Imagine going to the airport to travel to London, a commute you had made dozens of times before, only to find yourself locked in a high-security psychiatric ward a few hours later, stunned and naked except for a gown and underwear, paralyzed by psychoactive drugs, and deprived of all of your belongings.
This happened to me, and you will be shocked to learn how easily it could happen to you. The airlines and their cronies in government don’t want you to know that the political abuse of psychiatry is alive and well in America.
I am a mother of two, with no history of violence or arrest, but was falsely arrested and imprisoned without probable cause, notice, warrant, charges, legal advice, hearing, or paperwork, for 18 days in a psychiatric ward at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York City, part of Northwell Health, in June 2011, during which time I was drugged and subjected to various types of severe physical and emotional abuse — including assault, hands-on stripping, and deprivation of human essentials like water and fresh air. This was carried out by malicious staff, several of whom were unlicensed by the State to practice their profession.
I was handcuffed, perp-walked, and my car and nearly all of my belongings were confiscated, including my Macbook, iPad, iPhone, pens, paper, books, toiletries, contact lenses, medications, belt, clothing, jewelry, shoes, keys, and money.
I was denied contact with my children, including my youngest, who was only age seven at the time.
There was no signature or approval in the hospitalization process, issued by any authorized individual, committee, or court.
This is not a picture of the New York where I was born and raised; it is a grisly reflection of the political abuse of psychiatry that took place in the Soviet Union or under other authoritarian regimes.
My small-town Christian upbringing, and two college degrees, had not prepared me for this, nor had my career as a medical technology executive. I was raised in a seaside Long Island suburb where there was practically no violent crime. Even though I had traveled around the globe many times, and lived on three continents, I had never encountered a situation as terrifying as this one. I had visited some of the most gruesome hospitals in the world on business, but never had I seen anything like this.
Nothing is going to erase the psychological devastation to me from being stabbed in the back by people who owed me a duty of care. Northwell labeled me with a record of arrest and involuntary psychiatric commitment, which has been damaging to my reputation, social life, and ability to find employment, and could continue to do so for the rest of my life. I went from having homes in both London and New York, to owning no property and living in my parents’ basement. It was — and still is — terribly humiliating.
Northwell staff literally assaulted me twice, and emotionally knocked me down so hard that it has been impossible for me to get up again.
Neither Northwell nor my health insurance company — UnitedHealthcare — informed me in advance of Northwell’s usurious fees of over $67,000 ($3700 per day), gave me the opportunity to approve the fees, or told me how much the insurance would cover and how much it wouldn’t until long after I was discharged. These fees would pay health insurance premiums for two entire families for a year in New York State. They are more than twice the day rate for a suite at a five star hotel. My insurance company did not question these rates, and paid them in full even when I asked them not to.
This is astonishing given that people all over New York State are allegedly waiting for a psych ward bed.
I reported my complaint to every law enforcement and regulatory entity I could think of, at local, county, city, state, and federal levels — right up to the White House — not to mention the British government, the UN, and Interpol. So far, I have been shown almost nothing but deliberate indifference.
The maze of bureaucratic finger pointing involved would take pages to explain, but there is a good explanation in my court documents. Suffice it to say that they either ignored me or pointed the finger of blame at some other government body.
How I ended up at JFK without a passport is a long story in and of itself. If I hadn’t been in the midst of a family crisis, the abuse I endured at the hospital might not have been as traumatic as it was. But I was in the throes of an ugly divorce which was causing me unbearable depression, anxiety and insomnia.
To find some tranquility, I left my family home for my parents’ house with nothing but my little boy and a suitcase. The day after I arrived, my parents’ house flooded, and the few belongings I had with me were soaked.
I felt as though I was suffocating, so I decided to go to the UK, to see my teenager — who was in boarding school there — and my friends. I had lived in London for 11 years, and it felt like home to me. There were things about my personal life that I felt I couldn’t discuss with my family, and I wanted to deal with the emotional turmoil surrounding my divorce in my own way.
When she learned of my plan, my mother hid my passport because she didn’t want me to leave. She probably thought she was helping, but this meddlesome act infuriated me, and we exchanged some cross words about it. So I gathered up all of my other ID documents (which was more documentation than most people ever possess in their lifetimes), dropped my son at my sister’s house, where he had stayed happily hundreds of times before, and drove to JFK airport alone.
I went to the British Airways terminal, because I had flown BA many times. But BA staff refused to sell me a ticket without a passport, and wouldn’t offer me any further assistance. I started to get annoyed — although not agitated or loud — and told them I was going to call the media to the scene to document the dispute. In response, BA called the New York Port Authority police (PAPD) to arrest me.
I have dual US and UK citizenship, and was one of the early enrollees in the British Home Office’s Iris Recognition Immigration System (called IRIS). I should have been able to use this to enter the UK without a passport, since I had done so previously. The IRIS system, as the name implies, involves technology that can recognize the individual characteristics of the human eye, which are as unique as fingerprints, thereby eliminating the need for a passport. However, BA staff did not even stop to ask me about this before they called the police; they were in a hurry to confiscate my phone, handcuff me, and hustle me out of the terminal before I would be able to call a reporter.
BA observed with indifference while the police handcuffed my wrists behind my back, without charging me, without probable cause, and without reading me the Miranda rights, then deprived me of drinking water while they waited for what seemed an interminable period, and transported me in a New York City ambulance to Northwell.
I expected to be greeted by kind professionals who would tell me that it had all been a mistake and that they were terribly sorry. Instead I encountered a mammoth money-spinning machine, staffed by cold, sadistic doctors and their robotic minions. These individuals admitted that I was not violent or dangerous, but saw fit to abuse me anyway.
The staff seemed to know or care little about patients’ rights, and in fact even refused to show me the hospital’s policies and procedures. They deprived me of drinking water, food, fresh air, proper clothing, visits with family, other human essentials, and legal advice. They forcibly drugged me, by both pills and injection. They gang-assaulted me twice, both times using male employees.
The Northwell staff — sickeningly — seemed amused by the torment that they were inflicting on me.
The staff included unlicensed, unsupervised junior doctors, whose managers, astonishingly, had also practiced medicine while unregistered with the State, some for extended periods of time. I didn’t discover this until long after I was discharged, because the State makes it very difficult to obtain this information. The supervisors were almost all members of the faculty at Northwell’s medical school, Hofstra.
I was also repeatedly provoked by violent and sexually aggressive patients, in a ward environment that was something out of Lord of the Flies. Northwell employees did nothing to prevent such threats.
They violated dozens of laws: mental hygiene laws, tort laws, Constitutional rights laws, human rights laws, general business laws, anti-discrimination laws, and disability laws, to name a few. Nobody at Northwell explained to me what law they were invoking to detain me.
I didn’t learn until seven months after I was released that this was New York State’s emergency psychiatric detention law. However, I didn’t fulfill either of the two criteria for admission under this law: imminent physical dangerousness to oneself or to others.
I was not allowed to leave the hospital until, in desperation, more than two weeks later, I contacted my Congressman and the media.
After three months, I received my clinical records from Northwell, and was horrified to find that they contained sensitive, personal, confidential information — details that were unnecessary for my treatment, but which I had offered in good faith to the staff psychiatrists because I believed they could be trusted with confidential information as part of their professional duty of care. There was nothing particularly controversial in my records, but there was still some material that most people would find excessively personal in this context. There was no valid medical or psychiatric reason for Northwell to refuse to omit the sensitive information from my records, or for it to refuse to seal the records — however, it has done so. It became clear that Northwell was using my clinical records to coerce me, and it is still doing so. It is holding my personal health information for ransom, which is contrary to medical ethics.
This whole scenario has been a devastating violation of my trust, like being stabbed in the back by dear old friends. My family had raised me to trust the police, who had always been helpful to me, and I had not seen any reason to distrust them until they arrested me at JFK. Having handcuffs slapped on me threw me into such a state of shock that I was nearly speechless. I was born at a Northwell hospital, just a stone’s throw away from Zucker Hillside, and so was my eldest child. All of my own doctors were part of the Northwell network. My family had spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars at these hospitals over the half century since I was born.
The burning question on most people’s lips is “why”? Why did they do this to me? Why did Northwell single me out for such egregious mistreatment? I have never been violent in my life, I’m not a gang or cult member, and I don’t get involved with illicit substances — even though I don’t think that would justify a hospital’s use of such vile retribution. I’m most people’s idea of a really sweet person. I aspire to leave the world a better place than it was before I arrived.
I still don’t know the answer to that question. It is likely because I had been a political whistleblower starting in Washington in about 1996, and have experienced a lot of retaliation because of that role.
It is now my sixth year since I was detained, with no justice in sight. I still have not had a hearing, although by law I should have had one within five days of being hospitalized. The litigation process should have taken about three months to reach its current stage… and it is not even close to finishing. It has been held up due not only to law enforcement and regulatory foot-dragging and cover-ups, but also to the fact that Northwell’s attorneys have persisted in lying to the court by saying that their clients complied with the law, when they manifestly did not do so.
To bamboozle the judges, Northwell’s lawyers have also repeatedly cited cases, in their legal briefs, in which plaintiffs were violent. This is an improper comparison, because I was never violent. I discovered that this is a common strategy that lawyers use against plaintiffs in mental health cases.
Torture might sound like too strong a word to use in this context, but threat of physical and mental harm is commonly used in a detention setting as a torture technique. It violates the UN Convention Against Torture. Forcible stripping is a means of sexual humiliation, which causes mental suffering, and is also widely employed to torment victims.
Investigations in my case have been covered up, and files “disappeared” at all levels — city, county, state and federal. State regulators pronounced that they could find “no deviation from the standard of care” after sham investigations into my complaint. Later, when I asked for copies of my documents under the Freedom of Information Law, they told me that their files were empty. I even saw my radio advertising campaign mysteriously obstructed, after I had successfully used it to locate other potential plaintiffs among the general public.
I was obsessed with researching the issues underlying my case and ferreting out more evidence to bolster my allegations, because I knew I was in the right and that these issues are vitally important. I have refused to give up my quest for justice, even though I have suffered terribly from PTSD, to the point where those closest to me have constantly urged me to drop the case. In the six intervening years, I could have gotten a law degree plus halfway through medical school!
Since I began this process, I have learned more about the law surrounding mental healthcare than most lawyers know, and about the political forces lurking behind the scenes of this secretive industry. Other abused patients began contacting me, with similar experiences. I realized while doing my research that I could use my litigation to help millions of other people, while helping myself.
How do we prevent this kind of egregious abuse from reoccurring? The offending companies and government agencies need to be punished, to prevent them from torturing other people in the ways that they targeted me. Fines would not be adequate, because that would merely be moving money from one of the government’s pockets to another one. The individuals at the top who are responsible need to be named and shamed. There needs to be new legislation to introduce transparency and accountability into the overly secretive mental healthcare industry, and force it to stop misusing the psychiatrist’s power of detention on non-dangerous individuals. People have trouble agreeing on the use of torture generally, but I think we can all concur that it shouldn’t be used on non-dangerous people in a healthcare setting. The federal government must stop reimbursing it through Medicaid and Medicare.
If you would like to look up my case, it is index number 602687/2015 in the Supreme Court of NY, Nassau County. And please tell me if my writing has helped you; such communications give me a sense of satisfaction and make this arduous journey more bearable.
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.