No sleep for four days straight, we reached out for help. My jubilant experiences of revelation were now beginning to turn fearful. I was detached and suffering from exhaustion. My husband and I were planning to take a ride through the woods and go to the counseling services at noon. It was still quite early. My aunt arrived at the doorstep, called in to help by my father. She assisted with the laundry and offered to take me to the clinic so my husband could stay with the kids.
While on the way to the clinic, my vision was fading in and out to white. The car felt like a flying machine as the houses zoomed past us. My senses were overwhelmed. In the car there was a phone call, I heard my aunt say, “Something isn’t right,” and we turned around, heading back to my house.
To our surprise, the assessment interviewer arrived with two police officers and a clipboard. Our children were very small, the youngest three months old. My husband wanted to witness the interview but had to watch over the children in the other room at the same time. I was alone with the three scrutinizers, asleep sitting up for the interview, nodding in and out. To my recollection I was unable to utter anything verbally. Somehow during the interview this woman wrote down on her clipboard enough to condemn me to a traumatic abduction. I was calm, I had no intention of harming myself or others, and I was compliant. Yet they removed my rights, told my husband he wasn’t allowed to take me to the hospital, that they were rushing me to the ER. I went to hug my children goodbye. I only got to my oldest son and they tore him from my arms and began to drag me from the house. Once outside they threw me in the back of a cop car in front of all the neighbors. I was being treated like a criminal publicly.
In the back of the car, I had an intense panic attack. The fear was immeasurable. I could feel my mind and body shutting down. The smell of gasoline flooded the car. Breathing became increasingly difficult. My vision began to fade in and out again, and I was seeing a spiral in my mind’s eye. The police officers ignored my distress and did their duty unfazed. I desperately tried to convince them to turn around once I saw the ramp to the ER.
Inside the ER I was strapped to a gurney and shot with three large vials of Ativan in the thigh. At first I blacked out and could see nothing, but oddly spoke in binary code, “One, zero, negative one, zero, one…” My mind was trying to balance itself and stop the trauma from unfolding. When my awareness of my environment focused I was both calm and wired from the drugs. It enabled me to talk when the ob-gyn came to interview me. I spoke in circles of past guilt, compounded trauma and worries, revealing accounts of self harm from my early twenties, unfounded fears for the lives of myself and my family and the current state of the world. This unraveling of emotion, referencing past events from before I had my children, was enough to make me vulnerable to meet their qualifications of an unfit mother in need of extended inpatient care. I was completely misrepresented on my medical record as “abusive” and hospital staff even falsely concluded from the temporary meltdown that I had an obsession with numbers.
Compounding the trauma of the condition I was in, and the abduction and the hospitalization away from my babies adding to that trauma, my husband and I would also have to endure a case open against us for the better part of a year during which the innocent were forced to prove themselves innocent. Under enforced restrictions, constant supervision, invasion of our home and privacy, and court cases, we proved that we were excellent parents, our children were above average in every facet of their development, and our home was as loving, enriching and nourishing as could be. Yet the stigmatic labels of “bad parents” and “crazy lady” would remain on our records as we would receive future mistreatment and prejudice from hospital staff, as well as being watched closely well after our case was closed. These scars and memories remain.
The following are some excerpts from my journal about my inpatient experience. Please know that the people in that hospital often reached out to one another in beautiful ways, but overall felt frustrated and stressed due to an oppressive and sterile environment with little positive reinforcement.
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Eating Was Pain
The first meal I was served in the hospital was meatloaf. I am a vegetarian. I had been mistreated by police and social services so fiercely in the days past and traumatized so badly that I believed I had no choice and that the meatloaf represented a fetus from my miscarriage. I dismissed and dissected this falsehood and savagely tore into the meat with my utensils, because I also knew that if I didn’t eat while being monitored, I would have to stay longer. While being looked down upon by hospital staff, I went against every moral fiber and ate meat, because my choice had been stripped from me, and this was very apparent.
I cried into my meatloaf, completing the cycle of murder, and ate with harrowing vigor. I had no hunger that I could feel or recall, but I had just enough wherewithal to perform the function that would get me the check mark on my record that would get me that much closer to my children.
Walked into the cafeteria, tired from being drugged. Ashen face and sunken cheeks. She was an actress with great prowess even in her weakened state. She imitated those around her to add comedy to her own grief and suffering. She imitated me. I disassociated from the intense shame and pain this caused me. I could barely react. Just barely noticed and interpreted the cold parody of how sadly and meekly I ate and failed to hold myself up.
But Kiara was not cruel. She was struggling, young and emboldened with resentment for how she was being held and treated. One day she took my hand and told me to come with her. She brought me to the karaoke room and gave me a microphone. She held the other mic. She tried to get me to choose a song. I could barely make a choice. Reading and other motor skills like speaking were foreign to me at the time. She was younger than me, very lean, short dark hair, and vibrant sparkling eyes. She laughed at me, and got me to smile and maybe even laugh at myself a little.
She chose the song. Now she sang, and tried to get me to sing with her. I could barely make a noise. I tried, but only dry air came out. She laughed again, “Is that all you got?!” She got me to clap and she danced and sang and tried her best with me, never giving up. I felt in that moment a friendship forming. First smile in days.
“Ki-ki” it said on her door. Everyone’s room had their name on the door. I walked up and down the halls for there was nothing else to do, and switched on and off red switches which I eventually found were to control a light on the floor. It was the only fun I could find at the time to occupy my mind. That and looking at the names labeling each room.
Kiki, or Kiara, had just been placed in the same ward as all of us. I remember for some reason her telling me that they kept her “over there” on the other side of the ward somewhere at night for some reason. Today she grabbed me by the hand again. She brought me to the end of the ward and showed me a door and tried to push us both through it. The giant security guard put himself into the doorway just as our bodies were halfway through. He saw in my face I was being led by Kiki and unsure of what was happening. Kiki came up with an explanation, not short of words herself.
Kiki wanted to escape with me. Maybe she thought with me it was possible, that together somehow we would make it through. Some people in there were glad to have a bed. They were glad to be accepted in and cared for. Not me. Not Kiki. Not KIARA. We were always ready to leave.
In my immeasurably sensitive state, I was being harassed by other patients. Two females were working together to get an incoherent male to touch my backside and rub up against me in the cafeteria line. The staff did nothing. I informed them and they used doublespeak to misdirect me. I was told that I had to tell them at the time of the incident or they could not do anything. I said this incident had just happened. They said, “It already happened then? Next time tell us when it is happening.” And I was sent back to the line.
One older man made sexual gestures to his doorknob with his hands and pelvic area at me. Another older man held his genitals and walking toward me told me he had radiation disease. Some things that could have been ignored in a regular state of mind were deeply distressing in my current state. We all slept in the same floor together, these men and women, some of whom were sexually harassing other patients. The staff had little control and took little initiative or responsibility.
The toilet was going off by itself or by remote control all night long in our room. I could not sleep. It just kept flushing louder and louder on and on for hours. The office was right outside my room. One of the reasons I was in the hospital was to get sleep after insomnia. No one in the office felt a need to address the issue of the broken toilet the entire evening. Sleeping was impossible that night. I really wondered if I was their guinea pig and they were torturing me with a remote control toilet.
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While there was some human connection between patients and on-site therapists, overall the hospital added more trauma and little opportunity for healing. Mostly medication, “supervision” and a hospital bill.
In addition, I had the window in my room, which often animated to show me four birds flying by, representing my family being with me, or a face in the clouds telling me I am not alone. But in many ways I was isolated and alone, and that is how many patients were made to feel. There was little quality therapy or healing going on, if any. The one quality experience was when I attended an art therapy class that lasted less than an hour, and then they lost my artwork. As a professional artist I feel at least a little stripped of my rights and my property.
Am I bitter? Hmmm. No. Not anymore. The suffering happened for a reason. I am now, after three years, stating facts without investing my emotion. I have written the institutions several times, receiving cold, perfunctory responses. This is the true state of the mental health system in my experience, and the potential is so much more.
What I don’t want is for the trauma that was inflicted on me and so many others to be the repeat story for younger generations to follow. I want us to improve the experience for those to come. In my experience, the rush to the hospital was an overkill gut reaction to a transformative process that the assigned social worker simply could not grasp. She even went against legal limitations to write down untrue statements to get me abducted from my home by the police. They literally ripped me from the arms of my child, in front of my other two small children, one breastfeeding. This was unnecessary, as we were willing and actively seeking to receive help, and planned to go to the hospital peacefully. They thus brought on a massive panic attack in me and the onset of a complete dissociative trauma-induced coma for three days as well as muteness for a week after, trauma for my young ones, and ongoing trauma symptoms in me for years (still ongoing).
If you have lived experience, please consider starting an online or local peer support group and sharing your experience and methods of healing and recovery with others who need you. A grassroots approach and linking up with larger international online groups such as Shades of Awakening, Drop the Disorder, or Emerging Proud may be our only hope in a world where the psychiatric system is so entrenched in policy, big pharmaceutical money, and stigma. If you can add a listening ear, and share part of your story from time to time, you may be able to make a difference in your community that adds to a major paradigm shift in how we perceive mental health.
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.