On Wednesday, September 5, 1990, I was forced into the locked unit of a psychiatric hospital in Miami even though I was not, and had never been, a danger to myself or others. I write about what happened to me and how I ended up a patient at Charter Hospital of Miami in my previous blog post: Psych ward: fraud, greed, and a life interrupted. But the question still lingers, nearly 30 years after the event, Why did this happen?
In my quest for understanding, I’ve read books like Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I’ve read as much as I could about the past, present, and predicted future of the mental health industry, including the reports by Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (aka Nellie Bly) exposing horrific conditions at the Blackwell Island Asylum in New York City in the late 1880s and the comprehensive and disturbing account of the evolution (or devolution) of the U.S. mental health industry found in the second edition (2009) of Robert Whitaker’s book, “Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill.”
While these and other books and articles have helped me achieve greater understanding of my experiences at a macro/societal level, I still struggle, even after all these years, with the “why” of this bizarrely personal, out-of-step-with-my-life experience. Was there a purpose to my being locked up in a psych ward? The answer to this lingering question might be found, at least in part, in the relationships I made with other patients. One person in particular comes to mind: my Charter Hospital roommate Suzanne.
The orderly who escorted me to my room didn’t bother to introduce me to my new roommate. He just told me to wait on the bed until someone came back for me.
A woman about my age was sitting on the other twin hospital bed, the one closest to the bathroom and to the double-barred window. She had on blue flannel pajamas and white fuzzy slippers and was surrounded by books. A Sony Walkman was on the nightstand next to framed photos of an older couple, probably her parents. She stood up without saying anything and, for a minute there, I felt like I was in a college dorm room about to be initiated into some weird psycho sorority.
She walked over to me and put her hand gently on my shoulder.
“I’m Suzanne. I can tell it’s your first time. It’s going to be okay.”
I felt my shoulders relax a bit. I closed my eyes and I started to cry.
Suzanne sat down on the bed next to me – a risky move since that type of close contact could have cost her a complete loss of privileges – and took my hand.
“It’s going to be okay, I promise,” she said.
We sat like that…me sobbing, her holding my hand, for at least the next 15 minutes.
For the record, nobody ever came back for me.
For the next week Suzanne did her best to make it okay. She made sure I got a tray for meals – I was on active suicide watch, was considered a flight risk, and was not allowed out of our unit to go to the cafeteria – and showed me how to convince the charge nurse to let me have a razor to shave my legs. She kept some of the more aggressive patients away from me (we were a coed unit and some of the male patients would stand at their doorways and touch themselves inappropriately when a woman walked by) and helped me cope with my fear and my anger and the pure shock I felt at finding myself so utterly vulnerable and powerless.
The first time an announcement for a Code Strong came through the intercom system, Suzanne calmly led me to the day room, showed me where to sit, and explained that a Code Strong (sometimes there was a page for a “Mr. Strong”) means that a violent or uncooperative patient is being placed in restraints, likely following a struggle with hospital staff. I had images of savage-eyed violent men being forced into straight jackets by sadistic SS-like guards who then threw them into padded cells only to be left to rot and starve in isolation.
Suzanne laughed at my psychiatric torture chamber fantasies. She said I’d seen too many horror films. She assured me things were much more humane in 1990. Patients were subdued with strong narcotics and then strapped by the wrists and the ankles to comfortable hospital beds and kept two or three to a room, attended by a hospital staff member. Though humiliating (she had been a guest of Mr. Strong a few times herself), she said she had never felt abandoned or in danger. And, in her case, the restraints were lifted within a few hours, once she calmed down.
Suzanne bravely introduced me to her parallel universe, a place where male voices sometimes encouraged her to harm herself or her parents. She told me that they came to her mostly at night, just before she fell asleep. For that reason, she did whatever she could to stay awake. That desire had led her to taking amphetamines, which of course interfered with her medications, making the voices even worse and sending her into a level of psychosis that she could not control. She had a stack of books about schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, bipolar disorder, and depression. There wasn’t much she didn’t know about her illness. And there wasn’t much she wasn’t willing to share.
Suzanne explained that her tormentors started visiting her when she was in her late teens, but she didn’t tell anyone about them until her early 20s, after her first suicide attempt. She was now 32 and had been hospitalized half a dozen times.
We spent a lot of time in our room talking about our lives outside the hospital. I told her about my job and my apartment and the boyfriend I was too ashamed to call, even if they let me use the phone. Suzanne talked about her family and how she used to be really good at tennis and said she hoped to get into it again when she was better. She wanted to go to college and become a psychiatric nurse. She spoke to me about what it was like to have schizophrenia and the toll she knew the illness had taken on her family. Sometimes, in mid-conversation, Suzanne would cock her head a bit to one side and look away from me, moving into a trance-like state that might last for several minutes. I came to understand that she was entering her other world. But she was in control. She would sit clutching a glass of water or holding onto the bed frame, later explaining to me that this grounding helped her distinguish between what was real and what was coming from inside her head.
Suzanne believed that if this medication didn’t do the trick, they would come up with something soon that would work better. She was sure that someday she would be able to control the voices well enough to keep a job and move out of her mother’s house.
I came to understand that Suzanne wasn’t her disease. She was a strong-willed, intelligent, compassionate, lovely person who took precious time away from her own healing journey to offer a lost, lonely, frightened stranger friendship and comfort.
While I would never insult Suzanne by saying I have any idea what it is like to walk in her shoes, I am honored that she invited me to walk by her side. Suzanne, full of hope. My sweet schizophrenic psych ward guardian angel.