The Freedom to Fall


For George Ebert, founder of the Mental Patients Liberation Alliance, who witnessed too many retention hearings.

Mary Beth McIntire went to court yesterday.  She was sentenced to six months in a lockup for drinking.

Mary Beth is a 47-year-old woman of medium height and build who has what they call schizophrenia.  She doesn’t make a whole lot of sense–sooner or later, we all don’t make sense–and she is being held against her will in a state psychiatric hospital.  She wants to go free–sooner or later, we all want to go free–so she went to Mental Hygiene Court for what is called a retention hearing.  The only witness against her was her psychiatrist, who is not working for her.  The psychiatrist is working for the state.

The psychiatrist testified to a lot of things.  She testified that Mary Beth is taking a lot of medication and it’s not doing her any good.  She testified that Mary Beth drinks a lot.  Water, juice, coffee–it wasn’t testified as to exactly what she drinks but it’s not alcohol.  Mary Beth isn’t a boozer.  What happens is she drinks a lot then she urinates a lot.  All the urinating causes her to lose electrolytes, which causes her to be lightheaded.  Maybe.  The psychiatrist testified that she also might be lightheaded because she’s being given so much medicine.

The psychiatrist testified that Mary Beth sees her for “up to 90 minutes a week.”  What the psychiatrist did not testify to was that it may be down to as little as fifteen minutes a week.  The psychiatrist said Mary Beth also sees a social worker as her primary therapist.  She may only see the social worker for fifteen minutes a week–I know this because I’ve been there.  The psychiatrist testifies that Mary Beth is getting the benefits of the program.  The program is a farce‑‑I know this because I’ve been there. 

Various groups are listed on the program chart but when it comes down to it, the groups do not meet because there isn’t enough staff or the staff has to go to another meeting or–I remember this–just because the staff doesn’t want to do it.  Additionally, you can’t join a group just because you want to.  You have to have it ordered by your psychiatrist whom you only see for fifteen minutes a week and to whom you feel you have more important things to communicate than your desire to go to the cooking group.

According to this psychiatrist, nothing much they do makes any difference but they keep on doing it.  Mary Beth has now been hospitalized thirty-five times.  The psychiatrist testifies that Mary Beth usually goes for hospitalization voluntarily and that she usually takes her medicine voluntarily.  But what she doesn’t do is stop drinking.  Nobody mentions that the medicine Mary Beth is taking frequently causes a dry mouth and that may be the cause of her drinking.

Now what this retention hearing comes down to is a question of whether Mary Beth is dangerous to herself or others.  The psychiatrist says Mary Beth is a danger to herself because she drinks, urinates, loses electrolytes and gets lightheaded.  Being lightheaded is dangerous?  Dangerous enough to be locked up?  The judge sentences Mary Beth to six months in the state hospital where they will continue to do what has already been proven not to work.

I’ve got a suggestion:  let Mary Beth work out her own destiny.  She’ll probably keep drinking until she falls on her head, then she’ll stop.  It is the way most of us learn–by doing what we want to until it has consequences we want to avoid.  Instead, Mary Beth has been denied her freedom.

If you are in the state hospital, you get less than one cupful of lukewarm coffee each day.  I keep thinking about that because Mary Beth has been sentenced to six months without a decent cup of coffee.  What is freedom for if not the right to a decent cup of coffee, and to occasionally fall on your head?

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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