When I Was 15, a Psychiatric Hospital Nearly Ruined My Life. This Advice Saved Me.


From The Washington Post: “I’ve worked as a backpacking guide in Yosemite National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore for over a decade. On an average workday, I’ll patch a client’s blistered feet in the rain, shoo away bears, and make daiquiris for folks using rum, Kool-Aid, and snow. But the truth is that I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding people — because before I became a guide, I’d been a victim of one of the largest mental health care fraud scams in the history of the United States.

When I was 15 in 1987, my school counselor called my estranged parents and told them I was suicidal after I’d given away my skateboard. She said it was a call for help. I told them it wasn’t true.

‘I bought another board,’ I said. ‘My friend broke his, so I gave him mine. I wanted a different one.’

It didn’t matter.

The next day they signed me into a psychiatric hospital owned by a company that would eventually plead guilty to paying kickbacks and bribes for patient referrals, leading to the largest settlement ever between the federal government and a health care provider at the time.

I spent 11 months sitting in a chair facing the pastel-colored wall of my room, sometimes for up to 12 hours a day. The staff called it ‘chair therapy.’ They said I was supposed to think about my problems.

Most days I was forced to eat alone in my room, with a tray of food resting on my lap while I stared at the wall. I wasn’t allowed to go outside, touch anyone, or speak privately with my parents or other patients. I eventually grew so sensory deprived I could smell rain or sweat on the incoming staff’s clothing, even from a distance. By the time I left the hospital, I was the scattered wreckage of a teenager. The chaos and noise of the world filled me with a superheated rage. I spent most of high school fantasizing about publicly hanging myself from the rafters of the gym.

But the one thing that brought me genuine happiness, that quieted my flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, was being outside. After nearly a year of living in the equivalent of solitary confinement, even the sight of a few finches splashing in a rainy puddle brought tears to my eyes. Every detail of the natural world seemed surreal now.

Before I began working as a guide, I’d long believed that other people were better or more normal than me. Only a handful of my friends knew details of my past, that I’d watched the hospital staff strap kids to beds, sometimes for weeks and months at a time. One of my closest friends from the unit had been tied to his bed with leather Posey restraints for nearly a year. Angry red bedsores surrounded his wrists and ankles when he was finally released. He needed physical rehabilitation before he could walk again.

It wasn’t until I began spending days in the backcountry with clients that I realized I wasn’t different from them; they weren’t better or more normal than me. They were alcoholics or cutters or parents who had alienated their kids. They had lost siblings and spouses to cancer and suicide. Once, early in my first season, a freckled woman from Boston, with the accent to prove it, broke down in tears while we were carrying water back to camp.

‘My dad died last year,’ she said. ‘He won’t be there to walk me down the aisle. He’ll never be a grandfather to my kids.’

Her partner was on the trip with her. He had proposed the day before, at the foot of Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall, hours before meeting us.

I stood there, dumbfounded, listening to her grieve the loss of her father. She was sitting on a log in front of an enormous Ponderosa pine, its graceful branches hovering over her, as if her father were trying to comfort her again.

I knew at that moment that I’d found my place in the world, and that I needed to come to terms with my past, but I never would have found the courage without the serenity of nature and the help of my clients.”



Back to Around the Web


  1. our story is truly inspiring! After my own experiences in a state hospital when I was 16 (see “Committed at 16: Memories of a State Hospital” on this site) I was also truly lost. After ECT I had lost a good part of my academic skills. When I returned to school, I could not do what I could before. It seemed my family was always coming down on me for every little thing with threats of returning me to the state hospital. And my head was so full of frighting thought about the state hospital and shock treatments, I could hardly think. On top of that my father wouldn’t take me to anywhere for help, and our family doctor was constantly spouting genetics theories of mental illness to me. Hewanted me to accept I was had a “genetic illness” and was more-or-less doomed for life. On top of everything, he refused to prescribe psychiatric medicine for me. It was years before I was able to recover a semblance of my former self.

    Report comment

  2. Wow, institutionalized in near-isolation for 11 months just so National Medical Enterprises Inc could squeeze out as much insurance money from you as possible! That’s what happens when profits are put above all else. What any good business (including hospitals) should be doing instead is to strive to create value for their clients (or patients) and for society at large. Income and profitability should then be the side effect of that endeavor, and not the main goal of the endeavor. Glad you made it out and found your calling.

    Report comment

  3. This is so disturbing that I want to say I can’t believe it although so many of us here at this site know this kind of stuff is going on. And yet it’s extremely disturbing and shocking, as many times as we hear about it. How is this possible that a whole institution staffed with nurses and other workers who see this kind of stuff going on daily for years doesn’t end up having its behavior reported from the beginning!? They keep on working there and it goes on and on and on. On every level from the parents who didn’t care to know that the child simply gave away his skateboard to the school counselor that reports who knows what when it’s not going on to the whole school itself hiring that counselor not even checking to see what the result is to the whole institution incarcerating a person for stuff that’s not going on to everybody working in the institution to the government allowing this to go on. And now I notice the government gets $359 million dollars or whatever amount it was up there that they get, what about the people that had to endure this torture for years. And is there any difference now? The amount of people I’ve seen get stuck in the system and have their life disabled at so many levels that this is going on I don’t know where to start. Whether it’s they’ve been made to believe something is going on that is at the level of children are told about Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. And or that they need to have this treatment for the rest of their life when the treatment is causing the subsequent problems that are blamed on Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. Or whether they end up on some controlled substance called a medication and can’t get off of it even when they know it’s causing problems and just give up there not really being any help. Or even at the other end of it people actually believing this is necessary, this abusive dehumanizing treatment that we can read about here again where it is baffling to think this could be going on and no one questions it. Is this just cuz humanity thinks that to excuse how things go in society to get the rewards they get from the game theory denying this kind of abuse, that everyone is going around behaving in a way that in order to justify their supposed sanity anything that’s labeled as crazy isn’t even questioned or looked at to see what’s really going on? That goes along with all of the mind control the brainwashing the indoctrination in society they actually have to blind themselves to: this kind of behavior towards people who are labeled as crazy for whatever reason. And how many levels is the simply denial of what’s really going on excused: from this kind of horrendous abuse to somebody being told by their doctor that an antidepressant might help them without all of the data being included that would tell the person that might not be a very good idea at all given how addictive it is and the bleak amount of actual help that those controlled substances give others when actual scientific accurate data is shared. The poor guy that’s been through this deserves everything he’s been given for just daring to survive and daring to go on with his life and daring to find what healing actually is. And allowing life and the universe to do that despite….

    Report comment

  4. One thing that Mad in Americans might overlook about this piece is that it appeared in the mainstream media! That’s not nothing, even though harms like this continue. I have noted what strike me as a growing number of articles exposing the dark heart of psychiatry and treatment for so-called mental illness appearing in what we tend to view as duped mainstream outlets, like the Washington Post and New York Times. I think that’s worth celebrating. This article did not appear first (or only) on Mad in America. I say yea.

    Report comment

  5. This country lies and is very bad. Confinement or Prison is not any different then what our forefathers fought against from the founding of the USA in 1776 and beyond. Freedom is the worship word, and the USA develops the horror’s of communism using Confinement, which goes against the 1776 revolution. The key is to bring the USA back to 1776, and get rid of the psychiatrist’s power and bring back Due Process, where they are just like anyone else and cannot dictate a person’s life based their own evidence baseless beliefs to make money. Since this is true, realize that are no rights, or needed malpractice rights, because no one is exempt from your own lawyer. So have a protective lawyer as friend, and use him or her to go after the crooks. [Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights], and never give up cleaning up the crooks with the lawyer, who is the backbone. The main issue is highly increase the penalty for False Imprisonment by the Psychiatrist to balance the table, as the deterrence. If the staff becomes liable then deceptive crooks will go to jail, and the proper balance will rise to the table. You have to have very serious penalties for False Imprisonment accessible by the population, so the unrighteous staff member is behind bars.

    Report comment