I sat in the holding room with a police officer, impatiently waiting to cross the wall into the psych ward, knowing I had made a mistake. Earlier that day I had flown from California to New York City in pursuit of a new life and maybe some attractive new friends. Packing nothing more than a phone, a charger, my wallet and a pack of smokes, I hadn’t slept in days. Instead I was tweeting to a motley group of sports stars, musicians and supermodels, thinking every message was being read and admired as novel.
And perhaps some were. But on this fall night in New York, all attempts to communicate with swimsuit model Nina Agdal were in vain. Not that I didn’t try. I found a bench and tweeted my life song in beautiful prose, my fast-moving mind weaving the story with ease. As the hours ticked by and still no Nina, bigger problems confronted me, namely how to shut my mind off; I knew another night without sleep wasn’t in the cards. A cabbie took me to an ugly, nondescript building, proclaiming this to be Bellevue – a name meaning nothing then and permanently etched into my memory now.
After a long admittance process I was moved into the ER psych ward, which at that hour was quiet. This place was drearier than hospitals past, and all I wanted was the medication that would help me fall asleep. But first a conversation with the doctor, I was told.
At 2:30 in the morning the doctor leads me into a small room. I smile, thinking she looks friendly enough, a middle-aged white woman with nondescript features. She tells me she’s unhappy that I’m in New York, that a lot of people in NYC depend on financial services for their livelihood and that I had some nerve for coming into the city. Did I hear her correctly? Was she referencing those anonymous emails I sent several weeks back that had coincided with a large dip in the market? Had she read that stupid Twitter feed I unlocked moments earlier? I was too weak to follow until she told me I was so sick as to require permanent institutionalization. My initial fear turned into a smile. Ma’am, I know my way around these hospitals and what I need is a few nights’ rest. Seeming to read my thoughts, she explained that things work differently in New York, a thinly veiled threat I wasn’t sure whether to take seriously.
At long last they gave me the sedative, Ativan, which if available in stores would have saved me all this trouble. I found the least disgusting bed to lie down in. Before sleep overtook me, I heard from a door or perhaps a window a loud banging, like a mob overtaking the hospital.
“Vlado…VLADO YOU MOTHERF****R. Vlado, I didn’t say those things. VLADO!!!!!!”
I had impersonated a few famous people via Twitter for laughs, some of whom live in NYC, but it couldn’t possibly be one of them. Having never experienced auditory hallucinations I wasn’t sure if that was the answer either. My mind in a fog, lying in that cold room with hospital scrubs on, thinking of my conversation with the doctor and that voice screaming at me, I’ve never felt so vulnerable as in that moment.
Barely awake, I could feel myself being jolted back and forth in a wheelchair and someone whispering to me: “You’re going to jump off a roof.” “We’re going to poison you.” Was this a dream, some kind of sordid nightmare? Another hallucination? I woke up on an upper floor of the building and could immediately tell I wasn’t going to like this place. I’ve been to hospitals where the nursing staff had warm, friendly faces and eyes sympathetic to the pain around them. Bellevue wasn’t one of those facilities. Hardened by life or hardened by what they dealt with daily, there would be no pity here.
A psychiatrist introduced himself and wanted to talk. Remembering the threats of the first doctor, I insisted on a social worker being present for the conversation. They listened to my story of wanting to start fresh, how I didn’t know anyone and was hoping for a lucky break. I could only nod my head as they lectured me on how living in New York wasn’t easy. But I was relieved that the doctor seemed honest and reasonable. At dinner time I interacted with the other patients, including an African-American woman named S. S had a grisly story of being pimped out by her mom and a john who almost killed her. I most appreciated her sense of humor despite all she had been through.
After dinner, annoyed with the holier-than-thou attitude of a pair of nurses, I conscientiously became a mental patient, my ensuing behavior governed by this mysterious illness in my head rather than free will. Papa Smurf was the alpha male of the nursing group, and he didn’t appreciate my new friendship with a black woman. He was dressed sharply; I questioned how a nurse in Manhattan could buy such nice clothes. Rather than ignore me, he would goad me into further jabs, reporting on my misbehavior but not realizing he was being spun into my web of insanity. Each barb like a poisonous quiver going through his ears and into the brain, within days Papa Smurf would lose his cool at the mere sight of me. One night me and S were listening to music and Papa Smurf strolled in pretending to make it rain as if at a strip club. So S danced for him while I played the role of a paparazzi, wishing more than anything I had an actual camera to record his banal and embarrassing behavior.
The Black Mamba was my least favorite nurse. She had cold, beady eyes hidden behind glasses and no wrinkles on her face to highlight her humanity. I wondered if her reports had kept anyone permanently locked up. Like with Papa Smurf, I would find ways to get under her skin. My quick-moving mind and confident delivery were like soft cuts inching toward the Black Mamba’s secret; that somewhere in that thick diagnostics book was a definition matching her personality, that what separated her from us was a name tag and a clipboard. I acted out of a deep sense of injustice for my fellow patients, many of whom had been at Bellevue for a long period of time. These two, in my opinion, were part of the problem, so I was determined to leave an indelible mark.
On my third day, we were in a session and I asked the group of instructors a question brewing in my mind. “Don’t you think this place is like a human zoo where we’re the animals? You’re the zookeepers. You stare at us and we stare right back at you.” My comment was met with uncomfortable silence. I suppose I hit a nerve with both the animals and the zookeepers. The latter had most certainly not thought of the hospital in such stark terms. But deny the analogy they could not. We were locked in a tight space, told to bathe, fed at a certain hour, given drugs to behave; the dart gun was all too real.
And the animals that night misbehaved like I have never witnessed in a mental hospital. To quote Zack de la Rocha, a fire in the master’s house was set. Food trays were thrown. Loud bangs on the nursing station window as the bewildered staff tried to ignore the anger and vitriol. One male patient demanded an explanation for why he had developed breasts, a side effect to his medication. Papa Smurf was beside himself with rage as he made his way through the bedlam. Gone was his most precious commodity – power. The Black Mamba refused to cross the yellow line separating staff from patients. Perhaps that was her way of delineating herself from us. And me? I’ve never been so proud of such a display of civil disobedience. These heretofore robots, pumped with power sedatives, still possessed human emotions and had, overnight, found a voice to express their discontent.
The riots would continue for several more nights and the ward became a chaotic jungle. Doctors assembled crisis management units and went room to room in the mornings, trying to get a sense of why the staff was losing control. I wasn’t going to explain that some people were bored while others, those indefinitely detained, had a damn good reason for being angry living in this mental prison. A pack of nuns would lose their religion after a couple weeks of being locked up with no books or magazines, no fresh air, the only real entertainment a TV or radio and of course the ever-present medicine cart to numb the mind. Some of the worst perpetrators of our revolt were long-term chronic patients caught in a vicious cycle: locked up and labeled as mentally ill, put on a drug regimen that caused nasty side effects, cared for by an unsympathetic staff, angry and acting up over their loss of freedom and self – only to be given more drugs, less sympathy and a release date even further into the future, which caused greater anger and resentment. It made me wonder whether the staff was treating an illness or attempting to crush the human spirit.
I noticed this pattern with S and the others, and was determined not to let that happen to me. So I plotted my escape and figured that the way out was to behave like a choir boy and show “recovery.” It helped that Papa Smurf and the Black Mamba stopped showing up to work, presumably because it was their off days. Or perhaps they were aware that their presence exacerbated the tension within the unit. The rest of the staff was mostly fine; I didn’t have any problems with them, and the voluminous reports of my misdeeds disappeared. I had come into the hospital because I hadn’t slept, so I concentrated on getting a good night’s rest and my mind slowed down.
The doctors, impressed by this change in behavior and attributing it to my drug regimen, finally announced my release date. I said goodbye to S, made my way through the maze of corridors for my valuables and tasted fresh air for the first time in a week. Words can’t describe the joy of sunshine on my face and arms. I lit a cigarette, savoring every drag, and with a coy smile asked a passing woman, “Excuse me miss, which way to Nina Agdal?”
Bellevue, it seemed, had no chance of breaking me.
[Editor’s note: due to personal circumstances, the author has chosen to publish under an abbreviated version of his name.]
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.
Vlado, great story, I really enjoyed reading it! You are a talented writer.
Nina Agdal is pretty hot! I wouldn’t say an obsession with her is evidence of anything wrong with a red-blooded man.
I like this quote, “”Don’t you think this place is like a human zoo where we’re the animals? You’re the zookeepers. You stare at us and we stare right back at you.” My comment was met with uncomfortable silence. ”
That just about sums up my experience in a mental hospital, which I wrote about here:
Thanks for reading BPDT and I’m glad you enjoyed the story! My inspiration for that zoo analogy was my first hospitalization when, fed up and not knowing how to get out, I wrote in big block letters on a whiteboard “WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE”
Another patient crossed out JUNGLE and wrote ZOO. I went numb when I saw that because it perfectly represented our miserable existence.
I read your post and can relate to how much therapy would help if offered. Totally agree that interacting with other patients is the best way to get through the experience.
As for Ms. Agdal, I once saw her crossing the street and my knees buckled. I was laughing inside thinking this woman can’t be real until I recognized her and then it all made sense 🙂
Bellevue, I was there on those chair like things side by side almost touching they have as beds. The dude next to me was coughing coughing coughing and then they came in to take him for an X ray. Great now I have tuberculosis for sure I was thinking.
I only saw I guess what was the observe you in the beginning section before I got the Ativan slept and could think enough between anxiety attacks to get myself out of there. 1 day 2 days can’t remember.
All that for a pill that cost less than a buck. Haven’t been back to NY in years.
My first exposure to psychiatry also came in my thirties, and was caused by a “safe smoking cessation med” / antidepressant. My guess is you also had the ADRs of an antidepressant misdiagnosed as “bipolar”? Seems to be what today’s US psychiatrists do, at least. And today’s “bipolar” drug cocktails are known to create “psychosis,” via what’s known as anticholinergic toxidrome. “The symptoms of an anticholinergic toxidrome include … hallucinations, … psychosis … Substances that may cause this toxidrome include the four ‘anti’s of antihistamines, antipsychotics, antidepressants ….” Likely what caused your crisis, too.
What a sick joke today’s psychiatric iatrogenic illness creation system is. Glad you made it out alive. By the way, you look just like my cousin, who works in finance in San Francisco. Thanks for sharing your story, and it’s funny how similar everyone’s stories are. I also dealt with a psychiatrist who wanted to institutionalize me for life, thankfully my insurance company refused to pay for that. But, you’re absolutely right, the way to get out of a psych ward is to pretend to believe in the psychiatrists’ scientifically invalid DSM delusions. Those who should be the inmates, are running the asylums now.
Hi Someone Else. I was frustrated at work and in a relationship where indifference had replaced love. Not knowing anything about psychiatry and trusting these people were real doctors, I assumed the antidepressant would help. After several months I discarded the medicine because it didn’t seem to be working. What I didn’t know is that the pills contributed to my insomnia and I soon became manic and labeled as bipolar, which was absolutely devastating at the time.
I’ve come a long way in the years since and have rejected the bipolar/mentally ill label. I don’t engage in risky behavior or abuse alcohol/drugs and my mood is stable day-to-day with or without medication. What I am is someone capable of experiencing mania. And for that reason alone, psychiatry wishes to hold onto me forever.
Thanks for writing!
I dealt with almost the exact same thing, Vlado. The common symptoms of antidepressant discontinuation syndrome were DSM-IV-TR misdiagnosed as “bipolar.” Then comes the massive, “psychosis” creating, anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings. I’ve escaped, too, even eventually got the “bipolar” misdiagnosis off my records. The doctor who did it called me “one in a million,” apparently he’d never met a patient who could medically explain the “bipolar” scam before. At my next physical, he even had me teach one of his students all about it. Glad you’re doing better drug free, as well.
I am surprised to read this on madinamerica. How does this advance the conversation about psychiatry, corruption, and health?
“At long last they gave me the sedative, Ativan, which if available in stores would have saved me all this trouble. I found the least disgusting bed to lie down in. ”
I can’t tell you how many times when I was still sick I had to endure the abuse this wrenched system calls help, to get the tiny bit of help I actually needed.
They like to say things like “mental illness is just like diabetes” …
Do people with high or low blood sugar get treated the way we do with lockups, strip searches and threats when they go to the hospital ?? No they get treated with dignity.
True, they also steal people’s fine jewelry, they take away your phone, and refuse to allow your friends and family to visit you, while they “snow” you with psychiatric drugs. That is not how people in other parts of the hospital are treated. At least one of the morons who had me medically unnecessarily shipped a long distance to himself was finally convicted, for doing the same, and worse, to other patients.
Although, none of the patients got justice, the government won the award, since the doctors were caught defrauding Medicare and Medicaid. Seems something’s wrong when the government is being compensated for medical crimes against it’s citizens, but it is not protecting the citizens, as is the government’s job.
Forced psychiatric treatment needs to be made illegal. Since the medical community is utilizing force treatment to cover up their easily recognized iatrogenesis.
To “randall” – All this man needed was 1 dose of Ativan. He could easily have gotten that if he’d had access to a psychiatric system that WORKS. No gynecologist would give women hysterectomies for their menstrual cramps, if they could effectively resolve their patient’s discomfort with Midol. So, why should psychiatrists have the power to lock Mad people up for days, weeks, or months instead of giving them a few pills to help them sleep? It’s this kind of psychiatric OVERKILL that turns part-time psychiatric patients into full-time psychiatric patients.
What I really needed was Ativan and rest – that initial doctor was completely off base and wrong with her threat of permanent institutionalization. If they threatened me with a permanent stay, how many of the others did they actually follow through on the threat? I’m not a doctor but I sensed the other patients suffered acute crises made worse by the environment, medication and angst that was misinterpreted as illness. My friend S was a “normal” woman except for a bad attitude they attempted to medicate away.
As for the rebellion, it made the doctors re-evaluate what was happening on the unit. The majority of patients participated, acute and chronic. Did the medication all of a sudden stop working or was something else going on? We individually had a greater voice to express ourselves to the crisis management team than before when we seen as delusional or not knowing what was happening to us.
Thanks j. I get it now. And I agree.
Yes, anyone who stays up late is likely to go manic. There is nothing unusual about it. People who stay of up late praying have been know to see tongues of fire over their friend’s heads. All kind of stuff happens. Often people just cannot sleep because there are things they need to think about, because they are at a life transition point.
We need to cherish these events and the insights gained.
Any interventions should be light and minimal. And at this point I feel that there should be some sort of anti-psychiatric intervention team available, people who are right out in the open about how they are protecting people from the white coats and all the harm they do.
The worst thing that could ever happen is if the white coats were able to convince you that you had a ~Brain Chemical Imbalance~ and that medication, and life long medication, was in your best interest.
And I tell you, it happens everyday. A large portion of the poor and jobless are treated this way, and they succumb to it, and it is a downward spiral from there.
I fully agree with your comments and the harm caused by the mental health system globally. The ever-present promotion of pharmaceuticals and the ‘we know best’ attitude of some mental health professionals offers little protection when individuals are at their most vulnerable. The notion of an anti-psychiatric intervention team sounds a valid proposition. As a mental health nurse, I like the idea of ‘service-users’ having a greater understanding of their treatment options, rather than just being told to take medication and be displaced in un-therapeutic hospital environments.
Thank you for this. I’m glad you got out of there, but so many do not. It’s really difficult to find alternative spaces and enough support at the most wrenching
times, so people fall into the hands of the medical model. Wishing you well.
Thanks Truth for the well wishes. What’s scary is that a fallible doctor, relying on a manual that pathologizes any and every behavior or emotion, determines whether we’re acute or chronic. It’s unclear to me how they sleep at night.
Vlado, you are exactly right about fallible doctors relying on a manual that pathologizes any and every behavior and emotion. I have added a link below by Sam Kris that accurately describes the DSM.
Nick, thank you for sharing the essay. That was very well written and accurately captures the insanity of the current psychiatric model. Makes me want to attend an APA event just to obverse these alchemists of the mind.
Good luck with your PhD program!
On piles of money.
My boyhood idol Abbie Hoffman once said, “Riots are holy, don’t fuck around with explanations.” 🙂
But since everything is so serious here, let me caution that I don’t think MIA should encourage people to try this at home.
The purpose of this story was NOT to encourage Mad people to deprive themselves of sleep and drive to the Big Apple. Rather, this story provided us with a warning about the dangers of a psychiatric system that relies, firstly and only, upon the most expensive, time consuming, and rights-robbing methods of delivering Mad health care services to the public.
Vlado, I enjoyed reading your story and encouraged by your willingness to share your story with others. As a mental health nurse, I find your use of language refreshing and remarkably accurate. I am about to start on my PhD journey that will identify if mental health nurses intentionally minimize iatrogenic harm caused by psychiatric medications, so I am looking forward to discovering the outcome. I am an avid supporter of people such as Robert Whitaker and David Healy and I welcome refreshing stories from the service-users perspective that promotes their voice and are critical (in a refreshing way) of the current system. These types of issues that you highlight are not specific to the US, but evident around the world in countries that have used the US system as their model of care. Good luck with your journey! Regards, Nick.
I love how much this is not a fucking recovery narrative. This is beautiful.