It’s been fourteen and a half years since the moment that first set me on my path to becoming an activist – a moment that overwhelmed me, cowed me even, but did not, in the end, destroy me.
I still remember it well. I doubt that will ever change.
I was fourteen years old, and I was in the hospital. I didn’t want to be there. My objections were clear. They were loud. They were impolite. But they were verbal.
I had been signed in by my mother against my will. I was not entitled to disagree. My parent’s signature was, under the law, my consent. To make matters worse, I had been admitted as a result of a lie. My mother, feeling I needed treatment, made up a story that ensured I would get it.
I was furious. I wanted a hearing. I wanted to challenge the accusation. I wanted due process. But I was a child.
I was admitted and discharged several times. Each time I came home, I’d challenge my mother to tell the truth. Each time, she – furious I had the audacity to call her on her actions – would take me back to the hospital. Each time, they would re-admit me. I didn’t even get all the way home in the car, most of those times, before I was returned and readmitted so my mother didn’t have to bear the brunt of the guilt trip I laid on her each time they let me out.
My mother recanted her story, but they had already decided I needed treatment – and that I would still get it whether I wanted it or not. I had, after all, just been readmitted four times.
One time, on the unit, during all of this, I demanded to see an attorney. I demanded to file a petition for writ of habeas corpus. I was told they would get back to me. A few days later, when I followed up, I was told I wasn’t entitled to request such a thing. I was a voluntary patient, after all. The words “habeas corpus” did not overcome my mother’s consent to treatment on my behalf. I thought that was wrong. I could have cared less about the law allowing it. Some matters of right and wrong transcend legalism.
So, I decided to make a point, after that. One of the times I was re-admitted, I waited until the doors clicked shut behind me with that thick, rapid thunk of a relay clicking into place and a magnet sealing the path between myself and the world. The sort of sound that mocks an unwilling soul behind impassable walls.
I wanted them to understand they had me. There was no issue of safety, no risk of escape. I let the doors close, so my action could not be misconstrued.
Once I was, again, a prisoner, I made my point so it could not be missed. I refused to take another step.
I told them that, if they felt I was a voluntary patient, they should understand what their use of power really was. I wanted there to be no question of meaning, no sideways threat or verbal coercion. Such things, though often the essence of oppression, are rarely recognised as such; I wanted utter clarity.
“You’ll have to drag me, if you want me in this place, because I will not go willingly.” It seemed the only stronger way to say what the words “habeas corpus” had failed to. I was loud, but I made no physical move, no threat.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t imagine they wouldn’t take me back to the unit by force. Force seemed to be what these people were all about. That was sort of the point I was trying to make.
But I didn’t expect what happened next.
I was grabbed, handled by two men, and dragged back to the seclusion room along some fifty to a hundred feet of corridor from the front of the hospital’s locking doors to the adolescent acute unit. There, I told them that they had made their point, and they could let me go.
They had other ideas. I was thrown onto a bare mattress in the seclusion room and two became five. They had me by my hands and feet, one person to a limb, and one of them was on top of me with his knee on my back, the pressure of his weight constricting my chest.
I could barely breathe. I thought I might suffocate right then and there.
I panicked. I didn’t realize that, instead of meeting me with exactly the force I suggested – all that was needed to make the point – they would escalate. It never occurred to me that a standard procedure take down would flow into a prone restraint, following what to me was a simple act of civil disobedience.
I had naively believed they’d drag me to the unit and call it a day, my point about how they were using violence made.
I fought back, already pinned and helpless, and the force became all the stronger. With my breathing restricted, instinct took over. I verbalized this, and begged them to stop.
“I can’t breathe.”
“Go limp, and we can stop this,” they said. Of course, my fight-or-flight instincts had taken my being. I was being pinned by men whose authority was absolute, whose use of force would never be questioned, whose directives could never be appealed. And it felt like I could barely breathe.
The pressure on my back was reduced, but now I heard them discuss giving me a shot of Ativan to calm me down. I was terrified. I knew things would only be worse when I woke up.
“Please don’t inject me,” I whimpered.
“If you don’t want that, then go limp,” was their reply.
I knew, deep within my being, things would be worse when I woke up if I continued fighting. I had never wanted that fight in the first place. I honestly thought they’d just drop me off, having demonstrated their power. Issues of rights and politics and civil disobedience fall away when you’re more worried about breathing.
I didn’t want to stop, though. And I did anyways. I had wanted them to understand their power over me was based on violence. Instead, I had learned the very lesson I wanted to teach them.
Their position was superior and I was overpowered. To them it was just another takedown and restraint. To me, it was something all the darker.
I realized they owned me. Completely. I understood there was nothing I could do to resist them. I felt my very powerlessness as they prepared the shot. Any moment, they would be inserting a needle into my body and ending the demonstration themselves by putting chemicals into my body I didn’t want.
Somehow – I still don’t know how – I reached out. I took control of my body from my panicked, oxygen craving backbrain. I halted fight and flight and movement and fear. I commanded my being to go limp, and it complied.
After some time – it felt like an eternity but the entire escapade, from the front doors to the restraint, had only lasted minutes – they let go. I hadn’t been injected. I had been calmed, in their estimation. I had surrendered.
Something changed inside me, in that moment, though. Something that never had before. I’d always been one to resist – to make my discontent known – even if only symbolically. It’s probably how Oppositional Defiant Disorder was added to the list of my diagnoses.
This time, I wasn’t resisting. I had completely surrendered. I understood what I had been telling them, but instead of them realizing they were wrong, I understood their power.
It’s a terrible thing, overriding yourself in such a way. It changes you deeply.
It has been as many years since that day as I had been alive before it, and I still think about it. It was the day they broke me. It was the day I learned that power overcomes everything – if the people who have that power want it to.
It took many years for me to overcome what happened that day and reclaim my voice. It took years for me to be able to speak of that day.
It was the day I was physically broken because I had tried to assert what I felt was an absolute right to some meaningful hearing on my detention.
It was the day I learned about torture.
It was the day I became an activist.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.