It all started with an invitation to attend a leadership training. What could be more harmless than a leadership training?
“This training really helped a co-worker of mine,” my fiancé said. “He grew so much personally and professionally. Ever since going to this training, he’s become so much more humble and compassionate, found more work life balance, and is just overall happier.”
I was skeptical. As a psychiatric survivor, I have participated in a great deal of therapy programs and self-help groups that make similar claims about improving quality of life and practical skills: cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, and Recovery International. They were all harmful and pathologizing at worst and ineffective at best.
“But this is different,” protested my fiancé. “This isn’t therapy; it’s just a training. It’s not specifically for people with mental health issues or addiction or any specific kind of problem. It’s just a general training for anyone interested in self-improvement and leadership development.”
I paused to consider it. I was somewhat curious to learn what kinds of things “normal” people — those without any sort of diagnosis or label — did for self-improvement purposes.
“I’ll pay the $1,600 fee,” he offered.
What did I have to lose? My fiancé and I signed up to attend the training in mid March. We received a copy of the training schedule — the training would take place over five days: three weekdays from 6pm to 11pm and two weekend days from 11am to 11pm.
The first night of the training, we met our trainer, L., a petite woman with short black hair and perfect make-up. L. spent the first few minutes of the training telling her success story with the program: how she had once been in our shoes, sitting where we were, eager to learn the keys to self-improvement and effective leadership, and now is a marriage and family therapist and international businesswoman who drives a Lexus and has a family. “I have seen miracles happen as a result of this training,” she said. “Participants have started charities, orphanages, schools, and international businesses. Couples declared to be infertile have been able to have kids, sick people have gotten well, people have improved their eyesight and hearing. This training will truly transform you.”
For the next three hours, L. explained to us the rules of the training. Always be on time, don’t sit with anyone you knew before the training, no food or drink in the training room, stay on all prescribed medications during the days of the training, no consuming drugs or non-prescribed medications at any time during the days of the training.
(Oh, and one last rule: keep everything that happens at the training confidential. Oops.)
As L. explained each rule one by one, participants raised their hands with questions and objections.
“I get dehydrated really easily,” said one middle-aged woman. “Could I keep a water bottle in the room with me and then leave the room to take a sip?”
L. shook her head. “What does the rule say?”
“No food or drink in the training room.”
L. approached the woman and stood in front of her seat, staring at her. “If you had a gun to your head, would you be able to find a way to get through the next five days without having any food or drink in this training room?”
The woman laughed a bit, startled. She nodded.
L. smiled. “So you know that you can get through the next five days of training without having any food or drink in the training room. You would be able to do it with a gun to your head. So now you have to decide: how much does your word mean to you? If you commit to following these rules, how much does keeping that commitment mean to you? Do you value your word?”
Again, the woman nodded.
“Great!” L. said. “Then you will find a way to keep your word.”
When we finished going over the rules, L. gave us a ten-minute break. Before getting out of our seats, a young man with a southern accent raised his hand.
“Hey y’all,” he said. “If anyone has an advil and could let me have it during the break, that’d be swell.”
L. stopped him right there. “What did rule #6 say?”
“No consuming drugs or non-prescribed medications at any time during the course of the training,” he replied.
L. smiled. “You just committed to following that rule, and look at you, already breaking it.”
The man raised his eyebrows, puzzled. “Huh? Advil’s over the counter.”
L. put a hand on his shoulder. “Have you been prescribed advil?”
He shook his head. “No ma’am. But you see, I just had dental surgery about a week ago. And I was actually prescribed vicodin for that, but that would make me tired. So I’d prefer to just take advil.”
L. stared at him. “How about you read the rule again?”
“No consuming drugs or non-prescribed medications at any time during the course of the training.”
“And advil hasn’t been prescribed to you,” L. stated.
The man leaned forward in his chair. “So, I’m just supposed to take the vicodin? But vicodin will make me so tired. I might fall asleep.”
“I didn’t say you should take the vicodin,” L. said.
“Well I have to take something. I can’t just sit here in pain. I won’t be able to focus on the training while I’m in pain.”
L. crouched down to stare him directly in the eyes. “Who do you love most?”
“Good answer,” she said. “Well. Let’s say we had a gun to your girlfriend’s head, and it would go off if you didn’t focus on the training. Would you be able to focus on the training?”
“Even if you’re in pain?”
He nodded again.
“Now. How much does your word mean to you? I get the sense that you’ve broken your word a lot. That you commit to things and then break your commitments time and time again. Do you want to continue that pattern? Or do you want to decide here and now how much your word means to you?”
“I want to keep my word,” he said softly.
“Great. Beautiful. Excellent work,” L. exclaimed. She turned to the rest of us. “If the only thing you get out of this training is making a commitment and keeping it, and showing yourself and others that you are someone who values your word and keeps your commitments, was this training worth it? Does that make this training worth the time and money you paid to be here?”
We all nodded. “Yes,” a few of us murmured.
L. turned back to the young man. “Now, if you were to call your dentist tonight and ask him to write a note prescribing you to take advil instead of vicodin, would you still be following all of the rules you committed to observing during the course of this training?”
He nodded. “That’s a great idea.”
“Would you look at that? You can have a win win. You can take advil, and you can follow all the rules of the training. So often, we have a limiting belief that we have to make a choice between one thing and another. We tell ourselves these stories. You’ve told yourself you can’t focus on learning while you’re in pain, and turns out you can. Others have told themselves they get dehydrated and need to have water in the room; turns out that’s not really the case. We keep telling ourselves these narratives that prevent us from considering other options.”
She looked back at all of us. “Are you ready to break out of those limiting beliefs and discover the possibilities?” We all nodded.
“Great. Now, take your break.”
During the break, I reflected on the training so far. On one hand, our trainer did seem a bit overzealous about the program, the rules, and hypothetical scenarios involving guns. And I did feel very uncomfortable on behalf of the man who wanted to take advil; I wondered if the trainer would have responded the same way to a participant experiencing suicidal migraines or other intensely severe pain. But on the other hand, I did want to get better at keeping my commitments and valuing my word: too often, I have cancelled social commitments due to work or activism activities. Maybe this training would help me be a better friend, family member, and fiancé. And after all, L. only harped on the young man’s advil use to make a point; she had still suggested a way for him to take the medicine and participate in the program.
“I’m probably being too close-minded,” I thought. When the break was over, I re-entered the training room, resolved to be more open-minded and receptive to the trainer’s perspective.
After we returned from the break, our trainer explained the core concept of the leadership training: victim mentality versus responsible mentality.
According to L., our society is incredibly “victimy.” We complain about our circumstances as if we are constantly the victim, seeking attention, pity, and commiseration from those around us. This serves to trap us in a victim mentality, leading to years of feeling wronged and resentful.
Instead of being victimy, we need to be responsible. We need to accept that we are 100 percent responsible for everything that has ever happened to us — and to others — bad and good. We need to acknowledge that we created the circumstances in our own lives, in society, and in the world.
We were asked to stand up and talk about how we might have created our own health problems. “Who here is nearsighted or farsighted? How did you create that?” L. asked. One by one, participants stood up and recounted how they created their own low vision by not wanting to “see” what was right in front of them and acknowledge the circumstances in their lives, or by being “blind” to a loved one’s cries for help.
Again, I felt uncomfortable. So much of my work in the Mad Pride and psychiatric survivors movement is about not blaming people for their own health problems or circumstances. As a psychiatric survivor, I have so often been told that my hospitalization and forced drugging was for my own good — that I somehow deserved it. And so much of my healing process has been about rejecting this narrative.
But L. reassured us that victim mentality versus responsible mentality had nothing to do with blaming ourselves or anyone else. We even learned a dance to a catchy cheer: “No fault, no blame, no guilt, no shame.”
We were asked to share about circumstances in our lives that we had been viewing through victim mentality. One soft-spoken woman said, “I’ve been struggling because I have depression and anxiety.” She went on to describe how she has been seeing herself as a victim of these illnesses – how she thought of these emotions as out of her control and in need of fixing or treatment from an outside professional. With L.’s help, the woman shifted her mentality, taking responsibility for her emotional state and acknowledging that she had created her depression and anxiety due to her limiting belief that she wasn’t good enough.
I was hooked. I hadn’t realized that this training was going to be secretly critical of psychiatry!
L. asked the woman what the payoff was of feeling depressed and anxious all the time. “It obviously takes a toll on your life, and you’re struggling,” she said. “So what’s the payoff? Why do you go on creating this emotional state of depression and anxiety?”
The woman paused for a while to consider. “Well, I get to be right,” she said. “If I continue being depressed and anxious, and a victim of my depression and anxiety, that will continue taking a toll on my life and others’. It’ll interfere with my work and my relationships. And then it will confirm my core belief that I’m not good enough.” The woman then committed to being responsible for her emotional state and creating happiness, serenity, and fulfillment.
After discussing our individual circumstances, L. asked us to share how we each created 9/11. At first, I felt baffled. I was only six years old when 9/11 happened.
People began sharing. One person said, “I was so unaware of everything going on at that time. I didn’t have a clue what was happening in the world, in terms of current events or anything.”
Another said, “I was so ignorant of other cultures and other countries. I wasn’t even interested in learning about any other backgrounds.”
Finally, I said, “I was so apathetic. I didn’t understand what had happened or the significance of it. I was so young and I just didn’t get it.”
By this point, I was fully on board. As a social justice activist, my bread and butter is doing my best to acknowledge how I am complicit in all of the social ills of the world, especially abuse culture, and various forms of systemic oppression including racism, sexism, queer-antagonism, sanism, and lookism. So the idea that I could be responsible for something like 9/11, even though I was only six years old when it happened, wasn’t too far of a stretch.
I began to think about what would happen if the whole world took this training. Would people begin to acknowledge their racist, sexist, and sanist beliefs? Would everyone finally become accountable for the ways they perpetuate abuse culture?
And I began to think about the possibilities for myself. By the end of this training, would I learn about new ways I was perpetuating oppression and inequality? Would I learn how to be less complicit in social problems and abuse? I couldn’t wait to find out.
The next few days of training comprised of a series of exercises designed to help us identify the limiting beliefs that were holding us back and the ways in which we were being victimy. Some exercises involved attack therapy and confrontation: in one activity, participants took turns screaming “What do you want?” in each other’s faces for 10 minutes straight; in another, we each faced a group of participants shouting out our limiting beliefs and obstacles to our goals. Other exercises involved role playing dialogues with our parents and guided meditations. Most of the exercises were intensely emotional; at least half the room, including myself, was in tears.
None of the exercises included any mention of social justice, societal oppression, or abuse culture.
In one exercise, each participant had to find a way to move across the room that was unique from any other participant’s technique. One participant did jumping jacks across the room; another danced across the room. My fiancé did the worm, and I shook hands with every participant as I moved across. The point of the exercise was to illustrate that if a person sets an intention to accomplish something, they will find a way to do it, regardless of means or resources. Believing that you can’t is a limiting belief; it’s an excuse and a way of being victimy. Since we all set an intention to move across the room, we all found a way, and there were infinite possibilities.
“But we all started out on equal footing. We all just had our bodies and a room to move across,” I wanted to say. “Real life doesn’t work that way. In real life, some people are born with more resources and privilege than others, and have a much bigger room to cross in order to survive.”
But I didn’t say it. After all, that would be victimy, right?
The last day was a hard and fast sales pitch for the next level of the training.
“This was just the beginning of the training,” said L. “The past few days have been about drawing your awareness to your limiting beliefs and the ways you aren’t being responsible for your circumstances. In the next level, you get to have a breakthrough. That’s where you learn the real skills to overcome those limiting beliefs and your victim mentality.”
The next level of the training was scheduled about a week and a half out. It was to take place over three full twelve-hour weekdays and two full twelve-hour weekend days. Participants raised objections, saying they wouldn’t be able to attend due to work or other obligations.
L. shot them all down, emphasizing the importance of commitment. If we were really, truly committed to transforming our lives, we would find a way to attend the training. “If a close friend or family member were on life support, if they were in the hospital or in a life-threatening situation, would you find a way to miss three days of work?” she asked. “Then you have your answer.”
I raised my hand. “What if the reason we are able to take off work during emergencies is that we don’t ask for other times off work?”
L. put her hand on my shoulder and sighed. “Is this a pattern for you?” she asked. “Always putting work above everything else? Dedicating all your time to work just in case some emergency happens and you aren’t able to work? Are you a ‘just in case’ kind of person?”
I nodded. L. shook her head, smiling. “When are you going to start putting yourself first? When are you going to stop feeling disposable?”
I felt my heart start to beat faster and my hands begin to tremble. I couldn’t quite figure out why.
During the break, I spoke with my fiancé, who had already signed up for the next level. “I can’t do the second level of the training,” I told him. “I hope that’s okay with you. It’s just that I have work. I just started two new jobs, and I don’t want to seem unprofessional or disrespectful by asking for three days off right away.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Do you think L. is right? Do you think you feel disposable at work? Do you think maybe you have a limiting belief that you can’t do the training? What if you’re limiting the possibilities for yourself?”
I considered his perspective and then told him, again, that I still didn’t think I could do the training.
“I’m just so scared you’re making the wrong decision,” he said. “This is going to be such a transformational experience for me. I’ll come back completely changed. And you’ll still be the same… I mean, how is that going to affect our relationship?”
My whole body began to shake, and my head started swimming. Panic set in. What if I was making the wrong decision? What if the choice I was about to make would make or break my relationship? Was I really choosing work over my relationship? What if this would become my biggest regret?
When the break was over, I still felt panicked, and I hadn’t made a decision. I needed some time to myself. I stood up from my chair and left the training room to use the bathroom.
A volunteer stood up from her seat and followed me.
“Are you leaving the training or just using the bathroom?” she asked sweetly.
“Using the bathroom,” I replied.
She continued following me to the bathroom. That was my first clue something was up.
In the bathroom stall, I did something I have done only one other time of extreme distress: pray to the spirits of Szasz and Foucault. “Dear G-d,” I began, in a whisper. “Okay. Let’s be real. I don’t believe in a man in the sky. If there’s anything divine, it’s the work of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault. Okay. So. Szasz and Foucault. If you’re up there, and this is some sort of cult, and I’m not crazy for thinking this might be a cult, if you could just please give me some sort of sign, that would be lovely.”
I exited the bathroom. The volunteer was waiting for me, ready to escort me back to the training room.
Just a few days before the training, I had read a powerful essay called “What Makes Institutions Bad.” The essayist argued that the worst institutions are not the ones with the most prison-like conditions or even locked doors, necessarily; instead, the worst institutions are the ones that use subtle manipulation and non-forceful tactics to keep people inside. The worst institutions are the ones in which “all of the staff are gentle and would never physically abuse an inmate. They are highly trained at redirecting and calming anyone who becomes violent. If you go outside, they follow you at a discreet distance, where they think you can’t see, to give the illusion of freedom and privacy. Their every movement and tone suggests sweetness and gentleness.”
In that moment, I remembered the essay. If following me to and from the bathroom wasn’t a sign of something troubling, I didn’t know what was.
My body was still shaking when I returned to the training room. L. saw me and asked if I was okay.
“No,” I said. “I feel like I’m being pressured and guilted into doing the next level of the training.”
She paused for a moment. “Is this a pattern for you? Have you felt pressured and guilted into doing things in the past? Has coercion ever been an issue for you?”
I nodded. I talked a bit about my experience with coercive psychiatry as well as some of my coercive sexual experiences.
“It sounds like you have a lot of trauma to work through,” she said. “And that’s what the next level of the training is all about. We do a variety of experiential and conceptual exercises to help resurface people’s trauma and help them work through it. When are you going to take that next step to overcome your trauma?”
I froze. Everything inside of me stopped. I had heard this before.
I had heard this before again and again. When I didn’t want to be hospitalized for experiencing passive suicidal thoughts, that was used as evidence that I was so sick I didn’t even know I needed treatment. When I stopped taking psychiatric medication, I was told I lacked insight and therefore needed more medication. When I felt invalidated by my DBT therapist, I was told this was just my borderline personality disorder talking and I needed more DBT to help me overcome my irrational anger. And now, feeling pressured and coerced by this training was being used as evidence that I needed more of the training. It is all the same: resistance to X, Y, or Z proves the need for more of X, Y, or Z.
That night, for the first time, I researched more about the training I had just completed. I found out that the program belongs to a category of leadership/self-improvement trainings called Large Group Awareness Trainings (LGATs), otherwise known as “psychotherapy cults.” Usually led by a psychologist or psychotherapist, LGATs have been known to use the principles of cognitive therapy and existential therapy in a high intensity, high demand environment that usually promotes groupthink and the unquestioned acceptance of the teachings.
The more I read about LGATs, the more scared I became. Widely accepted as a cult by most experts in the cultic studies field, many LGATs have been the target of numerous lawsuits for injuries ranging from LGAT-induced psychotic episodes to suicide attempts and hospitalizations.
The next day, I told my fiancé about the research I had done and how scared I was. “As a psychiatric survivor, and as a survivor of other types of coercion, this is so scary for me. This is very triggering.”
“That’s victim mentality, though,” he replied. “If you’re getting triggered, that means you’re being a victim of your circumstances, a victim of the trauma you experienced. You’re letting that trauma define you. Don’t you think it’s time to overcome that trauma?”
I also mentioned to him that as an Autistic person, the intensely social atmosphere of the training felt overwhelming for me, and I felt that the next level of the training would be even more difficult.
Once again, he called me victimy. “You’re using your autism and your traumatic experiences as an excuse to not do something. You’re limiting yourself. You’re saying, ‘Poor me, I’m autistic. Poor me, I’ve experienced trauma. Guess I can’t do anything about it.’ That’s victimy. Don’t you think it’s time to be responsible for what you can and can’t do?”
I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me. Maybe we had done the “no fault, no blame, no guilt, no shame” dance, but it certainly felt like I was being blamed.
“Aren’t you the one who’s always saying that ‘mental illness’ isn’t real?” he asked. “So why are you using it as an excuse? Why are you acting like you’re a victim of it? It’s not like your reaction to trauma is a chemical imbalance.”
He almost made me wish it were. In that moment, right then and there, I wished for a chemical imbalance. I, a psychiatric survivor and anti-psychiatry activist, wished for… NAMI.
The stigma paradox is a model originally developed by Tania Louise Gergel* to describe two different kinds of prejudice against people labeled mentally ill.
She refers to the first kind as “likeness stigma.” Likeness stigma stems from the idea that people labeled mentally ill are just like everyone else; there is nothing biologically or chemically different about them. Unlike physical illnesses, “mental illnesses” are completely psychological. While this idea can promote agency and empowerment for those with psychiatric diagnoses, it also lends itself to the public perception that people labeled mentally ill need to snap out of their distress and overcome their struggles. It places the blame on the individuals who are struggling and can lead to societal shaming and discrimination.
Gergel names the second kind of prejudice “unlikeness stigma.” Unlikeness stigma is based upon the conception of “mental illness” as a biological, chemical brain disease. This notion may reduce blame or shame toward people with diagnoses, as well as change the attitude that it is possible for people to snap out of their distress on their own. However, this model of mental illness often aligns with the notion that people labeled mentally ill do not have agency and cannot make their own decisions due to a brain impairment, and therefore is used to justify force and coercion including confinement in psychiatric institutions, forced drugging, and ECT.
Time and time again, I have seen friends and family members cycle through the stigma paradox. One of my best friends hated being constantly told to snap out of her anxiety and depression, and to just think positive, so she embraced the biomedical model of mental illness. It was a way to tell those around her, “I don’t have control over my mental state all the time. Please stop blaming me for it.” Her activism aligned with this model until she was forcibly hospitalized and suddenly realized how much force and coercion the biomedical model serves to justify.
Now I was seeing it happen to my fiancé. Just a few years earlier, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, heavily medicated, and monitored closely by his treatment team and family members. He was told he had a chronic illness and could not make his own decisions. Now, here he was, just having completed a Large Group Awareness Training, excited to embrace the idea that his “bipolar disorder” was just a limiting belief, a state of mind that he had full control over. He finally felt he had agency and power. Instead of being a victim of his “mental illness,” he was responsible, and that meant he could be responsible for not having a “mental illness” too.
And I was cycling through the stigma paradox too. As a psychiatric survivor and anti-psychiatry activist, so much of my time is spent rejecting the biomedical model of mental illness. For this reason, the training very much appealed to me at first. I was enticed by the ideology that identifying as mentally ill is victimy and a limiting belief. But now, this same ideology was being used to pressure and guilt me into participating in the next level of the training, and I suddenly found myself wishing for “unlikeness stigma” instead.
I felt trapped in the paradox.
I did not participate in the second level of the training. My fiancé went on to participate in the second level, and then the third level, and many more workshops and events. We have since separated.
For the next few weeks, my life was completely uprooted. Triggered and re-traumatized, I felt on edge and hyper-alert in almost every moment, occasionally experiencing nightmares. I was unable to take my mind off the training and the feeling of being coerced and pressured. I had extreme difficulty doing any work and even felt suicidal.
But I did begin to break free from the stigma paradox.
I started to explore Mad Pride more in-depth than ever. To me, Mad Pride means accepting my emotions, experiences, thoughts, and personality traits as part of who I am, whether inborn or caused by external circumstances. I am not ill, I am not sick, and I do not need any sort of treatment or fixing.
As a Mad person, I am Autistic. I am very sensitive and I do become easily overwhelmed by social situations, for better or for worse. That is not something I need to be treated for or overcome; that is something about myself that I accept.
As a Mad person, I respond to trauma in my own way. It sometimes does include being triggered and having suicidal feelings. And while I do seek support from my peers and a therapist, it does not mean that I need to be cured or fixed, or that anything is wrong with the way I am reacting.
Mad Pride is not “unlikeness stigma.” Being Mad is not a biochemical illness because it is not an illness at all. There is nothing wrong with experiencing the world in different ways including extreme states and hearing voices.
But Mad Pride is also not “likeness stigma.” Being Mad does not mean I can think positive and snap out of whatever distress or pain I am feeling on my own. It does not mean I am 100 percent responsible for my own mental state. It means that I do have differences and respond to trauma in my own way, and I can accept myself for that.
Living in Los Angeles as an anti-psychiatry activist, it is almost impossible to separate myself from “likeness stigma,” or the idea that everyone is responsible for their own mental state. Large Group Awareness Trainings and other New Age groups, which all promote this line of thinking, are common here.
But it is not just LGATs and New Age groups that align with this ideology. There are plenty of holistic health leaders and organizations that also promote the idea that we can positively think our way out of emotional distress or that different mental states, and even physical conditions, are just limiting beliefs.
In Los Angeles it is common to meet people who are opposed to psychiatric drugs. It is less common to meet people who are opposed to force and coercion. “Mental hospitals should stop forcing patients to take medication,” I have heard frequently. “Instead, they should have yoga and meditation classes.”
My experience with the LGAT taught me that it is not only psychiatry we need to be fighting against; it is all force and coercion. Psychiatry is just one powerful example of the way our culture perpetuates force and coercion.
The training did not advocate psychiatric drugging. Our trainer actively opposed psychiatric diagnoses. But at the end of the day, it was still coercive. At the end of the day, participants were still told they had problems that needed to be fixed or overcome, and that asking for accommodation or acceptance of those problems would be “victimy.” Selling the next level of the training involved framing participants’ experiences and responses as problems or challenges, instead of advocating self-acceptance.
Of course, sometimes distress and difficulties are caused by limiting beliefs. Sometimes people do benefit from holistic medicine, positive thinking, the recovery model, and even LGATs. But all too often, I have seen people get trapped in the stigma paradox, having to choose between accepting responsibility for overcoming distress on their own or identifying as having a biological, chemical brain disease.
In my own activism, my biggest goal is to give people a third option: Mad Pride and self-acceptance. Instead of advocating for any particular alternative treatments, trainings, or programs, I would like to be there to tell people, “You are not sick. You are not ill. You are fine just the way you are. Whatever response you are having to trauma is okay. Whatever sensitivities you have are okay. Whatever voices you hear are okay. You don’t need to be fixed. You don’t need to be cured. You don’t need to change anything about yourself, if you don’t want to.”
I escaped from the LGAT, but more importantly, I escaped from the vicious cycle of the stigma paradox. At the moment, it still feels as if my life is in shambles, but that is okay. For the moment, it is okay to be hurting. For the moment, it is okay to be a victim. It is okay to accept the radical notion that I am not broken. It is going to be okay.
*This article originally attributed the stigma paradox to Nick Haslam. It has now been updated with the correct author.