Girl On Film
I was the star of the film, I suppose.
A DVD player in the courthouse played the recording made by the police when they arrested me. In my screen debut, I wore yellow pajamas as the cops barged through the front door of my parents’ home to apprehend me. Watching the video was like looking into a time-delayed mirror; I saw the police scare my reflection years before. In my movie role as culprit — an essentially non-speaking one — my only actions were to retreat and to surrender.
As the judge, the jury and my attorney scrutinized the police video, in my mind I reviewed another silent film, a sequel to the story told in law enforcement’s cinematography and a reel that only I had viewed. In this film, pant legs and boots met me at eye level, moving along the sidewalk. Surprise overtook my expression as I looked around because, without knowing or feeling it, I had fallen clear to the ground while I strode down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It wasn’t uneven concrete, a fainting spell or even drunkenness that felled me, it was my medication, my doctor’s remedy for what he thought to be severe mental illness because I continued to deny signing someone else’s name for a package. The interplay between these two reels was my real life for years.
The one time I was home when a package – items ordered on a stolen credit card – arrived, the police had set up a sting operation in which they expected me to sign someone else’s name and accept the boxes.
The police promised everyone that their sting operation had been successful and they had the evidence to prove it: me, on tape, signing for the packages.
“I didn’t do it,” I stomped and swore to my parents, my lawyers, and anyone who would listen but no one bought it. Most people assume that the police never pursue people who are free from guilt but they do; they’re far from 100% precision. People maintain faith in the police because they must; law enforcement splits order and chaos, separates security and victimization, but the government’s error rate would frighten most citizens if they knew it. Defense attorneys know how flawed the criminal justice system is yet most of them still automatically look to psychiatry to explain their client’s actions to the courts, even before they investigate any evidence in the case.
“They have you on tape!” lawyers., doctors and my parents would shout. “Why would they lie about that?”
“Because…they lie!” I couldn’t answer their questions.
In my case, once a diagnosis of mental illness was in hand, no one, neither my lawyers nor my parents who paid their bills, conducted investigated any of the state’s allegations, not even to watch this damning videotape.
I sat as a spectator while friends dispersed like they never knew me, not even to ask “What happened?” or “Can you explain this?” Quite frankly, that abandonment caused me more panic and pressure than the specter of a prison sentence. So when the medical verdict came down, I was seduced by the idea that just a few pills could purge that pain. All I have to do is take a pink, round one and two long white ones for all of this pain to dissipate? Yeah—sign me up for bipolar disorder, I thought.
“Yeah, I’ll take the scripts,” I told the nurses.
Misdiagnoses often whirl out of control because, as mistakes, they prompt the wrong therapies; relief does not arrive when someone takes medication for an incorrect diagnosis, which is what happened to me. Because medications had no effect on a disorder that never resided in me, my illness appeared treatment-resistant. Soon, my bipolar diagnosis blossomed to a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder which, in turn, bloomed into a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, the most devastating of the organic mental illnesses. A diagnosis of schizophrenia requires a patient to suffer from delusions; according to doctors, my delusion was my continued denial that the police caught me forging someone’s name on camera, not that any of them ever bothered to watch it.
Treatment for a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia is brutal. Mine included anti-psychotics medications like Risperdal that literally turned off my brain, loosened my lips to the point that I drooled and put me to sleep for twenty hours at a time.
Unlike my original misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, the ensuing misdiagnoses for thought disorders and personality maladies met my disagreement immediately; I made feeble arguments against medications and particular assessments. When my reasoning failed to change the doctors’ minds, I exploded into expletive-filled tirades.
After my outbursts, my protests folded quickly because the medications tired me and weakened my usually sturdy spirit. I wept after each head shrinking session. Do they have me on tape? Did I do this? Am I totally outside of reality? I wondered. I doubted every thought that I had.
Unsurprisingly, I developed a severe case of clinical depression. The misdiagnoses further complicated my life because treatment for these disorders edged out the care I needed for the depression and other physical illnesses. No anti-depressants to lift my mood; they could make me manic. No Synthroid for my low thyroid function; if my metabolism thrived, it could drive me into hypomania, which is like madness-lite. The steroids I needed for the bleeding from ulcerative colitis? They make patients angry and aggressive, states unwanted for the delusional and disordered.
I will plead guilty to this: through my angry behavior, I was the person who damaged the most both my crusade for help and my campaign for a different diagnosis – and for anyone to look at the stinking tape. Each time I raised my voice, the numbers of my daily medications dialed higher, to 3, 5, 7, 12. Medications with side effects summoned other pills to blunt those effects. Those next pills delivered their own set of side effects that needed treatment by adding medication and so on. Eventually, when the original medication’s efficacy was canceled out by the pile-up of pills. I’m almost thankful for that.
With each additional prescription I felt worse and side effects intensified to dangerous extremes: lithium made me vomit without warning, I had seizures, lost ambulation, and experienced aphasia, unable to remember the word “trunk” when talking about my car. I took that spill in Manhattan, realizing I fell only when a pair of Prada loafers passed by my face.
The prosecutor had scattered bits of evidence around the courtroom. Ultimately, years of my life had reduced themselves to the push of a button, the moment when the prosecutor pressed “play” to display one of two mutually exclusive truths on that video: either I signed for packages, which would support the labels of insanity and criminality that doctors and lawyers had pasted on me, or I did not.
Contrary to what the police claimed, the only thing I did on that tape was to look shocked and ask to speak to my father. No signatures at all. No forgeries. None. During the viewing, one cop testified that he deleted the entire audio component of the recording — exculpatory words that I needed to present to the jury to win the trial — because it was, in his words, “unclear.”
The only aspect of the tape that was unclear was whether I should feel infuriated or freed by the video, a snippet of film that my life hinged on for years. I sensed some relief that I no longer needed to doubt myself but I’m pretty pissed that no one thought enough of me to view the central piece of evidence before putting me through years of medical and emotional strife.
Author’s note: I arrived at York Correctional Institution eight years ago today, on December 7, 2007.
THREE NEW IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM THE WEEK OF NOVEMBER 30-DECEMBER 6, 2015
Vice.com and the Marshall Project start a new series of articles by inmates called “Life Inside.” The first installment: Why It’s Hard to Be a Lifer Who’s Getting Out of Prison
A black man does not want to have “The Talk” with his children about police brutality because of the risk of putting a bad face on legitimate authority. Read his essay “Why I Refuse to Have ‘The Talk’ with My Black Son” from Politico Magazine.
A professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School has found that the progressive, “evidence-based practices” that are supposed to reduce prison populations without sacrificing public safety might turn reform in the wrong direction. The professor’s study and article, “The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections” was published this week in the Notre Dame Law Review.