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Personal Stories

Barbara Nichols

“I can’t tell you how happy I was to get my degree from Portland State. My father was a physician and he told me when I was 18 that I was not smart enough to go to school. Now I’m the only one out of five children to have a degree and I just feel really amazed. I am amazed that I would really stick with it because my disability–whether it’s from the medications or from a depressive way that I look at life—doesn’t always motivate me to get things done. I’m very happy to have gotten this done.”


01 January 1951

Contact info: City: Portland State: Oregon Country: USA

Currently doing: Barbara is a recent graduate of Portland State University, where she was the co-coordinator of the Students with Disabilities Union. While pursuing work opportunities, Barbara is enjoying spending time with her husband and son.

Mental health experience: Inpatient, Outpatient, Commitment, Forced Treatment, Coercive Treatment, Psychiatric Drugs, Restraints, Solitary Confinement

Psychiatric labels: Major Depression

Psychiatric drugs taken in the past: Thorazine, Librium, Benadryl

Recovery methods: Self-Help, Peer Support, Diet, Exercise, Psychiatric Drugs, Social Activism, Spirituality, Friend/Family

Brief History:

My mother was a very severe alcoholic and I alone out of five children was physically beaten by her quite often. Still, I had a very strong bond with her, and I was devastated when she died. We children were separated after her death. I was going to be in a girls’ boarding school, but before I ever got there, a sheriff came to our home. He stood there waiting for us to leave to go with our father. It had been court ordered that the three younger ones of the five had to go live with him. He took us from Champaign, Illinois by car to Mississippi.

I first encountered the mental health system in 1967, when I was around age 16. I was really depressed over the death of my mother and grandfather. I took 10 aspirin, which caused everybody to get pretty excited, and I was taken to the David P. Wall Memorial Mental Health Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a pretty good hospital–I was in an open unit where nothing was locked. But I was a teenager and really rebellious. Once I climbed the walls and ran away to go to a concert. I came back later the next day.

When I was at the mental hospital, I remember there was one staff member that I really idolized. I felt very close to her as she was very kind. I remember though that there were some scary things in that place. I actually watched someone have an electric shock treatment. I will never forget that. It was early in the morning and I was just kind of peeking through an open door. I saw the shock treatment being done. I remember seeing the head of the person and the clamp, and the whole body jumping. I feel extremely lucky that I didn’t have electric shock therapy.

At that same hospital, there was a patient who was 7 or 8 years old, who was so anorexic. She would lie on the floor like a baby as she was too weak to walk. They gave her electric shock treatments and she came out of this. She began to keep food down and get her strength. I will never forget that because it conflicted with most of my feelings about electric shock. In that case it seemed to work. I did go on to see a lot of cases of mental confusion after having shock treatments and that really bothered me.

I was first started on Librium. I don’t remember what reaction I had to this medication. I must have been started on an anti-psychotic such as Thorazine or something similar because I had really severe side effects of muscle jerking, like having a convulsion. They had to give me injections of Benadryl to offset these, which I found to be awful.

I remember one time when I was in Napa State Hospital in California and I was around 17. I was talking on the telephone with a friend, and I my whole mouth drew up. I could hardly talk. This reaction was quite inconvenient and also very scary. By this time I knew that I was having a reaction to the medication I was taking, and that I needed to get a shot of Benadryl. The first time I had this kind of reaction it was extremely scary, as I didn’t know what it was.

My worst experience in these hospitals was being in five-point restraint and seclusion. I have the records from St. Vincent Hospital in St. Louis and I had just run away from David P. Wall Memorial Mental Health Institute. During that time, I was raped by a stranger. I have records from St. Vincent’s Hospital where the police picked me up. Those records showed that they believed I was lying to them about the rape incident. That night the police took me to the hospital.

Here I was, a very sheltered Catholic girl of an upper middle class family, and I was put in seclusion upon arrival. This was a locked room with a mattress on the floor and with the light off. I was terrified about being there. I had this kind of incident happen in several places.

There was one time in Arizona when I was at Camel Back Hospital–a very exclusive hospital that had tennis and volleyball courts, a pool, etc. One time I was very upset and I threw a suitcase through a glass door. I was taken to their seclusion room and put in restraints there. The bottom line was that when I was really having emotional problems, I was treated just as badly as if I was in a state hospital.

I have been hospitalized in about 15 hospitals for over 30 times. I feel that I’m getting a lot better. My last hospitalization was in 1995.

I was trying to find parental substitutes by going to the hospital. They did give me a lot of one-on-one time with the nurses, and I really appreciated this kind of treatment. But then there was something that really told me the truth, which we all learn–that the nurses didn’t go home after their shift and worry about me. When I figured this out, it was devastating. I still believe that the lack of caring in hospitals is terrible.

What gave me my first six years of the recovery was when I went off the medications. I had been on medications for about 15 years and I was disturbed to find out through a blood test that while on the medications, I was on birth control. I have a son now that came about after I went off all the medications.

There came a time in my spiritual life that I did my praying by way of a journal. I would write “Dear God” and pray, and write whatever my prayer was. I would then meditate. I feel that God told me to go off the medications. At that time, I was completely under the spell of the psychiatrists, so it was very odd that I would even think to get off the medications. But everything began to fall into place. I was going to Alameda County Clinic in Oakland, California, and my therapist, a psychiatric technician, supported me. He went against his M.D. supervisor and supported me in going off my medications. I was also going to the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley and I had peer counseling from Halle Park, a political activist. I loved him dearly as he was a wonderful guy.

It was very difficult to go off the medications. I was addicted to hurting myself and I saw that hurting myself was going to get me back in the hospital. I didn’t want to go back there. I had a very strong will and I just wanted more than anything to be off the medications. After six months to a year, the desire to hurt myself went away and then I was kind of “normal.”

I also used B vitamins. Halle gave me a diet that was high in fish and I began to exercise. Today I exercise four times a week.

It took me six years to get off the medications, and then my sister died unexpectedly. I found this very traumatizing. Even though I tried to do everything they suggested, I just couldn’t deal with it. I pretty much had to go back on the medication or get a divorce even though I have a wonderful loving husband. This was of course all very scary to him.

I’ve tried to get off the medication for about ten years now. I was going to Portland State University and I was having a very hard time, but I wanted to be there. I didn’t want to mess that up for myself. But at the same time, I couldn’t stop wanting to hurt myself. I was mildly abusing over-the-counter Benadryl and medications in my student office at school. I said to myself “I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t stop me.” So I freely chose at that time to be on medications.

At this point, I find it frustrating because my problems are very episodic. I don’t like the fact that I take medications in between the episodes but I can’t predict what is going to happen. I don’t know what they’re doing for me now because I still have episodes while I’m on them. But if I’m on the medications and I’m experiencing an episode, it does stop me from acting against myself, even though I am trapped in the torment of wanting to do that. The medications do not take away that torment.

I find that I’m much more tired in general. I must take an afternoon nap, which is sometimes two hours long. I am tired in the morning as well. This is probably from taking the antidepressants.

The disabilities department at at Portland State University provided services which were very helpful to me. At one point, I was even the co-coordinator of Students of Disabilities Union.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to get my degree from Portland State. My father was a physician and he told me when I was 18 that I was not smart enough to go to school. Now I’m the only one out of five children to have a degree and I just feel really amazed. I am amazed that I would really stick with it because with my disability–whether it’s from the medications or from a depressive way that I look at life—doesn’t motivate me to get things done. I’m very happy to have gotten this done.

When I graduated, I gave one of two student speeches at the commencement. I was treated like royalty—almost the opposite of how I was treated in the hospital. It was a very, very happy experience for me.

Interviewer’s Comments: Barbara’s story was so inspiring for me to hear. She gives hope for so many who have struggled through family trauma and emotional distress as well as severe abuses within the psychiatric system.