The disturbing documentary God Knows Where I Am tells the story of Linda Bishop, and her death after being released from a state psychiatric hospital.
The film includes readings from Linda’s journal, and commentary from people who knew her, including her sister and her daughter. Their words powerfully captured the pain and frustration of a family seeing their loved one deteriorating without having any power to stop it. The sweeping visuals and music that accompanied slow, dramatic readings from the journal were effective in the later part of the movie, although to me they seemed overly drawn out in the first half.
After Linda was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychosis, she was put on medication, although she didn’t stay on it for long. Subsequent attempts at getting her treatment also eventually resulted in her discontinuing medication.
Over the years, she became increasingly delusional and her behaviour grew more and more erratic. As a result, a New Hampshire court committed her to the state psychiatric hospital for a period of up to 3 years.
Failure after failure
In hospital, she refused to take medications, and in New Hampshire, medications can’t be forced upon someone without a guardianship order. Linda appeared in front of a judge and managed to keep her delusions contained during her testimony, and the judge decided she didn’t meet the criteria for guardianship.
After some more time in hospital without any medication, she was deemed “clinically suitable for absolute discharge”, although her psychiatrist described her as having very poor judgment and insight. Linda had refused all along to give consent for the hospital to speak to her family, so they were not informed of her release.
She was discharged in early October. When she left the hospital, she didn’t even have clothes suitable for the weather.
God knows where I am
After some roaming about, she found an empty farmhouse for shelter. Winter soon set in, and it was unusually cold and snowy. For two months, she lived off of apples from a tree outside the house, until she ran out of food on December 6, 2007. She had a supply of water from the snow outside. Although the farmhouse was within sight of another house and a major highway, Linda’s presence was never noticed, and her delusions prevented her from seeking help.
Throughout this time, she kept a journal. It was eloquently written, but clearly showed that she was unwell. She had the insight to recognize that she was starving to death. On December 14th, she wrote a note that began “To whomever finds my body: My death is the result of domestic violence/abuse”, although this was not based in reality. She continued daily journal entries as she grew progressively weaker. She wrote that she would keep praying since “God knows where I am.” January 13, 2008, was the last entry, with only the date written.
I was left feeling ill at the end of the movie. This poor woman died a torturous death, drawn out over more than a month without food in an already weakened state. Her mental illness killed her after the mental health system utterly let her down. While it was a perfect storm of circumstances, this is something that could happen again. It could happen to one of us.
I’m aware that my illness could take my life via suicide, but the thought of undergoing this sort of ordeal is bone-chilling. We as a society should not be allowing this to happen to the most vulnerable among us. And yet where do we find a balance between allowing autonomy and enforcing desperately needed treatment? I’m a bit too shaken right now to have any sort of articulate idea.
You can watch God Knows Where I Am on Netflix. There’s also a good article in the New Yorker from 2011 with the same title.
My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.
You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.
There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.
17 thoughts on “God Knows Where I Am: A Story of Death By Mental Illness”
What an awful, awful story! I think it’s safe to say I won’t be watching. It’s scary that these things are happening 🙁
It really, really is.
It is scary this happens and just how many more?
At this particular point, I cannot watch it. I WILL , in future, when I’m feeling more emotionally stable, but right now? It could be the straw. It sounds absolutely horrific. This has sparked some internal conversation that will come out as a blog post shortly, and I’ll direct folks over here to read your post. Anyone who has mental illness or has friends or relatives with mental illness should see the film apparently. How sad and how grim. :'(
Yes, it’s awful.
Sounds really interesting, although it is tragic and heartbreaking.
Yes, it is.
Thanks so much for sharing this, I really hope they put this documentary on Netflix UK
Oh that’s too bad it’s not on yet.
It’s a very sad, sad documentary. I agree with you, it can happen to anyone. It’s terrifying.
Yes it is.
Oh my goodness. This hit so hard. The extent that someone with mental illness can go to is so terrifying. I don’t think I can watch this.
Yeah it was definitely hard to watch.