One afternoon, I snapped.
I became so enraged, I grabbed my purse and car keys, pushed my pothead roommate, who was once again babbling nonsense, out of my bedroom. She had become an unwelcome addition to the unbearable chaos that was my life. I put a duffle bag of clothes in the back seat of my car and took off – speeding through every red light, for miles, in the San Fernando Valley, with no destination, except to get as far away as I could, from her, from my apartment – and, if I took a moment to be honest, from myself.
After about ten minutes, I saw the patrol car lights and heard the sound of a siren. I pulled over. The policeman asked me to step out of my car. I can’t remember much of what he said because I was in the throes of a psychotic episode, brought on by undiagnosed Bipolar 1Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Agoraphobia.
I remember grabbing a cigarette out of my purse, the policeman taking the lighter out of my trembling hand, then lighting it for me. I continued shouting, stopping only to take a hit off the cigarette, and punctuating each sentence by stomping my boot heels on the concrete sidewalk, and giving away my Italian heritage with my hands. After I finished smoking, I stopped shouting. Instead of hand-cuffing me, Mr. Policeman put me in the front seat of his patrol car and away we went. I think he felt sorry for me. I was aware that he was either taking me to the police station, or to jail. I was hoping it wasn’t the latter. I kept my mouth shut until he parked, then waited for him to do whatever came next, eyes shut.
After checking in to headquarters, with his car radio, Mr. Policeman escorted me into what looked like some kind of institution. A middle aged woman did an intake. I read backwards pretty well. When I read the top of one of the forms, I realized I was totally wrong. This wasn’t a police station. This wasn’t jail. This was the Psychiatric Ward of Sylvan Hospital. I was finally where I’d been wanting to be admitted – for help, when I knew something was wrong with me (1985), and it probably was in my brain. Two hospitals turned me down. One, because my insurance didn’t cover psychiatric care, the other, because I didn’t want to commit suicide at that time. No one ever told me, that to be admitted to a psych ward, I had to convince someone I was at least having a psychotic episode. So, it took another six years to finally get there. I wasn’t expecting it to happen the way it did and to wind up where I was. I thought they just showed you to a room of your own and took it from there.
The policeman took me to a waiting room, with a big, sliding glass door. It was dimly lit. I paced back and forth, continuing to rant, with him as my audience of one. He just sat and stared. I remember him being rather nice looking. He didn’t say a word. He was just a quiet cop. We have lots of them in California. After a while, two people in scrubs came in, put me on a stretcher, then strapped me down with leather restraints. Mr. Policeman said goodbye, good luck, and left. I was rolled down the hall, screaming, then rolled into a small white room. Soon afterward, a nurse came in, and shot me up with Haldol. I was knocked out for a good while.
When I awoke, the same nurse told me I was involuntarily committed to the psychiatric ward of Sylvan Hospital and on a 5150; a 72 hour hold. If I agreed to be cooperative, she’d have the restraints taken off. I agreed.
After the restraints were unbuckled, the nurse held me up while I got my bearings. She told me to take off my clothes and jewelry, and put on the cotton smock and slipper socks an attendant handed to me. After changing, she and the attendant walked me to another white room, with about ten or more people, most of them spaced out, sitting or lying on cots. A young woman, with stringy hair, seemed catatonic; a few looked like they’d been on the streets too long, with hollowed eyes, like zombies. One man was snoring so loud, he reminded me of my father. Some mumbled to themselves. One girl, with a shaved head, kept circling the room, stopping to stare into the face of each captive person, before repeating the same statement over and over. I’ll never forget her – saying to each one of us, with a wild cackling voice, “I’ve got Aids”. She saved me for last.
There we were – all dressed in our uniforms of white cotton smocks and slipper-socks. I thought, “How the hell am I going to deal with being in this circus for 72 hours?” I started to shake after realizing there was no way out. This was real. I was locked up, and no matter how much I begged, I wasn’t going anywhere until my time was up. I was forty-one years old. This was not the pretty picture I’d painted in my broken brain.
A pale, thirty- something man, with scabs all over his face, pointed to a muscular young black man who looked like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. I thought maybe he was a bouncer at a nightclub. The scabby man pointed to him and said he was a big shot in one of the most notorious gangs in L.A. I looked over and saw only a poor soul, sitting on his bed, staring out a barred window, and drooling like a neglected baby. Sleep was probably something I wouldn’t be getting much of, not with this gallery of characters. Not in this nightmare. Not unless I was given some really good medication. I had to be knocked out again. I couldn’t bear looking at the creepy, crazy people anymore, and couldn’t stand being stared at. I closed my eyes. I thought it would help me get through the next hour. I thought it might help to use my meditation chops, but all I could do was close my eyes for a few minutes at a time. Each attempt brought the same result. I began wishing Mr. Policeman would come back and take me to jail.
The room was getting dimmer. It must have been late afternoon. A nurse with a Bahamian accent, stood over my cot, smiling, and offered me a cup of water. I was definitely dehydrated, thanked her, and slugged it down. She was a big boned woman, probably in her late forties, with a fabulous smile that lit up that sterile white room with much needed warmth.
It felt like we were all being treated like cattle; herded into such a small space but, this nurse, with the lovely accent, told me to hang on. Things would get better. I began to cry. I couldn’t say a word. I was crying so hard, my mouth was open as wide as could be, but I couldn’t make a sound. She patted me lightly on my shoulder, and told me she’d be back in a little while. I pressed my hands together in a fisted prayer, hoping she would come back soon. I didn’t think I could take much more.
The Nurse At Sylvan Psych Ward, Part II
A male nurse came to my bedside and told me it was time for medication. I was given a tiny paper cup with two pills and another paper cup of water to wash them down. The Haldol had worn off, and I figured I must getting a sedative. Sedation seemed like the only way someone would be able to cope with being locked up with a bunch of lunatics.
I scanned the room. Some patients looked as though they’d been beaten up by life. A woman with matted hair bit her nails while humming to herself. People who had been medicated before me began nodding out. After my dose, it wasn’t long before my eyelids became heavy. The room went quiet. I could only hear my breathing. I thought that if I kept my eyes closed, it might all go away, and I’d eventually find myself back in my own bed, like Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz.
Eventually, I fell asleep. I don’t know how long, but when I awoke, the room had turned a light shade of grey, and what I could see of the sky, through the barred window, looked like it was almost twilight. Then, I heard that voice again. I sat up and saw the lovely Bahamian nurse, walking up to my cot, beaming.
“Come with me, Miss.”
We went down a long hallway, then she pushed on a large metal door. We walked a bit down another hallway.
“Here we are,” she said with that lovely smile.
She opened the door to a room that had a real hospital bed, with soft blankets, two fat pillows, a TV, and a private bathroom. I thought I was hallucinating.
“I pulled some strings for you. You’ll be staying here until your release. You need rest, honey. No one’s going to bother you here. Just us nurses!”
She let out a laugh as she helped me into bed. Before leaving, she said that dinner would be served in a half hour and would I like chicken, fish, or a vegetarian plate? I know this wasn’t the norm. I knew I was lucky.
For the next three nights of my time at Sylvan, the Bahamian angel of mercy was on the night shift. She kept the door to my room closed halfway, to give me privacy, and hearing her sweet, melodic voice, as she conversed with staff at the nursing station, was a comfort. She’d come in and check up on me every couple of hours, gave me my medication, propped up my pillows, brought me magazines, and even took her breaks in my room. She told me wonderful stories of her childhood, in the Bahamas, and how it took time to get used to living in America, but after a few years, she came to love it. She said it was “because of the people”. And she loved being a nurse. That love filled my room with a calming presence and a sense of hope. I slept peacefully every night.
On the day of my release, I woke up and saw a pink and white polka dotted gift bag, with a card leaning against it. Inside were two dozen home made chocolate chip cookies. I opened the card. There was Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus, smiling. “Wishing You a Speedy Recovery.” On the left side, she wrote, “I wish you Joy, Strength, and Love! God Bless you honey. Remember, you are never alone!”
From my own experience, I think a 5150 probably saved my life. Every day, around the world, people who are traumatized, psychotic, and suicidal are taken away, to rooms that frighten them. They are filled with self-loathing and pain. Many have given up hope of ever having a worthwhile life. They feel they’d be better off dead. That they’re too much of a burden to their family and loved ones, and society. Many of them die in emergency rooms, from self-inflicted wounds.
I have only had one 5150, but I haven’t been a stranger to emergency rooms. I am grateful that it’s almost four and half years since my last breakdown. For decades, I refused to admit I had a serious drinking problem. Even after putting a couple of years of abstinence under my belt, I refused to admit the cruel truth: that I am, and will always be an alcoholic and will have to deal with manic depression all my life. It’s truly a miracle that I’ve survived. My DRA meetings (Dual Recovery Anonymous) and the great friends I’ve made in those rooms, help to keep me as productive and grateful for the life I have, as I can possibly be.
Since my last emergency room visit, on October 18, 201, I’ve been alcohol-free. I have to give credit to the police (somehow, they’ve always been nice to me, even when arresting me!), paramedics, and the fantastic staff at my community hospital. They have all been instrumental in my recovery and treatment of my disorders. Recovery is one step at a time, and they all were there for me, at the beginning, helping me to get back on my feet; to keep going.
Treatment, it’s ongoing. My psychiatrist, in Southern California, the coolest guy. Only a phone call away for an emergency. He went to court for me, when I tried to get Social Security Disability. I lost my case, but came away with more determination than ever to fight a system that’s really screwed up in America. I hope Obamacare doesn’t turn out to be a nightmare. At least my meds will be cheaper.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the nurses, and medical professionals, who, like my lovely nurse at Sylvan Hospital, really DO want to make a difference in the lives of people who suffer the tremendous pain and terror of a mental health crisis. Thank you for doing what you do! Your commitment to excellence in caring for your patients is so very much needed, appreciated, and does not go unnoticed. In other words, you’re very, very cool people!
Now, many of you are not only caring for the sick, but fighting to change a broken health care system that has left countless numbers of people suffering, without the treatment and assistance they so very much need and deserve. You are fantastic! You are brave advocates for those of us without a voice! You ARE our voice! This might sound like a pep rally, but it’s true. You’re very special people.
I’m sending you all a big hug from California! We have become a global community, and together, with each of us contributing, in whatever way we can, WE WILL WIN! OH YES WE WILL!
Peace of Mind & Love to You All,
Editor’s note by Stuart Sorensen
I found this article fascinating. Not only is it a compelling account of what it’s like to be a psych patient but it has a perspective that will be utterly alien to most of Care To Share Magazine’s (UK) readership. It’s interesting that one year after this admission, complete as it was with routine restraints that sound like something from ‘Out of the cuckoo’s nest’ I began my own training in mental health nursing. In all the intervening years of practice I have never even seen a straitjacket or restraint trolley let alone used them.
The original aim of Care To Share Magazine was to share perspectives and perhaps learn from each other as we go. This article (and I hope such comments as may appear on the blog) has the potential to do just that in spades.
Thankyou so much, BiPolar Nana for sharing this remarkable account.