72 Hours in the Loony Bin
A personal essay
Loony bin, nuthouse, funny farm, insane asylum, madhouse. These are just a few of the derogatory monikers given to psychiatric hospitals. In July of 2015, I was unfortunate enough to find myself in the back of an ambulance, tethered to a gurney, being transported to such a place. My crime was attempting to commit suicide by overdosing on opioids. My punishment was a court ordered 72-hour incarceration in the Spring Mountain Treatment Center of Las Vegas. Based on the name, it doesn’t sound all that bad. Let me assure you, there was nothing spring like or mountain like about this establishment.
The first night was the worst. I arrived too late to see the psychiatrist and was forced to endure my first night without any pharmaceutical assistance. The mattress and pillow, if one could call them that, were made of stiff, unyielding plastic. The sheets were thin and coarse, as if they were constructed out of cheesecloth, and the blanket reminded me of the scratchy blue blankets flight attendants doled out on airplanes. Sleep evaded me for much of the night. I woke early in the morning feeling rundown and defeated.
On my first full day, I met two women who would become my friends and confidants during my incarceration. Tiffany was a stay at home mother who was suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Lauren was battling Chrohn’s disease and the resulting depression. The three of us bonded over a particularly unpalatable lunch in the cafeteria on my first day. The food was consistently terrible, and I left that place three pounds lighter.
During the intake process, I was told that my treatment plan included daily visits with a psychiatrist and group therapy sessions. My visits with the psychiatrist lasted only 10-15 minutes. He asked me the same questions every time: Are you having suicidal thoughts? Are you experiencing any side effects from the medication? How much are you sleeping? Are you eating? He seemed thoroughly uninterested in the reasons I ended up there in the first place and did nothing to address any of my emotional issues. I told the good doctor what he wanted to hear so he wouldn’t have reason to extend my stay.
The only group therapy session offered during my stay was on the second day. Tiffany, Lauren and I were in the common area chatting when a rotund woman pushing a cart with an ancient box television set atop it came in and announced that we would be having group. The television cart was so archaic, it looked exactly like the ones they used when I was in grade school. After rounding up everyone in our unit, she inserted a video tape into the VCR. The girls and I look at each other puzzled. What was happening? Had we been transported back in time 20 years? The video was a short public service announcement about the dangers of heart disease for women. What the hell? Most of the women in our unit were in here for suicide and depression. Heart disease was the least of our worries at this point!
The woman then began passing out various pamphlets and proceeded to give a lecture about ways in which we could prevent heart disease. I was dumbfounded. When I thought of group therapy, I envisioned everyone sitting in a circle taking turns sharing our personal struggles and what brought us to this institution. Instead, we were subjected to an irrelevant lecture that had absolutely nothing to do with our current mental states.
Lucky for us, Myra was in attendance. Myra was a regular at Spring Mountain who appeared to have some kind of mental retardation in addition to whatever psychosis she suffered from. Myra had fallen asleep during the lecture and began snoring lightly. Whether her nap was pharmaceutically induced or from sheer boredom at the subject matter I can’t say. I like to think it was the latter. Toward the end of the lecture, Myra let out a prolonged, loud fart that was so explosive it startled her awake from her nap! We all erupted into fits of laughter, tears streaming down our faces. Our counselor was not amused and abruptly took her cart and left. So much for group therapy.
Ironically, the only opportunity we had to get outside and get some fresh air was during the three scheduled smoke breaks that occurred after every meal. These were held unceremoniously in what looked like a prison yard. It was devoid of anything green or natural. There were metal picnic tables and outdoor ashtrays scattered about. The ground was concrete, and it was enclosed by a tall concrete block wall. The only thing missing was the requisite razor wire atop the wall. Thankfully, the yard was covered to shield us from the unrelenting desert sun. I didn’t smoke, and neither did my friends, but we went out there anyway to break the monotony. I remember we laughed about the ridiculousness of sitting through a lecture about heart disease, and we were now outside exposing ourselves to secondhand smoke. During my time in the yard, I often looked longingly at the concrete block wall and wished I could climb over and escape back to civilization.
Looking back now, the concrete yard seems even more ridiculous. It has been scientifically proven that being out in nature is profoundly beneficial to cognitive functioning and mood. I recently listened to an audio book called The 3-Day Effect. The book delves into the research behind this phenomenon. While we may have been outside, there was absolutely nothing natural or soothing about our surroundings.
We were relentlessly watched by the nurses on the ward. It was their job to not only look after us, but to take notes about our behavior. Were we sleeping too much? Not enough? Were we crying often? Were we socializing in the common areas or hiding in our rooms? Did we take our medications as instructed? All of these things were tracked by the nurses, and would be reported back to our doctor. If the doctor felt you were not improving during your stay, and more importantly your insurance would cover it, he could elect to extend it.
Being held there against my will was maddening. I felt like a rat in a cage. I had never before suffered this kind of terror and frustration. Having your freedom taken away is a demoralizing experience. I played the role of the good little prisoner, and did everything I could to prevent them for having anything negative to report back to my doctor. I wanted to get out of that place as soon as humanly possible.
On the third day, my doctor relented that he saw no reason to extend my stay and I would be released that evening. I was so relieved I almost cried. Although, there were two conditions to my release. The first was that I could not go home alone. I would need to be released into someone’s care. This was no problem because my father had flown in from Houston, and would be helping me pack up my things so that I could return to my hometown.
The second condition was that I had to agree to pay them an additional $800 on top of what they were billing my insurance company. This revelation infuriated me! These leeches had drained all the blood they could out of my insurance policy, and now they were coming to me thirsting for more! I’d be damned if they got a dime out of me, but I agreed anyway and signed on the dotted line. I would have promised them any amount of money just to get out of that place.
I spoke with my father about my traumatizing experience, and he related to me that not much had changed in thirty years. He said that, sadly, my mother had similar experiences when she was in and out of metal institutions. They would keep her there until the insurance ran out, then release her whether she was well or not. In his opinion, these facilities are money making machines designed to milk the insurance companies. They have no desire to help their patients, instead they take advantage of them. After what I endured, I wholeheartedly agreed.
The mentally ill are forced behind locked doors and treated like prisoners, nothing more than common criminals. Why it is that mental illness is so often treated in this way? Is it because we are afraid of what we do not understand or feel we cannot control? Or is it because the mentally ill are not allowed a voice and are easily taken advantage of?
The sad fact is that even in today’s modern society, mental illness is stigmatized and not treated with the empathy and compassion it deserves. My short stay at the Spring Mountain Treatment Center certainly confirms this disappointing fact. I’d like to say that I have hope that conditions will improve, but that would be a lie. Mental institutions, psychiatric hospitals, sanitariums, asylums. No matter what you want to call them, they are all part of the problem—not the solution.