When I think of my childhood, I think of fear. I think of the constant worry that something would upset my parents. I think of trying to protect my sisters, hiding in my closet. I think of blood on the floor and bruises on my infant sister’s body. I think of the time my mom took a chain and beat our dog in front of me. I thought she was going to kill that dog. Whenever I think of that night, it’s not like any other memory; it’s like I’m transported back into that moment. I’m on the filthy gray carpet on my knees, covering my ears. The dog is yelping and screaming like I’ve never heard anything yelp or scream. I can’t stand the horror of what I’m watching and I can’t make it stop. I’m shaking uncontrollably and praying to God to help me, to make her stop hurting the dog. I’m nine years old.
That was my childhood. Covering welts and cuts on my arms, nerves constantly fraught, confused and afraid and wondering how the world kept on moving when everything became so terrible every time the front door shut and the outside world became a faraway place.
The abuse and violence in my family was intergenerational. I was raised by my mom and stepdad, who were both incredibly violent and angry. Both of them worked quite a lot, so my maternal grandparents were very involved in the lives of me and my sisters, often taking us over the weekend or watching us after school. My grandfather was also very violent. I watched him strike and push my grandmother many times over my childhood and he would often beat me and my sisters. My mom was a teenager when I was born, so he was quite young for a grandfather. When the event that changed the trajectory of my life happened, I was 14 and he was in his early fifties.
I’d spent so long being beaten and screamed at. So many years of being woken in the middle of the night by my mom dragging me out of bed by my hair and ordering me to clean something. I never knew when the outbursts were coming. I was always afraid. Remaining quiet and “being good” never worked to keep the violence at bay.
When I was 14, my grandfather came at me screaming and raised his hand to hit me. It was like something snapped. This incredible rush of energy went through me. I had a flicker of a thought: He’s going to hurt me no matter what. I might as well put up a fight.
I did put up a fight. I flew at him, hitting and scratching. He was much bigger than me. He was a military man, only recently retired, over six feet tall and muscular. I was 14, five foot three, and all of ninety pounds. He had me on the ground within less than a minute. He threw me onto the floor and kicked me over and over, in my sides, in my back, in my head.
I recovered quickly, more quickly than I ever had. Something had broken loose in me. I wasn’t going to just take the treatment anymore. I was going to be noisy. I was going to scream and carry on about the injustice of it all. I was filled with adrenaline and fear and a sense of liberation. I destroyed the entire house. I put holes in walls and screamed and cried hysterically. I kicked a mirror and sent glass everywhere. I ripped open every stuffed animal I could get my hands on.
My family called the police. The police came in and yelled at me, barked orders at me. They told me an ambulance was coming and they’d be taking me to the emergency room for an evaluation. The police were angry and hostile with me and were friendly with my grandfather. I asked one of them if I could put on clothes before going. I was wearing pajamas without any bra or underwear. They told me I couldn’t. I was humiliated getting into this ambulance in only my stained pajamas, with my nipples clearly visible.
In the ER, nurses were rude to me and obviously viewed me as a nuisance. One male nurse came in and quipped, “What’s so bad in your life? What have you got to worry about? World politics?”
He sounded so dismissive. I wrapped my bruised arms around me and tried to crawl into myself. I felt so judged. So horrible. Everyone was acting like I was some kind of troublemaker.
After over ten hours of waiting, a psych doctor came down and talked to me. I didn’t tell him everything until my mom finally left the room. Then I said, “I’m sick of everyone hitting me and my sisters. Look at what my grandpa did to me!” I showed him the bruises on my arms. I lifted the bottom of my shirt to show the dark bruises where he’d kicked my back and stomach.
He raised an eyebrow and said, “Your mom and aunt are telling me you attacked your grandfather.” He used an I-know-you’re-lying tone and all of the adults were giving me such dirty looks and judgment. I was used to people not believing me. Child services had been involved with my family a number of times, but in the end, they always believed the adults: not me. I didn’t say much more to the psych doctor.
I was transferred to another hospital, to a Children’s Crisis Intervention Unit. I spent the first day hiding in my room, having a panic attack. One of the nurses kept poking her head in to give me a weird look. My room was across from the nurse’s station, so I heard her making fun of me to the other nurses. “That new one is comatose. She hasn’t moved in hours.” Day two they gave me two pills to take. One was a big pink one. The other was a pill that was half white, half green. I hadn’t spoken to a doctor since my five minute conversation in the emergency room.
“What are these for?” I asked.
“Take ‘em,” the nurse snapped. “It’s for bipolar.”
I was bipolar. For defending myself from violence, after so many years of violence, I was bipolar. When my mom, stepdad, and grandfather were violent, they were in the right. If I used violence as self-defense, I was defective, sick, troubled.
My family weaponized this label against me for years. Any time I would stand up for myself or my sisters, they would scream at me that I was bipolar. I became the scapegoat for a lot of my family’s issues, issues that existed for decades before I was ever born.
I wasn’t hospitalized again until I was 18. I got into my first sexual relationship with a boy in my high school. After having sex with him a few times, he asked me to have anal. I didn’t want to have anal. He finally pressured me into it. We tried it once and had… an incident. It was humiliating. I didn’t want to try again after that. Having an involuntary bowel movement with my first sexual partner is not something I’d wish on anyone. But a few weeks later, we were in bed and he wanted to try again. I did not want to try again. He proceeded to have anal sex with me by using force, even after I told him that he was hurting me and I wanted him to stop.
I didn’t know how to process what happened. I kept seeing him for about a month after that. Then I broke up with him. I’d felt so strange around him ever since he violated me. Not to mention how he always put me down and called me names. I realized this guy didn’t even like me. He had incredible disdain for me and I was ready to be alone, rather than keep putting up with him.
After we broke up, I had a complete emotional meltdown. I attempted suicide (it was a very halfhearted attempt if I’m being honest) and landed in a mental health unit for the second time. I was 18, but I was still in high school, so they put me on a children’s ward again.
I didn’t start to process what had happened with this guy until my third night on the unit. I was in a group therapy meeting with the other older teens. (They often separated the younger children from the teenagers.) During this meeting, I remember looking at the carpet, instead of at the meeting facilitator’s face, and I said, “My boyfriend shoved his dick into my ass, even though I told him to stop.” There was dead silence and then the facilitator said sharply, “That isn’t appropriate. You’ll have your privileges taken if you act inappropriately again.” One teenage boy, he was maybe around seventeen, muttered under his breath, “That sounds like you got raped.” The facilitator cleared his throat and continued on with the meeting. I never talked to a mental health professional about what that guy did to me again. Nobody ever followed up with me about what I’d revealed in that meeting.
I was upset about how the counselor had reacted, but couldn’t get a handle on what exactly I was upset about. I still don’t understand why I did this, but after the meeting, I went and tried to flirt with an adult male staff member. He yelled at me so loudly that everyone in the hallway turned to look at me. I went back to my room and cried, not understanding why I’d talked about that incident in group or why I’d tried to flirt with an adult who worked there. Again, everyone was acting like I was so horrible and defective, and I was so deeply, deeply hurt by events in my life and had no idea how to sort it all out.
The next day after this event, I decided I was done with the mental health unit. They’d taken some privileges away for my “multiple inappropriate behaviors” of the night before. I tried to sign myself out. They told me I couldn’t sign myself out. I shouted that I was technically on a voluntary hold. I went ballistic, screaming and swearing. A doctor came down to talk to me. He told me that I was within my rights to sign myself out, but if I did, there would be consequences. He refused to tell me what those consequences would be. I insisted that I wanted to sign myself out.
He nodded at the nurses. They handed over a clipboard. I signed it while glaring at the doctor. He told me to wait. I stood in front of the exit with my arms crossed, stomping my foot. Two police officers showed up.
“What the hell? I’m here voluntarily!” I yelled. My complaints were ignored.
The police argued in front of me over whether or not I should be handcuffed. One didn’t want to handcuff me. He was probably the most compassionate person I came across during my time in the mental health system.
He bent down and looked in my eyes, his brow crinkled, and asked, “You don’t want to come with us, but you’ll come without a problem, won’t you?”
It seemed like he actually felt sorry for me. He was looking at me and talking to me like I was a person. His face looked so sad.
“I shouldn’t have to go,” I growled. “But yeah, I’ll go if I have to.”
The other officer insisted that it was policy. I had to be handcuffed.
In the end, they compromised. They put the cuffs on in front of me, instead of in back. The officer who seemed like he felt bad for me didn’t tighten the cuffs at all. On the ride up to the state hospital where I would end up involuntarily committed, I stared down at the handcuffs. They were like two giant bracelets hanging loosely. I could have slipped my tiny wrists right out of them if I’d wanted to. But I didn’t. That officer had been the first person in days to treat me like I was a human.
After a few more years, I cut ties with my family and ceased all psych treatment. From the year 2007 to the year 2010, I was hospitalized 12 times. I was put on Zyprexa, Loxapine, Prozac, Depakote, and several other drugs that I can’t remember. The cocktail that I was on the longest was Zyprexa, Prozac, and Depakote.
Once I quit psych treatment and stopped communicating with my family, I was able to really start to work on my issues. I firmly believe that my issues come from trauma and that mental health providers are primed to ignore traumatic circumstances, due to the prevalence of the biomedical model of treatment. If my symptoms are consistent with bipolar disorder, and bipolar is caused by a chemical imbalance, then why probe to see if abuse is happening?
Because of Allen Frances and the other doctors receiving money directly from pharmaceutical corporations on the board of the DSM-IV, so many abused children were simply labeled defective during the early 2000s. I can’t think of anything more harmful to a person’s long-term mental health than being labeled defective for having a very normal human reaction to extreme abuse or violence.
The mental health system is so broken and most people don’t even know how broken it is. The best thing for the reform of the mental health system would be to limit, and eventually abolish, all financial ties between the pharmaceutical corporations and doctors, research, and the APA.
I’m so exhausted from trying to explain the problems with the system to people and being ignored or not believed. The mental health system traumatized me further. They were allies with my abusers to cover up and continue my abuse. Maybe that alliance wasn’t purposeful, but it was there.
I hope one day that trauma will be treated compassionately, rather than with pills, labels, and cruelty.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.