The Straightjacket


I was admitted to 4B, Upstate Medical Center’s inpatient psychiatric unit.  It was there that I began my education about Mental Hygiene Law through the auspices of Barbara.

            My mind’s eye sees Barbara clearly, sitting in a black vinyl chair in the corner of the day room.  She was middle-aged, medium height and overweight, with short blond hair.  She had heavy jowls and the sucked-in mouth of a woman who wouldn’t wear her dentures.  She looked like a bulldog, and she watched, listened, and defied the system.  Therein lay her downfall.

            Her story was that her husband was an alcoholic and a volunteer fireman.  The two of them would get into drunken fights.  After they sobered up, she would get depressed, which is anger turned inward, and he would go find the fire department doctor and get Barbara committed, which was anger turned outward.

            Involuntary commitment to an inpatient psychiatric facility is usually done by a “2PC,” that is, a two-physician commitment.  Two physicians are supposed to independently interview the patient and if they both decide that she’s a danger to herself or others, then they each sign off on the commitment papers and in she goes.

            What actually happens is that one doctor signs the papers then calls a colleague who usually sees things his way and/or owes him a favor.  The second doctor says, “She needs to go in?  Okay, have somebody bring me the papers and I’ll sign them.”  

There is no independent judgment; there is a second opinion based on a collegial agreement to go along with the first opinion.  Here is the second doctor’s dilemma:  “Shall I go along with a doctor whom I regularly beat on the golf course, or shall I side with a person who will be angry, incoherent, ignorant and might try to hit me?  Duh, let me think . . .”  So Barbara got committed.

On inpatient, she was obstreperous, defiant and generally objected to what she called “all this shit.”  In other words, she was mentally healthy enough to see that inpatient “treatment” was neither nice nor helpful.  She fought back.

The inpatient system will not tolerate people who fight back, so her doctor—voluntarily but under substantial pressure from the staff—decided that she was not improving in the teaching hospital, that is, she failed to become submissive and compliant, therefore she should be moved to a state hospital. 

Being transported to a state hospital was done by state police and in a straightjacket.  This was not medical transportation; this was criminal.

A straightjacket is made of canvas heavier than what is used for firemen’s gear.  It opens down the back.  When your arms are put into the sleeves, they cross over your chest.  Then, instead of ending in cuffs, the sleeves are sewn into the opposing sides of the jacket.

My friend was being taken away from me and to a terrible place.  I stepped forward to hug her—and found myself with my arms wrapped around a large bundle of rough canvas.  She could not hug me back.  We stood there with my arms around her, tears streaming down our faces.

My world, and welcome to it.

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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
This entry was posted in Hutchings Psychiatric Center, Inpatient psychiatry, mental illness, St. Joseph's Hospital, Upstate Medical Center and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Straightjacket

  1. linda says:

    Yes I agree that the above was criminal!!!! Something needs to be done to change the laws on mental health. It’s so sad that people who are in need of compassion , understanding and care are treated so poorly.
    My son was taken in to CPEP facility by the police . He was treated inhumanely and without dignity. Because he yelled out and questioned the Drs. And nurses who were assaulting him he was put in four point restraint and forced medication. How is this care? How is this treatment? A murderer has more rights and is treated more fairly then a person who is forced into hospitalization.
    People need to stand up and rally, protest call state legislators and change the cruel barbaric archaic “mental health ” facilities that are damaging lives and scarring souls.

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