Friday, December 28, 2012

Asylum Walk (introduction)

The images that follow were taken on 20 April 2007, from 2:32 to 3:47 p.m., as I walked through the grounds of what used to be called the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital (HPH). The text below each image comes from a longer mental stroll undertaken more than a year and a half later, as I set down the recollections and reflections spurred by the images.

The HPH, at that time, flocked with memories for me: some of the most carefree and joyful memories of my life, as well as some of the bleakest and most searing. They floated and traded places during my 75-minute walk, like the blossoms, leaves and snowflakes I had, at other times, seen drift, meander and rush through those wide spaces.

As a child living nearby, I played, alone and with other children, on the vast lawns (including a baseball diamond) bordered by towering chestnut trees. Quite often a patient would wander through our outfield or watch us from a distance, pale hand on a tree trunk. Later, as a teenager, I walked my first love through the asylum grounds to her home on a street just east of them.

During my eighteen-month stay on the psychiatric ward of St. Joseph's Hospital, there were discussions—so I was told—about how long they could legitimately keep me on an acute ward before sending me to the HPH for long-term care. “Bagging,” we patients called such a transfer: the final disposal of a hopeless case. I escaped that fate. But once, by a strange fortuity, I got a foretaste of it. It was during a record snowstorm in the winter of 1978 or, possibly, 1979. I had been granted a weekend pass to visit home, which I could reach by walking up the escarpment stairs and crossing the HPH grounds. As I crossed the howling white plains, the whipping snow obscured all landmarks. I groped, blind as Gloucester, to a chain link fence—beyond, I knew, was a straight drop down. I stumbled to another solid shape—a tree; another one—a locked shed. Finally—who knows how?—I must have come to the brick wall of a ward and followed it to a door that opened. Apparently my family found me the next morning lying on a blanket in a hallway, warm and fed, among other snowbound travellers (cars had left the road and veered onto the grounds), stranded staff, and those who called the place home.

They tell me the old buildings, even the Victorian mansion that was a wealthy family’s home before it was the first Hamilton Hospital for the Insane, are being torn down. The wide green lawns and the surrounding groves are being torn up too, excavated for the foundation of a huge new hospital and its outbuildings. “It seems like we’re going backwards,” said the person who told me. “You’ll hate it when you see it.”

I don’t plan to look.

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