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, and as a result, a court in New Hampshire committed her to the state psychiatric hospital for a period of up to 3 years.
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, and when she left the hospital she didn’t even have clothes suitable for the weather. 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.
There’s more on social issues on the Social Justice Issues page.
My book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis breaks down the different categories of DSM-5 diagnoses, explaining the diagnostic criteria and providing first-hand stories of the various illnesses. It’s available on the MH@H Store, as well as Amazon and other online retailers.