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When the Mind Goes

by Karen E. Briggs

I woke up in a small, cold, damp, and clammy room with an incredibly high ceiling and a very small window near the top with iron bars over the glass. Morning dew was creeping eerily down the brick wall from the small window, and I shivered not only from the cold, but also from how repulsive it seemed to be. Craning my neck to get a better view of the window, I wondered how any fresh air could enter the sealed glass, and why the bars were necessary. For me?

Sitting on a narrow metal bed, clad only in a flimsy hospital gown, I surveyed my surroundings; metal bed, thin plastic mattress, one sheet and a hideously small pillow. Next to the bed was a short metal night stand, bent and broken, stained and rusty.

I shivered again, more out of fear than the cold. I didn't know where I was or why. The night before, I had asked my husband, Frank, to take me back to the hospital where our baby had been born less than two weeks earlier. But, this was not the right place. In fact, I didn't even think it was a hospital. Where was I? Why was I in this tiny room? What was going on?

Posted on the wall nearest me was a printed sheet of official looking paper that spelled out in bold letters: AGNEW STATE HOSPITAL. A wave of terror went through me as I suddenly realized the implications of those simple words; State Hospital! Crazy people! Not me? There must be some mistake. This couldn't be happening to me! Someone would straighten this out. I have to go home to my baby. Certainly the person who put me in this small room knew I had just given birth to a baby girl. "I'm breast feeding! I have to get home NOW!"

No one responded to my plea.

I went to the door; a large, metal thing, with a window that was even smaller than the one on the wall. Standing on tiptoes, I was barely able to look out into a larger room that appeared to contain a few tables and chairs. Standing with her back to me was a tall nurse in a white uniform, blonde hair poking out from under her cap.

"Hey," I called out ,not knowing if she could hear me through the thick glass, "Hey! Let me out!" She looked in my direction, but did not move toward the door. I screamed, "Let Me Out! Please let me Out! She continued to stand still, stoic, unaffected and seemed to look right through me. I wondered if I was real. I wondered if she really existed, or was this a nightmare. Screaming louder and louder got no response.

Exhausted, I sat down on the bed again, and buried my face in my hands. Suddenly, there was this loud CLANK reverberating in the room. The nurse had opened the door. The sound had come from the oversized keys used for the equally oversized lock mechanisms in the ominous metal door. This had to be a nightmare.

Hopeful of a rescue, I jumped up to embrace my rescuer and to thank her for releasing me from this horror. I would get my clothes, and go home to my husband and child. But, to my
shock and terror three strong men in starched white uniforms followed her, quickly, into the room, grabbed me with great force, threw me down on the bed and held me there while the nurse gave me a shot in the bottom. A huge, painful shot. Screaming, kicking and fighting with every ounce of strength I possessed didn't do any good. In fact, it never did: for this insidious routine was repeated so many times, my bottom was swollen, black and blue, and sore. I hurt all over. But mostly, L I hurt in my mind. I was so Out* confused, I imagined dragons and demons and tried my "magic" to get out of that locked door.

My lucky number is 26, so I kicked the door with my heel 26 times. Then, I turned around
and banged my head on the window of the door 26 times until the bridge of my nose turned the same dreadful color as my backside. Nothing I tried (in my delusion) would convince them to open that locked door and let me go home to my baby. I was terrified that I would never get out.

Frequently, I just gave up and cried piteously. Because of the medication my eyes wouldn't focus and I would stumble and stagger; my muscles felt useless. I was sure I'd been abandoned and left to die. I thought of home and my husband and baby. FRANK! Where was he and why didn't he come and get me out of this place? I screamed his name, as if he could hear me wherever he was. "We have a baby now! We have to be together for her. Where are you, Frank? Please, please, save me, save me .... Oh, Frank, please get me out of here." I drifted off into a fitful sleep, sucking my thumb like a child. It was the only comfort I had.

The small room turned out to be a lock up or "side room" at the Admissions ward, temporary accommodations until a diagnosis could be made after at least 72 hours of treatment and observation... now commonly referred to as a "72 hour hold."

Ultimately, I ended up on a huge ward that was five times the size of where I had been. A massive structure, it had a day room about as big as Kansas, where half the ladies just sat, waiting to die. The dormitories were so large that fifty people slept side by side. Our community bathroom had no door on the front or the stalls. A shower room was equipped with six shower heads, no curtains, one drain in the middle of the floor. The people scared me half to death with their actions and their stories and some of the sounds they made. If I had not lost my mind by then, I certainly would soon. I was only twenty two years old, the year was 1967; and like it or not, I was about to become one of the mentally ill.

Diagnosed manic depressive several years later, I learned the hard way about abuse and punishment. To be ill is one thing, to be treated so badly just because you are ill is another. Straight jackets, restraints, super strong medications with devastating side effects, shock treatments, lock ups, and endless and meaningless therapy sessions only perpetuated my condition.

We became robotic, dangling like puppets on a common string for the psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric, technicians, nurses and therapists. We were treated less than human and punished as if we had committed a crime. Then, in encouragement rather than explanation, we were told that it would take at least thirty years of monitoring and testing before any substantial conclusions could be made regarding medication.

Straight jackets, restraints, super strong medications with devastating side effects, shock treatments, lock ups, and endless and meaningless therapy sessions only perpetuated my condition.

"Thirty years! You've got to be kidding?" That's an entire lifetime to a young person just starting adulthood. Is it any wonder I considered myself a guinea pig? I have almost lived those thirty years, now; my thirty years of testing and monitoring medicine after medicine after medicine. At first I took heavy doses of Thorazine, now rarely used because of the horrible side effects. Over time, I tested Mellaril and Stelazine, Haldol and Ellavil all with unusual, unique and potentially dangerous side effects of their own. I took Valium and lithium and still the beast was there within me, waiting to rear its ugliness and send my mind somewhere else. Now, stabilized on Tegretol, the beast is apparently subdued.

I submitted to "testing" because the medication therapy in conjunction with my own brand of self actualization kept me alive and functioning. But, I lost a lot along the way. I lost credibility. I lost respect. I lost many jobs. I lost my husband and children, and I just plain lost...

Those memories are vivid they invade my consciousness daily, and I shudder when I think of what happened over the years; the hospitals and the group therapy sessions, the head trips and mind games, countless moments of self doubt and thoughts of suicide, plus the general public's attitude about mental patients.

I could engage in intelligent conversation with so called "normal" persons, but as soon as mental illness was mentioned, their eyes would predictably cloud over in fear, and they would take what seemed like giant steps backwards ready to run away should I "do something." Well, I've done something, all right .... I've survived! I managed to live through it.

I've suppressed the prejudice and held my head high. I've managed to re establish myself and regain control of my own destiny, and I have dedicated the rest of my life to helping other mental health victims. Because, when the mind goes, finding it can be a very lonely job, and it really helps to have someone nearby who has been down that long, never
ending road.


(This article was first pubished in 1995, in The Journal of NAMI California)

KAREN E. BRIGGS defines herself as a fifty one year old survivor of the mental health system in California who now writes stories and poetry and makes herself available to counsel others who are experiencing the bipolar disorder illness she knows so well.





Special thanks to California NAMI. This article was originally published in The Journal of NAMI California, and is provided on this web site with permission of NAMI California. Copyright 2000, NAMI California.

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