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!
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.