If I was to sum up my career as a “Bipolar” patient, the word voluntary stands out to me more than most. Indeed, it’s scribbled and typed all over the thousand and some odd pages of my psychiatric records. I spoke about this in my speech at Occupy APA in New York City last month— that I was once spellbound by psychiatry, swept up in its promises of quick fixes, normalized brain chemistry, and an effectively-managed life. I once turned to psychiatry’s disciples— the countless MDs and PhDs I saw over the years— and threw myself at their feet, my devotion to them driven by a profound desperation for answers to my emotional and existential pain, and more importantly, to the agonizing question of “Who am I?”
The answers beckoned me from the pages of the DSM, the language of which I learned diligently so that I could be a more effective and useful patient to my doctors. I became adept at self-diagnosis and at understanding the various manifestations of my “Bipolar disorder” as well as a layperson possibly could, quick to call my doc if any new “symptoms” cropped up. One could say that all of this is evidence of my “voluntary” status in psychiatry… Or could one? Despite what my records say, and despite what I told myself throughout my years as a seemingly willing patient, was I really, truly, voluntary?
Voluntary, adj. [from dictionary.com]
- done, made, brought about, undertaken, etc., of one’s own accord or by free choice: a voluntary contribution.
- of, pertaining to, or acting in accord with the will: voluntary cooperation.
- of, pertaining to, or depending on voluntary action: voluntary hospitals.
- having the power of willing or choosing: a voluntary agent.
Looking at the surface of my story— the signatures on all my voluntary inpatient hospitalization admit forms, my monthly trips to the pharmacy to pick up my scripts and take them “as prescribed”, or my twice weekly (sometimes three times weekly) drives to my shrink’s office for therapy— it is easy to argue that I was voluntary. Legally, there is no doubt that I was: I was never committed against my will, or put under a forced “treatment” order. However, as I’ve grown further away from psychiatry’s grips and more into a liberated, authentic sense of Self these last two and a half years, and as my mind and body have cleared themselves of a decade’s worth of psychotropic drugs, I’ve awakened to a new truth— I was never voluntary, in the truest sense of the word. At best, I was involuntarily voluntary.
Let me backtrack for a minute. My first experience with psychiatry was against my wishes, at the age of fourteen [side bar: I should note that I hold no blame against my parents for agreeing with the recommendation that I be sent to a psychiatrist; they were truly doing what they thought was in my best interest. In my opinion, one of today’s devastating realities is that it is considered poor parenting in our society if parents don’t take their children to a mental health provider for emotional or behavioral difficulties, an issue that we must address as a community]. When that first psychiatrist put me on Depakote and Prozac to treat the “Bipolar disorder” she’d labeled me with [you might remember from earlier chapters of my blog that the anger I felt towards myself, my family, my school, my town, and the world at large had been deemed a symptom of ‘mania’], I did not willingly take those drugs, nor accept that diagnosis. Thus, the very foundation of my relationship to the mental health system was based on involuntariness. It cannot be understated that I absolutely despised the fact that I’d been labeled “mentally ill”, and even more than that, I felt profoundly violated by the foreign chemicals the psychiatrist was telling me to put in my system to change how I felt.
I worked hard at staying involuntary in high school, whether by hiding pills, slipping entirely through the cracks of any “treatment” at all for a time during my boarding school years, or keeping the fact that I’d been labeled “Bipolar” a secret from almost everyone. No matter how much I determined to go on in this way, however, the “mental illness” seed had been planted, and broke the surface by the fall of my freshman year in college. I couldn’t hide the painful memory of being told my emotions were symptoms of a disease, and no matter how much I didn’t want to believe it to be true, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the tremendous existential pain I felt on a daily basis truly was something abnormal. Eventually, when the pain became too much to bear, I voluntarily entered a psychiatrist’s office, but not out of free will or choosing, as the dictionary defines it. I surrendered to psychiatry because I reached a point of emotional desperation that told me I had no other choice: see a psychiatrist, or go on to the bitter end.
During the ten following years, I always thought of myself as a willing participant in treatment, diligently following orders, whether they be to increase doses or add new meds or go inpatient or go to a partial hospital program or go to an intensive outpatient program or go to an extra therapy session a week or sign a “contract for safety” or whatever the hell else it was I always agreed to do. Smiling and nodding and impressing those doctors with my endless well of compliance made me feel important and filled me with a sense of pride, bolstered each time I saw a subtle nod of satisfaction from the armchair in front of me as once again, I said “Yes, doc.”
From the age of eighteen until my awakening ten years later, I never ran away. I almost never fought, never screamed, and never resisted. I say “almost”, because my last inpatient hospitalization in 2010 did, in fact, involve two security guards; to briefly sum the experience up, I mentioned the ‘S’ word to a psychiatrist, who calmly told me I needed to go inpatient immediately because I was “unsafe”, to whom I replied, “OK, I will, but can I go home first to pack a bag?” to which he answered, “No,” which prompted me to feel backed in a corner and defensive and emotional, to which he responded by calling two security guards, who arrived and told me I had the “choice” of coming with them to the unit voluntarily or involuntarily. I “chose” the former.
Beyond that first and last minor attempt at resistance, I simply couldn’t do anything but comply, time and time again. You see, I had no inner compass, no sense of self-confidence or self-determination, and gaining a doctor’s approval was essential for me as a young woman who felt absolutely zero approval of herself. This was reinforced by an unconditional trust in things outside of me— in the mental health system, in the DSM, in my doctors, in “my meds”— and this trust was unconditional because I had zero trust in the one source that might have challenged such blind faith— myself. During my time as a patient, I existed in a system that claims one person, armed with proper schooling and training, can become an expert on another person’s internal, subjective, human experience of the world. It is a ludicrous notion to me, today— talk about Narcissistic personality disorder!— but at the time, I needed to believe that someone was an expert on me because I felt so utterly lost in my life. And once I allowed myself to be stripped of the right to be an expert on myself, I also lost the power of willing or choosing. Without a connection to my gut, and to my intuitive sense of right and wrong for myself, I had no true will.
Tied into this loss of will, of course, was my long relationship to psychiatric drugs. From the get-go, I was involuntarily voluntary, never given the chance to choose freely because I was never given access to a full spread of honest information. The story I heard was that these “medicines” balanced out a pre-existing chemical imbalance. That they would fix my broken brain. That they weren’t physically addictive. That they sometimes had minor “side effects”, which shouldn’t be more than a week or two of headaches or constipation at most before my body adjusted to them. That if I didn’t take these “medicines”, my “Bipolar” would continue to escalate. That I had a biochemical disease requiring a biochemical solution. I believed these things, because I heard them from the mouths of Harvard-trained doctors. I believed these things, because I was taught to trust in Medicine. I believed these things, because I desperately wanted them to be true.
And in a short matter of time, I was pliable as Gumby, going through the motions of life in a numbed state of disconnection and apathy, detached from my thoughts and actions, completely unaware of just how altered my mind and body had become. The pill bottles contained invisible straitjackets that separated me from the memory of what my pre-psychiatrized life had been, all the while telling me that I was still in charge of myself and of my decisions. For ten years, I was chemically lobotomized, I often wonder how it is that our society fully embraces the notion that a person who’s had one too many alcoholic drinks might make “impaired decisions”, while someone like me, who once took Lithium, Lamictal, Abilify, Effexor, and Ativan every day, with a PRN of Seroquel on the side for those moments requiring immediate sedation— was seen as somehow maintaining the ability to have an unimpaired will?
I was never voluntary, no matter how much I convinced myself I was. Only now, my mind, body, and spirit fully free from the mental health system, am I coming to understand this. After desperately searching for answers to that once perplexing question of “Who am I?” I have found that I’m connecting with a true, authentic sense of my Self for the first time. And that’s really what it is— the answer is not a verbal declaration, or a list of descriptive labels or categories, but rather an intuitive, innate sense of myself that lies deeper than language. Psychiatry could never have given me this answer, with its dependence on artificially constructed classifications and definitions, and its stubborn insistence that Truth can be created out of thin air. Nor could psychiatry have “fixed” me, because I was never broken in the first place. I know this to be true because it took me thirteen years to figure it out, and with each day that passes in my liberated life, my inner voice grows stronger in reminding me that I am the only expert on myself.
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.
Another great post. It is liberating to read the personal insights of someone so willing to openly process such a compelling and intimate history of their odessey through the modern mental health system.
The powerful sway of Biological Psychiatry is no different than the intoxicating influence of religious cults in attracting new members. Each is usually engaging a person at a most vulnerable and impressionable time in their life, and each promises potential salvation from a troubled life. People are almost always hurt, angry, fearful, and with no confidence in their grasp of reality at that moment. In these situations the concept of “free will” is hopelessly compromised; the word “voluntary” has no meaning in this context.
Laura, your story and your narrative growth right before our eyes is truly inspiring.
In struggle, Richard
You hit the nail on the head in terms of capturing the state of mind I was in when I finally embraced psychiatry. It’s amazing to be aware today of the process of indoctrination that I went through then, not just in psychiatry but in other areas as well. It’s as though I’m seeing myself and my life with clarity for the first time… and now that I’m well past the stage of “How could you not have seen this earlier, Laura?” (which was a horribly difficult time for me when I first woke up to all of this a couple of years ago), I am free to move on with my life and create a sense of my Self that isn’t tied to an institutional framework.
Looking forward to reconnecting now that you’re back from Florida!
Thank you for sharing your story.
Re: Saving Lives
My grandpa enlisted in the Army at age 16 during the First World War. Following a battle, he and several other soldiers were placed in a field – to be given proper burial at a later time.
Fortunately, some time later, an Army Medic heard some moaning, and found my grandpa – severly wounded, but still alive. Fifteen years later, he would have a first-born son – my dad.
A few years back, my family gathered at my dad’s home for Thanksgiving Dinner. I remember looking at all of the photographs of our family – my parents, siblings, our children, and thei children. I looked at my dad, and reminded him, “None of us would be here today, had it not been for the Army Medic who saved grandpa’s life.”
I bring this story up with gratitude for all of your work, Laura. I don’t know how many lives you will save, but I’m certain that your story will has already saved at least one. And the life you’ve saved will mean many lives are touched.
Thank you for your tireless efforts – to bring hope to others… A psychiatric label and past “treatment” is not a death sentence. As long as a soul has air in its lungs, and is able to moan, “I’m still alive!” there is hope.
I’m grateful this Veterans Day weekend for the brave souls who fight for freedom – not always in military uniform, but those in civilian clothes as well – who fight against oppression – including psychiatric oppression.
Thank you for the inspiration!
Wow, Duane, I am speechless and beyond humbled at your comment!
My life was saved, too, by others– Bob Whitaker, among them– and I feel the same powerful gratitude for those people that you feel for that army medic. I reflect daily on the fact that, given my story, I shouldn’t be here today, and I am always humbled at the question, ‘Why me? Why am I here, when so many others have been lost in the system forever?’ That question is what drives me to do whatever I can to help others find their own path to liberation and life; I believe that it is only through a series of very random, small, seemingly insignificant acts (for example, the fact that I happened to be locked up on a psych ward at the same time as another young woman who told me her story and changed my life; or, my decision to wander into a bookstore on a May day in 2010 in which ‘Anatomy’ happened to be on display) that I am here. And I want to give of myself as much as I can so that I might be a random, small act in someone else’s life. That’s how the human condition works, in my opinion!!
“As long as a soul has air in its lungs, and is able to moan, “I’m still alive!” there is hope.” Duane, one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever read. Thank you for giving me that.
Glad to be in this fight with you, and I too am grateful for that army medic 🙂
Laura, thanks so much for another passionate, articulate post! I was (again) feeling despair and rage today over the way in which my daughter has been ravaaged by a system that is supposed to heal, but consistently violates the very first principle of medicine: “First do no harm”. This post was a tremendous boost to my spirits. I have shared a previous similarly articulate post of yours with my daughter, my sister-in-law and another young friend who are all in the grip of psychiatry’s pseudo-science, and i intend to share this one with a couple of folks “in the system” who need to wake up and smell the coffee! To repeat that old, trite line, “You go, girl!”
Thanks for the comment, and it feels so good to hear that my post helped your spirit get a boost. I had a lot of fun writing it yesterday morning (jet-lagged in San Francisco, I woke up at 3:45AM and knew it was time to write!), and I am beyond grateful that I have this message of liberation to carry, because I, for many years, was convinced I’d forever be a prisoner in my life. I have no doubt that your daughter has everything she needs inside of her to find her own path to freedom; it’s just a matter of her connecting to it.
It is a really difficult task to have a conversation with someone who has put biopsychiatry on an indestructible pedestal. I always try to remind myself that I, just three years ago, was there, too, and that I must have love and tolerance for the person who refuses to believe that the message I’m carrying has the weight of science and truth behind it, because I was once that person. I also try to remind myself that knowledge can be used as a weapon when it is “done to” someone, just as the DSM and biopsychiatry’s paradigm was “done to” me. Instead, I do my best to speak only of my own experience, and let my story become an opportunity for someone to identify with (or not, if they’re not ready). That I might have the opportunity to play that part in your daughter’s life, if she chooses to read this, is an honor!
What a wonderful gift that your daughter, sister-in-law and friends have you in their lives, to be there as they sort all of this out. Knowing that my post has helped you play that part inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing, so thank you from the bottom of my heart!
Thank you for another truly insightful piece.
I believe that you describe the difficulty of challenging the “consensus ‘reality'” even when it is wrong. I use the term “consensus ‘reality'” to describe the reality of one’s social environment. Even though it wasn’t true, everyone you knew believed that you suffered from a mental disorder and that the medical model of mental health care was your best option for curing the mental “illness.” It is difficult in the real world to challenge a false consensus without any support.
The painfulness and irrationality of mental distress are widely accepted symptoms of a mental “illness,” but this cultural expectation lacks scientific support. Mental distress is natural emotional suffering- the normal biology of distressful experiences.
As you eloquently advocated in a previous post, the medical model denies natural human emotions; it denies our humanity. This is a human rights issue, and “we shall overcome.”
Best wishes, Steve
i love the idea of ‘consensus’ reality. there is such presumption and arrogance in the belief that there is such a thing as one reality, and that anything outside of it is “insane”, “abnormal”, “wrong”, etc. and you are surely right that it is really hard to challenge that firmly ingrained “consensus” reality when there isn’t support around you, even if you have science on your side! i am not a stranger to being called a “conspiracy theorist”, “fanatic”, or even “scientologist”. i try to remind myself that fear is driving all of this categorization, labeling, “us” and “them”ness that we see. fear of the unknown, the unexperienced, the different. it seems to be easier to people to just build a wall between the things they don’t understand rather than immerse themselves in it with humility and acceptance.
yes, the medical model totally denies the human experience, and an even bigger YES, “we shall overcome”!
Laura, you have come so far in your thinking in just the few years that you have left psychiatry. Sometimes I read your work and I feel breathless! I am still trying to fully process your powerful October 6th speech protesting the APA meeting in NYC.
It is all an enormous paradigm shift, to say the least.
I think the driving force of my ingratiating compliance to psychiatry throughout my twenties was my complete acceptance of the supposed chronic nature of my supposed bipolar. I believed I would be irresponsible not to treat my condition with the best modern medication science had to offer.
It astounds me that once I got that bipolar label that I never once challenged it, and moreover, not many of my friends and family did either. It was just assumed to be true.
I only survived because of the kindness of a few strangers who did not know enough about mental health dogma to believe the hopeless mantras of my illness as I recited them. They did not see a bipolar patient in me, they saw another human being lost and afraid. I did not get off of the drugs on my own. I made it because others supported and helped me (though it is true none of them knew by training or experience what I was going through). A lifetime of gratitude will not be enough to repay the individuals who saved a temporary wretch like me.
I am so healthy today like I could never fathom in my drugged years. I have vibrancy and newfound perseverance. What a gift indeed you have to deliver if only those who would listen can find the support they need to go through with the temporary process of withdrawing from the drugs and the mentally ill identity.
I think this quote by the economist Thomas Sowell sheds light on the biased perspective of prescribers who have no idea what it is liked to be trapped in a numbed spirit and heavily sedated mind that follows with taking psychiatric meds as directed,
“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”
Thanks Laura. Those are powerful words, and a powerful testimony that will contribute to offering real options, and a real voluntary choice to people finding themselves in similar circumstances from now on.
It’s hard to add anything other than my appreciation to the thoughtful and inspiring comments and dialogue already made here.
Of course you were not truly voluntary. Who volunteers to let her life be poisoned by deception? You were the unwitting and trusting subject of poisoning by the mental illness system. The first, most egregious poisoning you encountered was the poisoning of your mind with an authoritative sounding lie about your brain being fundamentally and chronically defective. What a dangerous lie. And then to add injury to insult, your body was poisoned with, well, poisons – neuro-toxic substances.
You had at one time voluntarily agreed to receive help. Who wouldn’t? But what they slipped you instead of help, was poisonous.
Thanks for exposing the system for what it is – a dispensary of mental and physical poison. More important, thanks for giving us an antidote to the poisonous lies. Thanks for shining your own light and the light of truth and hope for a better, healthier way to live.
Bad luck for the system that they were not able to silence your articulate voice. Thank goddess you survived. I’ve been thinking about Stockholm Syndrome lately in relation to the abuse of power by Corporate Med and it’s sub-category, Corporate Psychiatry.
I’m an incest survivor and I was labelled and drugged for this “disease” (funny how I caught mental illness from the men who repeatedly raped me as a child) and I am convinced that the dynamics in the oppressive violence that is sex abuse are the same as the ones employed by the druggers. Psychiatry creates abusive, exploitive “relationships” with it’s victims (I mean, clients.) It seeks out prior victims and grooms them just like pedophiles and pimps do,and then traps them in a powerful chemical addiction. The full horror is being told that the drugs are not addictive. At least a pimp doesn’t pretend the drugs he enslaves you with aren’t getting you hooked.
Keep writing and speaking about your liberation!
I love this post. I remember feeling like the word “voluntary” was an oxymoron when I was hospitalized in 2009. On one hand, I had the “choice” to go into the hospital without putting up a fight, or I could be really nasty and get lots of a type of attention I did not really want. Either way, it felt like anything but a “voluntary” experience. In my distressed state, with everything removed from my person (and what felt like my soul), I did not feel I had hardly any choices. I am still recovering from that, but I’m grateful to have experienced it. It has been part of my motivation for helping others have a more humane healing journey.