Three Institutions

Three Institutions

As citizens of New Zealand, most of us take our personal freedom for granted. Within the boundaries of the law we are largely free to go where we like, eat what we like, talk to whom we like, and do what we like. Even at work or school we have, at least in theory, the freedom to get up and walk out. I interviewed three New Zealand citizens who have, by three different institutions, had this basic freedom taken from them. All three were put into institutions involuntarily. I wanted to know how it felt for a person’s individuality to be made secondary to their function or service while in prison, a psych ward, and the army.

The Prisoner

In 1990 George D. Henderson, songwriter of legendary Dunedin band The Puddle and former heroin addict, donned a lab coat as a cunning disguise that allowed him to gain access to a University of Otago lab and its intoxicating supply of ether. His plan was foiled when he fell asleep in a cupboard and was caught. George had the foresight to spill ether all over his lab coat so he could at least get high during his undignified removal from campus by police. George was let off on probation, but was later arrested when, with a “desperation and impulsive Pavlovian responses to the suggestion of drugs – i.e. stupidity,” he smashed the window of a chemist with the hope of finding something to dull his grief. He was sentenced to three months in prison in Invercargill in 1991.

The prison is an old Victorian building. It is a closed environment, with a lot of concrete and stone and few windows or outdoor areas. I spoke to George about his experience in the institution. He said the hardest thing to adjust to was not being able to go and do what you want to do. He says: “Just the fact that you are going to prison, it’s usually because you’re quite a self-involved, self-centred person who feels free to do whatever they want. Then all of a sudden you can’t do anything you want. It wouldn’t be such a shock to someone who worked nine-to-five every day as what it is to the average person who goes about getting themselves into prison.”

The other big thing George remembers about prison is the waiting: waiting for meals or roll calls, all in a “really boring situation.” He explains, “You know when you have to call the IRD and you have to wait on line for an hour or two? And you know how frustrating and pointless that is? Imagine that you had to do that two or three times every day. You had to stop whatever you were doing. You could be halfway through watching a film you’re really enjoying, or a game or conversation or whatever, and you have to stop that and just go and wait somewhere. There’s nothing you can do, you cannot get out of it.”

George was also withdrawing from heroin and alcohol dependency when he went to remand. He was put in a room and assigned the top bunk bed. During his first night he sweated so much it soaked through the mattress and dripped onto his roommate below, who awoke with a yelp thinking he was being peed on. After that George got his own room.

Without many usual methods for aiding his withdrawal, George found comfort in music from the local radio station, though got distressed with the repetition of certain hits, such as “It Takes Two, Baby” by Tina Turner and Rod Stewart. He said he “had to get up and turn the radio off whenever that came on. I did not want to hear that one more time.” He would also do exercises until he was exhausted enough to sleep.

George didn’t witness any violence during his time inside, though he heard of some. His was a medium security unit. There was a real mixture of people in with him. He says, “There were a few straight kind of people that were in there for fraud type of things, some for violent crimes, the mass of people are there because they’re quite stupid (laughs); they did stupid things, which is why I was there.” But he says everyone was just trying to get along, trying to get through it, and it was easy to make friends. He felt pity for some people who were “so obviously unhinged that they were clearly going to end up back in prison. The longer they were out the more harm they were going to do to other people. Not the kind of harm that makes the news, but still stressful enough for the people they were stealing from or stalking or whatever they were going to do.” When asked whether he thought he should have been in prison George said: “I think what I did was pretty annoying. Yeah, I was a bit out of control.”

I then asked how he felt when he got out. He replied : “It totally changed me. I kind of realised that the state wasn’t doing such a bad job, because it was able to take these people and look after them properly. It was quite a safe and healthy place to be, and I kind of thought if this political system we’ve got can treat its most unwanted people with that amount of fairness, it says something for it.”

Incarceration is the worst possible punishment for criminals in our country. But New Zealand citizens can also be locked up “for their own good” in some cases of acute mental illness. I spoke to Elizabeth O’Connor* about her experiences in hospital during acute psychotic episodes.

The Patient

Elizabeth had a couple of psychotic episodes in her teens that went undiagnosed, due to her ability to withdraw from socialising and keep her mental state hidden. However, in her early twenties, when attending contemporary dance school in Auckland, the symptoms were harder to hide. She remembers getting into her car and not knowing what she was meant to do to make it go, suddenly finding things like toasters and kettles “really baffling,” and struggling to understand words and sentences. She says: “I had this thing where I couldn’t eat or drink. If I had a coffee, I couldn’t see it as a liquid or a solid, I could see all of the crystalline structure of the thing, so I’d get confused about what to do with it. I wouldn’t know how to deal with the substance.” And she was acting “really strangely. I’d be at school and we were working on a big choreographic project and I’d just end up rolling on the floor laughing hysterically because everything was hilarious. Nothing made any sense, nothing anyone said made any sense.” Her best friend Sarah* took her for a mental health assessment where she couldn’t comprehend or answer the questions properly. From the assessment Elizabeth says the psychiatrist “ascertained that I’d looped the loop.” She was put into care at Greenlane Hospital in Auckland.

Elizabeth was relieved to be somewhere peaceful away from her very social flat, but found the ward “creepy” because she didn’t really trust anyone. Elizabeth spent a lot of time wrapped in a blanket which she “traipsed around” in. She felt vulnerable under control of the staff, particularly because the sleeping pills they gave her put her into a “coma-like state” where she would have no recollection of the night when she woke up, something she found “really sinister.” She remembers having a strong reaction to one guy in particular. She says, “If you can imagine that you’re kind of in an altered state already, and there’s this no-nonsense patriarchal sort of bossy, slightly aggressive psych nurse or doctor or whatever. [Being patronised is] the least helpful thing for getting back on your feet. The fact that you’re a bit crackers, have had some sensory disillusion or whatever it is, it doesn’t mean you have no comprehension of your situation or have lost all your faculties.”

The internal doors had no locks on them, so patients and staff had access to Elizabeth at all times. During a more recent stay in a psych ward one of the patients was a 400kg lady called “Teeny-Weeny.” Elizabeth says, “She used to bust into my room in the middle of the night. I’d wake up with her looking over my bed, over my face. I would scream my head off and no one would come, scream and scream, and scream, and then she’d start screaming.” She complained that it was inappropriate that there was so little supervision, and that Teeny Weeny could have been “smothering me with a pillow or sitting on my face or something. I’m totally sedated, I can hardly move, I’m a small person. That could be a guy coming in to rape me – that could be anything. That was unsettling, because on the one hand you’re supposed to be in this safe space where you can relax and have respite from your home environment, but on the other hand the environment itself can be stressful and you don’t know who you’re going to be in a space with, how cuckoo or what kind of cuckoo they are.”

When I asked Elizabeth about coming out of hospital and social attitudes toward her she replied: “I’ve been released usually after about ten days, in all cases with ongoing medication. I haven’t really felt stigmatised about hospitalisations. What I find is that people are more interested and understanding when mental illness is ‘dramatic’ and ‘validated’ by hospital, especially since my turns don’t take a very obnoxious form towards others.”

“Acute episodes are not a big problem. The real problem is living with chronic depression and anxiety, personality disorder stuff that doesn’t respond well to medication or therapy, and people don’t see why you can’t just snap out of it. They don’t know how much of a raging war is going on in my head most of the time because I look normal.”

Involuntary incarceration for medical reasons seems justified in some cases, but what about if you are required to join an institution as a service to your country, rather than as your country’s service to you? I spoke to Samin Son, who, at age nineteen, endured two years compulsory service in the South Korean Army.

The Soldier

Samin Son was born in Seoul in South Korea, but moved to New Zealand when he was 13 and attended Hastings High School. After high school he began a fine arts degree in Wellington. But unlike other art students, Samin knew that at some point he would have to abandon his studies to perform his military services in Korea, something the sweet, sensitive art student says he would never have thought of doing if given the option. He received the letter when he was 19. He says, “I remember really dreading having to go. I was going to miss my friends a lot, everything really, going to art school. I was very depressed at the time, prior to the army.”

Military service in the Republic of Korea Army (ROK Army) is compulsory for all the males of South Korea. After choosing the army over other disciplines, Samin was sent to a five-week boot camp. He describes it as “basically rehab – rehab from society. Not drugs, society. You’re cut off from music, TV, snacks, art, junk food, cigarettes, alcohol, friends, girlfriends. It does drive everybody crazy, but perversely you become extremely healthy. Your body starts working like a machine.”

There was a 6am wakeup call. Samin explains how before the morning announcement the announcer would test the microphone by hitting it and it would make a “kind of beat-box noise. The officer would hit the mic twice, and we’d be out of bed between the first and the second hit.” The soldiers would do morning exercise and physical training. He remembers seeing a soldier limping and speaking up to a senior officer higher up, then getting hit in the head and told off for talking in the training session. Samin says: “When I was training I’d think, “I wish my body would break down right now. I wish my legs would break off right now,” because it hurts so much to train. But then you learn your body doesn’t break down easily.”

They would sing the national anthem, and do rituals to the national flag expressing loyalty and pride to their country. I asked Samin if he felt pride, and he said, “At the time I think I did feel those feelings. A mixture of feelings. You’re so young, so easily changed. Sometimes you realise later that you’ve been brainwashed. In terms of feeling pride for Korea, I’ve always felt proud to be Korean, and I’ve always been proud to be a New Zealander.”

Things got worse when Samin was sent to join the riot police. He says: “The first day I got placed in the riot police I got told that I was a son of a bitch. An officer came up to me and said, ‘Oy,’ which you answer with your name and your rank. He said ‘son of a bitch.’ I answered with my name and my rank and he said: ‘No, you are a son of a bitch. You are a son of a bitch. You have to eat like a son of a bitch, you have to drink like a son of a bitch, you have to train like a son of a bitch, you have to clean like a son of a bitch. You’re a son of a bitch. Oy.’ I answered, ‘I’m a son of a bitch.’ You start to gain a sort of pride in being a son of a bitch. You start to work really fast and really hard, become desensitised. It’s quite a fascinating and disgusting thing.”

Samin’s feelings of loneliness sometimes became overwhelming. He said: “Twice in the army this feeling visited me of wanting to commit suicide. Those times came to me when for some reason or other accumulated incidents and happenings within the army had broken me down where I forgot about family and friends. When it hit that point I was so confused and lost that I was convinced that I was alone and nobody was on my side. You get told off so much, you get bullied so much, you get hit so much, to the point where you forget about everything else and you feel alone.”

When I asked about privacy, Samin replied: “There is no privacy really. You sleep in the same room, you shower in the same room, you eat together and you train in the same field. But the times of privacy were if I were to run to the toilet cubicle secretly.” There he would re-read the letters his friends had sent him, or sometimes escape for brief moments with friends to share a mini chocolate bar or, once, a single segment of mandarin. He remembers some beautiful moments, like when the cook in the kitchen gave him headphones to listen to his favourite band at the time, Portishead, while he worked. But all the time he was desperately missing his old life. He says, “I was missing people, missing indulgence, parties, cigarettes, listening to music.”

While these stories seem on the face of it quite diverse, spanning different times, situations, and countries, all were experienced by people currently alive in New Zealand. Though they were institutionalised for different reasons – for punishment, treatment, and service – all had their basic freedom as New Zealand citizens taken from them against their will, transforming George, Elizabeth, and Samin into a prisoner, a patient, and a soldier. The common thread running through all three interviews was an immense increase in appreciation for everyday things: friends; family; good food; relaxation; fun; and free movement.
This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2014.
Posted 5:12pm Sunday 20th July 2014 by Lucy Hunter.