My maternal grandmother’s Chinese cupboard contains my heirloom: her favorite vase of art deco works, a solitary ceramic swan, eight Desert Rose plates, cups and saucers. She probably suffered from bipolar disorder like me, had episodes that left her reeling from being sexually assaulted by her 10 year old brother or having her injected with drugs by strangers in the evening that also poisoned her food .
Grandma was committed to a sanatorium in 1950, because of cold water therapy and who knows what else. I shuddered to think of her swaddled in cold, wet blankets, half-drowned, icy water cascading down as she thrashed and screamed, pleading, helpless to escape.
Her husband put her there. Was it easy? Was it simply according to his word? Had she objected? What had she wanted? If I can, I will summon his ghost and ask him about it.
Summoning the ghosts of today stirs up nightmares and dread in those of us with tendencies toward strange ideas, mania, or obsessions, who view the world through windows cloaked in worry. I feel the burning need to stay away from involuntary therapies. However, the shoe doesn’t fit me well, pinches my toes, rubs my heel.
My own involuntary hospitalizations were like wearing steel-toed boots without the right socks. They slipped a little, but my toes were protected from impulses that were best left unsaid.
As I responded to therapy, slowly becoming sane, witnessing the journeys of my comrades, generally witnessing miracles that I believed were akin to the elevation of the useless.
The catatonic returned to life, the completely fearful restored to belief, the intrepid saved from destruction and certain death – I witnessed these transformations in locked rooms. I saw sanity restored where there was only despair, illusion, rictus smiles or silent stares.
Some had been healed by the place itself. Unhoused people typically recover with a safe place to sleep, three meals a day, construction work, empathetic support, and abstinence from road medications that help them stay awake all night – probably the hardest part. most dangerous of their day.
But it appeared that for others it was the tablets, drugs or shock treatments, sometimes taken voluntarily – sometimes not – that caused the most profound changes.
Right here in California, they won’t force you to take medication without getting a court order, something reserved for the less sick. So many refuse. Some people become as thin as a shadow because they don’t want to eat. Others become numb to everything except hallucinations and delusions.
A few spirits shrink until what remains resembles a wooden doll leaking urine. Some women and men become so ill that they need medical intervention to avoid losing their lives – dying with their rights, as they say. Even then, advocates of everyone’s right to refuse therapy argue for minimal intervention.
I take into consideration them, the women and men whose lack of expertise puts their lives in danger. I was lucky, I knew I was sick, I knew I was where I wanted to be. I understood that my salvation had come in a capsule. The remedy is not good – I have the trembling to show it – but the other would have been dying in my own arms.
Walking home in the rain, I passed an emaciated man wearing nothing but shorts, standing at the edge of the highway ramp. It rotated rigidly in space, arms outstretched – twisting down, up in space – an animated chicken constructed from cobbled together toys. As I pulled out my phone to call for help, I thought about the need for proper footwear and when coercion could become compassion.
No wonder I summon my ghost to find out what I might need in his shoes. I would need involuntary confinement and therapy. I embrace the imperfect steel-toed boots of the 21st century and am truly grateful for them every day.
Patricia Wentzel is a peer advocate and case supervisor for NAMI Sacramento and serves on the Sacramento County Mental Health Board. She wrote this for CalMatters.