A Tale from a Strange Land
A couple months ago, something crazy happened to me.
The controversial film, Joker was showing in the cinema so, naturally I made it my business to see what all the fuss was about. I dragged my girlfriend along with me and after the movie, while making our way back to the car, we saw a vagrant at the side of the road. Immediately and involuntarily, my forehead wrinkled in disgust.
My girlfriend noticed this.
“He human too, you know,” she said in a passive aggressive tone.
“He is somebody child.”
The discovery of this forlorn soul at the side of the road, coupled with the fact that we only minutes ago watched a film that focused on mental illness, ignited a discussion on the topic. Her main point was that society breeds mental illnesses, turning a blind eye to persons with such conditions. I went on to explain to her that in addition to that point, I believe everyone in Trinidad is a little mad; it’s just others have greater avenues of support.
I cited as an example, my schizophrenic uncle who always converses with himself and a black fowl he named ‘Darling’. His primary “support” is the $2,000 monthly disability grant he receives, which barely covers the cost of food, bills and his extremely expensive medication. My relatives help cover his additional expenses. On his own, without the help of family, crapo smoke his pipe. Now, who is to say my uncle or any of the other “crazy people” out there could have been benefits and not “burdens” on society had they been afforded opportunities to channel their strengths into something productive? Look at the great Howard Hughes. He was an entrepreneur, engineer, pilot, businessman and movie director, despite having some serious brain defects.
Personally, I think the problem isn’t so much that we don’t acknowledge mental health in Trinidad. No. We all know people mad in this place. We’re simply apathetic. Just take a look at the “discovery” of the 65 men and 4 women who were held captive, in the most inhumane of conditions, at the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre in Arouca. I use the word, “discovery” in quotations because can we really say these patients were “discovered”? After all, according to the testimonies of numerous residents within the vicinity, everyone knew of its existence. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. The building itself was situated walking distance from the Arouca police station. There is even a Facebook page, as well as a website dedicated to TLM.
Of course, the initial idea for accommodating those who fell between the cracks all started with a vision from the Almighty himself. According to TLM’s website, its founder, pastor Glen Awong, while serving a 7 year sentence at Golden Grove Prison, began socializing with his fellow inmates and eventually “answered the call from God and started his ministry within the prison walls”. No wonder the 69 people were found in cages. God works best when people lock up. Nothing crazy about that.
The inmates were eventually taken from the fire that was TLM and placed into the frying pan that is St. Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital - yet another institution everybody knows about. It’s been in existence since 1902, or in technical terms - donkey years now. St. Ann’s has become a symbol of how we acknowledge and address mental health in this blessed land. You see, it’s easy to acknowledge that “Trinidad full of mad people” and then dump them where somebody else can “deal with them”. As the saying goes; out of sight, out of mind.
During the 2020 Budget debate Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said the Government is currently working on a “centrally located, easily accessible major mental health facility” that would replace St. Ann’s. In 2015, former Minister of Health under the People’s Partnership administration, Dr. Fuad Khan, proposed that St. Ann’s should have been sold entirely. His solution was to introduce numerous "less stigmatized buildings" throughout various communities across the country.
No matter the options offered, it appears that those suffering from mental illnesses are simply written off and cast aside. Instead of addressing mental health on an individual level, the focus is to reform St. Ann’s. Einstein’s quote, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” springs to mind.
One theme that resonated with me after I saw Joker was that a lack of support on both institutional and familial levels exacerbates mental illness, which in turn creates broken people, who make up broken societies. You see, a villain always blames others for his madness, thus making him more embedded in his madness until the severity of that very madness destroys him. There is no doubt in my mind that a type of madness has taken a hold of Trinidad in recent times. The problem is we don’t realize we’re all part of it. Insanity isn’t exclusive to the 900 odd people currently being housed at St. Ann’s. No. We’re all the villains. We’re all repeating the same mistakes. We’re all a part of the insanity that is the reality of living in this strange, strange land. It’s just others have a means of support, while the ones that fall between the cracks are left invisible.
After I verbalized all these thoughts to my girlfriend, the homeless man at the side of the road must have realized we were watching him. He got up, looked in our direction and presented to me the few yellowed teeth he possessed in the form of a smile, before scurrying away. I chuckled for a bit until I too felt the weight of eyes upon me. It was a young couple. No doubt they noticed I was having another one of my conversations with my imaginary girlfriend. I smiled politely, quickly got in my car and hurriedly drove away.
After all, I can’t let people see me talking to myself in public. Next thing I end up St. Ann’s…
Written December 2019.