I recently drove through Hartford where I’m always sort of jarred by the exit for Asylum Ave. 28 years ago I took that exit to visit my mother at the “Betty Ford Clinic” of mental institutions–The Institute of Living.
Once called The Connecticut Retreat for the Insane, The Institute was for mostly wealthy “insane” people, many a movie star having gone through it’s doors (I can’t remember if Elizabeth Taylor was there when my mother was or I’m confused because my mother looked so much like her.)
Surrounded by a brick wall and with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, it’s a hell of a lot nicer than Bellevue, another place she was admitted during a rather acute manic episode. It was 1982 and I was in boarding school about 40 minutes away. Somehow it was my uncle’s turn to do the admitting, my brothers’ quota having been met. I’m not sure how long she was actually there, records are destroyed after 10 years, but maybe 2 weeks at the most.
When I went to visit her one weekend, she was all cute and giggly, talking about her very handsome, younger tennis partner. Mom loved tennis. It was one of the only things that kept her out of her busy head, and she was rather good at it, her cute little body in flippy tennis dresses darting about the court. Playing tennis while involuntarily at a mental institution seemed kind of fun and the food was good, just like our tennis club on Long Island! She must have felt right at home.
A few days after my visit, she called me at school, and with great glee told that she had gone “AWOL” from the Institute. I pictured her getting a boost over the brick wall by the handsome tennis player and her scampering to hitch a ride. Actually, I have no idea how she did it, or what repercussions there may have been, but she was pretty damn proud of herself (incidentally, after I posted this yesterday, by brother told me that on the NIGHT he proposed to his wife, he got a call from the hospital telling him that they didn’t know where my mother was. He then said to his now-wife, “Oh, let me tell you about my mother.” You CAN’T make this stuff up!)
I don’t remember how many more hospitalizations there were between 1982 and 1986 when she finally lost steam, but I’m sure Asylum Ave was like winning the lottery of “loony bins-” another term used in turn-of-the-century papers. (There is a wonderful book from last year called “Voluntary Madness” by a journalist with her own mental illness who checks herself into three different institutions and it’s fascinating.)
Anyway, this was a tiny piece of life with mom. No reason to feel sorry for me. Again, it’s looking back on it from this 45-yr-old perspective that allows me to see humor in such absurdity, plus it makes for great material. Thanks for that, Mom!