Passage

Elizabeth Hill
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327

When I was twenty-eight, I had what is commonly referred to as a “psychotic break.” It was nothing like what I would’ve imagined, given the cultural stereotypes. It was not in the least nonsensical. There was an exacting inner logic and meaning.

Nothing was random, it seemed to me. If the phone had a busy signal, for instance, it was a sign: I was not meant to get in touch at that moment with the person I was calling. Everything I wore was symbolic. I would combine a white shirt and black jeans to reveal a chessboard. I was raising the question: Is there a game at play? Is it a serious game? Is the Queen (myself for instance) threatened? Who will take her down? For I had an ongoing sense of threat. I knew that I was engaged in an illicit quest – and I was aware of all the forces stacked against me.

I was intrigued with language, always probing double meaning. For instance: pray. Prey. Would a person pray for her or his prey? Or well. Well, do we need to go to the well to become well? Everything was interrelated, full of portent. I walked down the city street, and observed the storefronts. And they came alive as though I’d never seen them before. Magic. Why had someone named her or his store magic? What was behind that? It was all so riveting. I passed a hardware store and I stared in fascination. I broke down the name: hard ware. Did this store contain ware that was hard, like nails and hammers and hooks?

In a Chinese restaurant, I looked at a painting that I would’ve perceived as “tacky” in my ordinary state of mind. I looked and looked. And I saw a sea with etched waves, and a tilting sailboat with the sails billowing in an invisible wind. The setting was flooded with moonlight. The moon was immense and white. I found this painting ever so beautiful. I was loosed from the way I’d been taught to see, observing everything with virgin eyes. I walked around and some people’s eyes seemed shielded and afraid while others were awake and open. Certain people appeared as ghosts to me, as though the person had been killed off and the body lived on. I looked at the newspaper, and it seemed people were characters frozen in an ever-repeating drama.

At times I experienced a mystical awakening. At one point, I perceived energy as indestructible. And I felt that this energy was none other than love. As I went deeper and deeper into the state, it’s as though I was flung out into the motion of the universe itself. I felt that I could apprehend the echoes of the big bang. I felt myself carried along giant waves of expansion. I was hurtling and alone.

It is hard to describe the splendor and the terrors of this state. It’s like leaving a house, with all its rooms, which you have inhabited all your life. And you step outside for the first time ever: all alone. Into the dizzying vastness. At long last you are in reality. And it seems impossible that you have spent your life in the house. (In a way, you pity the people who are still haunting the rooms like sleepwalkers.) It seems equally impossible to ever get back inside.

From the beginning, I did not think my “psychotic break” (which I have since renamed my passage) was a matter for doctors. I felt that I was undergoing a radical quest, a transformation of the soul. I dreamed of a guide, a sort of shaman, who would see me through to the other side. I did not know how else I would emerge. I had read the stories: Zelda Fitzgerald who spent her life in an asylum, where she eventually died in a fire. Virginia Woolf, who killed herself when she was faced yet again with the pressure of madness. (What’s more, she felt that she could not put her husband through it one more time.) I had seen the movies, heard the stories, and absorbed the horror of innumerable women vanishing into institutions. Everyone said: It’s different today. There is new understanding, there are advanced medications. But right from the start I feared the worst: the doctors, the hospital, the societal machinery.

It turned out I was right. No, I was not institutionalized for life. After all, I’m here to tell this story. But yes, I was inducted into a hell of sorts: I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward, and forced into four-point restraints, where I was drugged for days on end. During this time, my contract with my society was decimated. It was as though I’d been kidnapped and held hostage at the most vulnerable time of my life. I remember lying in the restraints and thinking that a terrible mistake had been made; I was not that person who they thought I was. Dangerous. Off the map.

But who actually is that person? Who deserves to be strapped down to a bed with heavy leather bindings cutting into your ankles and wrists? Who deserves to be immobilized, especially in an extreme state when there is agitation and a great need to move? Who deserves to be banished from humanity – relegated to a no man’s zone? Who deserves to scream out in horror and terror for days on end and be ignored, the staff tuning out the cries of the lunatic and going about their daily business? Who deserves to have drugs forced into your mouth and into your veins when you can do nothing to resist? Who deserves to be driven down so far into the darkness that you think you are dead? Who deserves to fight your way up from the drugs with all you have, only to be drugged again? And again. And again. And all this – in the name of what? Of your “insanity,” which must be eradicated. So that you can be brought back into the ranks of the “sane.”

By the time my partner and my family were allowed into the hospital to see me, I was drugged so severely I could barely walk or speak. I then spent three weeks in the psychiatric ward before I was transferred to another ward for three more weeks. I was diagnosed as “bipolar” and told that I would have to be on lithium for the rest of my life.

From the start, I was not a “good” patient. I cursed out the doctor in the first hospital. He was the one who had ordered me to be restrained, and who showed up at my bedside several times to drug me – in the face of my screaming NO NO NO. Later, when I cursed him out, I was put on a higher dosage of neuroleptics. My “psychosis” was flaring up again. In reality, I was drugged too heavily to be any trouble. And yet in group meetings, I still managed to protest my “illness” – I said that I had no “illness.” No, I had gone through a profound transformation, which I had to carry forward. I spoke often of the need to reforge my identity if I hoped to be truly “well,” and also to never revisit madness. I saw my passage as a warning sign: I had been propelled into an emergency landscape because I was living under inordinate stress. Although I did see my passage as sacred and illuminated in many respects, I also recognized that it was a great deal to endure. And I did not want to travel back and forth throughout my life and risk the threat of being kidnapped each time. In truth, I didn’t know if I could survive another violent hospitalization.

As for the stress that led to the passage, I felt it was (among other things) rooted in the self I had been pressured to enact by my family and my society. The ultimate female: self-sacrificing, accommodating, nurturing of others to a fault. The ultimate female: invisible. Underground. Yet there was a fierce streak in me all along, and it grew more and more pronounced as I rose up in revolution against the mental health system.

Getting out of the second hospital was not easy. A few days before my discharge, my psychiatrist asked me what was on my mind. I instantly said, “The restraints.” I went on to say that the restraints were harmful, and that I had suffered greatly under them. She told me to lighten up, to join the other patients in a game of ping pong. I became angry. I told her that she did not take what I had undergone seriously – that she was minimizing the harm restraints can do. She told me that this was my illness speaking: I was having a pathological overreaction to the restraints. I walked out of her office.

In the aftermath, it was decided that I was having a relapse, and that I should be held in the hospital for at least two or three more weeks. I didn’t know where to turn. I felt that I could not endure any more time in this terrible environment. I at last confessed to a nurse’s aide, Jon, who had always struck me as sympathetic. By some miracle, Jon followed my story. He nodded again and again. Sit on your hands, he advised me finally. Sit on your hands when you want to walk. No matter what she says, no matter how angry you get, stay cool. Play along, you got to, it’s the only way out. Jon, it turned out, was an ex-patient.

When I next saw my psychiatrist, I did precisely as he advised. And I even went further, to bargain for my release: I began by saying that I was sorry for walking out the door – though there was no repentance in my heart. And then throughout the session, I kept a cool, polite demeanor. I agreed with everything my psychiatrist said. That afternoon, the report came in: I had made a remarkable turnaround. It was astounding, really. My doctor congratulated me herself.

I was released two days later.

I was released from the physical confines of the hospital. However, I instantly found myself trapped in the world beyond the hospital. Looking back, I was naive: I expected people to listen. To this end, I spoke up passionately to everyone concerning the torturous conditions in psychiatric wards. I said that madness was a huge, complex world that needed to be held. Listened to. Humanely responded to. I said that the use of force was a violation of personal freedom and basic civil rights. I asked why the mad – who are in a highly exposed position – are treated differently from everyone else? I said that the association of violence with the mad was a stereotype, and that there was no greater incidence of violence among the mad than among the “normal” population.

It was as though I was speaking into a void. As though my words didn’t exist. People quickly changed the subject or looked down at the floor, avoiding my eyes, waiting for me to stop. Almost all of my intimates turned away from me, discounted my testimony. People wanted me back in the role that I felt had contributed to my passage. They expected me to ask after them, to commiserate – to the exclusion of my own experience. Not surprisingly, their concerns and mine had radically diverged. It was as though I’d been through a war, and ordinary talk – of work, pregnancy, vacation – was surreal to me.

I was undergoing post-traumatic stress based on my time in the hospital. And the lack of any validation in the aftermath. On the contrary: I was expected to perceive the hospital as the “safe place.” I was constantly afraid of being recaptured by the psychiatric ward. I endured night terrors, flashbacks, suicidality. I was pressured to hide my underworld. Almost no one seemed concerned with all I’d been through. Or what I was going through. They relegated my experience to the shadows, as if it were taboo, a forbidden territory. I was supposed to take my meds and return to how things were before I went “crazy.” I was supposed to leave that shameful experience behind. I was supposed to shut up and be a good, grateful patient. I was supposed to accept the biochemical model.

I felt an unlivable gulf open up; I didn’t know how to survive the position I found myself in.

I was saved by the fact that I had one person believe me, stand beside me, encourage me forward unconditionally. And that was my partner Scott. He has completely devoted himself to my journey, which he claims as our mutual path. And it is true: we have learned a lot together, we have forged a sort of sanctuary in which communication is ultimately direct and open and fair. It is also true that I couldn’t have traveled the path I have without Scott. I couldn’t be where I am today without him.

Twenty-two years later, I have lost many people. It’s been a long and anguished losing. But now I’m emerging, as into clear light. Twenty-two years later, I do not speak up passionately to everyone about the atrocities of the mental health system. Or about the wonders and terrors of my passage. I will not risk my sacred knowledge with those who will turn away and invalidate me. I save my words for those who are true comrades. Twenty-two years later, I am coming in from the cold. And yes, I seek a garden of kindred spirits, a flourishing and ever-expanding garden. Twenty-two years later, I am not nurturing others at the expense of myself. What radical and long term change this has been – and against such resistance!

Twenty-two years later, I have held allegiance with my twenty-eight year old self. I have not forsaken her, I have not turned against her in order to fit into the world. Twenty-two years later, I continue to believe in the harrowing greatness of what my younger self went through when she went mad, when she received her wake up call. Change! Change! Change! Twenty-two years later, I continue to be horrified at the potential violence of the mental health system. And yes, I hear the personal and also the collective call, ever louder, ever louder…

Change! Change! Change!

53 COMMENTS

    • Thanks for sharing your journey Elizabeth. There was so much i could relate to in it; the transformative experience, the force and violence that that was met with, the imposition of an alien way of understanding it, the rebellion, the post-traumatic stress, but also luckily one person that accepted, understood and shared your journey of recovery. My first ‘psychotic break’ came with so many of the de-humanizing experiences you describe, in my second however i ‘slipped through the cracks’ of the mental health system (partly driven by terror on my part and determination not to be captured again…and/or sheer good luck….but most especially i believe my inner spiritual guidance) . This led to my becoming pregnant and almost at the same time meeting someone (all while still in the throws of the ‘episode’ ) who was my ‘that one person’ . For the next 11 years i buried my ‘sacred knowledge’ as you put it so beautifully. I put it all behind me….so it sat invalidated and unacknowledged or honored. Then i started working as a mental health consumer adviser and found that garden of kindred spirits and I’ve been on the ‘change’ path ever since. My passion for this knows no boundaries or limits as i know whats at stake, what we are losing and how badly the world needs what we have to offer. I love love love so much how you describe ‘holding allegiance’ and honoring the ‘harrowing greatness’ of your experiences. I think that the garden is growing in size, variety and strength all the time and i get so excited when i read of someone else contributing to it. All the best with your novel – I’ve got an op-ed on MIA here but am also writing ‘my story’ ….which is such a fun, validating, awesome journey to be on -good luck with yours…will look out for it. thanks again for sharing this. XX Tracey

  1. Elizabeth, I also went through a similar, amazingly serendipitous spiritual journey and awakening to my dreams, which resulted in an unneeded forced hospitalization. Which, like yours, consisted of truly appalling medical abuse.

    One of my former doctors (V R Kuchipudi) was even later arrested by the FBI for having lots of well insured patients medically unnecessarily shipped long distances to himself, “snowing” patients, then performing unneeded tracheotomies for profit. Thankfully, I was healthy enough to survive the “snowing,” so I avoided the unneeded tracheotomy. “Change, change, change” is needed, you’re right.

    I, too, am working on writing my tale, after 10 years of medical, spiritual, and other related research. My best to you on your book, and I’m sorry you had to experience the psychiatric industries’ little hell on earth game, but am glad you escaped and have recovered. Best wishes.

  2. Hi!

    Great post.

    I liked this phrase: “Twenty-two years later, I am not nurturing others at the expense of myself.”
    I was not hospitalized, but I’ve been abused by “professionals”. I think most of them are completely deluded, because this stubbornness can only be fueled by blind faith. When I read Szasz, I discovered the truth about me and about the experts. Rather, I confirmed my intuition. Szasz helped me leave behind my outrage. And when I left that behind, I also left evangelizing on the evils of psychiatry. I only give a calmed and well documented opinion when someone asks. Otherwise, I just show compassion, because that is the only thing I can do that will not add harm to people who have already too much on their plate.

    What else, besides compassion, can anyone give to someone who is experimenting moral pain?

    Now I’m picking up the pieces. My pieces. It is not easy, but it is better to know that being alright depends on me, not on drugs or therapy or counsel or supervision. It was me all along who had to take control. Only Szasz dared to say the truth. The bravest moral philosopher in history.

    Violence is easy to control one one chooses to control it. Sadness and frustration are not so easy to control, but it is definitely better to be sad than to be sad and suffering for having caused harm to others. First thing, do no harm. This is true for everyone, not only for doctors.

  3. It’s downright rotten that they are of such little help that we have to lie to them in order to leave the useless, waste-of-time place. It’s a fact: they force us to lie, they’re satiated by our lies. It reminds me of sexual abuse.

    Don’t tell. That’s the rule. But we’re sick if we don’t tell. But we get in serious trouble if we tell.

    This is the garbage the liars force feed to us: “You’re fantasizing. You’re making it up. You’re crazy. You make no sense. I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re sick. You’re mentally ill.”

    It is a sick, sadistic, pathological, gross, vile continuation of the root problem which sends many of us, eventually, to the house of “help”. And, it’s still taboo to talk about it! Jeez.

    I’m not suggesting that Elizabeth’s story is rooted in childhood sexual abuse. Not at all. But I’m focusing on the LIES she had to tell in order to get out, and how those lies creepily resemble a filthy, disgusting sexual offender who doesn’t want to be nailed to a cross for their guilt (or in psychiatry’s case, they don’t want to be responsible for their incompetence).

    People can start a grass-roots movement to send copies of Elizabeth’s story to people who are locked away in psych wards. I love what she wrote, it’s perfect.

  4. Hi Elizabeth. “Twenty-two years later, I have held allegiance with my twenty-eight year old self. I have not forsaken her, I have not turned against her in order to fit into the world.” This is beautiful. I’m 25 and I remember thinking as a child that this whole system depends upon the betrayal of our former selves. Even at the micro-level of children’s revolt against compulsory schooling, and how few remain in opposition as adults.

    Your story also reminds me of reading “My Name is Chellis &….” There is really so damn much that this culture doesn’t want us to perceive, so much magnificence, because once we’ve seen it, we’re never really okay with playing along in capitalism or patriarchy.

    There is, absolutely, no “that person.” No Other who deserves what’s wrongly done to us. Many people are too fearful to admit that, and spend their whole lives just trying to convince the world that they, individually, deserve to be in the sphere of respect and authority. But we can get past that fear and find solidarity with each other, and let ourselves see what’s been hidden and called “delusion” – I think you’re right that that energy is nothing other than love, and it is, as a matter of fact indestructable.

  5. Hi Elizabeth, I came back online because of your account. Why a novel though? It ‘s that creating more stigma? Why can we speak the truth. The problem with MFA programs is the Creative NonFiction label. Truth is too scary to publish! Why is that? Look at ” A Brilliant Mind” and the lie that was told about John Nash and medication.
    You were able to encapsulate the whole experience well. I am wondering for those with multiple admissions how to handle this. You write well, so many MFA’s have similar experiences but it is not talked about or labeled fiction and even in that it’s a hard sell. “Marbles” is a great graphic novel but it buys into the who biomedical model hook line, and sinker.
    You have a voice and a gift that others can listen to especially the treatment folks. They sure love those alphabets!. Please use it to help not hinder.

  6. Elizabeth, are you sure that some sort of medications did not set off you whatever at age 28? I have been through similar in my life, but mine were clearly linked to getting off medications, or damn a horrible inability to tolerate valium…………

  7. You are very lucky to have survived and live to tell your story to a wide audience. I’d like to tell mine but the most interesting aspects are still heavily classified even though the biggest secret is that there is no secret.

    “Is there a game at play? Is it a serious game?”
    Yes there is, a deadly serious game, and not at all what most people think. You are holding all the cards to play a good hand if you know the rules of the game. This may give you an edge.

    “The Master Game – Beyond the Drug Experience” by Robert S. DeRopp. Read for free here.
    http://selfdefinition.org/psychology/Robert-S-De-Ropp-The-Master-Game.pdf

    Good Luck and Good Hunting!

  8. Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your brave journey. Your story and those of others need to be shared to challenge the state of psychiatry. Force is always traumatic. Passages, such as yours and many others I have known are varied and powerful and deserve more reverence and humility. I am not romanticizing the pain, fear and mystery that comes with what is called psychosis. But, the way our mental health system responds causes much trauma and pain of its own and must be exposed, challenged and changed. Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to your book.

  9. Thanks for your well written story!

    I’m one of those people who went through something like the experience you did, but without the getting thrown in the hospital part. Still, one common factor that was really essential was always having at least one person I could talk to, to whom my experience made some sense (even if during one year that person was on the other side of the country!)

  10. Thank you so much for this. My son also suffered a psychotic break (partially drug related) and, like you, saw it primarily as a spiritual experience – as did I, though it was frightening for all of us at the time. Unlike you he was able to access mental health services overseas where there is often a more enlightened view and received positive care and support in the community afterwards. There is still much to be done but being able to have this discussion is the first step.

  11. So eloquent! You’re a beautiful writer, thank you. Your account gives insight not only into the abuses of the mental health system and how being caught up in the system affected you but also into the experience of someone going through such an intense, meaningful, and harrowing “passage.” Loved your description of your response to language during that time. I’m so glad you had a partner who validated your experience and stood with you. Having just one important person believe in you can make all the difference. I hope you’ll let readers on this site know when your book is finished!

  12. Hi Elizabeth. I am interested in possibly talking about your writing process and experience. I am interested in the intersections of mad studies, writing as process and genres of testimonio and memoir. I am working on an ethnographic piece about writing as process and looking for individuals to talk to. I’m not sure how to provide contact information without one of us needing to post it in the comments section of a public post. Do you have an author website or something of the like?

    Thanks,
    (also) Elizabeth

  13. Hi Elizabeth,

    This is a wonderful piece and really resonated with me on a few levels. On one level I’m a parent and very aware that many young adults fall into these altered states that blindside families and hurl them suddenly into what I also view as the dangerous arena of psychiatry.

    I feel it’s critical to inform myself on these new approaches to ‘psychosis’ as a spiritual state (I recently discovered the work and community of Dabney Alix and her ‘Spiritual Awakenings’), and not as an illness that requires Draconian force, manipulation, and mind-numbing chemicals. Your detailed piece helped me to see this state in an alternative perspective so that I can be more prepared if it happens to my children.

    (As an aside, it also helped me understand the mind of a close friend, now tragically dead of suicide while on Seroquel, who spoke to me while hospitalized and experiencing psychosis.)

    Thank you for your wonderful piece!

    Liz Sydney

  14. “Pathological overreaction to the restraints?” Really? How can a person even talk like that? I wonder what she’d say after she spent several days being unable to do so much as scratch her nose! It makes me feel panicky just thinking about it.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It is astounding how few people are able and willing to hear that a “helping” place like a psych ward can be such a nightmare. Perhaps it’s related to people’s need to distance themselves from the “mentally ill,” because empathizing means realizing that they, too, could be in the same place under the right or wrong circumstances.

    I’m also glad you had at least one person who supported you through it all. I think that’s the minimum we all need – one person who can validate our story and believe in our ability to overcome the oppression that we encounter. I am also glad you’ve found MIA and I hope it continues to be a place where you can get your vital message out to those many who need to hear it.

    — Steve

  15. Elizabeth,

    Thank you for your brave and honest story that I hope you’ll keep telling and keep writing about. Years ago I had a similar experience, and because I had read accounts like yours, I was wise enough not to turn to “psychiatry” for help. If I had, I would most certainly have been treated like you were. I had nobody to talk to who would understand what I had to say, so for advice I depended completely on written accounts like yours and others who knew the same things you came to find out. They were all I had, but they were enough.

    I came through my experience “untreated” and unharmed, and thanks to people like you, went on to lead a quite normal life. It’s too late for me to thank the others I turned to, so let me thank you instead, and urge you with all my heart to keep on telling your story. Psychiatry is on its way out, thanks to people like you, and those of us who have these experiences are learning to help ourselves and each other. Keep up the good work!

    Mary Newton

  16. I lost almost five years. Five years to five point restraints, injections of halperidol and being forced to stand up so it wouldn’t but me to sleep, and not being allowed the dignity of throwing up in a toilet afterwards because we had to be made examples of. Five years of silence, tucking your feet under you in that weird angle that caused them to ache constantly because if they draped over the edge, the alarm was sounded, and you would be placed in a “burrito. Without shower curtains, bathroom doors, being forced to wet yourself if you got up to early even though the medications caused the frequent urination along with a list of other things… After a month, I stopped defending myself, after three, I willingly admitted to any and all accusations regardless of how outlandish or implausible they might be. How does this help you to better function in society? What is the proposed outcome? Fear?