I knew that when I started this blog, there would become a clear moment where my own truth would have to be put on display. So, as I sit here sprawled out on my bedroom floor drinking red wine, way before 5pm, Here it goes;
2007 had been a hard year for me. I was absolutely battling depression at the time, but did not necessarily know it. I was dealing with personal issues, the loss of my sister, the loss of my grandpa, substance abuse, the list could go on and on. But every morning that I woke up, I put on a brave face, got through my day by joking, laughing, shopping, “being normal.” But by December of ’07, I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, the physical symptoms of my depression had taken over, I slurred my speech, I slept as much as possible, I hated eating, but I still hid it all.
At times, this way of “coping” can be the most detrimental. I felt so horrible on the inside but did not appear this way on the outside, I could never connect the two so I could never understand why no one was taking it “seriously.” I was desperate by this point and over winter break of my Junior year, I wrote a 7 page letter explaining how I felt, the pain, the anguish, how I had thought about ways to just end it, but that I never really would because I wanted to live. The letter went on and on about how I just needed someone to help me and that the pain was becoming too great. I held onto that letter for weeks before returning to school and handing it to our student assistance coordinator, of whom to this day I still have an unbreakable bond. After my first three classes I went back to her office and I said did you read it? She closed the door.
“We have to take you to the hospital. Your mom is on her way. I’ll go with you.”
I didn’t understand. The goal of my letter was to get people to pay attention, schedule more concrete therapy appointments, sit me down and talk, not send me away.
We sat in the waiting room at Lutheran and as I sat there with my mom, dad and social worker, my social worker leaned over and said, “They won’t keep you, there is nothing in that letter that admits you will harm yourself, you are not at risk.”
The intake worker at Lutheran took me to the back of the ER for a “chat.” She wasn’t interested in what I had to say and because this agitated me I reacted exactly the way she needed me to. Just like that, they had me in an ER room, a guard outside my door for “suicide watch” and they began making calls to hospitals all over, trying to get me a bed at an adolescent psych unit.
By 11:30pm, after the 26th hospital call, and just thirty minutes from my seventeenth birthday, they found a bed at a psychiatric hospital RiverEdge. The ER had to transport me, restrained by the wrists for the entire hour drive over. By the time we arrived, it was well after midnight. We pulled up to what looked like an abandoned building, brought to a room with two chairs, a desk and paint dripping off of the four dirty white walls. A lady who barely spoke english, came in, told my mom to sign the confidentiality forms and they would take us upstairs for a “tour.” Already feeling hesitant, my mom said, lets sign the form and if it doesn’t seem right, I will take you home and we will figure something out. God bless my terrified mom.
Upstairs, everything was dark and there were two teens to each room, beds sat on the floor, bars over all the windows and cages over the lightbulbs. As soon as we saw this, my mom attempted to walk out with me. The lady told us my mom had already signed my admission papers. This was news to us.
My mom was told if she took me home with her, She would be arrested and I would be brought back. RiverEdge is known as a lock and key facility, once admitted, a patient cannot be released without the evaluation of a doctor on staff. Seeing as how it was officially Saturday morning at 1am, a doctor would not be in until Monday. My mom and I broke down. The details of this realization are still something too personal and upsetting to fully describe, but I had to be sedated.
I was taken to a room where I was stripped of all jewelry, any clothing that had a drawstring, my entire outfit in general and what little dignity I had left. It was her job to have me stand there, naked, vulnerable searching my body, my stomach, my ankles, my wrists for scars. Although they were there, she never documented them, whether she didn’t see them or didn’t particularly care, I will never know. After this process, I was injected with even more sedative and was taken to the community room because I refused to spend the first night sharing a room.
To this day, I still remember my mom coming in, stroking my hair as I lied on the couch, giving up, lifeless, and my mom kissing my cheek through both of our tears as she wished me a “happy birthday.” I was out.
The next four days of my life there, are no where near a blur to me and five years later I still see them with such clarity, it is both a blessing and a curse. I was given a roommate, the only other white person in the facility. At this point in time and up to this day, most of RiverEdges primary patients were admitted as wards of the state through DCFS, with the majority of the demographic being African American and coming from extremely difficult circumstances.
I went to group, crying, unable to eat breakfast. Everyone had to go around and say their name, their age and why they were there. When it came to be my turn, I broke down hysterically, for this would be the first time I could say I was seventeen. It was my birthday, but there were no candles, just barred windows. No birthday bouquet of flowers but the stench of sterile gloves, needles and bedding. This was my birthday celebration, it was no party, it was survival.
I could write an entire book about each and every second I spent at that place for five days, how by the third day I pulled myself together and knew no matter what it took I had to get out as quickly as possible. But what I saw at this place, what was done to others and to me, these are the things, however close to healing I may ever come, I will never forget.
I watched patients beat each other up while the staff stood in line and watched, sometimes cheering them on. It would only become serious when the one girl, seven months pregnant was repeatedly kicked in the stomach so hard, they had to get her to the emergency room. I watched as one of the girls who would not stop screaming, was beaten by four of the employees and locked in a closet all night long.
I saw the girls who really wanted to get better, but never had a chance in a place like this. Like *Jasmine, who severely raped by her mother’s boyfriends, ran away and lived off of the streets by prostituting. Even the day I left, I was amazed at her love of life, her hope for the future. She was not cynical, she did not hate the world, even when she had all the reason to.
I also saw the rest of the patients, who had already been there five, six and seven times. Knowing that this was just another place they were shuffled between, thrown into the mix between foster care and psych wards, there were too many repeat visitors to try and keep track of. But these were the girls who were born into circumstances they could not control, they were brought to places so that society would not have to deal with them, jails were too full, they were still minors, so the logical answer was a state run psych ward with little supervision and no actual adequate mental health resources.
By the third day in Hell, I had not eaten or had anything to drink, but was prescribed something against my parent’s knowledge. I was overmedicated, malnourished and a mess. I was doubled over in bed, my head rolling from side to side, I could barely make out shapes, I was essentially blind to anything that was not a black or white blob. I was hallucinating figures and sounds and crawled to the nearest nurses station, crying dry tears.
She said I would be fine, go back to bed. I crawled back. I didn’t make it to group therapy that night, but I remember multiple visits from a “Dr” who was later fired for allegations of sexual assault. Through my drug induced fog, I can remember him repeatedly sitting on the edge of my bed, his hand resting on my knee. The rest, unremembered, undocumented in the brain.
A part of me died inside that place, but a bigger part of me lives on because of it. I have waited five years to tell my story because I admit, I was ashamed, there are days when I still am. I have let myself perpetuate the stigma of mental illness. But I will no longer let pieces of myself live in that hellhole, I checked out of RiverEdge on January 15, 2008 but my memories and thoughts, feelings and anxiety stayed there for many years later. I am done holding myself hostage. I have to move forward, heal, cope, be honest.
If I am to stay ashamed it would mean that I am ashamed of my brother and the thousands, millions of children suffering and coping just like him. It would mean I was embarrassed of him, of us.
I am not.
I have gone on to do great things with my life these past five years. It was not without struggle. Suffering from PTSD after leaving RiverEdge, I have had to work at life in my own pace and on my own terms and understand that’s okay.
Today, I am a top student at Depaul University, I work for a music label, I event plan for a million dollar company, I have an amazing support system and two of the best little brothers one could ask for. Today, I am good.
My prayer for my co-patients is that at least one of them made it out. Stopped the cycle, changed their circumstance. My prayer for myself is that I can help those just like them to do this. My prayer is for all of those who suffer from mental illness to get the help they so deserve, great mental health resources are out there, but we have to become educated, knowledgable about what we will consent to and what is unacceptable.
This is my story and I am sure the story of many people like me. It has taken me five years to work up the bravery to tell it, but like most things in life, telling this story is not only for me, but for my brother.
-Months after being released, RiverEdge was investigated and reported on by the Chicago Tribune. Google for more information on what the allegations and violations were. I can speak to the validity of them all.