Me, Piper Chapman, the Psych Ward, and the Incarcerated 2.2 Million

Having been institutionalized is not something I ever forget, exactly, but I tend to keep those memories on lockdown. It was Netflix that finally blasted them back out into the open — specifically, Orange is the New Black. Cue the theme song, cue the waterworks — I cried all the way through every episode of Season Two, tears pooling uncomfortably in my headphones.

It was the bathrooms, of all things. Those dirty pinks and yellows, that postmortem light; the mirrors made of quasi-reflective metal rectangles bolted to the walls. Watching every modern lesbian’s favorite television characters hash out their drama at the bathroom sinks, the first of the powerful memories came roaring out of repression: I suddenly remembered my first encounter with one of those mirrors. It was my first morning “inside” — in mental hospitals, as in jail, the world is instantly divided into inside/outside — and I had lain awake all night rigid with terror. At some point in the night, a man had tried to hang himself in an adjoining room. When at last the sun peered through the wire-mesh window, I’d gone to wash up and brush my teeth.

But I was not allowed a toothbrush (a potential weapon) and I was not allowed a tube of toothpaste or a hairbrush (potential weapons), and I was not allowed soap or shampoo, and I was not yet permitted to see anyone who could bring me a change of clothes. I met my distorted reflection in that metal rectangle, and the reality of where I was crashed over my head like an icy wave.

I was fourteen at the time, and had assumed that, as much as nobody wanted to be committed to a loony bin, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as it was on television or in the movies. I was dead wrong.

Here’s the first thing that, like Orange’s fictional newbie Piper Chapman, I learned very fast: a living arrangement that has the sole purpose of keeping human beings confined does not give a good goddamn about quality of life. And that, when the basic rewards of being alive – eating, resting, communicating with others – are siphoned off to a dribble of the very barest necessities, your life acquires the texture of a tasteless gruel, which puts you at odds with the people who are, metaphorically speaking, in charge of feeding it to you.

Here’s another tip I picked up quick: the tension between staff and inmates in your standard prison/asylum drama? Like many tropes, it’s become one for a reason. Sociologists proved decades ago in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that treating people like caged animals makes them act like – surprise! — caged animals. Caged animals that despise their keepers. And, given a captive population, the keepers quickly become prone to letting their ids off the leash. Yet this salient fact has changed little about the way institutions are run. I’ll never forget a male guard beckoning me closer, closer, until we were alone together at the end of a deserted corridor.

“I’ve been watching you,” he confided, holding my arm. “And listen, you would be a very attractive young lady if you would only wear a dress.”

“Are you supposed to be saying shit like that to me?” I said.

“Hey, don’t get excited,” he replied. “I’m only trying to help you out.”

I felt a roaring in my brain, I wrote in my journal that night, and I wanted to scream until my lungs burst. But I knew that within ten seconds I’d be in Isolation. Instead I’m writing in this fucking journal, and he’s walking around patrolling the hallway, I can hear him humming a little tune.

I was exaggerating, in my teenaged way, about Isolation – I was much more likely to spend the rest of the day in “one-point,” which meant being shackled by the ankle to a chair by a single restraint (hence one point; two-point meant both wrists, or both ankles). While it would’ve prevented me from achieving any real violence, I’m not sure it would’ve done much to address what had caused his bone-headed “help” to make my brain roar and my lungs want to burst with suppressed screaming to begin with… you know, the reasons that had led to my being institutionalized in the first place?

Keeping that journal, by the way, was the only thing that made me feel anchored to reality — and the only place it was safe for me to talk openly about being gay outside of the 45-minute increments I got with my personal counselor. But I had to flagrantly break rules to do it: writing instruments were contraband. If staff had ever found my hidden ballpoint, I would’ve been automatically presumed to be suicidal (since a pen can be used to cut with) and put on Suicide Watch, which is basically Isolation plus a staff member stationed outside the bathroom stall while you take a shit. This kind of Kafka-esque logic loop – using my pen to write keeps me from wanting to commit suicide; I’m not permitted to write because I might use my pen to commit suicide – is laughable, until you realize that this is what constitutes “getting professional help.” As in, that troubled teenager needs professional help.

Back to that pen, which is just the type of item that one’s days revolve around “inside.” Such minor infractions were (and still are, in containment settings) controlled by a system of demerits, much like the “shots” the girls keep racking up on Orange. Indeed, I recognized the system of carrots-and-sticks at the fictitious Litchfield Prison from my real-world confinement: staff writing demerits for bullshit reasons; staff rewarding inmates for informing on their peers, while leaving them vulnerable to revenge; major infractions being met with isolation, violence, or both. It’s a system that so plays to the worst of human nature, it practically corrupts itself! But more importantly, the net effect is that survival, and keeping your head down — not rehabilitation — becomes the only goal.

I watched the hardened attitudes of the inmates on the show, too, with mounting recognition. “Marcus was put in five-point and left in Isolation. His screaming kept me awake all fucking night,” wrote teenaged me, my second month on the ward. Five-point means strapped down at both ankles, both wrists, and the waist.

Reading this now it sounds shockingly callous, even considering the self-absorbed moron that I was at fourteen. But as I turned over in my mind the returning memories [see tears, theme music, etc.] of what nights on the ward were like — how they woke us every thirty minutes by shining a flashlight in our faces, that the cots, with their single thin blankets, were like frozen planks, the rooms so chilly at night you could see your breath – I recalled that to the sleep-deprived, an all-night screamer is just another pain in the ass.

This reflexive hardness floats in the air of a confinement setting like spores, creating a self-perpetuating need to be on the defensive at all times. However, the kind of transformation we expect from the inmates of jails and asylums – the shouldering of personal responsibility, the willingness to change ingrained behavior — requires that one be, to a certain degree, undefended. Real human change requires space to be honest with yourself, honest with others; a space that doesn’t exist when you’re trapped by necessity behind a fortress of self-protection. As the inmate Poussey in Orange replies when a correctional officer pressures her to speak openly during a group therapy session: “Does it ever occur to you that actually feeling our feelings might make it impossible to survive in here?”

What is easy to share in confinement – so much easier to share than inner truth — is bad habits. And when it’s all about Us Against Them, the bad habits of Us look like a better bet than the suppose virtues of Them. By the time I was discharged from the psych ward I had picked up the pastimes of smoking cigarettes and cutting, plus excellent tips on how to continue doing both in secret; I had also come to mistrust any system purporting to be in society’s best interest, including the concept of family – at least the one you’re born into.

Not all of the hardness I acquired was a bad thing, by the way. Before my time “inside” I had been a doormat, an easy target for bullying by my teachers and peers, a jellyfish who was unable to draw anything resembling a boundary with even my closest friends. I’ll tell you, nothing gives you a backbone faster than a having floridly psychotic person snatch the food off your plate while you’re eating, or prepare to piss onto your bedding.

When I stepped out of the shower tonight Marcus, his eyes shocked open and his hair sticking straight up, came staggering zombielike into the bathroom and asked to “see what I looked like.” I hated screaming curses at him like some juvenile delinquent, but it worked, says the journal. In other words, I learned in short order that telling somebody to back the fuck off is a critical life skill, especially for a woman.

It’s not that there wasn’t plenty of room to learn compassion in there, as well; and, like the fictional Piper, I was thrust out of my me-myself-and-I world right quick. One of my first bunkmates was dying of cancer; one’s mother was awaiting trial for gunning down the stepfather who’d been beating her. I met young people who’d had lobotomies, and sweet, loving kids so obliterated by Thorazine that all they could do was shuffle up and down the hall. I had a brief affair with a girl whose daily habit it was to slice her arms to bloody ribbons — her mother was a top administrator in a neighboring psychiatric hospital. The experience wrenched me out of my relatively sheltered existence and opened my eyes to the depth and range of other peoples’ suffering.

But at the same time, I discovered that life in confinement is calibrated to make ordinary expressions of kindness and love impossible: being forbidden to hug someone who’s crying, for instance. Yet love happens in confinement, just the same as it happens everywhere else. Sex happens too, of course (I’ll spare you the journal quotes on that one). In fact, I would argue that the bleakness of institutional living creates a powerful impulse to coax (or force) something intriguing and stimulating to bloom in the barren soil of the daily routine. It is, in some ways, an attempt to stay human. But in detention settings, these irrepressible human impulses are treated by staff no differently than are theft, contraband, and escape attempts, with predictable results.

The vicarious outrage we feel for Orange is the New Black’s characters at the inhumane treatment they endure is part of what makes it compelling. But what we’re watching is actually – as far as this particular former psych-ward inmate can tell — a fairly accurate representation of what the system of “rehabilitation” looks like in America. And of course, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world – 2.2 million, and that’s only the prison system — so we’re churning out a ceaseless flow of U.S. citizens who’ve have come out the other end of just such “rehabilitation.” The next time we stay up all night binge-watching our favorite prison drama, we might just want to bear that in mind.

Piper Chapman, no longer a stranger to confinement, stands at the bathroom sink with a recent arrival to Litchfield Prison. On the wall before them are the smudged metal rectangles, providing their distorted reflections.

“I don’t think I’m going to be the same when I get out,” says the new girl.

“Maybe that’s okay,” Piper tells her.

“It’s not fucking okay,” the new girl snarls.

“I know,” Piper says. And walks away.

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Jenna Leigh Evans

Jenna Leigh Evans has been named one of LAMBDA Literary's LGBT Emerging Voices of 2014. Her novel, Prosperity, was published this year. Her work can be found in The Billfold, The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, Electric Literature's The Outlet, FragLit, and Ping pong, the journal of the Henry Miller Library. She lives in Brooklyn and you can find her at! You can watch the trailer for her novel on YouTube.

Jenna has written 2 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story with us. At some point we have to deal with the fact that the incarceration system is spinning out of control.

  2. This was brilliant (and very sad). Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  3. A week ago today, I was sitting in a psychiatric hospital at my university in Germany, having been driven there in an ambulance after contacting all of my friends from study abroad and posting on Facebook asking for help because I’d hit a scary place and couldn’t call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline from my German cell phone. My depression had pushed me to the edge, and though I hadn’t taken any physical steps to harm myself, my thoughts scared me enough that I willingly went to hospital looking for help.
    What I got was the cold sterility of Western medicine’s attempt at “recovery.” The doctor interviewing me was checking his watch every 5 minutes in anticipation of another meeting coming up, asking me inappropriate questions about my sexuality and partners, and just flat out not listening to me. I waited 4 hours in that hospital, and the end, they told me I had no choice but to stay. I overheard the doctors talking about “letting me out” for a few hours to go to my university exams that were 2 weeks away. I was to be allowed 30 minutes outside every day, limited access to friends both in Germany and on the internet, and forced into a room without the color and comforts of anything that felt like home.
    When they handed me the forms to sign, I sat in the waiting room with 5 of my friends, sobbing and repeating “I can’t stay here, I can’t stay here, they can’t make me stay here. I want to live but I don’t want to live here.”
    Finally I convinced the doctors to let me sign a form saying I was leaving against doctor’s orders/recommendations, and reading your essay, I don’t think I’ve made a better decision in my life.
    As cliche as it sounds, all the colors looked so much brighter when I was let out of that clinic after thinking I would be trapped in there indefinitely. I’ve been meditating in the past week, spending as much time outside as possible, seeing lots of my friends, but also allowing myself the time to be alone with myself, to process and grow and see this as a rebirth and a beautiful new beginning on the path to who I know I am meant to be.
    Thank you so much for sharing your story, for your strength to live and say #fuckshame because we need to share these things to know we are not alone, that everything we’re feeling is okay, and that we can make it through this. Much love to you and to anyone else who might be struggling right now. We are all life people, we are enough simply be being here and breathing :) <3

    • You’re very strong, and very brave. And yes, there are alternatives to what passes for emergency mental health care, but it’s nearly taboo to address this, or point out how completely, soul-crushingly depressing it can be to live under this type of institutionalized care. I know some people feel it’s their only safe option, and I respect that choice; but personally, I’ve had to create my own protocols for when I go off the rails, tailored to my needs, which includes extremely close contact with nature — impossible in an institution — and the love of stalwart friends. My earnest best wishes for healing and wholeness go to you.

      • Thank you so much for your support! I am definitely with you that staying in a hospital/clinic may be the right choice for some people–it’s just important to recognize when it isn’t for you. Once again, thank you so, so much for sharing your story! I’ve written your comment down in my journal so I can look back on it and draw strength from it on difficult days :) Sending love your way!

    • Have you heard about “Netzwerk psychische Gesundheit”? That is a network by TK (Techniker Krankenkasse), but I reckon other HMOs have similar offers/networks. They provide counseling, emergency services and appartments/houses you can stay at during a crisis and recieve help outside the psychatric wards/hospital system.

      I totally second your stance on friends, nature and alone time.
      Love, hope and courage to my fellow autostrugglers!

    • I’m really glad you shared your experience. I’ve been going through some pretty intense stuff lately myself. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. Friends often simply don’t want to listen to problems or feelings, which can just make one even more isolated and depressed. If you have friends that listen and will be there for you during times like these that is truly awesome (even if it doesn’t make it all better)! I wish you the best!

      • You are definitely not alone! I’ve been finding so much comfort recently in rooting myself in nature and finding company and friendship in rivers and flowers and trees and all that good stuff :) Plus, humans! I’m here for you if you need me (send me a message!), sending you love and warmth and solidarity. These feelings are not permanent! We will make it through this <3

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. We need to hear these stories. I had always figured institutionalization probably was this bad but secretly hoped it wasn’t. The fact that our government encourages people to be treated this way when we know there are other options… it really makes you question a whole lot of things we’re told (not that this is the only example of that).

    Your writing is beautiful and painful at the same time, and I’m so glad you’ve chosen to share these things with us.

    • Unfortunately, it is very true and women who are incarcerated have it much worse than men.

  5. when my then-girlfriend was in the psych ward, decidedly not getting better, i had such a hard time reasoning why it’d be better for her to stay than to go. staying meant she’d continue to have no access to fresh air indefinitely. no open windows, no time outside, nothing. the only recreational activity was watching television, a ping-pong room and a rickety exercise bike. everybody else in there seemed to be getting worse and worse every day. the meals were awful processed food not even remotely conducive to health. it’s weird how places where people are supposed to get healthy embrace all the things about modern life that keeps all people unwell. to the best of my knowledge, shackles aren’t allowed in psych hospitals anymore (unless it’s part of a prison) but so much else unfortunately hasn’t changed in a lot of places.

    • I hear it varies a lot depending on the hospital / psych ward? A few months later, I think she got better with a long-term stay at a different hospital that let people go outside (!) and stuff. And the nurses at the first hospital she stayed at were actually pretty cool, but this one place was just horrible.

  6. Real human change requires space to be honest with yourself, honest with others; a space that doesn’t exist when you’re trapped by necessity behind a fortress of self-protection. As the inmate Poussey in Orange replies when a correctional officer pressures her to speak openly during a group therapy session: “Does it ever occur to you that actually feeling our feelings might make it impossible to survive in here?”

    I didn’t actually focus on this when I saw it but this is profound and applies to other areas of life as well!

    • I agree, I remember the quote but after reading this essay I have a much better understanding of it.

    • I’d like to express appreciation for all this, well, appreciation. This is why telling our true stories matters. Sing it out!

  7. So glad you are telling your stories. They are necessary. Gorgeously written, as always. <3

  8. These were all of the things I was thinking about as I watched the first season and sobbing hysterically. I just couldn’t figure out how to put it into words. I sometimes think that I should have watched the first season with the comfort of a friend but I couldn’t have known what was coming or how I would feel about it and watching it made me feel about as alone as I felt inside anyway. My immediate reaction to the show was that the hospital staff acted the same way as the show’s guards, and I reached the conclusion that it was an awful lot like the stanford prison experience too. You’ve provided me with an immeasurable amount of comfort by being another person to make that same connection, and not simply dismiss me like a hospital staffer did when she told me that this place was *nothing* like *jail.*

  9. Thank you for sharing this. I had a brief stay at a public psychiatric hospital a few years ago and I’ve blocked out much of it out of necessity but I vividly remember the meds and staring at crumbling brick and eating lukewarm mushy green beans. Watching OITNB brought a lot of feelings back for me as well and I appreciate hearing you talk about it.

    This was hard for me to read but I’m glad I did and I’m glad you wrote it, and glad you’re still here, writing.

  10. The truth is worse. I have been incarcerated. One of the worst things has been the government using the prison system as a mental health facility. At least 75% of incarcerated women have a mental health issue. The guards generally treat you worse than a piece of meat. They take their home problems out in the inmates. You can’t get medications you need, or decent health care half the time. Everyone tells you that “the taxpayers are spending their hard earned tax dollars for these people to get free health care, food, and cable. Well where I was our commissary purchases paid for our TV, food was in minimal supply and lousy – mainly because the guards and other staff were stealing from the institution for their homes and restaurants, and health care was a running punch line. Break your leg – take an allergy pill, have a heart attack – take an allergy pill, you get the idea. It is NOT the Hilton, and when you do find love, friendship, etc. it is usually squashed as quickly as possible…there is an overall no contact. Brief hugs are okay, but that is it. And 75-80% of the females are LGBTQI in prison. It can destroy you if you let it. I was lucky, I never went to county or to state – they are MUCH worse. I found a number of caring people where I was and what’s more most of the people I met there were nicer, kinder, more caring, and overall better people than most of the people I met on the outside…action needs to be taken.

    • I really appreciate having the opportunity to read your story, so thank you! I’m curious about your statement that 75-80% of females are LGBTQI in prison and curious how that happens. I would have guessed it was high, but wow, that’s a lot.

      • Allow me to explain…human beings are social creatures. We crave human contact. We experience feelings and emotions which allows us the capacity to fall in love and have relationships and ultimately, propagate the species. And women, more than men, establish more intimate connections with others socially. Women are touchy-feely by nature. However, in prison, any physical contact is prohibited. Period. Prison is a culture shock for everyone, but especially for women who are mothers and/or have boyfriends/husbands. And in order to experience some of the closeness they had stripped from them upon arrival, the only existing alternative is the other women around them. When I was locked up, this was referred to as “gay for the stay,” because when they were released, they went back to their lives as mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters- straight women.

        • Thanks for the explanation. I wondered how much of it was along those lines vs. differences in how likely queer women are to be incarcerated in the first place.

  11. Thanks for sharing. Orange Is The New Black reminds me a lot of my time in a psychiatric hospital as well. Some of it was awful, but I have a more positive take on it now.

    I was hospitalized several times (I hate saying the real number) from Oct 2012-Jan 2013, and if I totaled all my stays it would probably be a little over two months.

    I was horribly suicidal the first time I went in. I had agreed to go to the hospital at the student health center on campus because legally I really had no choice other than going voluntarily or not, but even though I was completely cooperative they sent a police car to take me, and the police officer (apologetically–he was actually pretty nice) had to handcuff me. Once in the hospital, after hours of processing, I had to submit to what was essentially a strip search, complete with squatting and coughing.

    Then, still that first day, after a horrible phone call with my mom the guilt got too overwhelming and I went in the bathroom and tried to kill myself with something staff had failed to find in my clothes earlier. That got me about a week of staff following me around everywhere, even the bathroom, and jotting down my every movement. I had to try to sleep on a hard mattress with someone literally staring at me. It was awful, and while I don’t cry a lot even alone, I remember just breaking down into sobs at one point when my request to get off 1:1 observance was denied.

    And yet, what I remember more was really connecting to other people in ways I hadn’t before. Most of the other patients were very normal, just really sad. It was the first time in my life I really talked to someone else my age about my issues, and it never felt weird or awkward because they had the same issues. That time I cried, a woman my mom’s age saw me and hugged me and for the first time in years I let myself just fall apart in someone’s arms.

    This was the first time I had ever in my life talked about being gay and being depressed, since I always felt guilty about that and didn’t want people to just think I was gay because I was mentally ill (something an asshole doctor who really wanted to diagnose BPD suggested–he thought that might fit in the “promiscuity” symptoms), or that being gay is why I was depressed. But I met several other people there dealing with the same thing (I was in the Bible belt after all) and it felt so good to really open up. Among others, there was a girl my age whose story mirrored mine almost exactly, a slightly older girl who talked to me a lot about her own experience accepting that part of herself, and a woman who pretty much told me everything I had wanted to hear from my own mom.

    Not all of the staff were great and there was so much trivial stuff that got misinterpreted (like when I ate two helpings of green beans and it got noted down so that the next day’s staff thought all I had eaten was two individual green beans, or when holding a pencil while journaling and looking a bit sad turned into concealing multiple pencils as an attempt to hurt myself), but then some of the staff were absolutely amazing.

    I’ll never forget the nurse who calmed me down after my attempt that first day and gently told me about her own experience as a patient in a psych hospital. I was feeling so ashamed of being there and she made a huge difference. Or the older woman who was watching me when I was on 1:1 and made sure I was as comfortable as possible, bugging the other staff until they got my clothes out of storage, getting me all the necessarily toiletries, and letting me take a long warm shower with just the bathroom door cracked so I felt like I had some privacy.

    Then there was the tech who watched me one night and was the only person to say “I’m so sorry you felt that way” after my attempt and didn’t make me feel like a criminal. He was probably the first person who got me to open up at all because he was so persistent, and even when I returned he was so supportive and sympathetic. I eventually wrote him a letter thanking him and when I left for the last time he gave me a letter that has really helped me keep going some days, and I still keep it in my wallet everywhere I go. I honestly believe he helped me save my own life.

    If nothing else, the hospital kept me safe and alive at a time when I could not guarantee the same on my own. Sometimes it helps to have someone protect you from yourself for a while. I have a lot of positive memories from it though and was even just talking today on Facebook to someone who had been inpatient with me before.

    I’ll wrap this up because this is ridiculous, but I wanted to say that this last time I was totally opposed to going into the hospital because I was in a new state and wanted that part of my life to be over, and I thought that having constant suicidal thoughts but not acting on them was as good as it was ever going to get. After what I consider a misunderstanding (it really wasn’t an attempt, just me being stupid, but I guess they have to be careful), though, I got to the ward just after midnight on January 1, and despite my best efforts to do nothing but lay in bed miserably, within a few days the new medication actually started to work and I started doing things like actually taking a shower and brushing my teeth, and when I left on January 6 I was actually like a real person again and even looking forward to the future. I did a PHP program there for the next two months, and that turned out to be amazing, and now I am completely symptom free from depression (I’ve gone from not acting on suicidal thoughts to not having them at all!) and have found a lot of relief from my OCD/anxiety.

    This was too long, but I wanted to say that while psychiatric hospitals aren’t fun (honestly, the boredom is more difficult to cope with than anything else), they really do save lives.

  12. Thank you Jenna and everybody else in the comments for sharing your stories, and thank you Autostraddle for existing as a place where we can share things and read each others stories.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    I have had my own experiences in psychiatric hospitalization care, and never before made the connection between Litch and my time in the ‘loony bin’.

    I think it may have just been me repressing the whole deal, but it’s good to take those old times out and get them out of their own incarceration.

    Thank you again.

  14. In 2011, I spent 68 days in an asylum, not as a patient but as a companion for my grandfather, who had attempted suicide, and they wouldn’t commit him by himself because of his age, and he had to be committed because of the law (catch 22) so I volunteered.

    By the end of 68 days he did get better, in the sense that he hasn’t tried to kill himself since leaving, but I, supposedly a mentally healthy person, was a mess, because of the reasons you wrote, AND, while as a companion I had to abide by every rule; I didn’t get any theraphy, had no access to their fancy drugs and was forbidden from taking part in any activities because I wasn’t a patient.

    In mental wards (in the hospital we were staying in, it was actually called “Spiritual Well-being Department”, you’d think it was some sort of yoga retreat), the first rule of “getting better” is submitting to the will of the staff. One of my grandfather’s doctors admitted as such, in a moment of spontaneous sincerity. Grandpa was refusing to take medication, and he finally relented because he got tired of fighting the staff, the doctor said “Good. His resistance is finally breaking.” I observed similar attitudes towards other patients.

    I don’t want to go all Tom Cruise on you and diss the whole profession. While I was there, I also saw many people, who were in terrible shape when they were first admitted, get undeniably better. Also, when it comes to mental diseases, most of the time there simply is no cure, and the best outcome is learning to manage it.

    But my issue is with confinement and the environment that you described it creates. To me, the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) message seemed to be “We know you hate being confined and restricted and resent us for enforcing the rules, but if you don’t do everything we tell you to do, it’ll be even worse.”

  15. I couldn’t agree with your column more….I too, had the experience of being a “guest of the state.” I cannot begin to explain the myriad of ways prison changes you. Prior to my incarceration, I was in the military for eight years, during which I saw significant combat. I wasn’t someone you would consider “soft” at all. When I got to prison, I remember thinking that this shit, this place, ain’t gonna break me. After awhile, you become aware of the disconnect that exists between you and the outside world that is perpetrated by something as simple as a fence with a gate. Time passes, but on the inside for you, time is like a severely scratched CD stuck in a CD player on repeat. All the restrictions effectively dehumanize you to the point of, as you so eloquently stated- just putting your head and surviving by any means necessary, which means that the person you were when you went in, will not be the person you are when you come out.

  16. I want to thank you for sharing this. It’s so important to read. It’s also sparked some very important conversations. I have learnt many things and I thank you and all others that have been vulnerable here for sharing their stories. Thank you.

  17. It is so awesome to read a piece by a fellow psych survivor. So thank you Jenna. The no-shame environment created by these comments makes me so happy.

    For me, the psych scenes in season 1 of oitnb, particularly ones with Pennsatucky in a cage, were triggering. I have never been lucid in a psych ward…just highly psychotic. But through it all, real elements of the psych ward have filtered through to my consciousness. Like nurses making fun of you, the sign on the wall that says “every patient has the right to refuse a prefrontal lobotomy”, getting a cup full of mystery pills and not being told what they are, being groped by another inmate, being alone in a closet with a male nurse and not having any pants on and still not knowing why, not being able to leave…

    On a lighter note, here is a funny story about being locked up in the bible belt. During my psychosis, I was given a hardcover bible by a nurse and I was told to a read it, as if that would make me “better”. Somehow I had obtained a little strip of paper from one of those paycheques where you have to tear the two sides first and then the top long perforated edge to open it. The paper said something like “turn around and flip over to use”. I was using the strip of paper as a bible bookmark, and I kept puzzling over the meaning of its mysterious message. After what felt like days, I had an epiphany. I held the bible out in front of me, turned it around 180 degrees and then flipped it over, and so that I was now holding the bible like some sort of paddle that you hit people with.. the title would hit them square in the forehead. And that’s how I ended up giving bible smackdowns to certain inmates.

    • Bible smackdown! I love it. I keep having to return to comments, because these stories you are all telling are so fucking terrible and yet you have all been so, so incredibly strong.

  18. Thank you, Jenna for your beautiful writing, honesty & bravery. And thanks to all who have posted so generously.

  19. I know many people have commented with their experiences, but I also have to say that all I could think about when watching OITNB (apart from Alex) was my stay in the children psych ward when I was 15. I had anorexia and depression and stayed there for 2 months, was released and then 2 months again.

    While I live in Latvia, the system here doesn’t seem to be that much different from the American. I hated that place with my whole heart and my doctor was terrible, he had problems with anger management and he seemed more like a patient of psych ward than a doctor. I remember him madly shouting at me with his face red and veins popping out of his bald head when he found out I had left 3 tiny pieces of sausage uneaten in my solyanka soup (of course I wasn’t allowed to stay vegetarian as I had been for many years before). Was he trying to replace my fear of food with fear of the very real possibility of him hitting me?

    And while there were a pair of incredibly sweet nurses, brilliant women, most of them were mean and ignorant and had so so little knowledge of the illnesses they were dealing with. Some of them had read that anorexia is ALWAYS accompanied with bulimia (what?) and every day they accused me of purging and when I said I didn’t (seriously my body can barely do that even when I have food poisoning) they accused me of lying and again quoted some weirdo articles they read about anorexics ALWAYS lying. They didn’t see me as a person, but just a walking disease showing ALL the symptoms they had read about.

    Basically, it was terrible. But I am also glad to have experienced that, the whole experience changed me and made me a better person. Kind of like Piper I had been living a really sheltered life (not nearly as wealthy though), but in hospital I became friends with kids from orphanages (half of the patients or more) and those living below the poverty line for the first time in my life, made me aware of my privilege and hidden snobbism.

    And I did recover immediately after my second time there. I was so scared of getting back there, I just recovered to never go back (and to become vegan, but that’s a different story). Does that mean the system worked?

  20. I am honestly not sure if Orange is the New Black sounds cathartic/useful-triggering, like Hannibal, or just awful-triggering.

    I’m scared, I’m scared, and I will never ever tell any psych professional about my crazier thoughts again even though I’ve barely been close to being hospitalized, because my papers say I’m DD, and when you have a disability that makes you “retarded,” you get this shit, but legally, and worse. (I’m glad I mostly stayed out of special ed, because goddamn my self-injurious meltdowns probably would have gotten me restrained, and that would have been harder to take as a kid who didn’t know that was definitely wrong.)

  21. Thank you so much for sharing this, and I certainly have a lot of respect and admiration for your courage in sharing your story and strength for surviving what you’ve been through.
    However, I just wanted to show a different side of the story.

    Collectively, I’ve probably spent somewhere between six and eight months in various psychiatric treatment centers, which I hopped in and out of between the ages of thirteen and seventeen.
    The first time was just a couple of days after the first time my family found out about the issues I was struggling with. They took me to my doctor, who recommended a therapist, who told me that I wouldn’t be going home that day.
    And I was scared. I was expecting the worst – it was a mental hospital, after all. So I holed myself up in my room and cried a lot, until, a week later, they let me out. And I swore to never open up to anyone else again, because they’d just put me back there.

    Welp, that didn’t work out super well. But as time went on, I began to feel more comfortable during my stints in psych wards. I think that it helped a lot that the next few times I went to a couple of different hospitals – ones that I found far more friendly and, indeed, helpful. I found that hospitals could give me a safe space to take a break from my daily life and finally get the opportunity to sit down and figure out what was going on with me. I found doctors and therapists whom I could talk to. I found staff members who were always there for me, whether to sympathize with the many girls who complained that they weren’t allowed to shave, or to hold my hand and talk to me when I was scared or sad or upset. And in that kind of situation, I could see that the problematic restrictions I was facing were, for the most part, there for a reason. Okay, it made sense that I couldn’t have the drawstring on my pajama bottoms, because I and other people around me weren’t necessarily about to make rational and safe decisions with what to do with that. And maybe it was scary to have someone screaming in the next room over who needed to be restrained, but they had their own issues, and the staff needed to be able to provide a safe environment for everyone.
    When I moved on to the many residential treatment programs out there that aren’t on the level of high security found in a “psych ward,” things got even better. At the worst, I would be bored, and stuck sitting in a room watching TV and playing board games. At best, I was making new connections with the people around me, I was getting to talk about my problems with professionals, and I was learning more and more about myself. It was at a residential program that I first opened up about my feelings about gender and sexuality. It was at a residential where I learned that a lot of my problematic behaviors weren’t my fault, but came from a lot of hardships I had faced and a lot of deep-seated insecurities.

    I think that there are many reasons why my experience was so different. First of all, I live in Boston. A liberal city, famous for its progressive mental health treatment (whoo McLean!). I had multiple options available to me, and I never had to go to a state facility. I think that point is key, and a lot of it comes down to my economic privilege and good health insurance, as well as the geographic advantage.
    Also, it’s significant that I was always in adolescent wards that were specialized to treat my needs rather than mixed age wards.
    Lastly, it’s probably important to consider that I am only eighteen now – meaning that these experiences happened only a few years ago. The mental health field is constantly evolving (and hopefully improving) and things are certainly very different now than they were ten or twenty years ago.

    I just wanted to demonstrate that the world of psychiatric treatment is not a bad one on principle, and encourage anyone who does need that level of care to look into the options available to them other than a state facility, and to keep an open mind. I acknowledge that I have been both very lucky and very privileged, but I know that I have learned a lot about how to live a safe and well life from my experiences, and hope that other people may too.

    later experiences good
    the first wasn’t actually that bad
    I’m lucky and privileged

    • (Sorry, the notes at the end were my planning for the arc of this comment. I meant to delete that)

    • I’ve only been in adult wards, but I’ve had similar experiences and I am grateful for the existence of psych hospitals (and equally grateful I don’t need them anymore!).

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