Word From the Weiss
as I am to see summer end – although who isn’t? – I must admit that there’s at least one
good reason I’m actually happy
to put this crazy summer behind me.
And as you are about to see, I really do mean “crazy.”
Of course, my heart goes out
to the people in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere who have endured incalculable hardships due to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Horrific as it may have been, the private disaster that I am about to divulge pales infinitely by comparison.
In fact, in light of all their suffering, I hesitate to even mention my own personal trauma. But mostly, I hesitate to mention it to anyone because it was so embarrassing.
On the other hand, I want to tell everyone about it – that is, to warn everyone about it – because if this dreadful thing could happen to me, then it could potentially happen to you.
Not to give too
much away – or to alarm you too much about my own well-being – but here’s what happened,
in a nutshell. As tasteless as that term might be in this case.
Nutshell, I mean.
One night this summer, you see, I was
taken into police custody and put into a locked psychiatric ward.
What precipitated this unfortunate event
--unquestionably the most humiliating and disturbing incident in my entire life – all began with something
mundane and innocuous. It began with my health insurance.
specifically, my attempt to pay for my health insurance.
For months, I had been
having trouble paying my premium. Not
financial trouble. Technical trouble.
Allow me to explain.
After my husband went on Medicare last year, I was no longer covered
through his work and had to take out my own individual policy under the Affordable Care Act. Let me just clarify something right now. I am not complaining about the Affordable Care Act. I am only complaining about my insurance policy. As well as the bleeping company that issued it.
My monthly premiums now cost me more than we used to pay for our entire family. Plus, I have what I consider to be an astronomical deductible of around
$6,500 per year. But I was still ready
and willing to pay for that. What choice, after all, did I have?
Initially, I put my monthly payment
on auto-pay. Every month, the exorbitant sum I pay would automatically go on my credit card, so
I wouldn’t have to think about how
much it was, or how little it covered. Then, during the winter, my husband and
I were victims of credit card fraud and had to get a new credit card number. I managed to change all
of the other bills I’d had
on auto-pay. But there was a mysterious glitch in the system, and I
couldn’t ever seem
to get my health insurance back on auto-pay track.
trying to fix it, to no avail. So at the end of each
month, I would receive a letter saying that I hadn’t paid my premium, and my health insurance was about to be revoked.
In July, this happened for the fourth or fifth time. By then, it was driving me
crazy. Crazy enough to be institutionalized, though?
Not quite. But there were other issues.
The day in question started out well enough. No, let’s be honest. It didn’t.
It was the hottest day so far in what had already been an oppressively hot summer. The humidity alone made it
look like you’d swum across the English Channel the
moment you stepped outside, and the temperature was high enough to fry a latke.
Beyond that, I was already a nervous wreck because
one of my closest friends had just undergone major surgery the day before, and I was a
virtual basket case about it.
I was under added duress because my dog had such severe
gastric distress that -- pardon me if this is TMI – I’d been obliged to drop off a stool sample for her at the vet.
Then there was
the other exasperating incident that
had really set me off.
At the start of the week, I had mailed a birthday card to my cousin, who had moved to Florida last summer. This would be the first birthday that Cousin Susan would
celebrate all alone, and I wanted to make
sure my card arrived just in time for her birthday on Friday.
Since I was late for work
on Monday morning, I left it in my mailbox for the mailman to pick
up instead of bringing it to the post office. The following night, one of my neighbors rang our doorbell and handed me back that birthday card. Rather, he gave me what was left of it. Apparently, the mailman had inadvertently dropped it through
my neighbor’s mail slot, and his big, rambunctious puppy had chewed it to smithereens.
Good thing that I am very friendly with this neighbor, whose dog and ours are dating. Because
I had enclosed a check inside the card, and
that remained totally intact.
I had no choice but to go buy
another card. But now it was too late for it to arrive on time
for the birthday. So when I went to the post office to mail it, I also filed
After showing the clerk the mangled card and recounting
my plight. I proposed that they overnight
the new card for me at their own expense. At the very least, I said, they owed me a new greeting card and stamp as compensation. Unimpressed, the clerk disappeared for several minutes to discuss it with
returned. “All we can do is give you
this,” she replied flatly, handing me an ugly, generic flag stamp.
I wasted even more time taking this up with the manager, who remained similarly
Then I went home, only to find another threatening letter from my health insurance provider, Connecticare, in the mail. Once
again, it said, I’d failed to pay my premium, so my coverage would
soon be canceled.
Clearly, this was not my day. And it was not going to my night.
I decided to call Connecticare for the umpteenth time and try to straighten
it out. The young woman who answered was named Roslyn. I’m
not sure how she spelled that. But she was very nice. Unfortunately, she was not very helpful. She knew almost nothing.
what felt like an hour on the phone together, and may have been even more. During this time, she had to keep putting me on hold to consult her boss. For as nice as she was, and as well-meaning as she was, as I
said she knew almost nothing.
She told me that I needed to remove my old
credit card from my account. I’d already done this. Many times before. But she said it was still on her screen. It was not on mine.
least an hour, or what felt like one, to my infinite
relief it appeared that we had
finally done it. I had managed to restore my auto-pay status. Plus I had processed a one-time payment for that month because it typically takes at least one cycle for auto-pay to kick in. I even had a confirmation
number. Could my troubles be over at last?
“Why did you process the one-time payment?” Roslyn demanded in obvious frustration. She was convinced that this would cause me to be charged twice. To avoid that, she insisted that I cancel everything that we had just done and start all over again.
“Huh? You’ve got
to be kidding!” I replied. “I would rather kill myself than
But she remained adamant. She
was convinced that I had done something wrong
and wanted me to cancel both payments I had processed and start again from scratch.
I stood my ground just as firmly,
though, because I was now
truly at my wit’s end.
“Start over again?” I echoed. “No way! I would rather stab myself in the eye!”
Roslyn grew understandably alarmed. “Why would you say something like that?” she asked, her voice growing anxious
and shrill. “You have so much to live for!”
So much to live for? Sure. Maybe I did. But her melodramatic statement
was such a cliché, and I was so frustrated myself, that I suddenly lost
it, as demonstrated by the crazy
thing I did next.
I not only repeated my threat about stabbing myself in the
eye, but told her that I was
going to find the longest, sharpest knife I could. Then I did something even crazier. I walked across the kitchen
and rattled the knives in a drawer. After which, before she could ask me one
more time to cancel my payments, I hung up.
A few minutes later, the phone rang, and I could see from the caller ID that
it was Connecticare again. No big surprise. But, as I said, I was genuinely at my wit’s end. And I had no desire
to discuss the matter any further. So I
let the phone keep ringing.
I sat down at my computer and went to work. After all, I had already wasted most of the day, and I had a lot of work left to do related
to my summer teaching job.
About five minutes later, I was lost
in thought editing one of my students' essays when I heard a thunderous rap on my front door.
I thought, my heart sinking with trepidation. “It couldn’t be.”
But it was.
I opened the door to find three police officers on my steps. In front of my
house were parked two police cars and a firetruck, and there was an ambulance at the end of the driveway.
“You've got to be kidding!” I exclaimed, covering my eyes as all three officers barged into my house.
I told them that there was definitely some mistake. I told them that I had just been kidding, and that they should stop wasting their time and go attend to a real emergency.
I even told them most of the entire pathetic story above in full detail...
minus the part about my dog's gastric distress. They were not impressed.
They told me that I had been speaking to Roslyn on a recorded
line, and that in view of what I had said they needed to take me into
custody at once. I would have to be examined by a team of psychiatrists
to determine if I really intended to take my own life.
I told them that I had no intention
of taking my own life and that I had no time to talk to a team of psychiatrists or anyone else about it. My husband and I needed to leave soon for
our weekly ballroom dancing class, something that we attend every Thursday night.
There would be no dancing for me, they asserted. They intended to transport me to the local hospital of my choice strapped to a stretcher in the ambulance.
As crazy as this may sound, I now began to argue about the details of this plan.
There was no need to strap me to a stretcher, I insisted. Besides, I happen to suffer from severe motion sickness and was guaranteed to get sick to my stomach lying down in an ambulance. At the very least, could
I please go into the kitchen and get my
purse, in which I always carry a pair of SeaBands, wristbands that help counteract car sickness?
Two of the officers were male,
and one of these two was extremely hostile and intimidating. He held up his heavily muscled arm
to physically retrain me from
leaving the front hallway of my house. I couldn’t go anywhere, he said, especially the kitchen. There were weapons in there, and I might try to take my own life.
Take my own life? All I wanted to do, I said, was be left alone to
finish my work so I could go out dancing
with my husband. We were learning how to salsa. Did that sound like I was suicidal?
Speaking of my husband, he chose
this very moment to emerge from the basement, where
he had been working out on his stationery bicycle the
entire time. Stepping into the hallway now, he was astonished to encounter the
apparent crime scene unfolding in our
I hoped against hope that his vouching for my sanity might help settle the matter. Then again, might it help more if he vouched for my insanity?
The sad truth is that I am prone to create scenes whenever I’m upset.
My mother used to speak with emphasis to get her point across. I have my own method. When I am really unnerved, or exasperated
– as I was now – I have a tendency to talk about killing myself.
going to slit my wrists,” I'll say. Or, “I want to throw myself off the nearest bridge.”
The truth is, I would never throw myself off a bridge, near or far. I have a serious actual phobia about bridges. I
hate them. I also hate cold water. And I am deathly afraid of heights.
I just say that stuff on a regular basis in order to let off steam and make it clear that, as they said in the classic 1976 movie Network, “I’m mad
as hell, and I’m not gonna to
take it anymore!”
After 33 years of marriage, my husband
has heard me make one of these crazy threats so many times that he is understandably mad as hell himself and not gonna take it anymore. At the very least, he was not going to begin to argue
with the police on my behalf. And the truth is that it probably wouldn’t have done any good anyway.
I had made what sounded like a credible suicide threat, on a recorded line, no less, and they were probably
bound by law to take me into custody, no
matter what either of us said.
Realizing this, I began to sense that there
was no point in my arguing any further.
My best course of action was to cooperate and get this over with. I had only one request.
Before they had arrived, I had been boiling some chicken and rice on the stove for my poor dog, Latke, who, as I mentioned,
was literally sick as a dog. Before leaving for the hospital, could I please just go into
the kitchen and feed the poor thing?
At this, once
again, the most belligerent of the three officers forcibly blocked my path. I could not go into the kitchen. I could not
get my purse. And I definitely could not go cut anything up, even for my dog.
He said that my husband would have to do all of these things for me.
My husband? Prepare some food? Even for a dog? Was he out of his mind?
Don’t worry. I kept this thought to myself, as well as the details of the gastric distress.
later, I was escorted outside to the ambulance. As I walked between two of the officers,
I wondered what the neighbors would think. I mean, there were two police cars,
a firetruck, and an ambulance parked in front of our house. How could they possibly miss that?
My husband had been advised by the officers to drive to
the hospital on his own. He couldn’t ride with me. But if I were released, then I would need some way to get home.
With luck, a fourth officer inside the ambulance allowed me to sit up rather than being strapped to the stretcher. He had
already surmised that all this
was a total misunderstanding. I still
felt carsick by the time we arrived at the hospital after about a 20-minute
drive in rush-hour traffic.
Adding to my growing nausea was the realization that I would probably be expected to pay for the ambulance, as well as
the visit to the emergency room, which might cost thousands.
My husband met me in the emergency room, where we were kept waiting for nearly an hour before I was processed by a registrar and admitted.
Then I was escorted to an alcove behind a curtain, where a nurse handed me a loose cotton hospital gown and baggy pants and made me strip down to my underwear and change right in front of her.
I also had to trade my high-heeled sandals
for a pair of synthetic, pale gray tube socks with rubber treads on the bottom. The
sheer indignity of it all was bad enough. But I had a more pressing reason
to wish that I could have remained dressed in my own clothes. If I needed to convince a team of shrinks that I was reasonably
stable and in my right mind, then I would have looked a whole lot saner in my color-coordinated outfit with matching jewelry
than in that ill-fitting, shapeless shmatta.
All of my belongings were placed
in a large plastic bag and taken away from me. Then
I was led to a hospital room and told to lie down on a cot and wait to be evaluated.
To my surprise, and slight distress, my husband was allowed
to join me there; we were barely speaking. The only thing in this room was a TV tuned to an endless stream of
old episodes of Law & Order: SVU.
“SVU,” as you must know,
is an acronym for “Special Victims Unit.” All of the special victims had been subjected to sexual assault, and in nearly every episode we saw, the perpetrator ended up getting away with the crime. This
only helped heighten my mounting anxiety. But there was no
remote control with which to change the channel, let alone turn the TV off. And by now, my husband and I were no longer speaking at all. I had nothing to do but watch.
Soon, another nurse came in and asked me a series of questions about my medical
history. She then asked me to sign a form agreeing to pay for the services with which I was being provided. Services I had not asked for and definitely didn't want. I didn’t know if it would make any difference. But I declined to sign.
Finally, after well over another
hour, a physician’s assistant came in to evaluate me at last. He asked me about
my mental health history. Had I ever been in a psychiatric ward before? Was I now under psychiatric care? Did I take any psychotropic medications?
No, no, and no.
Fortunately, he did not ask me any of the questions I would
have been reluctant to answer, on the grounds that they might incriminate me. Such
as, “Are you too depressed sometimes to get out of bed in the morning?” (Hmmm. Can you define "sometimes?") "Does your family think
you should be taking psychotropic drugs?” (You mean, because they keep threatening to sprinkle Prozac on my food?) And, “Do you sometimes feel like throwing
yourself off the nearest bridge?” (Sure. Of course. Doesn’t everyone?)
Instead, at this point he simply asked me to explain what the heck had happened.
As I recounted my story,
yet again, he looked at me with what
appeared to be sympathy and disbelief.
“Clearly, this is just a misunderstanding that spiraled out of control,” he declared.
I concluded by explaining that all I had wanted to do that night was go to my ballroom dancing class, he asked what kind of
dance we were learning.
“Salsa,” I replied, noting that we had really wanted to go because, although
I was passably decent at it, my husband was awful and really needed the help.
He told us to wait while he relayed my tale to his boss, whom he thought was likely to release me at once. Then he promised to give us some salsa dancing
tips when he returned.
as he was about to disappear,
he strode back into the room again. And it was not to ask me to dance.
“I need to explain something to you,” he said firmly. “Don’t say anything strange
when my boss comes in. Just tell him the
story exactly the way you told it to me. Don’t add any extra details. And whatever you do, don't try to be funny."
I was on a locked psych ward, he explained. "If you think that you can leave here just
because you want to, well, you can’t,” he continued. If I said anything to his superior that sounded suspicious, then
he might decide to keep me there. And
if he did, then I would be injected with sedatives and remain on the ward for another five days. I could not
speak to a lawyer. I would not be allowed
to make any phone calls at all. After that, I
would be brought before a judge. And if he determined that I was a threat to myself, or anyone else, then I would
be kept there indefinitely.
“So just tell him what you told me,” he
concluded. Then he walked out. And I began to freak out.
It’s not that I intended to say anything inappropriate. I would not mention
knives. Let alone bridges. The problem is that I have a tendency to talk too much
when I’m upset or nervous. And to resort to humor. But I did not want
to watch one more episode of Law & Order: SVU. I did not want to need a lawyer. I just wanted to go home to my dog, gastric distress and all.
Moments later, the physician’s
assistant returned with an older man, an actual doctor, in tow. And it turned
out that I was in little danger of saying anything wrong or inappropriately
funny. Because the doctor had already
heard my story and he didn't really need me to say a word. He was already
shaking his head in disbelief.
He made some sort of snide remark about insurance companies and how annoying
they can be. Then he repeated the phrase the PA had used about it being a situation
that had spiraled out of control. No matter. He would get me released at once.
A nurse soon appeared with my bag of belongings and escorted me to
a bathroom in the hallway so I could change. When I entered, I noticed that there was no lock on the bathroom door. Forget about privacy. This really was
a locked psych ward.
Back in the hall, the nurse began to show me toward the
exit when I explained to her that I needed to find my husband, who was still waiting for me back in my room.“Unless you would be willing to keep him here for me for
a few more days,” I joked.
She repressed any impulse she may have felt to smile. Or maybe she didn’t think it was funny. “Be careful what you say here,” she admonished
solemnly. “Really. Don’t even try to joke.”
Before I could be officially released, there was still one more thing to take care of.
The physician’s assistant soon returned to sign the papers that would set me free. Then, as promised, he taught us some special salsa dance moves.
It turned out, by pure coincidence, that he and his ex-wife had
been professional dancers before he’d decided
to return to school to become a PA. Their specialty?
Salsa. I kid you not.
I was tempted to make a remark about this, maybe about his giving up all the right moves for all the
right meds. Or that loose hips sink ships. But I had been
warned more than once. Don’t joke.
Now that I’m free to say whatever I want, though, I want to tell you how I really feel.
And it is no laughing matter.
I still cannot believe that I was taken forcibly from my house against my will
just because of something I said. Something that I said and never meant.
I started off that evening feeling unnerved, but in no way anything close to suicidal. But in the days and weeks that followed,
I actually grew severely depressed.
It was terrifying
to have been arrested – to suddenly lose my freedom and all of my rights -- and to find myself utterly powerless.
I wouldn’t deign
for one second to insult black people and other minority groups in this country
by suggesting that I now know how they feel. But I learned what it is like when the police attack and intimidate you and
treat you with disdain and contempt.
When the very people who
are supposed to protect you seem to be out to get you instead.
so threatened and frightened by them that I would be afraid to call them now, even if I were in genuine danger. To me, THEY are the danger. Whenever I see a police car now, even whizzing by on the highway, I freeze with abject terror.
By the way, as I feared, I am indeed expected to pay handsomely for my loose lips. The bill for the ambulance
was a whopping $895, although, to my surprise and enormous relief, the insurance
company chose to cover most of that. But the bills from the emergency room and the medical personnel I saw
there still exceeded $1,000.
So, needless to say, no matter how upset I get, I will never make idle threats again.
The good news, if there is any, is that I finally got my insurance back on auto-pay.
And I truly learned my lesson, the hard – and humiliating – way.
There is an old adage
that goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” To me, wishes are rarely dangerous. Words, however, can be. So I propose a new adage: Be careful what you say. Even in jest. And even
to someone on the telephone. Whether or not you are
at your wit’s end.
I am no longer at my wit’s end.
Really. I’m doing fine. Sure, there are days when I don’t feel like getting out
of bed. But I always get up anyway, because I'm busy. I have things to do. People to see. And another book to write. If you don’t
hear from me for a while after this, don’t worry. I’m probably just busy.
Or maybe I’m just out salsa dancing with my husband.