It was a breezy Thursday afternoon. The sun filtered in through the picture window like a lazy haze of soft smoke. I watched it linger in the room as I sat huddled on the couch. I was crying softly as I spoke on the phone between sobs.
“There are people outside waiting to talk to you, Robin,” the woman on the phone told me. “I’ll stay on the phone with you until you go outside. Just do what they tell you.”
“What are you talking about”? I asked.
“Just go to the door and open it.” This time her voice took on an authoritative tone. I got up off the couch and looked through the peep hole. A uniformed police officer was standing by the front stoop. He was peering around a tall hedge, his hand resting lightly on his gun. I quickly backed away from the door in shock, stumbling on my housecoat.
“What did you do?” I cried into the phone. “Why did you call the police?”
“They’re going to help you, Robin. Open the door.”
“No, no!” I cried, “Why?” I felt like I was suffocating as I gulped for breath. Tears covered my face and fell like rain onto my chest. I tried wiping the tears away so I could see, but they were falling so fast it was of no use.
Stumbling down the hallway, trying desperately to brush the tears away, I reached my daughter’s room and crouched near a side window. I slowly peeked over the windowsill. Another police officer was standing just outside the window but he didn’t see me. He was looking toward the front of the house. He, too, had his hand resting on his gun.
I put the phone to my ear again. “Robin,” the woman said. “What are you doing now?”
I was gasping for breath, afraid to move, scared I would be shot. “Why?” I whispered to her. “Why have you done this to me?”
“It’s for your own safety,” she said, sounding aggravated. “They’re not going to leave until you go outside. You don’t have a choice.”
“I never said anything about wanting to kill myself,” I whimpered. I slid down to the floor and covered my mouth with my hand, my fingers pressed hard against my face. I didn’t want the police officer outside of the window to hear me sobbing. I couldn’t grasp what was happening to me. I hated this woman on the phone, this woman who had no idea who I was. Yet she’d just reached into my life and ripped a hole in it.
I was shaking frantically, my hand barely able to hold onto the phone. I could hear the woman saying something, but I wasn’t listening. I looked around my daughter’s room as I crouched on the floor. Just hours before I had come into her room, softly kissing her fragrant cheek as I woke her up for school. But now, pressed against the wall of her room, I felt like an intruder wreaking havoc on the lives of the family who lived here. What would they think of me, huddled against the wall while policemen waited outside to take me away?
“Okay,” I told the woman on the phone. “I’ll go outside. My daughter Mariah will be home soon, and I don’t want her to see any of this.”
“Good,” the woman said. The compassion she had feigned earlier was gone now. She seemed anxious to be rid of me. I imagined this would make for interesting conversation when she sat down to dinner tonight, clucking her tongue as she recounted the events, all the while convinced she had saved the day.
I opened the door slowly. “Put the phone down,” an officer commanded. I was confused and wasn’t sure where to put it down. I was still thinking like a human being, but I had lost that distinction when I opened the door.
“Now!” he yelled at me. I quickly put the phone down near my feet.
“Come down the stairs and stand here,” another officer snapped as he pointed to an area in the yard. I did as I was told and quickly ran down the steps, my bare feet slapping against the concrete. I counted a total of five officers. Two squad cars were parked in front of the house, a third on the side street.
An officer walked behind me and told me he was going to handcuff me.
“Why? What did I do? What’s happening?” I sobbed.
“Put your hands behind your back,” he ordered.
I had never been handcuffed in my life. The weight of the handcuffs rubbed painfully against my wrists as he tugged at my hands. With a quick jerk, the cuffs snapped into place. I stood on the front lawn feeling like I was on exhibition at the zoo. Cars slowed as they passed, some almost coming to a stop to get a good look at me. I turned away from the road to avoid their gaze. I felt ashamed, even though I had done nothing to be ashamed of. The curtain from the house next door was discreetly parted, but I could still see the face of my neighbor staring at me through the window.
The police officers were standing around talking to one another now. Every so often one of them would laugh and shake their head. They were acting like they were at a neighborhood barbecue casually talking about a football game.
“Can one of you put me in a squad car, please?” I begged. “I don’t like being left in the yard for everyone to gawk at.” They turned and looked at me, appearing annoyed that I had interrupted their little hen party.
“We’ll put you in when we’re ready to,” an officer spat at me. He looked at the other officers gathered around him and laughed.
“What have I done?” I cried. I was angry now, angry with the woman on the phone and angry with the police. “Is this because I’m depressed?” Fresh tears rolled down my face. “Is this helping me? Is it?”
They looked at me with no empathy, no compassion. I could feel my anger growing as they stood there watching me with amusement. This morning I woke up a wife and a mother, a so-called respectable citizen. Now I was a circus clown in handcuffs.
Eventually, an officer approached me and steered me to a squad car. “Where am I going?” I asked him. He didn’t say anything. “Can’t you at least tell me where you’re taking me?” He placed me in the backseat and slammed the door without saying anything.
Locked Up and Alone
I couldn’t wrap my mind around what was happening. Why am I being treated like I’ve done something wrong, I wondered—like I’m not worth one scrap of kindness? I hung my head and began crying. The officers were talking to one another now as we drove down the road. One of them laughed and said something about the “crazy ones.”
“I’m not crazy,” I stammered through my tears.
I sat in stunned silence as we drove through town. My mind was blank now, void of any hope of being rescued.
I saw the hospital looming ahead as we continued to drive. The patrol car slowed down and turned into the entrance marked “Emergency Room.”
“What are we doing here?” Neither of the officers responded. “Why are you ignoring me?” I yelled in frustration. “Don’t I have any rights?”
We came to a stop in front of the crowded waiting room. They each took an arm and marched me through the sliding doors. Then they paraded me through the waiting room like I was an infamous outlaw that had finally been apprehended. All that was missing were the flashing cameras and the urgent voices of reporters asking how they did it.
People stared at me in my handcuffs and bathrobe as we made our way to the admissions desk. The admissions clerk looked at the officers as they gave her my information. Now and then she glanced at me, then quickly looked away if I met her gaze. It reminded me of an old joke: “Don’t make eye contact with the crazy people.”
When they’d finished admitting me, the officers led me to a room at the back of the emergency department. They finally removed the handcuffs when a security guard arrived, apparently relieving the officers of their claim on me. The security guard stood outside of my room with his hands behind his back. Now and then he glanced at me as if making sure I wasn’t planning to escape.
I studied the room. The only furnishings were a hospital bed and a small stool with wheels on it. There were no cabinets, no medical equipment hanging on the walls. This was a room for people like me. A room with nothing I could use to hurt myself or anyone else. It didn’t feel like a safe room; it felt like a holding tank. I sat on the bed and waited, not sure what I was waiting for.
“Can I call my family?” I asked the security guard. “I know they’re wondering what happened to me.”
He looked at me and said it wasn’t up to him, that I’d have to wait for somebody from the hospital staff to talk to me. I sat there and waited, lost in my thoughts. Finally, someone entered the room with a clipboard in his hand. He sat down on the stool and glanced at his paperwork.
“How are you doing…” he glanced at his paperwork again. “Robin?”
“How do you think I’m doing?” I responded angrily. “How is this supposed to help my depression? If a person wasn’t suicidal before, this would definitely make them consider it. I never told that woman on the phone I was going to kill myself. She wasn’t even the one I wanted to talk to. I was trying to call Gina, my social worker at the cancer center.” I didn’t give him time to interrupt me. Maybe he would let me go.
“I just wanted to talk,” I went on. “I was having a bad day. But Gina wasn’t there, another woman answered the phone. I told her I’d call back, but she was practically begging me to talk to her. She seemed so desperate to talk, I practically felt sorry for her. So I gave in, I told her I had been feeling depressed lately. She started asking me all these questions over and over, I was getting confused.” I started getting angry just thinking about her. “So she called the police and then I was being hauled off like a criminal.”
The man with the clipboard looked at me for a moment. He didn’t seem to care one way or another.
“You’ll have to wait here awhile longer until we get you processed into the Stephens Unit,” he said blankly as he scribbled something down.
“What?! The Stephens Unit?” I had heard people refer to the Stephens Unit before. It’s where the “crazy” people went. “Why? Why do I have to go there?”
“It’s just for a few days,” he replied. “Somewhere you can feel safe while you sort things out.”
“I feel safe,” I babbled. “I feel safe at home.”
“It will be OK,” he said absently.
He tried to reassure me, but his voice trailed off as he scribbled something down again and then left.
I went to the doorway of my room and called out toward the nurse’s station: “When is someone coming to get me? What’s happening?” But no one responded. The security officer turned to face me, a look of aggravation on his face. “Don’t look at me like you know me,” I told him. I began to cry again.
Stuck in the Unit
I was put on a 96-hour hold at the Stephens Unit, despite that I was rational and a danger to no one. It was all so surreal. There was no empathy or compassion from the staff. One staff member, Renee, seemed hell-bent on making my time there miserable. One time she refused me my right to make two phone calls a day.
As I was reaching for the phone at the nurses’ station, Renee quickly snatched it away. “You’ve had your two phone calls!” she snapped.
“But those phone calls were to my family for a care plan meeting,” I rushed to explain. “My case manager said since it was required, they wouldn’t count against my two phone calls.”
But Renee had already tuned me out. “And make sure she doesn’t use the payphone, either,” she ordered an attendant who’d walked over to see what was going on. Renee walked off in a huff. The attendant looked at me apologetically but would not return the phone to me.
The psychiatrist who saw me was also arrogant and uncaring. At one point, we were speaking and he nodded off. I told him if I was boring him, I could come back at another time. He became exasperated and threw me out of his office.
All while I was at the hospital, there was no real help, just the mandatory “therapy.” This consisted of psychology students asking prepared questions from a checklist, mostly just “yes” or “no” answers required. They looked startled if I offered more than the necessary response, uneasy with the notion they might have to offer some empathy.
It became painfully clear that I and the other patients in the psych unit were thought to be undeserving of any real concern. We were made to feel ashamed and somehow unclean. I later wrote a poem about it:
“I understand it now
The vacant shuffle down the hall
Silently making our way nowhere
Just another stain on the wall.”
Before I was allowed to be released from the Stephens Unit, I had to meet with the head psychiatrist, Dr. Goad. There were two other people sitting at the table when I entered the room: a woman and a man who I was told was a psychiatrist in training. When I nervously entered the room, everyone was sitting on one side of the table, and I was to sit in the lone chair opposite them.
Dr. Goad looked at me contemptuously, then back down at the paperwork in front of him.
“Do you feel suicidal?” he asked without looking up.
“No”, I said meekly, searching the faces of the others. But they just stared at me blankly, their stony gazes offering no warmth.
“Are you homicidal?” This time he looked me square in the eyes, as if daring me to show my disdain for him, any sign of anger, to keep me there. But I would not give him the satisfaction.
“No,” I said defiantly and stared into his cold eyes.
“Then you are dismissed,” he said. I stood up, expecting some sort of farewell, but they just continued to stare at me blankly as I turned and left.
As I waited for an attendant to unlock the door so I could return to the unit, the psychiatrist in training stood a few feet away, also waiting for the attendant. Thinking since he was not under Dr. Goad’s critical eye, I tried to speak to him. I asked if he was going to be on staff here. But instead of even slightly acknowledging me, he stared straight ahead. I could tell he was purposely ignoring me, refusing to give even a simple, gratuitous response. A simple nod…any sign that I existed.
My daughter picked me up when I was finally released. As the heavy metal door slammed behind me, I felt like a convict being granted parole from prison. But there were no offers of “good luck,” or even feigned concern about my state of mind. No plan of care, no follow-up appointments, no semblance of humanity. I didn’t exist beyond the paperwork I had signed, a faceless intruder in their minds, someone that left a stench on their skin, soon to be replaced with another faceless intruder.
Darkness, Then Light
I went home feeling even more depressed. I felt unclean, unwelcome in my new role as a “crazy” person. That’s what society calls you once you’ve been carted off to a mental health facility. You are the white elephant in the room, through no fault of your own. Society judges you, dismisses you, and blames you.
I was still struggling with overwhelming depression. But now I didn’t feel like I could reach out for help without fear of being whisked away in handcuffs again. I was afraid of the darkness in my mind, and afraid of trying to escape it.
Every day was literally a battle to live. Speaking took such effort, I could not even carry on a simple conversation. It meant I had to rise above the pain I was drowning in to form a rational thought. But my mind was so clouded and heavy with the weight of sadness that I felt like I was gulping underwater when I tried to speak, choking on my own misery.
So one night, unable to bear it any longer, I decided to kill myself. I cried for myself, for my pain. I could no longer bear the loss of my estranged son and granddaughter, the loss of the close relationship and the happy life we used to share. I thought of everybody else in my life and rationalized that they would be better off without me. They wouldn’t have to fret anymore, and I wouldn’t have to see the exasperation on their faces or hear it in their voices.
As tears streamed down my face, the sheer reality of what I was about to do took my breath away. I fell to the floor and begged God to take me home. I lay on the floor, sobbing like a baby, and cried myself to sleep right there.
When I awoke hours later, I could see daylight peeking through the blinds. With my cheek still pressed against the rug, I felt a sense of contentment. Just a very small measure of relief that I was still alive. I began crying again, my breath quivering as my thoughts came into focus. I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed that this feeling would stay with me, that I would find the strength to survive.
This experience happened more than a decade ago. I know this sounds like a cliché, but time did make it better. But oh, time will first try to destroy you. Trying to live when I felt like dying made the passage of time unbearable. I felt like a terrified kid wanting to hide under the blankets until morning, during a long, desperate, unbearable night that never seemed to end. There were days when time was my friend, when I felt hopeful. But I still felt like I was walking on a “time tightrope,” always dreading the inevitable enemy waiting to trip me up.
I felt like a stain for years. People would try to “clean” me, make me acceptable. And that’s the problem. People struggling with depression should be accepted. We need to feel like we are worthy even when we are suffering: worthy of compassion, worthy of respect, and worthy of existing. We can’t overcome our pain if we can’t overcome the stigma that is instilled in us by the very people who are supposed to be helping us. I am not a stain to be covered up, tolerated, or whitewashed with feigned empathy, then discarded. I am a survivor, having survived the very institution that was designed to “fix” me.
I wish I could say I was “cured” now. But my depression has been a lifelong challenge. I have been in a semblance of “remission” for quite a while now, but not without the scars, both physically, and emotionally, to remind me of the precarious tightrope I still walk between darkness and light. But the light is winning, despite myself, my fears, and the obstacles society places in my way…the light is winning.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.