Running at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH)

I was standing at the traffic junction, waiting for the green man to appear — halfway through my hour run, planning to head to Punggol Park, do a loop or two, and head home — when I glanced across to my left the entrance of Buangkok Medical Centre. And decided to go in.

Buangkok Medical Centre holds what used to be called “Woodbridge Hospital” (I believe now renamed to “IMH” or Institute of Mental Health), and in general it’s not a place one would think about when deciding on where to go for a run. But it seems that someone wanted to make the place more welcoming.

Outside the medical centre were some friendly-looking signs and banners welcoming visitors, from which I learned that there was a 7-Eleven, a restaurant, and a host of other useful ammenities.

And, unbelievably, there was a banner welcoming runners! I can’t remember specifically if it was targetting runners or joggers or the general working-out public, but there it was.

Punggol Park could wait. I had some exploring to do.

The first thing I noticed as I ran in was that there weren’t any signs directing possible runners/joggers/worker-outers. I’d no idea where I was supposed to go, so I just ran on the road and pretended I was a car, following wherever the road led to.

The great thing was that I didn’t have to worry about getting knocked down, a rarity in busy-busy Singapore. The roads and carparks were largely empty (maybe because it was past visiting hours?), and the whole time I was there I think I saw only a couple of cars and taxis (not counting those parked, of course).

I followed the road for a while, running past the main lobby, an A&E (accident and emergency) area, and several sites still under construction. I ran past some people too, for whom I imagined little stories about why they were there (honest-to-goodness truth, some stories I made up were so sad I almost cried). I didn’t see any 7-Eleven or restaurants though, but I suppose they’d have been within the buildings themselves, which I didn’t enter.

Just as I was about to exit the medical centre, thinking what a let down this running experience was, I noticed another runner running down a dark path along the perimeter of the the place, which led deep into IMH. I hadn’t initially thought about going there as I wasn’t sure if it was open to the public or not. So I trailed him a bit, just letting it all sink in and getting my bearings right. Only when I had it confirmed that no wardens were chasing me (and asking me to get out) did I speed up to overtake and head out on my own.

The path was largely unlit, with most of what you’re able to see courtesy of light leaking out from elsewhere. On my left was a steep grass slope down, at the bottom of which was a canal. Beyond the canal was a grass bank with a steep incline, at the top of which was covered with trees; because it was dark and because of the dense foliage, it looked like the trees went on forever, like a forest, though I knew it lasted no more than 50 or 100 metres. I thought about the Shawshank Redemption and other prison movies I’d watched, and I imagined myself having to escape, when I realised how hard it’d be and that any attempt would probably prove futile. I don’t know why, bit I inadvertently fell into a mild depressive state at these thoughts, almost as if I was truly an inmate contemplating escape. Might this be a sign I’d be heading here in the near future? I pray not.

On my right was where the IMH residents were housed. The place was quiet. Eerily quiet. Perhaps I was too far away, or perhaps the rooms were well insulated, I don’t know, but I’d expected to hear some sound — groans, screams, talking.

I continued my run for what seemed like forever (you ever hear of this saying that when you run in an unfamliar place you tend to overestimate the distance?), then made a turn back after I started developing a tummy ache (don’t ask).

On my way back, the eerie silence was suddenly punctured by screams coming from one of the rooms, and pretty far away too (which gives you some clue as to how loud it was). I seriously felt like I was watching a movie. No, I felt like I was in a movie. I had a real fear that someone would come from behind, knock me out, put me in a room and label me mad. The rest of the way I kept playing the scene out in my head, wondering how best to prove my sanity.

“I’m sane! I’m not mad!” I’d say to them. And they’d nod in agreement (“that’s what they all say” they’d tell each other) as they placed me back in my room.

Looking out into the block of HDB flats a distance away, I thought about the lives of those people living there, looking down into the thinking about the crazies; and I also wondered how I’d take being committed to a place like this, looking out and imagining what being out’d be like.

I wondered about sanity, what it was and wasn’t, and whether I was sane or just faking it.

I’m still not sure.

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