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NC Health News staff and writers were on the grounds of the old Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh Saturday collecting stories of people who had connections to the institution.
The city of Raleigh sponsored an all-day event, Destination Dix, meant to get people out onto the property, which was acquired by the city from the state of North Carolina last year.
“The goal has always been to make Dix a world class destination park that all North Carolinians can be proud of and enjoy,” said Mayor Nancy McFarlane in a May press conference where she announced the event . “In addition to bringing the community to this beautiful location for a great event, Destination Dix will spur their imagination about what they want the park to be; the sky is the limit.”
In 2010, despite the protestations of many in the mental health advocacy community, Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Hospital shut its doors after being in continuous operation since 1856.
As the state constructed a new facility in Butner to replace Dix, those arguing for its closure said that the facility had become too antiquated, required too much upkeep and in some cases, had become too dangerous to continue treating patients there.
But many advocates argued that the institution, with its storied history, was an essential part of North Carolina’s mental health infrastructure, providing beds and a safe place for the state’s mentally ill.
Nonetheless, the institution on Raleigh’s Dix Hill closed and for the last five years, there’s been debate as to the future of the property. Last year, the General Assembly approved the $52 million dollar sale of the property after several years of negotiation.
Meanwhile, the living history of the hospital is slipping away as former workers, residents and patients move away or pass away.
Now, NC Health News is looking to gather stories of people who had connections to the place: whether as patient or members of their families, staff and their families, and children who grew up in the staff housing on the property.
Some people have multiple connections, like Ellen Beidler, who did a rotation at the hospital while training as a psychiatric nurse. Beidler said she also had a friend who was a frequent patient, had neighbors who had lived on the property and had friends who worked there.
Robin Madison who has lived in neighboring Boylan Heights for more than 20 years said she’d often encounter patients in her neighborhood.
“I remember… we were sitting out on the front lawn, in lawn chairs. We were having a drink in the yard on a beautiful spring day and someone coming up… and just talking to us, but obviously confused about where they were,” she said, adding that she and her friends would point those folks back to Dix. “That happened all the time.”
Madison also said she goes sledding on the property in the winter – in the days when the hospital was in operation, she and her friends would be “chased off,” but she said now no one chases them away.
Countless North Carolinians had small encounters at Dix, which served as a training location for generations of mental health professionals. One doesn’t have to talk to a North Carolina native for long to find a connection.
Chan Evans was a graduate student in teaching in 1992 when she taught classes to adolescents at the facility.
“They were the best students I ever had,” she said. “They were 4 to 6 students in a class… and I just remember their writing ability was just really excellent writers and I don’t know if that was another part of their therapy in another part of their day, but I was so impressed with them.”
All these people readily talk about their time at Dix. But one group of Dix alumni do not speak as readily about their time there – former patients.
Madison is also one of the many North Carolinians who had family members who were patients at Dix, but, as in so many families, the details were shrouded in stigma. Her grandmother and a great-grandmother were both were institutionalized at the hospital.
“I’m pretty sure that my mother didn’t know where her grandmother was. Nobody talked about it,” she said. Madison’s mother’s mother was a patient for a short time, but her Madison’s great-grandmother lived at Dix until she died.
“She and her sisters pieced it together,” Madison said. “They kind of guessed about it”
“With my grandmother, I think at one point she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. I’m not sure that was correct because that was a label back in the day and it was a catch-all,” she said, remembering her grandmother’s odd behavior at times.
Madison also said one of her aunts has “blocked it all out.”
Got a story to tell?
We’re looking for the good and the bad, the triumphant and the troubling.
There are several ways you can participate:
♦ Check out our website: www.livesonthehill.org which will have new content soon.
♦ Call our reader story line to record a memory that’s less than 5 minutes long: (919) 659 LOTH/ (919) 659 5684
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♦ And keep your eye out for announcements about our event on Sunday, October 16, from 1-4:30 pm, location to be determined.