Regardless of which psychological disorder they’re afflicted with, all patients are equal on the dance floor.
Photos by Tanja Kernweiss
On the second Wednesday of every month, Klinikum Wahrendorff, a psychiatric hospital in Köthenwald, Germany, becomes the most improbable disco in the world. The common room is cleared out and transformed into something resembling a typical discotheque: People dress up, dance, drink, flirt, argue, and generally get out of hand. The main difference here is that while it’s hard to get in to a regular club, it’s even more difficult to get out of Wahrendorff.
I arrive before the festivities begin to find two light machines beaming blue, red, yellow, and green lights in various patterns on the dark hardwood floor and the long red curtains that cover the windows. It could be a scene straight out of a B movie from the 80s, except I don’t think the concept of time is held in high regard here.
I scan the deserted room and try to picture how it will appear in 30 minutes, when 200 patients invade the space and coagulate into one dancing, pulsing entity. The bass kicks in over the speakers. I half-recognize the song. It’s something by Lady Gaga, a fitting choice for a soundcheck in a mental hospital. Behind the dance floor there are tables laden with plastic plates full of chips, pretzels, and other snacks. The setup resembles a cross between a small-town disco and a teenager’s birthday party.
Just like “normal” bars and clubs, some patients prefer to scope out the scene from the sidelines.
I soon discover that psychiatric patients take to the dance floor just like their supposedly sane counterparts: first slowly, then in a rush, all at once, when the right track mobilizes the larger group. It’s not long before the party is in full swing, the music attracting excited inmates like sharks to a bloody meal. The DJ is Sabine Wenzel, the director of the residential portion of the facility, and she defies all the Nurse Ratched, mental-hospital-overseer stereotypes by completely absorbing herself in the music and grooving energetically behind her mixing console. The attendees succumb to the sounds too, including Johnny, a 60-year-old schizophrenic with thinning hair and dirty glasses who alternately sings along and grinds his teeth in pleasure.
Johnny takes a break from the dance floor and wanders over to talk to me. It freaks me out a little. I wonder what goes on inside his head. “Nobody is taking care of me, nobody wants me,” he says, before telling me that someone was mixing poison in his food, which, he continues, is the reason for his sickness. He tells me he’s been in and out of mental hospitals since he was young and admits that he can’t live by himself. “I don’t want to get out; it’s terrible on the outside,” he says. “It’s a bit like Woodstock in here.”
I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I keep thinking about the inmates in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest who prefer the safety and sterility of the hospital to the world outside. I doubt Randle McMurphy would be able to heal Johnny, though. As we talk, he suddenly puckers his face as if he’d just bitten into a lemon and tells me about his various delusions in great detail. For instance, he claims he once infiltrated a ring of pedophiles, which resulted in breaking down the door of a guy’s apartment and catching him jerking off to photos of kids. Johnny spits as he speaks, and my face gets wetter by the syllable. Then, out of nowhere, he loses all interest in me. He hollers, “Music, please,” and wobbles back to the dance floor.
Regardless of which psychological disorder they’re afflicted with, all patients are equal on the dance floor.
The party is boiling at this point, the room packed with sweaty bodies. Apart from a revolving handful of patients with acute problems who only stay for a short while, there are about 1,000 long-term residents at Wahrendorff, all of them 18 or older. Many are here by court order and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Before the party, Sabine gave me a guided tour through the hospital while continuously smoking an e-cigarette with a glowing tip. When we got to the maximum-security ward, I felt like I had wandered into a house of horrors. Sedated, foggy-eyed figures shuffled around the halls—all bleak faces and bad posture. Colorful artwork painted by the patients decorated the walls, illuminated by fluorescent lights suspended from the ceilings. The days of straitjackets and solitary confinement have long passed, and the communal living room looked pretty cozy, but I got spooked nevertheless. They’re in the process of furnishing a room that is completely padded from floor to ceiling. Everything will be soft. “Being crazy is fun here,” Sabine said.
As the director of the residential home, Sabine has nearly absolute authority over the patients, but not so much as a DJ. As she cycles through some German hits for the umpteenth time, someone yells out, “Fuck the DJ!” Everyone’s a critic, even in a psych ward. The party has reached critical mass, and despite the heckling, everyone is dancing, even Tanja, my photographer. She’s not afraid of the patients at all.
Maybe not surprisingly, a lot of the patients dance alone to their own private rhythms.
I would love to be so relaxed, but I just can’t do it. I’m standing at the edge of the dance floor, embarrassed and feeling like the most awkward voyeur in the world. I wish I were a cigar smoker, who could hide his awkwardness behind a cloud of tobacco. I feel a bit ill after seeing all these sick people. Suddenly, I realize that someone is approaching me from behind, and a very big lady with a clubfoot lands a kiss on my cheek and nibbles on me very gently, like a cat biting her young. I’m really feeling the fear now, and I move away to dry my face with my hoody.
While some of the guests—like my not-so-secret admirer—are obviously not inhabiting the same world I live in, others seem completely normal. For instance, there’s Nadja, a young woman with borderline personality disorder, a condition that’s characterized by intense mood swings and impulsive behavior that can wreck personal relationships—not that you’d guess that from meeting her.
At the height of the celebration, the crowd becomes one dancing, pulsing entity.
Nadja smiles frequently as we chat. She really likes being interviewed, giggling as she tells me she doesn’t like the music that’s being played right now. She’s more into techno and hip-hop and is so charming, eloquent, and nice and has such a cute little face that I catch myself wondering, “Is that girl really sick?” Then she tells me the story of how she was sexually abused as a child and how her illness stems from that. She had been thinking about suicide for a long time, but she’s over that now. She also cut her arms with a razor blade. “But really superficial, I never had to have stitches,” she explains, as if it were the most normal activity in the world. Nadja used to live in the maximum-security ward, but she was transferred to minimum security in February. She wasn’t able to go to school for a long time but now wants to complete her GED. “I would really love to work with sick kids, take them for a walk, read to them, stuff like that.” She adds that she’d really like to have a family, provided that her husband isn’t constantly trying to touch her or have sex with her.
At the DJ stand, Sabine has moved onto the really cheap techno. She created this looney disco six years ago, shortly after she started working in Wahrendorff. By now, the event is a monthly highlight on the patients’ sparse social calendars. There’s also a movie night once a month, but that’s less of a draw. It’s easy to see why dance night is so popular: It’s one of the few things that resembles something you’d see in the outside world. A bouncer stands at the door and stamps the guests’ hands (blue for people from minimum security, red for those from maximum who aren’t allowed to leave the disco). Young, hormone-driven guys nurse nonalcoholic beers at the edges of the packed, sweaty dance floor. Occasionally, fights break out, just as at every club, and there’s the odd person who tries to sneak (nonprescribed) drugs.
The guests flirt with one another, of course, and it can actually lead to something serious—Wahrendorff allows lovers to move in together inside the hospital walls and provides contraceptives and information about STDs. “Our patients do have a right to love and sexuality,” says Sabine.
Markus has HIV and drug-induced psychosis, but that doesn’t keep him from partying and having a good time.
I look around the floor and see 21-year-old Sandra Brandt, a nurse-in-training who’s dancing with Markus, a 44-year-old patient who cuts a striking figure in red stretch pants and a plaid shirt. His mouth is open in a laugh that bares all of his teeth as he struts like Travolta and spins the young nurse around. Markus suffers from drug-induced psychosis, which is just what it sounds like. Sometimes the psychosis goes away after a period of treatment, sometimes it doesn’t.
Markus instantly agrees to speak to me, and we raise a toast together. It’s clear we like each other, but I quickly realize it’s going to be tough to speak with him—his speech is severely impaired, to the point where he sounds like a toddler with a mouth full of marshmallows who’s trying to say something very important very loudly. Sandra understands, though, and acts as my translator. She explains that Markus used to live in Mallorca, Spain, where he owned a bar. He loved to dance back then, too. “He was constantly out in the clubs and took lots of LSD,” Sandra says. Markus is gay and caught HIV in 1993. His psychosis and the HIV infection are eating away at his brain, but he remains agile, alert, hungry, thirsty, and as ready to devour life as he was in the old days. “Come on, let’s keep on dancing,” he says in his unique language. Sandra nods, and they’re back on the floor.
I begin to relax. Markus is an example of how positive one can be, even with a severe illness. He’s looking forward to every day as if it were a new journey. And it’s not as if the people here are contagious or kept in quarantine. Wahrendorff is not just one of the biggest employers in the area, it is also remarkably well integrated with the surrounding community; every September, there are jazz festivals where patients and people from the surrounding towns mingle, the insane and the supposedly sane interacting amiably.
Nicole, 22, suffers from Münchausen syndrome.
As the party reaches its finale, I notice an eerie parallel: It’s Wahrendorff’s equivalent of the moment when, in a regular club, you’d be glancing around for your last, desperate options for getting laid. Sure enough, something soft and romantic is playing. Some patients sway on their chairs, others sing along. Nobody slow-dances. A man stamps his right foot down, then his left, like a drowsy baby elephant. The snacks are almost completely ravaged when I walk up to the bar and meet Nicole, a short 22-year-old with blue eyes; she’s wearing makeup and sweet, bitter perfume. She’d make it past the ropes at practically any club in the world, but she is here because she suffers from Münchausen syndrome, meaning she pretends to have illnesses and imitates symptoms without actually being sick, often just to get attention.
She won’t tell me exactly what disease she pretended to have the last time she was taken to the hospital, but she openly admits that she just made it up. She looks at me and grins, the sanest smile in the whole world. I ask her how she copes with the other patients, whose problems are more obvious. “It was weird in the beginning, but I’m happy to be here now.” She got used to seeing people who look a bit odd. As harmless as Nicole seems, she is still in maximum security; she had to be forcibly restrained while pretending to have seizures, and not long after she was admitted to Wahrendorff, she pushed one of the nurses and tried to run away. Nicole believes her illness originates in her childhood. Her parents argued a lot, often leaving her to take care of the home, and she became so overwhelmed she stopped going to school. She thinks she’ll stay in the hospital at least until 2013, and her dream is to become a nurse for the elderly after she receives her GED. She doesn’t want any contact with her parents right now. Nicole asks whether I’m married, pointing at my ring before she goes back to dancing. Am I the last desperate option now?
Before I leave, I ask one of the clinic’s male nurses, who’s serving as a bouncer tonight, whether any trouble happened during the dance. He tells me that apart from some escape attempts, there was nothing doing. “You can’t have 100 percent control,” he says, adding that someone might have smuggled some real beer inside, which happens somewhat regularly. It doesn’t faze him. “I’m happy when I see the patients here. It’s such a different setting. They’re really happy here.”
I’m on my way back to the common room when the real night-ender happens. The large lady with the clubfoot reappears and bows down toward my crotch, preparing to use her teeth again. I can barely prevent the attack and try to flee a possibly painful incident. My face is burning. The woman watches my retreat with wild eyes, shaking her boobs and making them wobble like Jell-O. She won: I’m really afraid. Then the thing happens that happens at every good party: It ends. The lights are turned on, and it’s closing time—the patients board small buses, and everyone leaves. Sabine cues up the same song she always does at the end of these parties, “Born to Live,” by the family-friendly German band Unheilig. She says the lyrics mean a lot to many of the patients:
“We were born to live/ for all eternity/ We were born to live/ for just that one moment/ when everyone realized/ how precious life is.”