My Father’s Stay at God’s Hotel: A Slow-Medicine Approach to Healing Mental Illness

It’s been a long journey to come to peace with my father’s life and how it has impacted my own.  I was born on December 21, 1943 in New York City.  My parents had tried to conceive for many years, but had been unsuccessful.  They finally were successful when my father was 37 and my mother was 35 following a procedure where my father’s sperm was injected mother, a radical approach back then.

The vague memories I have of my early life were positive.  One that sticks in my mind is a memory of being 3 or 4 sitting on my father’s shoulders, laughing wildly as he rode me around the small park in Encino, California, not far from our house in Sherman Oaks.  The San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles was beautiful in those early years of my memory with citrus groves as far as the eye could see.

But other memories were not so positive.  I have flashes of my father’s anger, times when he wasirritable, angry, and withdrawn, and periods when he would disappear for days at a time.  I learned later than he had become increasingly depressed and would have been diagnosed as bipolar, if that diagnosis had existed at the time. He couldn’t find work in his chosen field as an actor, author, and playwright.

When I was five years old, my father tried to take his own life.  Although he survived physically our lives were never the same.  I grew up wondering what happened to my father and whether it would happen to me.  When I became a father I made a vow to my son, Jemal, when I held him moments after his birth.  I told him that I would be a different kind of father than my father was able to be for me and I would do everything to create a different kind of world where the wounds of our fathers were healed and children could grow up free of the pain suffered by their parents.

Following the suicide attempt, my father was hospitalized at Camarillo State Mental Hospital.   I still remember visiting him with my uncle.  It seemed a horrible place with people shrieking madly or zonked out on drugs.  My father spent seven years locked up there and I watched him deteriorate and become even more depressed and crazy over the years.

I grew up and our lives moved on.  I felt ashamed that my father was in a mental hospital and avoided talking about him.  The doctors told my mother that he was a chronic schizophrenic and would never leave the hospital.  Back then if you acted “crazy” the general diagnosis wasschizophrenia.  These days he would have been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder or, on his good days from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder or Irritable Male Syndrome.  Eventually my mother and he divorced.

My father escaped from Camarillo after being there for seven years.  He walked more than a hundred miles and took up residence in Santa Monica.  An uncle unexpectedly ran into him years later and told me where he was living.  I went to see him and was struck by two things.  He was, as the song went, “still crazy after all these years.”  But he could also be kind and gentle and he put on puppet shows for the children in the neighborhood.

He would seem normal for a while, but then would become agitated and paranoid.  His anger would escalate and he would become consumed by it.  Eventually he would scream at me, tell me he never wanted to see me again, and threaten me until I would reluctantly leave.  He refused to get help for his “mental illness,” which I could understand, given his experiences in Camarillo.  I saw him numerous times over the years, but our encounters always ended the same way.  I eventually gave up having a father I could trust and moved on with my own life.

The Call From Laguna Honda

I received an unexpected call from a social worker at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco.  They told me my father was hospitalized there and I could come and visit him if I wanted.  They said he was in good shape now and had been there for three months.  I was a bit shocked to hear from anyone about him.  I was curious about where he was and how he had ended up there, but I was also reluctant to face the anger that I remembered from the past.

I did visit and I found a man who had changed.  His anger seemed to have melted away.  The kindness and compassion were more evident.  He seemed happy for the first time in his life.  “This place has changed me,” he said.  “It’s totally different than the concentration camp in Camarillo.  These people really care about you.”  I didn’t know how it had happened, but I was glad it did.

He eventually left the hospital and moved into a little apartment in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco.  We had twenty good years of connection until he died at age 90.  It was years later that I came to understand the healing that occurred in God’s Hotel.

God’s Hotel

Victoria Sweet, M.D. spent more than 20 years as a physician at Laguna Honda Hospital.  In her recent book, God’s Hotel:  A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, she describes her journey and the kind of care that was given at Laguna Honda.  “San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital is the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s Hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages,” she says,  “Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves —anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt, onto hard times and needed extended medical care — ended up there.”  My father was one of the fortunate “creatively crazy” people whose wounds were healed at Laguna Honda.

Dr. Sweet had the chance to practice a kind of “slow medicine” that has almost vanished in our world.  Alongside the modern view of the body as a machine to be fixed, her patients evoked an older notion, of the body as a garden to be tended. Fortunately, my father and thousands of others had a chance to be the beneficiaries of the slow medicine that heals body, mind, and soul.  In a world of fast food and quick fixes, we need the medicine that Dr. Sweet was able to practice at Laguna Honda.  Let the spirit of God’s Hotel live on forever.  We all deserve the chance to check in when we are in need.

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