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Thread: [Sociology] The Asylum

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    Tom Paine's Avatar Mr Common Sense
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    Default [Sociology] The Asylum

    Author: Garbarsardar
    Original Thread: The Asylum

    The AsylumWell, I don't even know how I could write about this, but I may as well give it a try. Please excuse me if this post is incoherent or distressing, but I felt the need to tell this story for the first and the last time, I hope.

    In the beggining

    In 1990, I was studing Psychology in the University. As all leftist intellectuals eggheads of my generation, I delved deep into Sasz's denounciation of Psychiatric practices and Foucault's long accusation of the treatment of madness in Europe. Needless to say I was quite full of myself, arrogant, assertive and aggressive.

    That was when I heard for the first time about the island of Leros. The " Psychiatric Hospital" of Leros was founded in 1959. The purpose was to contain all Psychiatric patients from all Greek mental health instituitions, who were deemed untreatable, to one single confinement space. The island of leros was suitable for this purpose since it already possesed the needed infrastructure. During the Italian occupation of the Dodecanese, the Italian administration decided to transform Leros to a gigantic military base, planning for more than 50.000 inhabitants;after the return of this island chain to Greece in 1949 there were many buildings left unused, and lots still exist like a magnificent forum and a wonderful movie theater in the capital, Lakki. The asylum had as much as 4000 patients in the mid-eighties. 1153 still survived in 1990. Leros' Asylum consisted of 15 pavillions. A sixteenth was added later.

    Now us Greeks, largely ignored the existance of and the conditions in this asylum. Leros is a remote island without any tourism, too close to Rhodes and Patmos to attract any crowd, and of course when the state of affairs in the asylum was exposed, we all understood, that while we should and could have known, it was much more convenient to ignore it. For the sake of our hypocrisy and our souls.

    Apocalypse then

    In September of 1989, the London Observer printed a front page account of the hospital, describing it as a "concentration camp." Following the British report, a barrage of Greek press about the island and institution was ignited. The goverment was embarassed in front of the European counterparts and some discussions about de-institutionalisation started in the high echelons of the Ministry of Health. In the University, wild stories about the conditions in the asylum started circulating although the camp remained closed to the press or any independent organization. In March 1990 a permission was granted to my department to stage a limited intervention in Leros, and my Professor of Community psychiatry called a meeting of volunteers.

    I went there and saw a documentary that the BBC had managed to film secretly in the Asylum. I don't really remember it, but there were shots of naked patients, barbed wire, and guards with sticks. We were all shocked and made long statements accusing the state and the Psychiatric association. Far lesser people volunteered to go there in the summer. I was one of the 20.


    Pavillion 16 was a later addition to the original 15 pavillions. It was made in order to isolate the "difficult" patients. Actually the unwanted amongst the unwanted. To reach the Asylum it is a 20 minite drive from the harbour, among olive groves on the one side and the transluscent Aegean sea on the other. The first barrier is when the old bus has to enter to an airforce base, cross it and exit from the other side; then you need another 5 minute drive to reach the gates of the asylum, and then another 10 minutes on the bus to reach pavillion 16. The road ends there.

    I was tired by the 22 hours boat trip dizzy from the bright sunlight and my mind only registered later an image I caught on our way to 16. A woman, wearing a dark linen cloth with her shoulder and breast exposed, chained to a tree. I believe that the others saw it too. Or they saw something similar on the other side side of the bus. But nobody, I believe could at first side comprehend this image, how much more talk about it. There was no need. What followed was much worst.

    There were around 150 inmates at 16. Most of them were strolling in the yard. They were covered in excrement, most had open or healing wounds, some were crippled and either crawling or confined in old rusty wheelchairs. They were all naked. We descended from the bus and no one looked at us or approached us. We stood there for I still don't know how long. Two inmates had sex in a corner of the yard while another was removing fleas from the head of his friend. Soon one male nurse approached us. At his sight the couple in the corner split and most patients went inside the building. At the time there were 2 psychiatrists and 400 "nurses" for the 1153 inmates. No nurse had any training. They were guards.

    I became enraged, bypassed the guard and entered the building. Every wall was covered with dirt blood and faeces, and the stink was unbearable. I remember going to the first floor and entering one of the rooms. There were no bedsheets and most of the matresses were missing. The windows were barred. I approached a patient sitting on his bed. I don't know why but in him I saw the chance, in my deep arrogance, to inflict a hit on the crooked system leading by example and to prove at the same time that the humanistic thought could prevail over any opression physical and mental. So, I sat by him, smiled (and I loath myself for this) and asked him: "So how are you today?" He replied in a low voice and a very slow pace.

    In the past sixteen years not a month goes by without recalling his answer: " I am here. Can you get me out? You cant. Do I know it? I do. Do you know it? You do. Why then do you ask me how am I ?"

    I don't know if you believe that there is a defining moment in our lives. A moment that everything we trust and hold dear and preach just crumbles and fails. That was mine. I don't know if I am a better man because of it. Maybe I am the same aloof bastard that I was back then. But at least i never again believed in the supremacy of my reasoning and the absolute degree of my beliefs and ethics. And worst of all: he was right.

    The back yard

    The back yard was walled. The wall was 2m high. There was no door. 20 inmates lived there; the unruly ones. They also died there. Food was dropped from above and twice a day a guard was watering them. When someone died they removed the body with hooks. We tore down this wall the next day. Still it didn't feel good.

    The anonymous

    Some of the patients had very strange names, like Byron, Aristoteles, Plato, Heracleitus. I inquired the psychiatrists about them. Apparently in 1969 during the Greek dictatorship a boatload of psychiatric patients and political prisoners in the same ship was somehow mixed. The result was that some patients ended up in the prison in Rhodes and some dissidents in the Asylum. The patients were later returned to Leros. The political prisoners simply stayed there.

    None of us could sleep without some assistance. We were drinking heavily and also "borrowed" drugs from the rundown pharmacy, Some nights not even this worked. I took to stay in the Asylum during the night and read the files of the inmates ay least of the ones who had a name and a file:

    Name: Apostolis X
    Date of birth:1966
    Date of arrival in Leros:1973
    Diagnosis: Aggressivity, fear of the dark.

    No, the dates are right. As I learned, some poor families migrating to the mainland to find work, sometimes left a child behind, which ended up in the Asylum. Patients were dying like flies. During my three months there no less than 5 patients died only in "16". The one chocked on a boiled potato. The food used to be served in a gigantic pot where everything was mixed and the patients had tin bowls which they filled or they simply used their hands. One of the resident psychiatrists said to me that sooner or later the solution to the problem of Leros will be a "biological" one. Yes, I know what this reminds you of.

    And then we left

    I stayed in Leros for three months. In that time we managed to dress the patients clean them, make them wash or wash them daily, changed or stopped medications, we took some swimming some others to coffee shops and restaurants, we even took three to a movie theater, this old Italian one. Some started talking to us, most did not. We cleand and repainted "16" five guards were fired and some real nurses got hired.

    And then we left. I knew very well that upon our departure most things would revert to the old ways. The staff that we somehow managed to mobilise would soon loose interest, the press would find other subjects because no one really likes to hear these stories 'cause they are bitter and have no happy ending. And this exactly happened. There were some more interventions, that stopped in '93 then a lull till '97 a new story and finally the Asylum closed and the ones left alive, around 500 souls were moved to community settings. I don't know if any of my patients in "16" survived but I should think not.

    The worst part of it, for me, is that deep down inside, I know that I did nothing. Well, I tried and that probably relieves me from some of my guilt, but some times trying is just not enough. That's why I made this post, to share the story and maybe feel better. But I don't.
    Last edited by Settra; December 25, 2013 at 05:02 AM.

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