigma and shame, and reach instead toward a place of healing.

I’ve now spent hours pouring over the archives about the Kirkbride/ MN State Hospital and trajectory of mental health & asylums at Ottertail County Historical Society. It is fascinating and stirred many contradictory emotions but overall a deep sense of empathy for the patients- since I’ve been hospitalized just like them. The patients, these are my people.

I relate to Jack Keruoac’s famous wrote: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

That is not to totally romanticize or glorify suffering but instead to appreciate and embrace what we have been through, what we grapple with, what we overcome. To embrace what a mental health group calls “dangerous gifts.”

In these explorations, I may at times offer more questions than answers. I neither condemn nor condone psychiatric medications, this is an individual and high personal choice that I respect. Medications have changed health care in complicated ways that people often don’t discuss- both good and bad- life giving and life taking.

Dear readers, my aim here is not to tell you what to think and how to feel. I hope to inform and inspire, to educate and empower.

I am going to talk about some things that are difficult, heavy, and intense; but I will also balance that with levity, dark humor, and some of my stupid jokes. I won’t just talk about straight jackets, but also reveal things like beauty shops on asylums back in the day- because yes that was a thing. I hope that I can at least encourage or challenge people to start thinking of mental health in a new way, to feel more comfortable talking about taboo issues, to own your own story or your family’s story.

It’s time to start dusting off those skeletons in the closet, bringing them to the light where they belong.

If you have a story you’d like to share with me, please feel free to talk to me in person, comment, or fill out the “contact’ form on this site. I will of course always listen and respect your privacy. A big hope for this is to also assure you that you are never alone.

Won’t you join me?

Much love,

Tessa