Stasis doesn’t make for a pleasing narrative. In stasis there is no character development, no change of scene, no synthesis of opposites or conclusive revelation. In stasis there are no opposites at all, and no conclusions. There’s no hook to latch onto in the beginning (there is no beginning) and no hinge upon which the story can turn (there is no turning and no direction). There’s no story at all, because there’s no time in which to tell it.
Sometimes, I have no story. I can present no humanizing narrative and relate no personal experience to a universal condition. I cannot string words together; I cannot make a sound; I cannot move.
I can feel it coming on: my thoughts begin to dissolve as a kind of woolly numbness pervades my consciousness. The speech of others disintegrates, somewhere between my ear and my mind, into a wordless mush of animal hubbub. Sense begins to separate from content – the room is not comprehensible as a room, its composite objects are not comprehensible as objects, their sensory qualities are not comprehensible as sensory information. My body is not comprehensible as any cohesive set of sensations revolving around a central sense of being. My body is not comprehensible at all, because I am no longer there to comprehend it.
It might take minutes, or it might take hours, but by this time I am frozen. I can hear your voice – sometimes I can even work out what you’re saying amidst the amorphous animal groans – but your voice is irrelevant. I know perfectly well that this is an uncomfortable-looking sitting position, but my body is not mine, and in any case is not a body, and in any case I am not an I who has or is a body, so I am in no position to sit up straight or to care whether or not I am sitting up straight.
I’m trying to think of how to continue this description. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, and still: nothing. How can I resolve my explanation of the experience? How do I describe its process and its ending? I don’t know. I’m not there now: I can’t integrate stasis into my current flux-based perspective, except as a sparse memory of that which resists integration. Anyway, the preceding paragraphs don’t make sense. I told you I had no “I,” then proceeded to describe “my” experience within that state of not having an “I.” The notion that my experience is comprehensible hinges upon the assumption that I can relate my experience in a way that makes sense, both from the perspective of the listener and in concert with the nature of the experience. As I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t have any hinges upon which to swing this story.
When I first began experiencing these strange pseudo-catatonias, they were accompanied by strange pseudo-seizures. The senselessness of stasis was a counterpoint to the senselessness of chaotic action. My body was electric – not electric like a lamp, a possession to be switched on or off at will, but electric like a thunderstorm, a thing by which I was possessed, uncontrollably and overwhelmingly.
No physical cause could be found for these events, and in any case I already had a long history of insanity, so I was admitted to the psychiatric ward. No new diagnosis was forthcoming, but I was given new medications to try, which turned out to be exactly as useful as the old ones (in other words, not useful at all).
Sitting in a chair in view of the nurses’ station, I could feel myself freezing up again, but could do nothing to stop it or to ask for help. I could feel my limbs separating from my consciousness. They became soggy and cold, like wet newspaper, disintegrating in my awareness until I couldn’t tell where they were anymore. The soggy disintegration crept inwards from my extremities to my torso, and my mind crept inwards to escape from the dissolution. I couldn’t sit up straight, because I didn’t know where my body was in relation to the chair. I began to dribble, because I couldn’t connect my throat to the saliva in my mouth.
After an hour or so my boyfriend arrived on the ward to visit me; unsure how to assist, he fetched one of the nurses. She arrived with medication and a glass of water, and held them out to me. I didn’t move.
“If you don’t take the pills now, we’ll have to give you an injection.”
I didn’t want any injection, but I couldn’t straighten my neck, let alone lift my arm or hold a glass. Repeated exhortations that I take the medication elicited no effect, and the nurse became frustrated. She pushed the pills between my lips. I could feel them on my tongue: absurd, foreign, powdery shapes. These sensations were useless to me. I perceived that the nurse perceived that I was doing this on purpose. I wasn’t doing this on purpose, but I lacked the ability to explain this fact.
The nurse tilted my head back, opened my mouth, and poured the glass of water down my throat. She told me to swallow the pills. I couldn’t swallow the pills. I didn’t have control over that particular (any particular) physical mechanism. I couldn’t breathe. I was motionless, head tilted back with a lake in my throat where there ought to have been air. I was trapped in an unfathomably eternal glass of water, and I wondered if I was going to drown. In those seconds, time fragmented. All past and future moments simultaneously decoupled and fell away, and in that moment I knew there was no causal line in my existence. There was only an infinite spread of that singular present in which I held a body of water in place of my body of flesh.
* * * * *
Another time, another readmission, another hospital. I sat on one of those sturdy-but-not-too-sturdy chairs (one of those chairs that will resist most attempts to destroy it but is nevertheless a cost-effective alternative to comfort) in a small, white-painted room with a dull blue carpet. There was a window facing back into the ward, but it was covered with slatted blinds, shielding me and the psychiatrist from any inexpert view.
The psychiatrist had my file open on his lap, and seemed unaware, or at least unconcerned, that I could see what he was writing in it. He was recording and evaluating our conversation. I have no memory of the content of that conversation – I only remember the feeling of being in the room, and of watching him write an acronym on the page: FTD.
I assumed at the time (and I still believe this to be a reasonable assumption) that FTD meant Formal Thought Disorder. Formal Thought Disorder is a symptom of psychosis which entails a disorganization of thought process so severe that it renders the thoughts of the afflicted incomprehensible to the outside observer. As the clinician cannot have direct access to the patient’s thoughts, this symptom can only be observed vicariously, through the patient’s speech.
Personally, I think the fact that I was able to decipher my psychiatrist’s notes and then use that information to understand his assessment of my mental state suggests that he was incorrect in making that assessment. Then again, I had been admitted to the hospital because I was mad. How did I know that I was not hallucinating these letters FTD as the result of some persecutory delusion in which I had convinced myself of the prejudicial opinions of others? How did I know that my unshakeable belief that others thought me mad was not itself a pathological symptom of insanity? By virtue of admission to the hospital, I found myself in no position from which to judge.
My incapacity for judgement as a result of my insanity can always be ameliorated by those who wish to make a claim for sanity on my behalf. My psychologist (who believed I was not psychotic, but autistic) attempted to persuade my psychiatrist of his error. My psychiatrist – the one with the medical doctorate and therefore more to lose, emotionally speaking, in the admission of fallibility – refused to discuss the matter. My psychiatrist continued to treat me as schizophrenic, while my psychologist continued to see the pervasive developmental reason in any outlandish or otherwise irrational-sounding claim I made about my beliefs and experiences.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I favored the opinion of my psychologist. I preferred the assessment of a seemingly lesser stigma, the diagnosis that supplants Frighteningly Insane with Harmlessly Incapable. Disagreement with a psychiatric diagnosis is often seen as evidence that one suffers from that diagnosis even more so than if one agrees with it. As such, my preference for not-being-insane was put down, by my psychiatrist, to Lack Of Insight – that most damning of symptoms which, in a single three-word slogan, divests the patient of all possibility of self-awareness.
* * * * *
Jenell Johnson writes that stigma is a rhetorical construction in that it marks out a Normal and an Other, denying the possibility of signification in the language of the other – the other’s speech is not read as voice, but rather as symptom. For this reason, Johnson doubts the efficacy of mental health anti-stigma campaigns that stress the medical model of “mental illness” and the notion that mentally ill people are simply afflicted by a disease, just like diabetes or asthma. The stigma of mental illness, Johnson claims, is not derived from beliefs, facts, or misinformation about its cause – whether biology, trauma, evil spirits, or bad character – but from the implicit value of Normal versus Other. As such, campaigns that rely on a supposedly universal part of humanity – biology – can have the effect of further stigmatizing people as hopelessly and incontrovertibly different, marked out by the presence of brain sickness.i
The word “stigma” has its origins in Ancient Greece. Derived from the verb “to prick,” to be stigmatized meant to have one’s sins and degeneracies symbolically tattooed on one’s skin as a permanent marker of social shame. Bearers of stigma were denied the citizen’s rights to public life and inclusion in debate. The permanent mark of bad character rendered a person’s speech permanently inadmissible.ii My Lack Of Insight means that I don’t know what I’m talking about, even when I sound like I know what I’m talking about.
In “On the Rhetorics of Mental Disability,” Catherine Prendergast recounts a conversation with her friend ‘Barbara’ (name changed in original text) who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. When Barbara makes an insightful comment regarding the alteration of her mind via the social construction of psychiatry, Prendergast’s interest is piqued. Prendergast admits that, despite any professional interest she may have in Barbara’s viewpoint, the real reason she perked up at Barbara’s comment was that it made sense, and Prendergast wanted more than anything for her friend to make sense.iii
My ability to make sense is not something I can control, because making sense is a statement of perception, not a statement of being. Sometimes I make sense; sometimes I don’t. I don’t get to decide which it will be at any given time. Implicit in both my psychiatrist’s assessment of senselessness and my psychologist’s assessment of (qualified) reason is a denial of my own capacity for distinguishing sense and non-sense. The necessity of an outside opinion predetermines the fact of my madness, and so my sense-making is never really mine – not even after it has been granted to me by a qualified mental health professional. As such, the desire that I make sense remains perpetually unfulfilled, and the necessity that sense be made on my behalf is never eliminated.
I have lost interest in making sense. Insofar as the drive to recovery entails a relearning of sense sufficient to Make It (sense, I mean) in Normal Life, I have lost interest in recovery. Insofar as anti-stigma entails a reassertion of my apparently forgotten humanity via the retelling of some personal narrative in which I generalize my unique experiences toward some universal wisdom, I have lost interest in the reduction of stigma. I would much prefer it if you didn’t need me to be comprehensible. I would much prefer it if you didn’t require a narrative. The requirement that stigma be removed is enough to ensure that it will always be there, a residue of some past transgression that can never be scrubbed from the sensible narrative of my current life. Insofar as I must assert my humanity, my humanity can only be conceived as a performance: the unsaid fact of my bodily existence is rendered insufficient. The fact that this argument against sense is only convincing insofar as I can make it make sense to you is a source of profound irritation to me.
If I have survived mental illness, it is because I have stopped trying to survive it. The conception of mental illness as a thing to be borne is precisely what makes it unbearable. It is a limbo: a holding pattern, separate from normality, whose very position as separate is enough to render it inescapable.
* * * * *
I will come out of stasis as soon as I no longer need to be still and quiet. I will remember where my toes are, and my fingers. My internal monologue will recommence, and I will remember where I am and who you are. It might take hours, or even days, to fully reorient myself. The need to be still and quiet takes time to subside. I don’t need to survive this collapse: the collapse is a process of survival, not an impediment to it. I have my reasons for not making sense.
* * * * *
The gag reflex kicked in, and I vomited the water and the pills back onto the nurse’s uniform. I had already been marked down in the files as having taken my evening medication, so I was not offered the pills a second time.
* * * * *
i Johnson, Jenell. “The Skeleton on the Couch: the Eagleton Affair, Rhetorical Disability and the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 40.5 (2010): 459-478. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.
iii Prendergast, Catherine. “On the Rhetorics of Mental Disability.” Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Ed. James C. Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. 45-60. Print.
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.