My Father’s Stay at God’s Hotel: A Slow-Medicine Approach to Healing Mental Illness

Gods HotelIt’s been a long journey to come to peace with my father’s life and how it has impacted my own.  I was born on December 21, 1943 in New York City.  My parents had tried to conceive for many years, but had been unsuccessful.  They finally were successful when my father was 37 and my mother was 35 following a procedure where my father’s sperm was injected mother, a radical approach back then.

The vague memories I have of my early life were positive.  One that sticks in my mind is a memory of being 3 or 4 sitting on my father’s shoulders, laughing wildly as he rode me around the small park in Encino, California, not far from our house in Sherman Oaks.  The San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles was beautiful in those early years of my memory with citrus groves as far as the eye could see.

But other memories were not so positive.  I have flashes of my father’s anger, times when he was irritable, angry, and withdrawn, and periods when he would disappear for days at a time.  I learned later than he had become increasingly depressed and would have been diagnosed as bipolar, if that diagnosis had existed at the time. He couldn’t find work in his chosen field as an actor, author, and playwright.

When I was five years old, my father tried to take his own life.  Although he survived physically our lives were never the same.  I grew up wondering what happened to my father and whether it would happen to me.  When I became a father I made a vow to my son, Jemal, when I held him moments after his birth.  I told him that I would be a different kind of father than my father was able to be for me and I would do everything to create a different kind of world where the wounds of our fathers were healed and children could grow up free of the pain suffered by their parents.

Following the suicide attempt, my father was hospitalized at Camarillo State Mental Hospital.   I still remember visiting him with my uncle.  It seemed a horrible place with people shrieking madly or zonked out on drugs.  My father spent seven years locked up there and I watched him deteriorate and become even more depressed and crazy over the years.

I grew up and our lives moved on.  I felt ashamed that my father was in a mental hospital and avoided talking about him.  The doctors told my mother that he was a chronic schizophrenic and would never leave the hospital.  Back then if you acted “crazy” the general diagnosis was schizophrenia.  These days he would have been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder or, on his good days from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder or Irritable Male Syndrome.  Eventually my mother and he divorced.

My father escaped from Camarillo after being there for seven years.  He walked more than a hundred miles and took up residence in Santa Monica.  An uncle unexpectedly ran into him years later and told me where he was living.  I went to see him and was struck by two things.  He was, as the song went, “still crazy after all these years.”  But he could also be kind and gentle and he put on puppet shows for the children in the neighborhood.

He would seem normal for a while, but then would become agitated and paranoid.  His anger would escalate and he would become consumed by it.  Eventually he would scream at me, tell me he never wanted to see me again, and threaten me until I would reluctantly leave.  He refused to get help for his “mental illness,” which I could understand, given his experiences in Camarillo.  I saw him numerous times over the years, but our encounters always ended the same way.  I eventually gave up having a father I could trust and moved on with my own life.

The Call From Laguna Honda

I received an unexpected call from a social worker at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco.  They told me my father was hospitalized there and I could come and visit him if I wanted.  They said he was in good shape now and had been there for three months.  I was a bit shocked to hear from anyone about him.  I was curious about where he was and how he had ended up there, but I was also reluctant to face the anger that I remembered from the past.

I did visit and I found a man who had changed.  His anger seemed to have melted away.  The kindness and compassion were more evident.  He seemed happy for the first time in his life.  “This place has changed me,” he said.  “It’s totally different than the concentration camp in Camarillo.  These people really care about you.”  I didn’t know how it had happened, but I was glad it did.

He eventually left the hospital and moved into a little apartment in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco.  We had twenty good years of connection until he died at age 90.  It was years later that I came to understand the healing that occurred in God’s Hotel.

God’s Hotel

Victoria Sweet, M.D. spent more than 20 years as a physician at Laguna Honda Hospital.  In her recent book, God’s Hotel:  A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, she describes her journey and the kind of care that was given at Laguna Honda.  “San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital is the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s Hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages,” she says,  “Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves —anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt, onto hard times and needed extended medical care — ended up there.”  My father was one of the fortunate “creatively crazy” people whose wounds were healed at Laguna Honda.

Dr. Sweet had the chance to practice a kind of “slow medicine” that has almost vanished in our world.  Alongside the modern view of the body as a machine to be fixed, her patients evoked an older notion, of the body as a garden to be tended. Fortunately, my father and thousands of others had a chance to be the beneficiaries of the slow medicine that heals body, mind, and soul.  In a world of fast food and quick fixes, we need the medicine that Dr. Sweet was able to practice at Laguna Honda.  Let the spirit of God’s Hotel live on forever.  We all deserve the chance to check in when we are in need.

Image Credit

Related Posts:

Like what you read here? Get more like it delivered to your inbox every Sunday. Enter your name and email.

Comments

  1. Dave Knudsen says:

    Hi Jed, having just attended a male friends memorial service, I am feeling like exploring my relationship with my father, so since you asked, here goes. My father came from a life of commercial fishing, hunting and trapping, but then went to college and took on more traditional work to support his wife and family. Drinking was common in his generation and was a constant companion in his off work hours. My early memories are of my parents going out to their favorite taverns on a regular basis, and often when they came home, there would be a fight. It rarely got physical but the effect on me was to take sides which exacerbated the already expansive distance between my father and I. We rarely talked unless he was mad about something, which in my rebellious teen years, was pretty often. If he had a compliment for me, I only found out through a third party. I still remember the scowl on his face as he came into the auditorium for a concert I was performing in.
    While none of this rises to the level of trauma you experienced, it nonetheless had and still has a profound effect on the lens through which I view most men before I get to know them. (which in most cases I am hesitant to do). I don’t recall having a single discussion about what was going on in my life, and he died when I was 28 without really having any idea what I was about. I find myself hearing a critical parent in my head no matter what I’m doing, and I drift toward judgement and criticism in my mind. Consequently, I tend to spend more time with women, and all too often, critical of others and myself. (Iritible Male Syndrome!)

    • IanFitz says:

      Dave, thanks for the sharing. The experiences you had definitely qualify as traumatic. They are like little asteroid hits on our psyche. Sometimes the little ones, that seem inconsequential at the time, can have a lasting effect on how we see ourselves and others. We develop beliefs like: You can’t trust men, or I am not save, or I am worthless, powerless, or unlovable; I cannot trust anyone or I am bad. Or women are good, men are bad. And things like that.

      There are many ways to heal, but acknowledging the “hits” we took is the first step.

  2. Jed,

    Thank you for sharing this healing story. Our parents each have their own journey and life lessons to experience. How wonderful that you have found a book that gives you insight to the healing process that worked for your father. I agree that more of those slow healing technique would benefit so many. Just talking about your journey, your own conscious efforts to understand and have compassion for your dad, your decision to be a different, better, father for Jemal, your openness is a gift to us all.

  3. Jude,

    Thanks. It was a great gift to read Dr. Sweets book and to talk with her about my father. I had visited him many times there and felt the difference between Laguna Honda and other places I visited where patients were being treated. Until I read her book I never fully understood the depth of the program or the history of God’s Hotel.

    • Duke Vivian says:

      Jed- Thank for this post. I read God’s Hotel a month ago, my heart smiling – or occasionally weeping – as I came to project/see myself in many of the people or situations Sweet describes. Especially glad to learn the etiology for hospital ( monastic hospitality, of course); to have someone finally answered the question ” What was there before Western medicine?” ; and to witness how she diagnosed that serotonin poisoning by slowing down, sitting down, watching and listening. ( humbly reminds me how Dmitri taught me “Guts” processing) . Enjoy your blog and look forward to hanging out again soon.
      Duke
      “Happiness comes when it is least inspected.” RHolden

  4. Duke,

    Thanks for comments. Glad you were touched by the article and the book.
    Do stay in touch.

    Jed

  5. Wow! Bless you Jed, for your oppeness regarding your father.

    Your emotion really came through in the post. My one sibling, was not officially diagnosed with bipolar until he was in his 60s. Last time I saw him, he was kind of zombie-like from whatever kind of medicine they had prescribed for him.

    It made me very sad. I also felt guilty for all the anger I have had for him over the years. His outrages scared me to death when I was a little girl. He was six years, six months older than me. I am learning to forgive myself for not having had more compassion toward him.

    He was the primary father figure for his two step sons. His grandchildren’s lives are kind of chaotic as a result. My husband and I try as hard as we can to be good role models for them.

    God’s Hosptial is a model we need in so many areas of our health care system. I’m hopeful that with more government money being at stake, we will begin to understand that slow, natural and energy medicine health care options make sense from both an economic and efficacy standpoint.