Authors: John Burley
For my parents, Dennis and Cari,
who have given me all of themselves, always
enaker State Hospital is a curse, a refuge, a place of imprisonment, a necessity, a nightmare, a salvation. Originally funded by a philanthropic endowment, the regional psychiatric facility's sprawling, oak-studded campus sits atop a bluff on the eastern bank of the Severn River. From the steps of the hospital's main administration building, the outline of the U.S. Naval Academy can be seen where the river enters the Chesapeake Bay some two and a half miles to the south. There is but one entrance to the facility, and the campus perimeter is demarcated by a wrought-iron fence whose ten-foot spear pickets curve inward at the top. The hospital is not a large central structure as one might imagine, but rather an assortment of redbrick buildings erected at the end of the nineteenth century and disseminated in small clusters across the quiet grounds, as if reflecting the scattered, huddled psyches of the patients themselves. There is a mild sense of neglect to the property. The wooden door frames sag like the spine of an old mare that has been expected to carry too much weight for far too many years. The diligent work of the groundskeeper is no match for the irrepressible thistles that erupt from the earth during the warmer months and lay their barbed ten
drils against the base of the edifices, attempting to claim them as their own. The metal railings along the outdoor walkways harbor minute, jagged irregularities on their surfaces that will cut you if you run your fingers along them too quickly.
Twenty-two miles to the north lies the city of Baltimore, its beautiful inner harbor and surrounding crime-ridden streets standing in stark contrast to each otherâthe ravages of poverty, violence, and drug addiction flowing like a river of human despair into some of the finest medical institutions in the world. Among them is The Johns Hopkins Hospital where I received my medical training. Ironic how, after all these years, the course of my career would take me here, so close to my starting pointâas if the distance between those two places was all that was left to show for the totality of so much time, effort, and sacrifice. And why not? At the beginning of our lives the world stretches out before us with infinite possibilityâand yet, what is it about the force of nature, or the proclivities within ourselves, that tend to anchor us so steadfastly to our origins? One can travel to the Far East, study particle physics, get married, raise a child, and still . . . in all that time we're never too far from where we first started. We belong to our past, each of us serving it in our own way, and to break the tether between that time and the present is to risk shattering ourselves in the process.
Herein lies the crux of my profession as a psychiatrist. Life takes its toll on the mind as well as the body, and just as the body will react and sometimes succumb to forces acting upon it, so too will the mind. There are countless ways in which it can happen: from chemical imbalances to childhood trauma, from genetic predispositions to the ravages of guilt regarding actions past, from fractures of identity to a general dissociation from
the outside world. For most patients, treatment can occur in an outpatient settingâin an office or a clinicâand while it is true that short-term hospitalization is sometimes required, with proper medical management and compliance patients can be expected to function in the community and thereby approach some semblance of stability and normality. This is how it is for the majorityâthe lucky ones, whose illnesses have not claimed them completelyâbut it is not the case for the patients here. Too ill to be released into the public, or referred by the judicial system after being found either incompetent to stand trial or not responsible by reason of insanity, Menaker houses the intractably psychiatrically impaired. It is not a forgotten place, but it is a place for forgettingâthe crimes committed by its patients settling into the dust like the gradual deterioration of the buildings themselves.
has long since fallen into disfavor to describe institutions such as this. It conjures up images of patients (there was a time when they were once referred to as
) shackled to concrete slabs in small dingy cells, straining at their chains and cackling madly into the darkness. To admit that we once treated those with mental illness in such a way makes all humanity cringe, and therefore one will no longer find “asylums” for such individuals, but rather “hospitals.” And yet, for places like Menaker, I've always preferred the original term. For although we attempt to treat the chronically impaired, much of what we offer here is protectionâan asylum from the outside world.
Some of this, perhaps, is too bleakâtoo fatalistic. It discounts the aspirations and capabilities of modern medicine. But it is important to understand from the beginning what I am trying to say. There are individuals here who will never leaveâwho will
never reside outside of these grounds. Their pathology runs too deep. They will never be restored to sanity, will never return to their former lives. And the danger, I am afraidâand the great tragedy for those who love themâis to cling to the hope that they will.