Lea's story: my days as a mad girl

In immaculate clinics people are segregated, held down, drugged, often with no other purpose than to control them and get them out of the way. Content warning: eating disorders, self harm, medical abuse.

31 October 2014
How did anger at the world lead to two years in psychiatric hospitals? Drawing by Lea.

How did anger at the world lead to two years in psychiatric hospitals? Drawing by Lea.

My name is Lea. I won’t give you my surname. Not that I am ashamed of what I am about to say. No, the issue is simply that I have recently graduated, and I am looking for a job. My whole life lies ahead of me, waiting to be built. I fear that my testimony floating around somewhere on the web might scare them away. That my words will provoke too many uncomfortable thoughts. That doors will remain closed. 

When I was 13, I stopped eating. That is how it started. Or perhaps it started a few weeks before that, during those gloomy November days when the meaning of life slipped from my mind.

Before my obsession with calories, my tireless fight against gravity, before I started cutting myself, before even suicidal thoughts, came indignation and disgust with the world’s injustice and violence. I was living in Brussels and came from a privileged background. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this society hit me, almost overnight.

My still immature 13-year-old mind could not reconcile images of war and famine on television with the affluence I was living in, could not take this ultimate game of chance that randomly determines where you are born. To children, even the most basic laws of nature are open to question. 

In a way, self-starvation brought me closer to the hungry; cutting made me a part of the war-wounded. What else could I do at 13 to deal with a world that had lost all its magic? 

I became what one calls anorexic. I started cutting back on breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. Simultaneously, I started flirting dangerously with the idea of suicide. But the idea seemed too frightening. Slow death by starvation was more approachable. However, when self-hatred became too strong, I had to hurt myself a little more. I started cutting my forearms.

Once I had lost too much weight and my life was in danger, I stopped going to school and was hospitalized. At first, I was sent to a general hospital where there was no suitable ward. After a few days of checking whether the shock of hospitalization would suffice to make me eat, they forcibly intubated me. I still remember the moment. Three nurses came into my room, immobilised me and shoved this tube into my nose, telling me to swallow when I felt it in my throat. Nobody asked, nobody explained.

After two weeks, I was transferred to the psychiatric ward of a children’s hospital, called Unit 69. The kindness and patience of some nurses slowly convinced me to open up my armour and step into the world again. I was still being fed by tube. But when I told them I felt I could perhaps eat again, and asked them to withdraw the tube first, they trusted me. As I would learn later, trust is something extremely rare in psychiatry.

I ate.

Despite my initial resistance, little by little I began conforming to life in a psychiatric department. I adopted the long-rejected label of anorexia. Ate the required portions in the required time. Swallowed the drugs they placed in my hand. Handed over government of my life. While I was putting on weight, I turned into a typical psychiatric patient, with her apathy, symptoms and crises.

Poem by Lea.

We’re going to give you an injection
To show you how stupid we are
To show you it is not a good thing
To be mad around here
We’re going to give you an injection
It will help you to recover
For it to take a little longer
That’s what you want anyway
We’re going to give you an injection
It’s funnier than by mouth
To hear you scream is so jovial
Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt
We’re leaving you now, sleep tight
And don’t forget that as of tomorrow
It will start over and over again

I’m not sure how to explain this shift, but I think I just behaved as expected of me. I resumed cutting, exploring new areas of my body to mutilate. I smashed all the glass objects in my room to cut myself with. I became violent with staff members trying to stop me.

And their answer… their answer was as violent. One day, two men from the hospital security staff were called to immobilize me, and I had my first injection. I was then strapped to my bed, with ties around my wrists, my waist and my ankles. The powerful drug that I had in my blood for the first time that day is one that makes your body very heavy, impossible to move, but does not make you sleep: your mind continues to race. I know no words to explain the horrible feeling that it causes. 

Once I had reached an acceptable weight, I was discharged from hospital. I had sat in front of psychiatrists and answered their questions about my family and possible childhood traumas. I had not told anybody about the world’s cruelty and injustice. That was not what was expected of me. 

I left the hospital, but nothing had changed. When the new school year started and it became obvious that I could no longer escape the reality I had done everything to reject, it took just a few cuts on my forearms to take me back to where I had just come from. 

After a few months, it was decided that I should be transferred to a long-term residential care centre for adolescents with mental issues. Believe me, it was a horrid place. Teenagers were parked in this centre, and kept busy with activities such as sports, music, handy-crafts – without omitting, of course, cooking and cleaning. We were not looked after, just sedated with drugs.

There was no therapy. There was no one to talk to when you felt bad, when you felt like doing something bad. I started harming myself very seriously. As the centre was part of a general hospital right next to it, I was taken to the hospital’s emergency room every time I was losing enough blood to suggest that I needed stitches.

There was no attention or protection either. I used to come and go with razor blades in my pockets. And that snowy February day when they inadvertently left me on my own with the bottle of narcoleptic drugs they were giving me, I swallowed the whole bottle. When I woke up the next day with a drip in my arm, I had the distinct feeling that I would never smile again.

Later that month, I guess I went too far. In a narcoleptic fog, trying to escape from the staff member who was trying to snatch my blades out of my bloodied hands, I opened the door to the balcony and climbed onto the guardrail. After I had calmed down, I was somehow taken to the hospital’s emergency room. It was clear that I was going to be punished. They put me in the isolation room, a small and narrow room just big enough for a mattress on the floor, with white cushioned walls and a door with a little window and no handle. They gave me an injection so strong that I have no recollection of the next 48 hours, and locked the door behind them.

I woke up strapped to a bed, alone in a room, and it felt like night-time. I had no idea where I was. I called, and finally a nurse came and released me. When I asked where I was, he gave me the name of a hospital, which meant nothing to me. I felt terribly sleepy, and I guess I just went back to sleep.

I am unable to tell you much about my stay in this psychiatric hospital for adults. I spent most of the days and nights sleeping, and the high doses of drugs I was on erased the memory of what I did the rest of the time. I just remember the feeling of being in a hostile place but lacking the energy to protect myself and resist. 

When my state improved, I went back to the residential care centre. Back to hell. To the centre’s staff, my return evoked no good memories. Our relationship was one of distrust and fear, a power struggle. I was growing more and more rebellious and their answer was more and more threats. They were quick at making me understand who was in command. They increased drug doses, and, if I raised my voice to protest, they would threaten to send me to the emergency room on the basis that I was having a crisis.

The emergency room became my second home. I used to spend most of my evenings there to have stitches on my arms. Afterwards, an injection was quasi ritual. Although most of the time, I had calmed myself down, it was clear that I was not to get away with it so easily. The injection was there to crush me.

I remember the violence and the feeling of no longer being a person.

I remember one emergency doctor who stitched my arms back with no anaesthesia. I begged him but he would not answer, would not even look at me in the eye. The pain was excruciating.

I remember being drugged and strapped to a bed in a neon-lit room at night. I called out, asked if they could please switch off the lights so I could get some sleep. But the nurses walking down the corridor pretended not to hear me.

I remember doctors devoid of any hint of compassion, treating me as a threat, as an enemy to be subdued; they were pretending to look at me but actually avoiding my eyes, looking through me as if I were a spook rather than a human being.

Eventually, it all came to an end. I knew deep down that this was wrong, that I was entitled to better treatment. At some point, even my parents couldn’t ignore that the medical response was inappropriate. When, after a new argument about drug doses, they supported me. I went back home. 

Life didn’t get easier immediately. After nearly two years in psychiatric hospitals, getting used to the real world was a herculean task. During the first few months, I would not go out of the house. But I was determined to get better, and being off drugs made it easier to gather the strength and willpower needed for my recovery.

It took several years to recover completely, for the gap between myself and other people to close. I completed school, went to university and studied human rights. The very indignation at the world’s injustice that overwhelmed me when I was 13 has now turned into a positive energy. The sense of helplessness that led me to hurt myself, for lack of ability to relieve others’ suffering, gave way to determination and the hope to make things change.

This is the story of my days as a mad girl. I decided to tell you about it because I know that few of psychiatry’s victims have been as resilient. Few are able to testify and denounce. 

Abuses do not only occur in the run-down psychiatric hospitals of poor countries. In the West’s immaculate clinics as well, people are segregated, held down, drugged, often with no other purpose than to control them and get them out of the way. Like elsewhere in the world, psychiatric patients are not truly looked after, but rather parked in hospitals and put to sleep.

I was just angry at society’s hypocrisy and cruelty. I was just rebellious. I was just a child growing up. How did that turn into two years in psychiatric hospitals? Something, somewhere, must have gone wrong.

My critique of society was answered with the very violence and injustice I was denouncing. I was not mad. I do not even believe I was ill. But that is the label that is stuck onto those who jeopardize order. The medical paradigm is an easy way to discard different ways of thinking, of being. And of course, it works.

Psychiatry psychiatrized me. A few weeks in there and I was behaving according to the madman’s cliché.

I do not claim to have a ready-made solution. When I think back, it seems to me that rather than seeing a psychologist, I should have talked to a philosopher. I am quite sure that working towards change will help me to live.

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