I felt dazed as I looked at my new surroundings, listening to the sound of the door locking behind me. I had been taken into custody and detained the night before, but was suddenly woken up at 4 a.m. and told to get up because I was being moved to this new facility for continued incarceration. It all felt so surreal, like a bad dream. But unlike waking from a bad dream, with all its fuzzy and garbled parts that make you realize it couldn’t possibly be real, this seemed so devastatingly real. My husband was not there and was never told I was being transferred. This felt like a secret mission to transport the prisoner in the middle of the night, her swift awakening and isolation ensuring quiet bewilderment—and compliance.
At the new facility, I was led to a room where I was strip-searched and my scalp inspected for lice. I was then allowed to dress in my approved clothing and led to another room to sign my personal effects into their custody. A bag for my belongings was placed in front of me and there I saw my name filling in the blank next to “inmate’s name.” I had to sign my name above “inmate’s signature,” and now even I had officially agreed as to who I really was. I saw that I had an “inmate number,” 39248, and the surrealness dissolved into shame. Strip-search, lice inspection, inmate. How did I get to this place? Twenty-four hours before I had woken up next to my 10-month-old daughter, exhausted after a night of frequent nursing. Her warm, chubby innocence seemed so far away now as I pondered my new status.
I was given copies of the rules and my rights and shown to my room. There was no bathroom, but I realized there was one a couple of doors down, with a sign next to it bearing three names, one of them mine. I would often have to get a staff member to unlock it because there seemed to be some arbitrary rule about when we “inmates” were allowed to use the bathrooms. I never did figure it out, but it wasn’t kept clean so I would spend as little time in there as possible, deciding I would not be showering for the duration of my stay. I was told I had to make my bed and keep my room clean, however.
All of the violence and sexual stuff that you hear about going on in these places turned out to be true. There was no gender separation here and, after I was released, I heard of a woman who was sexually assaulted by a man while in her own room at this same facility. Luckily, while I was there just a couple of more minor sexual things happened. For example, I heard a staff member harassing a man about standing too close to the locked door on our wing. He asked this man, who was silent and calm, if he was thinking about touching a child when he touched the door, and was yelling at him to go back to his room. Another time a different man masturbated in the hallway, moaning loudly, not far from the closed door of my room.
There were the usual yelling, threats, and fights. I was awoken in the middle of the night by what sounded like an object being hurled at my door by another inmate. It sounded like whatever it was would soon break down my door and reach me. I was awoken too early one morning by an inmate yelling for us all to wake up because we were in a bombed-out shelter and needed to get ready to defend ourselves. I felt the same way.
One day I realized a small bag of peanut M&Ms was missing from my room. My husband (who eventually learned my whereabouts) had brought it during visiting hours because it was my favorite candy and he thought it would be comforting. It was, so I asked a staff member if she knew why it was missing. She said the candy was “contraband,” so when she had found it during a room search (there were regular room searches) she threw it away. I had forgotten the contraband rule.
Disbelieved and Desperate
I was unable to fully understand why I was in this facility in the first place or the nature of the accusations against me. They were saying I had been doing things, thinking things, and feeling things that I was not. I had done something, just not the things they said I did. But obviously, it was a very bad thing to do, or I wouldn’t be here. I knew people were very upset with me about it, especially when I was able to reach my long-time therapist and psychiatrist by phone. My therapist immediately told me she was terminating me. I begged my psychiatrist to help me get out of there, suggesting I could have my husband lock me up in a storage space under our stairs where he could just open it to bring me food or let me go to the bathroom. But she recommended to staff that I continue to be locked up in their facility instead. I felt so alone.
I tried to assure everyone that I would never do it again and that I wasn’t actually as bad as they thought, but no one believed me. There was no legal requirement that there be any evidence that their statements about me were true. I would be allowed a hearing, but I knew that judges in mental health courts almost always decided against the inmate in cases like mine. They could legally hold me as long as they wanted to.
This was the part that traumatized me the most: It was terrifying that my freedom was in the hands of just one professional who was steadfast in his conviction that I was feeling things that I was not. It’s funny what happens when you are forced to be separated from everything that you hold dear, not knowing when you will get it back. I had not realized just how much the ordinary, banal, heartbreakingly beautiful drudgery and the wearisome parts of everyday life with my family meant to my emotional stability. Even though life could feel so hectic, crazy, and unstable at times while homeschooling and raising our four young children, my home and family meant everything to me.
Would I even be the same person when I got out? Those classic fight-or-flight symptoms were zooming around inside me and I was coming completely undone. I was generally known for being quiet, easygoing, and calm, but here I found myself yelling at another inmate to sit down and shut the fuck up! At first, I thought she wanted to fight, as she narrowed her eyes at me, but I didn’t even care; I was ready for it. Instead, she sat down, apologizing. I yelled at a staff member and taunted him, telling him that I could get him fired. I felt invincible: I was running this place.
On the other hand, I constantly and desperately tried to escape. I ran at a locked door, straight into it as hard as I could, only to bounce right off and ashamedly turn back to face the staff members watching me. I attempted to bribe one of them to sneak me out. I begged, pleaded, argued, and cried to be released. I told one of them I felt a panic attack coming on as I talked to him, but he angrily told me to just calm down. I saw and felt the walls closing in on me. Although I needed to believe I was invincible, I was crumbling.
Not long after I had arrived at this facility, it became apparent that they were never going to believe the truth about me. They had made up their minds, and I couldn’t handle the thought of how long they might keep me locked up and what might happen to me during that time. I thought about how for hundreds of years, hunger strikes have been used by those held against their will in situations probably not at all unlike mine. It seemed my only hope, as I knew my mental health would continue to deteriorate the longer I stayed there.
So I told them I would not eat or take medication until they let me go, thinking it would look very bad for them to continue to imprison someone until they became very ill from starvation. I so desperately needed it to work. But one afternoon a staff member came to my room and told me that I’d better watch out because if I didn’t start eating, they’d stick a feeding tube in me. A terrifying prospect indeed, but I didn’t think they could legally do that, so I stuck with it for the time being. If this were going to work, I could not concede to their threats. Thankfully, my hunger strike seemed to have succeeded, because they reluctantly released me on the fourth day “against medical advice.” I emerged from the psychiatric hospital into freedom, a new and lesser person.
The reason I had been involuntarily admitted to this psychiatric hospital was that I had taken a nonfatal overdose of my prescription medication, an attempt at self-harm, not suicide, because I had been experiencing traumatic memories from (not surprisingly) a previous psychiatric hospitalization exactly one year before.
But I was being accused of a suicide attempt and severe depression, and they created a treatment plan based solely on this assessment even though I kept telling them I was neither depressed nor suicidal. There was never any mention of addressing the trauma and extreme anxiety I was experiencing, even though I told them about it every chance I got. I did not know until much later that my therapist had lied, telling doctors that I had showed up the day of the overdose and told her I was suicidal with a specific plan to go where I couldn’t be found so that I could kill myself. I had not even talked to her that day before I did it.
I also found out later she thought I was on the hunger/medication strike as a way to protest the injustices of the mental health system. While the system is unjust, she did not understand that I was being so traumatized that I was out of my mind with desperation, doing whatever was necessary to get out of the hospital by any means necessary. I was in no condition to care about standing up for a cause. But she thought I was not taking my recovery from the alleged severe depression seriously, so she terminated me. She also told my psychiatrist, who had been out of the country for three weeks, that she thought they should transfer my care elsewhere. I later asked my (ex-)therapist why she accepted other clients who had been hospitalized back into her practice. She told me they cared more.
She knew this wasn’t the case. At appointments with her before the overdose, I had revealed what I was planning to do because I knew self-harm was not a healthy choice. As I told her, I wanted to reenact the trauma of the previous hospitalization by telling a health care provider I wanted to hurt myself and then leaving and going somewhere the police couldn’t find me. Then I would take the overdose (I had looked up the dosage beforehand to try to ensure it wouldn’t cause me serious harm, although I’d made no plans for what to do if it did.) I had not spoken of any ongoing depression or suicidal thoughts, only anxiety and anger relating to the traumatic memories. In fact, I had told her I had been excited about an upcoming move, that I had joined a soccer team and was loving it, that I was eating a healthy diet, making plans with friends, and was involved in church activities. Unfortunately, I don’t think she had understood me as an individual, someone who could have problems that didn’t easily fit within the confines of a mental disorder diagnosis. She didn’t understand that I had only been reacting to the trauma of the previous lockup and was neither depressed nor suicidal when I harmed myself.
For background, in 2018, I attended a perinatal support group held in a hospital and opened up about suicidal thoughts I was having. The leader told me she couldn’t let me go home and walked me down to the ER before the group ended and said I had to go inpatient right then and there, even when I told her I didn’t want to. So, my plan was to go back to the same support group, leave early again, tell someone at the hospital I was going to hurt myself, and then immediately leave instead of being locked up again. Restaging this episode felt like a way to express my anger and be in control this time. Taking the overdose felt like a way to show them the damage they had done to me and get them to understand that instead of protecting me from harm by admitting me that time, they had actually made me want to harm myself more because it was such a traumatizing experience.
It probably doesn’t make much sense, but in my traumatized mind I thought this reenactment might help me overcome the traumatic feelings of helplessness from the previous psychiatric incarceration for perinatal depression. It would be the ultimate expression of control and power over what I could do with my own body, including the ability and free choice to harm myself if I wanted to. I felt compelled to carry this plan out, in spite of the therapy I was doing. But I did not want to die; I had too much to live for. I feel ridiculous now, thinking that I wouldn’t be locked up for overdosing, but at the time I guess I thought people would understand that this was my own way of resolving the issue. Unfortunately, I felt sick from the overdose, went to the hospital to get checked out, and discovered that overdosing is always considered a suicide attempt, no matter how many times you tell them it was not.
Changes, Pro and Con
That last hospitalization was over a year ago. It changed me in ways that can be hard to articulate, but there are some more salient things that I think are both good and bad. In a sense, I feel freer, as I am less worried about bad things happening to me now. I feel that if I could survive that involuntary hospitalization, then I can survive anything. I can walk down a dark alley and not feel afraid as I almost beckon to the shadows to just try me, just see what they can do that would actually hurt me, because nothing does very much anymore. I can fly down an incline on my mountain bike, less inhibited by the fact that even a slight flick of my handlebars in the wrong direction will send me tumbling down an embankment. I can be more daring, bold, and carefree. It’s a rush and there’s power in that; I feel invincible.
On the other hand, the feelings of helplessness continue outside of the hospital walls. I’ve sent complaints about those involved in my incarceration, but they have been dismissed. I filed a complaint against my therapist, too, but then withdrew it when it became too painful for me to continue the process. I just wanted to feel like what happened to me mattered. They took my voice away from the time I was taken into custody, through the incarceration, and now through the complaint process. And I’ve taken my own voice away when things have become too painful. I picture them all finding it acceptable that I was traumatized. No big deal, just move on to the next one. I feel left behind.
But I can’t ever let them take away my control again. If a week of nourishing myself with healthy, comforting food leads to even the slightest weight gain, I am losing control, just like I was when I was locked up in the psychiatric hospital. Frequently, I’ll eat so little that I can’t sleep at night and I’m irritable, weak, and useless. Sometimes I eat too much, deciding that a finger down my throat will best relieve all the anger, shame, and pain within. Along with the food, my memories, so violently thrust up and back out of me, are flushed away, only to return the next day to be stuffed or starved away again. These are old habits, and they die hard. I thought they had died until they came rearing their ugly heads again, this time promising to fill the void when I failed to speak the unspeakable.
Also, in a desperate attempt to block out the painful memories, I started experimenting with (legal) drugs. I had never had a substance abuse problem or done any drugs before this last hospitalization. I even became dependent on one of the drugs and went through withdrawals when I tried to stop using it. I am still having trouble staying off of it, but at least at first, it felt like another way to be in control because I could take something to just instantly block out everything that had happened.
And yet, I have reason to hope. My psychiatrist did not terminate me as my therapist did. She actually took the time to listen to me and now agrees that I was not severely depressed and suicidal and should never have been hospitalized. She has apologized to me, been sad with me, and been angry for me for all the harm that was done. In the first six months after the hospitalization, I called her several times feeling so desperately hopeless from being traumatized that I actually was suicidal. But this time, when any other doctor would likely have had me locked up, she did not. I am sure she was worried, scared, and probably many other things. I was too. But she stayed with me, and I with her. And we did it. She showed compassion towards me, exemplifying what mental health care should look like. Because for it to be considered mental health care, compassion needs to be where it starts and where it stays.
A year out, I don’t have suicidal thoughts anymore, but I do want to hide away, my problems and me, together against psychiatry, therapy, false diagnoses, incarceration, fear, and shame. It’s all become too much of my identity and many times I don’t want anything to do with the mental health system anymore. But I still see my psychiatrist, we mostly do therapy, and many times it really does help. I also reach out to friends in ways I never have before, telling them my story, and they are shocked, disgusted, amazed, and supportive. My family is supportive, my church is there for me. Keep it coming, I need it all. And they need me, too: They have their own battles, and we fight together. Alone, there really is no way I am invincible. But together, with others who really do care, I just might be.
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.