“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Mental illness is a complicated, loaded subject, but it is one that I think does not receive the attention that it so desperately needs. When you think of the fact that up to 25% of homeless people in the United States suffer from a form of mental illness (National Coalition for the Homeless) and more than 64% of inmates do (National Institute of Mental Health), we as a society are doing ourselves a great disservice by looking the other way, overgeneralizing, ignoring, and stigmatizing this grave matter.
I myself have suffered from mental illness for a number of years, having first been diagnosed as Bipolar II at the young age of 14, then reassessed and re-diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder by age 20, as well as suffering from clinical depression and/or, as according to another mental health professional, simply having “a negative attitude.” Whatever. As helpful as labels may be in some cases, I refuse to believe that I have ALL of these diagnoses. I am not a medically qualified doctor of any sort, but something clearly doesn’t add up here. Something may be up with me, no doubt, but after more than a decade and a half of multiple antidepressants, diagnoses, self-mutilation and self-loathing, hospitalizations and trips to the emergency room, mood stabilizers, and doctors, for the first time in what seems like an eternity, I finally have my feet on the ground, the right combination of medication, and am starting to have a clearer sense of self perception. Toward what I thought was the end of my rope, a thick, blinding cloud seemed to be lifted when I was finally told by a single doctor, “You are in pain, this I can see, and pain is not natural and not good. But you are not sick.” These were the wisest, most accurate words that I had heard in all my years of pain and confusion, as well as the truest.
Less than a week before I had heard these life-altering words uttered, I was in a dark place, both mentally and literally. I had voluntarily called up my insurance company and told them that I felt the need to be hospitalized for a dangerous, acute episode of depression. I felt that I was a threat to myself. At more than six months pregnant, I also felt that I was a threat to the life of my unborn child.
On January 22nd, 2013, I was transported via ambulance (though thankfully not strapped to a gurney) to Clínica Avril, located in the Almagro neighborhood of Buenos Aires. This clinic is known if at all for having treated the likes of Diego Maradona and Charly Garcia, the closest thing that you’ll achieve in celebrity status in Argentina. In any case, upon my arrival, I was feeling emotionally shaky and frightened, but still naively hopeful that I would receive the treatment and the help that I direly needed for both myself and my baby.
The 30 minutes or so that followed my arrival are somewhat of a blur to me, but I recall that I met for an initial consultation with one of the doctors in the front office sitting behind a large wooden desk, the walls covered in certificates, diplomas, and other forms of recognition that I did not bother to study in detail. He informed in my second language that, since I was admitting myself into the clinic’s care voluntarily, I would be free to leave when I felt that I was ready (this was not entirely true, as I later found out.). After verbally summing up back to the doctor what I understood, and then signing and initialing my freedom away, I was escorted behind the infamous metal door that separated the sane from the insane, deep down into the rabbit hole.
One thing worth mentioning about Clínica Avril is that the self-described “short term psychiatric clinic” supposedly prides itself in “excellence in mental health” according to its webpage. This is a monstrous, dangerous joke. Despite appearances, this was not a place to heal or to seek help. Being there for just three days nearly broke me. The bars on the windows were far remnant more of a prison than that of a mental health facility. The only two clocks that hung on the bare walls were both broken, both frozen in time, which seemed to be very symbolic of the place. With the exception of mealtimes, there was no structure to the daily schedule, no constructive help to avail of, no one to talk to. There were no group therapy sessions that were made available during my time there as I had envisioned. The daily sessions with a psychiatrist that were promised to me were not honored. Despite my advanced level of Spanish, it seemed that none of the staff members there understood me, tried to understand me, or wanted to understand me. There were many instances where I wandered off by myself in the ward, locking myself in the bathroom to weep profusely. Not one person had ever noticed my absence. While crying, I couldn’t help but think about the old Hollywood film actress, Lupe Vélez, who had committed suicide by sticking her head in the toilet to drown herself while pregnant. It could have been that easy for me.
Water. It was the dead of summer and the facility did not have air conditioning, just a weak ceiling fan that circulated the stifling hot air. I couldn’t go outside to the concrete courtyard on the ground floor, as that was where all the patients who were smokers came together to light up one toxic cigarette after another. Water. All I wanted was water from the tap to drink. “Discuplame, te puedo pedir un vasito para agua, por favor?” (“Excuse me, could I ask you for a glass for water, please?”) I asked one of the people working in the ward (I am unsure what her exact role/position was, though she was clearly not a doctor). “Wait here,” she told me. She never came back. I found another ward attendant and asked again. This person walked away from me as though I were a ghost, just completely ignoring my request. I started fuming. The heat was simply unbearable. The main room reeked of piss, compounded by the extreme heat. “All I want is a glass for water, that’s all!” I complained to one of the other patients. “Bueno, si querías atención especial, deberías haber ido a otra clínica,” he shrugged (“Well, if you wanted special attention, you should have gone to another clinic”).
Before admitting myself to the clinic, my regular psychiatrist who I had been seeing emphasized the importance of taking my psychiatric medication regularly, which had been deemed safe to take during my pregnancy. During “medication time,” at first I was not given any of the pills that I had turned in to the staff upon my arrival. I was also not given my prenatal vitamins. Eventually, I was given a white pill to take twice daily that I did not recognize. I was also concerned since I saw that they had spelled my last name incorrectly on the label (“WHAIT” instead of “WHITE”… Yikes). Since it is not recommendable to take sketchy-looking, unknown drugs when you are pregnant, and since no one was watching me to make sure that I was indeed taking the pill, I simply slipped it into the back of my shoe as they went on to distribute meds to the rest of the patients. To add insult to the injury, while I had to beg and plead for my prenatal vitamins (which I finally received on my last day), cigarettes were distributed regularly amongst the patients at least twice a day.
It’s also worth mentioning that this facility is not only a place for those suffering from mental illnesses, but also for those who are detoxing and coming off of some serious drugs. One of the patients, a young man named Alejandro, was coming off cocaine and ecstasy (at least that was what he admitted to). It is a well-known fact that one of the effects of ecstasy is a heightened sense of touch. Ecstasy + pregnant belly = unwanted, unsolicited touching, though I was scared shitless and afraid to say no to the skin-crawling patting and poking.
My first lonely night in the clinic, I shared a room with a young woman named Daniela. Unlike the other patients, I was too intimidated to ask my roomie “So, what are you in for?” It was odd, during the day, she seemed normal enough. That was until the second night. I was journaling in my bed, my only outlet, oblivious to the fact that I was alone. That was, until Daniela was dragged back in hysterics to the room that we shared by three male wardens, kicking, thrashing, and screaming profanities. “No me toques! NO ME TOQUES!” Without lifting my head, without making eye contact, I started scribbling what was taking place just a few feet away from me. Yes indeed, I thought to myself, I was in a madhouse. While one of the men held her down forcefully on to her bed, the other two strapped her down with thick black straps until she no longer had free use of her arms or legs. “Soltáme! Soltáme!” (“Let me go! Let me go!”) she was screaming. “Please don’t inject me with Valium, I promise to calm down!” she pleaded. “Don’t fail me, don’t make this hard for us” was their harsh response, as they forcibly stuck a syringe deep into her ass. Daniela screamed and cursed and cried like a wounded animal the entire time.
The next few minutes were unforgettably ugly, but I was unable to write them down as I was suddenly asked, “Why don’t you put your notebook away?” by the one of the night wardens (Read: “Put your notebook away now, or we will put it away for you.”). What choice did I have, unless I wanted to wind up like Daniela? I complied.
The men finally left the room, leaving Daniela still strapped to her bed. Or so they thought. Shortly afer, I started to hear rustling, fidgeting sounds. By the light of the moon that shone through the bars of the lone window in the room, I silently and helplessly watched her silhouette as she was able to free herself from the straps, first one arm, then the other. Then I saw her sit up in her bed. This all took place within the span of less than twenty minutes after the three men had left.
I looked at the window next to my bed, covered in steel bars. I looked desperately and longingly at the door, with Daniela’s bed between us. What could I do? How could I get out? As I saw her torso turn towards me, I tore out the room in terror. To this day, I still do not know why she was there, but I was genuinely afraid for my physical safety. I ran down the hall. “Go back to your room!” a voice boomed. “Please!” I begged, as I proceeded to attempt explain in my second language what I had just witnessed. “Fine. I think another bed was freed up today, let me check,” the night warden said, clearly irritated at the inconvenience.
I was thankfully moved to another bed that night, but did not sleep at all.
This, ladies and gentlemen, all took place within just the first 36 hours of my stay at Clínica Avril, the mental health facility that specializes in “excellence in mental health.” There are still another 36 hours to write about, but to weave all my experiences there together and go into much-needed detail, this blog entry would turn into a novel.
The point is, I left the clinic even more broken and damaged than when I had entered. I subsequently was unable to talk for a couple of days after I returned home, even to my own husband. I had to write everything down like a deaf mute and couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I had nightmares. I started suffering from severe, ugly panic attacks that left me sobbing and hyperventilating, and was scared to leave the apartment. All I had wanted was to seek help, to heal and to mend in my hour of most dire need, when I was “full of life” and wanted nothing but to check out of it. I felt at that time that the only thing that I was able to take away from the experience was that the more “qualified” a medical professional is, the more credentials and diplomas and titles and abbreviations after their last name, the far more likely they are to lack compassion and to be dangerously inept and out of touch with the vulnerable and marginalized people who they should be helping.
Fast forward a year later, and I know that this is not true (not always, at least). I was lucky. I was eventually able to receive the kindness and patience from true mental health professionals following my stint in the clinic. I am blessed to have the support and love from my family, my husband, and from so many other people. But I can never forget that horrid experience, and the deepened realization that mentally ill people deserve help, love, and empathy, not stigma, annoyance, or to have their needs remain denied or unacknowledged. It is very possible that someone you know, someone you care about, someone you love may be internally suffering on some level, but they need to be able to seek competent help and someone to talk to, or they will simply never get better. One of the worst things that I was told during my darkest years of self-destruction was that it was “all in my head,” that psychiatry is a scam, that if I were only good enough and strong enough to have a more positive attitude and pick myself up by my boot straps, that I would be okay. This advice nearly killed me many times over. Mental health is an issue that needs proper attention and care.
When it comes those who believe that help for those suffering from mood disorders or mental illnesses is not necessary and that it is a petty issue that is within the control of the sufferer, all I can say is that we as a society will either pay now or simply pay later.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” – Mohandas Gandhi