The week that Robin Williams’ suicide hit every media outlet in the country, my friend Joy drove into the woods, shot herself up with enough heroin to kill a horse, and sat on a rock waiting to die. Unlike Williams, Joy survived (though the person who found her and called 911 first stole all of the cash from her wallet). And while I’m not surprised or even hurt that Joy’s intentional overdose has not received the media attention of Williams’ hanging, I do feel the need to acknowledge and share the knowledge of what led her to that rock and what happened after she was “rescued”.
The youngest daughter of a white, middle-class couple, Joy recalls that, “Until I was seven everything was normal – white picket fence, father went to work, mother stayed home with the children. Then everything fell apart.” Her parents divorced, her mother received custody and her mother’s boyfriend molested Joy and her older sister. Joy saw therapists and was given psychiatric medication throughout her childhood. Eventually she was removed from the home and placed into the child welfare system where she lived in various foster homes and juvenile programs. “None of these placements worked. I was an early drug abuser.” When I first met her crack cocaine was her drug of choice; a few years ago a boyfriend introduced her to heroin.
As an adult, Joy has never held a job that pays a living wage, never had secure housing, and never had custody of her daughter (her father is raising her daughter.) She suffers from impaired hearing, diabetes, insomnia, Hepatitis C, chronic hip and shoulder pain, lumps in several lymph nodes, and neuropathy in her feet. Joy’s sole legal income is her monthly SSI check of approximately $740, which she supplements through sex work. For the past twenty years she has moved among drug rehabilitation programs, motel rooms, shelters, jail and psychiatric hospitals. During the years I have known her she has been prescribed the following psychiatric medications: Trileptal, Seroquel, Neurontin, Abilify, Remeron, Buspar, Celexa, Wellbutrin, Neurontin, and Effexor.
I’d last seen Joy a few months ago right after she was released from jail. She had been held while awaiting trial on a prostitution charge and then let go on “time served.” After losing track of her for a while, a few days ago I heard that she was in the locked psychiatric ward of a local hospital and I went to visit her. Although brightly painted and staffed by cheerful nurses, the ward gave off a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” vibe. Most of the patients were wearing hospital gowns, and since they are not allowed shoes they shuffled back and forth in the corridors in slippers or socks. Some gave off unpleasant odors; many had the blank “zombie” look of heavy psych medication.
Joy was delighted to see me (and delighted with the chocolate and magazines I brought). I asked her how she ended up on the ward. She explained that she’d been drifting around between stints of jail time and realized (not for the first time) that she needed to make a change in her life if she is going to survive and “be there for my daughter”. She made the decision try methadone and see if she could kick her drug use once and for all. The methadone clinic put her on a dose that was too low for the amount of heroin that she had been using, and she became extremely dope sick. “They moved up my dose but it wasn’t enough so I kept using dope together with methadone. I realized it wasn’t working and I already tried everything else – you know Susan I’ve been in so many programs that I could teach them — so I decided to end it all.” The last thing she remembers is feeling the heroin start to work. When she woke up in a hospital close to where she was found, she was told that she very nearly died and that the medical staff worked on her for a significant amount of time to bring her back.
Two days later the hospital released her. She was told that they had tried to place her into the detox facility with which the hospital works, but that facility only takes people on Suboxone (another drug that is used to treat opiate addiction), not methadone. The nurse handed Joy a piece of paper with some phone numbers for her to call to find a detox program for herself, and told her to leave. Joy said to the nurse, “Are you kidding me? I tried to kill myself less than 48 hours ago.” The staff claimed they didn’t know that, but in that case she could stay in the hospital.
The next day they transferred her to the hospital at which I met her. Joy was assigned a doctor whom she liked, but after one day a “fill-in doctor” took that doctor’s place. The fill-in doctor looked at her chart and cut in half the medication for the neuropathy in her feet and stopped her anti-anxiety medication without talking to her or seeing her. A nurse told Joy that she’d try to speak to the doctor on her behalf, but the doctor made it clear that “I am the doctor and you’ll get the medication I give you.”
Joy was not assigned a therapist but was told to meet with a social worker who tried to find a rehabilitation program for her. Joy told the social worker that she had thrived at a facility she had been in a few years ago, but that program only lasted for five months, after which she was sent back to the streets.
Two days later when I called Joy told me that the doctor felt a large lump in her stomach and was sending her for an ultrasound later that day. Also, a lump on her neck had grown and she was being sent for a scan. I told her I’d drop by but I could only come in the morning. Because visiting hours start at 4:00 the nurse would not let me in (although Joy told her that I was the only person visiting her and that my visits help her want to live.)
Later that day Joy and I talked again on the phone. “It’s good you didn’t come, Susan, because they had me packed up and ready to go to a detox program in [another city]. I was literally going out the door when the program called and said they can’t take someone from a psych ward. So I’m just waiting for them to find a holding place for me where I can wait for a halfway house placement.” I asked her about the results of the ultrasound and scan. These tests had not been done nor had the doctor written up orders for them to be done at her next placement.
The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported substantial increases in suicide rates among middle-aged adults in the United States. Based on National Vital Statistics System mortality data from 1999–2010, CDC researchers found that the suicide rate among American men aged 35–64 had increased 27.3 percent from 1999 to 2010, and among American women aged 35-64 the rate had increased 31.5 percent. A variety of theories have been proposed to explain these increases. Psychologist and author Bruce E. Levine notes that while it is popular to blame chemical imbalances in the brain for suicide, according to the CDC, “Possible contributing factors for the rise in suicide rates among middle-aged adults include the recent economic downturn (historically, suicide rates tend to correlate with business cycles, with higher rates observed during times of economic hardship).
One would assume that our current partiality to theories regarding the biological and chemical bases of mental illness would lead us beyond blaming the individual for his or her pain. But that is not the case – as witnessed by the estimate that nearly two-thirds of people sitting in jails and prisons are mentally ill.
And that is what I find so difficult to swallow.
Within forty-eight hours of Joy’s almost fatal suicide experience she had to fight to stop the hospital from releasing her to the streets where she’d surely be re-arrested for drugs, prostitution or simply loitering. Then she was confined in a locked ward where her visitors were limited and where she was prescribed different medication regimes by two different doctors (one of whom refused to listen to anything she or her nurses had to say). She knows she needs to stay off the streets but she has been told that there is no placement available for someone who is both suicidal and on methadone so the best she can hope for is a temporary “holding” facility until a place can be found in a slightly-less-temporary halfway house from which (as she and I know from her past experiences) she will be kicked-out if she “relapses”. And all of this happened in a very reputable treatment setting, which, Joy told me, is not all that different from jail.
Now, it may be tempting to chalk Joy’s experiences up to bureaucratic run-around or an episode of particularly egregious institutional incompetence. But when the run-arounds and incomeptences are built into the laws, the regulations, the policies and rules and protocols, then they must be understood as manifestations of “the system” rather than as haphazard or idiosyncratic exceptions.
I don’t know if Joy will die from being raped or beaten by a trick, from a bullet one day when she can’t hear the police tell her to stand still, from whatever is causing the mass in her stomach and the lump on her neck, from the chaotic cocktails of prescription medication she receives, or from an unintentional overdose or another try at suicide. I don’t know if she’ll die in prison, a violent and oppressive setting that gives rise to high rates of suicide, or after her next prison release – a time in which suicide rates again rise. I don’t know if she’ll die in a detox facility or a homeless shelter. But each time I say good-bye to her, I have a sick feeling that this may well be for the last time.
You can read more about Joy in Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.