Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Other Patients: Joyce

(Cherokee, Iowa)

February-April 1969

If Penny is a lost kid dumped into the institution and Carrie a bonafide wacko, then Joyce* is just plain scary. I don’t hang out with her much; for one thing, she’s too old, at least 35, married with two kids--a boy and a girl. Her husband put her here--against her will, but only because she tried to kill herself with downers, like Mom’s best friend Cee--only they found Joyce in the nick of time.

Joyce definitely needs to be in here. She’s what they call manic-depressive--she’s happy one minute and unhappy the next.

It’s true, too; she turns on and off like a Christmas tree. I feel sorry for her because she doesn’t want to be in here, and she’s totally pissed off at her husband for signing her in, but what choice did he have?

She’s on shock therapy--it sounds gruesome, but it seems to work. Before the attendants take Joyce away for her treatments, she’s sullen and morose, and, when she does talk, she counts and recounts ten ways of doing yourself in--I didn’t know that one had so many options for slipping one’s body into the sod:

“One, pills; two, rope; three, gun; four, knife; five, drowning; six, car crash; seven, smothering; eight, jumping; nine, poison; ten, strangling...” She repeats this litany, over and over, like a mantra.

But after treatment, she’s exuberant and wants to soar like a bird; she raps like a speed freak cranked up on overdrive--it’s obvious her brain is faster than her mouth; she sounds like a 33 1/3 record sped up to 78, and she doesn’t finish sentences. Hell, she doesn’t finish words, so understanding what she’s trying to say is challenging, if not mostly impossible.

For about two or three days after her treatments, she’s kind of fun being around--though I cringe at her detailed descriptions of getting jolted, I’m fascinated, too, so, after a few days, when I can finally get a word in between her non-stop chatter, I ask, “Tell me all about getting shocked.”

“Well, it’s kinda scary,” she says. “But they tell me it’s for my own good, so I go along. The first time, though, I fought the doctors tooth and nail, and they had to tie me down. Now I like how I feel afterwards, so it’s a small price to pay.”

In the shock room, they tie her down on a Gurney (which she hates, and I’d hate that too) and give her two injections, the first, some kind of insulin--why, she doesn’t know (who knows why?) and, second, a downer to calm her nerves. Then they attach some electrodes to her temples (yikes!) and in the middle of her forehead and stick some device in her mouth so that she doesn’t swallow her own tongue. And then they flip a switch.

“I’ve been told that they shoot 70-150 volts into me, depending on my mood,” she says. “But once they shoot that juice into me, I black out for hours, though when I wake up, it’s like I’m another person, not this creepy, sad person. I’m ecstatic.”

It seems so extreme to me--makes me wonder why they can’t invent a pill that would do the same thing and not be so traumatic.

I can’t believe that shooting electricity into a person’s head could possibly be a good thing, at least in the long run.

Especially since the treatments only last about a week or so, and then Joyce is right back at the bottom.

Jesus. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, all I have to do is look at Joyce, and tell myself, “That could have been me.”

She must feel very lonely.


Joyce is bugging me in undefinable ways; she seems to hover all the time. Everywhere I look, there she is, a shadow. She doesn’t say anything, she just is. Maybe it’s me.

Carrie says that Joyce’s last treatment didn’t quite work the way it should have, and, it’s true, she seems to be suspended in a state between just weird and suicidal. I just wish she’d hover somewhere else, like on locked ward.

It’s really strange, but I have seen Joyce in both manic and depressive states, and it’s almost like she’s two different people. The depressed Joyce slumps and drags her feet along the carpet--which actually crackles from the static of her slippers. Her belly puffs out, making her look at least 30 pounds heavier. She wears polyester pants and striped tops, the kind old ladies wear. Her eyes are a dull gray, almost hazel. Her hair is straight and uncombed, and she wears no makeup. She looks about 50 and acts 80.

But when she’s manic, she curls her hair, and it seems to cascade all around her shoulders. She applies makeup, lots of it, pancake powder, rouge, bright red lipstick (which went out about 1962), and thick eyeliner, mascara, and eyeshadow. Her eyes are sapphire, an eye color I have never seen before. She sucks in her gut and slips into bright red, low-cut slinky satin tops--no bra--skin tight black leotard pants, and pink ballet slippers--she looks positively slender.

Then she leaps all around the ward, like a ballet dancer--she seems to walk on air--singing old songs from the late 1950's. She’s not very good at it, but you can’t help get caught up in her exuberance. She looks about 21 and acts 15.

I’ve never seen anything like that before.

But, today, she’s neither, nor. She’s kind of stuck in some strange foggy middle ground. You would think that would be called “normal,” but it’s not. Maybe normal doesn’t actually exist in her bag of mood shifts.

Joyce seems to be more like a specter caught between finite life and the infinite hereafter.


Joyce is leaving--tomorrow, in fact. She’s back on Ward 4, and told me herself. Actually, she seems much better, not quite so far into the depths of gloom or so high into the clouds of ecstasy. She’s actually acting normal, which seems strange, because normal doesn’t seem normal for her. Her face and hands are covered with a strange blotchy rash, though, like she’s been burned, kind of the way we all looked a few weeks ago with our winter rashes, what with the overheated dry, crackling air.

“My family needs me,” she says. “I’m glad to get out of here.” She sounds a bit wistful, like she’s not quite sure.

Even if I were bonafide insane, I’d be itching to split this joint. “I wish I were leaving, too.”

“Don’t worry, they won’t keep you too much longer,” Joyce says, her voice certain.

“I sure hope you’re right.”

“You don’t belong in here, Jen.”

“Tell that to Mr. Benson [social worker] and my grandparents.”

“They know it--the system’s fucked up, not you.”

Her dead-on assessment surprises me--I thought she was too wacky to know much of anything, let alone get how the system figures into the equation--I certainly haven’t figured out why they keep perfectly sane people locked up while setting free a fragile Joyce loose to contend with two kids and a husband, who, apparently, hasn’t been too understanding.

Maybe they’ve agreed to send Joyce home as a reward for never having done drugs--she’s the way she is just because of something gone awry in her mind, not because of filling her head with dope.

Still, I’m jealous she’s being cut loose, although I don’t have a good feeling about it--like, maybe, they’re releasing her before she’s ready.


*Names and identifying details of other patients have been changed.

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Memoir Madness Excerpts: Table of Contents


Before the Institution

Prologue: Caged

Chapter One: The Crystal Ship

Chapter One: Blue Moons

Chapter Two: Dark Side

Chapter Two: Flying Solo

Chapter Two: Weed and Seeds

Chapter Two: Funny Little Naked Clowns

Chapter Two: Decision Time

Chapter Two: Thirteen Tabs

Chapter Three: Wallich's Music City and Eleanor's Radio

Chapters Four and Six: New Year's Eve, 1968--Fire

Chapter Eight: Rudy

Chapter Ten: Cops

Chapter Eleven: The Luckiest Hand

Chapter Twelve: Downers

Chapter Twenty Three: Sioux City Blues

Chapter Twenty Four: ..."While I Kiss the Sky"

Chapter Twenty six: The Miracle of Google

Chapter Thirty: There Must be Some Way Outta Here

Chapter Thirty Eight: What to Do With My Life?

Chapter Forty One: My Country 'Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Tyranny

Chapter Fifty One: Nabbed at the Bus Station

Chapter Fifty Three: "Let's See What the Police Have to Say"

Chapter Fifty Four: A Possible Scenario at the Police Station

Chapter Fifty Six: Driven

Chapter Fifty Eight: Driven 2

Memoir Madness Excerpts: The Institution

The First Five Days

The Other Patients: Perky Penny

The Other Patients: Carrie the Cutter

The Other Patients: Joyce

The Other Patients: D.J., The Mighty Sage

The Other Patients: Anna on the Lam

Proving My Sanity

Memoir Madness Excerpts: After the Institution

Denise's Tips

Leaving Sioux City: Dee Dee

Epilogue: A Short History of the Cherokee Mental Health Institute

Memoir Madness Excerpts: Flashbacks (Fall 1968)

October 1968: Rev. Arthur Blessitt and His Place

October 12, 1968: A Mother's Warning

October 12, 1968: The Birthday Party

October 1968: Wild Man Fischer's Merry-go-round

A media-rich version of these excerpts (with photos, artwork, videos, out takes, essays, etc.,) can be accessed here.


About Memoir Madness...

Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment (Amazon)

About Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment...

Christmas Eve, 1968: history is made as Apollo 8 astronauts deliver their Christmas message from orbit around the moon.

On earth, at The Crystal Ship, a rock and head shop near Hollywood, California, Jennifer Semple listens to the iconic broadcast and, through the fog of drugs, ponders the future.

In the ensuing days, the 18-year-old girl experiments with LSD and other drugs; juggles a crumbling relationship with a notorious drug dealer; and tries to make sense of life at 2001 Ivar Street, a Hollywood, California, apartment complex where hippies, drug dealers, freaks, strippers, groupies, college students, Jesus Freaks, counterculture gurus, drag queens, rock stars and wannabe rocksters, svengalis, and con artists converge during one of the most volatile periods in history.

Then her grandfather finds the girl and coaxes her into returning to her Iowa hometown, where, unknown to her, she is still considered a minor.

After a series of events and blowups with her grandparents, she is dragged into the Iowa court system and involuntarily committed to the Cherokee Mental Institute in Cherokee, Iowa.

While incarcerated, she corresponds with Jeff, a new boyfriend, and also interacts with other patients: Wolfie, a psychopath who preys on other patients; Penny, a 17-year-old unwed mother; Carrie, a teen cutter with strange obsessions about rats; Joyce, a young married mother enthralled with “10 ways of suicide”; Drew, a young man facing a stiff prison sentence for possession of marijuana; and D.J., a 42-year-old mentally challenged man and 25-year resident of Cherokee, among others.

Finally released from the institution, Jennifer flees Iowa and settles in Pennsylvania, where she still lives today.

As young Jennifer narrates her late 1960’s memoir, how will the older and wiser Jennifer, now voluntarily returning to Cherokee as a visitor, reconcile that painful time in her history with her current ordinary life as a wife, mother, grandmother, and teacher?