Suddenly sane

Banning Lyon

October 28, 1993|By Banning Lyon

I WAS one of hundreds of teen-agers put in U.S. psychiatric hospitals in the mid-'80s for such "unusual" behavior as arguing with parents or having trouble in school.

Most of us were diagnosed, by non-physicians, as suffering from serious depression.

A doctor would later come in to confirm the diagnosis and bill our parents' insurance companies.

We were held in institutions against our will until our insurance policies ran out. At that moment, we were somehow miraculously cured and discharged.

By then, however our lives had been irreparably changed.

One day I went into my room and made the 5-foot leap onto my bed.

"Banning, that's a test mark," came a voice from the hall.

"For what?" I asked innocently.

"Jumping is only appropriate during R.T.," said Vernon, the mental health technician, using the hospital jargon for recreational therapy. "We've noticed your being needy lately, and jumping indoors at an inappropriate hour is attention seeking."

"I'm sorry, Vernon. It won't happen again."

"Now you're being too compliant."

Test marks meant chair confinement. Still, I was lucky.

My roommate, a wisecracker, was strapped by ankles and wrists to his bed at night and to a wheelchair during the day. Another friend, Kevin, was once held in restraints for two months without a break. He had to get dressed and use a bedpan while strapped in.

Another friend had been in restraints for more than 18 months at the time I was released.

One evening, a few days after Vernon caught me jumping on the bed, storm clouds gathered outside. Ominous-looking to most people, they brought me a feeling of freedom.

At night I was allowed to get off the chair I had been confined to all day, facing the wall. The air blowing through the thin vent in my window was moist and smelled of water and earth.

Watching the storm from my bed, I could imagine myself being rocked by the surf in California, where I grew up. Then I was transported to green fields, then to a distant planet.

"What's it like?" My roommate asked of the storm, ripping me back to reality.

"Dying and going to heaven," I replied.

"Oh, man. Want to trade beds?"

We both laughed.

Vernon walked by the door and I ducked under the covers. "You two are testing limits," Vernon said.

The next day I got in my chair again and sat facing the wall. My roommate was taken out of bed and strapped to his wheelchair.

This "therapy" continued basically unchanged for another seven months.

My parents' policy with Aetna covered me for 353 days. The hospital, Brookhaven Psychiatric Pavilion in Dallas, and my doctors were paid more than $175,000.

Last month, National Medical Enterprises, which owns 132 psychiatric hospitals including Brookhaven, agreed to pay Aetna, Metropolitan Life and Cigna $125 million to settle charges that it filed more than $700 million in false claims.

That's great for the insurance companies, I suppose.

But 134 former patients, including me, are also suing National Medical and other hospital chains for false imprisonment, abuse and other charges such as those described in this article.

Maybe we'll get some compensation too. But whatever it is, it will not make up for my loss. What's the value of swimming in the California surf to a teen-ager?

How much would a walk in the rainstorm that night in Dallas have been worth?

What about spending my 16th birthday confined in a hospital?

What's the price on 353 days of freedom?

Banning Lyon is a student at Richland Community College in Dallas.

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