Earl K. Long Hospital, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Jan. 1997.
Many people who’ve been through mental health issues, addiction, and so on, refer to “rock bottom”, that one place in time when things got so bad, they couldn’t get any worse. For me, that was Jan 1997. My marriage had just ended, I quit therapy and medication. I quit my job. I walked away from everything and got in my car and simply drove, and drove, and drove. Out West, down South, in the Great Plains, and wherever else I felt like wandering. Until, finally, I ran out of money, and my car gave out, in a little town outside of Baton Rouge, LA named Livingston.
I walked/hitchhiked my way back to Baton Rouge and lived on the streets. I have only vague recollections of those few days, not because I was having mental issues, but because I had contracted a very serious virus and was running something in the neighborhood of 103-104 degree temperature. Eventually, I simply collapsed, and was found by a decent human being out for his morning jog, who called an ambulance.
That ambulance took me to Earl K. Long Hospital. The nine days I spent there represent my rock bottom. The doctor who thought I was dying from AIDS because my white blood cell count was so low, being too weak to bath myself, soiling the bed, having a psych intern sit with me every single day to figure out whether I was suicidal that day. (A young woman who probably did more than she will ever know to help me start climbing back from rock bottom, by the way.) It was humiliation, plain and simple.
Flash forward 20 years and a couple of months. I now live and work in, of all places, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
So, the other evening, I was out with a few coworkers, and came to discover that one of them had grown up in town and between her and her sister, also in attendance, knew everything about the town. (OK maybe not really, but enough). I took this opportunity to ask about where the hospital was, because I had been unable to find any reference to it since I’d arrived in town. I told them some, not all, of the story, and they helped me figure out what area of town it was in, and what had happened to it in the 20 years that had past.
Naturally, after I told them the story of my first visit to Baton Rouge, they immediately wanted to know what the heck I was thinking moving there after that experience!
It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that. I imagine it won’t be the last. I’ve had the same conversation with myself, to be honest. Why on earth would I want to move to a place that represents rock bottom to me?
Frankly, there are a lot of reasons to move to Baton Rouge. I’ve written about them before, the opportunity to be close to family, to get off the road and back to a somewhat normal life again. The chance to get my very Southern wife home again. Those have all played into this decision.
More importantly though, look at the photo above. That is what is left of Earl K. Long hospital. A “closed” sign behind a barb-wired fence on an empty lot overgrown with weeds. The building was demolished a few years ago. None of the people who treated me, and helped me take the first few steps out of rock bottom are there. They’ve all gone off to different places. There is nothing about that place that is the same as it was 20 years ago. And there’s very little about me that is the same as it was 20 years ago either. This is not 1997. I am not the person I was then, dealing with major depressive and dissociative episodes, unable to function on my own. That is not the 2017 version of me.
This version is better equipped to deal with whatever life brings my way. That’s not to say this move has been easy. Moving across the country and starting a new job is stressful. It can be overwhelming at times, and I have struggled with that. I’ve even had a panic attack once during this adjustment, so far. But, I’m not a threat to myself the way I was in 1997. Things have changed. Twenty years has a funny way of making that happen.
So yeah, there are reminders of a time that I wish had never happened here in my new home town. There are also a million new things too, that will be mine to explore and enjoy in the coming years. In the midst of those reminders though, is the reality of how much has changed since then.
Earl K. Long might not be standing any more, but I am. Things are different this time.