One Cat, Six days and a Shot of Haldol

December 23, 2009 at 12:20 am

I had not heard the horrible story of Chris Muth’s 2008 psychiatric incarceration and forced drugging until reading of it on the blog Lunatic Fringe. The whole thing underscores the fact that the difference between sane and insane can be a simple matter of whether the right people believe you.

In July of 2008, Chris Muth was visited by a guest and his cat, Rumi. At some point, Rumi was poking around Muth’s apartment and entered a small hole in the bathroom wall. Muth ripped the wall open in hopes of rescuing a trapped Rumi, who returned his cat-calls, to no avail.  As it turns out, the small hole led to a large drop and Rumi fell 30 feet down a shaft within the wall. In his attempts to rescue the cat, he did break into an unoccupied apartment to create an opening. Understandably, the authorities were called. What is not so easy to understand is the leap the officers made next.

Not believing there was actually a cat stuck behind the wall, the police hauled him off to the psychiatric ward at Long Island College Hospital where he was held for six days. That is unconscionable. A man loses six days of his freedom because the cops mistake a very real cat for a psychotic delusion. Muth lost more than just six days through the ordeal. He lost his home, his girlfriend and his job while in LICH’s “care.”

In typical haul-them-in-and-label-them fashion, Muth’s medical records state that he “has the bizarre delusion [that he] was trying to ‘save’ a cat of his friend.” I wonder what kind of tests they administered to determine the existence of Rumi the cat. Surely they didn’t just take the officers’ word. Right? Muth, having had enough, decided to speak up saying to the resident nurse on duty, “‘Give me a pencil and paper. I’m going to write a press release and you are going to be the laughingstock of New York.”  Apparently no one informed him that the right to free speech doesn’t apply to psych patients any more than the right to due process. She did not get him a pencil and paper. She chose instead to  call for orderlies who held him down while she injected him with Haldol, a particularly ugly and powerful drug from the old round of antipsychotics — a blatantly punitive chemical assault and not an attempt at anything even resembling health, treatment or care.

“How can you stand up for yourself in this culture? You can punch someone and get arrested, or you can sue,” Muth said. And  he’s doing just that — suing the hospital and 11 0f its employees for a total of $260, 000. Considering what he’s been through and what was taken from him, that doesn’t seem like much. I hope he gets something that he can call justice out of the ordeal.

There you have it. A man carted off by the police to a psych ward, denied his basic human rights and civil liberties, separated from his freedom, his home and his source of income, held down and drugged by force — all because the police didn’t think the cat was real. And what if it hadn’t been? Would any of this be acceptable if it had all been a delusion? That’s not a rhetorical question. We need to seriously question what constitutes an abusive system, which rights we can do without and what it takes to trade them in. The mental health system has acted as a system of punishment for people on the margins of society for far too long. If Chris Muth can find himself in this situation, what misunderstanding or perception can put you there?

Rumi was eventually rescued by an animal control officer and is doing well after 15 days behind the wall. Here is an article about the original event and one about the subsequent lawsuit, both from The Brooklyn Paper.


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