"They sent me away to boarding school. Sent me away makes it sound like they sent me to an asylum. There were no straps involved."
Yesterday Mame and I got to do something that we'd only dreamed about for ten years. Mame went to college in WV, and when I would go visit her we would drive out to Weston so we could drive by what was then known as the Weston State Hospital, an insane asylum that was still operating up until 1994. Why were we so fascinated by a rundown insane asylum? Well, besides the obvious "neato, an asylum!" factor, the place is absolutely fucking GORGEOUS, and we often bemoaned the fact that it was left to the elements. It had been condemned and was not open to the public, patrolled only by two security guards, which considering the size of the place was not enough to keep vandals from breaking in to steal things or have paintball battles in the abandoned hallways.
So this weekend Mame and I met up in the area, and we were completely stunned to find out that the place was now open and conducting tours. We immediately drove over and forked out a pretty tidy sum to take the full four-floors tour of the entire grounds (though I must say that Mame, true to form, absolutely refused to entertain my desire to come back at night for a flashlight tour or to go through their "Haunted Hospital" tour).
First off, Mame and I could not BELIEVE that we were actually on the grounds, standing on the steps of this beautiful building that we had always admired. After five, count 'em, FIVE false starts to the tour (because they were shorthanded and people kept showing up, they kept stopping to wait for those people -- thus Mame and I had the entire first 10 minutes of the tour memorized by the third try), we finally started walking through the building.
Let me give you some history: construction on this building began in 1858 and took 20 years to complete, which means that parts of it are actually older than the state it occupies (WV became a state in 1863). The place is made mostly of hand-cut stone taken from the surrounding mountains. It is the oldest hand-cut stone building in all of North America, and in the entire world is second only to the Kremlin. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
Also impressive was our tour guide Cathy, because she started working at the hospital in 1970, and in fact was still employed at the new facility that was built on the back of the property and which all the patients moved to in 1994. Taking a tour with someone who had actually worked in the place for 24 years was just amazing, not only because of her history with that location but her experience in the field of mental illness for such a long period of time, over which an amazing transformation towards treatment of those people has taken place.
The condition of the interior was appalling, with peeling paint and plaster everywhere, but Cathy assured us that when they left in 94 the place was in good shape; because the building is stone it absorbs moisture, which did quite a number on the interior in such a short span. Did I forget to mention how FUCKING COLD it was in the building? It was 65 degrees outside, but inside it was probably about 40 or so, and the tourguide advised everyone to wear heavy jackets before we left.
All I can say is that Mame and I were in a state of awe for most of the tour, simply because we started talking about getting inside this place a decade ago. To imagine something for so long, and then to have it come to fruition, is breathtaking. To walk through a place where so much happened, where so much pain and heartbreak and sometimes even murder occurred... there is just no way to convey such a profound experience to other people.
It's also disturbing to learn about how people with problems they couldn't control were treated. Our guide tried very hard to make us understand that until the 1950's there was NO SUCH THING as medication, and mental illness was not at all understood, and so they often treated the symptoms and not the disease. Nowadays we have Prozac, Lithium, Zoloft, Halcyon... but back then they had hydrotherapy, which could be anything from wrapping you in towels soaked in icewater to scalding baths. Extremely crude lobotomy existed using a tool that looks EXACTLY like in ice pick (I won't explain how it was used -- suffice it to say it was disturbing).
Our guide also pointed out to us that often people would get institutionalized for reasons that seem completely stupid today. Wives would get locked up by their husbands for reading novels and thinking for themselves (actually, right now I can hear my dad thinking that there's nothing wrong with that). People with problems we recognize today as legitimate diseases, like alcoholism or depression, coming to that place and living their entire lives there. So much sadness in such a beautiful place. I couldn't help but think how many people I know could have ended up there 100 years ago, myself included.
It speaks so much for the tolerance that exists today, and it saddens me that within that tolerance there is still so much INTOLERANCE for things like skin color and sexual preference.
Walking through one of the floors, I put my arm through Mame's and put my head on my shoulder. What would I do without the tolerance of just this one person, who has made such a difference in my life? I wish everyone in the world could have the blessings that I have, among them a friend who's known me forever, understands me implicitly, and thinks going on a tour of an old lunatic asylum is a great way to spend an afternoon.
If you wish to learn more about this incredible place, you can click here for their official website or here for the Wikipedia entry. Also, the TAPS gentlemen from the SciFi show Ghost Hunters explored the building and officially declared it haunted (Season 4, Episode 9), but unfortunately it is not available for viewing online. If you find it, send it to me!