Friday, July 27, 2007

The Road Back to High Watch

My earliest memory is of being a very little girl on a large green lawn, sitting with my mother and some other ladies on chairs under towering trees. The ladies might have been drinking iced tea. I might have been drinking lemonade. All of them smiled at me a lot. One lady, who might have been wearing a sun hat, also wore a great deal of jewelry, large sparkling gems of the kind I adored as a child. She let me sit on her lap and play with her rings.

We also played croquet. At least, the ladies played, and let me take my turn trying to hit the ball through the wicket.

This scene occurred in the spring or early summer of 1964, when I was three years old. I was visiting my mother at High Watch Farm, a residential treatment facility for alcoholics and addicts in Connecticut. (As I always do when I tell any part of my mother's history, I want to emphasize that I have her permission to share it.) She had previously been in a large state mental hospital; I tell that story in this homily. The AA member who convinced my father to let my mother out of the hospital also recommended High Watch, which uses AA as the cornerstone of treatment, as an alternative. My mother was happy there, and even happier that my sister and I were visiting her, and the other women -- many starved for family contact -- were delighted to have a little girl to spoil. My first memory, of being on that green lawn, is therefore one of great joy and peace.

I recently visited High Watch again, although this visit was only a virtual one.

My journey began with the recent U.S. News and World Report listing of America's Best Hospitals. Because I'm interested in healthcare, I read the "Honor Roll" of the top eighteen hospitals, and because I'm interested in chaplaincy, I searched each hospital's site to see what spiritual-care services they offered.

One of the hospitals on the list is Yale-New Haven Hospital. I did my doctoral work in English at Yale, and I've had surgery at that hospital. My memories of New Haven are neither joyful nor peaceful; nonetheless, that rather grim city was home for several years, so I was particularly interested in the YNHH site.

A search for "chaplaincy" on that site uncovered this moving article by YNHH Chaplain Kathleen Blake Thompson. Thompson's credits note that she's also a chaplain at High Watch.

I hadn't realized that High Watch still existed, but I promptly Googled it. The photo at the top of this post is of the barn, where AA meetings take place. It gives you some idea of how lovely the grounds are even now, forty-two years after the ladies and I played croquet there. Looking at this and other photos, I experienced a rush of nostalgia, although as far as I know, I only visited once.

Further exploration of the High Watch site brought me to their donation page, where I read about a number of special funds, including this one: "The Wilson Bed Scholarship provides charitable beds to individuals who are in desperate need of treatment but have no means to pay for it."

I'm generous with my time, but I don't tend to give a lot of money. Among the nearly infinite number of worthy causes out there, very few feel like "mine." But this one did, urgently and immediately, even though my family had enough money to pay for my mother's stay at High Watch (which cost much less in 1964 than it would now).

So I sent High Watch a check, along with a letter describing my mother's recovery. Part of that letter reads as follows:
She’s 82 now, still sober. In addition to her alcoholism, she’s survived breast cancer, lung cancer, a stroke, and surgery to survive an abdominal aneurysm.

Thank you for helping to save my mother’s life.

I’m enclosing a check for _____ for the Wilson Bed Scholarship. This small amount can’t convey my appreciation for the work you do. I volunteer as an emergency-department chaplain here in Reno (where my day job is being an English professor at the University of Nevada, Reno), and I visit with many indigent alcoholics who are desperate to get better, but don’t have access to inpatient recovery services because they don’t have insurance. I often tell these patients about my mother –- and help them find AA meetings! -– and her story seems to inspire them. I’m acutely aware of the need for more residential resources for alcoholics and addicts without much money, so the Wilson Bed Scholarship moves me tremendously.
As I wrote that last paragraph, I was thinking about the patient, one of those indigent alcoholics, who came to our ED several years ago, in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. We had four feet of snow on the ground, which doesn't happen very often in Reno. He had walked -- or waded -- several miles through the snow to the public psychiatric hospital, where they told him that there were no detox beds available. They advised him to check back every day. He didn't have to walk to the hospital to check, they told him; he could call instead.

He cried, telling this story, because he was homeless and didn't have a phone. The social worker (this was back when the ED still had them) wasn't very sympathetic. I think she probably thought that if he could scrounge up enough money to drink, he could also scrounge up money to call the hospital from a phone booth. She thought he'd just come to our hospital to get warm. She didn't think he really wanted to get sober.

In his circumstances, I'd have come to our hospital to get warm, too. And there were many years when my mother didn't really want to get sober, but she did get sober, finally. She went to the AA meeting that "took," in the state hospital, because she was hungry and knew there'd be cookies there. I don't see why going somewhere to get warm couldn't serve the same purpose.

When I wrote my letter to High Watch, I imagined that patient on a green lawn under towering trees, playing croquet.

He'll probably never get to High Watch. But I hope he gets somewhere joyous and peaceful.

And warm.


  1. That's a lovely place, Susan. Thanks for sharing this story. I went and looked at the pictures of the facility. It's wonderful that people can get help in such a warm, welcoming place. It reminds me of my grandmother's when I was young. We played croquet on her lawn too.


  2. Susan: I am a frequent, silent visitor. This was beautiful. Thank you and peace.

  3. Wow. Goodness. And wow.


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