Not Allowed to Be Angry:
Involuntary Commitment, Jail and other experiences via California’s Mental Health System
By Jennifer B. Thompson
Copyright © 2006
What You See Isn’t What You Get
Standing in the quad area of my children’s elementary school in I took a look at my surroundings which reflect a typical family community. Mothers dressed in work out clothes push toddlers in baby joggers and sip coffee out of Starbuck containers. They are all smiles, greeting other parents or their child’s teacher with enthusiast “hello’s”, stopping to compare notes about a recent field trip, an upcoming class party, or a barbeque planned for the week-end. Many of them will head off to the gym as soon as they kiss their 3rd grader good bye after the morning assembly.
The school principal steps up to the mike which is flanked by the California and American flag. 320 students are sitting Indian style on the concrete, chatting and fidgeting, until the principal holds up her hand to hush the crowd.
“Good Morning boys and girls!” she says with authority, looking directly out to the students and teachers. And so another day has begun.
As I observe the parents who look with pride among their children, I reflect on my own role as the mother of four, three of whom attend this award winning school in the heart of Orange County, CA. It’s about as normal of a life as you can get. PTA fundraisers, kids bringing home finger painting, math tests, the works.
And yet I feel anything but normal.
In fact, I don’t even know the meaning of the word anymore.
In my day, I was your very average citizen. A 36 year old female living with her husband and four children in Southern California. I have a BA from USC in International Relations and French, originally my dream was to go into the foreign service or work for the CIA.
“They kill people,” my mother told me. So that was that.
Professionally, I’m nothing brilliant, but I’ve done some cool things here and there. For 5 years I worked in sales for Pepsi Cola right out of college. Then went into teaching ESL adults, as we living in an area with a huge immigrant population. My real love is journalism, and for a while I freelanced for home décor magazines while also writing as a guest columnist for the LA Times. I produced and hosted a community radio show at our local university.
Now I have a slew of new and sadly undesirable titles.
I am a psychiatric survivor, having now been three times involuntarily committed to mental hospitals thanks to California’s very generous “5150” law. It’s a provision of the state’s welfare and institution code that basically says if someone- and that could be anyone- thinks you’re a) a danger to self, b) a danger to others or c) gravely disabled (i.e. having a bad day), then away you can go for a minimum stay of 72 hours.
And not to a warm, inviting facility where private nurses attend to your health care needs.
A mental hospital is, in a way - punishment. A cold, barren and very often frightening place where forceful orderlies rush you through the day’s activities - meal time, group time, medication. Especially medication. They want you on drugs, on their drugs, no matter what.
If you object or disagree at all with your treatment, it is documented as further “evidence” of your illness. If you get upset, if you ask to do something outside the rules (like use the phone after 9 pm), you are scolded, demeaned and ordered back to your room.
Or held face down on a bed and shot up with drugs. No joke.
It began with me having a bad day.
In late March of 2004, my husband and I were having our usual marital problems - I wanted us to move out of our expensive neighborhood to find a place to live that was less materialistic. My husband disagreed, and we were often arguing late at night.
He thought I was having another breakdown, since I had had a serious bout with depression in 1997. I had been on medication up to a point, and in hard core counseling ever since. Here I wasn’t depressed, and I didn’t feel at all like I was breaking down.
In turn - I thought he was “losing it”. He had had a head injury years back, I thought perhaps some backlash from that was resurfacing.
But in general, I just figured we were a normal couple, arguing and trying to sort things out.
One night it got particularly bad. Yes, I have a bad temper and there was some yelling.
At one point I asked him to go to his brother’s to sleep. I sent three of our four children to a neighbor’s. I stayed home with our then 5 month old baby, since I was nursing him. I would end up not sleeping a wink - due to either the stress of the arguing, or hormones from having a newborn, or perhaps yes for being biochemically out of wack.
But I was not suicidal, threatening, or “gravely disabled”, as the law says. I was simply pissed.
During that night I guess the stress and sleep deprivation got to me because I did some dumb things. Our neighbor had mentioned a few days prior that they believed a prowler was out on their back patio. That night, I went out and thought someone was moving in their bushes. I called out several times, trying to scare away the intruder, but no one was there. Later I would feel completely stupid over this. And this would be documented later as evidence of my illness.
Somehow I got a hold of two girlfriends. I told them about the dispute and both offered to come over and talk.
Both women have family members who have mental illness, and later one of them attempted to diagnose me, which would only exacerbate the situation.
Morning came and my husband had come home. We sat around the kitchen table, probably still going at it.
Minutes later, my girlfriend Sue would say, “Jenny are you sure you’re not ill, because I’m starting to see some things that worry me.”
The Land of the Free
The next thing I knew, six police officers and a team of paramedics were in my house. A nice and very handsome paramedic came over to take my blood pressure. He said “it’s normal”, and soon they would leave.
But the police would stay.
We happen to live in an affluent and extremely conservative county, and in our city a crime is - well, not paying a parking ticket on time.
The police did everything they could trying to scare me. And I was scared. But my mother and father are both attorneys and I knew I had committed no crimes, so I simply said “I can speak with one officer in private, but the rest of you will have to leave.”
“WHAT IS GOING ON!” The one officer shouted at me. I was simply incredulous.
They would end up staying for over 45 minutes. My husband finally suggested we go to the College Hospital, a nearby psychiatric hospital, for a consult. I thought he meant for him. The police would escort us there, following us behind in a car.
I was so relieved that finally we could talk to someone who could maybe advise me on my husband.
We arrived at the hospital. I walked into the lobby and started to look for a drinking fountain. Suddenly a man came out of an office and said “you need to come in here and fill out paper work.” The look on his face was both intense and determined.
I knew something was wrong.
I went back outside to find my husband, and the next thing I remember was being surrounded by about 8 people, with one “leader” saying “ok, now let’s just take it slow….”
I either fainted or was injected with something because I would only briefly remember a team of hospital people grabbing and pulling at me, shoving a blood pressure cuff onto my arm.
At that moment I thought something was seriously wrong with me, and this would later be charted as further evidence of being mentally ill. “You believe you are dying….” They would write.
Fifteen hours later I would awake up in the pitch dark, with someone pulling down my pants and giving me a shot. Prick, burn - the injection was hot under my skin.
“This Is For Your Own Good”
I would awake to the most confusing situation I had ever encountered. The hospital itself was familiar to me - I had been there in 1998 for my depression. I had been well treated, even though their medication and care did nothing for my condition.
Now it was a different story. I asked for things, I was told no. I wanted to see my children, I was told no. When the doctor came in, the same physician who had seen me in ’98, I was relieved because I found him to be reasonable.
This time, he wasn’t. He spent two minutes with me, telling me I was bipolar and to take the medication. I told him I was a nursing mother and not comfortable with that.
“Well, if you ever want to see your baby again, you better take the meds,” he said, which sounded pretty threatening.
“Wait, I don’t understand - I’m not bipolar, I have a history of depression-“
“Yes you are!” he scolded. “I have to go” and away he went.
That night my breasts would swell up with milk, my skin felt like it would just burst from the pressure. I had been told that children are not at all allowed on the ward, and the idea of being separated from my baby just ate me up.
My husband visited me daily and with the doctor told me to "just take the medication and get well". I was angry and confused, but knew if I didn't play along, that I wouldn't get home to my kids. I accepted to take 1000 mgs of Depakote. It put me “out”. As long as you are drowsy, I would later learn, you aren’t considered manic, i.e. dangerous.
Psyche hospitals are, to quote one previous contributor to this web site, “boring and demeaning”. “GROUP time! Group Time!” the therapists call, as if they are your personal savior. Stringing beads, or my favorite - talking about our addictions, is how you pass the day. I have no history of substance abuse or alcohol, but my not attending groups was charted as being non-compliant.
The rules, which are there for everyone’s “safety” just contributed to my frustration, thereby making me more irritable, which was charted as “agitated”, which is again considered manic. No pen or pencils allowed, no music, no junk food. The only outside area to convene was a filthy, dilapidated patio where we went for the healthy “smoke break”. I'm an active person, running 3 miles almost daily, so the physical confinement also contributed to me feeling like I was in a locked cage.
After 5 days I was released and sent home. I thought my ordeal was over. I was mad as hell as to what happened to be, but I had bought the idea that something was “wrong” with me, something I regret very much now.
I continued to take the Depakote, but something went wrong. I couldn't sleep. I was awake for three days straight. My husband and I started arguing again.
He was furious that I wouldn't just sleep. He started charting, just like a hospital employee. I told him that it didn’t help him following me around like a thief in the night.
“I’m not a dog who sleeps on command,” I told him. I told him that helping me sleep might be the solution - sitting with me calmly in bed, rubbing my feet - but he wouldn’t here of it. He just kept writing things down.
This not sleeping would later be more evidence of my crime.
The next day a neighbor stopped by. When she came into my house, I was coming out of my room with a knife, having just opened up a UPS package from my sister. I said hello to my neighbor and we talked for a while.
I had to attend the hospital’s day program as it was a condition for my release. These were group meetings, like the ones for the inpatients. One day as I was getting ready to go to the program, a friend from church stopped by out of the blue and said he really wanted to drive me to the hospital.
I thought this was strange. But I said "OK". Looking back on it now, it was yet again part of a set up.
Once at the hospital, I thought there would be a meeting with the therapist to talk about the insomnia. So in the conference room I waited. The therapist arrived, but he was followed by the charge nurse and the program director. With serious looks on their faces, they shut tight both doors.
I got a really, really bad feeling.
You’ve Been A Bad, Bad Girl
They said that I was going to be re-admitted to the hospital since I wasn't sleeping. I said I didn't want to do that.
"Well, it was reported that you threatened your neighbor with a knife," the charge nurse said. Everyone was staring at me intently.
Every nerve in my body was on fire at these words. I thought back to opening up that UPS package, going back into the kitchen to return the knife to the wooden block, and sharing a friendly exchange with my neighbor. I looked around the room and saw all of the accusing looks and felt like my execution day had come.
"What! I didn't do such a thing!" I said. But I knew it was no use. These people all thought I was psycho, and no one, not even my husband, spoke up in my defense.
They admitted me to the higher security ward, with the drug addicts and gang members. I was scared out of my mind, and wrecked with grief over such a betrayal.
I later tried to appeal to the charge nurse, telling her I had never threatened my neighbor, and that this was a big mistake. She would later document our discussion as “the big explanation” and do nothing.
So I thought I’d call on a few allies.
I made a collect call to my mother, and after many tries finally reached her at home. I figured now there’d be a person that I could talk to, who would surely be on my side.
I tried to explain to her the mix up about the neighbor, how awful the hospital conditions were. Rather than hear me out with a mother’s sympathetic ear, my mother spoke to me in quick, hushed tones, like she was in a hurry to get off the phone.
At first I thought she hadn’t quite grasped the enormity and the gravity of my situation. So I pressed on, trying to tell her how afraid I was. But she wouldn’t listen.
She did say that both her and my father were coming out to see me. I thought this meant that they could file an appeal or something on my behalf and get me out. I was wrong.
"I'll see you in two days," mom said and click went the phone.
Again, I got a really bad feeling.
In the meantime, the doctor had ordered me to take Risperdal, an anti-psychotic medication. I refused, knowing that I wasn't psychotic, that I hadn’t threatened my neighbor, and that my sole “illness” was not sleeping. And being an overwhelmed mother of 4.
According to the patient’s book of rights, one does have the right to refuse medication. But what it doesn't say is how much trouble this causes for you.
The nurses were furious at my refusal and started charting "grandiose, paranoid, and difficult" on my records. I tried to keep my cool, spending the next two days making friends with the other patients, and waiting for my parents to come get me.
When they did arrive, I remember approaching my mother to hug her, and upon doing so, I broke down crying. I guess this was my first mistake, because my mother quickly pushed me away and said,
“Oh, come on now - let’s go talk.”
Sucking in my emotions was very difficult. I felt like I was going to erupt with sadness, anger, all of it. We went into the dining hall and sat down at a table.
It was here that I would get yet another rude awakening.
They had not come with a discharge plan, or any legal information to help my case. They had come to - well, check me out.
My father, staring at me in disbelief as I tried to explain how I felt set up and coerced, started to talk to me like one of his clients- asking pointed questions and cutting me off when my answers included emotional please for help.
"Jenny - I just want to talk to your doctors,” he said, his voice lowered, his eyes assessing me suspiciously. “What kind of medication are you on?"
My mother, a usually direct and outspoken person, said very little. She was all made up - I remember her bright red lipstick and black eyeliner. This was her first “outing” with my father since their divorce. She gave off the aura of a young woman on a first date - discreet yet eager, not wanting to rock the boat. Her glance would bounce back between me and my father, her expression implying that Dad was “in charge”- a dynamic identical to the early years of their marriage.
I was in complete shock and disbelief. The more I pleaded with them to get me out, the more it seemed like they wanted me to stay put. My parents later would tell me that I was “higher than a kite”. My mother would add, “you were so de-LOO-sional!”
“Yes, I get a little testy when my civil rights are being violated,” I would say. But it would do me no good.
“We weren’t sure you were in the right place,” my father would later say. Translation “We too wanted you locked up - maybe not there, but somewhere.”
“You’re husband has ALL the power,” my mom would later say via telephone, washing her hands of the situation.
This was without a doubt the hardest part of the experience. Seeing the two people who had brought me into this world merely gaze at me as if I was a mannequin in a department store window. They just wanted to “understand”. I just wanted someone to listen to me without judging, without diagnosing me.
That wasn’t going to happen.
Day after day, I refused the Risperdal, and the nurses kept charting. I kept telling them I had a newborn baby to nurse, but they just weren’t interested. I just didn’t get the big obsession with medication.
Even though California law states that 72 hours is the hold, the law then allows for a 14 day hold if the patient "refuses treatment". I later learned that the doctor had applied for and obtained a temporary conservatorship on me, which would hold me even past that - for a total of four weeks.
There is no court hearing for this conservatorship. The doctor just has to send an affidavit to a his golfing buddy, sorry - judge, and presto - you're in for the duration.
We Have Ways of Making You Walk, Frauline
My roommate on this higher security ward was a scary but sad looking woman named Sarah. She told me she’d been in the system since she was 11. She had a butch haircut, tattoos galore and lots of piercings. She told me she had diabetes. I later heard her mention a “wife”. She totally creeped me out- mostly because she looked like she’d deck me at any time.
One night I made the mistake of waking Sarah up, around 11 pm. I apologized and tried to make it right with her. She instead got up and started screaming and hollering, very angry with me.
A nurse came in and Sarah ranted and raved about me making noise. The charge nurse came forward, grabbed me and told me to get the blanket off my bed.
“For that,” she huffed at me, “you’ll be spending the night in the ‘quiet’ room.”
I was then locked in a small, grey room which was basically a step up from a padded cell. The bathroom was also locked, and I banged hard on the door’s tiny window to try to flag a nurse down. No one came, or they ignored me.
That meant urinating on the floor. I crawled up onto the “bed”, which looked more like a dentist’s chair, tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I was too scared and completely in a state of shock over such a punishment.
This incident would later be told to the doctors as evidence of my being more manic. When they came in the morning to “let me out”, they yapped at me to wipe up the urine with my blanket. I have never felt more humiliated or beat down. I knew now that I had no defense. It was do what they say or never see the light of day.
With Liberty and Medication For All
The doctor then filed what's called a Riese hearing for me to go before a judge and discuss the medication.
I was picked up by a deputy and taken to court in a caged sheriff van, making about 4 stops at other mental wards throughout the county to pick up other patients who also had hearings that day. That took about an hour.
After arriving at court, we were shuttled into another locked room without windows. I asked for water, and was told by the deputy as he closed the door on us to drink out of the tab in the bathroom.
Then we waited. And waited. I think about two hours went by.
Finally, the public defender came in. He spent about three minutes with me, his comments were short and I thought that was because mine was an open and shut case. Meaning I would win. He met with the other patients, clicked his briefcase closed, and left.
We continued to wait. The TV was playing Court TV, and we watched. After more endless waiting I banged on the door until a sheriff arrived.
“We’re still waiting for the judge,” he explained sheepishly. “She’s driving up from San Diego.”
San Diego is about two hours from Orange County, and last time I checked judges didn’t have cross jurisdiction in the state of California.
“This is simply ridiculous,” I said to myself.
Finally the hearings began. I remember feeling very awkward as they called me into the courtroom in front of the judge and both attorneys. My husband sat in the front row. I didn’t even make eye contact with him.
The hospital sent a random doctor - not the one treating me -to testify against me, saying I was 'aggressive, agitated and difficult". My attorney sat through the hearing, looking bored and writing one or two things down. I thought he was preparing some brilliant rebuttal.
That rebuttal was merely passing me the microphone to state my own defense. You could have heard a pin drop. I simply froze, eventually mumbling a few sentences about not wanting to be forcibly drugged. I wasn’t at all prepared, and my attorney did nothing to argue against the medication.
The hearing, I would finally figure out, was just a formality. The gavel was slammed, and I was ordered to be drugged against my will.
The End of the Innocence
With all of the effort we go to in this country to give criminals a fair trial - the mentally ill are guilty until proven innocent.
I simply could not comprehend why in America being upset - as anyone would be for loss of freedom, privileges and access to one’s family - is considered mentally ill.
People are “agitated” on the freeway when they cut you off. Telemarketers are “aggressive” when they call you on the dinner hour. Business associates can be “difficult” in a myriad of situations. I see people lose their cool in public every day. But we don’t lock them up. That would be considered absurd and a violation of civil rights.
Only when a husband calls the police and says “my wife’s not right” and boom - into the slammer you go?
It would be three more weeks of me staying in the hospital, taking Risperdal, and waiting to get out.
I eventually filed a Writ of Habeus Corpus - a hearing before the judge to ask to be released. The problem was my husband said he wouldn't be able to take care of the four kids and me until I was well. The judge denied my writ, and sent me back to the hospital.
In early May after taking their medicine day after day, going to recovery meetings for addictions I didn't have, and missing my family with all my heart - the doctor finally decided that I was well enough.
The Cost of Hidden Side Effects
While it was good to be home, shortly after being released I fell into a deep depression. For all the concern about me being “manic”, the doctor had no concern with my history of depression. The medication I had been court ordered had no anti-depressive agents, nor was it ever discussed that I could fall ill again. I lost interest in everything, stopped eating, and basically moved in a trance.
The bonus was that now it was summer, and my kids were out of school. I remember sitting at the side of the pool, utterly listless, finding no joy in anything around me. Since I had had depression years ago, I knew the complete emotional hell I was in for.
I started seeing a new doctor. I spent most of my time trying to convince her how traumatized I was by this ordeal. She mostly downplayed it, and sent me on a round robin of anti-depressants - none of which did anything.
In the mean time I still felt like something had to be done, officially or otherwise about what College Hospital had done to me. I was convinced that the depression was a form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I started writing letters.
I reported the hospital doctor to the California State Board of Medicine. I reported the hospital to the Department of Health and JACHO. In return I received neatly typed letters saying that “we were unable to find any convincing evidence” and threw them in the trash.
I paid $250 to consult with a personal injury attorney in Long Beach. She had a nice office. Her associate met with us, told us we had no case though he did sympathize since he lived in our same town and “knew everything about city cops.” The attorney herself strolled in with 20 minutes left in our meeting and eventually said “Yes - the 5150. Very bad statute.” Well gosh thank you for the enlightenment.
I wiped away the tears, furious about being so helpless, furious about being so depressed.
Weeks turned into months. Fall came and the kids went back to school. Christmas came and went. I tried several medications for depression - Effexor, Remeron, Lithium, to name a few. All with no - zip - I’m talking zero effect on the depression.
Now it was January of 2005. I had been depressed for 7 long and agonizing months. I was up to 169 lbs, eating Oreos by the bag, unable to care for my children, and simply spiraling downward. I knew that waiting for medicine was not going to pull me out.
Going against my doctor’s wishes I opted for ECT. I had 6 treatments and it alleviated the depression. I was overjoyed. Now perhaps I really could get my life back.
Here We Go Again
Since I was feeling better, I planned a flight up to San Francisco to visit my Dad, Grandma and extended family. It was so great to be back in the land of the living. I sang in the shower. I embraced my children with new enthusiasm. “Praise be to God,” I thought. A taxi arrived to pick me up, and the kids with my husband waved good-bye.
The second day in San Fran, I went to court with my Dad who is a criminal defense attorney for the county’s juvenile division. He represents mostly black teens whose family situations have fallen apart, and who are in trouble with the law for drugs or petty crimes.
Prior to his hearings, my dad talked with a couple fellow attorneys in the halls. I spoke to a couple of his associates as well- the district attorney, a couple of court reporters. I was intensely proud of my Dad and had never seen him at work before.
“This is so fun, so interesting.” I thought.
Back home that afternoon, we were headed to my brother’s. I hadn’t seen him or his wife in ages, and was looking forward to the visit.
Suddenly my dad started grabbing my things and shoving them into my suitcase. He seemed very annoyed at me.
“Hurry up - here are your things, we have got to GO!”
My father is an alcoholic. He has a bad temper. But then again so do I when I feel like I’m being bossed around - that’s a left over trait of the mental hospital.
Suddenly we started arguing. I told him that I didn’t want him bullying me. He started screaming at me like never before.
I think I called 911 because I was truly afraid he was going to strike me. He ended up getting on the phone with the dispatcher, and said that I was a manic depressive who was “off her medication.”
He then called my brother, and recounted every thing I had done in the past 48 hours as a sign of my “illness”.
“Oh Johnny - you should see her. I mean - I didn’t want to tell you, but she’s a mess. She’s singing in the shower. She’s murmuring. I took her to court today and it was just a disaster.”
I knew one truth in all of this. That if the ambulance came, and my Dad started to sweet talk the paramedics, using the power of his professional reputation in the city - that I was a goner.
And the inside of a San Francisco psyche ward was just simply not a place I wanted to see.
I grabbed a couple of things and headed to the front door. But my 89 year old Grandmother was blocking the way. Now she too, was part of the “team”.
“Good bye Grandma, please move - I have to leave.”
“Oh no - you have to wait until they come.”
At that time, I was holding a small bottle of Sparklett’s drinking water. I had one thing on my mind, getting out and not being involuntarily committed.
Feeling desperate and cornered - I tossed some of the water at my poor Grandmother, in an attempt to distract her. It worked - and I ran out the door.
Home Isn’t Where the Heart Is
Back in Southern California, I tried to move on with my normal life of children, coffee with friends, re-building trust with my husband.
Sadly, that didn’t happen.
In the spring of 2005- I was recommitted to a mental hospital for the “crime” of walking into the Long Beach Police Department’s Central Headquarters. Yep - I guess the 5150 law is just stretching, making even the slightest infraction a sign of mental illness.
In short, my husband and I had resumed arguing, and I had packed up the kids and left.
He filed a missing person’s report, which I guess in Orange County equates to “my wife’s a wacko and she’s going to hurt my children”. So when we were “found” at a hotel the police cuffed me and put me in the back of the car. My kids cried and were terrified. I was humiliated and furious. My husband was called and he came and got the children. I thought I was watching a bad movie.
I went to the police department to file a complaint, or to inquire as to why I had been “apprehended”. I asked to speak to a female officer, since the ones who had detained me had all been male. She came out, asked me my name, and cuffed me on the spot.
We waited in the lobby until her “partner” (her words) arrived - a lady from the Los Angeles County Mental Health division who looked at me as if she was witnessing a hostage being taken. Which she was. I guess her presence was necessary to book me at the mental ward, thought she never evaluated me, asked me any questions, nor did her badge say she was an RN or other kind of mental health professional. She just sat up front in the police car, making small talk about traffic and weather.
I was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange - and still handcuffed was taken to a room in the ER. Eventually a hot headed physician would come in, and I would calmly state that I was worried about my kids and wanted to get back to Orange County.
That earned me a shot of Geodon, which made me shake like silly, before it put me under.
I would wake up on a gurney, headed up to the mental ward. The charge nurse, Mark, talked to me with a tone that reminded me of my father - “I told you so,” and “do this or else.”
But this time I played the game and got out in three days.
“I don’t believe in holding people against their will,” the Middle Eastern doctor said. Wow - we need to clone you.
I went home by taxi, my husband stunned to see me, but he invited me to sit down with him in our living room. Naively I believed things would be ok.
The next time we argued, he would call the police. They would come out, “detain and not arrest” me, taking me to the County Jail where I spent 5 days. I was scared beyond belief. I’ll never forget the young female deputies who finger printed me when I first arrived. They jeered loudly, calling to the other jail employees, taunting me non stop.
“Oh, we know what YOU are - you’re one of those HOUSEWIVES her MEDS!”
I felt like I was being stripped naked in front of them.
After 4 hours of waiting in a disgusting booking cell I was transferred upstairs to the “tank” of 36 women. They took one look at me and started smaking their lips. And bossing me around. And picking fights with me when I wouldn’t tell them my “crime”.
“Pissing off a cop,” I would eventually say.
Even here, a nurse called me into the medical wing, asked me a string of questions like “are you suicidal” and offered me medication. I politely declined.
I suspect my “history” of mental illness was one of the reasons for holding me. I had no incidents in jail, waited quietly, spent 12 hours in a holding cell in court, only to be sent back and not formally charged with anything.
But when it came time for me to be released, my mental health history once again would be my demise. A mental health worker came up to the window, and staring at me she scolded me.
“You kept refusing our medication”. Her gaze was severe and accusing.
I held my composure and politely explained to her that I didn’t need it, and that I wanted to consult with a lawyer before any further discussion on the matter.
Because of that statement, she diagnosed me on the spot.
“You’re PARANOID!” was the verdict. She was not a physician, not a nurse - not someone with any formal psychological training. Just a gal with a county badge. A government schlep, like the one back in Long Beach.
I tried to reason with her, but she looked at the deputy and mumbled something.
Instead of being released, they transferred me to back to St. Joseph’s via ambulance, tied up in restraints. At that point I was just beyond disbelief. I was now stuck in a system with no apparent way out. And no family or friends to call on.
I would be diagnosed with the usual - bipolar, psychotic, whatever the flavor of the month was. The doctor wanted to speak with my husband. I said no. Speak with my parents. I said no.
This time, I wanted me, myself and I involved in my “health” care.
I would end up stuck in commitment for the next four weeks.
What happened from there is sad and complicated. While in the hospital, I would be served with a restraining order, my husband saying I couldn’t come back to the house. He put three of our four kids on a plane to be with their grandparents. I wouldn’t see them for months.
And all because I didn’t want to take somebody’s pills.
Like at College Hospital, I would be court ordered to take meds and held there on a conservatorship. During the medication hearing, the male doctor testified to the male judge that I was disillusioned about being pregnant. And that was a part of my illness.
The truth was my period was over 10 days later. So if they were going to force me to take psychotropic medication, I wanted a pregnancy test. They did a standard urine test which came back negative.
Such a test was also negative back when I was expecting my now two year old son. So with this experience, I had merely asked the doctor for more testing, the chance to consult with an OBGYN, to be absolutely sure that an unborn child wouldn’t be endangered by their meds.
These requests were denied, so I continued to refuse the medication.
But I still lost the hearing. And so yet another round of medication would begin for me.
St. Joseph’s, a private and Catholic hospital, was a step up from College. I’m a practicing Catholic and thought that seeking spiritual counseling would be something that would help me appear healthy. I was wrong. And the “volunteers” that would come and bring me Holy Communion every day were rushed and not interested in my case.
I did meet up with a kind and well-spoken priest who heard my confession one day. I told him how confused I was about my marriage, having felt completely dumped into the system by my husband (he did send me a fax during my commitment, but it had the usual pleading to just “speak with my doctor”. I sent it to the trash.)
The priest listened patiently to me, and told me something I’ll never forget.
“Always remember - God wants you to be happy,” he said, his expression sincere and peaceful.
I made the sign of the cross and returned to my room.
My saving grace was meeting a lot of really cool people who were fellow patients - many of whom seemed to be like me, locked up for no reason. I remember Eddy, a very handsome and smart UCLA graduate, who said that a fight with his father had landed him in the ward. Similarly another young man, Adam, was locked up with us for a falling out with mom. Both guys were in their twenties, and reminded me of my brother. I liked them immediately.
Eddy and I would play tag football in the hall with rolls of toilet paper, bored out of our minds and trying to pass the day. The nurses didn’t like this, and Eddy would reply “it’s BORING here!” to which they had no argument.
Our laughs would come with a price. There was always the fear of getting injected, which happened to me twice - once when I got mad that an orderly had thrown out mail from my children (have to keep the day room CLEAN!), and once for some outburst I don’t recall. I do recall the extreme degradation of being held down by four people, while a fifth one pulled down my pants, and the burning of the injection. “You are VERY ill,” a nurse would scold me.
Over and over I learned that objection, disagreement, any form of protest - is all a sign of denial or mania. Legally, being injected is supposed to happen only when there is a true life-threatening emergency. Such as holding up a pen knife to an RN’s neck. But at St. Joseph’s, which to my horror is run by people who share my Christian faith, an “emergency” merely means pissing off the staff.
And this is going on here, in America, where we are supposedly “free”.
A beautiful doe eyed girl named Josie was another patient, also young in her 20’s. Her “illness” was being heartbroken over a guy. Every day during visiting hours, her family would pile in - mom, dad, older brother and his wife.
At first they seemed concerned. But one evening they sat around the table, staring at her, and saying things like “reality check” and “we just want you WELL”. My heart ached for her. She would undergo a series of shock therapy treatments. I wonder to this day if that was what she needed, or just someone to help her move on from her heartache.
Your Insurance Has Run Out So Now You’re Well
Now it was the end of June, and it was time for my release.
Since I couldn’t go home (thanks to my husband’s restraining order), I would end up at a homeless shelter. I had no money, no cell phone, no clothes - only my wits and the kindness of strangers.
Back home all of the housewives were planning 4th of July outings on their husband’s corporate yachts. Here I was wandering the streets of Orange County’s Santa Ana - a tough town with plenty of its own stories to tell, and wondering what to do next.
Like in the hospital, I made friends with an assortment of characters.
This included a kind though troubled young man fresh out of prison, “David”. He was tall with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. We started talking, then bumming cigarettes from people waiting for dinner at the shelter. He told me about his long life of addiction and heartache. I could relate to his pain.
During the day, you can’t be at the shelter - you have to be out, looking for work. So David and I hit the streets, hanging out with other shelterees, trying to find relief from the merciless summer heat.
We’d sometimes duck into Starbucks, reading the paper and bumming free glasses of ice water. His sense of humor was a welcome breath of fresh air in a time where I thought my life, or at least my marriage was over. We would end up having a brief romantic but not sexual encounter.
David and I got separated when he tried to meet up with friends in another town. My days at the shelter had run out, now I was officially homeless and found my situation to be downright desperate. I didn’t want to call on friends - I was too embarrassed and I also didn’t have anyone’s phone number memorized. How we rely on speed dial!
I would end up once more in jail when I innocently borrowed a bike one cold and dark night. I was feeling faint, and thought it was time to go find help - not knowing what that help was. When I went to return the bike I was arrested for grand theft. I was suddenly very mad at myself for being so stupid. I guess with the stress of the circumstances, the being alone, at night, without any resources - I just wasn’t thinking clearly.
This time at the booking center, instead of a deputy cat-calling me about my meds, a male and very large deputy physically assaulted me. Apparently I had either looked at him wrong or said something wrong. I just knew that I had never had my face slammed against anything and the pain was horrifying.
Meanwhile he kept my left arm pinned behind me, and I was convinced he was going to break it. He slammed my face a few more times into the glass partition, screaming things into my ear that I thankfully don’t remember. I do remember pleading with him to let me go. During this time, another deputy was entering my information into a computer, watching the assault, and doing nothing.
When it was over, I would be unable to move my arm for the next hour, and two days later someone would point out the “shiner” on my nose. I would later report the assault to a female deputy assigned to my wing, who just shirked it off to say “that doesn’t sound like him.”
Days passed. My two attorney parents would spend their time on the phone with the DA, again trying to “understand”, just like they had done in the mental hospital. My bail was a whopping $150, and for some reason that I’ll never understand neither my parents nor my husband would pay it.
This meant waiting for my trial which was a good three weeks away, locked up in jail. The few times I spoke to my father on the phone, he would blame my husband for not helping me. My mother, who lives two hours away and is retired, did not come to see me. She says that according the jail personnel I “didn’t want to see anyone”.
All I know is if that had been my daughter, I would have beaten the door down.
Without having a doctor examine me, they locked me in the psyche ward, forced me to take Zyprexa, and for a two week period I would not see anyone except through a small glass partition.
All I thought about was getting out and trying to find David.
My husband then started to visit me every day, eventually bringing our two year old son. He would melt the hearts of the deputies, who were all female, which earned me a lot of respect from there out. Suddenly I was no longer “mental”, as they say in jail. I was then moved into general housing.
Days turned into weeks. Going to court was another humiliation, you go in a caged bus, handcuffed and one time I was even shackled down to the ankles. So much for innocent until proven guilty.
The time in jail started to wear on me. I just wanted to go home. The public “pretender” just like in mental health court, rubber stamped my paperwork, advising me in no way how to argue or defend myself, despite my immaculate record as a law abiding citizen. They would come up to me in the holding cell and hand paper work through the bars.
I would end up pleading guilty with three years informal probation, just to get out. That means I can go back to jail for even the slightest offense.
It was now the end of August. I was released, but since my husband’s restraining order was still in place, I could not go home. I would spend the next two weeks in hotels, until the order expired.
I finally stepped foot in my own home, three months after leaving.
I told my husband that even though we were under the same roof, we were separated. Eventually I found David’s parents in the phone book, and learned he had gone back to prison for parole violation. I cherished my 2 year old son, and tried to feel “normal”.
Our three kids came home from Europe and the new school season was upon us.
So as the PTA moms pulled up in their minivans, again all smiles and eager for soccer, field trips and school plays, I had to ponder my role in the community. I now had a criminal record, had done time in jail, and was a psychiatric survivor to boot.
Picking Up the Pieces
It is now Feb. 2006. As to be expected, last fall shortly after returning home I fell into a deep depression. I tried ECT again, this time the effect was very (5 days) temporary. It is a nightmare of waking up every day, struggling just to get out of bed.
My new doctor believes I’m bi-polar, and I’m inclined to believe him. It would excuse all of the legal scrapes, but part of me just hangs my head in shame with this “conviction”.
I am now on a new string of medication. I spend my days in bed- hating myself, hating what I’ve done to my kids and asking myself a zillion questions. Is it Post Traumatic Stress? Could I have seen this coming? Why wasn’t I smarter in jail?
David and I reconnected via mail. He is still struggling with drug addiction and continues to serve time in prison. I do what I can to help him, sending him writing supplies, rehab information or newspaper clippings, knowing how bleak and terrifying incarceration is.
I am still against involuntary commitment, since I believe it only exacerbates the situation. I believe I was first sent in to get well, and have ended up sicker because of the experiences. Looking back I am mad at myself for the numerous mistakes I’ve made, but in the moment, I didn’t have the luxury of real presence of mind. I made decisions under intense stress, without loving support from family, only the intimidating presence of so-called mental health care professionals or cops staring me down.
My husband and I are repairing our marriage of 13 years. He goes with me to every doctor appointment, and shares a very heavy load with me being depressed. For everything that he may have done wrong, he is loyal.
I admire everyone out there struggling with our mental and criminal justice system. I am unconvinced that there is “justice for all”. The shame of now having a criminal record defies description.
My parents now are very supportive of my “illness”. Sadly, a part of me feels like they’ve “won”. It seems they’re very comfortable when I’m down, depressed, but when I’m active and especially angry - that’s when they tell me I’m sick. In fairness they do seem sincere about helping me. But they could have done that countless times before I got to this place.
My children still bear the scars. “Why did you have to call the police Dad,” my older son said the other day, confused and upset at having seen his mother in the back of a squad car. My daughter who God love her is a hard worker, is having a devil of a time in school. So is our oldest son. To this day, I regret anything that I did to cause them harm. I hope and pray that over time those memories will erase with age.
I am right now still looking for the silver lining in this.
I welcome feedback and comments of any kind. I am especially interested in legal professionals who can comment on California’s jail system, and anyone who has had recurrent and or bipolar depression- emphasis on the depression. I am VERY grateful to Jim Gottstein and the PsychRights team whose web site has gotten me through some very bleak days.
* for privacy I have used “pen” names for the people mentioned in this piece.