A Life of Value (Part I)


Here’s a story for you.  I transmit it in the tradition of oral storytelling, which is to say I’m not doing any research, just going from memory.  It is true to the best of my recollection.  Even if the facts aren’t exact, you’ll get the message.

There was a fellow who was living with his mother.  This might have been about seventy years ago, and he was having trouble sleeping.  A New York State psychiatric center had just been built near them.  I don’t remember which one.  Anyway, in those days nobody really knew what a psychiatric center was or what it did, but Mom suggested to her son that he go over there and see if they could help him with his sleeping problem, so he did.

The psych center admitted the guy, then a few days later they got his mom to sign involuntary commitment papers on him.  They told her not to tell her son because it would upset him.  Duh, do you think?  Under Mental Health Law, a man had just been imprisoned by his mom, who didn’t know any better.  She’d been sold a bill of goods by some doctor that this was in the guy’s best interest.  The guy didn’t even know it.  Even in the 1940’s a guy couldn’t be put in jail without being told the criminal charges against him, but this was psychiatry, which is a law unto itself.

I think the guy’s name was Charles Bartlett; anyway, we’ll call him that.  Charles spent the next 32 years of his life locked in the psych center.

In the beginning, his mother would come and visit him.  After she died, an aunt came to see him every so often.  The hospital staff would make notes about this in his chart.  Occasionally Charles would receive packages, at Christmas for example; this too would be noted in his chart.  What wouldn’t be noted was that the hospital wasn’t treating him.  He’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia (see also https://behindthelockeddoors.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/how-i-got-diagnosed-with-unconscious-paranoid-schizophrenia/) but he wasn’t being treated; he was being warehoused.

About once a year the psychiatrist du jour would re-interview him and then send him back to the ward for another year.  It was sort of like a parole hearing but run by a single psychiatrist, not a panel of people educated in the law.  Charles was a quiet and patient guy who didn’t give anybody any trouble.  (Let this be a lesson to you about being quiet and patient:  it gets you nowhere.  Make noise!)  Charles would tell the staff that he wanted out.  They self-righteously viewed him as a total loser, i.e., psychiatric patient, and would patronizingly ask, “Well, where would you go?  How would you take care of yourself?” as if to say, “You couldn’t possibly.”  Charles would reply that he’d go in town to a street that had several boarding houses, rent himself a room, and then sue the hospital.

This went on, year after year, for decades.  Then, in 1965, the New York State Mental Hygiene Legal Service (MHLS) was formed.  It is not part of the NYS Office of Mental Health; it is part of the judiciary.  “By State law, MHLS is placed in the judicial branch of New York State government, independent of other state agencies. MHLS staff are appointed by the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department.”  What that means is that the psychiatrists aren’t in charge.  Under Mental Hygiene Law, your doctor can call the police and get you locked up, but the Mental Hygiene Legal Service doesn’t have to listen to your doctor.  MHLS can come get you out, which is what they did for Charles Bartlett.

An MHLS staff person was making the rounds of everybody at the NYS psychiatric center, came to Charles and asked, “Would you like to leave?”

Charles replied, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.”

This is where it gets really sick:  once the MHLS raised its ugly head, the hospital started paying attention to Charles.  All of a sudden, there are notes in his chart.  He’s being seen by doctors; he’s being given medication:  he’s being treated like a patient instead of an object gathering dust in a warehouse.  In the last nine months of his hospitalization there were as many notes in his chart as there had been in the previous thirty years.  Charles was noticed because The Law came in, and the only thing that doctors are afraid of is lawyers.  (To be continued)

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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 Community General Hospital, CPEP, Hutchings Psychiatric Center, Inpatient psychiatry, NYS Office of Mental Health, psychiatric patient, psychiatrist, St. Joseph's Hospital, Upstate Medical Center and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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