It seems I like to see people argue, or, if not to see it to read it, to be privy to it. I get off on argument; I grew up with it. I also avoid it at all costs. Yet, there is something about abuse, meanness and violent language that has always drawn me in. It could be simply because it’s familiar to me, like to many of us; it is so prevalent. Where I grew up, in Brooklyn, New York, in the eighties, arguments weren’t out of earshot or even necessarily behind closed doors the way, perhaps, they were in suburbs and small towns.
Arguing was the way of life in my family, even when we were getting along. My teenage friends, on the other hand, prided themselves on being “non-confrontational” and any attempts I made to address conflict directly were met with a cold shoulder.
How does this relate to the mental health system? Well, beneath all mental health labels, is a conflict we are giving the cold shoulder. Conflict is scary (for many of us). I hate feeling that I’m being misunderstood, and as seductive as it can be to shame others, in the end it doesn’t sit so well. Plus I hate being shamed myself. But any of my so-called “mental health challenges” (or whatever the latest vague buzzword is for anything upsetting in life) come back to my fear of being shamed or my already internalized shame.
Last night I had a dream of public humiliation where my coworker expressed violent rage towards me. They resented what I don’t do and when they are left with more work, and they were chasing me with a large wooden weapon. I was in a line of people; hundreds of people lined up. I ran to the end of the line and found someone who I could confide in and tell how scared I was.
So many of us feel so ashamed of our imperfections or scared of being called out on how they harm others. Whether we use mental illness labels or alternate forms of othering — the theme is the same; conflict is to be avoided. Yet a straight-up shame-free conflict may be what’s indicated; a conflict of me versus you, my needs versus your needs, what I don’t have versus what you don’t have, how I’m seen and valued versus how you are.
Because life isn’t fair. Last night one of my best friends said, “I don’t believe in fairness,” and what he meant was life isn’t fair to begin with, in the way we commonly think of fairness, so to continue with a “fair” frame of reference is even more unfair. Is it fair for a wealthy psychiatrist to tell a homeless person what she “is”? To tell her she has a mood disorder or is bipolar? There’s a fight that needs to happen there, a fight about power, class and privilege. Yet, the fight wouldn’t be fair given the obvious socio-economic disparities the conflict stands on.
As much as conflict terrifies me, as much as it gave me a childhood I may always resent, and as much as I can be an outward pacifist, I don’t know if there’s a way around psychiatric labeling without conflict, which makes me think this system is rooted in conflict repression. As much as we talk about peer respites, somatic healing, nutrition, exercise, wellness tools and everything else of importance to us, what we need as much is to create conflict strategies, both within the movement and as a movement. Of course they are all related, and sometimes conflict is a quiet thing, a slow simple rise to power where we overcome our oppressors in silent personal and collective victory. Sometimes, though, we need outright debate.
I didn’t have many noticeable large successes at my very competitive high school. Most of the students there were better than me at most things. The one early success I did have was making it onto the speech and debate team (though I declined because my life was already too much for me). I took a class in debate though, which I liked. I like public debate where we are forced to think things through and where we have to publicly defend our position. How would it be to have formal debates with our opponents, whether proponents of the Psychiatric Industrial Complex, or something else?
People love to watch sports and love to watch action movies where there’s a lot of violence and fighting. I admit I hate the sensationalism and hype around both of these things, but I do take interest in arguments and competition, like most of my fellow humans. I’d venture to guess we are all interested in conflict and drama, whether expressed in fact or fiction.
Psychiatry is a game of power; it’s so obvious to so many of us. I’d love to see a series of good public debates. It would be so clear so quickly that certain models of human existence do not hold water. At least to me. And to those who would disagree, I would like to pull apart their reasoning thread by thread in a good, well prepared for conflict.
Currently there is something I’d like a good debate about. As the phrases “psychiatric disabilities” and “mental health conditions/challenges” are becoming more widely used, I feel compelled to deconstruct ANY euphemisms for “mental illness,” anything at all that implies there is this elusive group of 20% of the population that is “other.” No matter what language you use, it is wrong, and it perpetuates injustice to this undefinable, non-existent, yet ever growing “group.”
The best way to understand why this group is non-existent is to write a list of people you know who don’t fall into it. I thought there were a few people I could think of who are highly functional in socially accepted ways, come from minimal trauma, tend to get along with most people, don’t regularly harm or abuse others or themselves, and don’t fall into despair much or need toxic/unhealthy substances or other addictions to feel on top of things. Actually I cannot think of a single one. The few that came close happen to have had far easier lives than the rest of us, especially as children, but the main point is that we live in a psychiatrically disabled culture, in some ways, where no one can be designated “mentally healthy.”
Psychiatrically disabled literally means the soul, the psyche, or the essence of life, is disabled, which isn’t entirely possible, but most of the people struggling with trauma and addiction also have the hugest souls I know. People who can always do business as usual tend to exhibit soullessness (which sounds oddly like a psychiatric deficit).
The psychiatric profession itself, paradoxically, is most often soul-less, while trying to medicate the soul. The soul or psyche cannot be medicated un-soulfully; it’s impossible. Behavior and feelings, perhaps, can be medicated or suppressed by drugs, but the psych in psychiatry does not mean feelings or behavior; it means the soul or spirit. As for “mental health conditions,” this phrase seems to subscribe to the broken brain theory, that the mind is unhealthy, or has a condition. All brains/minds are in a condition, so this euphemism is the most useless one I can think of.
I can’t help but think about these things constantly because people who I know get this are still using these terms. Why?
We know by now that it’s easy to get into conflict on the internet, and we can seemingly lose friends in an instant by sharing an unpopular viewpoint or being misunderstood. I recently lost two good friends (maybe more I don’t know of) for expressing feelings of compassion for domesticated animals and criticism of the pet industry. I received attacking emails from one, and the other made fun of my view sarcastically and has disengaged with me ever since.
How do we navigate this sort of “conflict” in the internet era, where a lot of our social support comes from Facebook likes and lack of support mostly from nasty emails followed by silence? Or ongoing battles of wit stemming from deep isolation? On one hand, the internet gives us an outlet for conflict, for these conflicts that used to blow up person to person, go entirely unexpressed, or even be expressed as gossip. Now we have a very strange format for conflict: instant messaging, texting, blogs, blog comments, Facebook unfriending or unfollowing, or simply withdrawing our “like.”
It all sounds so petty, yet it is the ground we are standing on; it is how we are having conflict with all but a few of our closest family members and friends. So is it working? Do we feel our voices are being heard? Are we understanding one another better or further othering people with the click of a mouse or a quickly typed sentence on our phones. These questions all point to the need for public debate-in person-where we can see each other’s humanity again, and not just in hand selected flattering photos, but in the flesh and tears, so we can know by looking into each other’s eyes how much (or little) we have been through to form these conflicts, so we can recognize what the other is truly fighting for, so we can hear and be heard and fully honor the complexity of the conflict, which is what the Psychiatric Industrial Complex has failed to do, despite its ever thicker texts that reduce us to mental illness labels.
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.