The chair creaked as the doctor shifted his weight.
“Well, Faith, what do you want to do?”
“I want to help save the world.”
Notes are made on a chart,
“So, you’ve been experiencing grandiosity?”
“No. I want to help save the world.”
From a fairly young age, I have wanted to be a revolutionary of some sort. I don’t know precisely why the idea of being an agent of change has always been so appealing to me. I think sometimes that it comes down to the simple fact that I can’t easily lie to myself about the things that I can’t seem to stop hoping for in the world, or the things that cause me to feel sad and frustrated, frightened and angry. Other times, I credit my revolutionary spirit to my early exposure to good literature and the liner notes of punk rock albums. Regardless of the reasons, I have been deeply drawn to activism for a long time. I don’t think I am unique in this inclination toward revolutionary occupation, nor do I think that I am particularly “radical,” all things considered.
I am relatively new to the psychiatric human rights movement, but I am not new to initiatives toward service and change. I’ve made huge pots of stew and sloshed them across damp parks, happy to eat with people who became my friends. For a period of time, I spent my Saturday nights writing meticulous and impassioned court reports advocating for kids in state custody. However, more and more, I have begun to realize that I am not satisfied merely helping to address the effects of injustice in policy and culture. I want to change the forces that cause social, economic and cultural disempowerment, to address the systems that seem to have structured our lives in ways that are so fraught with exploitation and varying degrees of oppression.
I want to help to create a world that I feel better about living in.
Because of the way I tend to think about things, I cannot separate psychiatric human rights from human rights in general…the right to live in freedom from fear, the right to shelter and safety from persecution, the right to meaningful occupation and the pursuit of knowledge…the right to be human and to know what that means to us as individuals, the right to not be harmed because of who we are.
To me, it is all connected. The ways we conceptualize being human are very heavily influenced by psychiatry and the traditional industries of authority and cooperative compliance. Therefore, it seems like in order for people to have the potential to re-frame their purpose and motivations toward more sustainable and positive participation in the world it is necessary to identify barriers to the realization and empowerment of collective human potential.
Often, people want to help. They want to see things change. However, the structures of life, activity and worldview can create barriers to engaging in sustainable activism. The television schedule itself can be grueling, not to mention work, children, and shopping.
“There is just so much to do!”
Trying to figure out how to make sense of the knot of grief/fear/anger/worry in the pit of one’s stomach is not easy to do, because at a certain point of facing the truth of one’s heart it becomes necessary to question the integrity and viability of constructed reality. The culture of misinformation has led many people to be oblivious to the fact that there is a problem or to be terribly confused about what that problem may be.
“Do I love my job?”
“Do I trust the government?”
“Do I want to imagine what the world will be like in 25 years or should I try not to think too much about it?”
“What am I giving up and why am I giving it up?”
These are the sort of questions that can cause the world as we know it to slip a little, to cause a rift in which a tiny seed of dissonance begins to unfurl.
“How can I go on living like this? How can I not live like this? What am I doing? What has happened to the world?”
It is no wonder that people go to such lengths to distract themselves, to numb themselves, to try so hard to find comfort and to find safety.
These tendencies can dissuade us from activism, can exhaust and confuse us. Seeing the world from the perspective of an activist (any sort of activist) requires that we see the world differently than perhaps we had before. The shift from feeling helpless and overwhelmed to feeling empowered with strategic clarity and coherent understanding of the forces at work within our lives is nothing short of a transformative re-orientation of consciousness.
Such things are not for the faint of heart. It takes enormous bravery to imagine a different world, a different life. When we see the world differently we move about in it differently, communicating with new words, seeing new relationships, beginning to grasp the impact that our interactions with person and resource have on the outcome of a day, a week, a life, the world. We make different choices.
What are the barriers to change? For many people existing in the current cultural and economic context, it is a privilege to even have the opportunity to re-imagine our place in the world and the possibilities we are capable of creating.
At some point, most people deeply and sincerely want to make some great and sweeping difference. In childhood, this often takes the form of imagined super-heroics with awesome powers and stealth identity. Some people probably remember the feeling of nighttime at the kitchen table, writing a letter that the teacher assigned you to write and suddenly hoping that the president will read your words and, noticing how carefully you spaced your lines, decide to stop the wars and save the oceans.
At what point in the process of human psychosocial development do we stop believing that it is possible to change the world?
What happens to those of us who cannot and/or will not stop believing it is possible to change the world?
After my last transformative undoing and re-seaming, I had to seriously reckon with what I needed in order to feel truly alive, what I needed to be happy, to feel like myself. The nature of my reckoning (which some would call “psychosis”) involved months of complex vocational inspiration, meaning that I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, through a process of logical deduction, why I felt fated to contribute to the world’s salvation in some way. I believed that if I didn’t contribute to some effort to create meaningful change in the world that I would not be able to live with myself, that something important within me would – in fact – die.
My inclination to work toward justice and reparation was, predictably enough, deemed to be a product of “imbalanced chemicals” and I was encouraged to cease and desist in my pondering the mechanics of multi-systemic revolution and to focus on my life. It did not seem to occur to anyone that perhaps being inspired to change the world was just a part of who I am and that I was focusing on my life, trying to figure out.
The clinicians and psychiatrists didn’t seem to understand why it mattered so much to me that polar bears will likely be extinct by the time my children are the age I am now. No one saw much worth in my renewed sense of clarified purpose and potential, my newly deep appreciation for the human capacity for goodness and sense. They encouraged me to find a job, any job. They told me to be sure to rest, to swallow my pills as prescribed and to learn to practice acceptance. To them, it wasn’t a shift in consciousness or the creation of a new worldview. It was all “a part of the illness.”
“Focus on your children,” they told me. “People have always wanted to save the world, Faith. It’s always been this way. You just have to accept it and live your life the best you can. Do you need a refill?”
In a lot of ways, my decision to expand my activist life was made with my children in mind and in heart, because I want the world to be a better place for kids, especially quirky, brilliant and sensitive kids. Children won’t be children forever, and I want my kids to know that it is possible to make a difference. I want them to know that we all have a right to be empowered and conscious participants in our lives and worlds. I want them to understand the plays of power and idea that have so thoroughly affected their family. I want them to know that it is okay to be different, and that it is vital that we be true to the best of who we are, whether or not it makes sense to anyone else.
I made a very conscious decision that I would not set aside my activism instinct. I would not try to ignore what I saw in the world and what is inspired in me. Gradually, I set aside the prescriptions and learned to listen to my heart instead of to the jaded clinicians who seemed to prefer that I settle for a life of quiet and compliant mediocrity.
In a lot of ways, I am starting all over. I am considering my goals and my ambitions, what interests me and makes me feel hopeful. I have thought a lot about my experience and my skill-sets, taking inventory of what I know and what might I need to learn.
What kind of activist do I want to be?
What would I be good at? What skills might I have that could be useful in trying to support change? What would make activism worth my time? What would make it fun?
I spent well over a year coming to terms with the possibility that I might not ever be truly satisfied or happy unless I was helping to support some sort of vast and encompassing liberation movement. However, not so long ago, I didn’t have even the slightest idea about how to connect with people or how to make myself useful in efforts toward change.
I began experimenting with ways to get involved. I started to pay attention to what was happening, to look for opportunities. I took deep breaths and hung around the edges of local rallies and meetings, watching and listening. I commented on websites and joined Facebook groups, sharing ideas. Still battling a nearly incapacitating anxiety, I tried to show up when I said I would, even if nobody cared if I showed up at all. I learned about consensus process in the city park and played around with writing press releases in order to learn how to communicate more effectively. I studied how people responded to me, and considered what approaches seemed to be most successful. I have learned as much about what doesn’t work as I have about what does and I am still learning.
What is most encouraging is the recognition that I am a part of something bigger than myself, that I am a part of a big dynamic dance of action, ideas and influence that has the potential to change the way people think about what it means to be human. Being involved with people who understand, in their own way, the deep desire to see things change is absolutely vital to me. It helps me to be a part of an activist community, because it is important for me to not feel alone in my worldview. I am not alone.
On May 5th of last year, I took my first trip alone in over 10 years, driving north to Philadelphia for the Occupy Psychiatry protest of the DSM-5. It was a triumph for me in many ways. I was doing something I had dreamed of doing, which was to publicly speak out about the harm that is caused by forceful, coercive psychiatry and pathologized labeling of the human condition. Ever since I had realized how I had been so terribly wounded in my life, I had wanted to tell psychiatry they were wrong about me. For me, the Occupy Psychiatry protest was a great opportunity to do that.
At that protest I met people that I immediately felt a kinship with, people that I deeply respect and admire. Shared story and experience create powerful bonds between people, particularly when the experiences shared are so deeply personal and formative of our individual histories.
“That happened to you? That happened to me, too. I felt like I was all alone.”
I will know some of these people for years and years. In the span of just a few days, I went from being a socially isolated dreamer to sitting on a bus full of survivors, talking about why we were there and what had happened to us, why we must fight for the rights of children to be who they are without harm and to express their experiences without being pathologized. The people who sat beside me on that journey are, in some ways, like a dispersed family to me. For the first time in years, I felt comfortable and safe being honest about who I am and what I had experienced. For the first time in years, I felt that I was being seen clearly…and that I was accepted, loved.
It’s not possible for everyone in the world who is interested in psychiatric human rights, and the right to not be manipulated or misled by corrupt institutions of profit and power, to attend the May 19 protest and rally in San Francisco that is being held by Occupy Psychiatry. For many who are in support of the grassroots psychiatric human rights movement, the distance to travel is too far, the costs prohibitive.
For people on the West Coast or in a position to travel, this protest and rally is a good opportunity to learn more about the consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x) movement, to hear some legendary speakers, and to bring their voices to the protest against the DSM-5 and the use of force and coercion within the mental health system. Occupy Psychiatry is about HUMAN RIGHTS and about the integrity of our approach to mental health in the context of the societal and cultural oppression which is so prevalent in this crazy and damaged, dysfunctional world. We have a right to stand up to the things that make us feel sick and make us feel sad, the forces which burden us with the exhausting frustration of being led to believe that there is nothing we can do other than try to get by, try not to get upset. It is our collective human right to be upset about what is happening within our lives and within the world…and it is our collective responsibility to work towards change.
There are millions of people who want (need) to see a change and activism can take any number of forms. We can smile at strangers and create images. We can tell stories and make impressions. We can notice something small and beautiful while sitting quietly and we can show it to a friend, point it out to a child. We can shake hands with legislators or go for walks with teenagers. We can send messages and add our names to the list. We can bring our voices to a sea of people in the streets and we can carry our splintered signs.
We can ask:
“What’s your story?”
“What happened to you?”
“What do you think?”
“What do you want to do?”
There has been a lot of talk lately about activism and getting more organized in our collective efforts to advocate for psychiatric human rights around issues such as:
– The use of force and coercion in mental health practice and systems
– Harm and manipulation done by the pharmaceutical industry
– Cultural liberation and celebration of human diversity
However, operational activism around these issues (or any other issue) is not so simple as, “Get organized!”
…or maybe it is?
Because of the scope of concerns and the intricate dynamics that hold the culture and protocol of the mental system in place, it can be difficult to know where to even begin. How do we effectively and cohesively address the challenges of dismantling and re-visioning an entire system of ideas that are so rigidly reinforced in formal protocol, law, and culture?
How do we bring more people into awareness and action and how do we work together toward mental health liberation?
For more information on the upcoming protest and rally in San Francisco, please check out Occupy Psychiatry’s site: http://www.occupypsychiatry.net/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/423484091080573/
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.