The Incredible Shrinking Phallus

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Meditations on privilege

The mental illness system

This post on the Canadian mental illness and justice systems, a long with talks we have been having in one of my classes about prisons, stirred a lot up for me.

When I was in the hospital when I was eighteen, a man in this thirties or forties arrived who said that he had agreed to check-in while having a panic attack and hadn’t fully understood that he was going to be held for seventy-two hours. He’d constantly demand to talk to doctors and social workers and to be let out. When his partner visited, they’d sit in the corner with their heads together, plotting how to get him out. I was, as I said, eighteen, and full of world-weary bravado and told him that the more he ranted and raved, the longer they would try to keep him.

He did not appreciate this comment.

But this was a scene that I have often returned to. My own institutionalization was also voluntary– until I finished signing my name. Then it didn’t matter what I wanted any longer. I was checking in for PTSD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, stress, and above all, self-harm. My social worker at my out-patient program had sat me down at the end of my first week and said that they couldn’t keep me, for what I’m sure would be the insurance complications of me killing myself in their building.

So they loaded me into an ambulance (which my insurance later tried to tell me I didn’t need, asking if I couldn’t have taken a taxi). And they strip-searched me. And they put me, an eighteen-year-old girl with trauma issues, on a ward with men taking Haldol, who threw chairs and endlessly paced the hallway in front of my room, the only stretch of open space on the ward. We got fresh air only on cigarette breaks. I smoked more so I could go outside more.

I, too, felt trapped, but I had seen enough movies to know that pleading to your captors in the loony bin only makes you look more crazy. I didn’t believe him about not needing to be there; I barely believed myself. I played by the rules. I wore my own clothes. I came out of my room. I participated in check-ins. I was thankful for things. My panic attacks decreased from five or six a day to three, then two, then I just wandered around in a numb haze called progress.

I suppose I must have met with a social worker once (to whom else could I calmly communicate my desire to leave?), but the only one I remember is the one as I signed the papers to be released again, who ran down a check-list, asking if I thought I might be hospitalized again. I told her that next time I needed a break, I’d just unplug my phone. I didn’t add that I would make sure it was some place where there was food other than peanut butter with too much jelly and where I was not afraid to sleep.

Though I have fortunately never been in the prison system, I see echoes of my own psych ward in so many of the accounts I read. No help, no rehabilitation. The threat of violence. The isolation that works its way into your bones. The isolation from the very society they are supposed to be preparing you to reenter. The shame. The knowledge that they want to keep you there because you are more profitable to them inside than out. I was fortunate that they only held me a further three days after I asked (calmly, politely, like the good little girl I was), if I could please go home, please. But I do wonder still about that man. How long did they find it convenient to keep him? Did they find it worth it to go to a judge and have him ordered to stay? What does it feel like to have that kind of power?

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