A Glimpse Behind the Iron Curtain of the Mental Health System

Twenty years ago, I experienced what might be termed a break from reality while I was working as a mental health worker. I worked in a last resort section 8 housing project that was rife with crime. It was called “The Hotel of Horrors” in an article in the local media.

For six months, I dedicated myself to acting as a safe resource to residents facing significant violence. I had the sense that my conduct which included alerting the press and working with local activists, was putting me and the project at risk. I kept doing what seemed to be the right thing and thinking, “I would be paranoid if I thought this action would be problematic!”

Still, my job was threatened by a supervisor who had a substance abuse problem. The pressure increased from the management company and a small segment of the residents. I decided to withdraw off the three medications I took for my hard-to-treat depression.

***

My own mental health struggles started with anorexia in high school and led to a rather impoverished and isolated collegiate experience. My best and only friend was an older recovering addict. I lived in a roach-infested apartment complex and made more friends with local people than I did with other students. However, when I graduated, I thrived as a social worker and was promoted once I put myself through graduate studies.

I was aware that I had a personality disorder that was often linked to schizophrenia. However, when I withdrew off my medication I found that I had enhanced intuition and that I experienced facts that were suggestive of corruption more intensely.

***

I called my old college friend and asked for advice and he threatened me. I bolted. I withdrew all my money from the bank, shaved my head and headed for the Canadian Border.

Sure enough, it was just as I feared! I was forced to stop to fill the tank at a gas station. Police had posted themselves at the station. “Did Mommy and Daddy say your brain chemicals are out of whack?” mocked an officer as they approached me.

I had my peaceful-ass taken in taken into custody with unnecessary pain tactics and bruised wrists. I was driven eighty miles from my car to the state capital where they turned me over to a psychiatrist to put me into a state hospital.

I first got confirmation that the mafia was in fact following me five days later after I finally surrendered to the police on a mountain pass late one night. My roommate identified himself as a Native American “hillbilly” with 130 IQ and told me the mafia was following me.

I had already met with my parents who had flown out to support the incarceration, so I told the “hillbilly” that I thought my family was the mafia.

***

I was only physically hurt once in the hospital. The beat down was by staff. My best guess was that I was outing an undercover FBI agent. I was confused. My parents were told I had become violent.

Indeed, I resisted invitations to run away with a Mexican mafia connected female who persisted in wooing me. I refused to join a white gang for protection against her. You see, I was hospitalized for three months in the State hospital. There would be icicles frozen on the inside of the window that was located above my bed.

***

When I got released, I packed the few belongings I had left that weren’t stolen, sold my car, and took a greyhound.

I tried to make it on my own. I got a job working in a daycare; but lost it when I ran out of medication. Then, I couldn’t find any work anywhere!

I had an aunt who found me a job at an upscale Italian deli in the bay area if I relocated. I moved to the outskirts boon town where housing was more affordable. I had a long bike and BART commute. I was able to use the service economy job with some help from my parents, to get back on my feet. It wasn’t easy because I had a bone to pick with the mafia and I was working at an Italian Deli with some substance-abusing rich kids, but I survived.

***

When I found myself incarcerated into a small day room for two weeks, I was traumatized. At least I knew not to accept the hospital social workers housing arrangements. Those kinds of resources are offered with the presumption of ongoing disability. Not only would I have had to deal with loss and ongoing psychosis, I would have had to languish behind the iron curtain of the mental health system. Many of my cohorts do so and end up on the streets. Many get put in jail or otherwise incarcerated and this dehumanizing treatment so often exacerbates the crisis.

For those readers who haven’t heard voices, try going through the traumatic treatment in our incarceration institutions, our public housing authority projects, or many of our board and care homes. See if you don’t come out hearing voices! I finally did hear voices after I escaped the Deli. I heard a demonic voice calling my name.

Now I am employed as a Marriage and Family Therapist and work with people in an inner-city mental health facility in Oakland CA. More and more as people are displaced in the city where I work, they end up in sprawling encampments, hard-to-get-into homeless shelters, board and care homes, bucket automobiles, and if they are lucky in a few years they may make it into an apartment in a housing project like the one I worked in. Many people who live in shelters work low wage service jobs like I did. Nowadays, it is easier for someone who has mental health struggles to fall and not be able to come back like I did.

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4 thoughts on “A Glimpse Behind the Iron Curtain of the Mental Health System

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