One Hellhole Where You Don't Want to Be on a Psych Hold

One Hellhole Where You Don’t Want to Be on a Psych Hold


This post was originally published on May 1, 2015.

On the eighth floor of the 120-year-old and supposedly haunted Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center is a demoralizing and dehumanizing psych ward. At least it was dehumanizing back in 1998 when I was a rosy-faced college freshman with a stomach full of liquid charcoal after overdosing on aspirin. If you don’t know, liquid charcoal is what the docs force down your mouth to pump your stomach when you’ve overdosed on something noxious.

One week prior, I’d binged on tequila shots at a USC frat house. Without realizing it, the alcohol sent me from a manic high into a major depression. Even though I wasn’t drunk when I swallowed all that maximum strength Bayer, my brain chemistry was all out of whack due to the alcohol binge—a classic bipolar crash—and I just couldn’t take the mood swing.

Even if I’d been diagnosed as bipolar before the overdose, I wouldn’t have wanted to take the meds. At the time, and to my eternal embarrassment, I was a psycho born-again Christian girl who didn’t believe in meds anymore than I believed in astrology, which was the Devil’s work. And being a good little Christian girl afraid of eternal damnation really takes the fun out of offing yourself.

So I freaked out right after I swallowed the bottle of aspirin. I called USC campus security, who called the cops, who came and took me away. They started driving me to Good Samaritan Hospital, a normal hospital, a hospital that would have taken my insurance, but I didn’t want Mom or Dad to find out lest they yank me out of school. So I begged, pleaded with the cops to take me to County-USC, a public hospital that wouldn’t bill my insurance.

This was one of the stupidest decisions I’ve made in my entire life, not only because County-USC is a hellhole, but because they slapped me with an $8,000 bill because I did have insurance. And no, my insurance wouldn’t cover it.

The ER was complete chaos. All the patients were crammed into a small hallway and I was strapped to a rickety gurney with an IV stuck inside my arm. At one point, a nurse slammed into the gurney’s railing, shoving that needle deeper into my flesh, which sent a shot of agony coursing through my veins. I squealed and mad-dogged her, and she mad-dogged me right back, not asking if I was okay or apologizing for her clumsiness. At another point, the bitchy resident doctor squirted all my blood he had just drawn from my other arm all over the sheets by accident, screaming “Shit!” into my face.

Then this shrink came to see me. He wore a plastic smile and a slightly alarming air of calm—I wondered if he was doped up on Xanax or Valium. He told me I had to stay in that place for 72 hours. Then, at around 5 am, an orderly wheeled my gurney over to the psych unit, which consisted of a single room with old linoleum floors and eight single beds. I could smell rubbery, shitty eggs getting scrambled and some potatoes cooking. Breakfast already. A patient in one of the beds, an older Hispanic woman with a bad case of alcoholism, said hello.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“I’m Tracy.”

“Why are you in here?”

“I tried to kill myself,” I said.

“But you’re so pretty! Why would you do that?”

It was the last thing I expected to hear. The whole reason I was locked up in there was because I was convinced I was a complete mess, and now I was being told I was too pretty to be crazy.

When the orderly came to load me up on the bed, he said he had to restrain me. One of my legs went into a leather strap, and somehow he discovered I was a freshman at USC.

“What’s a smart girl like yourself doing here?” he asked.

I had no idea. I had no idea what was happening to me, why I was up and down and then up again and then down again, although some members of my church suspected I might be possessed by the Devil.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

Not 30 minutes later and this high-strung woman came into the room screaming, restrained by two burly men, and she kept crying about how they took her baby away. A crack addict of the worst kind, they threw her in the bed one foot away from mine, tying both of her arms and legs in restraints. She rustled and pulled and tried to break free, yelling obscenities so loud it scared me, until I decided to try and be helpful.

“They’ll take you out of those if you stop screaming and stop struggling,” I told her gently.

She calmed down for a moment, then started up again, then screamed, “Get me fucking out of here!” A nurse pumped her full of some sort of tranquilizer.

For three days, I sat in a scratchy bed with nothing to do. In the County-USC psych unit, you don’t get to walk around. There are no therapy groups, there are no classes, there are no games, there is no common area—you just sit there in bed all day and all night and rot. It’ll make anyone suicidal.

“So you tried to kill yourself?” a nurse asked as she took my blood pressure the following morning.

“Yeah,” I told her.

“That’s a sin,” she said.

It’s disturbing that a psychiatric nurse would believe a suicide attempt is a “sin,” when ample research proves it’s a pretty common result of a bipolar depression.

By the third day, my bed started to smell, as they didn’t wash the sheets. Being trapped in there all day, I, of course, had started to sweat. Nor did I get a change of clothes, a new hospital gown. The needle from the same IV they stuck in my vein at the ER, which was once filled with sodium bicarbonate to flush the aspirin out of my kidneys and liver, was now connected to an empty bag. When I inquired about it, the nurse sheepishly admitted it’d been empty for a while and I didn’t need it.

This, coupled with the dehumanizing conditions, only confirmed my suspicion that I was not worth anything to anyone. I felt I deserved to be sequestered in that hellhole, with bars all over the windows, with no light coming in, with women all around me screaming and sobbing and in restraints.

Since then, I’ve been on multiple 72-hour holds (but none since finally staying sober and staying on medication). Though many of those were also demoralizing, and specifically the ones for people without health insurance, nothing compares to that shithole at County-USC. I’m surprised they haven’t been shut down.

All that stay did was prove to me that I was a fuck up, that I was a sinner, that I didn’t belong out in the real world, and that no one could help me. The only thing that could help me appeared to be leather restraints, shots of tranquilizers and lectures from ignorant nurses.

Needless to say, I never paid them the $8,000.


About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.