My time as an “inpatient” at National Institutes of Health, mental health project in 1962

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When I got back “home” from William and Mary at the end of November, 1961, it was, as I noted in the previous post, necessary to “get going” with therapy immediately, even to get back into college (GWU) while “living at home”.

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So in early December I started seeing a Dr. Benham, whose own level of physical swagger was a bit underwhelming, in his second floor office in the Dominion Arms just south of US 50 on Glebe Road in Arlington.  I think that I went for therapy every Thursday morning, starting  December 7.  There was no psychiatrist’s couch, just a comfortable chair.  My parents paid $25 a session (one hour each).  I remember once seeing him argue with a female patient as I arrived, as she stormed out complaining about the thousands she had spent (in 1961 dollars).  Benham’s retort, “Illness can be expensive”.

As I noted, I did get back into GWU, and the Thursday appointments worked because Chemistry Qualitative Analysis didn’t start until 1 PM.  Sometime right around the beginning of January, Benham had told me, “I think you should realize that I don’t think it’s a good idea to count on going back to W-M any time soon.  You’re going to be seeing a psychiatrist for a couple of years, not just a couple of weeks.” He also said that I didn’t (at 18) grasp the consequences of the things I say and do.  (Does Justin Bieber?)  But didn’t the psychiatrist see the circularity of his own assessment?

By maybe the first of April, Benham mentioned the “program” at the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, on a large campus, across Wisconsin Ave. from the Naval Medical Center.  The Kennedy-conceived program was sold as motivated by the government’s desire to learn why some academically gifted students had difficulty adjusting to life in college.  In those Cold War days, this was viewed as a national security issue.  It comported with the idea that smart people could help win the “War”, but it also fed into the idea of military draft deferments for science students later.

On Thursday, July 12, 1962 (two days after my nineteenth birthday), I entered the Clinical Center as an “inpatient”.  I remember, oddly, taking tub bath, and surrendering my neo-synephrine and rolaids.

I would live on Unit 3-West for the next six months, although I went “home” most weekends (but not the first).

The unit comprised one long hall with rooms on both sides, but mostly on the left side.  In the middle there was a day room lounge and a nurse’s station, and dining area.  There was actually a solarium with a piano to the left immediately as one entered the wing.

Most of the rooms before reaching the middle were therapy treatment rooms (maybe four of them) with one-way glass for recording and observation.  The rooms were used for individual therapy (three times a week, in the mornings), group therapy, family therapy, and the notorious family art therapy (where my father was disoriented by being asked to draw in front of others).  Perhaps one room on that side was for a couple of male patients.  On the far side, there were four regular patient rooms, with a huge bath and shower facility across the all, and then a green-bricked, windowless solitary room, where I lived with a somewhat studious roommate with a music background.  The only reason for the solitary was space.  Most patients lived two to a room.  There were more male patients than female.  But I would learn of another twist.  There was a “college” group and a “family problems” group.  All of the women were in the “family” group because of the perception of gender roles in that era.  As a result, as a whole, the men seemed more intact than the women. (One female patient, who had attempted suicide at one time, desperately wanted to become a man; the medical establishment at the time did not care to understand trans-genderedness.)   I did befriend one male patient in particular (besides the music-oriented roommate, who knew the Beethoven quartets pretty well.) He would later note, in some group therapy session, that I tended to stare or at least look at him with some degree of “admiration”.

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When preparing my 1997 “Do Ask, Do Tell I” book, I requested a copy of my medical records from NIH under the Freedom of Information Act, and got about 100 pages of low-quality mimeographed copies, which show that the nursing staff kept track of our every move on the unit, and monitored all our social interactions with other patients.  There was an occasion in September when one of the nurses foolishly thought I had spent too much time “in the John”.  There was another occasion when a nurse actually transcribed a verbal comment I had made about a particular patient’s chest hair, when, as a prank, another patient pretended to “undress” him.  The notes are quite graphic and mention all the other patients by name, which again would probably have to be manually redacted today. I do recall the phone conversation in early 1996 when I ordered them.  “You own your records.”  But what about the others.  (I would return to NIH for a one-day followup interview in 1970, and then in 1988 I would be screened for a trial of the GP160 anti-HIV vaccine, which did not go through; that’s for another day.  But they still had my records!)

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The records also have a lot of narrative of my own history, and give an account of the William and Mary Expulsion. They go out of their way to say that I was called in only because of the patent medicines in the room, and that “telling” had been my own idea, but that is really not accurate.  The notes tend to pander to the gender stereotypes of the day, mentioning that my interest in girls had been of only the most “casual sort”, that, as if frustrated physically,  I tended to engage in body mechanics that suggested masturbation, that I was “unattractive” (whew!), had never (at 19) held a wage-earning job, and had argued with my father about the mechanics of chores (true), and had lived a life devoted to bookishness and “daydreaming”.

One passage, as quoted, is particularly telling: “He has been aware since puberty of a strong attraction toward very masculine peers and preoccupation with certain secondary sexual characteristics which he equated as being indicative of masculinity. At this time he read a book on sex hygiene which his family had and became preoccupied with the paragraph dealing with homosexuality and the contrast between latent homosexuality and overt homosexual behavior.”  Later they write “He avoided all heterosexual contacts and his relationships with girls were of the most casual sort. He was given to philosophical ruminations and following the age of 16, obsessive thinking about the Nieztschean supermen whom he both idolized and hated.”  That last verb is not correct.  But the tone of all of these notes is an emphasis on how important it was to get “someone like me” to conform to the expectations (sometimes related to legitimate need) of others, and my tendency to turn around and expect the same of others in my own orbit.  There are more gems in this report.  “The homosexual fantasies are a prime preoccupation with him because a great part of his satisfaction (aka pleasure) and feeling for other people is based on the nature of these fantasies … He becomes sexually aroused in the presence of young men who have these characteristics or in thinking about these characteristics.”  Sounds like discussion of a phylum in biology class!  “It seems clear that the fantasies about others and himself are substitutes for real relationships (that means potentially intimate, performative, and committed) with other people.”

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I was allowed to leave the hospital for evening classes at George Washington University, and I actually took six hours.  (One of them was the first half of English Literature, and I recall when we read some of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the professor noted that, with the pardoner, Chaucer tried to characterize a typical homosexual in 11th Century England.)  I was eating supper in the first floor “Student Union” cafeteria on G Street when I heard President Kennedy come on black-and-white television and inform the nation of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Because there was no television and very little media access in the hospital, hardly anyone, including the staff, knew about it. Later that week, I taunted the other patients in group therapy about who would be fit enough to survive a world after nuclear war, and that got written up!   That Friday (right before the resolution of the crisis) we went on a “Group Activity” to the National Gallery of Art; it’s a little surprising we would have been taken to downtown Washington given the crisis.

I can remember one night right after the crisis when a female patient woke everyone up on our end of the hall with her screaming, and a nurse threatened to give it to her “in the muscle”.  I developed my own personal vernacular for the less intact patients, “god-damn MP”.  Later, in a group therapy session, that patient would “fake” cataonia and a male patient would lift her off the floor and revive her.

In early November, I had a toothache, and suddenly found my wisdom teeth being extracted with sedation dentistry. Which was quite advanced even by that time.  I remember a bandage anchored the IV to my forearm, and when the tape was removed a lot of hair got pulled out, and I felt physically humiliated (and became an “iv-critic”).

We also did some “occupational therapy” in the mornings.  I got to work “for free” in a cancer lab, and actually handled specimens of cancer patient urine, centrifuging them for abnormal precipitates. That probably would not be allowed today in these days of HIPAA.  These were the days before computers when a hand planimeter could be put on a resume.

I also talked to GWU about helping one of the other patients get in, and they flatly said “No.”  Just me, as if I had become some sort of privileged character.  I further talked to some woman at the Labor Department who said she knew all about 3-West at NIH.

As for the therapy, just as it had started with “my work with Dr. Benham”, I kept looking for some grand revelation (more than just a feminine insight) when all would be well.  In a couple of months, the individual therapist at NIH (who seemed to have at least one other homosexual patient assigned) had gotten me to cough up some of my fantasy life, as discussed in the new DADT-III book, Chapter 2 (Section 7).

At this point, a round robin of questions ensues.  What did “they” want from me?  What did I want?  And why was what I seemed to want so upsetting to others, when I wasn’t harming them?  After all, I could never be competition for someone’s wife or girl friend.  But, borrowing an idea from relativity, my “observing” others without participation could put other insecure men on edge, maybe make them feel threatened with sexual impotence of ineffectiveness.  That was an underground idea that would surface three decades later with the debate on gays in the military.

I think that the psychiatrists, like everyone else, accepted a “moral status quo”, an authoritarian mind-set on sexual mores for some amorphous common good, which seemed predicated on bringing insecure males in line for the “welfare” of everyone.  Things had really gotten worse after World War II.  Alan Turing, without whose brain the Nazis might have prevailed, would wind up being forced to accept chemical castration in England after admitting homosexual behavior to authorities after a boyfriend stole from him.  In 1953, President Eisenhower signed an Executive Order barring homosexuals from any federal or contractor-related employment (see link here ).   In 1963, when I finally started my first wage-earning job, I had to pass a medical.  I called my father before telling the physician why William and Mary had made me get psychiatric treatment, and the doctor wrote around the issue, saying that he did not believe I was actually a homosexual, so I could get hired.  “Sexual perversion” was one of the explicit reasons someone could be fired from Civil Service.

Yes, this all heading somewhere.  What did people want?  Well, some ideas seem obvious: If I was an only child, my homosexuality seemed like the death penalty for the family line.  But the gritty details of this, which can become quite unsettling and hard to organize, are better taken up in a later posting detailing with my family life back in the 1950s.

In late January, 1963, I simply decided to be discharged.  They couldn’t keep me.   I do remember seeing an official diagnosis somewhere of “schizoid personality” although I had heard rumors on the unit of worse (like schizophrenia, which is totally different). I went back to school full time.  It was time for quantitative analysis, with pun intended.  Another discharge paper called this a “compulsive personality” which is not the same thing.

Footnote key: “DADT3-C2-0002-20140114-44-U”

Originally published: Tuesday, January 14, 2014, about 10 PM.  Updated Friday, February 21, 2014.

Update on Oct. 20, 2014

Here is a link to the NIH summary of my stay as a patient (10 pages, PDF).

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