Anonymous: A Young Man's Journey to and From Cherokee: Afraid and Involuntary, So When Will You Listen?
[Editor’s note: The following was written by a young man who emailed me using his real name. He has given me permission to publish this piece here. However, I have decided to post this anonymously, given how, even in the 21st Century, there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues. For informational purposes, I have also provided links to the books and websites he has mentioned, but I have not vetted them. As of June 22, 2023, the links to websites were live.]
I was involuntarily committed to Cherokee in May 1990 for a month and a half. I was court ordered there through Mary Greeley Hospital in Ames, Iowa. I wanted a cigarette and there was no smoking on the psych ward in Mary Greeley.
The doctor recorded in my file reported I went “berserk.”
I was not allowed to smoke, so yeah, at 21, scared, and addicted, I wanted to smoke.
Open door with a white line from door jamb to door jamb, a young black male attendant at his desk inside, my name under an open shelf just inside this line to my left, I played with the attendant putting my steel-toed boot toe over the line, pointing to my cheap cigs. Play became power play, and he gave me an ultimatum.
I ended up here because I was terrified of the half-way house in Ames. I was having a reaction to Prozac and whatever else they had me on, and seeing young people drooling from over medication, my roommate having a petite-mal seizure while I was sleeping, seeing people for the first time with razor marks all over their legs and arms, sneaking out and drinking while on medication, unable to connect with anyone there with any empathy or clarity. I climbed up a pine tree in the front yard like when I was a child. Hiding there a while, I began ranting to the people below about my ideals, what I had wanted in life.
Then the cop came.
I cried because I was scared of what he would do. I came down, and they had my Mom on the phone; she convinced me to sign myself in as I couldn’t come home like I desperately wanted. I didn’t know what I was signing. So was I voluntary now? I still don’t know.
I was led to a waiting room by the cop. My little suitcase, my boom box that I had just received for my 21st birthday sitting on a sterling steel table. Mary Greeley Hospital’s psych ward was full. The cop shackled my arms and legs as I cried desperately asking why. Driven to Iowa Falls to another psych ward, there for less than a week. Climbing a tree and ranting was reported in the file as a “bizarre suicide threat.” I do not remember saying I wanted to die up there.
Back at the white line and ultimatum, the black male attendant grabbed my arms and forced me into a white room. I fought back for a cig! The white room had a ceiling that lifted. Found some metal bars. Shoved them through the small glass window. Fucking with them. “I’ll cut myself with this if you won’t give me a cig...” I hid an iron bar down my pants. They opened the door. Five-eight men. I asked them, “So are you giving me a cig?”
“No, we’re not.”
“Okay.” I pulled out the iron bar dramatically and began pleading with them that I just wanted to smoke and it’s all of this.
They convinced me they would let me smoke if I handed over the bar. The tender hippie in me overcame the punk rocker in me, apparently. I handed them the bar, still deal making, and wanting to believe them.
They led me to the room with the gurney.
I walked in, defeated, but going to try and fight one more time. “Ah, man, you’re going to strap me to THIS!? OKAY, I’m gonna try and run out of here, you guys ready? ONE, TWO, THREE!”
They caught me mid-air and threw me down on the gurney, shackled me violently, and shot me full of I-don’t-know-what. I was out for what seemed days. I vaguely remember someone having to lead me to the bathroom, to help me wipe my ass. I was in a similar state when my court-appointed attorney was sitting next to me for committal to Cherokee.
I was diagnosed and believed and wanted to know what I WAS for almost 20 years, ALL of which I now do not believe. Manic depressive, mood disorder, personality disorder, psychotic features, major depression. I have been med-free for four years. I still suffer and grieve from the trauma I experienced through the psychiatric system. So-called friends and family still want to believe in diagnosis to explain this trauma, still want to believe medication is a NEEDED part of the solution.
Now 21 years clean and sober, I know that abandonment and rejection issues as well as authority figure issues have nothing to do with diagnosis. At 21, I was experiencing intense trauma and fear after my first breakup, a tumultuous three-year relationship that I desperately believed I needed more than having a direction for my life. I had been smoking pot and drinking addictively, tripping on acid, taking mushrooms, and not eating or sleeping well. I believe this led to my suicidal ideation at the time of my break-up, where my Mom, an RN, only knew of psychiatry to take care of me.
I don’t remember getting into a helicopter, but do remember landing and being shackled to another man as we slowly touched down to the landing strip near Cherokee. I was taken by a cop inside. Questioned in a large room at a large desk by a woman. Taken to the adult ward and immediately shot full of something that I had a reaction to as my jaw and body seized up. She shot me full of something else, and I slept. I was terrified of my surroundings. I was terrified of people who were “rotting” there for I don’t know how long. I was terrified by the ignorance and apathy towards other patients and me, the lack of empathy or understanding or kindness by nurses or doctors, the judgment, the distrust. So, I got out by telling them what they wanted to hear. I remember talking to Mom once at a pay phone, desperately crying to be rescued from this place. She wanted me to go along with the “treatment” there and do as they say and not get into power struggles. She had heard I “questioned” the food and “argued” with the cafeteria worker about what I was eating.
The traumatizing experiences I witnessed while there offered no protection. I was terrified of many people who were patients there as well. The sounds they made, their shaking and drooling, and zombified looks from medications, smells, sadness, anger, feeling lost. No connection, paranoia, delusional stories, and I listened and protected myself by staying away.
The one good session I remember involved asking the doctor what he thought Robin Williams’ diagnosis was. I forget his answer.
But the traumatic examples? Seeing a woman bloody after putting her arm through a window, screaming; being leered at by sexual predators; a man paying another man for sexual favors when the man being used had no self-esteem. This abused man had an older man from the outside drive me and him off the grounds in an older Cadillac and buy us a carton of cigarettes and candy. This older man tried to make out with me, but I politely said no. He didn’t force himself, fortunately. How this older man got me out on a [town] pass when I was court ordered, twice, I will never know. I found out later this older man used this man sexually for sex routinely when he was let out of Cherokee.
The tunnels connecting the buildings at Cherokee were terrifying and unmonitored, from what I could tell, though I’m sure there were cameras.
I saw so many women overly sedated and unable to speak, let alone think clearly.
I was overly sedated as well. However, the sedation I enjoyed was some ditch weed from a harmless guy who had been there since the 70’s, scraggly brown beard and long hair, teeth rotting out of his head, kind eyes, scared eyes. He talked like Scooby-Doo. Beers from a Vietnam vet who snuck off the grounds and who had first welcomed me. A job cleaning the golf course sized grounds of debris while listening to my Walkman playing Simple Minds Live, OMD, MLK giving his “free at last” speech on one of the songs, bringing me to tears.
I hope Cherokee shuts down. I am glad to hear they are considering Community-based mental health treatment centers instead, hopefully based on a model, similar to the peer run center in Western Massachusetts with its Recovery Learning Community Center. I have considered going to Cherokee to see it shut down for good!
We need more advocates for people in the mid-west, more people who are peer supporters who are psychiatric survivors! The indignity and shame and trauma these places bring with NO accountability because it’s the system and fear based and shame-based!
Check out the book Mad in America! Check out Will Hall! Check out Madness Radio! Connect with peer support on The Icarus Project! Don’t listen to the shame and trauma from the American Psychiatric Association! Don’t listen to their power and control! Find empowerment in yourself! We do not have chemical brain disorders! This is a lie! Find out for yourself. Check out the Mad in America https://www.madinamerica.com/ website. Read or listen to Anatomy of an Epidemic.
You are all not alone! You’re right! These people who are clinging to power and control and FEAR, who have lived and been engrossed in believing they are “doing what's best” in this outdated mental health system are broken just as our system is! Find compassion and lived experience empathy. Say NO to power and control, you know it when you hear it and feel it! Open Dialogue is available! Let’s find empathic support that isn’t being motivated by drug company money!
If you do not feel safe, I understand. If you need medication and a diagnosis to feel safe, I understand. I am speaking from a place of survival and a desperate need for hope and connection that brings empowerment to my life. I have my story, I grieve, and I confront how my experiences have broken my heart and those who have been close to me. I want to believe there’s another way to heal than what I’ve had. Insanity, as I’ve heard described in recovery several times, is doing something over and over again and getting the same results. Whoever reads this, I hope you find a way to survive and live within yourself and ultimately be safe and empowered with different results.
“A Young Man’s Journey to and From Cherokee, Afraid and Involuntary, So When Will You Listen?” © copyright 2015 - present, by Anonymous, may not be reprinted or reposted without the express permission of the author.