July 4th, 1972. My then-husband is driving our Chevy van — our transportation and home for the past two months — up Main Street in this unfamiliar town. We are following, slowly, the rag-tag end of the local Independence Day Parade. On either side of the road, the sidewalks are lined with people: old folks in their folding chairs, dads with toddlers on their shoulders, kids dashing into the street to pick up candy tossed off the floats. In addition, there is an inordinate number of spectators in ill-fitting, mismatched clothes sporting tousled uncut hair. Some slump on the curb their eyes glazed, their features slack. Others shuffle unsteadily along behind the retreating parade.
At the north end of the street, we pause at the light. A fellow in a green t-shirt emblazoned with a large red rose and the words “Vermonters take time to smell the roses,” waves a friendly hello at me. Like so many others we’ve passed, his movements appear slightly off-balance as though he’s not in complete control of his limbs. I smile and wave back and we move on.
We’ve left our college years in Bridgeport behind and hope to make a new home for ourselves and our dog in Vermont. We’ve come to this town at the invitation of a couple we met several times on our travels through Maine, Quebec, and the Maritimes. They, too, were on an extended camping trip, but unlike us, they had a home to return to and that home was our immediate destination.
Their apartment was in an old school building at the top of a long, steep hill. When we arrived, we did what young people of that era did. We smoked a joint. We talked. “So, we followed the parade up Main Street,” my then-husband says. “What’s up with…I mean, there seems to be a lot of, well, pretty strange looking people in this town.”
“Did you notice that cluster of big brick buildings as you drove by? That’s the State Hospital and lots of those people used to live there. Then a few years ago, they were deinstitutionalized and moved to group homes in town.” Our friend shrugs. “Most of them have been on medication for a long time…and there are side effects.”
After separating from my then-husband a few years later, I moved to Waterbury to live with my now-husband and we spent the next 24 years as members of the downtown community. My husband ran a kitchen shop down the hill from our home. We attended fitness classes, dined at our friends’ restaurant, and enjoyed concerts in the park. Over the years, we came to appreciate our connection to many of the State Hospital’s former patients. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their eccentricities, they provided our community with color, warmth and humor.
In summer they could be found smoking on the porch of the big house on Main Street or cueing up for free Peace Pops at the park concerts. One fellow stopped by the kitchen shop regularly for his cup of complementary coffee laced with copious amounts of sugar or paused to chat when he was riding up our street on his bicycle. He wore a watch on each wrist and told us his mother had dropped him on his head when he was a baby resulting in his residency at the State Hospital.
One summer when my husband was away, the couple down the street from us mowed our lawn every week. Reliable and unobtrusive, they invariably arrived together. While he mowed, she sat on the stoop, helped with the raking, and spoke exclusively to her partner. They kept chickens, sold eggs for $2.00 a dozen and nightcrawlers for a buck a bag.
For these folks and others in our town, deinstitutionalization meant a return to home, family, and the larger community. It also severely limited the number of psychiatric beds for people requiring safe, supportive residential care. Decades later, that situation continues. Today, nationwide, more than two million mentally ill people do not receive any psychiatric treatment.
In 2004 we left Waterbury for a new home in East Montpelier. By that time, most of the complex had been renovated to provide office space for state workers, leaving only 54 patients housed in the historic Brooks building. In 2011, all were displaced by the flood waters of Hurricane Irene.
Now, the state workers are back in a gleaming new building, the library has been expanded, streets and sidewalks repaired, new homes and businesses built. Waterbury is no longer the home of the State Mental Hospital, but in this and every other town in the country, people still suffer from mental illness. And they still need care.