Having been institutionalized is not something I ever forget, exactly, but I tend to keep those memories on lockdown. It was Netflix that finally blasted them back out into the open — specifically, Orange is the New Black. Cue the theme song, cue the waterworks — I cried all the way through every episode of Season Two, tears pooling uncomfortably in my headphones.
It was the bathrooms, of all things. Those dirty pinks and yellows, that postmortem light; the mirrors made of quasi-reflective metal rectangles bolted to the walls. Watching every modern lesbian’s favorite television characters hash out their drama at the bathroom sinks, the first of the powerful memories came roaring out of repression: I suddenly remembered my first encounter with one of those mirrors. It was my first morning “inside” — in mental hospitals, as in jail, the world is instantly divided into inside/outside — and I had lain awake all night rigid with terror. At some point in the night, a man had tried to hang himself in an adjoining room. When at last the sun peered through the wire-mesh window, I’d gone to wash up and brush my teeth.
But I was not allowed a toothbrush (a potential weapon) and I was not allowed a tube of toothpaste or a hairbrush (potential weapons), and I was not allowed soap or shampoo, and I was not yet permitted to see anyone who could bring me a change of clothes. I met my distorted reflection in that metal rectangle, and the reality of where I was crashed over my head like an icy wave.
I was fourteen at the time, and had assumed that, as much as nobody wanted to be committed to a loony bin, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as it was on television or in the movies. I was dead wrong.
Here’s the first thing that, like Orange’s fictional newbie Piper Chapman, I learned very fast: a living arrangement that has the sole purpose of keeping human beings confined does not give a good goddamn about quality of life. And that, when the basic rewards of being alive – eating, resting, communicating with others – are siphoned off to a dribble of the very barest necessities, your life acquires the texture of a tasteless gruel, which puts you at odds with the people who are, metaphorically speaking, in charge of feeding it to you.
Here’s another tip I picked up quick: the tension between staff and inmates in your standard prison/asylum drama? Like many tropes, it’s become one for a reason. Sociologists proved decades ago in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that treating people like caged animals makes them act like – surprise! — caged animals. Caged animals that despise their keepers. And, given a captive population, the keepers quickly become prone to letting their ids off the leash. Yet this salient fact has changed little about the way institutions are run. I’ll never forget a male guard beckoning me closer, closer, until we were alone together at the end of a deserted corridor.
“I’ve been watching you,” he confided, holding my arm. “And listen, you would be a very attractive young lady if you would only wear a dress.”
“Are you supposed to be saying shit like that to me?” I said.
“Hey, don’t get excited,” he replied. “I’m only trying to help you out.”
I felt a roaring in my brain, I wrote in my journal that night, and I wanted to scream until my lungs burst. But I knew that within ten seconds I’d be in Isolation. Instead I’m writing in this fucking journal, and he’s walking around patrolling the hallway, I can hear him humming a little tune.
I was exaggerating, in my teenaged way, about Isolation – I was much more likely to spend the rest of the day in “one-point,” which meant being shackled by the ankle to a chair by a single restraint (hence one point; two-point meant both wrists, or both ankles). While it would’ve prevented me from achieving any real violence, I’m not sure it would’ve done much to address what had caused his bone-headed “help” to make my brain roar and my lungs want to burst with suppressed screaming to begin with… you know, the reasons that had led to my being institutionalized in the first place?
Keeping that journal, by the way, was the only thing that made me feel anchored to reality — and the only place it was safe for me to talk openly about being gay outside of the 45-minute increments I got with my personal counselor. But I had to flagrantly break rules to do it: writing instruments were contraband. If staff had ever found my hidden ballpoint, I would’ve been automatically presumed to be suicidal (since a pen can be used to cut with) and put on Suicide Watch, which is basically Isolation plus a staff member stationed outside the bathroom stall while you take a shit. This kind of Kafka-esque logic loop – using my pen to write keeps me from wanting to commit suicide; I’m not permitted to write because I might use my pen to commit suicide – is laughable, until you realize that this is what constitutes “getting professional help.” As in, that troubled teenager needs professional help.
Back to that pen, which is just the type of item that one’s days revolve around “inside.” Such minor infractions were (and still are, in containment settings) controlled by a system of demerits, much like the “shots” the girls keep racking up on Orange. Indeed, I recognized the system of carrots-and-sticks at the fictitious Litchfield Prison from my real-world confinement: staff writing demerits for bullshit reasons; staff rewarding inmates for informing on their peers, while leaving them vulnerable to revenge; major infractions being met with isolation, violence, or both. It’s a system that so plays to the worst of human nature, it practically corrupts itself! But more importantly, the net effect is that survival, and keeping your head down — not rehabilitation — becomes the only goal.
I watched the hardened attitudes of the inmates on the show, too, with mounting recognition. “Marcus was put in five-point and left in Isolation. His screaming kept me awake all fucking night,” wrote teenaged me, my second month on the ward. Five-point means strapped down at both ankles, both wrists, and the waist.
Reading this now it sounds shockingly callous, even considering the self-absorbed moron that I was at fourteen. But as I turned over in my mind the returning memories [see tears, theme music, etc.] of what nights on the ward were like — how they woke us every thirty minutes by shining a flashlight in our faces, that the cots, with their single thin blankets, were like frozen planks, the rooms so chilly at night you could see your breath – I recalled that to the sleep-deprived, an all-night screamer is just another pain in the ass.
This reflexive hardness floats in the air of a confinement setting like spores, creating a self-perpetuating need to be on the defensive at all times. However, the kind of transformation we expect from the inmates of jails and asylums – the shouldering of personal responsibility, the willingness to change ingrained behavior — requires that one be, to a certain degree, undefended. Real human change requires space to be honest with yourself, honest with others; a space that doesn’t exist when you’re trapped by necessity behind a fortress of self-protection. As the inmate Poussey in Orange replies when a correctional officer pressures her to speak openly during a group therapy session: “Does it ever occur to you that actually feeling our feelings might make it impossible to survive in here?”
What is easy to share in confinement – so much easier to share than inner truth — is bad habits. And when it’s all about Us Against Them, the bad habits of Us look like a better bet than the suppose virtues of Them. By the time I was discharged from the psych ward I had picked up the pastimes of smoking cigarettes and cutting, plus excellent tips on how to continue doing both in secret; I had also come to mistrust any system purporting to be in society’s best interest, including the concept of family – at least the one you’re born into.
Not all of the hardness I acquired was a bad thing, by the way. Before my time “inside” I had been a doormat, an easy target for bullying by my teachers and peers, a jellyfish who was unable to draw anything resembling a boundary with even my closest friends. I’ll tell you, nothing gives you a backbone faster than a having floridly psychotic person snatch the food off your plate while you’re eating, or prepare to piss onto your bedding.
When I stepped out of the shower tonight Marcus, his eyes shocked open and his hair sticking straight up, came staggering zombielike into the bathroom and asked to “see what I looked like.” I hated screaming curses at him like some juvenile delinquent, but it worked, says the journal. In other words, I learned in short order that telling somebody to back the fuck off is a critical life skill, especially for a woman.
It’s not that there wasn’t plenty of room to learn compassion in there, as well; and, like the fictional Piper, I was thrust out of my me-myself-and-I world right quick. One of my first bunkmates was dying of cancer; one’s mother was awaiting trial for gunning down the stepfather who’d been beating her. I met young people who’d had lobotomies, and sweet, loving kids so obliterated by Thorazine that all they could do was shuffle up and down the hall. I had a brief affair with a girl whose daily habit it was to slice her arms to bloody ribbons — her mother was a top administrator in a neighboring psychiatric hospital. The experience wrenched me out of my relatively sheltered existence and opened my eyes to the depth and range of other peoples’ suffering.
But at the same time, I discovered that life in confinement is calibrated to make ordinary expressions of kindness and love impossible: being forbidden to hug someone who’s crying, for instance. Yet love happens in confinement, just the same as it happens everywhere else. Sex happens too, of course (I’ll spare you the journal quotes on that one). In fact, I would argue that the bleakness of institutional living creates a powerful impulse to coax (or force) something intriguing and stimulating to bloom in the barren soil of the daily routine. It is, in some ways, an attempt to stay human. But in detention settings, these irrepressible human impulses are treated by staff no differently than are theft, contraband, and escape attempts, with predictable results.
The vicarious outrage we feel for Orange is the New Black’s characters at the inhumane treatment they endure is part of what makes it compelling. But what we’re watching is actually – as far as this particular former psych-ward inmate can tell — a fairly accurate representation of what the system of “rehabilitation” looks like in America. And of course, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world – 2.2 million, and that’s only the prison system — so we’re churning out a ceaseless flow of U.S. citizens who’ve have come out the other end of just such “rehabilitation.” The next time we stay up all night binge-watching our favorite prison drama, we might just want to bear that in mind.
Piper Chapman, no longer a stranger to confinement, stands at the bathroom sink with a recent arrival to Litchfield Prison. On the wall before them are the smudged metal rectangles, providing their distorted reflections.
“I don’t think I’m going to be the same when I get out,” says the new girl.
“Maybe that’s okay,” Piper tells her.
“It’s not fucking okay,” the new girl snarls.
“I know,” Piper says. And walks away.