A Narrow Escape

Two years ago I discovered some things about institutional psychiatry that I had not even dreamed of (like the actions of Guantanamo prison guards, there are things you just have to experience to believe.) I was neither forcibly committed nor electroshocked, although I was threatened with both. I was traumatized by being caught up in the shenanigans of greedy professionals as they attempted to squeeze the last dollar out of my insurance company.

I had the bad luck of passing through the doors of the local mental hospital at just the time when they had purchased a shiny new electroshock machine and had hired a hardball-playing back ward psychiatrist to manage the upcoming program. This program was to go into effect in the middle of March 2005.

I entered the hospital in December of 2004, a retired university instructor suffering from a life that wasn't working. My situation included a bad case of poison oak doctors had not been able to cure and a house in an isolated rural area that had no heat in one of the coldest winters anyone could remember. The offer to go into a behavioral health unit with heat and no poison oak was an offer I couldn't refuse.

While I wasn't exactly happy about my situation, the supportive environment was a terrific relief. The psychiatrist on duty asked if I was depressed, and I replied "no, can't say that I am." He asked me if I had ever had ECT with the strangest grin (or was it a leer?) that I had ever seen. I asked him why he was mentioning ECT when I had just said I was not depressed, and his expression expanded into what can only be called an unabashed sneer. My blood ran cold as he stood by the head of the bed, savoring the impact of his oddly shocking communication. "Talk to you later," he said slyly, and walked away.

Enlisted as an outpatient, I struggled with the truly awful effects of psychoactive drugs, thus raising the hackles of another psychiatrist for reacting "abnormally" to what were supposed to be "beneficial" medications. The only drug I seemed to be able to tolerate was Seroquel, which had the interesting effect of completely taking away my fear of death. In February, like an ancient Stoic, I weighed the pros and cons of my life situation (including the threatening hospital experience) and decided I had had enough. I went about the task of preparing to kill myself with zombie-like efficiency. By that time I had moved to a less isolated apartment and a friendly neighbor called 911. I woke up in the same behavioral health unit I had entered before.

This time the doctor had me where he wanted me, "the drugs aren't working, are they?" "you've lost your higher functions," "the only hope for you is ECT." He continued his campaign of terror even over the objections of my psychiatrist, who refused to authorize ECT treatments. I smuggled in a cell phone, telephoned her, and when I heard her sensible medical reasoning, put my foot down. No ECT for me.

The staff continued to prep me with various pre-ECT tests (and, of course, insisting that the insurance company pay for them) "just in case" I would change my mind. A buddy of the doctor stepped up to the plate and signed the necessary medical authorization that my own psychiatrist refused to touch.

As the target day approached, a kind of last minute "push" seemed to take place. Sarcasm crept into their voices: "Well, if you don't want us to do anything, just stop us." Was this a dare?

Then came a version of Masterpiece Theater. The First Act was when the shock doctor came in with a particularly terrifying, abusive and contemptuous performance, telling me I was headed for the back ward. "Drugs aren't doing any good" "you have deteriorated," "you don't even know how many times you've been in here" etc. Act Two was something I had not seen before-he acted like a different human being: a handsome young Egyptian, he rode in on a white horse and seductively batted his deep brown eyes. He gently whispered "trust me." "It'll be all right." "I'm practically certain ECT will restore your higher functioning." Bad cop/good cop-with him playing both cops.

Later, working through the trauma, it cheered me up immensely thinking that I could have demanded a typewritten list of those "lost" higher functions. It would have been an airtight legal defense because: (1) there weren't any such functions and (2) it would be MY list, putting the legal ball in my court. I called it the "Zen defense."

But I am jumping ahead.

Meanwhile, our overconfident actor had overreached himself. He put me on the treatment list in spite of my rejection of ECT. He briefed the physician who examined me a few days before the first scheduled treatment to be friendly and "reassuring." This physician cheerfully mentioned the doctor on the white horse's name when I asked what the examination was for "it's for the ECT Dr. ____has ordered for you," he chirped.

I told him there must have been some mistake-I had turned down ECT on the advice of my psychiatrist. He reacted like he had been hit with a stun gun. At first he simply tried to convince me that I was, indeed, on the list. Finally, after this brief period of denial, he managed to stammer that I should go back to my bed, and that was that.

Later I came to thoroughly understand what was at the time a rather mystifying overreaction. (As people experienced with the law, I'm sure that you would not be anywhere near so slow on the uptake.) He was thinking, of course, of his license. It is clearly illegal to schedule someone for electroshock over her objections.

As time went on, relations between me and all of these people deteriorated, including an ugly incident where I let myself be tricked into "stopping by" the behavioral health unit after a brief stay in the hospital for a back injury. The same man who had signed the papers to have me electroshocked (without having met me) came by my hospital bed as I was being discharged and claimed "Nancy wants to ask you a few questions." I stupidly didn't see it coming and ended up Shanghaied for two weeks. I call the incident ugly because while I was there a male nurse "Mickey-Finned" me with an overdose-I was out for eight hours or so-all the while protesting "I didn't do anything wrong, she overreacted."

The bill to the insurance company for that two week stay (no Nancy, no questions, no tests, no real "treatment"--complete with Mickey Finn) was $39,000.