On Waking Up From the “American Dream”

Laura Delano
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“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.

 

55 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Laura-I don’t know if it’s just my computer or not, but I cannot get the article to come up correctly-there have been other links from this site that manifest in the same way. My connection is good, plenty of band-width but I get the first paragraph and then what looks like bar codes stretching down the page. Most frustrating.

    Would love to explore this particular subject more. A friend said to me not long ago that the only reason I expect things to be ‘fair’ in life is because I’m a white American. And I said, ‘brought up on Disney…’

    • Don’t know how old you are, but if you are perhaps as old as in your forties, you will have been brought up in a school system where every child was “a winner,” every child was encouraged to develop “self-esteem” and every child became to a ludicrous extent, “special needs,” if only to gain the extra help that the label delivered. “You are special” was and is the message pounded into little heads by the school system. While the goal of developing self-esteem is admirable, what we seem to have now are people who feel that whatever they want, they should get, who don’t tolerate diversity of opinion, who feel that people who are mean or negligent to others should be reported (and often charged). Before, what is commonly called snitching on others , was frowned upon as a sign of bad character. Today it is encouraged in order to make life “fair” for someone else. Life isn’t fair as we all sooner or later come to appreciate (not like) and this message would have been learned early in life by anyone who was allowed a little bit of freedom to exist outside the norm. When I go to the store, I avoid buying Fair Trade products because I ask myself, what’s fair about Fair Trade? Is it fair that companies are making money from a label that is crowding out cheaper products that people relied on just to get by?

    • “A friend said to me not long ago that the only reason I expect things to be ‘fair’ in life is because I’m a white American. And I said, ‘brought up on Disney…’”
      That’s probably true. On the other hand there is a value, maybe not in “expecting” (which is of course only going to leave you hurt and bitter) but in yearning for life to be just. I think that being able to get angry at the injustice is a driving force for positive change and accepting it is just a way of a cynic which makes sure nothing ever changes.

  2. Thanks for this Laura. I went to post the article, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League” on my high school’s facebook page, “You Know You Went to Stuy If…”and what do you know, it was the very last thing posted by someone else. Under the article was one comment by a fellow alumn of my high school: “There’s some truth to that. More than a few people I have either known personally – or am familiar with – did not attend any Ivy League institution.” Ha! More than a few?…congratulations!
    I was one of a small percentage at my high school, Stuyvesant, who did not attend or even apply to any Ivy League colleges, and I have my childhood trauma to thank for that. Since my high school was basically like an Ivy League University (public, but still), I realized a lot of these things early on and chose a small liberal arts school with no tests or grades (Hampshire), but still very expensive, right up there with Harvard in cost and hence in the privilege and lack of diversity of those who attend. Even so I remember feeling very opened up by the students there, because they were more diverse than those who went to my high school in New York City. They were more creative and interesting and generally actually cared about the world, or about something other than grades. I thought being from NYC I must have known everything and seen everything of importance in the world. I thought I came from diversity because I saw all different races all around me all the time. But nearly everyone at my high school had similar types of goals: to “succeed” and “get ahead” and “win” at life. My group of friends who were a bit less competitive seemed to have more interest in making a difference in the world and doing something meaningful. We also tended to cut class more and sit outside in the Spring and we didn’t pull all nighters to study.
    But if I had not been so turned off by this culture in high school, or perhaps if I had thought I could compete with these folks, I may have stayed my pre-high school self longer, and competed to go as “high” as I could.
    Thanks for sharing this. It is a very important piece of the big picture of “mental health system” failures that includes economy, education and so many other things.

  3. A very good and thoughtful article. I was a bit startled at first, as I too had read the New Republic piece, which is brilliant.. Isn’t what this is all about, the completely materialistic culture we have here in America, both the richest and one of the most unequal countries in the developed world? I always knew (doesn’t take great insight) that Harvard was for the children of the rich, but it never occurred to me that in a way they were being exploited too. Because if you are to be among the “elite,” you have to be programmed not to have a conscience, to ignore the human worth of the people over whom you will dominate. It is training, in a way, to become a psychopath.

    And when you become a rich psychopath, you are losing your own humanity as well.

    The Justina Pelletier case made it pretty clear that the people who run Harvard care nothing for other human beings, or the cost to others of the wealth and privilege they acquire. But it seems if you “study” at Harvard, you have to give up your own humanity as well.

    Thank you for this thoughtful article.

  4. I remember watching the movie American Psycho (or perhaps reading the book,) and being genuinely (or perhaps foolishly) moved when Pat Bateman said, “But I just want to fit in.” Most of these kids are just doing what everyone else is doing, terrified of falling outside their social networks, of ending up under the steamroller instead of in the driver’s seat. It’s the modern conundrum, how to get off the steamroller without ending up underneath it. Two great articles, thanks Laura.

  5. , I’ve come to understand that my first crisis at the age of thirteen…was, in fact, a spiritual and existential one …”

    Yes. Did you ever read or hear of the old pop psych book by Eric Berne called “Games People Play”? Anyway, the “games” referred to in the title were social/ego games. And the 1st rule of all the “games” was to never perceive or acknowledge that the game is a game.

    So without getting too shrinky, it looks like you were starting to perceive life, reality and identity beyond the parameters of the game, or the box, and those around you were trying to stuff your consciousness back in, with psychiatry assisting the process.

    It’s good to be self-aware about whatever forms of privilege we benefit from, be it class, racial, sexual, etc.; but the point of that recognition should be to use it to help the world rectify and transcend those power issues, not to guilt trip ourselves about it or allow others to. (I’m not saying you’re doing either of these.) Some of history’s greatest revolutionaries have come from places of great privilege. It’s more a question of what one does with that privilege. And there’s certainly no question that you are taking advantage of the resources to which you have access in a most selfless, admirable and productive way. So, thank you!

    (It’s getting late, I hope the italics work correctly…)

  6. “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.”

    Laura, I am always encouraged by your blogging! Always. You are one of my most top/favorite bloggers, here, at MIA for sure.

    I really mean that…

    And, maybe it is because you are one of my favorites, I’ll ask you to please, excuse me, as offer just a wee bit of criticism. I tend to want perfection from every writer who I feel is capable of achieving the heights of greatness with his or her writing (and I do view you as such a writer), so now I must offer this one point, somewhat critical of what seems, to me, a confusing phrase that you utilize, on occasion:

    It is ~~> “the gift of psychiatric liberation.”

    Imho, that’s a confusing expression.

    To illustrate my point: Just think for a moment, how, in the 1970’s, one could have been hailing the gift of women’s liberation.

    Consider how those two words — women’s + liberation — come together, to celebrate women.

    Hence, “the gift of psychiatric liberation” can seem, at first glance, to celebrate all things ‘psychiatric’ — indeed, seems to suggest, that whatever is psychiatric must be liberating.

    Meanwhile, surely, what you mean to refer to, is the gift of being liberated from psychiatry (or, one could reasonably say, “the gift of having been liberated from psychiatry’s grip” or “…from psychiatry’s strangle hold”).

    Sorry if it seems that I’m nitpicking here, but I’ve seen you use that same phrase (“psychiatric liberation” previously), and though it bothered me, I said nothing. Now, I’m just speaking up offering my sense of it… 🙂

    Of course, you needn’t agree! And, in any case, I remain your faithful fan…

    Respectfully,

    Jonah

  7. It was with great interest that I read both articles. In the not so distant past there was a movement to “rethink schools.” This movement was firmly rooted in liberation theory. After it got going it became obvious that we couldn’t just pull learners out of the education system and expect them to carry on. They first had to have a “withdrawal” from the system. Depending on how long they participated in the system, the more difficult the withdrawal. So we started an organization called “unschooling.” All three of my children are unschoolers–never took the SAT, no grades, narrative evaluations, studied science by working with a scientist, etc. My youngest has never taken a standardized test. And all three went to college (a progressive one with no tests and narrative evaluations). It was the way off of the steamroller.

    There is something disturbing about this. There is a great similarity between the liberation from the educational system and liberation from the psychiatric system (We had our battles with the courts and legislation too). Unschooling never took off and never became the dominant system. The “Rethinking Schools” zine folded. It might be helpful to explore why the unschooling movement failed to become the dominant system.

    • I have been an education reformer my whole life, and we did several years of “unschooling” with all of our kids, as well as helping develop an alternative charter school with a child-based, democratic philosophy. I don’t think it will ever “catch on,” because that kind of philosophy is too threatening to the elite, who really need smart and well-trained but confused drones to run their social machinery for them.

      My wife’s brother went to Harvard, as did his father and grandfather and who knows how far back. He didn’t really have a choice about it – his “privilege” as a white male depended on his kowtowing to the party line. He is working on his third marriage and has developed abusive characteristics and struggled at times with substance abuse. His sister (my wife), by contrast, went to Oberlin (where we met) and got a real liberal arts education, and we have traveled a very different road.

      My youngest is about to head off to Evergreen State in Olympia this fall – a “progressive [school] with no tests and narrative evaluations” – not a particularly selective school, but one that really promotes interdisciplinary thinking and creative application of knowledge to the real world. I’d never consider Harvard as an option for him, and neither would he.

      Great blog, as always, Laura!

      —- Steve

      • Hey just to chime in. First…excellent post. How we define success is often far too narrow.

        Also…Steve…just to say I went to Evergreen and had an amazing experience. It is truly a very unique place of learning. I designed much of my academic path and studied a combination of things that I doubt I would have studied elsewhere (field botany, genetics, herbalism, ethnobotany, pharmacognosy, biochemistry). I hope your youngest enjoys it as much as I did.

  8. Yes, Steve, it is threatening to the elite and so why don’t we challenge and withdraw children from their system? There was a definite backlash from teacher unions. Deschooling was the legal arm of the movement and was able to join liberals with fundamentalists to get freedoms for families. Charter schools were the alternative (with teachers and parents given the freedom to create the educational environment). However, there are many charter schools today that look no different than the public system, except with no union, and are run by professional charter school administrative corporations. Why?

    I see the attempts to start Soteria Houses as similar to the unschool/democracy school movement. Only 2% of the USA participate in unschooling. A similar situation is in Sweden where anyone who wants to start a cooperative can find others to join except for educational cooperatives. Too much work!

    Are the alternatives to the psychiatric system too much work for the American public?

    • I think so. It is much too easy to go along with media representations of “mentally ill” as being brain-damaged and probably dangerous, chemically “different” than “you and me,” rather than acknowledging that a sick society is at the core of much of what passes for “mental illness.” I can certainly assert with confidence that the school system exacerbated whatever anxiety and self-hatred I had already absorbed from my “scapegoat” status in my family, and my mental health would have been dramatically improved by having even one person say, “You know, you’re right. This place really sucks for kids. Let’s try and find something you like better.” Hence, I became an education reformer, and have tried to be that one person for other kids stuck in the current oppressive paradigm. It is always reassuring to hear that others are doing the same, but I think it’s always going to be an uphill battle, and most people choose the path of least resistance.

      In the end, we’ll probably get alternatives only when the psychiatric system gets sued and ends up spewing out enough money to make it no longer worth the effort to con people. As my old history teacher used to say, “Man is basically greedy.” Or maybe “man is basically lazy” is a better description, but it ends up being the same result. People follow the path that gives them the most payoff for the least amount of labor, unless they have a very well-developed conscience.

      — Steve

      • I’d actually offer that “man is essentially meaning-making.”

        I think that people, once having found something they find meaningful, and experienced the rush of emotion and illusion of certainty that that seems to offer, will cling to that feeling and that illusion against all else. They will fight for that feeling and those ideas to the death. They will vote for parties whose policies actually work against them in the real world, because the feeling of meaning is so core to us that we will go – as history shows – without food or water or even life rather than give it up.

        This, I think, is what we are working with – or against – in changing the paradigm of “care” as currently offered, and why we must be mindful of being able to offer a meaning and purpose to replace it. Not speciously or vainly, but really; offering ideas that people can actually feel are “good.”

        When I have worked with people that psychiatrists had deemed “hopeless” or “chronic” or whatever variation of that that was on offer at the time, and managed to massage the situation into one in which the person was held more holistically or “environmentally,” I would often see that same psychiatrist who had been adamant that the person was ill shift wordlessly into being happy or even gleefully into seeing the person getting better. The idea that the person was ill – or even that they had been ill – slipped silently away, and we all enjoyed the satisfaction of being present at a person’s coming-to-be within themselves.

        We did not then review how wrong the psychiatrist had been. In those situations it wasn’t necessary or even well-advised. I was sad and even angry that we couldn’t then reflect on whether the person having been diagnosed with a “lifelong” illness with “no cure” should be seen in retrospect, as a mistake or even a potential crime against humanity; it wasn’t appropriate to turn a person’s life into a political football, and the psychiatrist’s willingness to relinquish control or authority didn’t need to be augmented by anyone calling them bad names.

        But the instinct and desire to turn those occasions into change on a social level has, for me, found some fulfillment in working on MiA.com.

  9. Laura thank you once again for such a beautiful and eloquent article. I truly feel like you have a powerful gift for writing and I continue to be touched on a regular basis by your articles, videos and activities for justice.

    Many years ago, when I told a family friend that I was in undergraduate school studying philosophy, she scoffed and asked, “what are you going to do with that?” I replied, “Oh I dunno, be happy I guess?” I don’t know when in history the pursuit of knowledge for its own joy and inspiration got perverted into the pursuit of accomplishment, titles, status, and the like.

    I fully agree with you that status, credentialing or degrees should not confer some sort of special privilege or status for anyone. And a system that uses such things in order to suppress voices or views or reinforce a rigid hierarchy is a system that needs to be toppled. I am sad that our system has turned the pursuit of knowledge into a rat race that has little to do with intellectual curiosity, passion and a searching for meaningful answers to the deepest questions of our lived experience – but instead is about competition and status, checking of credentialing checkboxes so you can then wave your letters around at others and claim authority without actually possessing a rational thought.

    I feel so incredibly fortunate and privileged that I was mostly able to avoid that and got to learn for the joy of learning – in part, through the existential meaning making of studying philosophy and the social justice and human experience learning from studying in social work. And in part as part of a deeply passionate personal process of seeking to clarify my values and my understanding of the world in which I live and move and have my being. Lucky. Very lucky.

  10. Another excellent post! Thank you for articulately identifying a social environment that is harmful for the mental health of our youth.

    I worry that the increasing push for achievement in our culture is also creating problems for younger children. I believe that the dramatic increase in autism spectrum among our children is a direct result of increasing pressure for young children to excel at learning instead of excel at being a child.

    Thanks again, Steve

  11. I hope one day the “mentally ill will realize the system that is keeping them down, perpetuating and reinforcing illness and stigma. What we really need is strength. We need to realize that trauma is the source of our differences. Our dissociation from ourself and our suppressed memories keep us afraid. Society keeps us afraid and ashamed of our trauma, of our anxiety. This fear of being different can escalate symptoms of mental illness. “Mental illness”

    It is designed to oppress us, take away out power, our voice. There is a cure. It is realizing there are suppressed memories. We have hidden these memories to protect ourselves, but once we realize how past traumas have influenced “symptoms” we can become whole.
    My mission is to find the cure to the Illness that does not exist.

    -Tru Harlow

    http://Www.curementalillness.wordpress.com

  12. Great post. I think that the Western society at large has a big problem and this problem is the neo-liberalism and the set of core values that come with it which are deeply dehumanising. It goes through every aspect of life: education, family, health, work. It leaves behind swaths of ever unsatisfied and frustrated “winners” and even more physically and mentally drained and exhausted “losers” whose lives are supposed to be only meaningful in terms of climbing or at least just handing on the ladder.
    Psychiatric abuse is only one painful symptom of the whole Selfish Society Disorder.

  13. Love your work here Laura!

    BTW: How does one submit an article for Op Ed consideration? I’ve contacted MIA 3 times with this question and have, thus far, been ignored. I’ve also posted this question on two different forums to no avail. I’m feeling about as powerless as I did-in this process of trying to get a simple answer to this question-as I did when drugged and institutionalized as an adolescent! Kind of ironic given the nature of who I’m reaching out to: MIA!

    Thank you for considering my question