You never know who you might run into in a mental institution. When Kay Parley is admitted to the Weyburn Mental Hospital, she meets her father and grandfather. Her grandfather had been there before Kay was even born, and her father entered the institution when Kay was only six. She jokes that “they’d have to tear the place down if it wasn’t for my family.”
This is one of many shocking details Kay relates in her book, Inside the Mental, a compilation of eighteen stories based on her experiences as both a patient and later as a nurse at The Mental as she calls it. Most of these stories have been previously published in magazines dealing with mental health issues and in her self-published volume, Lady with a Lantern.
After a nervous breakdown in 1948, Kay finds herself in the Weyburn Mental Hospital, originally known as the Saskatchewan Hospital. When she observes a row of patients eating with their hands, mixing orange and toast into their porridge and slurping like dogs, a fellow patient tries to console her. “Cheer up,” she tells Kay. “The first seven years are the worst.”
Kay finds productive work as editor of the hospital’s newspaper, The Torch. Her confidence restored, and inspired by her experiences, she trains as a psychiatric nurse, interning at the mental hospital. Dressed in white apron over her student blues, with a cap on her curly hair and wearing lipstick in a ward filled with the stench of sweat and urine, Kay feels like a flower in the desert.
In spite of horrible circumstances, Kay imparts some black humour. When she learns that a nephew of renowned author Aldous Huxley is working at The Mental, she blurts out to the nearest nurse, “There’s a Huxley right here in our hospital!” The startled nurse looks at Kay blankly and asks, “What’s a huxley?”
As a psychiatric nurse in 1958, Kay consents to being the test subject in a controlled experiment with LSD. The effects are instantaneous and enormous. One moment she is speaking normally; in the next instant a lamp in the room seems to throw off as much light as the sun, and music becomes unbearably loud. After waiting for the effect to wear off, she is escorted home. “I know where the road is – I’m not sure where my feet are,” she notes.
Having viewed the Weyburn Mental Hospital from a unique perspective as both patient and nurse, Kay brings a sense of compassion to her book, Inside the Mental, treating those in the hospital as people, not patients. The world could use more attitudes like this. The world could use more Kay Parleys.
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