Freedom of Speech, Despite Psychiatry


I am writing to you from deep inside the constipated bowels of the Psychiatric Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital.  World, know that I am here!  That I still live!  I still write!  But not without difficulty.  I am a writer.  It is my health, my wholeness.  In order to continue writing during this “therapeutic” imprisonment, the following actions have been necessary.

First, a friend went to my home and brought to the hospital my laptop computer, portable printer, three cables (laptop to outlet, printer to outlet, and laptop to printer) and a packet of paper in a tote bag.  These items were officially presented to the charge nurse who put labels with my name, hospital number and so forth on the bag, printer, and laptop.  Officially, I was to have use of the laptop whilst all the equipment was locked in the Dirty Linen Room in “The Back.”

What this meant was that I, being weak and bedridden, would have to get an available staff member (“available staff member” is an oxymoron) to take me in a wheelchair to The Back.  The Back is always locked because there are reputed to be some very violent people there and usually one of them is in crisis so for long periods none of the other patients is allowed to go back there.  Finally, it would mean access to the locked Dirty Linen Room. 

In other words, I would never get to use my laptop; the author could no longer write.

The friend who brought me the stuff was allowed—in psychiatry, adults have to get “allowance” from staff to do things that can be done quite normally on medical units—to take the bagful of stuff to my room to work on it.  Afterwards, I simply never returned it to staff.  I put it on the floor in the back of my closet.

Every night at 9:00 p.m. there is supposed to be a “room check” in which two staff members in latex gloves go through all your personal belongings and confiscate anything they want to:  cords with which you might choke yourself, cologne on which you might get drunk, keys you might use to scratch your wrists, paperclips to—well, you just might “get it together” and want to hold it together with a paperclip, and then where would we be?  So the paperclips have to go.  Inadequately brainwashed staff members who still speak the truth will sometimes announce, “Rooms will now be searched” instead of using the politically correct “room check” phrase.  So my challenge became how to have two people search my room and not find my writing setup.

My hospital bed is set against the west wall so what I do is crank the head up straight, put myself in it, pull the tray table across it, put the computer on the table, have a lot of boring papers sticking out of the bag of cords and printer, and put the bag between my left thigh and the wall.  Me being who I am, nobody’s got the guts to climb over my body to get to the bag.

Actually, there are several people who are into the prison mentality of we have power over you and would just love to force me down, so I occupy the bed and dream up a variety of stratagems to divert the prison guards from doing a through search.  Mostly the thing to do is start talking the minute they appear in the doorway and get them to talk about themselves.  Some staff members have to be put on the defensive with subtly intimidating questions, but most you just get very chatty with about how their gardens grow or something similar.

Using the computer on power has turned out not to be a problem.  I run the power cord off the back of the computer, down my left leg by the wall, under the sheets, behind the bed and up to the outlet on the wall.  It is behind the bed, and with the head of the bed upright, it is hardly noticeable—besides, staff is accustomed to seeing my CPAP power cord plugged in.

Getting printed was the problem.  You are not a writer if you only exist in a computer memory.  I had to print, to mail, to reach out to the world beyond the locked door and declare I live!  The printer would not plug into the outlet.  According to one visitor, I needed a grounded converter, so to every person with whom I spoke on the phone, I requested a grounded converter.  In time, a visitor arrived, sat by my bedside, and said, “Oh, before I forget, here,” and out of pocket was produced a converter.  The next person who brought a converter and included it in a bag of other items was stopped at the desk and told the converter could not be brought onto the floor.  No reason was given.

Now we come to the most challenging, scary part:  how to set up?  There are no outlets in the bathroom, so the black computer with printer and three sprawling black cords would have to be set up on the white-sheeted bed.  I watched, waited, and chose my time carefully:  first, I had to wait for half the staff to leave the floor for supper.  Then I had to wait for “checks,” which are done every fifteen minutes and consist of a staff member sticking its head in the door and checking you off the list.  You could be dead but as long as you’re dead in your room, they check you off.  Immediately after the check, I went rapidly to work, first closing the door, then unpacking and setting up the computer and printer and running cords from wall to printer to computer to wall.

I am suffering the severe consequences of kidney disease, which includes screwed up adrenal glands.  Because of the tension, adrenaline is pumping through me and as I work I am trembling, breathing rapidly, frightened that I will be caught.  I hit the “open” icon and begin to work my way down the list of files, rapidly trying to find and print whatever things are most urgent, gasping for breath, not taking time to check my watch, trying to gauge how much time has elapsed, listening for the sound of particular footsteps approaching my door!

After several minutes of pulling papers out of the printer and dropping them haphazardly on the bed, I start frantically pulling plugs out of the wall, out of the equipment, jamming everything back into the tote bag, throwing myself into bed to protect my writing equipment only moments before the staff member—without knocking of course—opens the door for room check.

And so, tomorrow, paper-mail will go out from the psychiatric unit declaring that I live, and I am free, despite psychiatry.

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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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