Salients of a Broken Mind: Psychiatric Hell

(For miserable background, you may want to read Part One first)

Our media fetish for the Hells of brooding darkness and blood-soaked corridors makes us forget that there exists a special, sterile Hell, clean-swept and lifeless. I found its local incarnation around 4AM on July 26th, 2017. I knew, on some level, that I condemned myself the moment I signed forms to stay there. By rights I shouldn’t have been allowed to; I was sleep deprived and starving, shaking visibly, mumbling my answers. I was in no state to offer informed consent to a goddamn massage, let alone hospitalization. I feel sick loathing now to remember how readily the staff ignored that when the time came.

For perspective: much of my anxiety in retail came from the feeling that I’d unknowingly submitted to the authority of people who would punish me for disobedience. In my first and, I vowed after, only psychiatric hospitalization, I unknowingly submitted to the authority of people who punished me for disobedience.

A few snapshots from the presently-nameless hospital. The place I describe next exists, but I leave it unidentified since I currently want to finish working through last Summer’s events. I may go to war yet, but “yet” is not “tonight.” You can’t imagine the creeping anguish of a place a little too quiet, a little too brightly lit, of a place where every second staff member smiles at you but every first waits for you to make sudden moves. On your way to meals or the handful of activities outside your block–for call it what they will, your room is a cell and you’re an inmate–you pass through heavy, slit-window doors with keycard accesses. You yearn for splashed colors that look uncultivated, anything vibrant or lively. The best rooms looked like motel lobbies; the worst looked like hospital bathrooms. We lived in those, of course.

And, the best part: whether committed voluntarily or involuntarily, the staff could keep us as long as they liked with no legal repercussions whatsoever. We were granted no shield against this looming Sword of Damocles, and not a single staff-member seemed the least bit uncomfortable that in this analogy, they became God. Whispers among we slouching, drug-stupor inmates revolved around the same truth: whether you got out had nothing to do with whether it was good for you, and everything to do with doing what they told you. The static-stagger line waiting at the medication window makes pure modern art: the artist’s intent, phantasmagoric nihilism. The nurses there were the only consistently nice ones in the building; by the end of this article, you’ll understand why we came to suspect even them.

I’d like to remind everyone at this time that I committed myself voluntarily. My mother, in a moment’s cleaving irony, said she was glad I was getting help. She recanted at length and furiously before the end. I received a number of things while committed, but I consider few of them “help.” I mentioned I was in no state to offer informed consent; what better proof than that I thought release after three days was inevitable assuming good behavior? No, actually, I had it backwards: release happened after three days if you requested it, and then only if they judged you ready. You may assume, as a compassionate, functioning human, that on understanding the mistake, the staff realized I’d been admitted under false pretenses and released me immediately. How could they possibly treat my delirious consent as legally binding?

Oh, sweet child, were only it so.

The kindest faces at this hospital were those I saw most rarely; a young woman interning there who at least tried to advocate for me, several of the women serving meals. Most of the nursing staff watched us with quiet suspicion, and sometimes something very like resentment. It’s a wondrous thing to be mentally ill in America, where you’re bombarded with the same stale regurgitation by dozens of friends or acquaintances, “You need professional help,” and then when you seek it you’re treated like a murderer in holding for the chair’s nerve-scalding oblivion. One or two of the people in my block were suicide risks; the rest of us were depressive, explosive, lonely, and invariably raging bored; two cut themselves, and the scabs and scars made puffy dull red and purple lattices up their forearms.

All of us agreed the very worst thing you could do was let them see your symptoms.

You can’t comprehend the horrid self-mangling soul-pare that comes of needing tears or screaming or just a few seconds’ growling with every heart-angstrom, and being forced to refuse yourself these because you know damn well the doctor will hear of it, and insist you try this medication. Nearly every medication on offer at the “hospital” caused fatigue among its numerous side-effects. You may understand why I, caustic nerves slicing slowly away at muscles burned cold from overuse, hated every prescription more than the last. An aside: I grew up waiting next to my mother after school while she read a few more X-rays in her pleasant-dim office, and to me medical hospitals are pleasant. The nurses are strained, but most obviously care, the doctors rarely worse than briskly professional, and the first thing they do is involve you in your own treatment, ask what the problem is to help guide them. Psychiatric Hell flails like Carpenter’s beasts, a Thing mimicking the smiles and calm exams with no interest in you save how it can fit you into its consuming flesh-mass.

My doctor, with a Slavic accent and incongruous surname, seemed pleasant at first, then swiftly revealed all the traits I most despise in that certain class of mental-health professionals. First up: the inexhaustible condescension of people who think that because they’ve got a degree, they immediately know your disorder better than you do. I’ve lived with this damn thing for twenty-five years, I wanted to howl at her. Of course, I didn’t, because that was the swiftest route to a longer stay. It’s easy to defy authority when you’re well-rested, well-fed, emotionally stable and can leave the building anytime you wish. The fetid method behind Psychiatric Hell is simply that you arrive there precisely because you no longer have strength to fight. So, though what spirit remained to me screamed to hold my ground, I played along, and hated myself for it.

Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the perfect evil of people who, claiming they want to help you, openly hold the threat of a longer stay over you to ransom good behavior. If they’re so eager to help, why should that be a threat? If Psychiatric Hell weren’t Hell, why tout languishing within as punishment?

Back on the subject of the “good” doctor: she, like nearly everyone else in Psychiatric Hell, seemed to harbor a mortal terror of allowing patients opinions. I’ve never before in my life encountered a mental health professional so strongly opposed to self-analysis. Here’s the rusty nail awaiting patients’ stocking feet on her preferred path: sooner or later, the goal was for us to escape Psychiatric Hell. How, precisely, are we to cope with our disorders if we’re not allowed to understand them ourselves? I hear a lot of talk by neurotypicals about relapse rates among the mentally ill. Here’s some insider knowledge for you: our treatment consisted of “optional” medication, which we were permitted as long as we didn’t care about ever escaping Psychiatric Hell, and infantile psychological worksheets that were slightly less effective for understanding one’s roiling psyche than a grunt with a Colt 1911 for stopping the entire 2nd SS Panzer Division.

I’m saying they didn’t fucking work.

One such worksheet included–I’m killing serious, this was presented to us straight-faced, including both of the cutters I mentioned before–a cartoon person on the left looking over a chasm, with a cloud above and some trees or similarly puerile nonsense on the other side. We were told, with a drawn-faced facsimile of enthusiasm, to write our doubts or fears or perceived issues on one side, solutions in the middle and goals on the other. Psychiatric Hell’s demon garrison repeatedly told us to try things like this. They also told us suicidal ideation was bad, and if the thought of doing worksheets like that after a psychotic break doesn’t make death a tempting prospect I suspect you’re a demon yourself. This patent disconnect between stated intent and actions’ outcome suffused the tiniest paint-flecks upon the dour in-walls of Psychiatric Hell. I’ll remind you that, to put things bluntly, Psychiatric Hell’s denizens claim the desire to help crazy people be less crazy.

We were constantly pulled out of our rooms. That’s okay, to a point. I can see the reasoning behind that; isolation is a potential sign of mental collapse. Except, observation would’ve showed some of us didn’t need to be pulled out. We were driven into activities constantly. Activities are fine, getting people to do anything is a key step to helping them past their depression. Except, those fucking worksheets. Activities like karaoke or going outside or art class were by far the minority of the scheduling. Inane worksheets and inane lectures and inane medications and inane interviews with inane doctors, those were our normal. One of the most common issues plaguing individuals with mental health is a form of mass societal gaslighting. We’re drowned in hints that our disorders aren’t that painful, that we’re making it up, or that we just aren’t trying enough.

Two years ago, I reached a point where I started cutting myself because I felt I was losing my temper too much. I didn’t cut as much as some, but, reader: I cut slow, and bruising hard, with a sharp-edged but convex-ground Japanese-style tanto that had this way of pushing the flesh up and aside, making every cut puffy and particularly painful. I didn’t cut myself because I liked cutting myself. And in truth, I only partly cut myself because I sought control. The larger reason, one I only understood with time and deep thought, was that society constantly suggested that I wasn’t really struggling, that I wasn’t really in pain. I found tearful, sickening, empowering catharsis in the splitting sear of that edge, and the thick, seeping dark red that pooled in the wounds. In a fit of inadvertent symbolism, I made sure no one ever saw the wounds. The scars remain; they’re a warrior’s battle-trophies, and I treasure them, though I hope never to make more.

For anyone reading this going through the same thing: if you need to cut yourself so you have a kind of pain the people around you can’t deny, than fuck every callous snide-mouthed wretch who questioned the war within you. And, regardless what I just said, I understand, and I don’t blame you for a second.

My point here is that bottling up our emotions, feeling they’re not legitimate, causes most of the casualties to the mentally ill. Psychiatric Hell forced us to do the very thing that sent us tumbling through its drab brown doors, over and over again. Though our friends and family so often call us innocent, there we were sinners sent to repent.

I still remember the day I walked free. It was just eight days after I entered. Sitting in the waiting room with my suitcase, I dreaded at any moment that the staff would come out, saying they’d changed their minds. I think if they had I’d have turned violent. But I was left alone. I read a magazine with a long-outdated article on HBO’s Game of Thrones–ironically, I myself am only just now reading the source books–and my mother pulled up outside in her green Camry hybrid, and I think now I understand what the Vienna garrison felt seeing the Winged Hussars soar through the Ottoman lines.

I’ve had my R and R now. Psychiatric Hell has made an enemy more implacable than they can ever understand. But, as much as I loathe much of my experience there, they made blatant practices which were too subtle for me to spot before. In Part Three, I’ll explain what I gleaned from my after-action reports this past half-year.



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