This brief article is dedicated to all the children, my brothers and sisters, whose lives have been ruined by psychiatry.
Eight or ten years after I had left my job as directing attorney and patients’ rights advocate with Mental Health Consumer Concerns, I got a call from Janet, who had taken my place as the director of advocacy. She asked me if I would fill in for an advocate who needed a long break. Since I had done the work for many years, and had trained many advocates, I figured this would be easy for me, and I needed the money.
So in a week or so, off I went to Saint Somebody’s Hospital, where a whole bunch of people needed to be represented at their commitment hearing. I talked briefly to every adult who was on the list, doing the usual triage to figure out who had a real chance to win their hearing and be released. Then I went back and spent time with the folks who had a chance, going over in detail what to expect the next day. I would return early the next day, before the hearings, and prepare them a little more. It was easy for me.
Then I went to the children’s ward, to work with the kids. I remembered to tell all of them that I had been locked up my whole childhood on psych wards, and this always made them trust me. And I always thought too that knowing this about me would make them feel more hopeful that they would be able to accomplish something worthwhile with their lives, once they were free of the mental illness system.
The first kid I talked to was Norma (I am not using real names in this article). She was thirteen. Her mother had abandoned her when she was born, and her father was now abusing her. At a time in her life when she was beginning the difficult transition from childhood to womanhood, suddenly she had no home and no parent to guide and support her. Of course she was very upset about this, but the psychiatrists labeled her emotional upset as mental illness. How else was she supposed to feel?
As I talked with her for a while, I realized she was one of those young people who has what people call an “old soul.” I was struck with her maturity and thoughtfulness, and it seemed so weird that any parent would walk away from her. I knew that psychiatry does NOT encourage people like her, and I feared the mental illness system was likely to destroy her. Thinking to encourage her, I told her that I couldn’t understand why her parents left her, because she was the kind of child I would have loved to have as my daughter.
Fortunately she didn’t seem to notice that as I said this I was almost crying.
After our conversation was finished, I remembered the first time I went on a children’s ward as an advocate. Another advocate was showing me the ropes, and I had done fine with the adult patients. But it took me half an hour before I could even go on the children’s ward. It felt as if I was back in Bellevue and Rockland State Hospital, where I spent most of my childhood and was shocked and raped. And I identified with every kid I saw there.
It had taken me a while before I could numb myself out enough to deal with these children, and I had forgotten that I needed to do that again.
Marilyn was fourteen and pregnant, and it was starting to show. The father of the baby was a staff member at another psych hospital, who had raped her. (Sexual abuse at places like this is very common. When it was done to me, and I told my foster father about it, my shock doctor, the infamous Loretta Bender, told him it was a delusion caused by my mental illness.)
Marilyn’s biggest concern was that she had been told that her baby would be taken away from her after he/she was born. She wanted to know if the hospital could do that. I was very perplexed about what to tell her.
I knew the baby would be marked with the stigma of being the child of a “mentally ill” mother, just as I had been when my mother, who had already been locked up by psychiatry, gave birth to me.
And I wanted to tell Marilyn that at age fourteen, there would be no way she could handle being a single mother, especially as someone who was under the power of the mental illness system.
And I knew that the psychiatrists would waste no time in putting her child on a lifetime, a very short lifetime, of psychiatric drugs. Then there would be two children to be profit centers for the psych hospitals and the drug companies.
How could I talk to this terribly unhappy child about this? I couldn’t. I tried to be businesslike about the upcoming hearing, and I even said a little bit about how difficult it would be for her to be a single teenage mother,
All I could do was grit my teeth and try not to cry in the face of the suffering I could do nothing about. Marilyn needed caring parents, and all she was offered were drugs and incarceration.
Annie was just five years old, a beautiful Pacific Islander little girl with BIG hair. The hospital staff told me I shouldn’t bother to try to talk with her because she wouldn’t tell me anything. Of course, this made me very eager to try to talk to her.
I found her in a seclusion room down the hall. with a young, expressionless staff member just outside with the door open a bit, keeping an eye on her. I told him I was the patients’ rights advocate and he let me in. I tried to talk to the little girl, who was sitting on a mattress on the floor, but she did not answer back, in words anyway. I kept talking, asking her how she was doing, and if she would like me to read her a story. I could see she was reacting to the tone of my voice and the concern for her I was trying to communicate.
I decided I should have a look at her hospital chart, to understand what was happening to her. Besides telling me that she was on huge doses of psych drugs (of course), it said her parents had severely abused her, and that in the hospital she would throw huge tantrums, screaming and yelling and cursing and throwing things, which led to her being put in solitary confinement. And I suddenly remembered how I had been In Rockland State Hospital at age seven, completely despairing about my life, having the same kind of episodes, not knowing what to do about what was being done to me. My despair was dealt with even more sadistically than the way Annie was being treated.
The identification I felt with this little girl was overwhelming.
Later, as I was trying to leave the ward I saw Annie, her legs drawn up against her chest, perched on a counter next to the nurses’ station, apparently so they could keep an eye on her. She followed me with her eyes. I could see I had made an impression on her with my caring tone of voice. She looked to me like a lost and frightened kitten, with no mommy and daddy, and no home, and no one to love her.
And I felt a powerful desire to scoop her up and carry her home with me, and try to help her heal from what had been done to her.
Howard was seventeen, a tall boy without the macho bullshit that adolescent boys often show. I liked him right away. Even some of the hardboiled nurses at Saint Somebody’s liked him. He had been sent to the hospital because he was talking about committing suicide, and he made a complaint to me that was chilling. He wanted to know why he had been locked up just for talking about killing himself, when there were many kids at his group home who had actually tried to kill themselves. Yes, this is what the “child welfare “ system provides for troubled children.
Howard being older, the same age as I was when I was released from Rockland State Hospital, I was able to talk with him more as an equal. I tried to get him to see that he could still do something with his life, even with the years he had spent being told he was a subhuman mental case, the same message I had been given through most of my own childhood.
By the next day, when he had his hearing, I realized that at eighteen years old, coming soon, he was about to be “aged out” of the child welfare system, and he would be on his own. And I thought too, that unlike with the younger children, I could be a mentor for him, and help him navigate what I knew he would face at that age.
I thought about giving him my phone number and encouraging him to call me if he thought I could help him with anything. And I know I could have…but I didn’t. I think it would have been too much for me emotionally.
That night, after my conversations with these children, it took me two or three hours to cry myself to sleep.
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never did and it never will.
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.