I write this from New York City, where well over a hundred people united in solidarity today to protest the American Psychiatric Association and to demand human rights for those in the mental health system. After gathering near the United Nations to speak and rally, we marched over to the site of the APA’s Institute on Psychiatric Services conference, called Pursuing Wellness through Recovery and Integration— I won’t even pretend to understand what could possibly be meant by this title— and protested for two hours with loudspeakers, banners, chanting, and music.
At one point, I went inside the conference and was able to get my hands on the APA’s flyer for its 166th Annual Meeting in San Francisco in May 2013, called Pursuing Wellness Across the Lifespan. I’ll leave you to have your own reactions to this title, as I surely had some visceral ones of my own.
Here is my speech from the protest.
October 6th, 2012— Today, I am liberated from psychiatry, here to take a stand for those who can’t yet make the same declaration of freedom. The chains I wore until just over two years ago weren’t forced upon me as they are for so many of our comrades— as we speak, four point straps are being grabbed in nurses’ stations, syringes sit sterilized and prepped, and electroshock machines wait patiently in the seclusion of hidden hospital basements to extinguish the next human spirit. This violence is happening just blocks from us, right now, in this moment, perpetrated by those who were taught to “First, do no harm”. Fellow human beings stripped of the most basic of human rights— to own one’s body, one’s mind, one’s voice, and one’s spirit. To be free to stand under a blue sky and feel the warmth of the sun. To be free to cry and laugh and scream and rage, connected to the most primal of human emotions, without fear of forced injection at the hands of those without the faintest idea of what it’s like to be trapped inside a sedated mind and body, the worst of dungeons. To be free to think and feel with a brain undamaged by toxic psychoactive chemicals or electric currents, united with one’s true human potential. These, our most basic of human rights, extinguished by a psychiatrist’s stare and everything that follows.
The details of my own story don’t involve needles, shocks, restraints, or seclusion— I wore different shackles during my years in psychiatry, ones that were insidious and mostly invisible. You see, I was once psychiatry’s biggest believer, bound by its spell and intoxicated by its promises to take care of me. It never needed to force me with injections or commitment hearings; spellbound as I was, I willingly opened my mouth to the doses and held out my wrist for each hospital bracelet, any hope for my future placed entirely in the hands of those I called “treaters”. The click of pills on plastic, the rip of a script pulled from the pad, the crunch of a vinyl hospital mattress under over-starched sheets— these were sounds that once soothed me into submission.
This oppression crept quietly into my bones as a young teenager and devoured my agency and my authenticity for the next thirteen years, when in one frighteningly beautiful and painful moment, I woke up. I see today that this awakening was sparked by the last scraps of my human spirit, suppressed and numbed, making a last ditch attempt to bring me back to life, to a memory of what it was like to think of myself as anything other than “bipolar”. When I was first stripped of my human skin by a psychiatrist, my adolescent anger at the world and at myself labeled “mania” and my life story reduced to a list of symptoms needing treatment, I became relegated to a class of “other”. At age fourteen, I lost my most sacred of rights— the right to be an acceptable human, just as I was.
After fighting back for a short time, I eventually surrendered to that “bipolar” diagnosis and let it infiltrate me. For the next ten years its weight grew heavier, the accumulating prescriptions and inpatient hospitalizations an increasingly exhausting burden to bear. Day after day, year after year, with each pill swallowed and each session on display before a shrink with my head hung low and my eyes on the ground, I lost my Self, until it became too painful to pretend to be anything other than the diseased, broken patient I’d been told I was, my only true safe-haven a locked psych ward.
Plagued with a growing existential amnesia, I lost the ability to feel, to love, to yearn, to strive, to hope, and to believe in anything with conviction beyond my life sentence of “chronic mental illness”. Guided through life by bottle after bottle of antipsychotic, mood stabilizer, antidepressant, and benzodiazepine, I bowed in subservience to the god of polypharmacy. Life’s vibrancy faded into the faintest of memories in my mind, along with my ability to be connected to anything or anyone, especially myself, and to have an inner compass orienting me towards the future. I became faced with what I saw as my only solution, and after nearly half my life spent spiraling downwards into psychiatry, I became convinced I’d lost my human right to be alive.
Almost two and a half years ago, I awoke from this psychiatry-induced coma, becoming aware of my oppression for the first time. I discovered that I’d lost my freedom to a master cleverly disguised as medicine, its whips and chains the “treatment” that enchanted me with false promises, and I began to fight for my freedom, for my right to stand in front of a mirror and see myself as one fiber in the great, beautiful fabric of humanity, no different than anyone else. We are here today for those who have been stripped of their right to do the same, whether they’ve been restrained by drugs and straps and solitary confinement, or by the internalized chains of a “mentally ill” identity. Our voices must be loud as we speak for the millions of people who’ve been pulled out of society and discarded at the gates of psychiatry, deemed unworthy of their humanness based on an arbitrary categorization of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors deemed “illnesses”, “disorders”, and “diseases”.
In the name of “normality”, society blindly pushes forward towards a utopian dream of white picket fences and frozen smiles— a fantasy world of chronic happiness, chronic productivity, chronic success, and chronic perfection— and psychiatry, as the elected arbiter of human value, is quick to oppress anyone who doesn’t make its cut. How is it that we’ve forgotten what it means to suffer, to experience gut-wrenching tears or fits of passion in this beautiful and dysfunctional world? How is it that we’ve forgotten how to embrace the ever-changing, infinite reality of which we each have a unique piece? Pharmaceutical advertising for psychiatric drugs saturates our media, tricking us into the delusion that we are super-humans floating above the realm of pain, sadness, anger, and madness. And yet behind closed doors, beneath this plastic fantasy, we all feel intense feelings, think about the meaning of life and death, get trapped in isolation, and feel paranoia. Under psychiatry’s spell, our society has forgotten this— with at least one in six Americans on psychiatric drugs, this fact is clear— and we trudge onwards, further and further into psychiatry’s grips, towards a bitter end of social segregation, oppression, and iatrogenic disability, millions upon millions of people kneeling in submission, whether by surrender or force, as though psychiatry’s language was an almighty, absolute Truth.
What I’ve come to understand is that the desperate drive to be “normal” that once pushed me into psychiatry’s arms long ago came from a place of deep, unresolved fear of myself and of the world around me— a beautiful human fear that I’ve now come to embrace and understand. Our world is an inherently unpredictable place, despite what psychiatry tells us with its A+B=C reductionism, and emotional and existential pain is a vital part of what it means to be human. At my root, none of me has ever been broken or imbalanced, and only when I truly began to believe this did I become connected to a meaningful sense of myself and my place on this earth, with each and every one of you, as we stand amidst our seven billion fellow humans. Only when I truly began to believe this, did I become free.
This movement is not a “recovery” movement, a “peer” movement, or a “mental health” movement. It is a human rights movement, and must be understood no other way. Until our emotions, thoughts, and unique realities are defined solely as a part of the broad spectrum of human experience, never as “symptoms” or “mental health issues”, we will remain mired in oppression. When I identify as having “lived experience”, it isn’t of “mental health challenges”, or of “disorder” or “illness”; it means that I’ve lived the experience of being oppressed and dehumanized, and that the only thing I’ve “recovered” from is psychiatry, itself. Countless people share the same story, whether they’ve awoken to it or not, and this is why we are here, today, uniting our voices.
Somehow, the spell of “mental health parity” has been cast upon those with good intentions— that rights must be the same for those with “mental health issues” as those without. My response to this is NO. NO, to the socially constructed boundary of mental “illness” and “wellness”. NO, to the arbitrary distinction between emotions as feelings and emotions as symptoms. NO, to the entirely misinformed belief that “mental illness” is a valid medical entity to be equated with physical conditions like diabetes or cancer. Each and every human on this planet feels the same emotions and uses the same basic human biology to think and act— there is no “us” and “them” when it comes to one’s emotional and existential experience of the world. What those of us with “lived experience” do share is the experience of being oppressed in the way that those with non-white skin, women, or those with non-heterosexual orientation have been oppressed. Time and time again, those of us deemed outside the acceptable “norm”— a very small and homogenous group of centralized social power— have been stripped of rights and treated as less than human. And just as the civil rights movement, the women’s lib movement, and the GBLTQ movement have fought to dismantle this power structure, so must we.
I am grateful to be free from psychiatry. To be alive, and to feel alive, my senses awakened and vibrant, my connection to myself, my fellows, and this movement magnetic. I am truly lucky to have escaped the numbed hopelessness of a “mentally ill” sentence when so many others are still imprisoned or have lost their lives to psychiatry; this humbles me more than words can say. Standing up for what I believe in with a determined voice is a new experience for me, and I sometimes find myself riddled with self-doubt and insecurity. But the beauty in this is that I know with firm resolve that my feelings, my thoughts, and my unique experience of reality will never again be violated by psychiatry, and that my purpose here is to help others gain the same freedom. No matter how much my heart is pounding with fear and self-doubt as I say these words, I will say them, loud and clear, because they come from my newly awakened heart. ONWARDS… to liberation and justice for those imprisoned in the mental health system, and to the reclamation of the most basic of rights for all of us— the right to be human.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.