SocietyNovember 10, 2019

Not much of a life: Two years since I was wrongly sectioned


The four days Paula Harris spent in the psych ward against her will, with only the overwhelming negativity of her own depressed brain for company, ‘breached the legislation’. It also scarred her forever. 

It was a Friday when I went into the psych ward. Friday the 13th. Yesterday was Sunday. Yesterday was the second anniversary of when I was put in the psych ward against my will.

Three weeks ago the mental health district inspector ruled that the legislation had been breached when I was sectioned and put in the psych ward. There’s no fanfare, nothing arrives in the mail, no one says sorry. I got an email with a pdf attached. On the third page it said that she found the legislation had been breached. Not that my rights had been breached, but the legislation.

In investigating my case – seven months after I laid a complaint with her about my sectioning, followed by more chasing up than I should’ve needed to do – she reviewed the paperwork for all the recent Section 9s at Palmerston North Hospital. Section 9(2)(d) is the bit of the legislation where you’re officially told you’re being assessed, to determine if you’re mentally unsound, to decide if you’re being involuntarily admitted to the psych ward. There’s meant to be a friend/family member/non-mental-health staff member present, to ensure your rights are protected; the legislation even says “This process reflects the possibility that a person may lose their liberty following the assessment examination”. That’s the bit of the legislation that had been breached with me. I was alone throughout the process. Alone and scared. It turns out it had been breached in all the recent Section 9s she reviewed. So, a systemic flaw, rather than an accidental one-off. The mental health district inspector (MHDI) has ordered that all relevant staff are to have further training, and that this is to be a priority.

What I think about is the likelihood that, in the 23 months between when I was put in the psych ward and when the MHDI made her decision, not a single patient went through the process properly. Who knows how long it had been happening before my own Section 9(2)(d). How many patients were alone and scared? All of us with our rights breached. I don’t know if any of those other patients will ever even know.








When I got the email, when I read the pdf, when I saw “breached”, I cried. Non-stop. For an hour and a half. I didn’t know I had any more grieving left in me, but it turns out I do. I still had to grieve for the life I used to have, the life I lost when I went into the psych ward and got so damaged from the experience that now I don’t have a life. Loud, full-bodied crying for an hour and a half.

The MHDI said in her comments that if the legislation had been followed properly, that maybe things would’ve been different. Maybe I wouldn’t have been sectioned. She wrote it in legal language. Maybe I would’ve still been sectioned, but maybe I wouldn’t. It’s hard to see that written down. It’s the thing that’s in my head a lot – if they’d followed the legislation, maybe things would’ve been different?? – but seeing it written down made it real. It’s like my own personal Sliding Doors, and here is the sliding door where the legislation is followed and I don’t go into the psych ward and I still have depression and life is still a struggle but I’m also OK enough, I still have a life.

Photo: iStock

I know someone will read this and say, “She just needs a bit of resilience!” or “It’s been two years, just get over it.” Fuck you. I’m not a resilient person, and that isn’t a flaw. It’s not who I am. It doesn’t make any of this invalid, just different to how you think you’d cope.

A few years ago I read an article about how some people who’ve grown up with abuse or go through a major trauma can develop two internal calendars. One is a linear calendar, the Gregorian calendar – put the recycling out on Monday, go to dance class on Wednesday, remember your friend’s birthday is on the 23rd. The second calendar is one you don’t even notice most of the time, but it keeps track of the Big Dates. Even when you’re not trying to remember, it does. Heightened emotions around certain events makes them stick in our heads stronger. Which is why, even without paying attention to it, I always feel low in the week leading up to January 9 – the day I had to have emergency surgery because I was dying. It’s been 19 years, and yet still, every January 9, my energy is flat. January 19 – the day I had to have another round of emergency surgery because I was dying, again, and had to say goodbye to my father and best friend at 4 in the morning because my chances of making it were 25%. For 19 years, without me wanting to remember those two dates, my brain keeps track and remembers. Now I remember October 13 as well, the day I got put in the psych ward against my will.

It’s hard to explain how four days messed me up so much. But – try to imagine if everything you did or said, you were told was wrong. And considered wrong purely on the basis of a bit of paper saying that you’re mentally unsound, and therefore nothing you do could possibly be a normal human reaction. I was repeatedly told off for breaking rules, but no one told me the rules. That I was tired, that I wasn’t tired, that I was hungry, that I wasn’t hungry, that I was calm, that I was upset… all signs that I was mentally unsound. I wanted to yell at them: “Tell me what normal behaviour is then, and I’ll do that.” That would’ve definitely been considered mentally unsound.

Some days I really wish that, when I’d been admitted to the psych ward, someone had sat down and held my hand and told me that they knew I’d be a bit freaked out by all this, and that ending up in the psych ward was probably a shock and not what I had planned for my day, but it was OK to feel that way. And that I’d be OK.

No one did that. Instead they acted like it was no surprise that I was in the psych ward and repeatedly told me I had to get better in order to be released but didn’t tell me what get better actually meant or how to do it.

It made me doubt my own brain. It made my depression worse because I was removed from all the things I used to distract myself from my depression – mainly work and television and the internet – so I spent four days with only the overwhelming negativity of my own depressed brain for company. It made me realise how entirely pointless my life is.

Photo: Getty Images

On Thursday I saw my hospital psychologist, The Lovely Harry. I see him every week. In his notes from our first session – two years and two months ago – he wrote that “a brief psychotherapeutic intervention” would be helpful for me; as in, a bit of therapy for a little while to help me cope better, to improve my quality of life. Then I was put in the psych ward and so we still meet every Thursday at 11am, unless he’s on holiday. To mark two years of us meeting, I scanned and printed out that bit from his notes, about the brief psychotherapeutic intervention. Next to it I wrote, “Well, brief in terms of the history of the universe, I guess.” I gave him a card with that note attached. We half-laughed. He nodded, yes, brief in terms of the history of the universe.

On Thursday he mentioned how he still thought that if I had moved – to London, to Paris, to the US – a long time ago, then maybe I would’ve found some kindred spirits and I wouldn’t have ended up in this place that I am. That I’d have a proper writing career and a circle of creative friends; he thinks sculptors and poets make for a good mix. Later we talked about Sunday and the anniversary of my being sectioned and he asked if I’d made plans to do something on Sunday, and I half-smiled sadly at him and said, “Want to go to Paris for the weekend?” And he half-laughed sadly.

I told him I’d probably stay in bed all day and get drunk. He said that staying in bed all day seemed like a good plan, but maybe rather than drunk I could just be mildly buzzed. Enough to take the edge off the day, if I felt I needed to drink.

I didn’t tell him that what I wanted to do is wake up and find Rawiri next to me. He probably guessed that that’s what I’d want though; Harry is smart like that. I wanted to spend the entire day in bed with Rawiri and have a little human contact for a while. But since it’s been five and a half months since he ghosted me, that was always pretty unlikely. He was always super accepting of my depression and suicidality and anxiety and me, but I don’t think he’d have suddenly woken up with the urge to be with me on a day that I find really stressful, especially when he doesn’t know the actual anniversary date. I’m not quite up to messaging him and asking for a sympathy fuck, but I definitely wouldn’t say no if he offered it.

The only human touch I get any more is when my beauty therapist gives me a hug at my appointments. They’re superb hugs, but still, it’s not a lot to sustain myself on.

Two years ago I’d just found my dream premises to move my business to. For three years I’d been looking for premises that fit with what I needed. I’d had this picture in my head for 10 years of how I needed my business to work in order to create something sustainable. The new premises even had a small room where I could put a bed so that I could rest during the day, because I’d realised that I need to have daytime sleeps in order to manage my mental health better. Two years ago $14,000 worth of equipment had just arrived in the country, as part of this next big step forward. It was stressful and scary but I was excited. Depressed – because I’ve had depression since I was a kid, so depression is often in the mix – and struggling, but excited. If things went OK in a couple of years I’d have a bit more freedom, I’d have a lifestyle where I could cope better.

I closed up my business 21 months ago. All that equipment is still sitting in its shipping crates. I should probably sell it some time soon.

Photo: Getty Images

You don’t get ACC for your depression being made worse by the health system. You don’t get support or payments of any kind. When your psychiatrist is having a really shitty week in the lead-up to seeing you (assessing a patient and declaring them to be fine, and that patient then going home and trying to kill their children before killing themselves); when your psychiatrist is overworked and stressed, having to explain to management their clinical reasoning with that other patient, on the same day he’ll meet you for the first time and then declare you suicidal and mentally unsound – that isn’t medical misadventure, it’s just bad luck as far as the system’s concerned. And not their responsibility.

When I had mediation with the psychiatrist who put me in the ward, Harry acted as the informal mediator. Beforehand Harry encouraged the psychiatrist – I call him Voldemort, because hearing his actual name makes me have an anxiety attack – to tell me about what had been going on with him that week. Voldemort decided not to tell me about that other patient, about the stress. Voldemort had said to Harry that maybe, maybe, he’d made the wrong decision with me. Harry encouraged Voldemort to apologise to me, on the basis that it would help both Voldemort and myself heal a little.

Voldemort didn’t. He remained super aloof and told me that he’d had trouble “hearing” me that day. There was one moment when his defences slid, when he said that yes, maybe it wasn’t always helpful for patients with depression to be put in the psych ward. And then he inhaled and his defences went back up and he told me that those patients could just have therapy after the ward and then they’d be fine.

I’m not fine.

Someone said to me that only people who really need to be in the psych ward are sectioned. There aren’t enough resources to just section people willy-nilly. That hurt a lot, hearing that. When I told Harry – and by told I mean I was crying because maybe I’m so broken I don’t even recognise that I did deserve to go into the psych ward – his response was, “Fuck that. The wrong people are put in the psych ward all the time.” And yes, while the theory of not-enough-resources-so-only-those-in-need-are-sectioned is fine, in theory, it overlooks the reality that the paperwork, the decisions about that, are made by psychiatrists. Who are humans with flaws, because we all have flaws. Humans who are overworked and stressed and a bit rushed that day. Humans who are having a shitty week. So sometimes they’re going to make the wrong call.

I really wish the mental health system would support their staff better, so they didn’t have to have too many shitty weeks. Selfishly I wish this because if the staff are supported and doing better, then the patients are going to get better treatment. I feel sad for Voldemort – I mean, yes, I’m still angry at him, but sad too – that he had to have a really bad week and then he and I were put in front of each other, and that was never going to go well, given the patient who’d committed suicide after he’d said they were OK. Of course he was going to be excessively cautious and likely to be questioning his judgment when he met with me. But no one looked at his diary and said, “You know what, maybe we’ll change around your appointments for this week so that you don’t have to meet with this patient we’ve noted as being moderately depressed with chronic suicidality.” Instead we were left to collide with each other’s shitty week. Kaboom.

This is what I did yesterday, two years after I went into the psych ward against my will. I stayed in bed all day, with the curtains closed. My beauty therapist gave me her Netflix log-in, so I binge-watched Sex Education and Gillian Anderson is still super hot and somehow that made things a bit more tolerable. I cried. I slept. I drank just enough throughout the day to maintain feeling slightly buzzed most of the time. No one showed up to offer me sympathy sex. Just after 5 this morning I woke up and cried non-stop for 10 minutes.

I know, someone else would go through that same experience and come out the other side doing OK. But this is what the psych ward did to me. I don’t leave the house very often because I find it overwhelming and I don’t trust people much any more. My appointments with Harry are the good thing in my week. The only other times I usually leave the house are to see my beauty therapist or osteopath. I’m in debt because I don’t have any income (well, I average about $100 a month from writing, but that isn’t really an income, is it?).

The day I went into the psych ward I was struggling. The day I came out of the psych ward I was broken. Two years after going into the psych ward against my will, I’m still broken. In the last couple of months I’ve realised that what I’ve really been wanting is for someone to apologise. And mean it. Voldemort. The hospital. Someone to say sorry, that it was a bad judgment call. Sorry. Sorry for damaging you, Paula.

No one is going to say sorry.

Keep going!