*The irony of discussing autism and mental illness with a song featuring Sia is not lost on me. She’s persona non grata in the autism world for her video about autism, her association with Autism Speaks, and her comments to the autistic community after they voiced they concerns. The whole point is that I am so much more than an outdated stereotype or a monkey who does corporate speeches on command. I’m actual flesh and bone, a gorgeous mind and a will of iron. Or, you know, titanium.
It’s amazing how wrong people get things. How they fill in the blanks like Mad Libs and then don’t understand that the gobbledygook they’ve concocted is nonsense.
I’ve never had to be stronger than when I was in a mental hospital over the 2015-2016 winter holidays. I’d attempted suicide on Christmas, spent three days in the ICU on machines, gotten transferred to a room where I was watched 24 hours a day by someone paid to make sure I didn’t harm myself, and then transported across a parking lot in an ambulance to Palo Verde, where I was marked with a barcode bracelet. Even days after waking up, I could still feel the pain of all those sternal rubs given to me by nurses and doctors to wake me up out of a self-induced drug coma.
Visitors were allowed to come twice a week. I was so angry I didn’t want to see my parents or my sister or anyone else for that matter. They’d all been witness to my dissent into a mental health crisis, and each one, in their part, had done nothing to help and mostly done things to hurt.
When I did see them, they acted like I’d committed a crime. My mother was a wreck who needed all the caring for herself. My father was dismissive and glib. My aunt made it seem like I was at a spa.
The story they created in their minds was that I was an alcoholic and probably using cocaine. There was a lot of alcohol in my house. For a holiday party I’d thrown for fifty RSVP’d guests and only 10 had come. And the powder on the counter? It wasn’t coke. It was protein powder. But what are facts when you have proof positive that she’s a wreck? Save any conclusive proof otherwise, I was unredeemable.
I knew this time would come. I’d attempted before and landed in the hospital. So when I got my divorce settlement, I went to a lawyer, set up a trust for my money so my father couldn’t get to it, and had a living will and durable power of attorney drawn. I needed to know that the person making the decisions would be dispassionate and reasonable. I chose my aunt Kaliz, my father’s youngest sister.
But during my time in the ICU, my mother had gotten to her. Kaliz was sick of my mother’s insanity and wanted out of the responsibility. Not because of anything I’d done, but because of how awful my mother was.
There’s been weak times before when I’d come close to suicide attempts earlier while at home in September 2015. My parents had a really rough patch for years after my mother finally acknowledged that my father had been cheating and everyone knew. She went Jane Eyre wife-in-the-attic insane and I was holding everyone together while trying to get through my own divorce and start life over. My father stole $15,000 from me during this time like it was nothing. I’d had to blackmail him to get the money back. My aunt Kaliz would call me during this time, constantly asking for divorce advice because her piece of shit husband Chris may or may not have been fooling around and she wanted to protect her money. At the same time, my sister needed a place to live and I tried to help her buy a house and all the pressure broke me down to a pulp doing the job of five normal human beings. Nobody saw the impositions they made. Only that I failed to carry them all with grace.
I think that’s when my mother burned out my psychiatrist. I decided to show her the pills I’d bought and the alcohol I’d planned to down them with. She called my psychiatrist. Afterwards, my doctor told me she hated my mother.
Yeah, I know, join the club.
So it was about to become 2016 and I was stuck in a hospital. But the hospital doctor who’d seen me once for fifteen minutes said I could go home in time for New Year. He’d said this because I’d convinced him of my sanity, newly returned. I wasn’t manipulating him. I really was ok, no thanks to the zoo they’d filed me away in.
And then, on our second appointment, he just dropped the fact at the last minute that I would have to stay in the hospital until I had a doctor’s appointment with my psychiatrist on the outside. No appointment, no discharge.
He couldn’t get a hold of my psychiatrist because she was on vacation. I’d previously scribbled her number on a piece of paper I had with a crayon (no pencils or pens allowed in psych wards…too dangerous). I called my doctor and she was angry at me for attempting suicide on Christmas and angrier that she’d had to deal with my mother. But I explained things calmly until she agreed to give me an appointment.
I begged her to talk to the doctor but he wouldn’t take the call because it was in a public hallway. He was five feet away from talking to the person who would have given me an appointment and he wouldn’t do it. I’d have to sit and stew in the hospital until he could come back in the new year to reassess me. And, he said frankly, my behavior in trying to get him to talk to my psychiatrist was conclusive evidence that I was manic.
I was not. I wanted my freedom because every day that ticked away that I was in that place I was treated like an animal by the staff at $1200/day and my family were building the case against me.
The doctor filed a 5150, paperwork to start the process of commiting me to the hospital against my will. If successful, it would be up to the courts and my aunt, who had durable power of attorney, to decide what would happen to me over the long run. Loss of freedom to me is enough to set me ablaze with rage. You might never know how that feels because you’ve never been confronted with the loss of your autonomy. I spent the first 31 years of my life that way, never doing a goddamned thing that wasn’t sanctioned or forbidden by someone else. I’d fight like a fucking tiger to make sure it damn well never happened again.
My only hope was my aunt Kaliz. She came to visit. From the moment she sat down, I could tell she was nonplussed. She’s heard the stories about the alcohol and drugs and it was her opinion that I probably needed a month or two in the hospital to get the help necessary for me to begin to deal with my substance abuse and mental illness.
A month or two.
I don’t know what any of them thought happened behind the locked doors of a psych ward, but it certainly wasn’t anything that would help me deal with these issues, if I’d even had them. What they called therapy was taking us to a craft room and having us create collages on construction paper with things cut out of Golf Digest. What they called doctor’s visits were 15 minute sessions with someone you’d never seen in your life who thought that pills cured trauma. What they called medical help was a daily blood draw, a blood pressure test, and a tiny paper cup of whatever pills they happened to have that day in stock whenever the pharm tech had the time and inclination to pass them out.
The only therapeutic things we had in there were old VHS tapes and string cheese and apple juice doled out at 8 p.m. as a snack. And maybe half an hour in a courtyard walled eight feet high if the weather permitted. It usually did not.
We could socialize amongst ourselves. On December 30th, a white woman, with all the markers of success, checked herself into the ward. She was scared of all the poor people, so she sort of clung to me. But it was pretty soon obvious that she was actually insane because she started telling the other patients that I’d threatened to beat her up. For that, I got written up. And when I demanded to get my medication on a timely basis, I got written up for that too. A therapist cornered me in one of the day rooms and told me I was trouble. That what I’d done by attempting suicide was hurtful to my family. That I’d never get better. And that I would eventually kill myself. That is what they considered “therapeutic.”
I had to plan my survival to a tee in that place. With absolutely zero resources outside or inside. The other patients looked up to me like I was some bougie font of wisdom, so I was technically the most capable person around, medical license or no.
I had to keep from decompensating and it wasn’t easy. When you are trouble, they sedate you. They restrain you. They confine you to small padded spaces. And they lock you up and throw away the key. That woman who accused me of threatening her wound up that way. I saw her two days later, through a window, now dressed in nothing but a medical gown and scrub bottoms, dead-eyed and slobbering like a zombie.
That could have been me. It’s a lot of autistics in mental hospital whose real issues are hidden under the sensory overload that takes place in mental hospitals (getting woken up every 15 minutes, the never ending cold or barrage of sounds, the five a.m. blood draws, the terrible food, and on and on).
I got out after some two weeks of hospitalization, so overwhelmed and exhausted by having to keep it together that I felt disoriented on the corner of Grant and Swan, where I’d been thousands of times before. Over breakfast, my Aunt Donna filled me in on the passion play that was my mother’s suffering Saint act, my sister’s neurosis, but also my aunt’s concern over my “substance abuse.”
I had zero credibility. It would have been pointless to argue with the one person who even had the decency to come pick me up.
She dropped me off at my house. I couldn’t think straight enough to pack. I charged my phone to find 18 texts from Michael, wondering what had happened since I called him in a rage on Christmas Day on the way to Tucson from my parents’ house.
I threw pajamas in a red Kipling bag and drove home back to Nogales, where I’d fled from on Christmas, because I had nowhere else to go and I couldn’t take care of myself. I needed a vacation from life. But home was a far cry short of a respite.
My mother interrogated me about everything she’d seen in my house, but mostly about one thing in particular. I’d been thinking of writing a novel and I’d plotted things out on a poster board with post-it’s for each chapter. She’d read it and she didn’t like it. There were characters with familiar names, and, without having even asked me what it was about, she’d made assumptions that it was about her and her family. And she strictly forbade me from writing it. I was 36 and she was still telling me what to do. Still using threats and demands and shame.
Only what she didn’t bank on was that I had no shame left. You cannot use shame against someone who has lost everything, up to and including her credibility. Had I still some semblance of character or any exterior worth to cling onto, maybe her threats would have held more weight to them.
But the dead don’t die. You couldn’t kill me twice in two weeks.
Where do my strong boundaries come from? Where does my intolerance for cruelty and cowardice and evasion and deception and incompetence come from? From having nothing and being able to turn it into something. From having to see the motives people hide, masked in good intentions and feigned ignorance.
I can play nice but, like the saying goes, never confuse my kindness for weakness. Behind the jokes and the references and the witty banter there is a person who could lead an army into hell and come back to victory march carrying the decapitated head of the Devil himself.