Fear and the Specter of Involuntary Commitment

When I was first involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, I had little understanding of what was going on.  Sure, I was lucid – that is, I was awake and could perceive and react to my surroundings – but I was also in the throes of a psychotic episode induced by severe mania.

I had experienced something life-changing, something I found that the wide majority of people felt really uncomfortable with my talking about it.

So –

there was more than a little paranoia and hypersensitivity to stimuli thrown in the mix.  My actual movement from the medical hospital to the mental ward was a blur, and I remember little about it outside of the fact that I didn’t know where I was going or what would happen to me once I was placed in the ambulance.

Once in the ward, I was face with a peculiar dilemma.  Being that this was the first time I had entered a place where “the crazies” lived (a term I’ve heard many use to refer to those with severe mental illness), I had no way of gauging the proper way of interacting with the other patients.  Should I expect them to be violent with me?  Should I expect them to spit at me or throw things?  My understanding of who they were and, in this moment, who I was, was entirely based on dramas and horror films I had seen.  I was skittish, I was paralyzed by my anxiety, and to make matters worse, I was still in the easy open hospital gown from earlier, so I was extremely self-conscious too.

I didn’t have to worry too much over it, however, because a young man who called himself ‘The Prophet’ came to greet me.  There was no touching; we couldn’t shake hands, but the patients had managed to haggle with the staff, so I ended up fist bumping nearly twenty people as The Prophet introduced me to everyone.

Re-entry to public life was surreal.

As it turns out, my involuntary commitment was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life, and I often wish to be back there, not for the treatment or the structure necessarily, but for the people that I met there.  In both the “low-functioning” wing where I was initially placed, and the “high-functioning” wing to which I was later moved, some of the most diverse, compassionate, and open people I have ever met were also there on a 5150 (involuntary commitment) or 5250 (involuntary commitment extension) hold.

There were unfortunately major violations of patients’ rights while I was there, and a host of other things I could complain about, and will work to fix in my own work.  But honestly? Truly?  The patients were not the cause for those complaints.

When I was finally stable and released, re-entry to public life was surreal.

I had experienced something life-changing, something I found that the wide majority of people felt really uncomfortable with my talking about.  In my experience, beginning a real conversation with people about mental illness – not just mental health broadly – brings up a lot of anxiety about loss of freedom and abuse one might expect to experience in a mental hospital, not only from staff but from the patients as well.

But I wanted to talk about it.  I needed to – still need to – talk about it.

People. Don’t. Talk. About. It.

I had been forcibly committed, forced to adjust to a very rigid schedule, and moved from one ward to the next over the course of six days.  I do believe that this was necessary – the inpatient treatment I mean – and that I was at a rough point in my life where that kind of structure was beneficial.  It got me eating regularly again and it necessitated that I sleep regularly as well.  The execution of the treatment needed a lot of work, but the inpatient treatment was crucial in my understanding what was happening in my head and figuring out how to live with my mental illness in a functional, healthy way.

But I couldn’t talk about it the way I needed to because people would visibly recoil when I brought it up, even in “safe” spaces.

The anxieties that many hold regarding being seen as “crazy” stem from broader fears of rejection, isolation, and a desire to appear as a legitimate, believable authority to others.  The fact that mental illness is seen as a neat, bundled manifestation of all of these fears mean that People. Don’t. Talk. About. It.

I have learned so much about fear just through experiencing something that others genuinely dread.  These conversations have demonstrated that in order to fix the fissures in our broken mental healthcare system, we must first be honest with ourselves about the causes of the very aspects of the system we find so terrifying.

It is a cathartic experience to be seen as the “good guy” that rids the world of “evil”, and for a lot of people – especially those not educated in the basics of mental health – the symptoms of mental illness look a lot like the “crazed” villains of any Batman or Spiderman episode.  We have to admit to ourselves that many enjoy rebuking those we deem “crazy” (whether they have mental illness or not!) as threats to our belief system, our property values, our comfort, and sometimes – reflexively – to our physical safety.

I couldn’t talk about it the way I needed to because people would visibly recoil when I brought it up, even in “safe” spaces.

We have to admit that “normal” people don’t really want to engage with those with mental illness.  I have been the target of many a side-eye for being so willing to disclose details of my illness and experiences. This, even in my most professional attire, with my most professional voice, without giving any gory details.

And I hadn’t even told most that I don’t mind being Mad. In fact, I rather enjoy it, but let’s save that for another post. 😉

I’m okay with their reaction, though, because I know that it is important to discuss. Those like me – those who have been in the system, who have been struggling with mental illness – often feel supported when they see others talking about mental illness from a patient’s perspective, and I let them be the wind in my sails when I speak about my own struggles.

This is all to say that the civil commitment of those with severe mental illness – and mental healthcare in general – is not something to fear. It is something to be understood, to be nurtured and allowed to heal, and maybe one day, even cherished as a cornerstone of human ingenuity.

But to achieve this goal, our anxieties about mental illness, therapy, mental hospitals, and the “crazies”, especially in people who do not have mental illness, must not be allowed to remain hidden.


The mentally ill know.
.     .    .   .  . ……………………….to imagine beyond………………………. . .  .   .    .      .

Do you have any questions you’ve been dying to ask me or any mental health topics you want me to cover? Do you have any comments or suggestions?  Let me know in the comments below!

I would love to share my experience with you! Get in touch with me if you are interested in hosting me as a speaker for your Mental Health workshop, conference, or other event.

Follow me on Twitter @akaclouise, on Instagram @aka.clouise on Facebook at /AKA.CLouise!


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