My Night In: The County Psych Ward

insaneasylumHow do you describe depression to someone who’s never suffered it?

How do you explain suicide to those who have never had the tendency?

Do you explain it as trying to surface when your limbs are weighed down my anchors, seeing everyone around you floating?

Or akin to digging your fingernails into the dirt in order to pull your corpse forward, while others can run in the direction of their dreams, without fear of breaking?

 One of the stranger things repeated to me by numerous people in my life is,

 “I’ve been depressed, but I’ve NEVER wanted to kill myself.”

 “What a blessing” is my sincere and sarcastic reply.

 I have struggled with major depression the entirety of my adult life. And by “struggled,” I mean, “succumbed to crippling self-doubt, self-hatred, isolation, fear, and feelings of utter unworthiness.”  It coated every aspect of my existence, from the moment I awoke, disappointed that I lived to see another day, to insecurity about every opinion I offered by day, or every piece of art I created by night.  I was unable to take compliments, see any talents or worth I had to offer the world, and drawn to stay in my bed for hours on end, crumpled in a ball, afraid to move – for fear of failing (anything).  To me, depression is paralysis – paralysis from living the life you are entitled to thrive.

Last summer, I felt unable to fight any longer.  I was bankrupt, my post-undergraduate future was bleak without any career opportunities, and I was ruled by an erratic mind, unable to center itself on anything but despair.  My body ached with the pain of resisting impulses out of fear; acid eroded my heart from all the pain I felt unsafe to express.  Feeling like a burden to my family and friends, I convinced myself I had nothing to offer them but emotional taxation and annoyance.  I decided I was exhausted of life and wanted to end it.

A tiny corner of my rotting brain convinced the rest of myself to go to a doctor – to try and get help.  But when one is considered “low income” and does not have “health insurance,” one’s options for adequate and helpful mental health resources are slim.  My choice to seek a doctor’s health led me to a 14 hour-straight-nightmare that was not only personally traumatic, but also a devastating insight to “mental health” in the United States…

I’ll give you a timeline:

2:30 pm – Arrive at doctor’s office.  Told that because expressed “suicidal tendencies,” must go to a lower-income hospital  and remain on the psych ward. He assures me that I will not have to pay for anything –  as I begin to cry because I have no money to my name.

2:35-2:45 pm – Enter into hysterics, as feel horribly ashamed that I don’t “have my life together, like everyone else [I assume] supposedly does.” Consider how I am the only person I know, out of all of my family and friends struggling with mental illness, to actually be referred to a psych ward…

3:30 pm – After picking up teddy bear at home, arrive at hospital to express to a disgruntled, underpaid nurse that I want to kill myself.  She directs me to a closet sized room and a backless gown.

4:00 – 4:50 pm – Eventually, an arrogant doctor strides into my room, asking, “Alright, so what do we have going on here?”  I reply, “I am very depressed and kind of want to kill myself. But now I just really want to go home and watch ‘Downton Abbey’ with my mom…”  He responds, “Weeeeelllll since you said you want to kill yourself, a couple of things are going to happen.  First, I am writing a pink slip – that means that legally, you have to stay in the hospital system until we decide you are safe to leave. Second, there are two options from here: you can stay upstairs in the psych ward for the night; we will have psychiatrists talk to you and prescribe you medicine so you won’t feel this way again.  Altogether, that will be about $11,000 for the night.  Your other option is for us to put you in an ambulance to take you to the county behavioral health clinic until the psychiatrist arrives and gives you medicine.”  After begging to just go home to my family, a request that was denied over and over again because of the pink slip, I charged, several times, “Alright… I will go in the ambulance – as long as you promise I won’t have to pay for it.”  The doctor agreed I would not have to. *(Note: I have a $550 bill for the ambulance still waiting to be paid off – apparently the doc was just trying to get me out of his ward).

5:00 pm – 4:00 am – the county psych ward

I will not give a briefing for this last, and quite significant, portion of my story, because it deserves to be told in full.  In my mind, I pictured a Girl, Interrupted-esque type of environment.  In actuality, it was shockingly similar to this most recent season of American Horror Story: Asylum.  I arrived at the “behavioral health center” the same time as my parents.  They allowed me to bring my teddy bear, which made me feel both secure and infantile.  They proceeded to lock me in a room with not one or two, but fifteen other very crazy people.  Now, to be clear, I am not using the term “crazy” in a derogative or dismissive format; I mean it quite sincerely.  We were all fucking crazy.

The major problem with this scenario is that you had fifteen crazy people, all differentiating on their specific forms of “crazy.”  I was the suicidally-depressed one in the hospital gown.  The girl on my left, absentmindedly shaking her leg with adrenaline, had extreme anger issues and was just taken from her jail cell moments before for being aggressive with police officers.

“I spit on one’s face and bit another,” she bragged.

To my right, a woman laid on the filthy, dirt-covered couch, expressing the different ways she had attempted suicide in the past, one of which her young daughter found her, after she slit her wrists.  There was a man behind me, also in hospital-gown attire, who was constantly masturbating.  There was a man in front of me, whom I thought was attempting to watch the horribly serviced, 10 inch TV screen, who was actually carrying on two conversations with himself.  The varieties of mental illness scanned the whole spectrum, and I felt very unsafe.  I tried reading old People magazines to deflect any conflict with anyone, but I feared my avoidance would only provoke some of the angry ones more.  In my mind, I could not believe that anyone “in their *right* mind” could think that locking fifteen crazy people in a VERY small room would be a good idea.

As the night slowly dragged on, I felt like I was incarcerated.  My parents had ordered pizza for themselves, and through the double layered glass, motioned to it to offer me some.  I hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning.  The secretaries hit the glass and yelled at them, expressing they couldn’t give me food.  Eventually, we got our “rations” at 7:30 pm: a mini apple juice box, a cup of popcorn, and cheese and peanut butter crackers.  I talked to my mother through the glass, like a prison inmate.  I felt like I was being punished for trying to get help.

A couple hours later, a social worker eventually came to speak with me inside the locked walls.  I expressed my desire to return home with my family, whispering how I felt very scared, but she explained, again and again, that I legally was not allowed to leave because of the pink slip.  She explained that before I would be permitted to leave, I would have to see her, a nurse, and ultimately, the psychiatrist.  At about 11 pm, I was finally called into her office.  The timing, for my fragile and terrified state, was actually perfect: not five minutes after I was taken to her office across the hall from the locked waiting area, the man who had been masturbating the entire time took off all his clothes, began masturbating at people, and demanding that he see the doctor, as he’d been waiting for hours.  The staff actually used words like “This is a lock-down” and a policeman was brought in.

After talking with the social worker and the nurse, it was back to waiting for my turn to see the shrink.  I waited from midnight until 3:45 am, when I finally saw the psych.  He looked at me, talked to me for about five minutes, then expressed, “I really don’t think you want to die.  I think you’re just really sad.”  He prescribed me pills, and I finally left at 4 am.

Because of the urgency of my visit, I was promised that I would soon be able to see a psychologist regularly, without fear of charge.  They promised it would be soon after my visit.  An entire six weeks passed until I even had my intake, then another week and a half before my first therapy appointment.

I am happy to say that combined medicine and counseling has helped me greatly.  However, when I think about this experience, I am still stunned at the concept of “mental health in America.”  What I, and the other ill people I was with, experienced in that ward was not health or understanding, but punishment, shame, and fear.  I am certain there must be changes in attitudes and treatments of people suffering from mental illness, as well as the conditions of the wards and clinics themselves, but on a basic state – or in this case, county – level, it makes me feel crazy just wondering where to start.

By Bethany Francis
George Wesley Bellows’ “Dance at Insane Asylum”, 1907

My Night In” is a new series that calls on readers to contribute their weirdest, most interesting after-dark experiences. Spent the night in jail? Got drunk with that one dude from Nine Inch Nails? Randomly ended up tripping face in a German nightclub? Tell us about it at rascalmag@gmail.com.


2 thoughts on “My Night In: The County Psych Ward

  1. Your account is incredibly eloquent and heart-wrenching.

    Your well described narrative mirrors my experience in the 1970s and makes me feel compassion for you.

    Overwhelmed at a government agency with a bigger workload than could ever be caught up and with more responsibility than authority – with two boys still in diapers – with a wife who wanted another attempt at conceiving a girl, I took a friend’s advice to see a psychologist.

    After three visits, the psychologist told me that I had to see his overseeing psychiatrist in order to justify more visits. The psychiatrist asked in a very perfunctory manner about my sleep, my appetite, and my sex life. I told him I couldn’t sleep, varied between loss of appetite, and binging. He told me I had “clinical” depression, prescribed Tofranil, and told me to continue seeing the psychologist – who was actually a medical social worker.

    My visits became less structured and became how-was-your-week sessions.

    I began having urinary tract symptoms – urgency, burning, sense of not emptying. It became unbearable. Several emergency department doctors told me my urine tests were normal, my prostate felt okay, but I probably needed antibiotics anyway.

    My psychiatrist told me (by history) that I had prostate problems and should soak in hot water. Meanwhile he increased my Tofranil.

    A short-tempered urologist told me I had a “spastic bladder,” caused by nervousness. I should see a psychiatrist. He refused me a urinary tract analgesic. My psychiatrist increased my Tofranil.

    I finally went to an emergency room, where I said, “I can’t live like this any more.” My request for help was interpreted as a suicide declaration. I was asked if I wanted to be admitted. Expecting urinary tract testing, I said yes.

    Two bearded men in flannel shirts and jeans escorted me to a very tiny room. One watched me from near the doorway, while the other asked me what had been going on. I recited my history in a stammering rush, while he dropped the contents of my wallet onto the floor one by one.

    Then I was taken to a locked unit with about 15 – 20 beds and people such as you’ve described. We were each locked in a small bedroom at bed time. In the morning, a very young psychiatrist asked if I’d kill myself. I said, “God, no, I’m too much of a coward.” He said he’d transfer me to “a regular room.” He said the Tofranil was “apparently not helping.” He discontinued the Tofranil and prescribed Librium.

    The “regular room” was an unlocked bedroom in a larger locked ward. Over the next week, I went on daily escorted walks around the hospital, made a belt, attended daily group sessions, and tried fruitlessly to find someone to play Scrabble. Mostly, I waited for the daily psychiatrist visit. My wife brought me a typewriter, so I could work on my Reserve Unit’s newsletter – and the check book, so I could balance it.

    Within days, I stopped peeing excessively. I asked the psychiatrist to discharge me. He said that I was very depressed when I came in. I replied that “I was peeing my brains out when I came in.” I asked if Tofranil caused my symptoms. He said I was Monday morning quarterbacking. He said I felt better because I was out of my environment. I replied that my environment had followed me – check book, newsletter, etc. I told him that my sick expired today, and I’ll really be depressed when my income stops.

    I was terrified of having to sign myself out against medical advice (AMA) and horrified at the thought that my insurance would leave me holding the bag for a week in the psych ward. Reluctantly, the psychiatrist discharged me with a prescription for Librium.

    Years later, my physician cousin listened to my story and told me that a psychiatrist or a urologist should have known that bladder paralysis can be a side effect of Tofranil. It inhibited smooth muscle in the same was as nerve gas.

    The day I retired from my government job, I ran a list of pending work cases. According to the computer’s expected time averages, I had 4028 hours’ work pending, no replacement, and nobody calling to bug me; because my job involved finding, computing, and collecting overpayment.

    Your compelling story moved me to feel sympathy to anyone in our previous situations. It also made me briefly recall that terrifying part of my life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s