Excerpt From Driftwood. Chapter 8.
Context: Age 13. After a few hours of being locked out, I got terrified as night fell and banged on the door for them to let me in. When they wouldn’t. I threw a rock at the window. This landed me in Georgia Regional Hospital. After a 5 minute intake interview with a psychiatrist at 4:30 in the morning I was taken to the teen ward…
At around 5 or 6 in the morning, I was awakened by a phlebotomist sticking a needle in my arm, trying and failing to draw blood. I can’t imagine any creepier way to be woken up. Especially given I had the typical Freddy Kruger nightmare, after all, I was in a teen ward of a mental hospital a-la dream warriors. Luckily, I hadn’t pissed myself during the nightmare, I guess my experiences with my grandma sending me to Charter Beacon prepped me for the whole situation so it wasn’t as traumatic as it should have been.
The nurse, didn’t have time for my damn questions like “who are you” and “why are you sticking me in the arm”, ”why are you sticking me in the arm again?”, “why are you going so deep” and “owe you’re hurting me. Seriously do you even know what you’re doing?” When she finally found the vein, she took like a half dozen big vials of blood, told me to go back to bed, and left. They woke me up again at around 7 for breakfast on unit. In case you lost track during my rundown of the kids, staff, and facility, I arrived at the unit at 3 or 4 in the morning, got my blood drawn at 5 in the morning and was getting told to come to breakfast at 7. That’s about 3-4 hours of repeatedly interrupted sleep and that was after weeks of barely sleeping while living on the streets. Needless to say, I wasn’t a little ray of sunshine my first day.
I was taken to see my therapist/case manager after breakfast. She did a basic mental status exam which irritated me because the questions were ridiculous. Who is the president, do you know where you are, do you have a history of mental illness in your family? She seemed receptive to me during the questioning. Followed up my one-word answers with additional questions, the answers to which ultimately didn’t matter. Or maybe my answers were just too “out there” to be believable.
Have you ever been in a psychiatric hospital before? Yes. What for. My grandma found a goosebumps book. Have you ever wished you were dead or wanted to die? Yes. What was the situation surrounding that? My uncle told the boy I had a crush on that I liked him, and they laughed at me. Why did you run away from the shelter? Because they told me to.
The therapist/case manager informed me that the psychiatrist diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder and that I would be starting medications that afternoon. Depakote, 1500 milligrams / 750 twice daily. Even without knowing a thing about psychiatric medications, that sounded like a lot. But I wasn’t in the mood or in a position to argue with her or advocate for myself. In fact, I was glad they diagnosed me with something. It meant I could stay, that I didn’t have to go back to the shelter. Regional was the back way into a group home and I needed to be crazy for that to work out.
As an adult looking back on this, with a smidgen of understanding of neuropsychopharmacology and differential diagnosis of mental illness, I am appalled by this whole process. I wasn’t even there 24 hours and I received an Axis 1 diagnosis. I wasn’t in a manic phase. I wasn’t depressed, at least not to an extent of depression that would be illogical for someone who spent weeks on the street, was rejected by everyone she sought help with, and who was being punished by the system for NOT allowing herself to have a device implanted into her arm. If I weren’t depressed, that would have been crazy.
There was no observational period, they didn’t have time to get records from the shelter to justify the diagnoses with my whole imaginary friend beating me up bullshit. And even if they did, the shelter staff knew I was full of it. Like I said, their response to Billy was “girl, go sit your ass down somewhere.” The only thing they had that was concrete was that I ran away from the shelter. A toxic abusive shelter that had already sent me to jail for a game of baseball. Yes, I threw a rock at the window when they refused to let me in and I did that because I was rightfully scared and angry and literally in a neighborhood where the staff knew girls had been gang-raped.
Again, any person worth their weight in degrees conducting a mental status exam has to ask themselves if “symptoms” or problematic behaviors have any etiology other than mental illness. Was my behavior related to a medical condition? No. Was it Environmental? Yes. Was is it situational? YES. Hell, the fuck yes! Then it’s not a diagnosable mental illness. But none of that mattered. Not for me and not for any other kid that I met while in care who were being force-fed drugs to medicate them into submission. By the way, that Depakote dose I was STARTED ON… the normal starting dose for that med is like 60-250 mg a day.
There were rumors among the kids, that DFACS got more money for us if we were crazy. That that they got even more money from the government if we were medicated. We also thought that the drug companies were paying the foster system to test their drugs on us. It was the only thing that made sense. You know all those side effects that you hear about in the drug commercials? We had them. It didn’t matter if a kid who had never in their life attempted to harm themselves or thought of suicide suddenly became a cutter with an unyielding drive to commit suicide, that wasn’t equated to the meds. That was us. Being crazy. And as such we just needed more meds to knock out the crazy. And when the medications didn’t have an effect on maladaptive behaviors… well just drug ‘em some more, keep increasing the dose til it does.
No matter the side effect, they wouldn’t let us off the meds and if they did, they would just switch us to another med. I am not joking when I say that. Years later, I ended up in a group home. Towards the end of my stay there, one of my friends was put on Zoloft and he began seeing purple bunnies. I still remember him telling a staff member that the bunny was back and the staff member just telling him it a temporary side effect that would eventually go away. More on this kid later. More on all of this later. By the way, not a happy ending for that kid.
Anyway, if they did take us off a medication due to a side effect, it was only in the event that it was something documentable, lab-related. Like two years later when my liver enzymes later went crazy and they had to immediately halt the Depakote (I was on 3k mg by then). They immediately put me on Lithium which the nurse informed me I couldn’t play around with because it could mess up my heart. They’d just taken me off something that messed up my liver and now were telling me they were putting me on a med that could affect my heart. When my labs showed no lithium in my system, they made me take it in liquid form.
That’s what they did. You were going to take those meds whether you wanted to or not. If not pills, liquid, if not liquid, injection. Those were the threats. While we were in Regional, Ben was forced to take his meds via a shot in the arm. It didn’t matter that even with injections, he still acted like a little asshat.
When the medications had no effect on our behavior, they would just up the dose more and more, never stopping to think maybe our behavior wasn’t a psychiatric condition, but just teenagers being rebellious. I was on like 3000mg a day of Depakote by the time my liver enzymes got jacked up by it. By that time, I was only 15 years old. 15 and on 3k mg of a powerful psychiatric drug a day… all started because I ran away from a shelter at 13 and the psychiatrist who gave me 5 minutes of his time diagnosed me with a disorder that not only did I not have, but that he couldn’t have accurately diagnosed in the time between meeting him and putting me on the medication. Again, ahead of myself.
In this period of my life, the side effects weren’t so severe, but I got just about every discernable one. The first thing that I experienced; my lips swelled. I don’t mean like a puffy pouty lip, I mean hard nodules that would sometimes appear on my upper or lower lip. Big ones, like acorn seeds under my lip. They were even hard to the touch and would last a few days to a few weeks then go away… The other kids made fun of me for this, and since I was one of the maybe two black kids there that mockery was “looks like Zeda’s nigger lips are coming in.”
I was a teenager. My body was already changing like crazy, I thought maybe they were right, maybe I was just getting big lips. That kind of upset me more than the teasing because of the way that the boys in elementary and middle school made fun of the black girls who had big lips. They would call them Wanda and Sha Nay Nay, after Jamie Foxx’s sketch character on In Living Color and Martin Lawrence’s character on Martin… It wasn’t okay to be a black girl with black features back then…not even around other black people…. Thanks for the torment, Martin.
Then my skin started changing. I got these dark thick patches of skin on my cheeks and around the side of my mouth. My whole face darkened, but the thick dark line on my nose and the other dark patches on my face were darker than even that. Back then, it wasn’t okay to be a dark-skinned girl. But it damn sure wasn’t okay to just have dark blotches. The other kids who would see my arms and hands would make fun of me. That bitches face like 10 times darker than the rest of her body hahahahaha. This was when the girl who had lupus and I got into our argument. The one where she said, “I have Lupus what’s your excuse.” That remark hit me. Cause I didn’t have one. I didn’t know what was going on with my body and it was freaking me out.
You know, I never thought of myself as pretty before…but even looking in the mirror after the hyperpigmentation started made me cry. It got to where I didn’t even look in mirrors anymore. Legit brushed my teeth with my eyes closed. I was ugly. Hideous. I couldn’t stomach my own face. Again, I didn’t link it to the medication. I didn’t know enough about medication side effects to link it to a medication. For all I knew, puberty was just ransacking me and turning me into Quasimodo. The staff never linked it to the meds either, a psychiatrist could have. They’re trained to know the ins and outs of side effects. But I never saw the fucking psychiatrist after that first morning. Just a therapist/case manager whose focus was on finding me a placement and assessing whether or not I was suicidal.
The last side effect was the kicker. I ballooned. They didn’t let us look at the scales when they weighed us in the morning, so I do not know how much weight I gained. I know it threw me over the 200lb mark while I was there, and I was about 250/260 by the time I would later end up back in the shelter when I got to see a doctor again. It wasn’t like at the shelter, where I was amazed by the concept of second helpings and didn’t know how to control myself and put on 15-20lbs because I didn’t fully comprehend the consequences of that second tasty burger. Here, our diets were heavily regulated, there was no trading food. There were no seconds….well unless you got on a level where you could go to the cafeteria for meals and had parents who gave you money to buy food, like Ben. I was putting on massive amounts of weight just eating the food that was given to me at a hospital.