Who Cares About Kelsey?


I know the popular thing to do right now is rail against the Murphy Bill, and with good reason given its devastating implications.  (I plan to do my fair share of railing.)  Yet, I can’t ignore the less sensational tragedies of the day.

Today’s tragedy?  ‘Who Cares About Kelsey?

‘Who Cares About Kelsey’ is a documentary by Dan Habib described as follows:

“When Kelsey Carroll entered high school, she was a more likely candidate for the juvenile justice system than graduation. Diagnosed with ADHD and carrying the emotional scars of homelessness and substance abuse, as well as the actual scars of repeated self-mutilation, Kelsey was volatile, disruptive and, by her own admission, “not a nice person” to be around. As a freshman at Somersworth (NH) High School, she didn’t earn a single academic credit, but she did get suspended for dealing drugs.”

It would seem, from this description, that perhaps the filmmaker has a sense of the potential connection between all those factors. You know… like, between the homelessness, substance abuse and ‘ADHD?’  Yet, the film nonetheless opens by letting us know that “Approximately 20 percent of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder.”  In other words, there’s the trauma… and then there’s the ‘mental illness;’  Separate and not particularly equal.

Now, granted, I have to acknowledge that some of the film’s finer points were lost on me.  My older child is just beginning to age into the worse depths of the public school system, and I don’t work in academic settings so I don’t entirely ‘get’ some of the problems the film primarily sets out to address.  Here’s what I did get, though (loud and clear):

Kelsey is a 19-year-old woman who…

  • Has parents that split up at some point when she was a kid
  • Has a mother with a serious drug/alcohol problem
  • Lived in her mother’s car for some unspecified period of time after they lost their home
  • Went to live with a dad that never tells her he’s proud of her and a step mother with whom she doesn’t get along

…And the film suggests she is angry because she has ‘ADHD.’

Oh, but wait… Soon after, we learn she also:

  • Witnessed her mother slashing her own wrists after her father moved out
  • Was sexually abused by her mother’s friend when she was little
  • Had a  mother and father who – to varying degrees – both ignored or denied the abuse

And the film still seems to suggest she is largely angry because she has ‘ADHD.’

Worse, the film (and several of the adults in it) repeatedly label her as having an ‘emotional/behavioral disability’ (charmingly acronymized as ‘EBD’).  At one point she says on camera that she doesn’t want to say that she has a ‘disability,’ but that is largely glossed over and long forgotten by the end.

Back to the upsides:  Apparently, what this documentary is really about is a school-wide shift in framework away from ‘zero-tolerance’ policies and short-tempered responses toward a ‘Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports’ (PBIS) approach.  I came away from the film not entirely understanding what components make up PBIS.  (The film seemed to favor Kelsey’s meandering over actual explanations of the approach itself.)  However, in an academic world where kids seem to get suspended for such devastating ‘wrongs’ as calling administrators (with over-sized egos) naughty names, there does seem to be some value in this shift.

In other words, the main point of this film seems to be that schools need to approach kids who are struggling with far more creativity and compassion.  Yes, indeed.  But why does it seem to be such an unfathomable leap from that point to the fact that so much of what’s happening with these kids is about their environment in the first place?  If they can recognize that the environment can help shift things in a better direction after problems have begun, why would they not be able to recognize that perhaps environment precipitated them?

In truth, I don’t know Kelsey, so I can’t really claim to know what her full story may be.  However, I find it nothing short of tragic that this system has invested so much time in telling this young woman that she has a disability, rather than recognizing the fact that she’s led an incredibly difficult life of abuse, neglect and poverty.

I’m glad that (spoiler alert) Kelsey ends up graduating and moving on to a career of inspiring others with her own story.  But what does this  film and this framework really suggest for our children’s future?   The film’s website says that it will “spark new conversations about an education revolution that’s about empowering—not overpowering—our most emotionally and behaviorally challenged youth.  But where does shoving the idea of ‘EBD’ down some barely formed beings throat fit into all that?  The film simply doesn’t address my question.  In fact, it acts as if it doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, that’s the norm in most school systems; Not just Chelsea’s.  In October of 2013, I wrote a blog called ‘The Story of My Perfectly Wonderful Children and the Change WE Need to Make in the World to Save Them,’ that was published on the Foundation for Excellence website.  There, I shared how I learned of my son’s guidance counselor approaching him privately when he was struggling with his school work and suggesting the idea of “distraction meds.”  (He told me this several days later when we were driving home from the movies.)  My kid.  My just-barely-developing, not-having-entered-puberty-yet, 10-year-old child.  Was this guidance counselor trying to “empower” him?

Well, the school got the message that they’d messed with the wrong mom when – within days – I’d been in touch with the state Department of Education and local superintendent, and had gifted them copies of ‘Anatomy of an Epidemic’ and ‘Beyond the Medical Model.’  (They actually offered to ban contact between my son and that particular guidance counselor for good.)  But what of the kids without such pain-in-the-ass moms as me?

After ‘Who Cares About Kelsey,’ I’m left wondering even more so how on earth we might develop systems that make space for us to be compassionate and creative with kids without needing to stamp them with a disease.  Why aren’t our children precious enough to deserve support without first being deemed broken?  Why do the adults in the film seem to need to believe Kelsey can’t help herself because of her ‘disability’ before they can conjure some sort of understanding for her?  When will we come to realize that it’s that very framework that pushes so many people to the breaking point in the first place?

So, hooray to the message in ‘Who Cares About Kelsey,’ that our kids need support, patience and tolerance when they’ve been put through the wringer and need some extra help to transition into adulthood.  But to the idea that Kelsey is angry because she has ‘ADHD?’  I call bullshit (not otherwise specified).


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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.


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  1. Nice, Sera.

    Our public schools are more and more becoming institutions of coercion and indoctrination rather than places for intellect, questions and supporting the transition to a functional adulthood. My heart goes out to Kelsey and others in her situation who will learn that it is right for society to marginalize them, drug them and throw them away like human trash.

    As far as the Murphy Bill, I am disappointed (again) in the Movement’s efforts to coordinate a resistance.

    Best, Sharon

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    • Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for reading/commenting as always 🙂

      As to the Murphy bill, I agree we’re not doing enough, though I see lots of people trying and know that I personally feel like it’s so big that it’s a little bit hard to know which way to go to actually have impact!! Any ideas? I’m really wanting to try and put something out ASAP to at least our local community about what exactly we can and should be doing!


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      • Hey Sera, thanks for plugging away at the basics: Ultimately we will win when enough people understand the dirty little linguistic trick of equating the mind with the brain. When there is no “illness” there is no need for a doctor so we should never expect the psychiatric/medical industry to respond to reason; without “mental illness” they have nothing. No money, no self-importance, nothing.

        The function of psychiatric “diagnoses” has always been, beyond the repression of the individual, the misclassification of political issues, which demand political solutions, as “personal problems,” which the individual is expected to “get over” or at least be ashamed of and shut up about. The system passes the buck to the individual for the system-perpetrated misery to which the individual is responding. Your problem, not ours, pal…

        If a few of the more enlightened MIA bloggers could support a joint strategy for confronting the Murphy bill — taking the lead from other participants’ contributions — I think we could jam this thing up and get it put on hold at least.
        But I think it would require some creative and attention-grabbing tactics that would require some unity and discipline to make work and not backfire. Please keep railing and urge others to share their ideas for action.

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      • Contact the media. I’d never have heard about the bill if I didn’t come specifically to this site. If not the mainstream than at least the alternative media or online news shows. I’ve already suggested the TYT network and Democracy Now! on the progressive side. Ask them for an interview or a story about the bill.

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    • With all due respect, Sharon, my recollection of my own education suggests that schools have ALWAYS been institutions of coercion and indoctrination – that appears to be their fundamental purpose in our society, and if education happens by the wayside, that’s just a nice little bonus. But we don’t want our kids TOO educated – they might start to notice some things and ask some uncomfortable questions and maybe create some difficult resistance to the rule of the current elite. If you never have, I’d suggest reading “The 7-Lesson Schoolteacher” by former NY Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto: http://www.informationliberation.com/?id=11375.

      Of course, this is all quite consistent with the psychiatric worldview that everyone should adjust to the status quo and that anyone who is in any way unhappy or behaves in inconvenient ways is “ill” and should be “fixed.” There is no intent to ever look at the social structure as a causative factor in a child’s unhappiness or acting-out behavior.

      Sera, another incredibly on-point and moving article. I work with kids like Kelsey all the time (I work with foster kids) and find that they are almost always labeled when they have predictable reactions to their inadequate or abusive upbrinings (including poor parenting and abuse while in foster care). And they perceive it much the way you state it: they feel they are being blamed for being upset about things that anyone would find upsetting. They crave adults who are willing to listen and feel with them so they can feel safe processing what has happened and start to see that not everyone sees them as a “problem.” This is why I am more adamant about the DSM labeling process than the drug “treatments.” It is the DSM that allows us to distance ourselves from kids like Kelsey, to view their suffering as something “other” than us, something we can feel sorry for her about but don’t really have to face up to or deal with. And in taking this position, we side with the abusers and against the child.

      I am also a parent with a voice, but we used ours to help create a democratic, child-centered public charter school where kids have a voice and teachers can’t get away with treating kids like herd animals. This is one way that we can start the process toward creating a new world – create schools where kids are encouraged to be themselves and are supported in exploring their world.

      And BTW, for RISN, our son’s high school history teacher used Zinn’s “People’s History…” in his class. So it can be done!

      —- Steve

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  2. Sera,
    Good for you for listening to your son and confronting the commonly accepted belief that any kid who is not totally present in the classroom needs to be medicated. Lawmakers seem to have decided that education should be run by businesses and like a business. Children are like a piece of machinery that is either functioning correctly or in need of some fine-tuning or maybe just discarded as beyond the effort to repair. The reality for many children is that just making it to school takes a great deal of effort and besides the homework and books in their bags, they are carrying the invisible load of what they have experienced in their homes: Poverty, violence, homelessness, addictions, chaos, lack of nurturance, disruptions of relationships and various forms of abuse. Our communities need to learn that children seldom can be punished into successful students. Rather than abandoning public schools to Wall Street investors, we need to accept our responsibility as citizens to provide the resources that are needed to help with healing the wounds. It is astounding to me that we can spend a trillion dollars a year to destroy potential foreign enemies and we do that by ignoring the suffering of our own people. This is a struggle that will never end, but it is one that’s worth joining. Thanks for your comments and for putting your beliefs into action.

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  3. Sera,
    I am so glad that you are a kick-ass mom! What to do about the Kelseys of this world? I just finished Bruce Levine’s book (see below). He writes: “It certainly makes sense that the corporatocracy would try to use schools to transmit the corporatocracy’s “social and political values,” as Bennett says, and “breed and train a standardized citizenry” in the words of Mencken. 160 Members of the elite would rather a student learn in school that elections mean that a society is a democracy , but they can tolerate students learning some radical content, such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The elite know that far more important than the subject matter is the actual nature of school life.” The whole chapter on “How Schools Teach Powerlessness” is worth a read.

    I have worked in non-schooling endeavors and start-ups. All three of my children were unschooled because my son had a near brush with the psychiatric system when he was 5. Yes, 5! He told me on the walk home from school, “I give up.” A five-year-old was ready to give up on life after several months in the schooling culture. My greatest regret is that I did not realize that college was just as dangerous an entry portal for the psychiatric system as the public education system.

    Where are our collective efforts best directed? At the battling of political legislation, at the dismantling of Big Pharma and all of corporatocracy or at the energizing of the defeated? We cannot wait until adulthood to start energizing, in my humble opinion.

    Levine, Bruce E. (2011-04-11). Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Kindle Locations 1872-1877). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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  4. I, too, am a “pain in the ass mom.” My child was abused when he was four, so was not spotted by the public school system as “gifted” initially. I was drugged to cover up the abuse by some “elite,” initially, but was eventually weaned off the drugs and handed over my family’s medical records by some decent nurses. By eighth grade my son had recovered enough that he got 100% on his state standardized tests.

    The first thing I got was a call from the school social worker, not congratulating me, but accusing me of “keeping my son up nights studying and pushing him too hard.” I told the social worker I was a mean mother who had her children in bed by nine, and that my son was constantly playing World of Warcraft because he never had any homework. Then I asked her if there were any problems she was having with my child. I already knew he was almost every teacher’s favorite child because he was respectful and polite. She conceded there were no problems and hung up embarrassed.

    But it didn’t end there. I went to a parent / teacher conference and was attacked in the same manner by all his teachers, collectively. I was shocked. I had to explain genetics to the teachers, thankfully the science teacher comprehended the concept of genetics. She ended up taking my son under her wings, and my son had a very good year. I’m still grateful to to my children’s beloved science teacher, she’s an angel.

    The school district finally confessed that they were not “equipped” to deal with the “gifted” children, thankfully. And they recommended I find a private high school for my son. My son was valadictian of his prep school last year. It’s amazing how far today’s “elite,” and their psychiatric minions, are going to maintain control, however. And it’s wrong, the US is not supposed to be a country with a class system.

    Just as in Germany, psychiatry and it’s eugenics beliefs of stigmatizing others, is destroying another country. Shame on American psychiatry. Stigmatizing children will never benefit the child, and that’s all the psychiatric diagnoses are. Love is the answer, not drugging people and wars. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We need checks and balances reinstated in this country. “Too big to fail” is a foolish philosophy.

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    • These kinds of things just enrage me because it’s all just a huge pile of bull feces. The problem is that the average American on the internet believes all this hook, line, and sinker. This is just another attempt to get everyone on psych drugs. I know that the drug companies put this stuff out there but I’m beginning to believe that the government supports all of it. And now I sound like some conspiracy person!

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      • The public and the press have glommed on to other claims without question, ex. medications are always safe and effective, new medications are always safer and more effective, the difference between being symptomatic and not is a function of medication compliance, the dominate outcome for treated mental illness is recovery. Those who find utility in promoting the 49.5% statistic will no doubt use it to their advantage.

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  5. Great article, Sera! Did you get the impression that this film was promoting the idea that we need to reach all the needy kids and give them drugs? Did you see this on TV? Hopefully, your article will reach some of the same audience who sees the movie. Your observation of the need to question the assumptions is so “right on”. I don’t think people are encouraged to think critically about what they read and hear, especially in school. Good for you to rock the boat!

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  6. Sera, as usual, you have written a very clear analysis of a very important issue.

    And we need to have a clear understanding of what we need to fight.

    But when we have reached that understanding, the next step is to figure out how to fight back. And I have to say, I have become rather disappointed in MIA about this, as there are few articles talking about what we need to do to fight back.

    I find this very discouraging. It seems even people who are NOT taking money from the system don’t go beyond talk (no criticism of you intended.) Of course, those people who are paid to discourage activism do what they are paid for. But the rest of us have to get moving now. It is no coincidence that the Murphy bill and other moves to take away our civil and human rights now have a clear field to pass. After thirty years of non action, there is very little movement to fight back. We have to rebuild that movement,

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    • 30 years, that sounds about right to me. Thing is many people seem to think that the term “movement” has something to do with so-called “progressive mental health.” Few seem to know much about how things were in the 70’s & early 80’s.. I’m not simply being nostalgic; a number of so-called “histories” I find online frequently talk about how the mental patients liberation/anti-psychiatry struggle “evolved” (rather than regressed) into the “consumer movement,” whatever that means.

      Any chance you could re-post your 2012 article on movement history?

      We need a unified response or else our internal contradictions will seriously undermine our efforts.

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      • “Mental health consumer” sounds like a word straight from the neoliberal book, which tends to see everything as commodities to be sold. You’re only worth anything to the system as a consumer of psych drugs and that’s to what your choices and options ought to be restricted. Neoliberalism has poisoned a lot of things in the society and mental patients liberation movement is not the only one that suffered.

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      • “Oldhead,” it sounds as if you were around our movement up to the early 80’s and I suspect I know you. I would like to be in contact with you, so if you like please contact me at [email protected].

        As far as reposting the article, I don’t think MIA does that, but we can both post links on our Facebook pages, and any other groups we are in. I’m thinking that the article is very timely now, now that the “strategy” of merging our movement into the mental illness system has been shown to be a total failure. The article is still on the website, as are all other previous articles, and it is still easily available.

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  7. Yes, this reminds me of Patty (or Anna) Duke’s story. She’s written and spoken extensively about her unimaginably abusive childhood and early alcohol and drug addictions, but always held her bipolar disorder as something completely separate, unrelated to her trauma, a medical disorder. I think my own mother is still heart broken that I didn’t turn into Patty Duke. (I don’t mean to knock her as a person, obviously she reclaimed her life in a major way, but she’s also had access to the best therapy available.)
    Anyway, it is a major step in the right direction that schools are switching to PBIS and other positive intervention approaches, basically instead of punishing a “bad kid” over and over, taking a real look at their life situation and trying to figure out what they can do to make a positive difference. I have noticed this at my own daughter’s school.
    But nevertheless, we have to continue to find new ways to relate to and help people with traumatic life situations and experiences. Giving them a diagnosis and drugs isn’t treating the real issue. Thanks again Sera.

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  8. Looking at some of this girl’s behaviours – it could have been me. If I had worse parents or grew up in a system that would be oppressive and punitive I’d for sure be that girl. I sometimes am that girl although I am an adult when I feel like me or someone close to me are treated unfairly and being hurt. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being angry if you have legitimate reasons for it. There is nothing abnormal about the “fuck the system” attitude if the system’s failed you. Labelling everyone who does not fit to the broken picture a mentally ill person is just a denial on the part of the system. there is nothing wrong with that girl. Psychiatrists want to change everyone in predictable little robots who sit quietly in school and do their jobs and never ever have a moment of uncontrolled emotion or thought.

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  9. Is anyone else sick of this trend of pathologizing anger? Sometimes, anger is just anger. It’s a natural, human emotion, and a very appropriate one in many situations. I once saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, on the basis that “sometimes I seem very depressed, and other times, I get angry at her.” She was certainly right that I was feeling very depressed, but amazingly, given this supposedly biologically-based brain disease, she was the only person in my life (other than my abusers) who I repeatedly expressed any anger towards. If she had taken the time to ask why I got angry at her, maybe she could have found out that I was frustrated that every time I mentioned having been sexually assaulted, her response was to encourage me to examine what I could have done differently to prevent that from happening, which hurt me deeply and, as a staunch victim’s rights advocate, struck me as blatant victim-blaming. Thankfully, I had a far more understanding therapist who repeatedly, vocally objected to this diagnosis, but the psychiatrist did not budge in her position on this issue. When I went to the ER following a very violent incident with someone who was abusing me, and the injuries I had, as well as my pre-existing medical conditions, were not only ignored, but I was told that I wasn’t really medically ill and was just delusional, and that I was going to be involuntarily detained on a psychiatric unit because of that belief, shockingly, this made me angry. I never acted violently or aggressively or even raised my voice to the staff, but I was visibly angry and repeatedly, firmly insisted that my therapist and my medical doctors be contacted to verify that I was not delusional. Instead of examining that maybe, they had it wrong and that even if I had been delusional, they did not have legal grounds to institutionalize me as I was a danger to no one (does it bother anyone else that a presumption of “psychosis” seems to mean the laws don’t apply?), the hospital staff told me that my anger scared them and threatened to physically restrain me although none of my passionate pleas for reason or sarcastic comments about how even prisoners get a phone call (when I was told the hospital was refusing to contact my therapist or medical doctors and I could not do so myself), not to mention, the incredible physical limitations placed on me by a disease that this hospital arbitrarily decided does not exist, indicated I might physically attack anyone.

    A few weeks ago, I found out that I will, most likely, have lifelong medical problems due to damage inflicted by one of my abusers. When I found this out, I went on a very sarcastic, angry rant about this person and the many systems that have failed me and protected him, after which, I immediately apologized to my best friend, who had listened to this, and told her that I was just upset by what my doctor had told me. She lovingly told me that I didn’t need to apologize, and that she totally understood why I was angry. When I saw how much more angry the people who are closest to me were about this than I was, I started thinking that maybe my anger isn’t quite as pathological and problematic as the mental health system would like me to believe. In fact, I once spoke to a therapist who told me that my anger is “completely appropriate and not at all excessive under the circumstances.” I think, for those of us who have repeatedly gone back and forth between abusive situations and psych hospitals, it’s easy to learn that anger is always inappropriate and only gets you into trouble- these are crucial lessons to unlearn, and if more “professionals” do not want to help make it happen, we certainly should.

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    • Sadly, you’re just another example of psychiatry being used to punish the victim and protect the abuser. This is especially bad if the abuser is a sociopathic individual who always appears calm and composed and can lie through his teeth while looking you in the eye. Somehow people find it abnormal that a person who was just beaten/raped etc. is not calm but angry, hysterical, unbalanced or whatever completely normal emotional reaction one may have in such circumstances and they use this as evidence of her being mental and unreliable. Psychiatry only provides a great rationalisation for such attitudes. It’s sickening.

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    • Well, the “treatment” I got including restraints and needle rape for refusing to be physically examined mixed with high dose of benzos helped me a lot with my “anger issues”: I went from “don’t touch me” to throwing chairs at them (at least according to what they wrote in my documents which I don’t completely trust – I have a complete drug-induced amnesia from that time which they happily missed/ignored and I also know that some parts, which I remember, are fabricated). In other words great job.

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      • B, I can relate to so much of what you said and I thank you for bringing this up. I actually wrote this on my own site earlier this month, in an article about the many problems with pathologizing reactions to abuse:

        “All too often, a panicked, seemingly unstable victim recounts a story that sounds too horrific to be true to officers with little empathy and inadequate training and when they speak to the perpetrator, he is calm, poised, respectful, and able to give what sounds like a more plausible version of events. This can lead officers to assume that the victim is, simply, mentally ill and imagining the abuse. When the victim has already been labeled as mentally ill, the chance of officers seeing the truth in such a situation moves from ‘unlikely’ to ‘not a chance in hell.'”
        The full article can be found at http://thesystemisbrokenblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/pathologizing-abuse/.

        I find it to be absolutely horrific that hospitals seem to think they have the right to forcibly physically examine or strip search people. One time, I had a slightly better experience with this. As I was being admitted to a hospital, I was told I would need to be strip searched, and I completely freaked out and repeatedly stated that nobody was allowed to touch me and nobody was allowed to see me without my clothes on. One employee quietly said, “PTSD,” to the other, and I was asked if I would feel more comfortable covering myself with a screen and just removing one article of clothing at a time and showing them my clothes so they could see that I wasn’t keeping anything dangerous in my clothes. I asked them to promise that they would not, in any way, look at me or take the screen away, which they agreed to, and I ended up feeling far less violated than I otherwise would have.

        In contrast, one time, I was about to be admitted to another hospital and told I would need an EKG before being admitted. I asked what this involved, and as soon as I heard that I would have to remove my shirt, I adamantly refused. I was told that if I did not cooperate, I would be tied to a bed so they could perform this procedure. I cooperated at that point, but repeatedly told the employee not to touch me, that I was more than capable of placing and removing the electrodes on my own. She ignored me and did it herself, stating that I wasn’t doing so fast enough. There are no circumstances in which this would be appropriate, but, just hours earlier, the hospital staff was well aware that a police officer had been at the hospital to talk to me about the attack that actually brought me to the ER in the first place, and that I have a long history of sexual abuse. Incredible.

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