David Foster Wallace: Suicide and the Death of Agency


“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because
we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
—Sylvia Plath

Today is the 10th anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s suicide. I discovered David Foster Wallace (2/21/1962 – 9/12/2008) six years after he hanged himself at his home in California. For a while, I was under his spell, but it wasn’t his stories that got me. It was his story — one that looked, on the outside, like the classic case of person who has everything shocks friends and family by telling the world it’s not enough. Wallace’s suicide at the age of 46, after reaching literary immortality and finding a cult-like following most writers only dream of, is most commonly explained by friends, family, colleagues, even the literary community, as “mental illness.” The treatment of this “mental illness,” as well as what’s going on behind the “symptoms,” is rarely discussed in mainstream media, except, one Mad in America writer explains, as a cautionary tale: “this is what happens when you stop taking your medication.”

David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace — Photo by Steve Rhodes, CC BY 2.0

In the months following my discovery of Wallace, I listened to every interview he gave that I could find. In every single one that I came across, Wallace does two things: he makes a “joke” about his experiences with what the establishment calls depression and he dodges any follow-up attempt the interviewer makes (which is alarmingly uncommon). His “jokes” often go something like “If anyone has any ideas for reasons to get out of bed in the morning, I’m taking suggestions.” Or they employ sly misdirection: “Here [me and my friends] were, grotesquely over-educated, well-off comparatively, maybe a little bored but stupidly unhappy. I mean, it’s not like we were fingering razorblades or anything…” He wrote vividly about depression, his descriptions of suicide in Infinite Jest so visceral I actually vomited, but he didn’t speak about it. His writings about depression, which made me feel absurdly seen in a way no living person ever has, are all fiction. We can infer that they’re drawn from his significant contact with the mental health system as well as his own subjective experience of what he was diagnosed and “treated” for, but, as his sister, two years younger than him, said in an interview she gave after his death, he was embarrassed by his depression.

She also said that he was brave. This, his bravery, is why she “never once had the thought that [she] was mad at him.” Having to face multiple rounds of ECT, a cocktail of heavy medication — one of which was a benzo and another he was only taking because it made him productive, at least until it, he suspected, played in a role in a hypertensive crisis that catalyzed his attempt to get off it — and a litany of professionals who neither listened nor cared to understand what he was going through, would indeed take bravery. So would having to, as he put it, “walk around with your nervous system on the outside of your body.” We do not have a world that is kind to sensitive people.

This sensitivity, which does not get him off the hook for the substantial abuse he committed against Mary Karr and others, is what made him such a good writer. Infinite Jest contains passages that absolutely convince you he’s in your head, that his voice is your voice — again, something so many of us writers strive ourselves to accomplish. Dave Eggers, in the forward to the 10-year edition of Infinite Jest, writes, “That this staggering work was completed by a writer under 35 in less than three years is painful to think about.” I have only unearthed two other people who considered that maybe it was painful for Wallace to think about, too. One was Wallace’s sister, who, in a very DFW way of making a statement and providing no follow up, commented that “writing Infinite Jest took a lot out of him.” Reading the book, it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t be true.

The other person was Wallace’s roommate at Amherst. Mark Costello sat down with a bunch of writers from The New Yorker to discuss why Wallace killed himself. Costello, who knew Wallace in his 20s, suggested that Wallace’s suicide might have been related to his struggle to be the writer he wanted to be, and his increasing inability to write at all. This suggestion was brushed off by both panelists and audience members, one of whom shouted “so go do charity work” after Costello offered his honest assessment. One panelist responded to the remark by encouraging us to have compassion, and initially I thought we might finally reach escape velocity from the “mental illness causes suicide” narrative with her attempt to get listeners to understand what suicidal people might be going through. “It’s not like you wake up one morning and go, ‘Gee, I think I’ll kill myself today,’” she explained. “It’s that you wake up every morning thinking ‘How can I not?’” Yes, I thought. These are all the words I have been looking for. The relief of validation, that someone saw and understood, felt like IcyHot on a pulled muscle.

And then she had to continue. “This is about mental illness.” The insight Wallace’s sister so briefly mentioned and the perspective Costello had were obliterated by the massive narrative of “mental illness” that seems to consume everything it can reach. At the same time as “mental illness” is used to sufficiently explain suicide, the way we treat “mental illness” is not thought to have a role in it or the circumstances leading up to a suicide, even by the people experiencing them. D.T. Max reports in Every Love Story is a Ghost Story that Wallace feared the reason he wasn’t able to write was because of how much weed he smoked when he was younger — “I was high for a decade,” Wallace said. In other words, the mental health system has been so effective at marketing itself and threading its conception of human suffering into the culture that not even Wallace, who was suspicious of easy explanations of depression and overmedicalizing pain, considered that the psychiatric medication, the ECTs, the hospitalizations, likely contributed to his brain fog, struggle to think clearly and inability to write.

But it does seem clear that his inability to be the writer he felt he needed to be, or to write at all, was central to his suicide. It may sound trivial, it may be hard to relate to, but before we suggest charity work as an appropriate treatment for despair, let’s give “inability to write” a fair hearing. It’s especially important in a culture with a propensity to accept easy answers (“mental illness”) or no answers (“we can never know why people kill themselves”) above real answers that don’t sound good enough (“I can’t write”).

The reason “I can’t write” was so easily dismissed by the audience member listening to Mark Costello is probably because he was thinking about writing the way he was thinking about writing, not the way David Foster Wallace was thinking about writing. That, as evidenced by the many articles, academic and otherwise, debating Wallace’s thought process as it related to craft, structure and plot, is deeply complex, involved and invested. It’s nowhere indicated that Wallace’s ambivalence toward fame — wanting it very much while simultaneously knowing, as he writes in Infinite Jest, that “it is not the exit from any cage” — was resolved. It seems clear that, while Wallace warned of the dangers of ambition, he harbored some pretty large ones himself. You don’t have to be a writer or think writing is ‘worthy’ to really get this: think of something you really, really want. Now imagine that thing is really, really hard to get. Maybe you want biological kids and you’re struggling with infertility. Maybe it’s to be an astronaut but you don’t meet the physical requirements for the job. Maybe it’s relief from despair and anxiety but we have the world we have. Consider what it’s like to want something deeply, more than you want to breathe, that’s very hard to get. It seems to me that that’s how Wallace related to his writing aspirations.

While it’s not fair to build an entire theory on an incredibly complicated issue like suicide around one person, Wallace’s death should challenge the common narratives of psychiatry. People attempting to get off psych meds probably shouldn’t be prescribed ECT. People probably shouldn’t be prescribed ECT at all since it causes brain damage. People shouldn’t have to give up power — Wallace was involuntarily committed at least once to a hospital and vowed that he would “do anything to avoid the psych ward” — in seeking whatever they’ve defined for themselves as help. People should get to define what help means to them. People should not have to subject themselves to the assumption that they’re wrong and the clinician’s always right.

Wallace’s death should also challenge the narratives around suicide — that “mental illness” causes it and that “we can’t ever know why people do it.” Both of these are self-serving platitudes that are simply not true. People leave notes — Wallace did; a two-page one for his wife to find along with his unfinished manuscript, and though I haven’t read it, the suicide notes I have read lead me to think there is at least the possibility of an explanation of some kind in those two pages. No one has the right to judge whether the person’s reasons for suiciding are valid; if you ever have the experience of reading a suicide note, your job not to assess mental status. Your job is to believe the author.

Jeffrey Eugenides, who knew Wallace, said through the narrator of The Virgin Suicides that “suicide is deeper than death.” And this is the reason “mental illness” is too easy and convenient an answer. To say that suicide is caused by mental illness is both a circular and a meaningless thing to say, and suicide is too complex an issue to be brushed off so easily. In the first place, the mental health system, and thus mainstream culture, only think “mental illness” causes suicide because the system has already defined suicide as a “mentally ill” thing to do. “No one in their right mind would take their own lives,” the system has already declared; thus, anyone who kills themselves is not in their right mind by definition. Second, what even is “mental illness?” In a system where certain people (those who have enough money to get licenses and certificates after years of study) profit off the “unwellness” (which they have codified and defined according to reimbursement schedules and whatever needs to be controlled so as not to threaten the livelihoods of the powerful), “mental illness” is not just whatever is outside a predefined “normal,” but also what can be made chronic (to guarantee income), intolerable (to guarantee continual seeking of assistance) and externalized (to guarantee trying different approaches since each person responds to medication differently, each person’s depression is different — if the meds don’t work, it’s not because the biological model is bunk; it’s because we haven’t found the right combination, of which there are, conveniently, an endless number).

But if Mark Costello is right and Wallace couldn’t live with himself for being the writer he was rather than the writer he wanted to be, then maybe the most important narrative Wallace’s death challenges is the story of objective value, if it exists and who gets to determine it. Wallace’s suicide forces us to ask: Is life worth more than literature? Robin Williams’ character John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society says that “poetry, art, beauty, these are the things we stay alive for.” But do we stay alive to read/view/consume them, or to write/create them? Robin Williams, another genius creator, took his own life, as did the protagonist of Dead Poet’s Society, both presumably for the same reason: they couldn’t make their chosen art. Robin Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which robs you of your ability to control your body. Neil, the protagonist in Dead Poet’s Society, lost agency via an overly controlling father who forbade the “frivolous” practice of thespianism. If Wallace’s suicide was a result of some form of inability to participate in his chosen craft the way he determined he needed to, he wouldn’t have been alone.

He also wouldn’t have been “mentally ill.” Agency, the ability to make your own decisions about your life, is a big deal. Stripping that from people by involuntarily committing them might be why there is not “a single shred of empirical evidence showing that hospitalization prevents suicide.” Wallace, who at one point wanted everything for his writing, ended his life unable to see how he could get it. Whether it is physical illness, authoritarian parents or a parochial treatment system insistent on the preservation of its own power, flaying people of their ability to create and to choose has lethal consequences. This is not about how Wallace’s suicide could have been prevented — after all, what I’m advocating for is free choice.

In a system where few alternatives are presented as equally acceptable and effective as medication and traditional therapy, it’s hard to see how Wallace could have made a free choice to take the pills, to undergo the prescribed treatment. Because he did so, it’s questionable whether his suicide was a free choice as well. And that’s exactly the problem: treatment without informed consent is abuse. And when I say that the system is looking out for its own power, that includes ways to protect itself from the liability of using humans in pain as its source of revenue. ECT, even without interacting with medications, damages the brain. Wallace was subjected to multiple rounds of it twice in life, once while attempting to withdraw from medication he’d been on for 20 years, and it very well could have robbed him of his ability to write — it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of brain damage. Saying Wallace willingly chose the ECT treatment only points out the larger problem: a system that problematizes human suffering, that manufactures the belief in and need for quick, easy solutions and the willingness to trade the everything that is life — despair included — for the nothing that is short-term monetary gain for a self-selected few.


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.


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  1. It’s a really heartfelt and interesting article – thanks for posting it and taking the time to consider and write it

    But there is something about being entirely voiceless too, that is no small issue – it’s huge.

    “Mental illness” is a silencing phenomenon. A group of people get arbitrarily talked to, or talked about while silenced about their own experience and story.

    The article is lovely – but there is something about second hand voices that just cuts.

    I’d love to see an article or a story here written by a survivor – who identifies as a survivor. What it’s about doesn’t really matter – it’s about the recognition of seeing someone being able to finally get on the soapbox about their life – on a site that only exists because their life and voice has been appropriated.

    Otherwise – the best analogy I can grasp at is that it’s like reading boys own adventure books and asking – where the hell are all the girls? Don’t they get to go on adventures? That doesn’t even nearly cut it – but it’s the best I can reach for.

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    • Hello Fred. I’m going to say this as calmly as I can, though calm is the last thing I am feeling at the moment. I’ve known this writer for years, in person, and you are telling a person who has continual suicidal ruminations and a person who has survived a suicide attempt that their voice isn’t the one you want to hear and that she isn’t worth talking to on a subject she experiences on a daily basis. This isn’t even private knowledge, her other writings (listed on her site) detail ongoing struggle with suicidal rumination and constant dismissal of this, as well as the fact that she survived a bridge jump. I’m not sure what here triggered you, I’m hoping it was as simple as a miscommunication or misreading of tone, but there was nothing caustic in her reply. She tries to, as I would in her shoes, clarify a part of your message that did not make sense to her before continuing to address you. She is tackling this topic from the inside out, not as a spectator or voyeur, she lives this hell in her head too.

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  2. Wilhelm Reich died in prison for the development of (the Orgone Accumulator) Orgone boxes. One thing Orgone boxes don’t do, unlike ECT devices, is destroy brain cells. If they had destroyed brain cells, I think it is seriously doubtful that Reich would have to had to do time in prison. Ice-pick lobotomies, after all, were still being performed back then. I can’t help but wonder how many people might have been saved from suicide by the use of Orgone boxes. It is extremely doubtful that ECT is any more effective in the long run for treating depression than would be an Orgone box. This question is even more pronounced with transcranial stimulation devices. You’ve probably heard of the placebo effect. A conventional placebo is a sugar pill, or, rather, a placebo is a pill with no known medical benefit. Enhanced placebos (placebos with side effects) are used to deceive people into thinking they are taking anti-depressants. I imagine that there is an entirely unexplored territory for research into the Orgone box effect.

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    • Yeah Reich was interesting as he made his voyage from psychoanalysis through Marxism, studies of sexual politics and the rise of fascism, to the final orgone phase during which he tried to cure cancer and engage UFOs. Not sure what the exact charge was, probably something mundane as they always do with political prisoners. But he definitely died locked up, not sure if it was psychiatric in addition.

      As to your main point, I’m sure orgone boxes are at least as “scientific” as ECT; they should be offered as an “alternative.”

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      • On the subject of Infinite Jest, don’t take everything I say so literally.

        I believe he received a couple of years for contempt of court. His heart gave out while he was on the inside. An associate, Dr. Michael Silvert, convicted as well, committed suicide 5 months after his release.

        Wilhelm Reich had a great influence on A. S. Neil, the radical educator and architect of Summerhill, the free school.

        “Emotional education trumped intellectual needs, in Neill’s eyes, and he was associated with anti-intellectualism. In actuality, he had a personal interest in scholarship and used his autobiography near the end of his life to profess the necessity of both emotion and intellect in education, though he often took jabs at what he saw to be education’s overemphasis on book-learning. Neill felt that an emotional education freed the intellect to follow what it pleased, and that children required an emotional education to keep up with their own gradual developmental needs. This education usually entailed copious amounts of play and distance from the adult anxieties of work and ambition. Neill was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis, Homer Lane’s interpretation of Freud, and later, by the unorthodox sexual theories of Wilhelm Reich. The reverence for Reich appears in the abundant correspondence between them. Neill accepted Reich’s claims about cosmic energy and his utopian ideas on human sexuality. In Reich’s view, “discharge” of sexual energy leads to happiness, whereas lack of such discharge leads to unhappiness and “rigidity”. Although not a trained therapist, Neill gave psychoanalytic private lessons to individual children, designed to unblock impasses in their inner energies. Neill also offered body massage, as suggested by Reich. Neill later found that freedom cured better than this therapy.”

        Emphasis added.


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        • Though Reich equated orgone energy with sexual energy, his descriptions of it resemble those of the psychic energy known as prana in yoga, basically life energy. According to Reich, when the flow of orgone energy is blocked it turns into DOR, deadly orgone energy, which is responsible for cancer and other sorts of disease/negativity.

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          • Life energy can also be un-lovingly expressed, in fantasy acted out upon a body. This is dehumanising of self and other as the corruption or usurping of power that is love’s extension, recognition and shared being.
            That applies to any relational situation, not just sexual communication.

            The fantasy of escaping guilt in scientifically sanctioned sex is itself a fantasy fulfilment. Guilt is the dissonant undercurrent to any state self-illusion, not as a punishment, but as a feedback to the fact of NOT being in one’s Right mind and therefore fully present.

            The wish to persist in self illusion can reinterpret dissonance as an intrusion or limiting sense of deprivation for what it wants and so make an enemy of its own FEEDBACK under captivity to its own self-illusion.

            That was in response to the equating of Life and Love with energy to be exploited – or indeed discharged and emptied rather than truly gifted in the spirit it is received.

            As for Reich, I have a great respect for his willingness to stand in and persist in what he be-lieved to be freedom and discovery.

            He could be said to have ‘come to soon’ but that is seemingly true of all who challenge the Establishment of their day.

            Our first attempts to walk may fail in the achievement while growing the potential. So Life as the energy of desire, passion and fulfilment does embrace sexual communication. But is not limited or bound to the physical sense. So I see that some take lives that are greatly supported from ‘within’ in shaping the human experience. Much that has been truly given has not yet found willing acceptance, but remains within us, to our capacity to recognize and receive it.

            The inhibition of the life force in self-destructive intent is not wrong.
            But anything done lovelessly in reaction will teach and learn a sense of ‘wrongness’, rather than learning from a mis-taken sense of self.

            I see that the ‘resist ye not evil’ is the key to right mindedness (not self-righteousness!) because in reaction to hate in like kind, we enact the very thing we thought to eradicate or ‘cure’.

            Feeling Life as an energetic communication of being (Being!) is our true and natural Inherence. Not getting in our own way, is the art of balance within all that is, rather than attempt to impose an ideal ‘balance’ upon anything perceived and believed to be getting in our own way.

            The feedback to ‘getting in our own way’ is an experience of block, division, struggle, adversity and threat. And so the idea of pausing from reaction, becoming still, and reconnecting to a wholeness of being, as a basis from which to align rather than react, is not coercive upon us, but is the willingness to find another way of seeing (and) being. The fulfilment of things aligning naturally is not driven to a climax – but a true appreciation for being – which is not centripetal or for getting, but expansive, radiant and automatically or unselfconsciously giving.
            When we ‘get out of our own way’, we know who we are by what lives through us and is reflected in a healed perception.
            The mind will attempt to come back in – and noticing that is the key.
            The alignment of energies and qualities to self-awareness is in some sense the shifting from a sense of self consciousness. I see this as an unfolding in willingness one step at a time from a sense of ‘control’, that is now recognized to be getting in the way rather than helping, and so the pause or stillness of a reconnection within being. Instead of running on old habit of thinking.

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          • Except that in Yoga, the goal is not to “release” the prana, but to channel it up the spine. And in Yoga, the blockages as you move the energy are still responsible for illnesses (which has some ties to Chinese Medicine meridians as well).

            Reich differed from yoga in that he wants all that lovely orgone to be released – considering how sexuality was so repressed in Victorian and post-Victorian times, it was a start, I’m sure.

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        • What about the statement made about A. S. Neil’s finding that freedom worked better than therapy? I was trying to point out that innocuous ineffective treatments can produce better results, “mental health” wise, than treatments that destroy one’s physical health. My feeling is that there is a little more sense in seeing it in those terms than there might be in merely thoughtlessly traversing the passage from one pseudo-scientific method of treatment to the other.

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          • My first experience of freedom was a total paralysis.
            Freedom is For Something – but because I did not know what I was For or indeed Of, I had no purpose or direction and thus no sense of my ‘self’ as I had learned in captivity. (World).

            I agree that many ‘treatments’ are merely destructive to the capacity to function – but that in fear of chaotic and ‘out of control’ thoughts, behaviours and outcomes, an ‘overcontrol’ operates to shut down function. This is like suppressing the symptoms to drive the conflict issue deeper, as if to have got rid of it, but merely changing forms in more complex disguises.
            Some measure of inhibition of unwanted or feared behaviour may be helpful and needed – but the way in which this is met is the underlying communication of either being embraced and held, or being unseen, rejected and denied.

            For myself, I accept that what happens to me happens for me – but at a deeper level than the meanings I made. This is to say I hold to freedom to be in the purpose I choose and accept regardless what arises. If my purpose is a willingness to learn and find healing for myself and that extending this is the way to have it, then I am no longer in the purpose of looking for what is wrong with me, or anyone else. But rather in a sense of being open to seeing and being from a freedom from judgement.

            Reich was considered extremely dangerous in what he was bringing through to the establishment of his day, and not merely pseudoscience for the gullible – although one can be a gullible imitator of anything, true or false.

            There are many approaches to healing that are denied and destroyed because their acceptance would undermine the structure of reality as is believed, be-lived and maintained – regardless that to do so is a dedication to sickness, conflict and limitation.

            But the true context of any healing from fear is the restoring of the capacity to love – not as the manipulative mimicry the world uses in substitution, but as a real relationship re-cognized and restored. This is as true within our ‘self’ as between ourselves.

            If the fear is such as to shut the mind off from even the possibility of communication, then ways to allay fear have to be found that are still serving the goal of restoring health to the degree that can be accepted without fear – but via a period of retreat and reflection.

            When those who are supposed to have followed the call to heal are themselves too sick to recognize a call FOR help in others AS THEIR OWN, then they teach sickness by the attempts to ‘treat it’ instead of teaching health by the willingness to learn it.

            Finding a shared and common interest is not the recognized desire of those who seek power or are afraid to lose it or be exposed in a sense of lack. This is as true of ‘patient’ as it is of ‘therapist’.

            Freedom and responsibility are two facets of one being. To deny freedom to the growing in responsibility is the arrest of development and to give or take freedoms before there is a degree of responsibility to live them is to invite the consequences of not being able to embrace or balance in the experience thus opened – or perhaps, a crash course in chaos.

            The idea of freedom to get or become what you want only to find you did not really want it, is a disillusionment, but disillusionment is another form of illusion because to truly be dis-illusioned would be awake in truth. The attempt to become special or outdo others is a symptom of a lack of genuine self appreciation – as a result of a lack of love in our formative years.

            Many who ‘lose their handle on their world’ have been trying to become someone they are not or unable to find a way to be who they are.
            One response to such a learning failure is to cling on to the pain of denied or rejected, abandoned or failed self, and ‘kill’ or escape the pain-world by leaving it – and leaving their withdrawal to the lives of those in whom they live.
            A stitch in time saves nine is to the effect that prevention is more timely and powerful than ‘heroic attempts to treat the consequence of destructive habits of choice, allowed to run unchecked because they are socially normal, or rather, the sickness of a society unwilling to look within and learn or grow from its mistakes.

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          • Curious, the things that happen in the theater of psychiatry. I’m reminded–regarding the dangerousness of Reich–of the magnificent performances of Charcot, the hard road and stiff opposition weathered by Freud, not in theory, or only in theory, but in literature, in the grandeur of biographical fiction.

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  3. “The strong do eat and the weak are meat.” -David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

    Is the impulse to suicide innate (inborn) Megan? Hardwired within our nervous system & vagal paradox of our tenth cranial nerve?

    The mammalian nervous system’s last ditch effort to sustain life, by feigning death. An aspect of our subconscious Self, that our early life adaptation to the survival skill of literacy and numeracy, has no knowledge or awareness.

    Is the word agency the experience of agency? Is the word consciousness the experience of consciousness? And does your ability to say the words “l am Megan Wildwood,” truly mean that you know yourself?

    Or when we voice such figures of speech, are we manifesting a true sense of being?

    “We are bemused and crazed creatures, strangers to ourselves and each other. We are all in a post-hypnotic trance induced in early infancy.” -R. D. Laing.

    And is the unspoken deal of civil society and our language communication skills of social inclusion & self-differentiation an agreement to not talk about reality, because it’s disturbing to the illusion that we do actually ‘know’ ourselves because we can recognize words & numbers?

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  4. Very enlightening! Startling to think of ‘mental illness’ as another one of those too easy answers that seductively clamor for our acceptance & threaten to stifle our awareness at the same time.
    Appears to have a wider following than ,say ‘climate denial’ at the moment… but both notions seem to have astonishing similarities when it comes to convenience trumping vexing reality !-JJoslin(Detroit)

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  5. Thank you for this, Megan.
    I’m sure ‘suicidality’ serves various functions in different people.

    For me, it was freedom. It enabled me to get to a place that was otherwise inaccessible to me.

    Psychiatry would say that the time that I only answered any communications with anyone to keep people away from me, when I couldn’t stand to even listen to the radio because sound caused such pain, when I had every detail planned and ready, when I couldn’t sleep, but for short periods passed out every few days, when the only lessening of searing pain was being alone in nature, even though I couldn’t connect to it, when I couldn’t remember wanting anything but an end to pain, all these things were clear evidence of mental illness.

    To me it was about being able to think the unthinkable, to get my consciousness out of an intolerable straitjacket. To have nothing left to lose and the dangerous freedom to finally be.

    I feel alive now. I can connect, not perfectly, by any means. I couldn’t have got to here, except through there.

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  6. It was also about never being able to tell the truth, because the truth never was something that people wanted to know, or would believe.

    The very definition of abuse is using people, and people get used in all sorts of ways. Abusive people don’t care, they don’t feel empathy. So it becomes hard to remember that anyone cares.

    When people get used they get silenced. Their very ability to access their inner truth is ripped away. And they conform to their surroundings to survive.

    Those who try to hold onto that truth and try not to conform to a sick environment get so broken that they either want to take their own lives. Do take their own lives. Get wracked by nightmares. Or disintegrate so much in side that they look very strange.

    When these things happen – they get told they have a “mental illness” and need to conform to that identity to survive. But that is just an abusive environment all over again.

    So people end up with a choice – be treated well and live life as “mentally ill”, recognise how abusive people are but keep it all to themselves, and never feel safe again or collude with abusers.

    Unfortunately, none of those represent a tenable choice.

    The only way we can change that is for the truth of abuse to be admitted, and the effects of abuse recognised as natural reactions to abuse – only that way can people begin to heal.

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  7. Can you write of how you feel in the impulse to use the word ‘toxic,’ Fred 77?

    How was that thought word energized, within your mind?

    I apologize for asking you to give a first-person, from the inside out, response to your experience of experience, but l feel it’s important to get beneath our self-nurturing, intellectual sense of Self.

    As l have commented on the sister site http://www.madintheuk.com With 11 years of post-radicalization drug free self-regulation under my belt.

    I found that well educated mental health professionals cannot afford to listen to survivor stories of actual experience, in their need to make a living.

    Hence, the quote from David Mitchell, which is hard to swallow, l know.

    “Who are these men of lust greed and glory. Rip off the Mask and let’s see. Oh No! That’s not Right. For there’s You and there’s Me.” SuperTramp, Crime of the Century.

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  8. “Another psychiatric success story!” It simply amazes me how many stories like this exist where the person receives the best “mental health care” that our system has to provide, and yet spends decades of suffering before ending their own life. How is it that those providing this “help” are not held accountable, or at least forced to acknowledge that their efforts were a failure? How is it that such stories always seem to end with a call for more funding for “mental health care” despite the fact that this person had plenty of it and it still ended as badly as possible?

    Is it even considered that the reason he could no longer write the way he wanted to was BECAUSE he was receiving “help” in the form of mind-altering chemicals? That the absence of such chemicals might have made him MORE able to write and hence LESS likely to end his life?

    It is a strange phenomenon to watch, when a profession’s utter failure leads to calls for more of the same but harder.

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    • I knew this guy’s treatment was probably abysmal, which Dr. Shipko’s PS confirms, as does reading the black box stuff on Nardil. Plenty of opportunity for psychiatric fumbling, given that the newer antidepressants and the old MAOI can’t be taken simultaneously. But then the guys managing this “treatment” would become crazed with fear or fury if anyone suggested giving the patient 1mg. shots of B12 at intervals.

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  9. I really liked this article for its broad analysis of the factors leading to suicide. On a slightly tangential note, my understanding is that the primary issue leading to DFW’s suicide was that after he stopped taking Nardil he had a severe withdrawal reaction that did not respond to anything – including the ECT. Is this accurate?

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    • Stuart, as I recall this is the story told in that 2008 Rolling Stone article “The Lost Years & Last Days of DFW” by David Lipsky (I think–can’t find it online anymore). He gave a picture of a guy who was doing pretty damn well, productive even, who decided to stop Nardil after having a scary hypertensive episode. Then promptly descended into hell. And the worst thing was, restarting Nardil did absolutely no good. (Neither did ECT.)

      As I remember that article, though, Lipsky also said DFW was on Nardil for about 20 years. He described times during that period where he was doing real well — and times when he was truly, truly lost. This is one thing that can happen with long-term exposure to a drug like this: it seems to work wonders for a year or so, then stops working (or “poops out” as shrinks used to say in the early days, when they were more likely to speak frankly). You up the dose, and you still feel lousy. But then you try to quit, and the roof caves in.

      What have we done to our nervous systems? God only knows (and she ain’t telling). I had a similar experience with another MAOI called Parnate. And I recall the folk wisdom among doctors in those days was to warn patients against stopping “because if you change your mind and try to start it again, it may not work.” I think many people have this experience with SSRI’s as well. It can make you feel utterly trapped–and doomed. We may never know why DFW died — “mental illness,” whatever that may be, is not the only cause of suicide. Drugs aren’t either. But given what that final year was like, it seemed no one close to him could tell themselves they were shocked.

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      • Actually, we kinda do know. Robert Whitaker talks about it at length in Anatomy of an Epidemic. Any time we make long-term alterations artificially in the brain, the brain adapts to re-establish “homeostasis,” a condition of stability that it is programmed to see as optimal functioning. So if there’s a lot of serotonin around, the brain reduces the production of and sensitivity to serotonin. Same for dopamine or any other neurotransmitter. This fact is well known and accepted in the field of addiction, and it’s called neurological down- (or up-) regulation. Why psychiatrists would not full expect and accept that the same thing happens with their “miracle drugs” is only attributable to wishful thinking or utter corruption. So yes, tolerance happens and yes, withdrawal effects happen for very well known reasons. It’s just that the pharmaceutical industry and the psychiatric industry are committed to not knowing it, or at a minimum, to denying the obvious truth of it.

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        • And yet according to RW we’re still supposed to be “rethinking” something about psychiatry, as though “we” need even more proof than he has laboriously produced over the years before “we” can conclude that psychiatry should be abolished as a field of “medicine.” What do we need to yet discover that would constitute the proverbial “last straw”?

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          • For my part take psychiatry out of the state apparatus – excepting as the law protects us from abduction, human experimentation fraud, violence etc
            So if you wish to employ a therapist of any kind, you are free to do so.

            I say the same for ‘medicine’ because a regulatory protected Pharma cartel monopoly has usurped ‘medicine’ and as a glance at the global reach and influence of state ‘medicine’ is employed as a weapon or means of control.

            I cannot abolish anything out there – but I can and do ‘walk away’ from or leave unsupported or disregarded anything that I uncover false in myself as a willingness to align in true. In that sense I feel the ‘medicine’ more in the sense of the strengthening support for life and not the system of manual interventions that override and make dependent upon being managed.

            Living other choices creates new pathways and structures. Fighting old choices is a way of persisting in feeding them.

            Perhaps the last straw is not that which unleashes an eruption, but that which short circuits the persistence of thinking about what we don’t want as the active embrace of what we do. Perhaps we are so engaged in what we don’t want that we cannot find what we truly want – except in terms of what it is NOT?

            I want freedom from coercion – but that is never going to come from needing to changing other people – though of course they are free to do so – and more so perhaps when not feeling unseen, attacked and demanded of?

            But that negatively expressed freedom is really the freedom to love. I want the freedom to know, share and be known in the being of life – and so I recognize I have to give what I would receive. And that means a deeper honesty to my receptive and perceptive capacity.

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          • The law. at present, doesn’t protect from abduction, human experimentation fraud, violence, etc., done by the “mental health” system. No, “mental health” law permits all of those otherwise criminal activities to go on unchecked if perpetuated by the “mental health” system.

            No person acting alone can abolish anything, but by joining together, acting in unison and solidarity I think it would be possible to throw off the yoke of this horrid social control system, with it’s threat to the innate creativity and freedom of people everywhere, and thus strike a much needed blow for freedom, and the accountability that goes along with that freedom.

            There is a bit of a divide between one’s personal private life and one’s public persona. I do think an effort has to be made to change the hearts and minds of the world if we are ever to attain, on a much wider scale, this freedom to love you speak about. Standing in the way is what makes the “mental health” system operate actually, one’s legally sanctioned freedom to hate. The freedom of some people is resented by a large number of other people, and therefore you have the “mental health” system.

            How does this oppression come to be? Invalidation and scapegoating starts in the family, continues in the schools, flows out into the streets, infects places of business, and is even maintained by the state with it’s own, all too often ignored, forms of violence. Just as people of color fight against the oppression and discrimination they face, we need to learn to fight a very similar oppression that is directed against people who are different from your run of the mill corporate automatons.

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          • to Frank Blankenship below;

            Lawlessness of corrupted law calls for correction.
            Is the intent to abolish the root of thought disorder? No one CAN act alone, but the wish for and belief in self-autonomy IS the idea of ‘separateness’ as salvation, power and protection from feared Self.

            Separated fragments seek to join together for power, but integrated wholes are ALREADY joined. The motivation for reintegration to Self is not any attempt to get power or wield it to force change upon others or world. But the always changing world reflects an integrated or disintegrated meaning according to the purpose you accept and therefore share. But the ‘get’ of power is not truly shared, for getting is not receiving or giving but ‘self-special or self-apart’.

            So while I understand your desire to correct a system that is blind to its false foundations and destructive outcomes, I see the need for uncovering true foundation and giving witness to integrative or healing outcomes, rather than focussing upon error as the justification for outrage in hurt, hate and vengeance.

            Can the hateful extend the witness that ‘changes hearts and minds’ or rather, extends the love and worth that wakes them from the false allegiance?

            Acting as a combination of alone-nesses is still a dis-integrity to the quality of love as integrated and unified purpose and desire. But it can be a very persuasive illusion by which to successfully evade a true intimacy – or the self-honesty of recognizing intimacy as associated with the root of fear.

            I am in support of being the change, and this can share many of the forms of fighting for change – but the purpose is rooted in being and not in reaction to grievance. Shallow roots are easily uprooted, manipulated and conflicted. Opening to true is not apart from living this day well, in the moment of its being. The ‘mind’ can make model-mappings of reality and get lost in them as if to go out of true being.
            No one can leave the Mind that created them. True being is not rejecting of all that it is, and this is a wordless knowing of embrace that the rejecting mind ‘mapped out’.
            What if evil is an experience-outcome of a false identification and not an actual presence or power capable of acting alone?

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        • I agree, we know that tolerance and withdrawal DO happen, and I think the evidence for the basic general process you describe is pretty good. But I don’t think we fully understand what is going on. At best, we “kinda” know.

          For instance: Why does re-starting the drug relieve withdrawal symptoms in some cases — and utterly, completely fail in others? Why does upping the dose work temporarily sometimes, as with opioids, but only make things worse in others? Why do some of these imbalances resolve with time, while others never do–and why does it vary so much even with the same drug in different individuals?

          I know it sounds like I’m nit-picking, but I don’t think I am. Our situation would be a LOT less dangerous if we really did understand all the mechanisms here. Knowing what we DON’T understand helps make it clear why we should not tolerate doctors screwing around with processes that are still largely a mystery to us, like bored teenage boys out behind the garage trying to make stuff explode. Folks get hurt that way!

          But yeah, in one way at least you are right: We DO know enough to be extremely suspicious of any strategy involving “maintenance” or “lifetime” medication. Chances are excellent it will blow up in your face.

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        • As I see it the theorist ‘sees’ a situation in terms of chemical imbalance and then the technician makes it true by the ‘treatment’ (that various parties profit from and also gain power by). The desensitised or oversensitized brain symptom is then assigned to further development of the ‘illness’, requiring further ‘treatment’. And the rebalancing and regenerating process of no longer manipulating such sensitivities is extremely challenging, though I sense for some – a few – it facilitates a crash course in self-knowledge.

          In regard to ‘abolishing psychiatry’ I recalled the very short story by Ursula Le Guin; “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (4 pages) google or

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  10. Thank you for your article. I am new to this website and educating myself on the psychiatric survivor movement. I have been learning so much from writings like yours and the comments section as well. I very much wish that alternative options were more accessible to those choosing to seek support and I pray that psychiatric abuse will end. That being said, I hope this is the appropriate place to post this but there is a petition on change.org for funding of Peer respite here: https://www.change.org/p/king-county-council-chair-joe-mcdermott-fund-peer-respites-in-king-county?j=404050&sfmc_sub=1401606901&l=32_HTML&u=65047422&mid=7233052&jb=48112. It is on MIA’s website at the bottom in case anyone missed it and felt called to sign it. Again I am new to this site and I hope it’s appropriate to call further attention to this petition but if not I apologize in advance. Thanks again to you for your article and to the commenters. There is so much insight here and I find it very inspirational. <3

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  11. Thoughtful article. It’s worth noting that although Robin Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, an autopsy found that he had Lewy body dementia. His wife wrote a long and fascinating article about Williams and his illness. It impacted not only his creativity, but his quality of life in general.

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  12. We live in a culture of competence, ability, achievement, excellence, responsibility, etc. It matters how good we are at doing something. What has happened, however, is that these things, no matter how good they are, have become the foundation of our mental state, our foundation in life. We get fed this story of doing our best from when we are little, and it’s become the principle story. The other story, of our unconditional value and worth, comes in second place. Whatever we do, we are going to be compared and scored and classified. In my opinion, the spirit of competition has become so ingrained in almost everything, it’s making us sick, even some of those who excel.

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    • DFK,
      Well said. Fully agree. The culture of competition at all costs is toxic because it falsely sets up perfectionist attitudes which crush the human spirit. None of us us perfect. Very few people “are the best” at anything. If aren’t “successful” in life, we are also blamed for “not working hard enough” or whatever. It’s probably one reason Americans, and Westerners in general, aren’t terribly happy, despite our relative wealthy to developing countries.

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      • Don’t forget the “happy happy joy joy” culture that views not feeling AWESOME 100% of the time as a disease or else some shameful character defect. This is the only explanation I can think of for why people tout their chronic unhappiness as a “brain disease” as though they need an excuse for crying out loud.

        “Please excuse Jane from being happy all the time. If you see her not grinning from ear to ear it’s her brain disease. Not her fault.

        Dr. Smith.”

        I read articles by people “diagnosed” with depression and wonder why they feel like they need a medical excuse for not feeling ecstatic all the time. As someone who can easily point out the negatives (accurately I might add) I say I don’t NEED a freakin’ brain disease to justify my ability to point out that the glass is half empty as well as half full!

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  13. David Foster Wallace died bc of his ingestion of psychiatric drugs, severe withdrawal, more toxic psych drugs, and brain damage from ECT that impaired his ability to think and write.
    Psychiatry is all about “first do harm and then do more harm to try to fix the first harm”.

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    • Truth,

      We really don’t know what killed DFW. All those factors you mentioned probably did contribute to his early death, but we just don’t know. Like the article states, there are many reasons people die by suicide. It’s difficult to know for sure but we can make reasonable theories that his “treatment” played a large role in his behaviors. Clearly ECT and psych drugs did not help him to “feel better”.

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        • Correlation and causation are two different concepts. Maybe DFW’s mental makeup or personality lead to his suicide? Should we blame his domestic abuse on psych drugs or ECT? Maybe he was just an abusive, egomaniacal, controlling jerk towards women because he felt entitled to have what he wanted? We will never know these answers, but no doubt people will focus on “the facts” that fit their worldview. Maybe he couldn’t accept that he couldn’t be a brilliant writer all the time because he was a perfectionist? It’s all speculation.

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  14. “No one in their right mind would ever take their own life.”

    Well, I will say that this is bull feces. I believe that most people who take their own lives are in their right minds. I have always stated that “mental illness” did not cause me to try and take my life. I tried three times and came very close to accomplishing my objective one of those times. But I was very much in my right mind. I was tired of dealing with overwhelming losses that came one right after another, week after week and month after month. I wanted the pain that I experienced from so many losses to stop and the one sure way of stopping it was to kill myself.

    I agree with the author that the two responses about why people kill themselves are bologna (the “nobody understands” excuse and the one that the person is “mentally ill” excuse). It may take some time to do so, but if you truly look at what was going on in the life of the person before they killed themselves you probably might just put together some pretty good ideas why they did what they did.

    What I did find very interesting in dealing with the clinicians, therapists, and staff in the places where I was “treated” for my supposed “mental illness” was that they absolutely refused to listen to my explanation as to why I tried to kill myself. It made them very uncomfortable and they would stop me from trying to explain. It was not of any great importance to them and they refused to hear me out. After all, they had all the answers. I had a chemical imbalance which made me want to take my life and I obviously needed “antidepressants”, which they quickly forced me to take. And in fact, taking “antidepressants” was one of the very big things that sent me over the edge in the first place.

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    • Hi Stephen, l always enjoy reading your comments, in your capacity to be emotionally honest and seek to uncover and reveal the subconscious processes involved in our human motivations.

      And in my opinion the venerated experts could not afford to listen to you and be awoken from the language created delusion that the recognition of words and numbers, is a an depth recognition of reality as it is.

      While paradoxically the well intentioned stance against the ongoing medicalization of life’s experience, taken by this community, maintains the status quo, by presenting opinion that simply polarizes the mental health debate.

      There is a great interview on Will Hall’s podcast about the open dialogue method of healing first episode psychosis. Asked if this approach will take root in America, the other person makes a telling comment about culture.

      “There is an ability to be more emotionally honest in other cultures.”

      My question to Megan about an inborn impulse to the act of suicide, comes from my reading and experiential integration of The Polyvagal Theory, understanding of the subconscious structure and function of my nervous system.

      Yet, in the stick to the script, mentality of the MIA community, such introduction of anything new into this echo chamber environment is greeted with wary suspicions, and gaslighted or white-anted.

      One even gets accused of being a fifth-columnist, sent in to undermine the faith.

      And is that belief, a true perception or an expression of paranoia, l ask you and other more balanced members of this community.

      Again, l really appreciate your authentic effort to be more emotionally honest than most people can manage.

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  15. I have no doubt that a writer’s inability to write would cause suicide. Go sit in on a discussion between MFA in Creative Writing students. If there’s anything worse than death to a writer it is inability to write.

    When I graduated, though I was scarcely aware of it, I took on a silent oath. That I would write about everything I had seen and heard, much of which happened on the wards. For doing just that I was persecuted and forced into exile.

    Drugging and shock are great ways to silence writers. It is on par with banning their books or bullying them or threatening until they stop.

    I believe it is the week after next we celebrate Banned Books Week. I’m trying to figure out how to celebrate.

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    • Didn’t Hemingway end up taking his own life because he’d been subjected to shock “treatments” and it destroyed his ability to write? So much for the “good treatment” that was perpetrated on him.

      I’m driven to write each and every morning from 3-5AM in my Journal but I know that this is nothing compared to what true writers experience. I suspect that true writers are totally driven to write and to not be able to do so is horrendous. It’s like torture to not be able to write.

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  16. Actually in the world and all of its history there is always the tension between artist and systems. Dante was forced into exile. Kit Marlowe was killed.
    There are between the lines stories of many artists some mentioned here in this comment area. The more brilliant one is and wide seeing the more trouble an artist walks into. Stalin and his regime was very unkind to artists. How Boris Pasternak survived and his work broke free is another between the line tangle of story.
    Here in my area one has to play the game to survive. There is no room or even an iota of space for other nonsporoved opinions. One pretends and pretends or is hauled off or worse.
    Some are doubly or tripley unlucky with being an artist from less privelege and or othered classifications. DFW was white and male as were others. I am reminded of the play title “ For Colored Girls…….” Nina Simone and others who tangled and were tangled into knots. Tied so tight – ever after the trauma bound times by docs or other officials refused solace or comfort. And some -many lost their lives. And art dies.
    I once was in a educational parent council for parents of kids with “needs”
    Made it to possibly two meetings – childcare issues.
    Some of the women – and they were all women- were really interesting and I would – had there been childcare provided or help from the school district to continue on.
    However, there was a Mom I thought was great. A few weeks after it turns out she was abused and killed by some young men, Layers just layers of trauma here- whirlpools.
    From reading the accounts – it seems they had seen her daughter and scoped her out as victim. She must of sensed it and went to get car alone. She was abducted and my best guess is she refused to tell the offenders the location of her daughter and they killed her.
    To this day no one from the Parent Council ever did anything to honor or even understand what she did. I was aware because I worked with offenders in the court system in one of the many jobs before terteriary,secondary, and primary trauma and life as I live coincided. And the art I thought I could do and share is not a possibility.
    This could have been, this woman’s life could have been used to understand not only trauma but how humans lose the ability to care and have empathy for others. My guess is those offenders had hortirific stories of their own. And sometimes trauma can cause the choice towards awfulness and a life of awfulness until death. Poor or wealthy.
    We talk of suicide but that is a stillpoint or ending. It is an end cause and the various why’s are deep and wide. My guess is in that family relatives have thought of ending it all- the ripple affect.
    Writing about suicide doesn’t really help. Writing about the why of the whole so called helping world does a bit more. Callling out the acts of human bravery or kindness sheds light in a very dark world. Artist can feel the flow of the cold and or warm currents – see the stains in the water or the affect of sunlight on a calm dawn beach. We also tell uncomfortable truths or see them and live with them in the prison that we all share -the human mind.
    I request that if you read this comment offer up a moment of silence to this mom I knew for a brief shing hour or two. Do something for another person today- do something more than just common.
    Work on art or help or forgive someone and or maybe yourself.
    Cry for the hurting males who killed her perhaps. They were not born that way- they were made by our common nightmare human inhumanity to other humans. I have no doubt.
    And then can we break these chains we all have tied around ourselves? And just move out and beyond ourselves.
    In her honor I will be retiring my Catnight name
    Next time it will be my own name and damn the consequences- it can’t get any worse I have lived through it all and am still here.
    Best to all- Mary O’Malley psych survivor seclusion…….. all of it – and retired LISW with twenty years experience in trauma issues.

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  17. The usual psychobabble is that people who are suicidal cannot see the forest through the trees. Is this true? Or do they see the grim reality of the forest in a way others around them fail to see?

    I recall an article about a vet who took his own life. He left a detailed note. The Vet services all failed him. He lists them one by one in the note and states that each one of them could have helped but refused to. He was in dire financial straits and was unable to get help for physical issues or trauma trying any way he could. His note sent a very clear message to the VA.

    He also made a clear statement about the various “help” agencies out there that never provide help. I have noticed that the nonprofits have sold out. Many are funded by sources that would surely create a biased atmosphere for anyone seeking help.

    One I noticed was a rape help agency I had gone to in 2008. They did help me then, gave me advice, etc. However, when I contacted them again the only thing they seemed capable of doing was insulting me over the phone with the usual breathing instructions.

    This ain’t help, it is insulting! I find it especially insulting when someone decades younger than me thinks they know how to breathe better.

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  18. Unable to LogIn on any other name.
    There was much non help in the past and currently. Luck of the draw. As in any maladaptive system there are always people who try to do their best and try to have a high standard. Then there are the others and more others.
    In sex offender training we had a video of a nurse in a children’s hospital who admitted to abusing kids with severe neuro issues precisely because – they wouldn’t tell.
    So at various times there would be winds, waves, of truth BUT NOT FOR LONG.
    This was before sex abuse really came out just at the beginning edge- the system folks didn’t want to deal with it and it still lies buried.
    There is the buried abuse of all kinds from sides on the floor – poorly trained, working just to survive with their own issues that they try hard to keep under roots and up the ladder. The worse for me is the administrators who don’t go on the floors, who make money pushing papers and are wined and dined by big Pharma.
    As a lowly medical social worker, I was dined ie lunch/ one time and never ever again I refused even Christmas gifts. Oh and there was one free baseball game and lunch for the Mental Health Center Staff. One time.
    Beer rounds on Friday afternoons for all the residents- it’s a story in and of itself. From pens, to fridge magnets, to Rum. Similar to the 1776 musical song-
    From Bibles to Rum to Slaves. YouTube it and insert the words nouns if your choice.
    I am truly sorry to you and all.I went in to change the system and became woefully victim of it.
    I did do some neat things. Out of the box but still stuff happened and the memories are part of the life I live now because no way to break them through formal or informal means. And who am I?
    Too many life experiences and any wisdom I did have or gifts lost.
    Again my apologies to those hurt.
    Nothing can take back the time or memories- in a truly just and or merciful world there would be a formal written apology, listening and grieving time, and some sort of compensation. Unfornately, I know of no Time Machine and the taking off if the masks and stopping if the dances st The Net and pleasure resorts seemingly will never happen.
    Make a list of those you have lost and send it to the CEO’s and CFO’s of Oharma and for profit psych hospitals and private prisons and juvenile detention or treatment centers.
    Send it to your local County MH board and DD board. The abuse and corruption is spread and anyone who is disabled is at risk for lowly or the worst high level Perps.
    Also the artists need to wake up. They fell in line and look what had happened. Just like me.

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    • Rachel777 – he did not choose to embrace a life in which he could no longer do what he loved in the way that he loved. Many lose what they love and perhaps live on in loss, bitterness and unwillingness to embrace what is – in its own terms – but see only a world that denies them or reflects back loss.
      It is said that one cant teach an old dog new tricks and this generally holds true. To ‘die’ in life to what was and ‘reincarnate’ in what is here to engage and embrace – is hardly comfortable and so we either wait to die or use death as the door out of pain and pain of loss.
      After losing my eldest the family was in great distress for some time. My second eldest is ‘handicapped’ in various ways that include her mind, but at one point she said very directly, “we didn’t want Ellie to die but she did”. This – if you can hear it – goes to the heart we invest in this life in the world.
      When what we deeply and truly want is cut, broken shattered – WE feel cut broken and shattered.
      ‘You cant always get what you want’ – in the way that you want it – but ‘his true love has flown into every flower grown’. This is to say that I see that we are in some sense being weaned of attachment to the forms or conditionality in which our love is set, as part of re-opening to a more embracing underlying truth. In my sense of life, no willingness is wasted and experience is in its time and timing, healed or released to an embrace. I believe it may also be that we can try to bite off more than we can chew. No one can judge the life or choices of another. Even if we are think that we can and believe it.

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  19. Johanna, I saw your comment that mentioned “imbalances” but I cannot find it here posted in the comments section. While there is much we do not know, we do know that the “chemical imbalance” theory of so-called MI has been debunked ages ago. We do know that there’s an imbalance called hypothyroidism, one called dehydration, another involving blood sugar, etc. We also know for sure that these psych drugs cause imbalances, never mind irreparable organ damage and early death.

    When you mentioned that ‘imbalances resolve,” I wonder what the heck there was to resolve chemically in me except the imbalance caused by the drugs.

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  20. For what it’s worth, Van Gogh did not undergo psychiatric treatment, had a rough life and decided to kill himself anyhow.

    The inconsistency of psychiatry’s advocates should be pointed out though. If someone commits suicide after leaving the system they argue that it happened “because” they left.

    At least as many of the suicides committed by the “SMI” occur while they’re undergoing “treatments.” The psych advocates will conveniently say this was “in spite of” all the help the SMI received.

    I did not become fully suicidal till after a year of 10 mg of Haldol and Stellazine that made me seize uncontrollably and killed all my positive emotions and crushed my ability to think straight. Being maligned and stigmatized in the eyes of all my family and friends as an evil, dangerous lunatic–kicked out of school–alienated like Gregor Sampsa did not help.

    I say I have stayed alive in spite of the psychiatric “help” I endured. I received life saving help–but not from psychiatry. Hence I call myself a psychiatric survivor

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  21. Dear Megan:

    I liked this article. Thank you for contributing. As a cradle to grave Episcopalian, I am particularly keen to see religious leaders calling for a more honest dialogue about this topic, rather than the usual call for ‘more treatment’ I read your article entitled: “My first guest post for Women in Theology: An Introduction to Mental Illness in a Theological Context” and I really liked it. Any chance you might contribute a piece to Mad in America about the failure of liberal Protestant churches to deal honesty with mental and emotional pain? Church leaders (with the exception of Evangelical or charismatic churches) have been basically outsourcing all spiritual emergencies and distress to medical professionals for half a century with dismal outcomes.

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    • Dear Madmom, I was once a member of a UU church. One day, I got totally fed up and decided to write to a higher-up about my own minister’s unfair treatment of diagnosees at our church. I was writing on behalf of all diagnosees, and not only us, but on behalf of others he had treated in bigoted fashion. I really thought the email had gone nowhere, as the higher-up wrote to me saying that she could do nothing and that if anything were to be done it would have to be solved in-house. I assumed it had stopped right there. However, it must have gotten straight back to the church. This was over New Year’s, the beginning of 2014.

      On January 10th, I was coming home from a protest in Boston. It was around 3pm when I was dropped off by my friends. Ten minutes after my arrival home, I heard a loud knock on my apartment door. There was a lady cop, who was the cop social worker, and two church people who were committee members. They accused me of planning to kill the minister! Where did they get that insane idea?

      I told them I had no such plans! I told them I was shocked and didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Where was the evidence of this, I said. No warrant, no paperwork, just standing there accusing me of future dangerousness, and seeming to try to get a confession out of me, or try to get me to fork up some weapons, which I clearly stated I did not have! I am five foot one, and couldn’t see too well. Why were they accusing little ole me?

      They claimed I had written something on a public website. I said this was a false accusation and told them I had not written anything on a public church website. Maybe they had the wrong person. I was so, so scared. What right did they have to terrorize me like that?

      They told me I could come back to church, SO LONG AS I DID NOT WRITE ANYMORE. I told them no thanks, I would like to retain my Freedom of Speech and Expression, which is rightfully mine and always was. Conditional church membership? Never heard of that in the UU Principles, I said. Then they said this little visit was “off the record,” that they weren’t telling anyone else at church. Oh great, now I’ll be called crazy if I ever mention it to anyone else. Was it also off the police record, too? Was this cop threatening me on the side? Maybe paid by them to do this? I never found out.

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      • Julie – this is shocking!

        One of the first “Unitarian Universalist songs” I learned was this.

        “Oh we’re Unitarians and we don’t believe in sin
        We won’t chastise or criticise – we’ll only let you in!”

        So – they may not believe in sin, but they sure do believe in the sin of “broken brain!”

        I’m sorry for what you went through.

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    • At the risk of repeating myself, it is not the responsibility of critics to present evidence that inducing a grand mal seizure through electrocution damages one’s brain. It is the responsibility of those claiming therapeutic effects to prove that inducing a grand mal seizure through electrocution does NOT damage one’s brain. We all know that seizures are dangerous and can produce brain damage, which is why people with seizure disorders are immediately put on anti-seizure drugs. Why would we imagine that an intentionally-induced seizure would somehow NOT create brain damage?

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      • I’m sorry you have, what seems like, some anger towards ECT as a therapy itself. The word “seizure” seems to hold particular weight for you as well. Especially in medicine, it’s important to note evidence. Why was that a problem for you?

        No one should be forced to undergo ECT. That should be the discretion of the individual, upon “prescription”.

        In fact, ECT saved my own life. It gave my brain the reset it needed during a mental health crisis. I have felt absolutely zero damage from ECT on my own brain; it actually gave me the first initial domino – the ability to sleep – from which other brain and life changes occurred for me. My brain is currently as healthy as it’s ever been, and ECT played a significant role in that, among many other therapies like CBT, exercise, mindfulness, nutrition, sleep, and social relationships.

        Here’s a link to more information about ECT: https://www.dartmouth-hitchcock.org/psychiatry/electroconvulsive-therapy-ect.html

        As with any treatment, there can be negative side effects. However, the simple request for neurobiological evidence of how ECT damages one’s brain still remains. The article was excellent, but I found the blanket statement that “ECT, even without interacting with other medications, damages the brain” to be a rather incomplete statement. I was on 5 medications (Zoloft, Risperdal, Ativan, Trazodone, and Melatonin) when I received 6 treatments of ECT. That was the beginning of my brain’s way of healing.

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        • I say “seizure” because that is exactly what ECT does. This question is not in the slightest dispute, even amongst the most fervent supporters. The very idea, as I recall, came because they found that people hospitalized for psychotic episodes were less psychotic after having a seizure. They used to induce seizures by drugs like Metroconazole (I think). The whole point of ECT is to induce a seizure.

          I am not “angry” at ECT – I am angry at psychiatry for pretending they don’t know what the limitations and dangers of ECT really are. I’m glad you found it helpful. But I can’t allow the claim that no one has proven that ECT does damage to the brain stand. It is a basic tenet of science that the person making a claim is responsible for proving the claim – the “null hypothesis” (that there IS no effect) is assumed true until proven otherwise. If you’re trying to prove something has a positive effect, the assumption is that it does not, until proven otherwise. If you’re trying to prove that something which reason would suggest is unsafe is safe, the assumption is that it is NOT safe until proven otherwise by the data. Otherwise, I can claim that “cars are run by angels” or that “sleeping in the rain without a coat at 35 degrees F is safe” and you’d have to prove that cars are NOT run by angels, or that sleeping outdoors in a 35 degree rainstorm without a coat is unhealthy. In the case of ECT, reason would suggest that a grand mal seizure is dangerous, so it’s the promotor of ECT who has to prove it is not.

          The smoking industry and drug manufacturers in general apply the reverse approach – they say, “No one can prove that cigarettes cause cancer. We don’t have to say it can until someone proves it does.” As you can see, this is not “science,” it’s a form of marketing, and the same kind of BS marketing has been done in favor of ECT.

          The following article may illustrate my points:


          As you can see, ECT induces seizures, and there IS evidence of brain damage. But again, it is not the job of critics to prove it ISN’T safe, it is psychiatry’s job to prove that, despite the logical conclusion that seizures can and do induce brain damage, the process of ECT somehow is exempt from this general expectation.

          As you can see below, no one in the medical field outside of psychiatry pretends that seizures are not potentially dangerous to the brain. Why ECT should magically be different is theirs to prove, and they have not even attempted to do so. They just say it isn’t and dare others to prove them wrong, just as the cigarette manufacturers did for decades.


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          • Thanks for the response Steve.

            So, I’ve read through the comments a couple times….I can’t find where there was an actual claim made that “no one has proven that ECT does damage to the brain”. In your words: “But I can’t allow the claim that no one has proven that ECT does damage to the brain stand”. I just asked for some evidence because an initial claim was made in the article (which, on the whole, was excellent). It appears you assumed I was making a claim when I just asked for evidence of ECT damaging the brain. That’s important to distinguish. And if that evidence is all over the place, it should be pretty easy to come up with. Evidence, scientific evidence, that I’m speaking about here does not include storytelling; it means statistics. Additionally, seizures are often not dangerous at all (Obviously, I’m not saying that all seizures are safe, either). From Epilepsy Foundation: “Most seizures end on their own and don’t cause serious problems”.


            I bring up these non-ECT seizures because you repeatedly invoke them (seizures) to make the point of their danger and damage, including during ECT.

            Thank you for the link to the Nature letter to the editor. It’s not an actual peer reviewed journal article, though, it’s a letter someone wrote. So, not the same as an article actually published in Nature. Also, it was published 20 years ago. I received treatment 5 years ago. Protocols change over time. There are no doubt very scary cases of lobotomy and electroshock decades ago that severely damaged humans. I’m not speaking about that type of ‘therapy’ (it wasn’t); I’m pointing towards the current-day use of ECT.

            All in all, the letter is still very important to read through.

            From the letter: “This ‘cure’ for depression requires this procedure to be repeated 10–20 times over a week or so”. I received 3 treatments a week, for 2 weeks. So, a total of 6 treatments. As I said, I responded very well to the treatment, and didn’t need any maintenance sessions, as some do. The letter greatly exaggerates the frequency of treatment, in my case by upwards of 600%.

            From the letter: “And when you talk to a friend who has been so treated and discover that a year later she is still experiencing huge gaps in recall of major life events, you begin to worry.” Memory loss is a potential side effect of the treatment. It definitely happens to some people. It did not happen to me. I remember very clearly major life events, including those surrounding the treatment.

            From the letter: “Finally you discover that ECT’s benefit is only temporary, so that many psychiatrists administer it chronically”. While it’s true that some individuals have to go back for maintenance therapy, many only need the minimum of 6 – 12 sessions. I received 6 total, and that’s it. For me, the benefit has lasted 5 years.

            I read through the second article that you linked. Here’s it’s purpose: “To explore the relation between seizure-related variables and cognitive change in patients with severe intractable epilepsy”. Any conclusions about damage to the brain refer to epileptic seizures, not those induced by ECT. Are you saying that seizures in epilepsy are the same as seizures during ECT?

            Here’s some baseline data and information on the safety and mechanisms of ECT from a similar organizational body from which you provided evidence: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538266/

            You can get to the point by reading the first and last paragraphs, there’s also some detail about all the risk factors – as with any treatment undergoing anesthesia – and potential therapeutic pathways.

            A shorter, easier read:
            It’s clear here that ECT isn’t risk-free, obviously, but that it’s dangers are largely overstated.

            Let me know what you think!!

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          • I guess it depends who is stating the dangers. It may be that detractors overstate the risks, but it is clear to me that the psychiatric profession understates them, to the point of violating their own ethics of “informed consent.”

            Again, I’m glad that it worked well for you. But I have talked to many people whose lives were destroyed or severely damaged by ECT. My point is that it makes logical sense that since seizures can and do cause brain damage, ECT would pose a risk of brain damage. It is the responsibility of psychiatry to evaluate this risk, or else acknowledge that the risk exists. This does not appear to be happening with the people I’ve talked to or read about.

            Notwithstanding that scientific reality, there is plenty of evidence that brain damage can and does occur as a regular effect of ECT. The existence of such evidence should in itself be sufficient to insist on a serious warning that this is a significant danger.

            From one internet search:


            http://www.ectresources.org/ECTscience/Templer_1992__AAA__Permanent_brain_damage___Overview___Controversy___Worse_with_pre-existing_brain_damage_.pdf (this is a very pro-ECT article which identifies long-term memory loss and brain damage in a significant number of cases)


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        • @wonnell, have you considered that your “mental health crisis” may have been exacerbated by all those drugs you were on? And that the ECT just “mellowed it all out” a bit?

          Ativan = depressing. Zoloft, Risperdal, Trazadone = can induce akathisia, an internal restlessness that is difficult to quell. All of these drugs mess with hormones, endocrine, digestion, and sexual function. They don’t go straight to your brain, but affect many systems. The longer you are on them, the more difficult it is to “control your mood” and other weird health affects may come into play. Additionally, the longer you are on them, they may “poop out” which is likely how you ended up on this complex cocktail to begin with.

          “Mental health crisis” = the more I think about this, the more I feel it isn’t about our brains **at** **all**!!!! It’s about the ability to regulate emotions. Sometimes when we are children, emotional states serve us in order to survive, but when we reach adulthood, they no longer support and serve (quite the opposite). Bottom line: only *I* can regulate my emotional state – drugs and shocks can numb it out – but only I can actually regulate it.

          http://www.survivingantidepressants.org – a site to help people taper safely off of psych drugs.

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          • Thanks JanCarol for commenting. So no, the crisis was not exacerbated by those drugs. I wasn’t on any prescribed medication at the time. Those drugs were given to me during inpatient therapy after the crisis, at the same time I was given ECT, by request. I was suicidal and desperate for anything that would work. ECT was the spark to reset my brain. In no way did it mellow anything out; quite the opposite, it reawakened me.

            I was very fortunate in that I was on those drugs for a relatively short period of time. I weened off them all in a span of 8 months, one drug at a time. They were replaced with sleep, exercise, MBCT, nutrition, and social relationships. I was also very lucky to have a supportive family.

            You make an excellent point about emotional regulation. At the end of the day, I had the goal to be medication free because I wanted to know that it was all “me”. A daily meditation practice is huge in this regard. There is still some importance for the neurobiology of the brain, though, and ECT really helped me in that regard because it precipitated the first solid sleep immediately after my first session that I had in months. It gave me hope and confidence that my brain was not permanently damaged from my prior behavior. So, the story of ECT in my life is that it saved my life.

            Learning how to emotionally regulate from a young age would do so much to mitigate against destructive mental health issues around the world.

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