Sunday, November 23, 2008


At the age of twenty-one, I was paid to clean a psychiatric ward. It was like something out of the movies, back in the seventies. Desolation is the word to describe the feeling of being in that place. Put a sane man or woman there and for sure the person would come out worse than when he or she went in. I had bad dreams about the noise and behaviour of certain patients.

Apparently such places don't exist anymore. Medication has become more sophisticated. Contemporary psychiatric wards look like any other ward in the hospital. I spent a month, back in 1978, cleaning walls, windows, air vents, ceilings and stripping, sealing and waxing the floors of adult psychiatry. The experience made me realize the importance of making an effort to cultivate wholesome mental habits, in order to avoid getting sick. Mental illness is complex, involving factors such negative conditioning, alcohol or drug abuse, family violence, sexual assault or incest,biology, family history, social and economic problems such as stresses related to work, failed relationships, loss of a loved one, accident, financial loss and numerous other situations.

The other day at work I had a flashback to the psychiatric ward. I remember the first day on the job. My cleaning buddy warned me not to talk to the patients. It felt strange to go up an old, heavy metal elevator, operated by a key, thick doors, a security elevator leading up to the locked ward. Patients interred there would not be able to escape. It felt strange to get out of the security elevator and to step into an archetypal world—madness, the real thing, after hearing about it, finally to be there.

On the first morning a man defecated into a waste paper basket and then wandered down the hall, muttering to himself: “This is for real.” A couple of mean-looking youngsters, in punk hair and clothing, laughed as he walked by. A woman climbed the step ladder I brought along for cleaning the high part of the walls and the ceilings and asked me to grab her bum. An anorexic woman came up to me, a few hours later, and asked if I could be her boyfriend. I felt sad and embarrassed. An orderly witnessed the scene and told me not to worry about it.

That's one diary I shouldn't have thrown away. I walked around, folded sheets of paper in my back pockets and would write during pauses, in an empty room or stairwell, in the janitor's supply room, or on a toilet in a cubicle. As a hospital janitor, I spent most of the shift in the public eye. One had to look busy and be as invisible as possible. My buddy told me the tricks, where to find an empty room or seldom used stairwell. Staff washrooms were excellent places to take a break and do some writing, because they were spacious and you could lock the door. I loved writing, and still do, writing for no other purpose than the pleasure of writing.

My buddies were fascinating people, from a side of life I never even knew existed. I grew up in middle class comfort, the son of a preacher man and then suddenly was working along side a refugee from Europe who had lived through war, blood and guts and had a drinking problem. He berated me constantly, pointing out my character flaws, poor behaviour, and careless grooming habits. It was an educational experience to be the object of so much projection. That guy, about forty-five years old, really hated himself and couldn't bear to be next to a healthy, sane young man. He did have a point: what was a guy like me, with so much opportunity, doing in a janitor job? He was born into poverty and abuse. Most of the people doing that job had horror stories.

I obviously didn't belong. I was there because for a few years I was really unhappy and wanted to commit suicide. I remember one day my buddy even offered to help. He wanted to watch me die. He offered to get hold of some rope and to secure the rope to the ceiling of the janitor closet. I said, no thanks. Then he criticized me for walking along, so bored. At one point, the supervisor sent me for a medical exam, because I had all the symptoms of a living-dead, glazed look in the eye, no energy, always tired, a bag of jelly, a zombie. The doctor said I was suffering classic symptoms of boredom and should not be doing such a job. My social-economic situation would not allow it, without psychological damage. Fortunately, I only did that job for nine months and then went off to do a masters degree at the University of Western Ontario.

That's why it was scary to clean the psychiatric ward, because I didn't feel too confident about my own state of metal health back then. I worried about going insane. At the age of twenty-one, the future appeared bleak, like a gaping pit of misery awaiting. Nobody has an easy time on the road of life.

I started out a space alien, lonely, desolate, forsaken, and heart broken. I prayed to the Mother of Jesus to release me from self-absorbed, self-pity, bitterness and resentment. I asked her to enter my heart.

A woman in mauve velour, body moving in two sections, bottom and top, separated by exposed midriff, with navel in a soft belly, walked beside her boyfriend, a man dressed in what looked like a Halloween costume he'd been working on for years, a blue mechanic shirt with pencil pocket, name-crest, baseball cap, work-boots, jeans, black case and mobile phone strapped to the belt.

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