In a place where I should have been safe, where peace should have been present in every corner and human kindness permeating the atmosphere, I was instead deeply traumatized in the name of control, safety—or more honestly, teaching me a lesson. The experience plays like a Muzak loop in a grocery store or a GIF in my memory. Each time it replays in my mind, it causes me sorrow and emotional pain and further hurts my heart. The place of which I speak is a psychiatric hospital. The hospitalization occurred one autumn and lasted 30 hellacious days and nights. I arrived in the hospital because I had attempted suicide.
In my childhood, being “put away because I was a liar” was one of many threats my stepfather used while he abused me over a period of 10 years. The specific threat was that I would end up in the “nuthouse” if I ever lied about him. This person had been sexually abusing me from the time I was seven and he did not leave my house until I was 17. The threats I received about “locking” me “away in the nuthouse,” were terrifying and confusing. But I knew the exact meaning of his words, and that was to be quiet and not to tell. This man would reinforce this point by driving me by the Clinton Valley Center, a gigantic Victorian-style “mental hospital” nearby. Today, when I look at photos of it, I am reminded of the house in the movie “Psycho.” To a child, the thought of being placed in the “nuthouse” like that huge, frightening building, where my mother “would forget me and not even miss me,” where soon, “no one would even remember where I was,” was horrifying.
It makes perfect sense, then, that actually finding my adult self inside a “nuthouse” was frightening. One of the most dreadful fears of my life was happening. Nevertheless, there I was. I had been battling thoughts that I did not deserve to live since I was 18. I knew they were a result of the disgusting memories I carried with me of the abuse. But in my mind, I began applying what I’d known about sexuality as a teenager to myself as a little child and wondered why she “let that happen.” My rational mind knew that in my innocence I had been constantly manipulated and intimidated, but my emotional mind and my heart blamed me for being “stupid” and falling for his duplicitous kindness time after time—promised ice cream or a new toy only to end up tortured and abused.
So, there I sat in the hospital. A wall of barred windows lined the unit beside a door that led out to a smoking patio. Near those windows there was light, and I could see a sliver of blue sky, and through a small area in the wall I could see through the bars a bit of grass and a tree off in the distance. The sliver of sky, the green velvety grass, and the big shade tree were all keeping a spark of hope alive in me. It was also quieter there next to those windows. I was about 10 feet away from the room where people were watching television, listening to music, and playing foosball at a table in the middle of the room. The activity and noise there that felt overwhelming to me.
I was sitting there and drawing a picture of a little girl. In my hand was a small pencil I’d been given, and which I treasured throughout my confinement. Inside my sad and scared mind, I was working hard to comfort myself. I was silently trying to convince myself, “I am an adult now. I will not be locked in here forever. I have a job and I am going to school. I have friends, so no one will just forget about me. I know I need help and maybe they can help me get better.” I was repeating things like this over and over in my mind so that I could stay calm and be OK. Every inch of my being wanted to run around screaming and crying, but I sat there and comforted myself as best I could, quietly, trying to become small and not be noticed.
After perhaps 30 minutes, a woman in what looked to be a nurse’s uniform looked at me through the glass-enclosed nurse’s station. She spoke to me abruptly: “You! You need to go sit over there.” She waved her hand in the direction of the noise, the people, and the television, where there was no sunlight.
I said, “May I please stay here?”
She said, “I said move over there, now!”
I sheepishly replied, “Please, I won’t bother you. I am just sitting here drawing, and I will be quiet.” I did not understand the rules of a mental hospital, having never been in one before, and the rule is you do as you are told without question. My bravery strikes me now, because as a child, I did exactly as I was told all the time. It was a way to stay safe. So, it took all my courage to ask to stay sitting in that chair, 10 feet from where the nurse was telling me to go and sit. It was as if I was no longer a person to her, just a patient, or number, or bed, or crazy creature that she had the right to order around. The memory always reminds me of the scene in Oliver Twist when Oliver asks, “Please sir, can I have some more?” He is swiftly reprimanded for asking a reasonable question, just as I was going to be.
She leaned forward and yelled at me, “You [my diagnosis in slang], I said to get over there and sit down.”
I had never had my diagnosis yelled at me before like an insult. I had never even been told that was my diagnosis, and it hit me like a weapon. It was hurled at me like a missile and was intended to hurt me and crush my spirit. In complete contrast to my usual obedient way of being, I was then standing and, in a flash, running for safety, straight out the locked door at the very moment my doctor was walking onto the unit. I ran out the unit door and out the front door of the hospital as fast as I could. I was running back to my house (about 10 miles away) and planning to get into the closet and hide behind my clothes, thinking no one would find me there. Hiding in the closet for safety was a tool I’d used when I was a child; it was what I knew best.
This behavior was contrary to everything about me. I follow the rules. I never skip the velvet ropes in the bank just because no one is waiting in line but me. The ropes are there for a reason, so there I traverse, forward and back, until I arrive at the place to wait. Or I’ll walk half a block to get to the crosswalk and stoplight to make my way across the empty street lawfully rather than risk breaking a rule by jaywalking. I would not run away from a place I was supposed to stay. I had learned not to break rules long ago, and even when I no longer had to face repercussions from breaking a rule, I still lived within the emotional confines of my trauma and abuse.
Yet here I was, running in a dangerous neighborhood, wearing a sweater on a sweltering day in the desert. I did not feel the heat, I did not need water, I was not tired from running, and so I kept on going. I ran about three miles before a police car pulled in front of me at a corner. My heart beating rapidly, I began to shake. I was sure I was going to be arrested for having broken the law of “you have to stay in the hospital.” I relented and climbed into the car’s backseat. I thought of my mother and grandmother and wondered what they would think of me riding in a police car. I was enveloped in shame and disgrace.
Tears fell as we drove. My head hung low, and I resigned myself to the thought of going to jail. I had given up. So, I was surprised when they did not take me there. In some ways, though, the hospital became a jail to me. I would learn quickly to do exactly as I was told. I learned that for us unlucky people who enter the hospital, choice is lost to us, and questioning why about anything is a dangerous undertaking. Patients who have walked this path know that one must never appear too happy or too sad, and that laughing too much or crying become evidence of insanity and reasons to keep you locked inside the doors.
The police walked me through the door of the unit. I saw my doctor standing in the area where I had been sitting. I noticed the nurse and was preparing to say, “I will sit wherever you want me to sit.” But it was too late. I was not struggling. I had given up hope, and a part of my soul had died while riding in that police car. Still, immediately, four gigantic men came and took me down. I weighed about 105 pounds at the time, so likely none of them were ever needed to put me on the floor. I was so low in spirit that moving me a few feet lower could have been accomplished with a simple request for me to lie down and do as I was told.
There I lay on the floor, and the memory from here on out is the loop that still plays in my head. I was dragged to a room and hoisted up onto a table that was devoid of padding. It was like a table used for an X-ray: hard, cold, and flat. It hurt to lie on it, my bones cutting against the slab. I was still crying. Before I knew what was happening, a strap went across my chest, two were clamped on my wrists, and two more were slapped on my ankles. Nothing was done gently. Why should it have been, for me, at that point? I had no value. I was a thing, a thing to be despised. Another piece of my soul perished and my heart began to crumble into pieces, and as I lay there in that position I was seven again. My stepfather was on top of me, holding me down, crushing my wrists as I lay dying with no one to help me while my mother made pancakes in the kitchen downstairs.
I felt the needle sting for a moment and was trying to ask for help when my mind shut down against its will because of the heavy dose of medication. This drug cocktail is sometimes called a “B-52,” I have since learned. A B-52 bomber is a warplane designed to carry nuclear weapons that are dropped upon enemies far below, blowing them into oblivion. The war words often used in the mental health system cast those of us needing care in the role of enemy to staff who work on us from a superior perspective, and so we remain subjugated and broken, unworthy of concern.
After being slammed with the B-52, I came around while I was still on the hard table. Even while unconscious, I remained strapped down and locked in place like a beast. I hung in that place between awareness and oblivion, disconnected from what might or might not be real, long enough to understand I needed a restroom. There was no way to get help. I was alone, and I found I could not speak or even remember how to talk. I wet myself, my dignity voided, unable to even ask for help.
I have no idea how long I was in the room. But if it was for five minutes or five hours, the humiliating degradation was the same. When I finally found myself in my hospital room, I awoke in the fetal position. I stayed in my room for what seemed like days— not eating, not talking. My doctor would visit each day and ask me to get up, but I could not respond. I remember thinking it was like being in a glass box, observing but not be part of the world in any way. I wanted to reach out and say, “Help me.” But I was not able to make myself speak.
At some point, I got out of bed and wandered again among the living. I went to meaningless groups and did what I was told. It was so familiar, to do what you are told so no one will bother you. Say what needs to be said to keep yourself safe, and don’t expect anyone to care about or come help you.
It should have been safe and healing for me in the hospital. Instead, it was like being at home with my stepfather: abused and invisible, just trying to protect myself. I was in that hospital for 30 days. If it weren’t for the other patients that I finally met when I took up smoking so I could go outside, I believe I would have closed down and gone inside myself for good.
The biggest challenge for me about this experience is that none of it had to happen. The nurse near the window could have asked me why I did not want to move. I would have been able to tell her exactly why, and if I still needed to move, she could have asked me from a place of compassionate understanding. It would have taken a bit of reflective listening from Patient Care 101: “It seems you do not want to move; can you tell me what is happening for you?” Unfortunately, she was viewing me as “crazy” and therefore not deserving of understanding, not worthy of concern. I was just a mad person who should know to do what they are told when in the hospital.
The world of mental health services must change. It must offer real care, given in kindness, with compassion and concern. People who seek mental health care are often people whose hearts are broken and whose sadness is sometimes immeasurable: endless and deep. Without compassion as an explicit and necessary tool in mental health care, there can be no treatment, no healing—only dulling, numbing, and shrouding symptoms, responses to life’s traumas.
My experience of restraint was unnecessary. It only served to reinforce all the traumatic events in my life. My life did not change after I left the hospital. My stay only confirmed that I will never seek help if I think the result of that help-seeking will land me in another psychiatric hospital. It is sad to know that despite my ongoing depression, which has been life-threatening on many occasions, I have never felt able to seek the physical safety of a hospital setting again. The reason is that I no longer trust that I would be helped and cared about during a hospital stay. Rather, I have seen the hospital clearly as a tool for social control rather than a place of healing and peace. You might be thinking, “Well, times have changed. It is not like that in hospitals anymore.” I will not be finding out, because I know that while hospitals are a place where peace should be, they are anything but peaceful.
I now work in the field of mental health care at RI International. As the Vice President of Peer Support and Empowerment, I work with our teams to help create healing spaces. In our crisis and short-stay Crisis Recovery Centers, we understand how to care for people. As individuals seek care as our guests, we help them understand that there is hope. Our team of peer supporters bring hope and connection with someone who “gets it.” Our clinical excellence brings expertise in psychiatric care. We use the Fusion Model, aligned with the National Guidelines for Behavioral Health Crisis Care from SAMHSA. In the Fusion Model, crisis becomes an event to be resolved and stabilized, versus a diagnosis to be treated. We do not turn anyone away and in so doing significantly reduce the use of jails for people with mental health challenges that bring them in contact with law enforcement. In addition, we take the burden off hospital emergency departments where psychiatric boarding may occur. The goal: Getting people the right care from the right people, at the right time.
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.