Non-Compliance in the New Year:
The Power of ‘No’


I’m not sure how I feel about horseback riding.  Well, actually, I know that the act of horseback riding itself terrifies me, but really what I mean is: I’m not sure how I feel about the process of ‘breaking’ a horse to make it rideable.

Honestly, I’m not too sure what it even looks like, save a few fictional depictions on film.*  However, when I conducted some (admittedly superficial) research on the topic, I came up with an abundance of information, including quotes like:

“For all these years that horses have been tamed and used by Man there has been one accepted method used…. “breaking” the horse. Breaking a horse means simply to force the creature to submit to your will in spite of all his instincts. To Break a horse means just that, you must break his spirit and make him submit to your will.”  (McClain, David.  ‘An Explanation of Us Part 2:  Breaking Vs Gentling.’  June, 2011.  Open Salon.)

Reading that feels like a punch in the gut to me, and I’m not what anyone would generally call an ‘animal lover.’

Then there’s this little snapshot story from the same piece:

“It was common for me, when I was a young man, to enter a round pen with a two or three year old horse, have a few men who would rope him, snub him up to a post and throw a saddle on him, shove a bridle in his mouth, then climb up on his back and signal a man to turn him loose from the post.

The poor horse would explode in a fury of bucking, trying to dislodge this strange predator from his back and it was my job to hang on until the poor creature would cease to fight out of sheer exhaustion.

The training got no easier after that. In the end I would have a horse that would obey my commands only because it feared me more than it did any other predator.”

As horrifying as this sounds when it’s human verses animal, I can’t help but conjure up all the other stories of similar resonance and that involve human verses human.

I also came across this quote worth contemplation from a respondent to a ‘Yahoo Answers’ question about training horses:

“Don’t listen to those who keep saying let her be a horse. Because of domestication we’ve changed the meaning of the word horse.“

Woah.  That’s not exactly an unheard of revelation there, but it’s an incredibly important concept.  Because of the world we’ve created, we’ve redefined how we need to ‘be’ in order to exist within it.

And meanwhile, isn’t it easier just not to know what it takes to get each of us to ‘fit’?  It’s easier not to know what it takes to get the horse to tolerate being ridden, right?  Easier not to have to hear the pain that some of us suffer (or even inflict upon ourselves) in order to fit in…  Easier not to know the demands for compliance going on behind closed doors?  Keep the fight and the ugly out of sight.  Kindly allow the masses to maintain their illusions of peace and happiness.

The truth is that each of us could probably get lost in all the little hoops we’re asked to jump through each and every day.   But, only certain of those moments so deeply threaten the very essence of our human spirit.

Although I know that some will disagree, I still believe that most people working in the system mean well.  They have been taught the particulars of what ‘well,’ and ‘safe,’ and ‘treatment,’ look like, just like the rest of us.   They aren’t generally led to believe that their own agenda – of ‘medication’ compliance, prognosis, diagnosis, and so on – should be questioned.  No one tells them (in a way that they seem able to hear, anyway) the impact of saying to someone:

  • You’re likely to be in and out of hospitals for the rest of your life
  • You present a risk to ‘self or others’
  • You’re not ready to work
  • Based on your condition, things are likely to keep getting worse
  • School is too stressful for someone like you
  • You won’t be able to live on your own without medication
  • You have a lifelong brain disease like diabetes
  • You should give up your art because it’s too triggering
  • You can’t trust your own mind


And yet, these sorts of messages are sent with staggering frequency.  Occasionally, someone tells me I’m off base and that things are “much better these days.”  Occasionally, I question myself and wonder, “Am I fighting a fight that’s all concepts and words from which reality has moved on?”  And then I hear another story.  And another.  And another.  Almost every day I hear or read more stories that tell me that these messages are alive and well.

If you find yourself questioning for even a moment, just walk into any room of people who have been through the system and ask if they’ve ever heard any of those messages noted above.

Sometimes they’ll tell you that it wasn’t quite so direct (though a lot of the time, it was), or was couched in much nicer terms.

Sometimes they’ll tell you that they have never been told such things only moments before they say such things about themselves, having had the ideas seemingly seep into them from nowhere.

Sometimes they’ll need time to come to their answers, because they’ve never been asked those questions before.

Sometimes they’ll talk about the other ways that those messages get sent:  People talking about you as if you’re not there (or often, when you’re literally not);  People speaking about your future potential as if they had crystal balls;  People creating plans for you that focus on compliance with an agenda other than your own;  People referring to you as a diagnosis;  People pathologizing your emotions, including your frustration and anger at their plans!  (Anosognosia, perhaps?)

But always… Always… There’s something.

All too often, the system speaks to ‘compliance’ as if it were the answer.  Just follow this beautifully laid out plan replete with measurable goals with neat little timeframes and clearly named people assigned to each intervention, and all will be right with the world!  Instead, what we should really be asking (of ourselves and each other) is what must someone give up of their own desires, wants and most intimate beliefs in order to give in?

While non-compliance isn’t an easy answer anymore than compliance is, what I can tell you is this:  Non-compliance saved my life.  And not because I did brilliant things instead of what people were instructing me to do.  I absolutely did quite the opposite of that.  But I got to keep my fire and my sense of self while doing an array of stupid and risky things, and what that meant was that when it came time for me to get a little smarter about living, I had the energy and drive left to do something about it.

Hands down, the most frequently asked question I hear when working with providers is how to ‘motivate’ people who seem unmotivated.  In more instances than not, that question should be reframed to, “How do I support this person to heal a broken spirit so they can even begin to care about moving toward anything again?”  Sometimes that spirit has been broken by what has happened to someone out in the world; Sometimes by what has happened to them within the system.  Sometimes (often), it’s a combination of the two.

I don’t have easy answers to that question, but I do know that seeking ‘compliance’ as the system is so often keen to do, is the exact opposite of that.  Just find someone in the system who’s ready to come back into themselves and tell them, “You have the right to say no,” and watch the fire light in their eyes.  Take them to a rally full of people saying, ‘no,’ and watch their color come back in.  Give them a microphone and ask them to tell their own story, and hear their voice rise.  Then you’ll know the power of ‘no.’ Then you’ll understand the healing power of taking power back.

In the summer of 2013, the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community (of which I am a part) released their first full-length film, ‘Beyond the Medical Model.’  (You can learn more about it, watch a trailer or purchase a copy by clicking here.)

I’m proud to announce that in December of 2013, we released our second film, ‘The Virtues of Non-Compliance.’  As with our first film, there was much collaboration that brought the piece to its final form.  Most notably, it was the first full filmmaking effort of RLC team member, Evan Goodchild, who joined our crew in the last year.  Additionally, Evan and artists Miller and J Manic worked together to adapt the ‘Tools are Shackles’ poem I shared in my second ever post on Mad in America (see the full poem at the bottom of this post) into a rap especially for the film (with the permission of original artist, Crooked Jacket).   The film’s also full of original music from several people in our community including Erick Anaya, Mark Chaban and Ryan Banford, and a handful of RLC team members (Andy Beresky, Wyatt Ferrera, Magdalena Moffat and Caroline White) make their big screen debuts.

What’s the point of the film?  Exactly what I’m talking about here:  Sometimes saying ‘no,’ not listening, taking risks and talking back are exactly what save us.  Sometimes hanging on to who we are and what we want is all we have until we can climb and claw our ways to something bigger and better.  Sometimes we need to hear that message from the people who most deserve to be heard; Those who have been there.

On that note, I am going to close by sharing a (very cool) trailer of ‘The Virtues of Non-Compliance’ (which can also be purchased by clicking here!) as produced by our own (very cool) Evan Goodchild:

(And don’t forget:  We’re still looking for YOUR participation in our next two films on psych drugs.  Learn more by clicking here!)


*Please note:  I am aware that there are now much kinder, gentler ways of partnering with horses than are described above.  Here, I focus only on the harsher versions as such practices still seem to be in use and are what is most relevant to the topic at hand.  I do not – in any way – mean to disparage horseback riding or training across the board.  I simply don’t know enough about it to offer much of an opinion at all.


Tools are Shackles by Crooked Jacket

Tools are shackles.

Shackles are tools.

I was taught early on to follow the rules.

Listen to your elders. Respect authority.

Be sure to go along with the majority.

As I grew up, I followed rules less and less.

I didn’t give authority much respect.

Unbeknownst to me, I was headed in the wrong direction.

Living by my own rules, I lost my human connection.

It didn’t take long until I was far off course.

Roaming the wilderness of the mind, I encountered a powerful force.

I thought I was free in the bush because I had a wide range,

But I was trapped by the vastness. Isn’t that strange?

Tranquilizer dart pierced my rear, and I was introduced to psychiatry.

No more running away from authority.

I don’t know the institution’s intentions. It wasn’t all bad.

It took away every last bit of sanity that I had.

Tools are shackles.

Shackles are tools.

I was forced to follow a new set of rules.

They said your mind is sick, and how do we know?

It’s from the odd behaviors that you show.

Luckily, we’ve got a tool to help you out.

It’s called a diagnosis, and it lets us know the type and amount

Of medication needed to restore your health.

All the things you thought you knew about life, you can put on a shelf.

Now medication is our greatest and most revered tool.

Did I mention that it may very well likely cause you to drool?

Every Wednesday we’ll use a tool to give you an injection.

Everything we’re doing is for your and our protection.

You’ve got a bizarre illness. In the olden days, they called it sin.

But our tools have freed you from your boundless prison.

You’ve entered a systematic new world, though it’s a bit smaller than what you’re used to.

We’re all safe now, so be grateful for the subhuman to which we’ve reduced you.

Life may be a little boring. It may be a little dull.

Don’t blame us. Blame that unruly brain in your skull.

In our system, everyone’s got a place but not a direction,

You may not be moving forward, but you agree you required correction.

I agree I needed structure. That I don’t dispute,

But I didn’t need to be made agentially mute.

I guess when you think about it, a shackle is a tool,

But anyone who would try to free someone with a shackle has got to be a fool.


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.


  1. Thanks Sera! Great article. Also, thanks for comparing these issues to animal abuse. This is an issue that I would like to see spoken of far more, since what we do to animals oftentimes mirrors what we do to one another, or the “weaker” or less advantaged people, or those we want to control.
    I can relate with making some “bad decisions” on my own, but decisions that left me with energy to make better ones, versus psychiatry’s decisions which left me with little energy at all.
    I like this:
    Hands down, the most frequently asked question I hear when working with providers is how to ‘motivate’ people who seem unmotivated. In more instances than not, that question should be reframed to, “How do I support this person to heal a broken spirit so they can even begin to care about moving toward anything again?”

  2. Very, very triggering for me. Everything personal, all the resonance and response, explodes to the surface with no right place to dump it out, sort it, handle it, deal with it and do the work. No right place and no right co-workers.

    I’m not looking to make art with any of my ill. I’m always looking to make Justice.

    psychiatry and the mental system has a particular focus on “art therapy”. I’m still fuming furious mad over being handed crayons at 32 years old, draw a “therapeutic picture”.

  3. Hi Sera.

    I enjoyed this article very much and clearly see the sense in giving clinical folks the benefit of the doubt. I just want to share a little of my experience here, having been on both sides of the desk for many years (more than I care to count as I come up on another birthday). I remember when, as a “patient”, it first occurred to me I might become a “clinician”. Not that I might become a “better clinician” than the ones who were ineptly advancing my distress with every session, but that I could become a “clinician”; and, when I became “the clinician”, I no longer had to be “the borderline”. (The idea to be better than the rest and actually try to help people survive came a few years into my career).

    My story is FAR from unique. And why do we care? Because this dynamic sets up a division between clinicians and individuals served. “I am going to stay in this role so I don’t have to be in that role.” And many are so afraid of the “patient” role that they will do ANYTHING prescribed by the system to maintain status as a clinician. When I eventually came out, I cannot even count 1. how many colleagues divulged to me their similar histories and 2. how many of these thought I was even more unbalanced than usual to actually come out…

    So I am not going to go on about this one dynamic at length. There are many complicated dynamics in clinical practice. The interaction of the clinician and the lived experience person is fraught with tension in the Movement and the cutting edge modalities.

    Ultimately, I chose not to be an LISW with the accompanying rules and expectations and limitations. I am simply….

    Sharon Cretsinger, Space Cowboy
    Founder and Director of the Kent Empowerment Center
    Kent, Ohio

    Kent Empowerment Center’s First Annual Big Ass Gathering for Complete Equality and Inclusion. May 4, 2014. All who love the movement are welcome. Email [email protected] for more discussion.

  4. It’s great to see all these films that promote self-guidance over taking the word of others about who we are, what we can achieve, and how we should navigate our health and well-being. To me, exploring and learning to trust our own mind, heart, and spirit is what personal growth and evolution is all about.

  5. Sera,

    Awesome post, as always. The horse analogy immediately put me in contact with my feelings about school as a kid, feeling like I didn’t fit there, and yet knowing with a deep part of me that NOT fitting there was a good thing, that if I ever let myself “fit in” I’d lose who I was completely. I was always baffled by those who were able to be comfortably in that environment – it was pretty clear to me that, nice as some of my teachers were, the system they were participating in was intended, to a large degree, to “break” me in the same way a horse is broken.

    As to people in the field, so much of what they think and do is guided by projection. Don’t know if you’ve ever read Alice Miller, but she does a great job of describing how we take what was done to us and project it onto others, putting ourselves in the role of the person who harmed us and justifying our harmful actions as “for their own good” (which is the title of one of her books). It seems to me that facing up to the fact that they either don’t know what they’re doing or that they are doing harm brings up the pain of prior experiences when the clinicians themselves were mistreated and disempowered, and unless they’ve had some seriously good therapy themselves, they can’t tolerate this bad feeling. So they project it onto their clients and try to rub it out in them so that they don’t have to feel it in themselves. It’s a theory that goes a long way to explaining why good people can do some very terrible things. The only piece I’d add is that the clinical folks themselves are expected to comply, and rebels (like me) who speak their minds are quickly marginalized or labeled as troublemakers, because they threaten the fabric of everyone else’s defense mechanisms.

    It is sometimes very hard to know if I’m making any difference, but what difference I think we do make as insider rebels is very, very gradual and incremental over time. I have definitely seen the impact of empowering clients to say NO loudly and clearly, and truly believe that is the quickest and most effective way to reform the system.

    Thanks again for the blog and for all you do for your clients and for all of us working in or living with “the system.”

    — Steve

  6. If I had a video recording of every psych med nightmare I heard I could make a movie 2 weeks long and all I ever did was bring up or usually jump onto the subject already ging outside 12 step meetings.

    “When I was 7 they gave me Ritalin… then they said I was bipolar… and those pills really screwed me up.”

    Heard it 500 times.

    It’s sick how many people out there have been severely harmed by this “med” crap.

  7. Sera,

    I always enjoy your writing. The “lifelong disease like diabetes” is one that really gets me the most.

    As far as horses. I have a friend who has a 2,000 acre ranch in north Texas. When I was young, I helped break and rein train a few horses, until a mare “broke” (shattered) my elbow…

    What goes around comes around? Not sure, but I miss those younger, wilder days sometimes. At the risk of being forever banned from MIA, I suppose my heroes have always been cowboys.


    • Hi Duane and Others, I worked as a cowboy for almost a year in the Golon Heights in Israel after the 6 day war in 1967.We had a herd of 600 cows and a 1/2 dozen horses. Even got to go after wild horses. It was a great time. I would have stayed there forever but my “19th nervous breakdown” cut it short. When I hit 50 years old I celebrated by riding a 900 lb. bull at the Deadwood rodeo in Oregon .I flew through the air and landed on my head knocked out cold.The ride lasted 2.6 seconds.The smelling salts brought me to ,and I could hear the crowd cheering as I stood up someone brought me my hat and I waved it over my head.It was the best chiropractic treatment I ever had although I was sore for about a week. Did you ever see the Kirk Douglas movie .”Lonely Are The Brave”? Google James Taylor cowboy song .I’m sure you’ve heard it. Take care.

      Great Post Sera !

      • Fred,

        Big fan of rodeos. In fact, took my wife to a rodeo on our first date, many moons ago. We both still like to watch barrel racing, cutting horses.

        I’ve always liked James Taylor music. Not sure if you knew this, but he had a “nervous breakdown” himself along the way. His wife tragically died, and he wrote ‘Fire and Rain’, which reflect the pain and loss he underwent from her passing.

        You mentioned having been through several “nervous breakdowns.” We were all better off when the term “nervous breakdown” was popular.

        It implies that someone can still get back up… shake the dust off, get back on the horse. It’s not always easy, and not for the timid, but certainly possible.

        We use the term “cowboy up” in Fort Worth.



  8. Sera, your analogy of breaking a horse, being similar to breaking patients’ wills, as the function of psychiatry is an interesting one. It does seem to be the primary goal of psychiatry.

    But, I do not personally understand why any human believes they have the right to break the will of another fellow human being. This psychiatric belief system is, in my opinion, a big part of why psychiatry is misguided … and sometimes sinks to pure evil.