Thursday, March 17, 2011

In Which I Fly In, then Out, of the Cuckoo's Nest

Thinking about the year 1993 still makes me feel a bit queasy. That is the year during which the very tenuous balance I established after my long-term disability payments were cut off was shattered. I had been depressed and distressed 5 years earlier when I lost my home to foreclosure; in 1993, though, I gave up, I just gave up. I gave up trying to stay connected to a world in which my ideals about equity, justice, and fair treatment seemed subject to continual betrayal. Although the culminating misfortune during that year was becoming homeless, the catalyst for that event was a night of extreme emotional turmoil in September that ended with a 3 days of involuntary observation in the psychiatric ward at SF General.

A bit of background leading up to that night

After the LTD insurer cut me off because I was unable, emotionally or mentally, to get myself to a doctor to fill out the paperwork that would have continued my payments, I applied for and received General Assistance.  At that time, the payments were approximately $300.00 a month plus $80 in food stamps for a single adult.  I supplemented this with the proceeds of sidewalk sales.  I obtained the goods I sold by following the bulk cleanup nights around San Francisco and picking through other people's discards.  Although the waste management workers often chased other scavengers away, they watched us and they knew that I not only did not leave garbage strewn along the street, I also consolidated and cleaned garbage when I could.  Often they would tell me where the best pickings could be found.  I found some very cool things too.  A cobalt blue bottle of magenta ink circa 1900 (I got $50.00 for that at a flea market), yards of gold lame that I sold to a window designer, a silver box from 1680, and other interesting artwork, books, and clothing.  I wasn't living well, but I was subsisting.

My social life consisted of the rave scene; I slept during the morning hours, got up at 1 or 2, then danced all night.  I knew all the doormen at the clubs in SOMA, and I was a fixture on the scene so I didn't pay cover charges.  I didn't drink, so for me, the raves were a free way to be around and among people without having to develop intimate relationships.  Some ravers I knew rented a warehouse space on Market Street and offered me a space there, so I left the basement room I'd been living in and moved into the top floor of a Market Street space.  After moving in, I figured out how to use a pallet as the base for installing the shower stall the owner had provided but not installed.  I also built a loft bed using construction debris from freeway reconstruction after the post-1989 earthquake.  For a couple of months, I was OK.

Then, I began to feel more detached from people, and my loftmates seemed to ostracize me.  This may have been true or not, it's difficult to tell whether feelings of insecurity are real or imagined if there is no source of positive validation.  I remember one of the roommates coming in to talk to me one day when I was feeling very depressed.  I told her that "If things get too bad, I can always escape to my mind."  Little did I know how prescient those words were.  So, I was feeling disengaged and detached.  I was avoiding people.  One of the roommates was definitely tormenting me; he came into my room one night and started pushing me around, knocking me to the ground where I fell onto a nail protruding from a fruit crate.  I still have the scar from that on my shin.  Unfortunately, even though the police were called, they did nothing because the puncture wound from the nail looked like a scrape.  I felt alone, unloved, and increasingly isolated from other people.

My waking, walking nightmare begins.

One night in September I felt that I could take no more.  I left the loft and started walking west on Market Street.  I shouted my hurt and anger and frustration and fear into the windy night from an isolated stretch of roadway at the top of Market Street and kept walking.  By sunrise, I had walked the 7-plus miles from Market and 6th up Market Street to Portola, then onto Sloat Boulevard, reaching Ocean Beach as the sun was rising.  I lay down above the tide line, clearly marked by a 3" drop in the height of the sand,  and fell asleep.

The next thing I knew I was being placed on a gurney by EMT workers.  I managed to stop them as they buckled me onto the gurney and ran away from them, up the beach towards the road.  They chased me, tackled me, and bound me to the gurney.  I remember telling them "You cannot abrogate my right to die," which was intended as a statement of fact, not a declaration of an intent to suicide.  I was transported to SF General's Emergency Room and taken to the psychiatric ward in the ER. I was left there, but the reason for being there were not explained to me.  At one point, I walked toward the exit doors and was instructed to return to the ward, which I did without argument.  I was quiet and calm and waiting.

About 15 minutes later, I was asked to follow one of the attendants to a room and to lay back on an examining table.  I obeyed, and was placed me in restraints.  The very worst part of being in restraints is the feeling of utter helplessness.  You can take no actions to protect or defend yourself. I was terrified.  I also realized that if I shouted and screamed in protest, it would be viewed as additional validation of my mental incapacity.  So, I lay there quiet and frightened, eventually falling asleep.

When I woke, I need to urinate.  Badly.  I spent 10-15 minutes asking more and more loudly if I could be released to use the toilet.  I remember phrasing my request in increasingly precise terms, trying to get someone to listen and respond.  At one point, I called out, "Please, I need to express urine from my bladder."  Eventually, someone came in and released me so that I could use the toilet.  I had not, thankfully, lost control of my bladder nor was I returned to the restraints room.  I did spend the remaining hours in that ward terrified that they would decide to restrain me again. To this day, the memory of being physically restrained for hours without justification enrages me!

I don't remember much about that night, but the next morning I was transferred to the psychiatric ward on the top floor for an involuntary 3 day observation, as I was deemed to be a suicide risk.  When I reached that floor, I was interviewed.  I tried to be honest about my depression and the stressors that had become an integral part of my daily life.  At the end of the interview, the doctor or nurse decided that I was bipolar and suggested that I take lithium.  I said no thank you and was allowed to leave the room. I was assigned to a bed and given hospital shifts and pants to wear.  My own clothing was bagged up and put away. I did find a flyer on the main desk, the California mental patient's bill of rights. From this, I learned that you cannot be forced to take medication unless you are behaving in a way that can be deemed as dangerous to yourself or others, or have agreed to a course of treatment.  Since I was always calm during my stay, the question of taking psychiatric medications never came up again.  I'd like to note that I am not bipolar now, I was not bipolar then, and I've never been bipolar.  I shudder to think of just how screwed up I'd be now if I had agreed to take a medication that I did not need.

The next three days were actually quite pleasant.  I attended group and art therapy sessions, and tried very hard to behave as extra-normally as possible.  Since I now knew I had been taken in as a presumed suicide, I looked for a newspaper because I knew that when I got to the beach, the tide was well out and I was above the tide line.  I wanted to verify the times for the high/low tides as a way to prove that I wasn't being suicidal, just tired.  There were no newspapers though.  I later found out that the low tide was at around 7:00am of the day I fell asleep on the beach.

I reached out to others on the ward. My favorite person was a young woman from Romania, who had some kind of episode in the middle of Macy's and had been brought in to the ward when she panicked and could not breathe.  She was pregnant, and the tuberculosis test they give to every patient showed signs of a positive result. When I was released, she was still there and I never found out what happened to her.  In art therapy, we were assigned to draw our safe place.  I drew pictures of  places I saw as sanctuaries; like my loft bed, and a Buddhist garden. On the afternoon of the third day, I was called in for the review with a psychiatrist.  I was deemed sufficiently rational to be released out into the world.

Unfortunately, during these days, I should have been packing my possessions and finding someplace to live since our lease was up.  Instead I was so traumatized by the experience that I just withdrew further from the world.  My roommates tossed all of my stuff into a dumpster on the last day while I slept in my loft bed. I woke up to find that the room next to me was on fire (the office areas in the warehouse were solid glass walls) because a 12 inch glass altar candle had been lit and left to burn down until the glass shattered and the liquid, burning wax covered the wall by the window.  I had the good sense to leave that door closed and called the fire department.  I still wonder whether the evil roommate was the one that left the candle burning.  The fire was quickly contained, and I left the warehouse space that day.  That incident on top of everything else, though, drove my retreat to the inner reaches of my mind.  I'd merely been depressed and despairing before I went into SF General; after my release, I disconnected from the 'real' world and spent the next three years wandering the Bay Area constructing a satisfying, complex, and fantastic mental history of my family and life.  I remember some this fantasy history involved my family being part of a series of government experiments conducted on military families during the Cold War.

This has been a long, bleak tale of woe, but the long-term outcome has been so positive for me that I can only frame it as an experience of personal growth from which I can draw empathy for those poor souls who wander the street shouting in pain of their heartbreak at a cold and cruel world.  Was I crazy? Perhaps.  Was I a danger to myself? Not really.  Was I a danger to others?  Definitely not.  I recognized even then that my mental state was the culmination of too many negative stressors, too little stability, and no social support system.

Behind a wall
That you call taciturnity
I sit, affrighted and bewildered.

For, like walking on hot, glowing coals
Or broken shards of glass
I tread the edges of my sanity
And try to make it last.

For the lines that mark the borders,
Drift and waver in the winds,
Brought on when chaos and reaction
In their ceaseless tumult reign.

Several years later, when I achieved a modicum of physical stability, I self-stabilized my mental state without therapy or medications.  I'd known all along that what I really needed was a bit of sanctuary and surcease from the winds of chaos and destruction.  I told  various social workers and other professionals my interpretation of my needs, but my understanding of my own needs did not match their expectation of someone in my role.  So, I struggled through the days, which turned to years, and eventually ending up at the wonderful Tri-Cities shelter of which I wrote previously.  

Am I happy now?  Mostly I am, but more importantly to me, I am content.  Contentment has always seemed a ideal state to me.  Happiness is a tenuous emotion; I find it insubstantial and illusory.  Wonderful when it occurs, but it doesn't last.  Contentment, for me, has substance.  Contentment encompasses happiness and so much more.  The wonderful thing about contentment is that it means you are satisfied with where you are in your life right now.  There may be difficulties in the current situation, but you cannot go through life without experiencing difficulty.  If you are content, these difficulties do not seem insuperable barriers to a sense of fulfillment in life.  So, if you read this, remember it's a story of rebirth and renewal rising out of chaos and destruction.  

Nam yo rhenge kyo

1 comment:

  1. What is most interesting to me in reading this is that you tell your story almost as if it's about another person -- not that it wasn't you, but that you were someone else, in different skin, almost.

    I am so glad that you're found a way to contentment -- likely, many different ways into contentment, as no one thing ever serves us entirely. And I'm so glad to read this: the long-term outcome has been so positive for me that I can only frame it as an experience of personal growth. Phoenix, indeed.