When I was a kid, my dad would joke a lot about The Funny Farm. My dad, in general, has always been a jokester and his comments about people being carted off to The Funny Farm were an ongoing thing. The problem was, when I was very young, I was not always able to determine how much of what he said was fact vs. fiction.
When I was only four, I imagined The Funny Farm as a place where all the funny people hung out and told jokes to each other. I pictured a traditional farm with a big red barn and lots of laughing people standing around. By the age of five I knew that some of the people at The Funny Farm were odd, and that funny had more than one meaning. I thought that "ha ha" funny people were there, but also odd people that made everyone want to laugh with their oddities.
Mental illness was not an acceptable topic in those days, at least not like it is now. Also, it was definitely not a topic to be discussed with, or in front of, children. My dad joked about The Funny Farm, but as I got older I realized The Funny Farm was a scary place I didn't want to be taken to.
We had some family friends with a swimming pool. Every summer they invited us over and I looked forward to visiting them. We didn't have a pool. As everyone knows, it gets quite hot here in Southern California. When I was around seven we were invited over for a swim and our friend's daughter, who was only twelve, was not home. I was surprised and disappointed.
While I swam, I heard snippets of the adult conversation. It was enough to know she had been sent away somewhere and no longer lived there. They didn't know if she'd be back. Everyone was very somber and quiet, and the conversation was hushed in an attempt to prevent me from hearing.
When I had a minute alone with my parents that day I asked where she had gone. My dad said, "She's at The Funny Farm." This time I could tell he was not joking and that it was a very bad thing indeed she was there. Instantly I became afraid of The Funny Farm and the possibility that I might get sent there too.
But for what? I wasn't sure. For being funny? For being odd? For not being funny enough? Could it be a place where you learned to be funny?
My parents hushed me, and told me we would discuss the matter later after we left our friend's house. I spent the afternoon on my best behavior, afraid I might also be sent away to The Funny Farm at any moment.
On the drive home they told me that the girl had "been very afraid of bugs" and imagined them crawling all over her all the time. In my mind, her fear of bugs was why she went to live at The Funny Farm. My dad said something about men in white coats coming to take her away and having to put her in a straight jacket. As an adult, I realize now she had some type of psychotic breakdown and imagined all those bugs. At seven years old, however, their comments terrified me even more.
I have always been afraid of spiders, even as a young child. I instantly worried my fear of spiders might be just the ticket to send me to The Funny Farm. After all, wasn't that the "crime" of the twelve year old girl? Being afraid of bugs? Also, a lot of people told me I was funny. I made people laugh and I was afraid of spiders, and therefore I just knew the men in the white coats would show up and want to take me to The Funny Farm too.
A few nights later I got into bed. I felt something hard bump against my leg. In my dimly lit room, I reached down and grabbed a small hard object, pulled it out from under the sheets and peered at it closely to see what it was. Then I screamed. It was a small clear glass jar with a huge, live spider in it. (Courtesy of my older sister, the demonic prankster of our family.) I ran from my bed to my parents who sat in our family room. I was yelling and screaming and my sister stood there laughing till tears ran down her face.
My parents chided her for her prank, but I think they had a hard time not laughing themselves. No one sent me to The Funny Farm for having freaked out at the spider in my bed. I started throwing the sheets back and checking my bed for sibling-pranks every night before I went to sleep. I did, however, stop worrying about being taken to The Funny Farm. If my parents kept me even after all my hollering that one night, I knew I didn't need to worry anymore about being sent to The Funny Farm.