I am taking a CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) course offered by Tina Minkowitz. There is so much to learn in becoming an effective advocate. Tina’s knowledge and initiatives are helping validate my own trauma and giving me tools for empowerment. Last week we discussed absolute prohibition of forced treatment and learned the value and disadvantages of framing coercive interventions as torture. The following are my reflections through the lens of firsthand experience.
* * * * *
You cannot stitch a wound without first taking a look at it in all its gore. Making an honest, in-depth analysis of a trauma this grave will cause uneasiness. Just as you would never hide an injury to protect the nurse from feeling her own human sensitivity, this must not be hidden either. The bind surrounding those under coercive treatment is intentionally well-manicured and outwardly sterile in order to soothe the public and those in control. Those directly affected are in agony while being invalidated with a collective delusion that there is nothing to agonize over. In living through psychiatric treatment, I couldn’t escape the wound festering underneath the system-wide denial. Using the word “torture” helps rip the covers off the repulsive reality of the violations taking place in psychiatry to this day.
If we do not call torture by its real name, will we be motivated to fix it? I went to a government-provided mental health clinic for help with the side effects of the trauma I had suffered during hospitalization. The psychiatric nurse stopped me mid-sentence, explaining, “It is not trauma, it’s treatment!” She added torture to medication side effects and nutrition on the list of things I wasn’t allowed to talk about in therapy. Society as a whole has given themselves permission to stop listening to cries for help by nullifying people with assumptions like “lack of insight,” but a whitewashed prison is still a prison. The bigger issue may be that we are not seeing patients as people, allowing for immunity from violations to the usual rules of human decency.
In psychiatric hospitals we have set up the same environment as the Stanford Prison Experiment, but without a professor watching who has the authority to shut it down when things go horribly wrong. As a patient, there wasn’t any protection from the inescapable abuse of limitless power. In a battle between patient and staff the staff will always win. My voice was disqualified before I ever said a word. I watched public takedowns of others and was scolded to set an example. I learned quickly what would happen if I didn’t comply. Why would “life saving treatment” need to be escaped from or result in furious and terrified survivors?
After turning my back on medical treatment, I was hired by Alberta Health Services. One part of my job was to expose problems and inconsistencies at treatment team meetings. Turns out that most staff didn’t really want to know how it felt to be on the receiving end of coercion. After the first meeting, management met with me to review ways for me to share only the positives in the treatment they were providing. I couldn’t agree to be one more set of seeing eyes who intentionally turned away to protect my paycheck at the expense of the vulnerable. We couldn’t come to a compromise, so I quit to save my life.
As I wrote the words above describing “care,” my skin crawled. Words like “receiving” and “providing” wrongly imply gifts. Generous is the opposite of how treatment felt. The psychiatric system is set up intentionally to protect the staff. I sometimes reflect on the hundreds of people who benefited financially from my torture while placing me in poverty. This year I was approached by seven different paid supports from my past who knew of mistreatment but felt their hands were tied. It hurts to feel sacrificed in order to protect someone else’s standard of living.
The disadvantages of ripping off a bandage so honestly is the risk of losing the audience of those with the power to make immediate changes. Pride and potential loss of earnings seem to make people sensitive to feedback. If I am not respected enough to be a voice in my own treatment, why would they respect me enough to be a force for system change? Still, I have to try.
There is another, more personal risk to bravely calling “torture” on the psychiatric system. As the Mental Health Act now stands in Alberta, I can be forced into treatment with nothing but a signature and a little future foretelling on the part of a doctor.
As a society we have given a loaded gun with the safety off to medical professionals. They have proven that they are not qualified to handle this power appropriately without causing harm. Someone has to take the gun away, and an absolute prohibition on force would do that. Torture is torture. Any other vulnerable sector of the population would be extricated from such an abusive situation. An absolute prohibition of coercive treatment would also immediately allow for the billions of dollars allocated there to be redirected into alternatives.
Weeping about the torture I suffered has been met with fear mongering and a reminder that psychiatry had the power to do much worse than they did. The abuse was for my own good, I was told, and I should be thankful the treatment team was merciful. After all, they didn’t use the Community Treatment Order that they threatened. It is proving difficult to feel gracious. My Mental Health Aide took credit for the person I am today, stating that the mistreatment was intentional to motivate change. In a twisted way she is absolutely right. Terror has forever changed me.
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.