A Teenager on Bull Street
Before AA popped up in every town in America, and addiction treatment centers became commonplace, alcoholics poured into the SC State Hospital with some frequency.
Though afflicted men and women weren’t “mentally ill” by conventional standards, their reckless consumption of liquor caused them to behave in deviant, destructive, often unlawful ways. Their loved ones would take them to Bull Street as a last resort.
By the time he was just 17, Bill Fort had dropped out of Columbia High School and was working intake full time at the state hospital. He had no problem getting a job as a psychiatric aid, as there wasn’t exactly a line of people waiting to get their hands dirty and take orders from nurses for $80 per week.
“I did everything from mopping floors and making beds to cleaning, restraining and escorting patients,” Fort, now 67, explains.
Having grown up in Columbia, Fort admits he arrived at the job intimidated by all the stories and myths he’d heard about the hospital. For a while, he didn’t think he was cut out for it.
“My first few days there, I was sick to my stomach,” he says. “That smell, the atmosphere … I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. But after the first week I just fell in love with it. We (the staff) got to be like family. We realized we were taking care of people that really needed us, and we did save a lot of people’s lives.”
Fort worked on the first floor of the Williams Building, where patients of all types were admitted and held for a mandatory 30-day observation period. The first two floors of the large brick structure were designated for female patients and the top two for males. Fort estimates about three out of every four patients he worked with were alcoholic.
This was usually how it went: Family members would show up in the lobby with an intoxicated relative who didn’t necessarily know they were being committed. After an interview/assessment process, the person would be placed in a wheelchair and transported to a locked patient ward. If they became disruptive, they were locked into a seclusion room and injected with a heavy sedative. If they were especially resistant, they would be sent to the tougher, more secure Cooper building at the back of the campus.
Fort claims that, back then, the state hospital didn’t really have a program in place for alcoholics. They were simply kept away from booze and given adequate food and rest. Most recovered their health and reason during the initial 30-day-observation period and were released. While patients were detoxing, it was Fort’s job to monitor them and check their vitals so they didn’t have a stroke or go into DTs (delirium tremens). If they did, they were administered immediate medical attention. The job did have its perks, however, as the 18-year-old was allowed to participate in recreational activities like playing cards with patients and reading to them.
The job kept him busy and he found it fulfilling to watch patients progress from alcoholic despair to hope.
“I liked the feeling of helping people,” he explains. “I saw people come in and I saw them go out. I saw a big difference after the 30-60 days that somebody was there.”
He also enjoyed his coworkers.
“The medical staff was very caring. They were good people,” he claims. “They wanted to do what was best for the patient. Everybody was real busy and everybody had a job to do. There wasn’t any time for any infighting or anything like that.”
Descent and Redemption
Having witnessed the devastation of alcoholism on a daily basis, it seems ironic that Fort would succumb to his own addiction while working on Bull Street. But the disease is cunning, baffling and powerful, as they say; and in 1969, experimentation with narcotics was escalating. Fort says he began hanging out with the wrong crowd, smoking marijuana and then progressing to opiates. He started shooting Heroin and lost control of his life. No longer able to work, he walked away from his job at the state hospital only to return months later as a patient. He spent six weeks inside of Hall Institute for substance abuse treatment.
But, just 18 years old, he wasn’t ready to go clean quite yet. He continued using drugs and was busted several times for simple possession. Finally, he violated probation and was sent first to Columbia’s maximum-security Central Correctional Institute (CCI) and then to Manning Correctional Institution (another max-security prison in Columbia). He was 19 years old and less than 120 pounds when he got to prison, but what seemed like the end of the road proved ultimately to be a new start.
First of all, Fort learned how to box, which improved his health, self-esteem and standing in the dangerous inmate community.
“I had wrecked my health by age 19,” he explains. “Boxing forces you to stay in shape. you can’t halfway do it or you’ll get hurt. When the punches start coming you have to move.”
Even more importantly, he returned to academics, first passing the GED and then entering a college program the SC Department of Corrections (SCDOC) had just established with the University of South Carolina. Three times a week, the prison bussed inmates across town to CCI for their classes. With no drugs or job to distract him, Fort excelled.
“I owe a lot to the SCDOC for guiding me through obtaining a GED and beginning college,” he says. “I’m living proof that corrections does work if done right.”
Merle Haggard might have sung about turning 21 in prison, but Fort really did turn 20 while locked up at Manning. He still remembers his mother bringing his birthday cake to the visitation area there.
Finally released after serving a year and a half, the young man stayed focused and drug free, earning his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from USC and then working as a clerk in several area hotels. When that grew stale, he headed down to Florida to study motorcycle mechanics. He made his way down to Key West where he worked on mopeds for $7 per hour. While there, one man offered him $150 to come to Miami and box four rounds.
Another offered him quite a bit more to smuggle drugs into Belize. Fort declined both opportunities, choosing to stay on the straight and narrow and return to Columbia in 1982.
Three months later, he took a job as an employment counselor at a job agency on Calhoun Street, where he was once again able to work face to face with people and help them on a daily basis. For the first time in over a dozen years, he had a job he really enjoyed; and he kept it until his retirement in 2013.
The Cost of Deinstitutionalization
Today, Fort admits his prison stint probably saved his life.
“If I hadn’t gotten locked up, I’d have never taken the GED, I’d have never taken the college boards and I would have never enrolled at USC,” he says.
Eighteen months locked away from society may seem a bit much, but Fort says he needed that amount of time to reflect on his life and recover from his addiction.
That personal lesson affirmed what he’d observed working on Bull Street. Alcoholics and addicts need adequate time away from society if they are to make a new start in life.
“You have to have a place where people can go for some time,” he explains. “Time is what’s going to heal them. If they just go somewhere to detox for a week or so, it’s just going to give them enough time to work up a good thirst.”
Fort says he witnessed this truth again firsthand a few years ago when his older brother died of alcoholism. He remains convinced that he’d still be alive today had he been able to go somewhere like the state hospital for 30-60 days.
It’s the primary reason he laments the closing of the Bull Street campus. There are no longer public institutions where South Carolinians can get help for their addictions and mental illnesses.
“I challenge anybody to go to Columbia Area Mental Health and try to get somebody admitted,” he says. “These days there is no mental health help and I’ll say that to anybody. You cannot get mental health help in SC.”
Fort remembers the tide beginning to shift even when he was working in the Williams Building in 1969.
“At the time in our state legislature, public sentiment went to deinstitutionalizing patients,” he explains. “I think it was mostly proposed by the legislature to save money. I don’t know how it happened, but all those services got defunded and they don’t exist anymore.”
Indeed, research shows that the hospital’s patient population fell from over 6,000 in 1967 to under 1,900 by 1975. By 1986 there were less than 700 patients.
Fort blames stories like Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1962) for vilifying state hospitals and perpetuating the deinstitutionalization movement.
He says he never met any Nurse Ratchets during his time on Bull Street, just employees who cared about their patients and wanted to help them.
“It was a wonderful facility, and, when I was there, I knew we were doing good work,” he says. “We could still be doing it now, but it’s just gone away. That’s why defunding and deinstitutionalizing mental health is one of the worst things to ever happen to SC.”