By Howida Tarabzooni MA ’21. Art by Alex Park ’23.
Recently, I got 5150’d. How recently? As I’m writing this sentence.
If you’re unaware of what a 5150 is, it’s slang for an involuntary psychiatric commitment of someone who is a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness. There’s a long story about how I got here. But there wasn’t a terrible sequence of events as one might think, a lot of things just went wrong in the perfect way. To be honest, it’s actually kind of funny how I ended up in the psych ward of Rhode Island Hospital.
Like any situation, we need some background, and we need to point out the elephant in the room: I’m mentally ill. I don’t have a strict diagnosis due to my almost nomadic lifestyle and fear of being committed to a psych ward. I’ve had a ton of psychiatrists in the past, I knew something was wrong in the seventh grade when I suddenly had mood-swings that were uncharacteristic of teenage angst. I don’t really know what I have, I have a set of symptoms. I just know it’s something that is not normal brain chemistry. I mean, I have a mental thing? I have ADHD, but it’s neither a mental illness nor a learning disability, it’s just something that causes my executive function to be disrupted. I have symptoms of something else but it is really hard to open up to a psychiatrist when your non-ADHD symptoms are paranoia and suicidal thoughts. Once you mention suicide or thoughts of self harm, things usually start going in a bad direction, very quickly.
For the most part, I have successfully suppressed them for over a decade. They haven’t really bothered me, to be honest. The reason I ended up seeking psychiatric help was because I needed sleeping medication. However, most people are quick to diagnose me with depression when they meet me. I have really low energy levels due to my iron levels, which are just a few points above needing a blood transfusion, and the lack of social circle I have due to social awkwardness. Hallmark symptoms of depression. But the reality of it is that I don’t match the DSM-V criteria for it. Unfortunately for everyone who wants to diagnose me with depression, I’m very proactive and constantly thinking about the future—in a good way. I like to try to plan ahead, despite my ADHD getting in my way every time.
I know having suicidal thoughts is dangerous, and to many people it might make them question my safety and ability to take care of myself. I don’t personally find them distressing. They’re just thoughts. They’re like making an itemized to-do list in your head. I’m more than aware that they make other people concerned, so I just hide them from other people to make them more than comfortable. I hide them from my therapists and psychiatrists until I establish that I am a functional human being, and that I am not a harm to myself. It sucks, doesn’t it? The fact that you have to play mind games to be taken seriously by someone who’s supposed to help you.
However, I don’t want to sit and harp on what mental disorders I could have, or what traumas made me what I am today. That would be invasive and incredibly time-consuming. If you would like, however, you can armchair diagnose me while reading this.
All you need to know is that the events that lead up to my involuntary hospitalization build up the world’s weakest case for “this person is a harm to themselves or others.” What does that statement even mean? It seems so vague. I’d consider Elon Musk and Jeff Bezoes to both be a very direct harm to others, but no one would 5150 them. No one 5150s white boys who threaten to shoot up schools. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that 5150s are more than often a display of power dynamics to scare the mentally ill to be normal. Mentally ill people are easy to threaten and scare, and they make for great power trips. Our agency is not worth the same as someone who is ‘sane’.
The timeline that leads to my hospitalization isn’t too long, there are four events that fall before it. I’ll try not to dwell on each one for too long and simplify them.
In June of 2019, a few days after my graduation from NYIT and a few weeks after my admission to Brown University, I decided to hang out with a boy I met at my commencement. We exchanged numbers, after receiving our diplomas. I was so happy that day, I thought I had finally completed a social interaction correctly. I was so excited to have a new friend, but it turned out that I had misread the air of the situation completely. I was forced into an uncomfortable date, and I was too nice to say ‘no’ when he asked for a kiss. I threw up a little in my mouth when he touched me. I could’ve said ‘no,’ I know that. I’m a big person, I could’ve snapped him like a twig if I wanted to. I froze. I wasn’t raped—that’s too harsh of a word—I was just assaulted. When I got home from the grave of what I thought would be a blooming friendship, I slumped in my best friend’s bed, feeling as if every bit of agency I had was taken away from me because I couldn’t think. I really didn’t know how to deal with it. I kept it all inside of me, and told myself it would blow over before I moved to Providence.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that 5150s are more than often a display of power dynamics to scare the mentally ill to be normal.
That plan worked as well as you might have expected.
I knew I needed help, so I reached out for it. I’m my own best advocate, I’ve known this since I was young. So I looked for a new psychiatrist in Providence, I opened up to my psychiatrist about a few things. I wanted to feel better. I didn’t have any thoughts of harming myself or others, but I did say one damning thing that would come to bite me in the ass. When the psychiatrist had asked me, “Could you describe your suicidal thoughts to me?” I smiled and answered, “On the way here from work, I walked by the pedestrian bridge, and thought, ‘this might be a nice place to kill myself’”. He twisted his face into a frown. That wasn’t normal. I knew it wasn’t, but it was my normal. He tried to push me for inpatient or a partial program, I told him I’ll let him know if I had the time. My priorities at that moment were work and school. They still are, but I knew I didn’t have time to do something. I knew for a fact I would just aggravate my mental status even more.
So putting work and school first, I went through my first semester just feeling a little bit like I was lagging behind everyone, but I was also having the time of my life. December came around, and I had just completed my first final, and I was on my way to the lab to see if the first big experiment I did by myself worked. And guess what? On my first try, I had an 80% success rate of transforming CRISPR plasmids into Candida parapsilosis. That was going to be the cherry on top of my semester. I could almost taste the “World Renowned Geneticist” that people would describe me as. However, my PI had other ideas, despite the success of the experiment, he left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I was dismissed from the lab because I was a hazard to myself and others.
What did I do after I got the devastating news? I emailed my advisor and three labs I had interviewed with in the summer to get the ball rolling right away. I couldn’t really do anything else. But I dealt with it well, I like to think. I ended up going to the library to work on my final projects, eating hot cheetos for dinner. I was upset, but it didn’t warrant enough for me to have a breakdown or anything since I had everything under control.
The final event was my psych appointment at 9:30 in the morning. Feeling awful from having hot cheetos for dinner, I quickly threw whatever on and walked to my psych appointment. I marked all the items on the questionnaire at a 5, out of habit more than anything, and then I went to see my psychiatrist. I was visibly upset when I walked into the office. Getting fired from a job usually does do that to a person. I opened the discussion with a mention of me using drugs, like every other student on campus, I just wanted him to be aware in case he wanted to prescribe me something. Then we talked for a while, and when he asked me if I had thoughts of killing myself, my smart ass decided to answer with “I wouldn’t kill myself in Providence, I have roommates.” He kept prodding me about my suicidal thoughts and I finally said “If I wanted to kill myself I would do it back home. But no, I won’t kill myself as long as I’m here and I have my roommates.”
Yeah. I know. I know. This is partially my fault, but he wasn’t going to let me go until I told him I was dismissed from work. Apparently, I was in crisis mode. He called in the crisis team and I essentially went non-verbal. I would answer in one word answers because of the stress of the situation and they had taken what I said out of context and applied in a racist connotation.
I told them my parents tolerated how I look, and they didn’t really like it. My parents are hardcore Muslims. I have a total of four piercings on my face and purple hair. I’m not mad at them for not tolerating how I looked, I know it’s uncomfortable for them, but as long as they respect it, I’m okay. My relationship with my parents is sort of complex in a way that would require a powerpoint to explain. I love them, but my relationship with my parents is anything but Western. The crisis team took it as me being in distress about my parents not liking me. They took the fact that I was Saudi Arabian as a reason as to why I was mentally ill. Here’s the thing, though, I had a rough childhood due to my ADHD, not due to the fact that I was Saudi. They told me a lot of people who are Saudis go home and feel like they are pressured to conform. I don’t really care what others think about me, but my feelings weren’t consulted when they had come up with that racist conclusion.
They tried to explain to me that I could do a partial, that if I could guarantee I was safe for today they’ll put me involuntarily tomorrow (like that was any better) and I just shut down because I was overwhelmed. My mind was overwhelmed with thoughts that I couldn’t convey. If they had given me a piece of paper and a pen I would’ve been able to express my concerns and communicate. My psychiatrist walked into the room and had a paper in his hands for an involuntary hold. I was told it was a voluntary hold, that all I really needed to do was go to the hospital and talk to a psychiatrist there, and then if I was okay they’d let me go.
Boy, I wish any of that happened. This is where everything starts to get awful.
After that, EMS escorted me to the emergency room, I sat there all gloomy and sad. I don’t know why I didn’t just leave, walk out of the emergency room before someone from psych took me. I do know actually. If I had shown resistance they would restrain me in four point restraints. I was honestly scared to walk out. I was paralyzed with fear. I had to just make it to the psych evaluation, and then I could go home and work on my final.
All that planning flew right out the window when I got to the psych emergency room. All I have to say is that it was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. When you arrive at the psych emergency room, you are stripped of all of your humanity, dignity, and agency. I was escorted by a large police officer, and a transport aide to the entrance of D-Pod. I was wheeled into a white room where I had to undress with everyone watching me. If that wasn’t enough, I wasn’t undressing fast enough for the liking of one of the nurses, so she tried to force my bra off of me, while there were two men in the room. I smacked her hand off my bra, and the police saw me as a threat, something that was no longer human. I felt violated, and the police saw me as an animal that they needed to use force on.
After surrendering all my belongings to the hospital, I was escorted to my bed by two police officers. I slouched down on the bed, cross legged and unresponsive. I was catatonic due to the sheer overload of emotions. I didn’t let them take my vitals, and I didn’t speak to anyone, but my head was rushing with thoughts. For a couple of hours, I was just stuck in my stupor. I can’t really remember what happened for the first few hours other than my vitals being taken every hour on the hour, and then being tucked in by the only nice nurse in D-pod.
I had one singular outburst when I was down there. How they had treated that outburst sealed it for me that I was subhuman to them. I woke up from my slumber screaming and crying. It hit me in my dreams that I was going to miss my final, and that I would be about five thousand dollars in debt by the time I left the hospital. I think it’s funny that the more pressing thing on my mind was school rather than my own well-being, but once you’re a grad student, you have to think about things in terms of practicality. And to be completely honest? I would still value my final more than my own life. Do you want to know what happened when I had a panic attack? The police who patrolled around the unit stood outside my room and tried to aggravate me more instead of being useful and calling a nurse. I ended up throwing my medical bracelet at one of them, and the bastard had the gall to pick it up— mispronouncing my name a few times for good measure—to make sure that I was angry and ready to bite. This is what I mean when I say that part of an involuntary hold is just a power trip, they want to show you that they do have power over you.
In my poetry, I am a wolf. This beast, ugly, raw, and primal. In real life, I’m the same, but I bit my tongue for the rest of my stay in emergency psych. I did throw my blanket at the police officer though, because she was being rude and taunting me for crying. For almost forty hours, I was alone and trapped in a 4×4 room. I never got the promised psych evaluation. I felt like I was being lied to by everyone, that I had actually lost my mind. That combined with absolutely no form of stimulation had nearly driven me to suicide. It was almost like I was being forced to have a mental breakdown so they could justify keeping me there.
I slept a lot while I was there. I wasn’t allowed magazines or books— let alone a conversation with the hospital psychiatrist. The nurses actually kept lying to me about calling down the on-call psychiatrist and were perplexed when I was angry that for the past five hours I was waiting to be seen and was never even acknowledged. When one of the nurses finally called him down, and I explained the situation, he told me I was comitted the moment I stepped into D-Pod, and that I couldn’t leave and that he wouldn’t do the psych evaluation that I was promised. He blamed me for being unresponsive. It happened a lot while I was there, the being lied to about something that could be clarified in a sentence or the being blamed for something out of my control. When I ripped my ugly paper scrubs in my sleep I was yelled at for being a nuisance by both security and the nurses. I stayed in D-Pod for almost forty hours, mind you. Some people stay there for weeks.
A bed eventually cleared up, and I was escorted from D-Pod to the fifth floor of the Jane Brown building where the psych ward was. Peeking into it through the glass window, I thought that maybe it would be better in there, that there wouldn’t be any verbal abuse. I was right to a degree. The verbal abuse was just more patronizing and disdainful, and it wasn’t dished out as often. Sometimes the nurses there still lied to you, even if you tried to be sincere.
Once I got settled into my room at the psych ward, I was reverted to a five year old child. The five days I spent there somehow became long hours that melded together. There is no comfort in that statement, as one. While I understand that we had to have routines, because usually that helps people who are mentally ill, it felt downright condescending that there were specific times for snacks and drinks instead of an on-demand basis with a limit of three snacks. I don’t mind having meals at set times during the day, but taking the freedom of snacking whenever, after an especially desolate stay at D-Pod, upset me. It wasn’t the worst thing about the ward, but it was definitely distressing for someone with food issues like me to have that control taken away from them. It also didn’t help that we weren’t allowed to keep leftover food in our rooms for later out of fear for ants.
The worst thing about the ward was the lack of entertainment and stimulation. Usually, from my understanding, inpatient usually has group therapies throughout the day,art classes of varying complexity, and other engaging activities. It was sort of a slap in the face when the only engaging thing you can do everyday was color for an hour. You were basically a child, and you weren’t here to get better, you were just here to be babysat. The only other thing we had in terms of activities was a check-in group in the morning, where we just checked in with each other. We weren’t allowed to converse with each other in group, just report how we felt and then sit and listen to everyone else. It felt useless considering we were also checking in without psychiatrists every morning.
Other than the groups, we had two choices for entertainment: sit and journal with short unsharpened golf pencils or wait for the nurses to turn on the TV. There were books, even if they were limited and mostly obscure dollar bin books, sure, but the books themselves weren’t available to us at any time, and most of the patients didn’t know they could ask for books. Some of these patients had been in the Jane Brown building for months, but they just did not know that they could ask for these books, I had to tell them because I was pressing for it and annoying the nurses. If you were to ask for the paper, despite it being delivered to the rest of the hospital, they would tell you that it was just not possible to get one. We were essentially cut off from the real world. It was sincerely cruel, especially to those who already had a poor sense of reality like me.
To be honest, everything felt like I was a child again, but in a way where I had no control over anything, and everything I said was either made up or taken lightly. No one would take my concerns to heart, and when those concerns were a thirty year old man constantly hitting on you, it certainly fucking sucked! Yeah, while the nurses were stretched thin sometimes, I really should not have been subjected to creeps watching me and trying to get close to me when I wasn’t interested, because you know, who looks for love in the psych ward?
I could describe my five-day stay there day by day, but they all blended into one because of how dull they were, and how exhausting the dullness was. I didn’t have that glimmer of hope that I usually had whenever I went to bed. I felt dread for the next day that was going to be wasted instead of being used productively. That place, it wasn’t at all helpful to me. It was a prison that forced me to take up less space in the world, and used the fear of being in there for months to force me to repress my emotions. I had to appear normal and sane, but the thing is, that was something that I could not feasibly do in a few days, not even months, really.
Part of me died in there. Once I left the hospital, I started crying on my way home to grieve what I had lost in there, because I knew it wouldn’t grow back, nothing would flourish. In between being treated like a child, and shamed into being ‘normal’, I had lost some of my dignity and self worth. I did not come out of this stronger. I came out of this ashamed and mortified. I am a flawed individual, this I know, but this had broken my spirit instead of reinforcing it and giving me the tools to fix myself.
For two nights I could not sleep, and had to leave Providence. I was afraid I would wake up in the psych ward, and have to prove myself all over again. It was a nightmare looming in the horizon.
I’m writing this on the 6:00pm bus to New York. I had been manipulated, lied to, and gaslit during that entire experience. I found out when I allowed them to contact my sister for a character reference that they had lied about my mental state to her because they wanted access to information that I wouldn’t sign over. They portrayed me as a drug addict who had a complete breakdown and was essentially catatonic. They didn’t know that I was calling my sister everyday asking her to email my professors, and she would tell me what they told her. When I confronted my psychiatrist about this, she acted like she didn’t know anything about it, despite my sister hearing otherwise. There also seemed to be this other set of lies upstream, where my psychiatrist in the ward was told that I had plans for suicide by jumping off a bridge, which is why I was comitted. The thing is, I really wouldn’t kill myself, let alone throw myself into the toxic waters of the Providence River. I realized that my other psychiatrist had lied, and taken something I said over three months ago during our first meeting, out of context.
I can’t seem to piece together why any of this happened if I look too closely at it, other than I was having an upsetting day, and I was overwhelmed by adults telling me what was best for me without letting me speak, and without explaining anything to me. And you don’t have to believe in anything I’ve said here. I could be lying and making this up like a crazy person, because I am, well, a certified crazy person. I hope you felt some sort of compassion for me, some empathy, that all these doctors, nurses and police officers didn’t. That I wasn’t a liar, and that context was thrown out the door for the sake of being shamed.
I was failed by the system. I was failed over and over, and almost fell through the cracks, had it not been for my sister who stood up for me, who loved me enough to be my advocate. She never had to do that, you know, she could have just lied. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I just didn’t go to my appointment that day. I think I would’ve done fine and cried on the way home a little bit more before going to the library to finish my final. Maybe I would have asked the guy I like out. Who knows? It’s in the past now.
There is no takeaway from this. This is my side of a probably complex story. I have no moral or lesson to give. All I can say is that involuntary hospitalizations are more than often traumatizing to the victim, they are an exercise in fear and terror, rather than being productive. If your loved one is having a hard time, let us decide if we want to go to the hospital or not, it will make us feel less helpless and more loved and wanted, which is sometimes what we need. Give us the choice, and when we can’t talk give us a voice. Use your intuition, and work with us. We beg you to please try.
I am eviscerated. There is no way I’m going to heal from this experience soon. I have lost my trust in psychiatry and therapy, and I have no idea if I’ll ever go back to it. I am even more heartbroken over the fact that I was one of the lucky ones. Despite the fact that I am in the sixth best biotechnology program in the country, despite the fact that I had a loving group of friends, and roommates who cared about me, I was failed. Some people don’t have it as good as I do. They don’t have a home to return to after their stay. Some get abandoned by their families, and I can only imagine what that feels like. I’ve heard stories from patients with me in the ward who were sexually assaulted by doctors, or had violence inflicted upon them due to their uncontrollable behavior. Hell, I saw it happen right in front of me, where one of the male patients took advantage of a patient who was off her meds. Another patient and I had to step in to stop it.
People get stuck in this system, because it forces them to get retraumatized over and over. This experience has greatly distressed me, and I am helpless about it. Just as I was helpless over my sexual assault.
If your loved one is having a hard time, let us decide if we want to go to the hospital or not, it will make us feel less helpless and more loved and wanted, which is sometimes what we need.
So I end with this, even if after you read all of this you’re afraid to reach out, still reach out. My experience will not define yours. Do not suffer in silence, and if you need an advocate, ask for one. You can only stand up for yourself for so long before you’re broken down. Reach out to a friend or a family member you know and can trust. People do love you.
I wasn’t expecting people to love me, and yet during finals week, many of my friends came to visit me once I was able to get the news out. They bought me books to keep me entertained because I cried out for books due to the mind numbing boredom. They were also kind enough to listen to me, and understand the situation, unlike every mental health provider I had talked to.
This whole experience was awful and shameful, but it reminded me that I was loved, and that people cared about me, at the very least. You are loved too, if you need to be reminded, ask for it. There is no shame in asking. I did, with both my sister and my friends while I was hopeless and humiliated.
A new part of me will grow where another part died. A ravaged city covered in weeds, I know something beautiful will flourish. I just need to nurture it and cultivate the right environment. I’ll look forward and await the springtime bloom. We should all always look forward.