Mental health and mental illness (in the abstract, without ever being clearly defined) are discussed far more than the abusive conditions which often create the suffering that lasts a lifetime.
Recently in a support group I’m part of, a young woman spoke of being whipped with belts by her parents. My shut down heart woke up and felt something.
Since I was a child, child abuse has been a subject of my subconscious interest. As a kid I had recurring dreams of children of different races than my own being hit and abused by their parents. This was the most common type of dream I had.
My own home life included violence towards the children, and growing up in New York City where I took public transportation daily as a teenager, I often witnessed child abuse in public. But not just on the subway.
At the ice skating rink I saw a woman smack her son for being in the “wrong area.” I then witnessed her saying to him, “I’m sorry I hit you,” on the bench next to me as I took off my sneakers and put on my ice skates.
I saw my friends in my drama class get smacked by their mom in the hallway, and another family friend nurse a bloody nose after his mom hit him, on the front stairs to their house, in front of everyone.
A lot of blood and fascia move around my body as I recount these “small” incidents. A lot of blood and fascia is stagnated in my being that got frozen in terror when the physical assault of children happened in my own family.
I can feel that on a level of cause and effect, the abuse of children that I experienced firsthand and second hand, and still experience residually and vicariously, has led to most of the suffering I have experienced as an adult.
That’s a pretty bold statement to make in a culture that blames the suffering on mental health problems and prescribes pills to check out of the pain. Yet in my blood and breath, it’s one thing I know very well to be true.
Writing about children being hit or whipped is the most cathartic thing I can think of. (It also terrifies me.)
This is because a big part of the abuse was the silencing and subsequent distraction.
After abuse in my own family, there often followed love and generosity. While these gestures had elements of honesty, they were also control and silencing mechanisms.
As an older sibling of divorced and suffering parents, I was far too protective of my parents to break the code of silence about the violence they inflicted.
This silence has eaten away at me my whole life. It has ruined my life; it has led to all kinds of addictive behaviors to check out of that pain, the pain of children being hit by adults. The layers of shame and guilt that get buried deep underneath mental health diagnoses, pills, health problems, addictions or simply unhappy adults who spend their days escaping in one way or another.
The medical and psychiatric systems often aid and abet this abuse. Psychiatrists don’t ask who was hitting who and how often in your family. Medical doctors surely don’t, even though child abuse has been shown to lead to chronic illness.
These questions would largely put them out of business and invalidate their industries. These questions would make a mockery of their many years of schooling and many prescription pad options.
These questions would heal. They would bring us back together with the truth of who we are, who we were, who we could have been if we had not lived with chronic fear, shaming and physical assault.
Psychiatrists have a long way to go in atoning for these malpractices. Numbing the brain of a person who was chronically hit and yelled at as a child is a great way to create the kind of society we are living in now, one where more and more people are able to pretend to be “okay” but very few feel even close to good.
As long as we are protecting abuse practices and keeping old stories of family unity and the mentally ill outcast who has a chemical imbalance for some unknown reason, well, we’ve kept the shelf on its hinges.
This is a great way to keep the chains of abuse locked: don’t talk about the abuse, call it a mental illness, take drugs, protect the abusers.
This sends the message that abusers are protected by society and the victims of abuse are subject to further abuse by psychiatry, so the most important thing is to have the upper hand.
Of course most abusers have been hit themselves. The cycle goes on, until a true psychiatry (literally: medicine of the soul/psyche) emerges, puts down its tools of silencing and advocates for us all to speak out about who hit us, when, where and how often. And what were they saying or shouting when they did so?
And are they the same people invested in creating a diagnostic distraction to point the spotlight away from their crime?
The truth will set us free.
Abusers retain guilt for their blows and either feel it or, more likely, check out themselves. Facilitating dialogue and amends-making processes would bring consciousness to these dynamics. It would be liberating for all parties.
It would be a true psychiatry.
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.