“These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
–William Deresiewicz, Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League
The New Republic
July 21st, 2014
Author’s Note: I encourage you to read Mr. Deresiewicz’ piece before continuing on with mine below.
Throughout my life, I’ve had access to privilege, especially in regards to my education, which included a lifetime of private schooling followed by matriculation at Harvard University. I resonate a great deal with what this author has to say, and indeed, in the deep reflection and exploration I’ve done during these years of post-Psychiatry life, I’ve come to understand that my first crisis at the age of thirteen—the crisis that would get me psychiatrized and sent into the depths of the “mental health” system for fourteen years—was, in fact, a spiritual and existential one tied very much to the issues this author puts forth. Of course, I never had the chance to make sense of it in this way at the time; to see that my profound suffering and emptiness and desperate searching was, in fact, a meaningful and incredibly important quest I was embarking upon to make sense of a world that I didn’t feel I belonged in, a world that didn’t make sense to me.
No, I never had this chance, as my pain was quickly labeled “Bipolar” and I was thrown on Depakote and Prozac in a matter of fifty minutes by a psychiatrist I’d never before met. Only now am I circling back to those deep and meaningful questions that emerged back then—questions about who I am (and am not), and about what it means to even ask that question. About what it means to be human, to be authentic, to belong, to feel worthy of being alive. About how one finds a way to fit into a world that so often doesn’t make sense, and so often is alienating, scary, traumatic, and painful.
I grew up in an environment that taught me my worth as a person was directly tied to my grades, my athletic performance, my list of extra-curricular activities, and my SAT scores. That if I wasn’t the best, I was the worst. That if I wasn’t perfect, I was a failure. It wasn’t a lesson taught to me by any particular individual or institution (and I should add that I feel no blame in my heart towards anyone specific for this), but rather one steeped into every facet of the world around me, one that seemed to pulsate in the very air my peers and I breathed. At thirteen and in all my psychiatrized years to follow, I never had the chance to step back and process what this all meant, and whether these were values I wanted to hold onto, and I continued through high school and on to Harvard in this existential limbo, simply because I saw no other way.
I would arrive in Harvard Square without a shred of self-worth beyond that which I felt from my grades, my athletic accomplishments, and the rest of my college application. And the message that I was “mentally ill”—defective, abnormal, different, broken—would only serve to deepen my sense of emptiness and self-alienation beneath my list of “achievements,” leading me to place more and more dependence on these “achievements” to make me feel OK. Of course, the more psychotropic drugs I was put on and the more psychiatric labels I acquired as time moved on, the more these “achievements” fell apart, leaving me with absolutely nothing to hold onto. It makes complete sense to me that this trajectory of the so-called “American Dream” led me to one place and one place alone: three hundred pills, a bottle of wine, and a suicide note.
I should say that I have deep gratitude and appreciation for the countless resources, opportunities, and access points I’ve been afforded throughout my life and especially in these last few years since coming off of psychiatric drugs and leaving behind psychiatric labels. Indeed, this privilege has, I believe, played a large part in giving me the gift of psychiatric liberation. My life today is full of meaning and purpose, of pain and joy and anguish and connection and fear and love and passion, and this is a fact I savor daily. Today, I am fully human. Today, I belong.
What I struggle with, however, is knowing that this same liberating privilege was also, in many ways, my enslaver in the first place. I’ll leave the reader to Mr. Deresiewicz’ article to get a better sense of what I mean, because it does more justice to this notion than I ever could. Indeed, I hope his message reaches people far and wide, because it is of the utmost importance for our society—especially our young people, the ones who are stepping onto the field and into the classroom and onto the stage for the first times in their lives, prepped for initiation into a blinders-on life of performance and achievement and accomplishment and perfection. Prepped for pursuit of the so-called “American Dream,” whose funnel is, of course, our Educational Industrial Complex.
It took me nearly thirty years—and fourteen years of psychiatric imprisonment—to connect with the powerful message articulated by Mr. Deresiewicz, which I’ve done by deprogramming myself from this “Dream” and discovering that I was born a worthy human. Today, I realize that the values and lessons that truly matter to me—those of truth and justice and equality and compassion and authentic connection and integrity and commitment and unconditional love—have nothing to do with grades on a paper, or the number of awards won, or the length of a list of achievements. They have nothing to do with the name of your college—or whether you even went to college— or the number of letters you acquire behind your name. These values are learned in life lived with feet on the ground, with the cultivation of a critical and ever-questioning mind, and through the nurturing of a human spirit in symbiosis with this oppressive and beautiful world, amongst one’s fellows, inherently worthy.
Thank you, Mr. Deresiewicz, for getting this message out there. I stand in solidarity with you.
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.