Aspiring to be Like Esther

Emily Cutler
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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.

* * * * *

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.

Previous articlePsychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness
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Emily Cutler
Emily Sheera Cutler is the Front Page Editor for Mad in America. Ever since her involuntary hospitalization at age 20, she has been passionate about fighting for the civil rights of people labeled mentally ill. Emily received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania, where she wrote an Honors Thesis on weight bias in the education system. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. Emily Cutler, wellcome.

    Instead of Queen Esther… i prefer Jael (the Jew woman from the Bible).
    From the Old Testament (Bible):

    Judges 4:21

    “But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”

    The “PEG” is a wooden nail.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jael

    Quote: “Biblical commentaries have viewed Jael as either a heroine or someone much less so. Newsom and Ringe consider her a survivor caught up in her husband’s politics.”
    ……………..

    Jael. The Jew Woman & Survivor & Hero & Example.
    Had the courage that lacks at many men.

    For those of tender ears (and blind eyes), here is a euphemism:

    “Jael administered a anti-psychotic “peg” of long duration. It did not hurt, was ethical.
    The administration site of the peg: the broken brain, as needed.
    The meta-analyse of 30 studies says: “the anti-psychotic peg” will not affect the cognitive status”.
    ……………..

    And now that we had a humorist moment… Emily Cutler is there a link to your “survivor story”? Sure enough is what we would like to read?

    If you want, of course.

  2. Emily,
    Great job! This is a fantastic story. I have read your story in more detail on the Jewish Currents site and was impressed with how you spoke out from the first time I read.
    I totally agree that speaking out and being an example that people who’ve been traumatized by the system can come to to tell their story, privately at first… is so valuable and needed. Well done.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story, Emily. I, too, related to Esther when healing from the forced psychiatric abuse I dealt with at the hands of this now convicted, violent, criminal doctor, and his yet to be arrested, psychiatric “snowing” partner in crime:

    https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndil/pr/oak-brook-doctor-convicted-kickback-scheme-sacred-heart-hospital

    Forced treatment with psychotropic drugs, that are known to actually create the symptoms of the DSM disorders, should most definitely be made illegal. It’s a shame most of the psychiatrists are still claiming to be unaware of the fact that their antipsychotics (neuroleptics) can create the negative symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome and the positive symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via anticholinergic toxidrome.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroleptic-Induced_Deficit_Syndrome

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxidrome

    And, of course, since these psychiatric drug induced toxidrome/syndrome are not listed as billable disorders in the DSM, out of sight, out of the minds of the DSM deluded “mental health professionals,” they are almost always misdiagnosed as one of the billable DSM disorders, resulting in even more iatrogenic harm.

    I hope the DSM is soon updated with these two toxidrome/syndrome added, so the “mental health professionals” wake up, and stop killing so many innocent humans. Or, better yet, the DSM is gotten rid of all together. Best wishes.

  4. Hi Emily. It is Purim; I hope you are having a good one.

    Queen Esther took some very big–but necessary–risks. She could have been executed for approaching the king without being asked. Thankfully he was glad to see her and held out his scepter.

    She also ran the risk that the king would turn from her in horror when he discovered she was Jewish. Or at least quit loving her.

    However, as Esther’s cousin and foster father Mordecai reminded her, we are where we are for such a time as this. If we don’t do what we were meant to do, it will still get done. But we will suffer for our failure to act.

  5. I think you have been very lucky when you decided to be open about your expereinces of psychiatric oppression. While I think that this can sometimes be the way oppression ends, though it is only one tactic, I also think that people often need support in order to do it.

    There are risks to being open about a history of psychiatric abuse, sometimes serious risks. Risks of loosing a job for example and this can have serious economic consequences.

    Rather than urging people to be out I would urge people to consider the consequences and do so if they think it useful and a risk worth taking but not if they think it isn’t. I would also encourage people to take part in and set up of supportive institutions, such as the Hearing Voices Network, or preferably more radical organisations, that can give support to those who want to take this step. Jaqui Dillon is a member of the Hearing Voices Network and very out about her psychiatric survivor history. She has a lot of support and I suspect a lot of her income is from self employment.

    I do not think this is a tactic for everyone. I think that the LGBT liberation movement was quite strong with many other tactics, including direct action, when it adopted coming out as a strategy where as the psychiatric survivor movement seems fairly weak at the moment.

  6. How wonderful to hear your story connected to Purim!

    I feel you need to be congratulated not just for coming out, but for taking the big step of working to end psychiatric oppression by working with Mad In America and other groups.

    It took me 35 years and the publication of my memoir to come out. It was not so much of the fear of stigma as it was fear of being sucked back into the insanity. I rationalized that I should focus on positive aspects of my life and leave the negative ones be.

    I honor not just you, but all of the others who have gone through the psych mill, survived, and now are out helping others do the same. I am always amazed when I hear of yet another person who has done this, and I keep them listed on a spreadsheet. Eventually, I hope to write a blog or do a podcast with interviews.

  7. So, Emily’s kidnapped, caged, and chemically raped the night before she’s set to be honored by her university. How convenient. I smell a schizophrenogenic family, here. The idea of a Mad winner was intolerable to at least one principal member of the Cutler family. Their frantic act of cruelty was SO obviously aimed at blocking Emily’s transcendence from the “patient” role. And it’s absolutely pathogenic to sink to that cruelty in such an obvious manner. Rolling that shit out the night before Emily’s college graduation?!? Give me a fucking break!

    I’m glad to hear that Emily has more allies in her family, now. She’s going to need them, because she’s correct – coming out causes negative outcomes 100% of the time. While it’s difficult to deal with those consequences at all, it’s virtually impossible to deal with hem alone. Thank God, Emily doesn’t have to do that.

      • Emily hasn’t given a lot of details as to why she wound up in the psych ward on graduation night. The drugs may have caused severe psychosis. Her family, like most Americans, would have been terrified to watch her lose her grip on reality. In that case they did what they honestly thought was the only right thing to do.

        In that case they were deluded by the mental illness makers too. You might call them victims as well–though their suffering is much less than Emily’s, of course.

      • Having gone back and reread the article, I found Emily doesn’t mention anything about her family members in relation to that “hospitalization.” It could just as easily have been fellow students, college faculty, or a stupid therapist responsible.

        As a psychiatric survivor I don’t know what I would have done without family support.

  8. Powerful story. Good for you for standing in your light of truth. There’s a reason they call it “courageous.”

    Just one factual correction, where you say, “I thought about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay mayor in the US…” HM was the first openly gay elected official in the US, but he was not mayor, he was a city supervisor. The mayor of San Francisco at the time of Milk’s service was George Moscone.

  9. Emily is a classic *activist* of anti-psychiatry *movement*:For existence of MHS(Mental Health System),without Psychiatry of course.We crazies have to be against Psychiatry,but also against Psychology and Psychotheraphy!!!
    Elimination of entire MHS should be our task,normals can say a madman *deal*.Sadly,leftwinged activists are one of the last people,who crazies should ever thrust!!!

  10. Hi Emily,

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. Truly believe we need to speak up. I am wondering if you could help with my initiative here –
    I am developing a storytelling and mental health platform with the ultimate aim of curating a museum exhibition. Soul relics Museum is a platform for people to read and tell stories of mental health through objects that help them connect or express to a present or past experience they have had with their mental health. The object can be anything personal to something in the system. It’s a unique and creative idea to help people come forward and share with others what mental health problems have been like for them and a safe and constructive way to read of others experiences while being brave enough to share your own. Together, we can create a collective voice in raising awareness and education on mental health!
    All you need to do to help is to take a look (http://soulrelicsmuseum.me ) and write a short personal story (http://soulrelicsmuseum.me/Contribute.html)!
    If you agree with the initiative, I would be super grateful if you could help me promote it (eg. share on social media and contribute to the discussion) as me as an individual can only do so little in unifying people’s voices.
    Let me know if you have any thoughts!

    With Solidarity,
    Van

  11. Thanks for sharing your story. Coming out has to be done very carefully. I think it can only be done effectively AFTER you have gained a certain amount of trust. You wouldn’t tell a complete stranger much personal information beyond your first name to begin with. Maybe the town where you live, but not your exact address. Maybe your occupation, but not exactly where you work. Later, you may mention where you eat lunch, and say, “Hey, wanna have lunch sometime?” While eating lunch, you might mention you divorced a few years back.

    You would NOT say upon meeting someone, “Hey, I miscarried three months ago.” Or, “I wear a size ___ bra.” Or, “I was adopted.” Right? So likely you wouldn’t say, “I was in a mental hospital a few years back.”

    After you and your new buddy like each other a lot, and your new buddy trusts you, and you trust your new buddy, then, you say, “You know that hospital up there? See that one? Guess what? See that window up there? Yeah, that’s a mental hospital. That was my room. Right there. I had the best view of the whole city.”

  12. I don’t know how many people are reading this right now but I thought I would post this here rather than the forums (which seem kinda dead). I think this and other posts by new survivors, that is, people who were newly psychiatrized and new to the Movement indicate to me that we as a Movement need to have a strong presence on college campuses. I, too, sought “help” as a college student. I didn’t know where to go. Nowadays, all colleges have “counselors” and these are the new gateway to the System. Many refer either to the U Health Service or, if the college is small, to an outside psychiatrist. There have been so many issues with these U Health Services and the counseling services. There are confidentiality issues, kids get kicked out, parent issues, financial issues, problems to do with denial of scholarships, and more. I think colleges will welcome speakers if we can get some speakers together. If only I had known about the pitfalls of ending up labeled for life back when I was a college student, but I did not know. I was a promising music composition student at Bennington College, very close to graduation. I had managed to keep my eating disorder secret. Like Emily, I was confused, had no clue what the dangers would be. During the summer I voluntarily walked into a therapist’s office which turned out to be the worst mistake of my life.