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Walter and May: A Love Story (Part 2)

July 25, 2009

Walter was short in stature, and walked with a distinctive shuffle.  The first thing you’d notice about him was that he carried a collection of items in his hands wherever he went – a tennis ball, a piece of red string, bits of plastic – items of no value to anyone else, but they were his treasures.  Walter did not speak, but vocalized almost constantly, in a low guttural tone that would quickly rise to an ear-piercing scream whenever he misplaced one of his items (something that happened a lot, due to the unwieldy quantity of his treasures and the constant tremor in his hands, a side effect of the psychotropic medications prescribed in the institution to control his behavior). 

Walter lived on a locked ward with forty other people – 20 women who slept in two dormitory style rooms and spent their days in a large day room at one end of the ward, and 20 men who occupied the other half of the ward.  The stark bedrooms were arranged with rows of single beds lined up as in an army barracks.  The day rooms at either end of the hall were large, colourless rooms with a television set bolted to the wall and vinyl-covered sofas and chairs around the perimeter.  There were no pictures on the walls, no books or plants or games, just a wide linoleum-covered floor and bare walls, with an open doorway leading to a large communal bathroom off to the side.  The toilets were lined up in stalls without doors on them, so depending on where you stood in the day room you might be in full view of those using the bathroom.

There was no privacy on the ward; everything was done as a group.  At the same time, residents were separated from their families and shielded from the community, denied any opportunity for developing relationships with people off the ward.  Insulated behind the locked doors of the institution, they were captive in a place none of them had chosen to be, spending 24 hours a day with people they hadn’t chosen to be with, alone in the world but for each other. 

To be continued…

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