My First Impression of the Alcott Unit at Walden Behavioral Care, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, “eating disorders treatment”

I wrote this a while back.  I found it in my files. I found it just now and am posting it. I did very little editing just now, only to eliminate or substitute a word or two for the sake of others.

My First Impression of Walden’s Alcott Unit
by Julie Greene
written July, 2014

I am a 56-year-old woman and I was 52 at the time of my first admission to Walden’s Alcott Unit. I believe the date that I phoned the Admissions office number was my fifty-second birthday in January 2010. I recall that the psychotherapist I had been seeing at the Edinburg Center, [name omitted], LMHC, had instructed me to telephone the main admissions number of Walden to see about getting in. I wasn’t happy about this at all, but at the same time, was rather curious as to what this “eating disorders care” was all about.

It had been nearly 30 years of suffering with an eating disorder, yet I had never been treated for it, certainly not at the inpatient level. I’d first gone to “therapy” and found that no one knew anything about eating disorders, and some “therapists” hadn’t even heard of ED. I’d been to OA and it never “worked.” I’d been to “groups” where I couldn’t relate to other members. I was even told you couldn’t die from an eating disorder. I was told I was exaggerating or “faking it.” Then, in February, 1983, I was in a hospital hoping someone would listen and at least care, when I saw on the news that Karen Carpenter had died of anorexia nervosa.

I tried to tell the nurse. “Look, that’s what I have. Anorexia. Something like that.” But again, I was ignored. Given pills and sent along my way.

A year later I realized the doctor I was seeing had lied. He’d only taken money from my parents. He knew nothing about eating disorders. That’s when I took an overdose. This was a few days before my 26th birthday. The doctor’s name was Thomas Alkoff, PhD, and his associates were the psychiatrist Carl Burak, MD and the psychologist Ronnie Burak, Carl’s wife. All three left town a few years later following multiple scandals, including the suicide of my friend Diane Daw (Manchester, VT) and the tragic death of Bennington College freshman Libby Zion. There were many others. The next “doctor” I saw, Charles Capers, MD at Gould Farm, didn’t even have a license to practice medicine. To get me onto SSDI, he pronounced me “schizophrenic” rather arbitrarily. I’ve had to live with the fake diagnosis “schizoaffective” ever since.

In 2010, I had a therapist who really was trying to help and really did care. She said I needed to eat. This was her main concern. She said Walden was a good place. So did my psychiatrist, Dr.Kimberly Pearson. Yet I was aware that there was always considerable strain between these two practitioners, though they tried to hide this from me for the sake of keeping professional distance from me.

I recall making the first phone call to Walden. I had already e-mailed with my circle of friends who were my age. These were women friends I knew online. Sadly, none of them are friends anymore. This is what happens when you are afflicted with anorexia nervosa. However, these friends were all in agreement: Julie needs this “Walden.” I phoned and reached a man named Brian. His voice sounded soothing and kind. Every time I called, Brian answered in his melodious voice. I told myself that he must calm the very young and frightened girls who call for the first time with questions, and calm the crying ones.

Brian asked me many questions, which I answered to the best of my ability. I thought: wow, this place must be state of the art. I’ve never been asked these questions before! No one has even cared! He asked me if I starved, and how much I ate. Usually when I have entered a mental hospital all they wanted to know about were suicidal intent.

That’s how it works., though, with hospitals. The admissions people such as Brian are the first ones you meet and you assume they represent the hospital. You are totally convinced that these organizations care about you, based on their “front” people, their PR dudes. Brian has tact and he’s smooth-talking. Their website looks nice, too. As does the website of any mental prison. I have my own website and I have designed many pretty ones and ugly websites, too.

Brian asked about height and weight. I am five foot one and was rather thin at the time. My highest weight was achieved because I was coerced into taking the drug Seroquel. I weighed nearly 200 pounds. My lowest weight was 78 last summer, as I weighed myself the day my kidneys failed. I have photos of myself at my highest and lowest weights for history’s sake. I think if I had allowed my weight to drop further, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

I am alive, however, because I walked away from psychiatric abuse. I am alive because a I refused imprisonment. I am alive because I refuse to go to one more so-called “hospital,” and I have been to many. I am alive because in the end I refused mental health care. I know the difference between “care” and “abuse.” I am alive because I recognized that beyond a doubt, my eating disorder is not a disorder at all, but a set of inherited nutritional traits that was passed on in the bloodline. My mother went through the same ordeal without any such imprisonment from the ages of 14 until 16 and never saw a therapist nor specialist.

My mother is right now in a nursing home in Johnston, RI. If you go see her you will notice a few things. Go eat with her. I have never been there myself but I’d love it if anyone would do this. With a variety of food in front of her, she will act differently around the dairy food. I guarantee this, and yet she and I have never discussed this openly. [note: my mother passed away August 12, 2015.]

Dr. Greenblatt, who runs Walden, was spot-on in his book, that eating disorders should be solved with nutrition, not by locking kids up and abusing them. However, Greenblatt sold out, clearly. I find this heartbreaking.

I arrived with a large suitcase at the appointed time. I had read that it was okay to bring a cell phone and I had traded mine for a used one that didn’t have a camera. I had my knitting with me. I was working on a sweater for my little dog, Puzzle. Now, neither knitting nor cell phones are currently allowed, as the rules have changed. I came by MBTA bus. I asked myself if this be the End, this anorexia? I told myself to quit thinking like that.

Well, this was what I needed, wasn’t it? My friends would approve, wouldn’t they? I would get super advice and learn a whole lot of new things about eating disorders that I had never learned in three decades that I had been bumbling around with a bunch of psychotic people. And after all, I wasn’t even psychotic. I “needed” this care, supposedly.  You’d figure these Walden folks were the experts. How could I know anything? I was only a sufferer.

Hell, no. Those of us who have been through the disorder know far more, because we are the ones that actually go through it. Those with book knowledge only know only what is in books, and the books have it all wrong. I was going to find this out, rather shortly.

The admissions process was lengthy. I know the word, “cozy,” is overused, but that seems like a good one to describe the Walden office, their “front” for allowing inductees into their fold. I had to fill out questionnaires and was interviewed. I got weighed in a paper johnny. How many others never forget those paper johnnies. Funny, though, you can drink as much coffee and water as you want before you get weighed, but you can’t sew a ten-pound brick into that johnny. Don’t worry, as soon as we get admitted we are all on the identical meal plan anyway. It’s called Chicago. Once you have been there a couple of times you have Chicago memorized. It’s not too different from the standard diabetic meal plan, made of so-called “exchanges.”

Greenblatt’s book tells us we get extensive testing. I had nine tubes taken in their admissions office via the Newton-Wellesley ER, but this test cost Medicare$2,000 and nothing was done with the results any of the times I was there. Greenblatt states in his book that patients should be neuro tested for what psych meds will work. I don’t think such state-of-the-art testing is ever done at this facility on anyone, or if such testing even exists. Some patients get zinc and some don’t, but it seems arbitrary to me. In fact, most of the nurses tell the patients the vitamin supplements are “optional” and “not very important.” Most nurses also don’t understand why they are given, if you ask them. They seem to be rather heavy-handed, on the other hand, and insist on bossing patients around, ordering them to “group” or telling them when to go to bed or that they need to stop talking about certain subjects. Patients are often threatened and told their socializing amongst each other will be “staff monitored” if they cause any trouble.

I did get tested by a neurologist during one of my five stays at Walden, by a real neurologist. This was to see the extent of the damage caused by self-starvation I asked the nurse practitioner, Deb, to tell me the results. She said, “I cannot read his handwriting.” I questioned her further but she put me off over and over. I was unable to get a straight answer from her.

I was allowed to be admitted to Alcott following the nine-tube, expensive blood test. I felt weak. I was guided to the unit and helped with my luggage. I wanted to sit down and rest, and I was thirsty, too. We had to follow endless hallways and open many doors. So many confusing elevators and beeps and buzzes. I wondered what this place would look like. I hoped the people there would be kind at least.

We arrived at the final door. The hallway turned and then, I saw the doors to Alcott. “This is it,” the admissions person said.

“Is it really named after the author?” I asked.

“I believe so.”

I said, “I am a writer, too.”

We arrived at the locked doors. “Here we are at Alcott.” She let us in.

Here was a hallway not much unlike Three East at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Oh my goodness. My heart sank. Another psych unit. No, this couldn’t be.

I felt so tired. Someone guided me to a chair. I knew I was right by the nurses’ station. I saw the old familiar wite-out board. Patient names with only a letter for last name. Confidentiality, they say. And those doors had clicked locked behind me.

I gripped the chair. I said, “Wait. This is a locked unit?”

“Yes, Julie, this is a locked unit. We have some paperwork for you.” My heart sank another few notches as a staff person got out some old familiar-looking papers. That ole CV. Conditional Voluntary, it’s called. That means you have to sign a special paper to get out, and to get out of this prison, it meant waiting three days. If you don’t pass a judge’s decision, you can be locked up a good long time.

“Let me explain this to you,” the counselor began.

I said, “That’s a three-day. I know those. If I don’t sign in, I can be committed.”

“I would recommend you sign this, Julie. Don’t give us any trouble about this one.”

Soon, it was time for 3pm snack. I couldn’t believe that much time had passed since my arrival at the admissions office first thing that morning. I didn’t want to eat. I wanted to stay thin forever. If only I could leave that place!

I realized that everyone goes through this, this very moment of saying, “Why the heck did I agree to this. I’m stuck here now!” How long would it be? Weeks? What would happen here? The patients didn’t look happy. Instead, many were holding their bellies, as if they had stomach aches. About half the patients had tubes taped to their noses. The tubes appeared to go deep into their nostrils and were taped to the outside of their faces. Before long, the slurpy sound of liquid rushing through those tube feed pumps would be the sound of my life.

Many people shuffled into the dining room. Obligatory snacks had been distributed in a cramped dining room where we all had to eat together. We also had to drink either milk or juice. I was shocked at these snacks. I looked for the one with my name on it, “Julie G.”

There sat a package of Lorna Doone cookies and a big glass of milk. I sat there with those cookies in front of me for a long time. I looked at the other patients. How could they stand this? This was food slavery. I didn’t enjoy the sound of crunching. Someone began a game of 20 questions. I felt insulted to play a kiddie game.

My body wasn’t accustomed to eating this type of food. I knew one package of Lorna Doones wasn’t going to hurt me or poison me. Of course not. But still, my stomach hurt afterward. My friend wanted to speak with me to find out how things were going, so I phoned her following snack time. There was no private place to sit and talk, so I sat in the living room area where many others were seated.

My friend was home and picked up the phone.

“You ate what? They gave you Lorna Doone cookies? Not something healthy like nuts or something? Or fruit? Maybe an orange?”

“No,” I told my friend. “All packaged junk food. You have to eat it and you can’t complain. I feel really awful and my stomach hurts.”

“I really thought they would be more sophisticated than that.”

“Maybe they are just doing it cheaply. Anything to see to it that we gain weight as fast as possible.”

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a staff person. I knew this because he wore a badge with his photo on it. He said to me, “Julie, you cannot speak to your friend like that. We don’t allow this. You cannot say these things. You must hang up now.”

I turned to him and said, “Why?”

He said, “It’s triggering to other patients.”

I knew this was bogus, though. They only didn’t want patients speaking to anyone on the outside about “care” or lack thereof. It was the same in any mental prison. I felt trapped. I excused myself from my phone conversation. I realized, though, that Alcott wasn’t going to be any different from any other mental prison.

I am finding that after three and a half decades suffering horribly from severe eating problems, after my bio family has been torn apart, after I have lived for decades in poverty, after my chances of a career have been stripped, after I have no chances of ever having kids or raising a family of my own, after my own public reputation is ruined, after my brothers have denied me the privilege of knowing their children and raised their kids without Auntie Julie, and now, since I was threatened with forcibly being drugged forever and permanently locked up, saying goodbye to the USA for good….Well, heck, it all could easily have been solved within the first year nutritionally, perhaps eliminating certain foods from my diet, eating a good source of Omega-3, taking some vitamins., and never, ever setting foot into the halls of “Mental Health Care,” nor any hospital, ever.

I spend quite a bit of time laughing over it all lately. Yes, looking back and laughing. Psych abuse gave me a darned good sense of humor. If I had my way, I would tear down every mental prison ever built.

Perhaps one wall would remain standing. Let’s call this the Wailing Wall. I saw one such wall, when I was 19 years old, when I traveled to Jerusalem, the last wall standing of the Temple the Jews had built.

I suppose that one wall would remain for history’s sake. I can imagine right now standing before such a wall made of stones. Papers stuffed hastily between the stones by visitors. At 19, I was an ambitious and promising young college student.  I wondered what was written on these papers. Were these prayers to a deity? Or messages honoring those that have passed and are now gone? Or something else?

 

Alcott revisited

I remember my first time at Alcott. I remember a staff person came into my room one day and asked me how things were going. All at once, I burst into tears, saying, “I hate those kids.” She was rather shocked, and asked me why. I told her, “Because all they do is gossip. They gather in clusters and whisper like a bunch of junior high kids. I am old enough to be their mother or grandmother and I don’t belong here. This place is for children and I am not one.”

After a time, the staff recognized that what the kids were doing was harmful to those that were left out of the childish gossip and whispering. They got us all together, and asked the whisperers to stop.

The kids didn’t stop. The staff did the same thing again, another lecture. This time, they said if the cruel gossip didn’t stop, they’d listen on to all our conversations and monitor us.

This is a chronic problem wherever immature teens are gathered. It’s my understanding that the problem persists to this day at Alcott and was never solved.  I know other older people who have been sent to Alcott who tell me the same thing, that some kids are okay, but many are  cruel. They leave certain patients out of their childish clique, and those left out are targets of gossip.  Older patients have told me they were called “Grandma” and laughed at.

I have no clue why I ended up being friends with any of those kids outside of Alcott. But I had it in my head that since they also had eating disorders, maybe it would be okay to be in a “group” with them on Facebook. Didn’t we have something in common? I felt that since I had no family of my own, I would think of them as family. This was a big major mistake on my part to think that any of them had grown up.

Nothing was any different. The gossip is just as cruel outside as in. If not, worse, because the Facebook venue encourages cruelty.

I do have friends who have a history of being in mental places, just like me.  Sure we “compare notes.” Who wouldn’t?  We might recommend a particular place or recommend against it, or discuss various ways to deal with certain problems, such as “the holidays.”  In my note-comparing, I’ve heard all sorts of stories from people.

Here’s one: I’ve had friends, a number of people I know, who complained that a doctor “diagnosed” them based on talking to them for five  minutes. They said it was demeaning. They said, “How can this person declare I am [bipolar, or whatever] if this person is barely listening? I felt insulted.”

I wonder, though. It seems the immature kids I met online who were at Alcott seem to do just the same thing as a form of cruel gossip. These are kids I don’t know, have never corresponded with nor spoken to nor messaged with.  They are so mean that they decided to “diagnose” me based on one Facebook post. They are gossipy and cagey about it. They think they are so hip and cool to use shrink terminology. I’m not impressed at all. I know better than to “diagnose” anyone, cuz I know just how harmful diagnosis is.

Of course, all kids go through their “pretend shrink” phase. I went through it briefly in high school but decided that game wasn’t for me.

The cruel gossip goes on and on. I think those kids, if they love their “treatment” so much, should go right back to Alcott and continue their petty social life there. After all, that’s the main reason most continue to get readmitted. I think it would make them happy for all the pals to be together. Don’t they say they miss each other so much?

Those kids have all the Alcott patients as Facebook friends. In fact, the only friends they have are former Alcott patients. Ever notice how they keep ending up back there? They just won’t grow up.  If they want in-person contact, all they have to do is make themselves sick, and get admitted. Then, of course, it’s party time all over again.

I wish I never had been put there. But then again, going to Alcott made me realize just how NOT to go about things. I learned how NOT to get well. I learned that this is a place where reasonable adults pick up childish habits, and become immature themselves. The bad habits are hard to shake. Meanwhile, while these kids have great fun together gossiping away, the Walden money-making racket milks their insurance dry. Very few seem aware of the larger picture.

I don’t blame the staff for being frustrated, nor do I blame the more mature patients for being totally disgusted. Forced care doesn’t work, and never will. In fact, if it’s forced, it’s not care.

Some clarifications about my memoir, This Hunger Is Secret, and my dedication page to the patients of the Alcott Unit, Walden Behavioral Care

Some people are scared to buy my book, This Hunger Is Secret because they are scared it will be a “painful” book. This is a bunch of baloney. It’s a book like any other. It’s writing. Literature. Pain is a medical issue, or if someone has a personal gripe with me, this person should approach me directly.

This Hunger Is Secret is a beautifully written book.  It contains a lot of scenes and dialogue and description and the book is deeply spiritual.

I am aware that my book, This Hunger Is Secret uses the term, Mental Illness in the title. I am a believer in history and This Hunger Is Secret is a piece of my beloved history. I highly cherish my life and my memories. For decades, I used the term mentally ill to describe myself, and just because I now find this terminology offensive or other may be offended, doesn’t erase the fact that this history exists. This book is NOT antipsychiatry. It is a just a book. It’s an account.  That’s all.  It’s memoir, and it’s not “painful,” for chrissake.

I am now, since well after the book came out, OUT of the mental health system. I see no reason to change the manuscript to suit anyone’s whim, including my own.  At one point, I added a dedication page right before the paperback version came out. This was the additional dedication page. Know who I dedicated it to?

The Alcott patients. That’s right. Go look.  The Alcott Unit is at Walden Behavioral Care.  I love you all so much that it’s right in there.

And at the bottom, my instructions,

“Never, ever shut up.”

I want to make something very clear. I was rather determined to get that page in there. I traveled to London in the summer of 2012. Maybe you know this and maybe you don’t. I was there roughly a week. I met with my publisher. I was determined to get the paperback signed and off to the presses before…..

Yeah, I wanna tell you one thing. This was a Friday in July. I was there at the Chipmunka offices in London, at Canary Wharf, with Jason and his two top brass.  They told me, “Well, we don’t really have time, maybe you should return to the USA and we can do the signature via e-mail.”

But I knew better. There wasn’t going to be a “return to the USA,” was there?  I didn’t know what to say at that moment, how to convince them I needed to do this signing NOW. I had to. Otherwise, it would simply not be done.

This was Friday. My plan was to kill myself later, probably within hours, or by noon or so the next day I’d take the pills I had.  I felt like a jerk. Being pushy saying I really wanted to get this signature done in person….And dishonest, too. I usually slap myself for being too honest. Now, hiding the Big Truth….it seemed so fake. I hated myself because my publisher was so kind, really, to do this for me.

I signed those papers. The back cover ended up not having the blurb on it that I had intended, but that’s okay. The fact that it wasn’t the right one reflects my rush to get this done. For sure, had I not been rushed, I would have noticed. It hardly matters. I am me. I was REALLY NERVOUS!

But….done.

I went back to the hotel. I didn’t kill myself.

How I ended up at Alcott…it was all a joke and the staff provided precisely nothing, no care, no answers to anything. The other patients were great.  I begged those staff for help, though…I was sorely disappointed. I found that the other patients seemed to know more about ED than that staff, but the staff discouraged us from speaking directly about our eating disorders with each other. The whole imprisonment there was so ineffective for me.

Still, the whole time I was there, not one person knew about my planned and failed “suicide” in London. I did try to tell people but the staff made excuses not to talk to me, or walked out of the room saying they had a meeting or their pager went off or they were so, so bored with me…one even nodded off! The groups were places where we were treated like children.  There were just no answers at this “great” eating disorders hospital. The answers had to lie elsewhere…..

So I managed to get out of Alcott. It was my last day. I knew the paperback would soon come out. At least that. I wanted the patients to know how much I cared. So I decided to reveal that my dedication page was for them, for US.

I had no clue what would happen to me after I left Alcott. I didn’t have intent to harm myself, but then again, I had no clue if my eating disorder would wipe me off the map, either. So, I went into my Last Supper, which, in fact, was lunch at Alcott.

They were playing their usual lunchtime game: Trivial Pursuit.

I read to them my dedication page. I stood and read this page in front of everyone. But they didn’t stop their Trivia and listen. I tried to finish…The staff were rushing me out, telling me, “Are you done yet?” They weren’t even listening, far too bored.

I left what might have been my dying words, my instructions to the kids at Alcott,

“Never, ever shut up.”

Two years have passed. My little dog, Puzzle, is here with me.  I have with me in South America a copy of my paperback.  I brought with me the signs I carried to protests and to the NEDA walk where I stood outside as a nonparticipant. On these signs is that same slogan.  I brought little else.

So, a lot of people want me to shut up right now…I won’t shut up….

Oh no.  I was duped.  Alcott agreed to build those walls around the phone and they simply didn’t.  Not one word was said to me otherwise, so I assumed there was a phone booth there.

Guess what?  There was never a phone booth.  Never. I was told something…maybe just to shut me up about “rights” and get them off their back.

Oh, in the meanwhile, my psychiatrist tells me “patient rights are trivial.” Please. Tries to force drug me, telling me, “I am giving you this pill so you will stop writing.”

They hoped their lies would work. Maybe, if they were lucky, I’d shut up.  Or be so medicated into a zombie-like state that I stopped writing and wasted my time in “coping skills” groups all day long instead. Sorry, dudes.

I’m not so physically sick that I can’t write.  I don’t waste my time in “programs.”  I’m going to a class tonight and I am planning on going to a protest on Friday.  I’ll be talking to lawyers on Wednesday.  I write letters and I communicate with others that are also speaking out against inhumane care.  I’m arranging to work with a writing coach to help me with my new book.  Someone who can help me build an outline and work on time management now that my body works differently.

I’ve got ideas…new ideas….I come up with great ones and not so great ones all the time.

So, Alcott, you WILL build that soundproofing…..the battle continues.

Telephone Rights on the Alcott Unit: Update

Well, dang!  Remember I won the human rights complaint and got those soundproofing walls built?  All this time, I assumed the walls were still there.

Turns out, Alcott did build the walls around one phone and not the other, which was I guess the agreement.  I said fine, but what they did was tricky…. They did build the walls, then as far as I know, by APRIL they were taken down.  This means I assume they were up in January, and….geez, did they even have intention of KEEPING THEM THERE?  Or was this for show?

From all reports I hear, and from actual evidence (no, I haven’t seen the unit) there sure ain’t telephone privacy now.