I realized something after a recent occurrence that made me aware of how close any of us are to psychiatric lockup. What I realized is that I can protect myself now; I have tools that I didn’t have at age 18. And that protecting myself doesn’t mean obeying the patriarchal prescriptions for how to behave.
Saying this, I am also aware of my sisters and brothers who aren’t protected no matter what they do. I don’t know what it is in my own life that makes me different; but with all my eccentricities being myself I can still pass as a human being recognizably to those who set themselves up to judge.
But for me, the story had been for years that I knew instinctively how to protect myself after that one lockup, because I knew where the danger zones were and I just couldn’t, not even wouldn’t, go there. Until I started to, because I am a free woman and I have been interacting a lot with other free women. Free women challenge each other and dismiss each other because each of us is standing in her own self, her own body, having to be clear with her own conscience. And free women can love each other and nurture each other and distinguish this from violence, subordination, anything that feels like it is meant to make you squirm.
Some of it has to do with the meaning of sex in patriarchy. Not only are women supposed to eroticize being subordinated, we are supposed to like it. We are supposed to put on a shit-eating grin and pretend that we are in control. Lesbians do not relate to male bodies or to heterosexual images or romantic tropes, but we are surrounded by them and contaminated by them. It is hard to escape into a lesbian free-zone where our bodies are just ours, not overlain by male images or by men’s images of women. Or by the idea of sex that is handed down to us as acceptance of rape.
When I was locked up in psychiatry, the violation was like rape, in that it went into the space in my mind that had been prepared to be raped, as a female. While I was not like many of my sisters forcibly stripped and watched in isolation room, or injected in the butt, or subjected to a bodily cavity search, or put into restraints that make you helpless to resist anything that they do to your body, knowing that they could do all that without being able to put it into words, was an inherent part of psychiatric lockup. And what they did to me, the violation of my body, my brain, inner sanctum of self by the neuroleptic haldol, which I put into my own mouth out of fear of all that they could do if I refused, was an inside-out violation that made me dissociate from my body in ways that rape does to women.
For years the way I coped with having been locked up was simultaneous suppression and anger, pushing it away, speaking out in public from the distance of systemic advocacy, and taking care of others’ feelings about me to avoid it happening again. Taking care of others’ feelings is what I refused to do in the latest instance. And probably it is the kind of thing that people who have never been psychiatrized take for granted and it passes unawares, the moment when a stranger thinks about the possibility of calling in the white coats.
What I did instead, I texted a friend who is a lawyer and told her what was going on and that I might need help, and that I’d keep her posted. Just doing that helped me to get distance on it and detach; also I know how to relax deliberately and I used that to calm myself. Not to take care of them – not to “be a good girl and be calm so they won’t think you’re nuts” – to let go of the unpleasant encounter and move on.
Patriarchy prescribes to us, à la Freud, that male-paradigm success in work and life – be a star! – and female-paradigm taking care of others – show you are available, not a threat, take a submissive posture and a smile – are the ways to demonstrate mental health. That is still true long after we thought we had buried Freud in spirit as well as body.
It is fucked up. And all lesbians deserve to be free from the heterosexual bullshit insinuations that continually question us and deny that we have the possibility to exist. This bullshit is harming us, especially the young ones. It has changed form somewhat but is still alive. All women and girls need to know from the start that sexuality is within us, it doesn’t come from outside, from men or some other person or images that we have to conform to. As a good friend said to me, start with your own Shakti.
Patriarchal prescriptions come in many forms. For some of us it is these mass-culture messages we pick up because we are just attuned to that, because we learned to survive by reading the signs in an abusive household, or we’re just smart that way. For others it’s literally prescriptions by psychiatrists whether for drugs or for therapy, seeing somebody else – usually a male figure – as a guru who tantalizingly holds our own power just out of reach. Bullshit again.
A few days ago a dear female friend of mine sent me an email that made me cry because it expressed so much love. It was something I needed to hear just then.
The gathering of voices in the Campaign to Support the CRPD Absolute Prohibition of Forced Treatment and Commitment, was also something I needed to hear. I want all of us to find our ways to express her or his truth as free women and men. And an absolute condition of that is actual freedom, which we have created in the CRPD in principle and are fighting to put into reality, including by people making complaints of violations under the Optional Protocol. (I won’t derail this post in that direction, but email me through this site if you want to learn more.)
I did a lot to bring the CRPD into being. It is a beautiful thing, and it is now as complete as it’s ever going to be, with the General Comment on Article 12 (legal capacity) and the Guidelines on Article 14 (liberty and security of the person) making it clear that forced treatment and commitment are absolutely prohibited. There are people who see its beauty as well as its power, and I am grateful for that.
I’m going to resist the temptation to wrap this up nicely with a moral or a happy ending, to make it a recovery story. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know if the completeness I feel right now will expand or explode or contract or vanish. But I want women especially, and lesbians most especially, to hear my gratitude for what you have given me and remember the CRPD is yours and you can have it and use it and make it your own.
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.