From Psychiatric Coercion to Libertarianism: A Personal Journey

Tristano Ajmone
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My name is Tristano Ajmone. I’m Italian and 42 years old. I consider myself a “psychiatric survivor” — a term by which I don’t merely mean that I’ve been through the psychiatric system and got out of it; I really mean that I’ve survived a psychiatric journey in which some of my comrades weren’t as fortunate as me, and they simply died along the way.

My first encounter with psychiatry dates back to my adolescence; when I was 14 I ended up in trouble with the law and the court ordered that I be followed by psychiatrists. As a result, I was removed from my parents’ custody and put in a sort of half-way house. At 18 I left the country and traveled many years, thus escaping the grip of psychiatric attention. When I was about 26 I came back to Italy. My life at the time was breaking down to pieces — my marriage failed, my ex-wife kept my son abroad with her, my mother had taken her life a few years back; life was a downward path for me. As a result, I started going crazy and got again in trouble with the law, and very seriously so. I ended up in prison and was immediately ordered a psychiatric examination because of my psychiatric past.

As a result of a 10-minute psychiatric examination I was declared psychotic, which meant that the court applied the insanity defense with the Italian formula “partially incapable of intending and willing at the moment of the crime.” This meant that I was to be partially punished and partially cured – that I was partially guilty and partially innocent. In practical terms, it meant that I kept bouncing from ordinary prisons to psychiatric prisons for the mentally insane, and to private clinics, halfway houses, and other types of “recovery structures” (as they are called in Italy). It was an exhausting and daunting experience which lasted five and a half years. It was meant to last three years of prison plus a year of “custody and care.” In Italian law, all psychiatric custody and care sentences are intendend as a minimum term, which means that at the end of the established term there is a re-examination by psychiatrists to determine if social dangerousness has ceased; if not, another term of six months or a year is added to the sentence. Some people start with a two-year custody and care sentence and end up trapped in the system for 10 or 20 years, sometimes even for life — regardless of the nature of the original crime committed.

It was a regime of fear, we had no certainty as to when it would end, and any misbehavior on our part could lead to an added year of custody. Psychiatric drugs were enforced on us in massive dosages, and for those who didn’t cooperate there was the strapping bed — and often a good squad-beating before it. I’ve seen people strapped to the bed up to five weeks in a row. Intimidation, blackmail and violence were the normal currency that run affairs within those forensic psychiatric institutions. The only way we had of protesting and obtaining fulfillment of basic rights was to cut ourselves — which was not easy because we weren’t allowed shaving blades, glass objects, etc.; but you soon learned that even a cigarette butt, once burned and flattened, becomes a sharp tool to rip your veins. In case even the lighter was taken off you as a precaution, you could always count on the cell’s sink being ceramic — a broken sink yields very sharp shards. If you’ve seen Wiseman’s Titicut Follies you have a good picture of the kinds of places I’ve been.

My experience in psychiatry has been long and intense, therefore I’ve spent many years thinking about the many aspects that fall under the broad subject of Mental Health. As a result of my personal journey through madness and psychiatry, I’ve ended up embracing libertarianism, not just as a response to the challenges of psychiatry, but as a personal political and ethical stance in life as a whole. My greatest debt goes to Thomasz Szasz, whose writings on psychiatry and liberty have enlightened me on the reality of what psychiatry really is and what it really does. I’ve managed to meet Szasz once, in Italy, and we became friends and remained in close touch till he left us a few years ago.

This single meeting with Szasz had a momentous impact on my life; even though his books had already provided me the answers I needed when I was locked in psychiatry and fighting for my freedom, our face-to-face meeting disclosed to me the immense humanity of Szasz, the man, not the writer. But most of all, Thomas Szasz has been a kind friend to me in a world which has been cruel toward me; and he welcomed me with open-hearted acceptance in a society that shunned me because I am an ex-psychiatric patient and an ex-convict.

In the year 2003 I was finally free, my forensic-psychiatric odyssey had come to an end. I became active in the so-called “anti-psychiatric” movement — an improper term, but it renders the meaning. I became president of OISM (Italian Observatory on Mental Health), and international non-profit association critical of psychiatry. OISM has as honorary members Dott. Claudio Ajmone, Dr. Fred Baughman, Dr. Giorgio Antonucci, Prof. Loren Mosher, Dr. Mariano Loiacono, Prof. Emeritus Thomas Szasz. A few years ago I shut down OISM website, for various reasons — lack of energy, legal troubles, harassment, and others. We are still active in writing articles and translating papers and books from time to time.

I’ve also collaborated on different projects with user and survivors groups. I’ve related my personal story in the book First Person Stories on Forced Interventions and Being Deprived of Legal Capacity, by WNUPS and Bapu trust.

At present I have the honor of webmastering Ron Leifer’s website. Leifer, who was a student of Szasz — and in 2001 received the “Thomas Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties” — is a dissident psychiatrist who has developed a therapeutic model in which buddhism and psychoanalysis converge in a stystem of self-awareness that doesn’t contemplate the medical model of mental illness and it respects individual autonomy and freedom.

My experiences have lead me to views on psychiatry that could be said to be radical: I don’t believe in the existence of mental illness. Even if it existed it wouldn’t justify coercion. And I don’t believe in the existence of mind either — mental illness and the cure of mind are only rhetorical manouvers to justify in a distorted way what is being done to people. I only believe in the person; and there are people with power and people who are powerless at their hands. No scientific/medical explanation can justify overlooking what we are doing to people: where psychiatry claims to be curing schizophrenia I only see the brutality of coercive intervention by merciless physicians empowered by the paternalistic state. And I strongly believe in liberty and freedom, personal autonomy and responsibility — psychiatry denies them all by rejecting the moral agency of the person-turned-mental-patient, which supposedly acts out of chemical unbalances in his brain. In this respect, I can be said to be an hard-core Szaszian.

As Thomas Szasz once wrote me: “I am pretty well done with this jurisdictional dispute — where all the power is on one side, and all the evidence on the other.” I can think of no better way to describe the state of affairs regarding psychiatry. Psychiatry has never been a scientific issue, it’s a political one; it doesn’t deal with health and care but with conflicts and social control.  Psychiatry is not a problem but a solution — an easy way to deal with unwanted, disturbing and unproductive people. And, since the discovery of psychiatric drugs, psychiatry has also become an immensely lucrative business.

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Tristano Ajmone
Tristano Ajmone is a libertarian psychiatric survivor, much influenced by Thomas Szasz’s writings and friendship. Tristano doesn’t believe in the existence of mental illness, drug addictions, nor the mind, but rather in individual autonomy, liberty and freedom, and that psychiatric coercion is a crime and  a political issue, not a medical one.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Tristano! What terrible and dehumanizing experiences you describe so well! I remember being locked up, too, and for us (as adolescents in the USA mental health system) the only way to protest was also by cutting and burning ourselves with cigarettes. Your writing about that is the first time I have ever read about it, and it is/was so very common. I am so happy you were able to find Thomas Szasz. I also hold him and Loren Mosher in very high regard.

    Best wishes to you for a life full of joy and fulfillment outside the prison and mental health systems – in the world at large with the many beautiful situations it has to offer.

    Thank you, again,
    Dorothy

  2. Hi Tristano,

    Thomas Szasz book The Myth of Mental Illness was a revaluation for me. I would have loved to have met him.

    The state has a standard method of dealing with ‘unwanted people’

    Identify; apply the label of mental illness.

    Ostracize; through stigma and propaganda.

    Confiscate; remove rights and property.

    Concentrate; incarceration and slums

    Annihilate; through direct and indirect methods ie drugging.

    It’s fairly clear to anyone who has been involved in the system what is going on.

    I look forward to reading more about your experiences and activism.

    Regards
    Boans

    • Many countries have laws which allowed for anyone who gets in legal trouble and is “diagnosed” with mental illness (which often is automatic) to be detained basically indefinitely just relying on an opinion of this or another psychiatrist.
      Austria has it too, it was recently criticised in press for being immensely abused when people sentenced to few months for minor infractions spend years in institutions with no hope of release. Similarly, the Mollath case from Germany is a great example of how this power can be used to lock up undesirable people (in this case whistle-blowers on financial system crimes). There is a term for that originating in Soviet Union – psychuszki – mental hospitals where political dissidents were locked up as “mentally ill”.
      Recently also in Poland a new law was passed which allows to keep people convicted of dangerous crimes indefinitely in mental institutions. Surprisingly the law was passed with substantial public discontent – a sign that Polish population is aware of the danger.

  3. Tristano,
    Great introduction!
    I appreciate your story and your views on “mental illness” very much; only, I wonder what you mean as you say this, “And I don’t believe in the existence of mind either.” Perhaps, you could elaborate on that point, in your next blog post? In any case, I am looking forward to more posts from you…
    Respectfully,
    Jonah