Red Bandana

Kevin wears a red bandana around his forehead. He sprinkles it with holy water.

He wears it all the time, even while sleeping. Kevin is certain that he will go mad if he takes it off. He is not kidding; he will hurt you if you try to remove it or touch it.

I lost touch with Kevin years ago. I won’t forget him. How can you forget a tall, lanky fellow who wears big, heavy, black shoes and shuffles like Lurch from the Munsters and has a red bandana tied around his forehead? Kevin even looked a bit like Lurch but was more of a good-looking young man. He rarely spoke. When he did speak, it was more whispered than spoken. The headband was his trademark identifier. He was a heavy smoker.

Every time someone met Kevin there was that question hanging on the edge of their tongue, “What’s up with the headband?”. Kevin’s habitual response was a fluttering of the eyes and a look toward the heavens. He wouldn’t say anything. He couldn’t say anything.

The last time I saw Kevin was in Marlboro State Hospital just before it closed in 1998. He had been transferred to Marlboro a few years earlier from a residential health care facility because they could no longer care for him as he required additional support. Although generally mellow, there were moments of unpredictable rage, despite the bandana, the sprinkled holy water, and the heavy medication. When I saw him in Marlboro, the heavy medication had transformed him from a shuffling Lurch to a walking Zombie.

His transfer to Marlboro could not have been more poorly timed. Marlboro was already the subject of an undercover inquiry in the late 80’s that revealed inhumane care and treatment of patients as well as poor living and working conditions. I have visited Marlboro and other mental hospitals, most notably Greystone, as part of my education and, at times, to visit with a friend, such as Kevin. These visits made it very clear to me that the maintenance of one’s mental health is every bit as important as one’s physical health. Just how to do that, in light of life’s unfolding, is an entirely different matter.

Marlboro State Hospital opened in 1931 and, at its peak, had 800 patients. So many patients died while in Marlboro that they have their own cemetery on the hospital grounds for bodies that went unclaimed; 924 marked graves are there. Greystone opened in 1876 and reached a high of over 7,000 patients (yes, 7,000). Among these 7,000 was one, Woody Guthrie. As a result of deteriorating conditions and overcrowding, Greystone finally closed in 2008.

Kevin came from a wealthy family and prior to his move to the residential facility and subsequently to Marlboro, he had a caretaker. I once asked the caretaker why Kevin wore the headband. He said that it kept Kevin from going mad and the holy water ensured the devils wouldn’t get into his head. Without it, he said, Kevin would surely go crazy and the results would not be pretty.

Kevin wasn’t born that way. In fact, Kevin was like most young boys except for the fact that he came from a wealthy family. He wanted for nothing. He had no siblings. He was heir apparent to the family dynasty and fortune.

Then his parents sent him on a sailing adventure in the Caribbean, a weeklong “live aboard” on a large schooner with a group of other young boys. At first, the trip was everything he imagined it might be. Then it was nothing he could ever have imagined.

He was raped.

The details of such a horrendous experience are not acceptable material for any story other than criminal testimony, although in Kevin’s case, sadly, that never came to pass. For Kevin, the details are a locked box wrapped in a red bandana and sprinkled with holy water.

We lock up what is too painful to look at. We fear that, if released, we would be unable to cope with what might emerge. These boxes hold a panoply of monsters and demons of many shapes and sizes. Kevin’s monsters were huge and mean. As R. D. Laing once observed, “Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”.

Trauma overwhelms normal coping mechanisms. The circuity of the brain is overloaded and coping mechanisms, intended to provide a sense of control, meaning, and safety in response to life events, fail. This creates disruption in the limbic system of the brain where emotional responses are stored. Traumatized individuals commonly have a flood of emotions when recalling traumatic experiences. Unable to cope with this flood, they attempt, either consciously or unconsciously, to avoid the difficult emotions. Anything to stem the flow; drugs, booze, sex, food, bandana with holy water, you name it.

At first, the affected individual struggles to come to terms with the shock of what happened. Then there is an inclination to deny/pretend it didn’t happen or an attempt to figure out how one could have “let it” happen. When that fails, and without additional help, the feelings are stuffed in a box deep inside and locked. Every significant event of our life history is recorded in our bodies and nervous system. Our unconscious contains all the repressed emotional trauma of a lifetime. “I do not want to or I cannot look at this.” It hurts. Deeply. Like a wound that nearly kills you and most certainly kills a part of you.

Years after that horrifying event, Kevin still sprinkled holy water on his bandana and tied it around his head. He is safe. Protected. The demons are locked down. His “madness” was the best solution he could find to the strangulation that life has imposed upon him. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

I gave my phone number to Kevin in a moment when I thought I might be of some help to him if he ever reached out. I would live to regret it. While he lived at the residential health care facility, I occasionally stopped by and we went out to dinner once. At the time, he was still relatively coherent and could participate in a limited conversation, although oftentimes the discussion would trail off into nonsensical unrelated topics. A conversation on baseball would morph into a discussion of personal hygiene and what he had eaten for breakfast the last three days. As time went on, he got worse and I could not understand what he was saying at all and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I no longer stopped for a visit as there was no point, Kevin would just sit there smoking and mumbling incoherently.

Kevin would still call me using the house phone. He would call at any time of the day or night. He would mumble, or play a song, or sing, and then hang up. He always left a voicemail of some sort. Christmas carols sung in his whispered voice were a standard. On a number of occasions, I asked him to stop but to no avail. Kevin listened to other voices that were much louder than mine. Sometimes weeks would go by without a call then they would start again. I grew in patience and tolerance with each phone call. Of course, I could have blocked his number but I didn’t. Not sure why, perhaps I thought it was good for him to keep reaching out. Finally, I stopped answering any of his calls. Voicemails with barely audible mumbling continued for months.

From most appearances, Kevin’s life appears as tragic beyond belief, and to a very large extent it is. Nevertheless, there remains the nagging suspicion that someone ought to do something or something ought to be done. But despite the considerable resources of his parents, all the therapy, shock treatments, and medication have failed to release Kevin from that one terrible event.

Recovery from trauma is an individual process and is different for everyone. The objective facts do not, in and of themselves, determine whether an event is traumatic, but rather one’s subjective emotional experience of the event. An event may be highly traumatic to one person, and only moderately disturbing to another. Siblings who witness traumatic events when growing up in a dysfunctional home do not all respond the same. We can see other people's behavior, but not their experience.

Recovery is not the complete absence of thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event, but is the ability of an individual to place the event in “proper perspective” so that it is no longer in control of their life. Some individuals recover, some do not. It is not predictable and varies dependent on an individual’s psychological makeup and resources available to assist.

Mental illness has a broad spectrum of behaviors. Some not easily recognizable (or very well hidden) and some quite visible and unbelievably scary. Although progress has been made, the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness remains a deterrent to both its identification and treatment. Casual presumptions about the solvability of mental illness rarely survive a real encounter with its unmitigated harshness. People with mental health problems, including dementia, are often considered ‘defective’ and are sent off to asylums or homes as it is also still considered largely ‘incurable’. Those without access to metal health resources oftentimes fall through the cracks and live desperate lives on the streets and in homeless shelters. You have met them. They see you walk by. You might have stopped and asked their name but you didn’t. You were busy.

Understandably, we don’t like illness, particularly mental illness. It disturbs. But by drawing our circle of empathy smaller, or by simply turning a blind eye when mental illness presents itself, we continue to engender indifference to those afflicted. There is no denying that some forms of mental illness require the individual to be removed from society, but to extend that perspective to mental illness in general is a disservice to so many who live honorable, difficult lives with their affliction.

Today’s treatments are characterized by a strong emphasis on pharmaceuticals. Perhaps far too strong an emphasis. Thankfully, experimental treatments such as lobotomies, hydrotherapy (patients held underwater until they lost consciousness), bloodletting, purgatives, and others have ceased. Other treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy, still remain in use although more limited in their application.

If one loses a limb in an accident and is forced to use crutches, a wheelchair, or a prothesis for the remainder of their life, we don’t urge them to give up the crutch, wheelchair, or prothesis. More often, we are impressed or inspired that, after such a serious physical injury, the individual has found a way to cope, a way to walk, a way to live. Cancer survivors are honored, and rightfully so, for the courage and determination it takes to survive both the cancer and the treatment. This is not the case for mental illness.

We find it difficult to comprehend and appreciate the struggles of mental illness and its treatment.
What Kevin taught me, and what I have come to admire, is the oftentimes hidden story of courage and determination of people afflicted with mental illness. If one could “put aside” the trauma that led to the illness, (and that is the fundamental problem of those afflicted), and adopt a heartfelt and honest look at an individual’s response to such trauma, what remains can inspire. Recovery from trauma is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. We all meet life’s greatest tests alone and when life itself is lunatic, who knows what is madness and what is cure?

Kevin’s life is a story of strength and determination. Nevertheless, his story does not have a happy ending. Efforts to have him remove the bandana only made his condition worse. He is no longer free as he was when I first met him. He remains institutionalized. Although we can hope that people are liberated from the demons that haunt them, we should not fantasize that we can force the exorcism of those demons. I wish it were otherwise. It is not. Life can be terrible and difficult for some people – through no fault of their own. Strength and determination alone are insufficient to overcome some forms of trauma and one is left with a red bandana and holy water to get through life.

Perhaps if those with mental illness would wear an identifying bandana, we could then treat them with the additional kindness such wounds require. Red for trauma, blue for depression, green for bi-polar, and so on. Perhaps then we could see more clearly the strength and courage required to live with such afflictions. Perhaps we would be more loving and less disturbed. We could walk beside them as a fellow human being and a kindred spirit and make a commitment to accepting them for who they are, which is the essence of any healing or nurturing relationship. They may already have affected the most optimal cure as a sane adjustment to an insane world.

Perhaps our emotional wounds and others’ wounds can be transformed into gifts. Just as alcoholics can be the source of cure for other alcoholics and addicts can share their experiences with other addicts, so too can people with mental illness be a resource to others so afflicted. Knowing Kevin and his story has been a gift to me. He altered my view of the world. A lanky fellow with a red bandana tied around his head added meaning to my life. For that, and so many other things, I am grateful.