Woman Recalls Being In Fairfax Jail Psychotic: Turned Away From Hospital

Women in Fairfax County Detention Center

Women in Fairfax County Detention Center

(3-13-15 This is the third of three letters that I am sharing with readers this week while mourning my father’s passing.)

Dear Pete,

I am a college educated woman who also lives in Fairfax county. In the summer of 2010, I became manic. I knew I was bipolar and was taking my medication but it simply stopped working. The psychiatrist, who I saw in the mornings, didn’t catch on because I had sun-setters. It just spun out of control so fast. By the time my husband tried to get me help, I didn’t believe I was even sick.

He tried to have me committed 3 times.

The first time, I was let go because there was problem with my paperwork — someone put the wrong date on my commitment form. The second time I agreed to a 5 day voluntary hold, but checked myself out of the hospital the next day. The third time, they just let me go. The  same Fairfax officers, who had been to my house several times to try to convince me to go to the hospital, finally told my husband to take my daughter and leave.

I had no idea where my husband and daughter went.

One night my husband came home by himself to do laundry and we got into a fight. I threw a phone at him. It bounced off his shoulder and struck him in his nose. As soon as I did it, I fled. I drove to Dominion Hospital and begged them to take me, but was told that I wasn’t welcome there anymore  because I had checked myself out of there three times without finishing their treatment regime.

I didn’t know where else to go, so I went home and discovered the police were waiting for me. I was arrested, taken to the Adult Detention Center and booked into jail. When I told them I was bipolar, they put me in the female receiving area. This consisted of VERY small cells, no natural light, lights in the cells that were on 24 hours a day and an amazing amount of noise.

I had no idea what time it was either. I was only given sandwiches to eat. My clothes and eye glasses were taken away from me. I completely decompensated and became very disruptive — flooding my cell 2 times.  I started to eat my Styrofoam cup.

Finally, because of something I heard a deputy say, I thought the correctional officers were going to kill me unless I killed myself first. I covered myself in feces and ate it. The next day (I believe this was the 10th day at the jail), I was declared incompetent to stand trial by a judge and was transferred to Western State Mental Hospital.

 My psychosis was very severe and they couldn’t get it to break. They warned my husband that I may never come back from my delusions.

Fortunately, I slowly began to get  better and I came out of my delusions.

When I did, I began to notice things. One of them was that how far gone (psychosis, full blown schizophrenia) people at Western State were when they arrived from the Fairfax ADC compared to the other people who can from different jails. I later learned that this is because most jails in Virginia often can’t deal with even simple cases so they pass people on to the state hospitals quickly.

But the Fairfax/Falls Church Community Service Board has mental health workers assigned to the Fairfax County jail and because of that, an inmate has to get significantly worse than they would in other jails before people are sent to Western State. Both my husband and my father were calling the Fairfax sheriff DAILY to get me transferred to a state hospital but they wouldn’t do it. I later was told that ten days was rather fast for Fairfax.

Ten days in conditions that made me sicker.

It’s horribly sad to be failed by our mental health system. The fact that I wasn’t committed in Fairfax when I appeared at a hearing even though the county psychiatrist said I was a danger to myself 3 times  is so unbelievably sad to me. Just as sad is the fact that I was turned away from a hospital.

The truth is there was no place left to turn in Fairfax County so I ended up in jail.

I spent 45 days in Western State before being transferred back to the jail where they allowed me to be in general population.

I was given 2 years probation for misdemeanor family abuse that required me to see a psychiatrist after which the charges were set aside. The prosecutor was pushing for a 2 year “no contact” order to keep me from my family but my husband was dead set against it. He knew it would have killed me so he hired his own lawyer and fought the prosecutor to stop it.

But in the end mine is a happy story.

 As soon as I got out of jail my husband and I got an advanced psychiatric directive so he can have me committed against my will if both him and my psychiatrist agree that I need it. Thankfully that has not been necessary. I  have been stable for 4 1/2 years. I am still happily married with 2 kids now (A special needs 13 year old girl and a 2 year old son). I am employed full time.  All in all, I am truly blessed to have a great support system, doctors and friends. I am very open about what happened to me because people need to know it can happen to ANYONE.

I am writing to you because I read your recent blogs about Natasha McKenna, the African American mother who was tasered repeatedly in the jail, sending her into cardiac arrest. I am white but I could have been her 4 years ago. I truly hope her death (and the John Greer case)  will be investigated and lead to changes.

But I don’t have much faith that they will be. I am also a big supporter of CIT teams. I was lucky because the police officers who dealt with me were not abusive, but were helpful and supportive. They seemed to understand that my mental illness was NOT me.

The public needs to know that good people who have a mental disorder need help and treatment, not punishment.

Thank you for reading this. Because of the stigma that comes with mental illnesses, I’d ask you to keep my name private but am happy to share my story.


A Fairfax resident

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.