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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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.