CN for police, self-harm, and involuntary commitment
It was recently my birthday (January 26) and it was a mixed day. I say that because while things are going fairly well in my personal life, the last vestiges of our democracy is crumbling — that tends to color every day a certain hue of resistant beige. It was not however, my worst birthday. That title belongs to January 26th, 2003, my 19th birthday. I want to acknowledge that it was the worst for reasons entirely personal and not at all to do with the state of the world in 2002 [which were certainly awful, but not on my mind at that time]
At that time, I was living at the Austen Riggs Center in western Mass on an indefinite absence from Wesleyan University. Austen Riggs is a voluntary-only open-door-kinda-treatment facility. That means that you are not allowed to be there if you need a locked-unit or are judged a risk to harm yourself or others. I’d been there since Oct. 31 of 2002.
You need to understand that although I was in a serious treatment program, my mind was always on getting back to school, back to my friends. I’d had to leave Wesleyan in September of my sophomore year and didn’t know when [if ever, and spoiler: never] I’d get to go back. In my mind, my friends were moving on, having new experiences, and forging on without me. I felt left-behind, forgotten, and losing touch with what I was working towards.
Let me pause to be perfectly clear that it was not healthy to hold “return to Wesleyan and be with all my friends and everything will be as though I’d never left” as my goal. It wasn’t realistic because it wasn’t possible. Not that I couldn’t have returned, but that anything would be the same even if I did go back. Time had passed and would continue to pass and rekindling that magical first year of college can’t be done.
January 25, 2003 — it was about to be my birthday and I was feeling particularly lonesome. I wanted to see my friends so I drove down to Wesleyan. It wasn’t enough, and it didn’t help. If anything it made my feelings worse. Seeing them in person was just further evidence to me that I’d missed some important window on those relationships — and that that window was ever widening.
I panicked. I broke down. I was hopeless. I drove.
I drove all night. I stopped for gas and ate and I drove. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, I just knew that when I was driving with my music playing, I felt like I was in charge of my life, I was in control of my destination and my story and my future. I’d gotten on I-90 West and eventually saw a sign for Niagara Falls in the early hours of the morning. I’d never been there, and so I stopped. It was early and cold on January 26th and it was my birthday. I saw the Falls and sat for a while alone. Listening to the empty silence and smelling the cold.
I kept driving. Seeing signs for Ohio I thought maybe I’d see my friend at Oberlin whom I’d never visited. I called my parents first to explain what I’d been doing, they were worried. I was also worried. I called my friend and we got together at Oberlin. I spent the night there and had promised my parents I’d come back the next day. It was snowing harder by that point and I was not a good driver. I’m still not a good driver.
I spun off the road a little ways and my car got stuck. I couldn’t get it back onto the road. I started walking, hoping somebody would come along who could get me to a tow truck. A semi picked me up and offered to drive me to a gas station at the next off-ramp, he called a dispatch, got my car towed and had the tow guy meet me at the gas station. The tow guy drove me to an ATM so I could get cash to buy back my car. I got to a motel and slept, charging my phone and calling my parents again.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. I went home to Sharon and told my parents that I didn’t want to be at Austen Riggs anymore, they had me call the Centre to tell them that I was home safe. Then the police arrived, the Centre had called them to bring to a psych unit at a hospital.
I was scared. I was angry, and I was scared. But here I pause this mostly-flat telling to editorialize again. I survived this encounter in no small part due to being white and affluent. When I wouldn’t get on a gurney, when I resisted and struggled — no excessive force was used against me. No weapons were brought out to escalate the situation. This is not the the treatment people who don’t look like me, who don’t live in ‘good’ neighborhoods get. I was handcuffed to the gurney and restrained but I survived and wasn’t harmed.
If there’s any point or message to this besides “I’m sharing this story so that others in LIS will know that they are not alone with having scary or ‘dangerous’ histories and presents” — it is this: responding to the acutely symptomatic with law enforcement is a terrible societal idea. They are not equipped for those situations and the usual gamut of implicit and explicit biases has far too many times lead to their murdering those they are sent to help.
This did not happen to me, I was protected by my place in the social structure. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.