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The Hanging Tree

by R. Mike Harvey, Sr.

A naked light bulb encased in steel mesh sent rays of brilliant light from Hell into the room I was in that afternoon. I couldn't do much about it, not even to shade my eyes, because I was standing in the middle of the room with too tight handcuffs restricting my movement. My pants were falling down, but alas, one can't really yank them up while in handcuffs.

The room was actually a padded jail cell in the Houston Police Station. It had a sloping concrete floor with a drain in the middle, but no toilet. My connection with the outside world was a small Plexiglas window with a tray beneath it (albeit, a very small tray). It was in this atmosphere that I was consigned to experience, what was called in 1961, "a nervous breakdown."

At the time, I had been awake for four straight days and nights. What drove me to deprive myself of sleep that weekend has occupied me for the last thirty three years. I have this insatiable thirst to know why, why, why. Yet that winter, I ended up in this padded cell, and proceeded to completely lose it. Screaming, raving, out of my mind, untouched by reality, all of my energy streamed out to the padding around my cell. Finally, I passed out from sheer fatigue, all of my being expended. Around half a day later I awoke in a holding cell close to the padded cell.

Groping to gain my bearings, I noticed a steel plate, a spoon, and a metal cup with cold coffee just outside my cell. The plate contained cold toast with syrup over it. Looking back, this must have been for breakfast, yet it was mid-afternoon.

How and where do you go to get help for this insidious illness? If you are in it for the long term, you'll surely end up in the public system. That system is so fragmented that it's like entering the lottery and you take your chances.

None the less I ate that meal and no other meal has ever been quite as tasty. It was nectar from the Gods for sure. For anyone who has a break with reality, the day of one's first break is a very important milestone. It seems everything is viewed around this date. How was I before that day? How am I after that day? What would I have become if that fateful day had not occurred?

My childhood was happy and meaningful. The girl I met in college fell for my line and has been my wife through thick and thin for thirty seven years. We moved to Houston, Texas in 1957 and I had several good jobs before my break. In fact, the job I had at the time I went bonkers, was as a purchasing agent for a large manufacturing plant. The company had me on a fast track training program for better things.

The company staked me to a night school at the University of Houston. But not satisfied, I threw a Houston Post Paper route, too. Although I was only getting three to four hours sleep each night, I really had the world by the tail. That was the before. The after is a more complicated tale. Remember the police station? I didn't just stay there, it marked the beginning of my travel through the world of the mad.

At the time, they transferred me to another facility with the great name of The Harris County Psychopathic Ward. It was housed in the old county jail equipped with sliding cell doors, and gobs and gobs of layered flaky paint. It was a single cell which really allowed one to barely move around. Yet, sitting in my cell, I could look across the hallway through a barred window and into the outside world. I remember seeing a majestic old, craggy oak tree that appeared to be at least a hundred years old. Every morning when I awakened, the first thing I would look for was that old oak tree with its gnarled limbs reaching for the sky. And my reality check worked that tree was always there! We had a little private ritual, that tree and me. I would stretch my limbs, sort of imitating it, saluting it... actually. There was something noble, very special about it's survival qualities, maybe, that spoke to me. And, I vowed that, when I got out, I would go to the library and check out the history of that tree. I just knew there had to be something very special about it.

I did get out. I did check the historical books to trace that tree. Imagine my surprise and astonishment when I learned that the majestic old oak tree was the notorious hanging tree used around the turn of the century. What was my inspiration was the ultimate, inglorious end for many a lost soul. Ironic how perception and reality don't quite meet where you think they will.

My diagnosis of the mental illness they say I have seems to change with the passing fads and the "latest" scientific thinking and labels. I do know that I am classified as "...a chronic mental patient having a persistent and chronic condition". Those vague, magical terms reappear in all my records. In the first twenty years of my mental illness I count thirteen times as an in patient in a psych hospital. Yet, I guess I have fooled them, since currently I have not been hospitalized for over ten years. I'm proud of that, 'cause it ain't easy.

How and where do you go to get help for this insidious illness? If you are in it for the long term, you'll surely end up in the public system. That system is so fragmented that it's like entering the lottery and you take your chances. On my early journey, I was an inmate in the Texas Public Mental hospitals.

Early on my stay was at Austin State Hospital part of several different stays. I was housed in an old stone building built in the 1800's. It was a three story building, dank and dark, moist to a point of suffocation. The inside was painted battle gray (over and over and over). The day room was on the ground floor, men were in a open room on the third floor, and women were on the second floor. Narrow steep stairs connected each floor.

My job while there was to paint the never ending stairs a battleship gray. How I hated that job it was part of my therapy but what did it accomplish? The most vivid memory for me, of that stay, was an experience I had in the day room. The day room was below ground level and moisture was everywhere. While sitting on a couch, my hands fell behind the couch resting on two rings in the wall. I asked the ward attendant what they were for. He brightened up and told me that chains to hold the insane were attached to those rings. I wasn't in chains, but couldn't help but feel that the treatment of mental patients hadn't come very far.

Some have asked, what drives me to survive and why I am now an advocate for better services. It's simple it's anger. Anger that I suffered this illness, anger that I lost control of my life, anger at the treatment I have received.

Some have asked, what drives
me to survive and why I am now
an advocate for better services.
It's simple it's anger.

My first experience with advocacy revolved around an incident at Austin State Hospital. I was there around election time and even though I was imprisoned, I wanted to cast an absentee ballot in the election. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had no right to vote, that I was a mental patient. I pointed out that I was not committed and had not lost any rights that I could see. But the woman, who thought she had the authority, was adamant I could not vote.

I sat with that thought for what might have been days (time is a very vague measure when you are within those walls). Then, I made a bold move, at least for me. I appealed the ward nurse's decision to the superintendent and after a period of time, he handed down his decision. "Not only can Mr. Harvey vote, but you are to help him do so." I had won, not only for me, but for others who would follow.

Something happened to me with that election victory. For a brief moment I guess I felt the same kind of flush the fellow elected president must feel; kind of an astonishment that you pulled it off against wild odds. It was a powerful feeling, followed by a deep, very personal realization that, despite the horror of my fate, I could actually do something that made a difference for myself and others.

There were no drums and flourishes that day, and no headlines you know, like "MIKE HARVEY GETS OUT THE MAD VOTE! AUSTIN TREMBLES!" Nothing like that. But, something very big in my life did happen. I grasped, with all the strength in me, a new responsibility... a dedication, that I would use my life to help my brothers and sisters in mental illness to have a better lot in theirs. And down deep I knew I could deliver.

My efforts have resulted in some pluses but also a lot on the minus side. Tenacity, I've found, is often the difference. I don't know why God cursed me with this illness, that today the labelers are calling "bipolar", but it's the same God that has helped me to endure. I'm not special, but yet I am special. And it's pay back time. I only hope I'm up to the task.


(This article was first pubished in 1995, in The Journal of NAMI California)

MIKE HARVEY, SR. has survived 33 years of mental illness. He has been married for 37 years, lives in Houston, Texas with his own family and has devoted the last 20 years to advocacy.






Special thanks to California NAMI. This article was originally published in The Journal of NAMI California, and is provided on this web site with permission of NAMI California. Copyright 2000, NAMI California.

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