First Person: A Memoir of Herrick Mental Hospital

By Jack Bragen
Friday March 14, 2008

To begin with, my father brought me to Herrick in 1990 when I was having a full-blown psychotic episode and my behavior was out of hand because I was quite delusional. It wasn’t my first or last psychotic episode. There would be one more in 1996 before I would swear to permanently stay medicated and cooperative with treatment.  

Once at Herrick, I was given antipsychotic medication, a sleeping pill and then a second sleeping pill. I remember I was out of it for several days. I was oblivious to my blood samples being drawn while I slept. 

Upon awakening, I got into arguments with the staff. There were several male and female belligerent nurses. They needed to be belligerent to get their job done—they were dealing with irrational people. That idea didn’t make the staff any more pleasant. They were obnoxious.  

The hospital had tile floors, vinyl upholstery and the industrial type look of a mental hospital that you might imagine. During morning group, a couple of patients got assertive, and two burly psychiatric technicians took away each one.  

On the ward, I talked to a woman who was terrified about “being brought upstairs again.” Looking back on it, I now know that this woman was probably receiving electroshock therapy when she was upstairs. 

There was also a ping-pong table in the ward that provided a pleasant distraction. It was in the room where smoking was permitted.  

It was about then that I started smoking cigarettes. A staff member who was more jovial than most, shared his smokes with me. He and I thought he was doing me a favor. I continue to smoke to this day.  

That described the older Herrick of 1990. I went back to a revamped Herrick in 1994 when I wasn’t really having a psychotic episode; I was just in a lot of pain.  

I had oral surgery to remove all four wisdom teeth, and temporarily had no access to food or the pain pills that were prescribed. I associated mental hospitals with sanctuary, so I had my mom bring me to Herrick to be taken care of.  

I found myself in a remodeled Herrick that seemed to have better people running it. The hospital ward was now carpeted and had cloth upholstery, and it had a gentler atmosphere. The food strengthened me and the Tylenol with codeine made a world of difference. My mouth began to heal rapidly. Staff was fairly nice for the most part.  

However, I found that the stay at Herrick was crazy-making this time around. I feared two of the other male patients, and I knew that staying in the ward, ironically, would worsen my mental condition. I talked to the psychiatrist at the earliest opportunity, and he agreed to let me out the front door of the hospital. I walked to Safeway and got cash with my ATM card, (it was now the beginning of the month and I had money) and walked to BART. I took BART and a bus home.  

Years later, when Herrick was renamed Alta Bates, my visit consisted of bringing a close relative to that hospital. When I visited that ward, I found a friendly atmosphere and kind staff. I hope this is so today. 

When you are a psychiatric patient, part of the mystery is whether psychiatrists are truly here to help you or are just a bunch of tormentors. The answer to this question changes depending on whether or not you are taking medication, and this fact intensifies the mystery. For a good answer, we can ask those people who are close to us. 

It can be difficult for psychiatric survivors to sort out the help vs. the hurt that they get from the system. That’s one reason why there is a lot of noncompliance. Often, a system intended to help the mentally ill has abusive aspects that end up alienating them. There’s a lot of anger among psychiatric survivors due to the abuse that has been received in the name of “treatment.” Yet it seems some kind of treatment is needed if we are to be well.