A reaction to Liza Long’s article from the Huffington Post Online, December 16th, 2012.
As I write these words on a Monday evening, my spirit aches. It aches with grief for the lives lost in Connecticut last week; it aches with dread for our collective American future in Sandy Hook’s aftermath; and it aches with love and empathy for Michael, a thirteen-year old boy whose once private life has, for the last day and a half, been on display for millions to see, exploited by a mother whose opinions are representative of America’s most pervasive mass delusion: that “mental illness” is a biologically-based condition requiring psychopharmaceutical “treatment” and “mental health care”, and that “the mentally ill” are a class of Other that threatens the safety, security, and health of America.
Since first reading this article yesterday, I’ve been restless. I’ve felt it in my legs, in my hands, in my heart. My mind has been full of racing thoughts, my stomach churning with anxiety like it used to on nights before a big game or test, back in my youth, when I owned the right to see myself as just another kid, however intense, angry, and passionate I may have been. Back when I was stubbornly determined, and determinedly stubborn, and when I felt things so deeply that I just didn’t know what to do with it all other than to turn it into a vicious cycle of repression and explosion. Back when the words “mental illness” were but a faint glimmer on my mind’s horizon, when I was still just Laura and when I still had the right to call myself a human, like everyone else, owning my name and any descriptors that came after it. Back before the “mental health” system swallowed me whole, devouring all but the last scraps of my human spirit by giving me pill bottle after pill bottle, diagnosis after diagnosis, and a life-long sentence of “treatment-resistant Bipolar disorder”. From where I sit today, privileged and grateful to call myself free from that system, I feel compelled to challenge Liza Long’s flawed, degrading, dehumanizing, and destructive public plea, especially because it is written about someone who’s been stripped of his right to have a voice at all.
“We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael.”
If you haven’t read the article, the above statement sums it up. When I first read it, I was brought right back to the beginning of the end for me, so to speak, when I was fourteen, just a year older than Michael, and full of anger and rage at myself, at my family, at my school, and at the world. After my parents did their best to support me— they did what any responsible parent in today’s society would do, given the tragic American reality that the “mental health” system has a monopoly on human experience: they sent me to a “mental health” professional. In my first session with a psychiatrist, I was told that something was “wrong” with me; indeed, my rage was a “symptom” of Bipolar disorder— I had a chemical imbalance and thus was broken, abnormal, and diseased. Talk of lifelong “medication” and “treatment” came with this, and in the snap of a finger, psychiatry placed the locus of all the issues inside of me.
Unless a person has been labeled “mentally ill” him/herself, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around the self-fulfilling prophecy that this becomes— when I was told I was different than my peers and always would be due to my “condition”, I eventually started to act that way. When I was told I was broken, I stopped seeing myself as a full human being with responsibilities and duties, and became increasingly self-absorbed and self-loathing (I’ve heard it put as ‘The egomaniac with an inferiority complex’, or ‘I hate myself but I’m all I think about’). I forgot what it was like to be accountable to those around me, let alone myself. I stopped treating my family and those around me with respect, because I forgot how to respect myself. I stopped caring about anything and everything, from whether I showered in the morning to whether I lived or died, and I lost the ability to feel love, pride, and optimism, and instead felt mostly misery, self-pity, entitlement, and jealousy. I began to communicate mostly through anger and rage, whether towards others or myself, because it was the only emotion intense enough to capture just how much pain I felt— pain that, until being labeled with “Bipolar disorder” and put on a slew of psychotropic drugs, I’d never come even remotely close to feeling. And because psychiatry treated me as less than human, I began to act that way, until eventually, I forgot that I was human at all.
The “mental health” system is structured on the belief that those who are “mentally ill” have lost the right to own their lives— that it is reasonable to strip them of their most basic rights to own their bodies (hence chemical and physical restraints, forced “treatment”, and electroshock), their day-to-day freedom (hence locked wards and “Assisted Outpatient Treatment”), and their social acceptability (hence “the mentally ill” as a class of Other). Indeed, the “mental health” system has implanted within the American collective consciousness the totally illogical, unscientific, and deeply divisive belief in human brokenness. It is undeniable in Liza Long’s words that she sees her son as broken, and that she is increasingly giving up hope that he and all the other “potential Adam Lanzas” can be “fixed”. She even speaks of his “underlying pathology”, which, again, is a belief based entirely on false science, on propaganda that’s been spread far and wide in order to legitimize the psychopharmacological “cure” (for can’t a “medication” only be legitimate if it’s treating a condition or disease?) And just a day later, over a million people have read Liza Long’s post, and countless people have shared it, liked it, posted it, emailed it, promoted it, and commented on it because it makes it so appealingly easy for American society at large, especially in the aftermath of something like Sandy Hook, to project all of its fear, its confusion, its anger, its unease, its grief, and its insecurity on a target- “the mentally ill”, represented by Michael.
Although I acknowledge that I know nothing of the real Michael and have only a brief glimpse into his mother’s emotion-fueled description of him, which may or may not be based in any truth, I see so much of myself in the Michael that’s been described, despite the details of our stories being different. I was brimming with anger and rage during my thirteen years in the “mental health” system because I felt completely disconnected from myself and everyone around me. It wasn’t because of faulty brain chemistry or “underlying pathology”; it was, plain and simple, because of the deeply ingrained belief that I was “mentally ill”. That I was innately different. That I wasn’t an acceptable member of the human race. Along with this belief came a long relationship to nineteen psychotropic drugs, which I took over a span of thirteen years, and which caused great harm to me physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. I cannot understate the damaging impact these “meds” had on me— I transformed into a completely different person, and am only now connecting to an authentic sense of Self after being a little over two years off of everything.
As the years passed in my “mentally ill” life, numerous pills coursing through my veins daily, the world around me became increasingly more foreign, until I reached a point at which I seriously wondered whether I was actually an alien living in an otherwise completely interconnected and united human race. For years, any and all evidence of typical, “normal” life perplexed me, whether it was Dove soap bar ads (How could I ever be like those people who take care of and love themselves and their bodies?), or walking past restaurants (Just how is it that a group of people could go out for dinner and have fun together? What does that feel like?), or even observing my own family, from whom I’d disconnected myself in so many ways. Before I entered the “mental health” system, I was a healthy, intense, passionate, driven kid in the midst of a healthy, intense, passionate, driven childhood and adolescence. Even in the midst of all the pain of life on life’s terms, I was totally OK, although I didn’t feel so at the time, until I entered the “mental health” system. It was the “treatment”, and the “mentally ill” identity, that turned me into a “chronic”, “treatment-resistant” Bipolar patient. That turned me angry, and isolated, and numb, and hopeless. That brought me to the point at which killing myself— becoming violent against myself— was the only thing that made sense.
After reading Liza Long’s piece, I am left with several questions to pose to her:
- Do you know what it’s like to believe you’re broken, or that something is “wrong” with you, and to be told that you’ll be this way for the rest of your life?
- How would you act if you were threatened on a regular basis with the police? Would you be able to trust anyone around you, and if not, would you be able to stay calm and not defend yourself in the best way you could, even if that meant making threats yourself?
- How would you feel if, as a young girl, you were “wrestled” down by “three burly police officers”, forcibly restrained, and taken against your will to a locked psych ward?
- What would it be like as a young girl to have a “slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals” forced into you— drugs that are documented to have particularly devastating side effects to children?
- How would you feel if your family saw you as a criminal, and had met about you behind your back to put a “safety plan” in place because they were scared to be in the same room as you?
- Would you have any desire to treat your mother with respect, with love, with dignity, if you knew that she’d written an exploitative piece to the entire world stating that she saw you no differently than she did a mass murderer?
Liza Long pleads for a nation-wide conversation on “mental health”. Since the mass murder, headlines are talking about America’s dire need for more “mental health services”, more “mental health screenings”, more “mental health treatment”. It was often said to me— hell, for a long time, I believed myself— that I was in dire need of more, more, more. More therapy. More “meds”. More hospitalizations. More dependence, reliance, subservience, obedience on the system. Although I didn’t realize it until the very end, the more I got, the less I was alive.
I am grateful to say that the stars aligned differently for me and I ended up heading in the exact opposite direction— to less, less, less, and then, to none. I can state in all honesty that every ounce of growth I’ve made in the last few years— my reclaiming of Self, of my dignity, of my sense of rightness with the world— has come from leaving the “mental health” system behind. From getting off psychotropic drugs, and from leaving behind the “mentally ill” identity, despite being told year after year that I would spend the rest of my life having to work hard to manage my “serious mental illness”, and that I should adjust my expectations accordingly. It was when I woke up to utter insanity in all of this, not when I got into more “treatment”, that I was able to grow into the responsible, accountable, productive, healthy, contended and grateful member of the human family that I am becoming today.
I no longer feel anger the way I used to. I no longer see myself as different from everyone around me, let alone broken or abnormal or diseased. In fact, I love that I am just like everyone else— no better, no worse. I no longer feel disconnected from myself, from my family, and from the world around me. I no longer feel suicidal, hopeless, desperate for relief, or stuck in a cycle of self-sabotage and self-destruction. I am no longer scared of my emotions, and have taught myself to coexist with them, and with the pain of life on life’s terms. My heart is open to love others and to fight for what I believe in. I have self-respect and respect for those around me. My family no longer has to worry about whether or not I’ll be alive tomorrow, or on my way to another locked psych ward, or to another ER. Although I have a lifetime of growth and evolution ahead of me, I am proud of who I am today and can look at myself in the mirror and truly know, in a way deeper than any label or category or word could capture, who I am. It is only because I escaped the “mental health” system that I have any of this.
All along, I had everything I needed to live life on life’s terms, and to figure out how to be in my skin and in the world in a loving, accepting, meaningful way. It didn’t lie in the hands of any “mental health” “expert”, “provider”, or bottle of pills. I can say with confidence that I am not alone in this experience.
“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
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.