Saturday, September 08, 2012

Book Club: Exploring the old mental hospital

How far would you go to advocate for your child? In January First, father Michael Shofield and his family struggle to find the right treatment for his daughter Jani, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at six years old. Join From Left to Write on September as we discuss the Shofield's memoir January First. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.
About 10 years ago, I took a summer writing class that was held at the new Channel Islands College in Camarillo. The campus wasn't officially open, but they had begun work on one building. The class was incredible...but what I still remember the most from that summer was exploring that campus. It was the site of the former Camarillo State Mental Hospital. And when I say work had just begun on the campus, they had not done much of anything. It was still pretty much the same as it had been-only deserted...and spooky! Two of my friends and I spent all of our breaks and lunches exploring every inch of that campus that week. Many classrooms had papers scattered everywhere, and the words printed on the chalkboards read "Good bye and good luck...". We saw many little iron grate doors, and when we peeked inside, we would see a chair sitting there in the small closet area-like time out for adults.

One afternoon, we stumbled upon the front office. The main road used to lead up to that office, Potrero Road, but the road fell into disrepair, and wasn't used anymore. You could still see it, among the tall weeds, weaving through the rolling mountains that the campus backed up to. An old metal sign with the hospital's name creaked in the breeze, causing us to shiver. In the office, we saw all the little cubbies that held the keys of the rooms. It was still furnished, everything dusty and gray. I felt like I was on the set of an old horror flick.
Later in the week, we ventured into the main building where the patients were housed. We peeked through windowed doors into long dark hallways. As I looked through one windowed door, I felt like my friend might be trying the doorknob to open the door, so I stepped back. She looked at me, like, "What are you doing?" I asked her if she had tried to open the door, and she said no. But I had felt like someone had been trying to open the door. We all turned white and ran out of there, three grown adults running like little scared children!
I did some research on the hospital, and found a few interesting things-one, that the Eagles had based their song, Hotel California, on that hospital! The lyrics were already a bit creepy to me, but now I listened to the song, imagining the hospital. Another was that only one person died there, according to records. A young man who may have overdosed on medication. Not the tragic tales we'd been expecting.
The one thing I really regret is that we hadn't taken any pictures or video. The next summer, we came back for another session, but the campus had been almost fully renovated. There wasn't much to explore.
I kept thinking about this hospital as I read this book, thinking of a small girl, like Jani, staying at a place like this. It really disturbed me (and it didn't seem to help her at all!). I don't know how much we spend on mental health issues, but I think we need to spend more and actually help the patients there. The book made it seem like they are just holding areas for people. My sister works with people with mental health issues, and she tells me often people do worse living at places like these. Thank goodness for this book club-I honestly don't think that I would have picked up this book on my own, and I am so glad I read it.


Bren said...

Great post. I can only imagine how spooky that campus must have been. Glad you had the chance to see it both ways. Great story.

Yes, we do a poor job with mental health in our nation. I applaud those like your sister who work with this population. They need our love and compassion.

Erica Hernandez said...

I actually just started reading this a couple of days ago. My husband is just finishing up a psychology course so he's been talking about mental health issues a lot recently. It's not easy to read (especially as the parent of a child that exhibited some fairly violent tendencies for awhile) and there are things about it that bother me but it's hard to judge when you know how difficult it is to be a parent in that position. I can't even imagine what it must be like to institutionalize your desperate you have to be for help and reassurance and resolution.