Personal Journey, Poetry

Q is for Quacks

QQuacks. I wish this were about ducks, but alas– here is my post about funny farms, i.e., nut houses, psych wards, mental institutions, behavioral medicine centers (they sound nice). Funny farm is my mom’s favorite designation. She has introduced me thus: “This is my daughter who put me in the funny farm.”

You could say I’m somewhat of a funny farm connoisseur. I’m not going to name-call or rehash my bad experiences, but I’ll say this– Oakview has trays of fresh-baked cookies sitting all over the place and deli trays… and that’s just the snacking. I’m reasonably certain they treat mostly hobbits there. If you ever decide to go off the deep end, insist on a bed at Oakview in Middleburg Heights.

It was a year after my mom quit drinking that things got crazy in the truest sense of the word. That was when I began a relationship with the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Health. You see, brains accustomed to decades of pickling and frying don’t always take well to quitting cold-turkey. So it was with mom. She overcame her addictions only to be faced with a complete psychological breakdown. Think The Shining. 

My new friends from the board of health came out to hold my hand, along with the Berea police, who responded to mom’s 911 call.

911, what is your emergency?

My daughter’s trying to have me committed.

Imagine my despair when I was told that the police could offer no assistance in getting mom to the hospital. I had high hopes of them swooping in and taking this problem off my hands. Nor could the officers convince mom to go willingly. Manhandle is the only way to describe how we got her into the car while the police and social workers looked on. My manhandlers were: 1. Bob 2. My sister’s boyfriend (who became her husband in spite of this) and 3. A family friend. These men are my heroes. It’s easy to rescue a damsel in distress when distress looks the way it ought. This was tough love in the extreme. And from that day’s tough love I don’t know if I’ll ever be vindicated. I operated under the delusion that mom wouldn’t remember anything, like in the old drinking days. Au contraire mon frère, said my social worker. She’ll remember it all.

One doesn’t just walk into the funny farm. One must go through the ER. And the ER doesn’t appreciate patients who require a posse of strong male nurses to restrain them as they spew expletives in an uninterrupted torrent that rivals Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in length. The good folks from the board of health advocated for me when the emergency room tried to deny mom treatment. Helen Keller could see mom was having a psychotic episode, and the ER wanted to send her away? That falls under the definition of quack.

You could say quacks were the beginning of mom’s journey to the funny farm. Beginning in her early twenties, beginning most likely when she left the hospital with yours truly, mom suffered from anxiety. Babies, divorce, freeways, the human condition… all of it was too much. Mom sought help where so many people seek it. Her first quack put her on valium.

Next up, valium-like pills, then social drinking, then pills and drinking and where did that tatoo come from? In 1998 I wrote a poem about my  mom’s search for the right pill and it was published by The Comstock Review.* It was my attempt at capturing the lunacy: doctor appointment number gazillion. He was tossing his soup can back and forth and nonverbally screaming his desire to dispatch my mother as quickly as possible to get to that soup. Mom wanted to feel ok and this pill, this time it was going to work. I watched my mom nearly destroy herself by self-medicating against the physiological truth going on insider her. It took a radical breakdown to finally get to that truth: bipolar disorder.

My mom is in good company: Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vivian Leigh, and Jean-Claude Van Damme all have bipolar disorder. One can lead a full life with bipolar disorder. One can even learn to make light of it: This is my daughter who put me in the funny farm.


*A Vice From Your Doctor

“I shake a lot,” you said,

and he was shaking too,


caressing a can of soup,

“This will stop it.”

A slip of paper.

The newest brand, less

addictive, less side effects

(you’ll like it)

you did like it.

And you both stopped shaking.

It’s taken years to collect enough

slips to feed a flame

that, starving, snake-licks up

your pared legs, chokes

you silent, shakes you frozen.

You are a curled brown leaf

unable to dress.

You know now he was right

about soup:

It’s hard to eat

when the spoon shivers.



5 thoughts on “Q is for Quacks”

  1. I had never read that poem. You really offered a whole new perspective with this piece Kel. (in a good way) I am so thankful that I watched the kids that day and then went hiking for a few months after that. Thank you for all you did and do for our mom. She has had seasons of being a tough cookie, but for right now her chips are soft and gooey inviting us to partake in making sweet memories with her and the woodland creatures that gather at her feet.

    1. Thanks, Heath. I considered mentioning your invaluable childcare help or my dear friends James & Nancy, who also watched the kids for like 15 hours while we fought to keep mom in the hospital– while their in-laws from Germany were visiting! I could have written so much about this one. I love your thoughts on mom now! We are truly blessed.

  2. You have found the balance I have not – raw and honoring. I pray one day I will have the courage you do – for I sometimes think the best stories are the ones that are the hardest to expose to the world. Like Heather, I remember that day – but not from your perspective. You are a strong, loving woman and I’m honored you are my friend. I hope you know it was nothing but a privilege to have your children hang with us and it’s a comfort to know you would do the same for me should the need arise.

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