Full-color mania

11 Jan

The funny farm where I spent a few weeks in 2004 really was sited on a farm, according to this history:

The commission’s site search was driven by specific criteria, and their vision, when the building and grounds were completed, was to “render it a spot fitted to interest and tranquilize the minds of those who need as well the soothing influences of external nature as the healing remedies of art.” It was believed at the time that a bucolic setting of soothing topology would compliment and aid treatment. To that end, the commission settled on the farm in northern Taunton whose more than sixty acre grove, bounded by the river, extended to within a half a mile of the center of town. One advantage of the site was that the river acted as a natural barrier against the encroachments of an increasing town population, so that the institution would not gradually find itself in the heart of a large city. …

In 1853 the hospital was completed at a cost of $151,742.48. It was constructed in the Georgian style on a monumental scale and is, to this day, an example of classical revival institutional architecture. (Architect Elbridge) Boyden’s specialty was the use of cast iron as a functional and decorative medium. His command of these materials can be seen in the domes, capitals and cornices that survive today. He situated the hospital “on a gentle eminence, at the extreme northerly part of the farm, being about one mile from town.” As originally completed it was a three-storied building of brick with a slate roof. It was surmounted by a dome rising seventy feet above the roof. The dome’s cupola offered a “panoramic view of great beauty, embracing the neighboring town, with its many tokens of busy life, several flourishing villages, the numerous ponds and streams with which the surrounding country abounds, and reaching even to the blue hills of Norfolk County.”

The large cupola collapsed in 1999; photos taken prior to that are here.

The place still seems tucked away; its grounds are extenstive enough that you navigate a winding road to get to the main cluster of buildings. It’s bigger than many college campuses I’ve been too, though “not as large or as architecturally ornate as its siblings in Worcester and Danvers.”

Being a patient in the maximum-security unit — a five-star hotel compared with Bridgewater State Prison, staff and fellow patients assured me — I also glimpsed the campus while arriving and leaving in cuffs and chains. Otherwise, my only taste of the outdoors was the basketball court, where we were led out to take smoke breaks twice a day.

Meals and smoke breaks were the highlights of the day; you didn’t want to miss those no matter what. However, I wasn’t allowed to join my fellow patients until I got on meds, which wasn’t until the fifth day, because I arrived the night of July 1, which was the Thursday before the long holiday weekend. “You picked a bad time,” the nurses, some of whom I struck up a rapport with surprisingly quickly despite my decidedly frazzled state, said dryly.

Finally on July 5 I was put on Zyprexa and allowed to walk onto the basketball court. I hadn’t seen such a beautiful sight since emerging from my first seven-day sesshin, or meditation retreat, at the San Francisco Zen Center, which would have been somewhere around the time the loony bin’s cupola collapsed. In both cases, the close confinement and ample time to “gather the mind,” which is more or less how Western Zen centers translate “sesshin,” led to sensory overload the first few times I stepped outside, with colors at least as saturated as they appear in these extraordinary Kodachrome photographs I saw yesterday:

Digital prints from Jack Delano's original 1941 Kodachrome slides. As seen in Full Color Depression: First Kodachromes from America's Heartland, on view through Jan. 22 at the Alright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

For me, a full-blown but hardly full-color depression wouldn’t kick in until a few weeks after leaving the hospital, when the Zyprexa had really done its job and, more to the point, the post-crystal-meth crash hit like a ton of bricks.

Signage leading up to the hospital indicates it’s now a tobacco-free campus. Given how cigarettes and coffee are the lifeblood of so many addicts in the early stages of recovery, perhaps the timing of my arrival wasn’t so bad after all.

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