We have all heard the comment, “He’s an institutional case.” It is usually applied to someone who has been released from a prison or some other institution where he had resided for a long time. While institutionalized, his life was entirely regimented and organized for him. His life in the institution may have been very small and limited, although it felt safe and comfortable.
Now on the outside he finds just going grocery shopping to be traumatic. The myriad of every-day decisions he faces is often overwhelming. Freedom, yes, but also total discomfort! It is no wonder he finds himself thinking about how simple life was in the institution.
I experienced the simplicity of institutional life myself, while confined to the hospital last year… I didn’t have to pay bills, drive myself anywhere or work. It was hard on my wife because she had to pick up the slack and do many of the things that I had handled. I often endured pain or boredom in my little life, but it was simple.
Many former long-term institutional residents take action to assure their speedy return to their comfortable little prison cell. Fortunately for me, my hospital sentence was too short to have any lasting effect on me.
There are other kinds of institutions, besides the obvious penitentiaries, hospitals and care-homes, which can act as prisons. They can turn you into an institutional case if you stay there long enough. It can feel comfortable, familiar and predictable, although freedom is very limited and life is small.
One such prison is addiction to alcohol or drugs. The addiction box provides a limited life with little freedom. Few who have been there will argue with that. Those still in the box, however, usually deny how limited their lives are.
Being in an addictive cell too long leads to becoming an institutional case, just like being behind bars does. Some seek parole from this box, but then find life too uncomfortable. It’s very easy to get back in, and most do return to using a few times.
The 40-year-old parolee from the prison of addiction is confronted with all the normal challenges of life for people of his age. But to him every molehill feels like a mountain. He is facing the challenges and stresses typical for his age, but is about as well equipped emotionally for the stresses of middle-age as the average 25-year old. There may have been lots of life events, but they were faced with alcoholic numbness, not full experience and comprehension.
Are there other prisons that can psychologically limit people to living small? I’ve seen under-education, unemployment, a bad marriage, and geography, including living on a reserve, all become prisons with the consequent smallness of life and lack of freedom. Even the illusory promise of a small pension can keep a person locked into a small life.
What other life-limiting institutions can you think of?