After I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2005, I landed a cushy job as an analyst with a top sales and marketing company in the consumer-packaged-goods industry and then got promoted to a category-development manager. What happened next is not something I could have predicted—it is hard for me to admit, but I had a mental breakdown after the Virginia Tech massacre. I’d been diagnosed with lichen planus, a rare autoimmune skin disease, right after the massacre and was placed on steroid treatments, so it is hard for me to know if that caused the extreme anxiety I was feeling or if it was truly my reaction to the shocking events at the university from which I graduated (where my younger sibling was still a student and had a class in the same building where the massacre occurred). During my breakdown, I voluntarily underwent psychiatric treatment, covering the cost with the excellent private healthcare benefits my job offered.
Then my company fired me, furious that I’d taken a second paid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act for this treatment. It was not the scenario I wanted. I was in my twenties and had wanted to use the FMLA benefits to have kids when I met the right person…not for a mental breakdown. After I lost my job, I suddenly became the stereotype of a “mentally ill” person—unemployed and, what was worse at the start of the Great Recession, unable to explain a firing to a future employer without revealing that I might have mental health problems. I had considered suing the company for FMLA retaliation, but I ultimately decided not to and tried to move on.
My involuntary commitment came 10 years after becoming a fired manager who had never managed to find another job and was living with her parents. I got in an argument with them at their house and they decided to involve the police. I don’t know what my parents told the police, but after the officers drew their taser guns on me, I was taken from my parents’ home in handcuffs and brought to the same hospital where I’d received therapy earlier. There I was placed in a padded room and immediately given medication against my will. I was told I had to remain there until I could be admitted. I figured being hospitalized could only last a few days before they would have to let me go, but I was wrong.
In 2017, at age 35, I was committed for more than 50 days and diagnosed as schizophrenic. Suddenly, the hospital was talking about long-term care. I was picturing myself either homeless or fortunate enough to be in some group home if my parents didn’t take me back. I had nowhere else to turn for help. Every time there was a hearing about my future, my parents kept bringing up my voluntary mental health treatment and mentioned that during the past decade I basically didn’t go anywhere, didn’t have friends, and didn’t leave their house.
This loner portrayal felt surreal. I am an alumna of a sorority in the South but wasn’t residing there at the time of the involuntary commitment. Since moving south for college, I had drifted apart from my high school friends, and after I moved back north many of them had gotten married or had kids. I was also embarrassed about the firing, the weight gain that likely came from the steroids and/or psychiatric meds I’d been on, and didn’t know how to explain my mental problems or how to catch up with them.
I finally got released to a partial-inpatient psychiatric program on the condition that I agreed to meet with a social worker. The humiliation of having to agree to that was unbearable, and after being released I decided not to meet with the social worker after all. The hospital—which was monitoring me without my consent—let that go, but when the appointment I made with a psychiatrist fell through, the hospital involved the police and brought me back in handcuffs. So, I became twice involuntarily committed within a year. To get my freedom back, I had to agree to report to the hospital and get injections of antipsychotic medication for schizophrenia; the hospital has maintained this involuntary outpatient commitment since 2018. I have not gotten private counsel yet to fight it, since I was quoted a price of nearly $5,000 in the one productive conversation I had with an attorney who specialized in mental health. So it has been a one-sided presentation against me this whole time, and the worst thing I have ever been through.
I oppose forced treatment, forced medication, and a forced social worker. I fear that the forced medication will cause brain damage. The terrible side effects I experience have even been acknowledged by my psychiatrist: stress incontinence, tremors, and a 70-pound weight gain. I still hope to have children someday and fear the medication will cause birth defects. I also hope to get a second opinion on my diagnosis, since the hospital changed my original diagnosis from probable PTSD after the Virginia Tech massacre to schizophrenia. I have read that according to the Mayo Clinic, autoimmune diseases can trigger mental illness symptoms. Could this whole experience really be linked to my skin problems?
Another annoying part of the involuntary commitment was being badgered about not having health insurance. I am a believer in having private health insurance and had it all my life until I was fired at 25 years old. I had gone without it during the decade I couldn’t find a job and was too prideful to sign up for Obamacare when I had the opportunity. I had even taken to doing light therapy outdoors for my last lichen planus outbreaks, which was free, instead of taking steroid treatments. It actually worked better and wreaked less havoc on my body with no side effects. Eventually, I agreed to sign up for medical-coverage public assistance to pay for the $100,000+ hospital bills for being committed for nearly two months. My forced medication and office visits cost $2,000 a month, so I signed up for Medical Assistance for Workers with Disabilities (MAWD) to help cover it, since I no longer qualify for regular medical public assistance because I earn too much.
The hospital currently maintains that the medication has done such wonders that I’m now employed and getting along with my parents while living in their home (they agreed to take me back). When I came to the renewal-for-outpatient-commitment hearing, the judge even said I had a professional appearance. The hospital also takes credit for my life gains of having more social contact and joining a business group and book club.
I’m just glad I’m living life again and don’t believe the medication is what motivated me. The situation drove me to get back in touch with people because I realized how isolated I had become when I had no one to turn to while I was involuntarily committed. But my faith is what I feel got me through it. Priests visited me while I was involuntarily committed and I have not missed a mass since being released.
I also had a strong motivation to become financially independent to leave my parents’ home after the commitment and accepted an unlikely next step—a position as a caregiver. I love being a caregiver, but it doesn’t pay a lot compared to what I was used to earning when I was a more productive member of society. So once I saw an opening for a full-time government loan counselor position, I applied and have been doing that for over a year now.
With medical privacy laws, I have not had to reveal my psychiatric condition to my employers. I want to be open about what I went through, but fear if people find out, it will upset my current status of living life as a government loan counselor during the week and a caregiver on the weekends, a job I kept to help with my new-car payment. I feel fortunate that despite everything I have been through, I am in a position to have that now. I hope to eventually handle more professional responsibility if I am trusted with it again.
My vision for the future is to be back in the private-sector business world as a manager, or even higher up. I thought I was too young to go out on disability when I did and still feel that way now that I am a decade or so older. I crave to be challenged professionally again. I have been invited to apply to an Executive MBA program and am currently weighing if that is the right decision for me since I have a 10-year work gap. I am also in a fortunate enough position to have recently hired a personal trainer to help me tackle the 70-pound weight gain since my involuntary commitment three years ago. So far, I have lost 13 pounds. I got off the wagon during the holiday celebrations, but I am motivated to start again since I am getting results when I stick with the program.
The change I would like to see in the mental health system is to never see anyone involuntarily medicated. It is the most maddening thing to have one’s rights removed without a crime occurring. (I have a clean record and even hold a security clearance.) If I had a do-over, I would not have told my doctor that I was having trouble sleeping and feeling anxious after the Virginia Tech massacre. Doing so led me down a path I couldn’t have imagined with medication, time off work, and ultimately an involuntary commitment initiated by my parents, who would have never have thought to do that if I hadn’t already had treatment.
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.