Note: A version of this piece is also published in The Mighty, a mainstream mental health blog that usually publishes pieces aligning with the medical model. As a writer and activist, I believe it is important for psychiatric survivor voices to be heard by the mainstream. When I was a young college student looking to get involved in mental health activism, the only campus organizations made available to me were those that campaign for mental health awareness and stigma reduction (which I like to refer to as a “find them and fix them” model), only encouraging students to speak out about mental health with the end goal of persuading their classmates to seek treatment.
Because these organizations were the only ones available to me, I quickly internalized the pathology paradigm and thought of myself as mentally ill. I wish that I had somehow been able to find the psychiatric survivors movement or mad studies paradigm in college, and learned to embrace my differences instead of conceptualizing them as disorders. It is this desire that motivates me to publish my story in mainstream sources, especially those with a young audience.
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Once upon a time, in an ancient kingdom, there was a vizier named Haman. Haman hated the Jewish people so much that he convinced the king to have every Jew in the kingdom killed.
There was only one problem with the king’s plan: little did the king know that his wife, Queen Esther, happened to be Jewish.
After discovering her husband’s plan, Esther realized she had a choice: she could either tell the king about her identity, and risk her life, or stay silent, ensuring the death of all of her people. So, Esther chose to approach the king and reveal her identity.
That changed everything. The king suddenly realized that the Jews were not the despicable people his advisor had portrayed them to be. Not only did he have a human face representing the people he had planned to slaughter, but he realized that his own wife – someone he loved dearly – was a member of this group. The king had to come to terms with the fact that his decision would destroy a peoplehood and culture that had unknowingly been near and dear to him for many years.
Every year, the Jewish people celebrates the holiday of Purim: the day that Queen Esther’s choice to come out and reveal her identity saved us all.
As a Jewish person, the story of Purim has always resonated with me, and it gained new meaning for me as a psychiatric survivor.
The night before my college graduation, I was locked up in a psychiatric institution for expressing passive suicidal thoughts. Instead of attending my graduation, where I was scheduled to be a speaker and receive an award, I spent the day being strip searched, secluded, restrained, and verbally abused by staff.
Although I knew that I had experienced injustice, I struggled with the decision of whether or not to speak out about it after I was released from the institution. Much like Haman, society stereotypes and labels people who have been in psychiatric institutions as despicable. We are seen as violent and dangerous, and it is believed to be medically necessary to lock us up, separating and isolating us from all of society. Haman believed that his plan to kill the Jews would benefit society; many people believe that using force and coercion against people with psychiatric histories benefits society and even benefits the individuals subjected to these abuses themselves. If I chose to come out, I would be risking a lot. I could be stereotyped as dangerous or violent by future employers, colleagues, neighbors, and community members.
In making my decision, I studied other movements that have made great strides in ending injustices and oppression. I thought about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US, who encouraged the LGBTQIA community to come out. “Come out to your parents,” he said. “Come out to your relatives, come out to your friends, come out to your neighbors, come out to your fellow workers. Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.” I realized that no movement has ever succeeded without people coming out. No movement has ever succeeded without people knowing how a specific form of oppression impacts their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and loved ones.
So I decided to come out.
It wasn’t easy. After publishing my story in my student newspaper, I was bullied by my graduate school classmates. I was also interrogated about my mental health history by the school’s administrators and was eventually forced on a leave of absence from school. Additionally, my anger at the system and growing passion for speaking out was labeled as Borderline Personality Disorder.
But something else happened: people began reaching out to me. Psychiatric survivors reached out to me to tell me that my story helped them feel less alone and less ashamed. I began to connect with other survivors and now belong to a community of people that allows me to fully be myself.
It wasn’t just survivors who reached out to me, though. It was friends, family, and co-workers. Some of my friends and family, who had originally thought that psychiatric force and coercion were medically necessary, told me that reading my story helped them understand the pain I was going through. They validated my abuse as an injustice and a violation.
One of my proudest moments was what occurred at the organization where I worked at the time. I was working at a criminal justice organization that advocated for prisoners labeled ‘mentally ill’ to be incarcerated in psychiatric institutions instead of in prisons, sometimes against their will. When I first approached my supervisor, talking about the issue in general terms, she said, “Well, people in psychiatric institutions aren’t like you and me. If you or I go to a psychiatric institution for even five minutes, it is traumatic and scary. But for mentally ill people, it’s different. People in psychiatric institutions always feel safe and protected.”
But when I came out, her response was drastically different. Instead of speaking in general terms, I recounted my own experience, explaining how I have never felt more unsafe and terrified than when I was confined in a psychiatric institution, and how it was not other patients but staff members that were abusive toward me. This time, my supervisor thanked me for speaking out and said she supported me. The organization eventually stopped advocating for forced treatment as a diversion from prison. Now, clients have a choice whether to stay in prison or to transfer to a psychiatric institution.
Another one of my proudest moments is having the privilege and honor of joining the Mad in America team. In the past few months, I have had the opportunity to be part of an organization that gives people the space to speak freely about harm done by psychiatry. No one is considered dangerous or violent for having been locked in a psychiatric institution; no one is labeled “crazy” or “lacking insight” for believing that they deserve more compassionate, supportive alternatives than what the current psychiatric system has to offer. Social movements only progress when their members come out, and for that to happen, there needs to be safe spaces to do so. My experience thus far at Mad in America has taught me the importance of helping to create that space for both people with lived experience to speak out about the abuse they have suffered, and for professionals to speak freely about their progressive or radical views.
Biblical stories may or may not be factually accurate, but as with all stories, they carry truth. The story of the impact that one brave person’s decision to come out has on a peoplehood, culture, and the whole world is true every day. It is true for Harvey Milk. It is true for Judi Chamberlin, for Howie the Harp, for Leonard Roy Frank and for many of the early leaders of the psychiatric survivors movement, who heroically made the first bold leap to speak out and say, “I am a psychiatric survivor. I am a former mental patient. I am not violent. I am not dangerous. And no, the abuse I experienced was not for my own good.” Without these early leaders, I would not have had the courage to come out. I would still feel ashamed of the abuse I experienced, and worst of all, I would feel very, very alone.
This Purim, I am celebrating all of the people who have made the courageous decision to come out. And I am more resolved than ever to always aspire to be like Esther. When someone says that “mentally ill” people should not be able to make their own decisions, or that people labeled “mentally ill” should not be allowed to hold public office, or that speaking out about abuses in psychiatric institutions is stigmatizing mental health treatment, I will tell my story. I will make sure people know that they are not stereotyping and insulting a faceless group of subhuman individuals, but a real, actual person standing right in front of them.
And most of all, I will make sure other psychiatric survivors know they are not alone.