Navigating layers of change

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
January 4th, 2020

hospital Bodnar photoOne day last fall, my colleague Martin asked if I had seen what had become of the hospital where we used to work. Martin is the hospital’s memory, and his passion for history and the natural world makes him someone I take very seriously. So, when he told me that they had turned the place into luxury condos, I had to go and see for myself.

Later that same afternoon, I turned off the main street onto the hospital road and into a landscape that bore little resemblance to the grounds I had walked with my patients for nearly two decades. Under a bright blue autumn sky, broad expanses of grass spread out in every direction as the road traversed the long slope of the land to the top of the hill where the administration building once stood.

Gone were the five wood-framed houses on the right that once served as an office building, three residences for patients, and a thrift store. In their place, the neatly trimmed grass gave no hint of what had once been there.

To the left, the lake spread the afternoon sunlight into a featureless sheet of white, silhouetting the trees that line its banks. There was a time I could glimpse the lake from my office window in a cottage built for one of the hospital’s long-term residents by his wealthy family. That too was gone.

The soccer fields used by town’s school children are still there, set back from the lake, but in the early afternoon with school in session, all was quiet.

The road reached its highest elevation and bent left to start its descent without gaining the crest of the hill. Above me and to the left, I could see a brick building that was once and perhaps is still a Department of Youth Services residence.

To the right, a four-story condominium building claimed the hilltop, sparkling in shades of white against the deep blue autumn sky.

When the hospital closed almost 10 years ago, the road would take you up and over the hilltop to the administration building, the auditorium, several once grand but long since abandoned structures, a complex of three inpatient units, and three more wood-framed houses for patients actively preparing for discharge.

If any of these buildings were still there, I would need to explore the area on foot to be sure, but since I already felt like trespasser and had enough change to process, I took a few pictures and drove away.

These were the same grounds where I had worked as a psychologist for 18 years, where I had walked with my patients and tried to understand the complexities of their lives that had brought them to this place, and where I had reflected on the evolution of treatment for people with serious mental illness.

The hospital was established in 1886 in what began as a school for delinquent adolescent boys a decade earlier. Situated on 640 acres of land that included a lake and cornfields, it was the ideal place for a respite in the countryside, far removed from the stresses that were once thought to cause mental illness.

In its 124 years, it had served common folk and celebrities alike with what had been the state-of-the art therapies of the day. From graciously appointed hydrotherapy rooms to the farmland where manual labor in the piggery was thought to restore mental health, the hospital had it all.

Community living, talking therapies of every kind in the office or on walks through the grounds, and the full array of psychopharmalogical treatments, individually or in various combinations, all took their turns in the spotlight as the treatment of choice to get people back on track to the lives they wanted for themselves.

We were not the first people to use this land. In the summer of 2000, I tagged along with Martin as he gave a tour of the grounds to an installation artist who at the time was memorializing state hospitals and the people who lived there as patients for too many years of their lives.

Like amateur archeologists, we found the remains of crumbled hospital buildings, one containing an oven, on the far side of the lake, but the land itself held even earlier memories.

Martin explained that centuries before there were hospitals for people with mental illness, the indigenous Nipmuc people gathered yearly on the northeast corner of the lake to fish and renew their tribal and family ties. It was the same corner where I later walked with my patients. Today, it is the site of the clubhouse that is being planned for the luxury condos.

There is nothing strange about one way of life giving way to another. We learn about geological strata as children and can picture the colored stripes of different varieties of rock and soil where fossils and fragments of human tools tell the story of the march of civilization.

There is nothing strange about the evolution of treatment for mental illness where old ways yield to new ideas, and old hospitals give way to bright, shiny new structures.

In our work as psychologists, we live through these changes and may even help to bring them about through our discoveries in the therapy room or the research laboratory. But when the place where we did this work is plowed under for luxury condos, personal and professional change can look strangely like geological change.

All that remains is the land and the stories of what came before, waiting only for someone to tell them and someone to listen.

One Response to Navigating layers of change

  • January 8th, 2020 at 10:22 am Karen Petsch posted:

    I enjoyed your article very much. You provided a great deal of history, regarding your work experiences and how it affected you as a professional and an individual.There have been closures of several mental health institutions in my state of New Jersey and I have mixed thoughts about the direction this is taking. I have worked in programs that serve the chronically mentally ill and realize the challenge of developing the best treatment protocols are limited by funding, especially in regard to state mental hospitals. Thanks again.

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