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FIRST PERSON Madness in Dallas County

A former mental patient recalls her days In the Mental Diagnostic Center.
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IT IS NO SURPRISE TO ME THAT five people have died at the Mental Diagnostic Center (MDC) in recent months. The surprise is that no one has died sooner. The tragedy is that this facility has been allowed to operate as it has for many years. I know. I’ve been there five times over the past 22 years. I’m lucky-I’ve survived. But I will never forget.

In October of 1989, my 5-year-old son and I were driving on Stemmons Freeway somewhere close to the Apparel Mart. I’d been involved in a weeks-long court case, hadn’t slept at all in several days and had just lost my job. Exhausted and confused. I let my car drift to the right, left it on the side of the freeway and started walking north, carrying Nico.

I’d gone only a short way when a kind stranger pulled over and offered assistance. I accepted gratefully and collapsed on the front seat of his car, almost passing out. When I opened my eyes, we were at the Salvation Army. The gentleman took us inside, then returned to my car and brought back my purse and a tote bag filled with computer discs, stories I’d written and a novel I was reading: Till Morning Comes. From there my son and I were taken to Parkland Hospital. As a diagnosed manic Idepressive with many hospital admissions, including some to Terrell State Hospital and some to Parkland, I was promptly admitted to the emergency psychiatric unit. As I am the single parent of two children, my 10-year-old daughter and her paternal grandparents came to get my son, but I have no recollection of how they were contacted or by whom. My mother was out of town.

I was incoherent and frightened at being separated from Nico. I ranted, I raved, I tried calling people on the phone like Bob Hope, Linda Ron-stadt, George Bush. I was lunatic! Finally, a nurse and two uniformed officers persuaded me to sit down on the bed, and I was given three intravenous injections, one right after the other. I slept. During the night, someone at Parkland signed commitment papers on me, and in the morning I was transferred to the Mental Diagnostic Center.

The MDC, a nondescript building behind the Children’s Medical Center, houses social workers, psychiatrists, nurses, mental health technicians and others, including the patients who come and go in a steady stream. Although the typical stay at the MDC is only four to five days, outgoing patients are constantly being replaced by incoming ones. As a county-funded agency, the MDC’s function is to hold people for mental evaluation if they seem to be a danger to themselves or others. Any suspicious behavior is cause for detain-ment. Although many patients are committed by their families, some are not. Of my five visits to the MDC, four times I was committed by medical personnel. Once, in 1969, my family had me detained for mental incompetency.

On the first morning of my last confinement in the MDC, I was strip-searched, photographed and questioned. Did I know why I was there, what day it was, who was the president of the United States? Then I was sent into the unit’s general population, most of whom spend their waking hours in the “day room.” No patient is segregated from the others unless he or she non-con forms- is violent, belligerent, refuses to take medication, etc. Then he or she may be taken/dragged to what the MDC calls “seclusion,” given a shot if the doctor orders and left there for an indeterminate time.

Although MDC can bed 45 people at one time, the day room can comfortably accommodate only about 20. When I was there, it had peeling paint and shabby furniture-two dingy couches, two card tables and a few folding chairs. In one corner of the room stands a round table surrounded by vinyl-covered chairs where the staff often sits. They spend a good deal of time playing cards, reading the paper, talking and joking amongst themselves and studying. Many of them are students, working on degrees in various health care professions.

I sat next to a little old lady who was crying. “What’s the matter, hon?” I asked her.

“They’re gonna send me to Terrell.”

“Oh,” I lied to comfort her, “Terrell’s not so bad.”

“You don’t understand,” she sobbed. “I killed a baby there four months ago. I’m afraid if they make me go back, someone will kill me.”

I was stunned. I leaned back and wondered. What am I doing here?

The day room is poorly ventilated and smells like stale cigarettes. Too many smokers, not enough air. Once I thought I would feint. I told one of the workers, and she said, “Well, I’ll call Parkland and see if they’ll give us some air, but we have no control over that. We have no thermostat here.” When I asked her why, she said, “They don’t give us enough money to run this place right.”

Some patients play dominoes or talk, but most mill about aimlessly. I tried to read my book, but distractions made me forget my place and lose the plot, It was better to pace, better to move around than be idle. The TV and radio could be played at certain times, but right in the middle of a good song, someone would switch the station. Or it would get too loud and they’d make us turn it off. Or someone would start a fight and be hauled off to isolation. I learned not to trust the moment.

The boredom was punctuated by group therapy sessions, an occasional “therapeutic art” entertainer from the outside and mealtimes. If we didn’t participate in these activities, or if we chose not to eat, it was written up in our charts.

1979: I was sitting in a chair next to a young man. His head was thrown back and his eyes were rolling. His breathing was labored, as if he couldn’t get enough air. There were aides in the room, but no one paid him any mind. Later that day, I saw him again. He was on the floor, convulsing. Staff was ordering, “Stand back, stand back. Give him air! He needs to breathe!” But no one made a move to assist him. No one called a doctor. The paramedics didn’t come. To this day, I don’t know what happened to him.

There is no privacy in the MDC. Everywhere you look, you see someone looking back. The only escape is to the bedrooms, but it is worse there, for they are vacant, devoid of all but the beds. Two people to a room, no closet, no drawers, no pictures on the wall. No towels, no washrags, no toothbrushes, no soap, no razors, no combs, no brushes, no makeup allowed. These items must be requested from behind the glass cage, where the staff does paper work. They must be returned as soon as they are used. No radios, no belts, no jewelry ever. There is no stimulus, nothing to relieve the depression. Even books or magazines must be brought from home. Only the newspaper is provided, but staffers read it first.

To make phone calls, the patients use a phone in a small, locked double bedroom at the end of a hallway. Ratients line up outside that room, twice a day, for a three-minute conversation. First come, first served. Talk more than your three minutes, and your phone privileges can be denied the next time around. If time permits, patients who have used the phone once can get back in line and wait for a second or third call. I’d start planning early in the day who I was going to call first, second, third. I always told my friends how terrible the MDC was, but they couldn’t imagine it and they would just tell me to “hang in there.”

No visitors are allowed on the ward; instead, patients are taken to the common area where anyone can hear the conversations. This common area, like the rest of the building, is much nicer than the ward. Its walls are cleanly painted, the armchairs are comfortable and the air smells fresh. Visits are only 15 to 30 minutes long, but the visits boost morale and hope. After visiting hour, everyone seems more relaxed, even those who had no visitors.

In late 1978,1 gave birth to a baby girl. Six weeks later, I started hearing voices and seeing things that weren’t there. But I thought the voices were real and the visions were promises. I became afraid that my mother was trying to take my daughter away from me, so I took her out into the January cold and we sat in the neighbor’s car, waiting for rescuers to take us away. The rescuers never showed up, but the police did. Eventually I ended up in the Mental Diagnostic Center. I was still hallucinating and hearing voices, but part of me was rational. I hadn’t forgotten my baby. I cried for her. I wanted to be with her, and I knew I had to get out of there. I hid in the laundry cart, underneath sheets and towels. Sooner or later, I thought someone would wheel the cart outside and I could make a run for it.

I could hear them looking for me. calling me, and finally I was found. I became hysterical and began to scream. They all had their hands on me, they were holding me down, they were dragging me down the hall. They put me in a cage with nothing but a mattress and terrible graffiti on the walls. They left me there in terror. All night long I prayed for my life. All night I waited to die. I thought they were going to kill me, or that I would die of fright. People passed by and looked in the little glass window. They stared (like I was an animal), but no one offered a word of comfort, no one tried to soothe me, no one came to sit next to me and take my hand or calm my fears. I was so afraid of being locked up all alone in that little room. When they finally let me out the next day, I could scarcely walk. I could not talk and I could not eat. I had slipped away during the night, and it was weeks before I could find myself...

Medication is a consistent ritual at the Mental Diagnostic Center, so patients queue up at the nurses’ station three times a day. I’ve taken lithium every day since 1988, but at the MDC I was given Haldol, a powerful tranquilizer that turns me inside out, Dry mouth, blurry vision and thick tongue leave me defenseless. Not everyone is given the same kind of medicine, but everyone is given something-Mellaril, Thorazine, Navane, Stelazine, Prolixin, Phenergan and Vesprin, to name a few. 1 have been given all of these at one time or another. They are, quite literally, chemical straitjackets. They slow down body and mind, inducing lethargy, pre-empting creativity and spontaneity.

I always refused my medication. When the nurse would insist, I’d hide the pills under my tongue or shove them into my cheek, spitting them out later. Most of the time. I got away with my charade, but sometimes I was found out. Once I got caught spitting out my “meds” in the water fountain. Two male aides pinned my arms against the wall and forced me to drink a “cocktail.” Another time, a nurse ran her fingers around the inside of my mouth to make sure I’d swallowed my pills.

Patients with medical problems are not ignored, but they are not given priority. One morning I could not urinate. 1 tried and tried, but even after 24 hours had passed, I still could not go. I told the nurse of my problem, I was examined, and she said I would be taken to Parkland’s emergency room. Two hours later, doubled over with pain, I was escorted to Parkland Hospital by a couple of technicians. Ordinarily, the van would have taken us, but because it was being used to transport patients to Terrell State Hospital, we had to walk the two blocks to Parkland. 1 tried to lean on one of the staffers, but he pushed me away and said, “Don’t do that.” In the emergency room, it was quite awhile before the paper work was completed and I was admitted. At last, we were received into (he gynecology/obstetrics unit. The waiting room was full. I looked up and saw a sign on the wall: SERIOUSLY ILL PATIENTS WILL BE SEEN FIRST. I hoped that meant me. A distended bladder, if it bursts, can be fatal.

Sure enough, after the nurse had checked me-99.9 degrees, blood pressure 145/90-I was taken to an inner waiting room. Told to undress, I was catheterized and monitored tor two or more hours. The nurse told me 1,800 c.c. of fluid were taken from me, which the doctor called “an incredible amount.”

When I could void on my own, I was released from the hospital. One of the technicians escorted me to the van, then left me alone white she went back into Parkland for some paper work. I decided to make a dash for it, and got as far as the Children’s Medical Center. From there I called a friend at The Dallas Morning News to come take me home. At first he was reluctant, but I convinced him it was the right thing to do. I gave him my exact location on Motor Street, and told him where I’d be. I went behind the building, sat on a loading dock facing the street and waited. Once I thought 1 saw him coming. I leaped from the dock and ran toward the car. But it wasn’t him. Finally, afraid I’d be caught if I sat there much longer, I flagged down a passing motorist.

“Sir! Sir!” I yelled. “Can I have a ride?”

“Sure.” He motioned to the front seat and opened the door.

Suddenly, there were cops everywhere. “Step on it!” I told the man. “They’re after me!”

“Hey, lady. I ain’t takin’ you nowhere!”

“It’s not the police that’s after me! It’s the Mental Diagnostic Center!”

“Well, I’m stoppin’ and you can get out.” Already he had jumped out with his hands up to show the police there was no resistance. I was terrified. What would they do to me?

The van from the MDC was coming down the street. The technicians piled out, jerked my hands behind my back and shoved me rudely into the van. They kept giving each other five and calling each other Cagney and Lacy.

I looked for my friend, feeling betrayed. Then, just before the van turned to head up the hill to the MDC, I saw him. I started banging on the window. The technicians kept telling me to shut up, but 1 didn’t. Finally, as his car passed us on the road, he looked up, saw me and waved.

Back at the MDC. I was cursed and threatened. The guard called me “’bitch.” I was told I would be put in a straitjacket. One technician said I wouldn’t be taken back to Parkland, no matter what happened. “If you hadn’t run, you’d be getting out tomorrow. Now you’ll have to stay a lot longer.” But I was a hero with the other patients.

The next day. I began writing a story about my attempted getaway. One of the technicians found out and said to me, “You can’t print that. If you print that, you’ll be in big trouble.”

Even one of the doctors warned me, “I think we’ll send you to Terrell.”

“Why don’t you just send me to Hillside?” I asked (Hillside is an acute inpatient treatment center), “No,” he said, “I think you belong in Terrell.” His eyes gleamed.

My heart pounded, and I fought to maintain control. I had been locked up for nine days. During that time I had not been allowed the hearing that is required by law for each patient within 72 hours. As soon as I could next use the phone. I called Tom. a lawyer who had helped me before, and begged him to come. He said it would cost a lot of money to get me out. I told him he could have everything I had-$750.

I was released the next day. It was Halloween, 1989.I felt like 1 had been reborn as I stepped into the sunshine, smelled the autumn air and walked into freedom. But even now, two years later, memories of that place still haunt me.

After the stories of the MDC deaths appeared in the news. I told my mother. “It makes me so mad! For years people have been crying out, and nobody does anything, nobody listens.” I told her 1 wanted to do something, to write something, and she said. “But who would listen to you? You’re a mental patient. They won’t listen.”

Maybe not. Maybe the state doesn’t have to listen to me. But if not. surely they hear someone like Richard D. Smith, who com mitted suicide at the MDC on September 18. His now-stilled voice spoke very clearly the night of his death. “He told me it was a very awful place,” Smith’s wife said. Then he proved his point-with his life.

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