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I Know What It’s Like to Have Your Sanity Questioned

Listening to Britney Spears’s testimony reminded me of my own time in psychiatric care.

Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

This week, Britney Spears spoke publicly for the first time about just how little control she has over her own life. Testifying before a California judge, she described a world in which nearly all of her decisions are made by her father, who has controlled her career and finances by way of a controversial conservatorship for the past 13 years. Britney recalled being medicated against her will and coerced into entering a mental-health facility. She said that she isn’t able to see her friends or ride in her boyfriend’s car and that she wants to get married and have a baby but hasn’t been allowed to have her IUD removed (seemingly violating a basic human right). In her testimony, she called the conservatorship “abusive” and repeated multiple times that she wants to end it. “I don’t feel like I can live a full life,” she said.

As troubling and extreme as Britney’s circumstances may seem, much of what she recounted — such as being medicated without consent and subjected to involuntary psychiatric evaluations and institutionalizations — likely feels familiar to anyone with experience of mental illness. Although Britney has never disclosed the specifics of her diagnosis, she was hospitalized for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation in 2008 following what the media labeled as her “breakdown.” It was after this that her father, Jamie, petitioned the court for authority to control her financial and career decisions, citing concerns about her mental health and potential substance abuse. In her statement to the court, Britney said her therapist had put her on lithium, a mood-stabilizing drug most commonly used to treat bipolar disorder, against her will.

Reading Britney’s testimony, I felt an ache of recognition. Regardless of her diagnosis, her statement reverberates with the pain and intense frustration of being judged incompetent by doctors, psychiatrists, and the people closest to you. For me, that pain is still fresh. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last fall. My mania came on a few days after giving birth and seemed, at least to me, harmless at first: a wave of euphoria and intense energy I applied to writing, Instagram, and online shopping, pausing occasionally to sleep for an hour or two. Things escalated over the next week, and eventually I ended up in the E.R., where I underwent a series of evaluations. I didn’t mind that part; the mania made me extremely chatty. But I didn’t like what came next, when the doctors decided that I needed to go to a psych ward. I had heard enough about psych wards to know that was not where I wanted to go, but I told my husband I would if he thought I needed to. He did. (The doctors told my husband they were glad I had agreed because otherwise they would have held me involuntarily.) When the doctors told me to hand over my phone and my wedding ring, I became completely hysterical. I was terrified, angry, and confused about how things had spiraled so far out of my control.

As it turned out, there were no open beds in the psych ward, so I spent the next few days in various other departments of the hospital, furious that I was not allowed to go home. My memories of those days are hazy; I was being pumped full of Ativan and antipsychotics to calm me down. What I remember most is asking to see my baby, who was 2 weeks old. I was told it was impossible for her to come to the hospital because of COVID. I said I thought that was strange considering she had been born in a hospital two weeks earlier, but no one listened to me. (Britney, it’s worth noting, was also separated from her children: Her 2008 hospitalization reportedly occurred after she had locked herself in a bathroom and refused to give her two young sons back to her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, who had been granted full custody.)

One of the cruelest symptoms of mania is impaired judgment, meaning that even when I was fully manic, I still felt like myself and had a desperate need to convince the doctors that I was sane. “Listen to me,” I said to them with increasing frustration, taking deep breaths, trying to slow down my speech (my blood pressure was through the roof). I recognized the same desperation in Britney’s testimony when she noted that she felt her previous attempt to get out of the conservatorship had been ignored. “[You] made me feel like I was dead — like I didn’t matter, like nothing had been done to me, like you thought I was lying or something,” she told the judge, who repeatedly interrupted to request that Britney speak more slowly. “I’m telling you again because I’m not lying. I want to feel heard. And I’m telling you this again, so maybe you can understand the depth and the degree and the damage that they did to me back then.”

Britney describes what it’s like to be surveilled, to have people ask whether you’ve been taking your medication, to be treated like you are no longer the authority on how you feel or what you need. She recalls being made to take a psych evaluation in 2019 and being told by her dad that she had “failed”; she said she was then forced to check into a mental-health facility. “I cried on the phone for an hour, and he loved every minute of it,” Britney said. When she got there, she said a staff of people supervised her 24/7. “They watched me change every day — naked — morning, noon, and night,” she said. “I had no privacy door for my room.”

I’m grateful for the medical care I got in the hospital; I know now that I needed it. Still, it was incredibly jarring to suddenly feel like I had no control over my life. Being sent to the psych ward felt like punishment, like I had done something wrong. They wouldn’t let me bring my laptop, so I scrambled to write down as many phone numbers as I could on a yellow legal pad. I was scared to be alone, separated from my husband and daughter. I told almost every doctor who came into my room that I needed to be with my baby. The fact that no one else seemed to think that was important made me feel craziest of all.

The doctors were kind to me, but they kept going out in the hallway to talk to my husband. I had the feeling that everyone assumed they knew better than I did what was going on with me. The hard part has been coming to terms with how, to some extent, that was true. At the time, I knew I felt different, but I wasn’t capable of recognizing how mentally ill I was. But there were ways that I was still myself throughout the experience, and I’ll never forget what it was like to have people question my sanity.

In the scheme of things, I’ve been lucky: I was able to leave the hospital after a few days, and my mood eventually evened out after starting a low dose of lithium. My life mostly went back to the way it had been before. My heart breaks for Britney, who has had the people closest to her questioning her capacity for over a decade. The reaction to her testimony has been shock, but in some ways, it’s not so surprising given the frequency with which the mentally ill are deemed “incompetent” and involuntarily institutionalized. In her testimony, Britney said repeatedly that she does not want to undergo another psych evaluation. “I want to petition, basically, to end the conservatorship … I don’t want to be evaluated, to be sat in a room with people for hours a day like they did me before,” she said. I hope they finally listen to her.