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Mental illness Myths


An Orwellian Nightmare

True story, disguised setting, names changed

In the old days, way back in the 1950s and 1960s America’s mentally ill were strapped to their beds, hosed down once a week and given insulin shock therapy as part of the warehousing regimen that defined their existence. Treatment for the mentally ill in 2014 is ever so much nicer.

Here is what I witnessed day to day over a four year period.  I have changed the names of the innocent as well as the guilty. I have not had to exaggerate! In fact I have glossed over some of the more horrendous events because they might seem to be gross exaggerations.

Forty inmates, euphemistically referred to as residents or clients or consumers of mental health services awake to the glare of fluorescent lights and the sounds of low paid floor workers and med techs scurrying about, but also the sound of Donna screaming out her first demand of the day – “Where’s my fucking coffee?”  Donna is leaning against the wall in the upper hallway near the elevator that descends to the bottom floor of this two story former chicken coop that has functioned for over 30 years as a depository for these unfortunates that bear the labels of schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s Disease, borderline personality disorder, dementia, bi-polar disorder, plus a few people who just ended up here placed by the Department of Health and Human Services or the Veteran’s Administration because it was the only place available at the time.

A strong smell of feces alerts one of the staff that Graham has not made it all the way to the bathroom and so he is whisked away to the showers, protesting loudly and tripping over his shit-stained pajamas which have slid down to his ankles. The elevator arrives and Donna moves to enter but is blocked by Carol who is having trouble exiting the elevator in her broken down wheelchair. She is frustrated and crying loudly while stammering out a plea for help, “Nobody helps me. Why is this happening to me?” 

“Because you're ugly,” suggests Donna as she attempts to enter the elevator, pushing impatiently on the wheelchair which only manages to wedge it and its hapless occupant half in and half out of the elevator.

“Carol, stop crying, and Donna, stop being so nasty” screams Jackie the long suffering floor worker who has somehow survived over ten years of loyal service as she manages to separate the two and send Donna down to the dining room.

The dining room is quiet, deathly quiet! Twenty residents sit silently, some staring at the closed and shuttered kitchen, wondering when the door will open. Donna enters and the place comes alive with her curses. “Coffee, Goddamit, where’s my coffee?”  Frank glances up from his empty plate, fixes the intruder with a malevolent stare, grabs his walker and shoves it in Donna’s direction. The walker hits the back of Michael’s chair. Michael, the gentle 300 pound mildly schizophrenic youngest resident at 42 years of age turns slightly, sees Donna looming menacingly only inches away and mumbles an apology.

Eventually the harried cook and one staff person wheel out the breakfast and begin serving the cold, rubbery fried eggs, cold pancake smothered in Aunt Jamima Syrup and the cold sausage swimming in excess syrup while trying to be kind to 60-year-old extremely psychotic Sarah who is hurriedly downing two cups of coffee while simultaneously screaming for more. “Who wants milk? Who wants juice?” asks the staff person.

Michael gobbles his food and asks for seconds. Sarah gives him her untouched plate and asks for more coffee. “Is it okay if I eat this?” asks Michael. Michael is afraid of everyone and everything. On a daily basis he seeks out a manager or senior staff to be assured that he hasn’t done anything wrong.

Sarah, having consumed her fifth cup of coffee is now sitting in her own urine which has spilled over into the aisle, alarming the cook who is gently trying to coax Sarah out of the dining room. Sarah, when challenged in any way creates such hell that she makes Donna look like a saint in comparison. The cook is successful. Sarah lies down in her urine soaked dress on her urine soaked sheets. Short of staff today, there has not been an opportunity to strip her bed which must be done each morning because Sarah takes off her depends each evening prior to going to sleep. In her delusional state of mind she believes that it is important to remove the unused adult diaper so as not to soil it.  She seldom eats anything but desserts. She drinks coffee and soda from morning till night. She agrees to shower once a week but only if Tina, her favorite staff person, assists her. Her room is cleaned every day, but no cleaning agent can compete with the smell of urine.

Mornings are always the worst in this cesspool of human misery. The underpaid staff people are seldom all in attendance. On the rare occasions that all five are physically here, invariably one of them is battling a severe migraine or toothache or is on the phone with a child who has been expelled from school or a boyfriend who is threatening to kill someone.

The kitchen has been in complete disarray for over two weeks while a regular staff person trains to replace the head cook who had to leave employment to report to prison after being charged with stabbing his girlfriend FOURTEEN times. It’s a shame, because he was not only a great cook, but treated even the most difficult residents lovingly, patiently and respectfully.  Go figure!

Donna has fallen in the downstairs hallway. This is her fourth fall in less than a week. A conference call with the mental health clinic’s psychiatrist is placed and it is decided that it is time to ship her to the psych ward for a lengthy evaluation and perhaps a radical tweaking of her medications. Dr. Morgan, the aging and lovable psychiatrist at the local mental health clinic has tweaked her meds twice in the past month. Following tweak number one, Donna was unable to sleep and spent two nights offering $2.00 to any of the male patients who would fuck her. Donna is 74 by the way.  The second tweak had Donna nodding off all day and night while drooling, messing herself and talking nonstop to the funny little people sitting on her nightstand. It was definitely beyond Dr. Morgan’s capabilities, not to mention his busy schedule which allows only a half hour with a Medicare client. Screaming and cursing, Donna is loaded into the ambulance and off she goes to be chemically improved.

With Donna away, Sarah asleep and Carol attending a doctor’s appointment a sense of relief descends on the joint and while the staff and the young, inexperienced, slightly dysfunctional recently appointed administrator congregate outside in the attached smoking area, located fifteen feet from the oxygen tank storage area, Sharon, the eldest staff person conducts bingo in the dining room after helping Agnes, the 75 year old mute, late-stage dementia patient get cleaned up after accidentally sitting in Sarah’s vacated, but not cleaned-up chair.

Upstairs the only noise is from the TV which always seems to be airing The Price is Right. Four residents sit isolated and alone, lost in the colorful, exciting world of make belief emotions and shiny objects.

Seven residents have been loaded into the facility’s van and are on their way to the convenience store. The residents enjoy this outing because it is safe, non-threatening, familiar, and affords them the freedom to purchase candy, soda, chips, instant coffee and little cigars. The cigars are cheap and affordable to people who get by with weekly allowances of ten to twenty dollars.  With the exception of the cigars and instant coffee, most of their treasures are ravenously consumed before they get “home” and head for their beds or the smoking area.

The management team is scheduled to meet today to discuss the accusations brought forth by two of the staff that one of the overnight workers has been having sex with Howard, a 60-year-old schizophrenic patient. Howard denies that anything serious is happening. “She’s just a friend and likes me.”  Forty-five-year-old Debbie vigorously denies any wrong doing and accuses her co-workers of being jealous of her ability to effectively deal with the difficult male residents. “I’m able to get Howard to go to bed where the rest of the girls can’t get him to do nothing!”

That’s as far as the investigation went until a week later when Debbie, following a passionate early morning tryst with Howard fell asleep and was found naked, snoring contentedly by an early arriving administrator.  Debbie, not one to be easily defeated, was able to come up with a completely implausible excuse and was shocked when her story was not accepted.

Debbie is the second staff person recently fired for stepping way over the line.  Whereas Debbie was a useless employee and easy to say goodbye to, the other deviant was a dependable, intelligent, very likable forty-year old Med Tech who had recently conquered his alcoholism and was being given a work opportunity at the facility. For six months Daniel exceeded expectations, but when he fell off the wagon he did so in spectacular fashion. Surveillance cameras caught him striking Rhonda, a 50-year-old dementia patient. Daniel followed up that criminal act by grabbing Agnes, the 75-year-old silent one and dry humping her. He was arrested the next day.

Saddest of all is the effect this chaotic environment has on the residents who obediently follow the rules and silently endure the constantly changing staff, the rumors of sex and violence and the outbursts of Carol, Sarah, Donna and others. They would benefit greatly in a meditative, loving environment that supports the possibility of healing. Instead, each day provides a new assault on the senses.

Highly functioning residents such as 45-year-old Maria who has been severely delusional since giving birth in her teenage years, attempts to avoid contact with the more disturbed residents. She isolates in her room or seeks out staff for conversation and advice. Through her innate desire for a normal life she reads self-help books, has visits from her daughter, mother and grandchild, uses a computer, has set up a bank account, and most importantly has religiously attended weekly therapy sessions with a psychologist who is dedicated to getting her off the toxic psychotropic medications and healing her mind.

She progresses. The meds are gradually reduced. She is becoming more reality based. And then she hears the screaming of a neighbor or the rumors circulating about Daniel’s arrest, or she witnesses Frank’s violent reaction to Donna’s coffee demands, and she shrinks in fear and is left alone to be tormented by the “voices” in her head. She freaks out and has a psychotic episode. The untrained overnight staff people push the panic button. The EMTs transport her to the psych ward and before her psychologist can get to her, she is lost in her inner hell and all that can be done in our present system is to tweak the meds and wait. Fourteen days later, a subdued, heavily medicated Maria returns to her room and the downward spiral continues.

You may be asking yourself why this facility has not been shut down. A number of reasons. First of all, it is not the worst one, second, the owner is a lawyer and knows exactly how sordid the facility would have to become before the state government revoked its license, and third, the agencies that oversee the operation of facilities like this are overwhelmed, under-staffed and find it more and more difficult to conduct lengthy investigations.

I could go on with this litany of depressing events, but I do want to end on a positive note. The days of this horrific treatment of our most vulnerable citizens is nearing an end. The purveyors of mal-treatment are being exposed. Articles such as this are appearing in mainstream publications. Court cases are being won. Alternative treatment facilities, although harassed by those in power, are springing up.

Millions of people like Donna, Maria, Howard, Frank, Sarah, Agnes, Michael and Carol are currently waiting to be freed from this antiquated system that is warehousing people and keeping them restrained through psychotropic medications when natural treatment modalities are available.  You can get involved. Visit these fascinating characters. Get to know them. One of the reasons the inhumane system continues is that the inmates are segregated from society and especially from the angels in society, who would love, support and ultimately assist them in their jail break!


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