I had to be at a court hearing recently that took place in the state psychiatric hospital, and just being inside the place made me think of the wards themselves and, more particularly, of the windows you see on a psych ward.
One of the few outlets for relief from the monotony of a psych ward is the windows. There aren’t all that many windows in most psych wards I’ve been on, but the few windows that there have been drew certain groups of inmates like flies. The inmates would circle up and down the hallways (as though they were out for an endless stroll) and with each lap up and down the hallways they would pass the windows and they would occasionally stop to look for a while at what was happening in the outside world. Right there by the windows might be the only spot to get sunshine in the whole place, so it draws people. It draws some people so much that they may drag one of the big stuffy chairs out of the high visual area in front of the nurse’s station and haul it however far it is to the window and park it right there, where they sit down in the sunshine and maybe even take a nap, taking up space that two or three inmates might stand in to enjoy the sunshine. No one much likes these monopolizers, who tend to be tone deaf about others’ needs, but they take over simply for lack of anyone to oppose them, and of course once they take up their place there is really no way to dislodge them.
I thought of these window monopolizers in relation to something that I expected to see in the courtroom today. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time, though you don’t hear about it: the routine distortion of what and why the “patient” (me) did what he did. The hearing itself was held to determine whether my “conditional discharge” from the state psychiatric “hospital” should be extended or not. That’s what my state calls it when you are released from the state psychiatric hospital and put on Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), also known as Civil Outpatient Commitment, which means that you are forced to join a “community mental health center” and attend their useless little therapy sessions and waste your time talking with their useless little bureaucrats and filling out lots of useless little papers. But the drain on your time is not the really important thing. The really important thing is that you are forced to take whatever ineffective, lethal and debilitating drugs they feel disposed to require of you that day, and compliance with this is expected of you if you want to stay out of the hospital and be left to live in some kind of peace. The hearing was being held to determine whether I would still be expected to live in accordance with these requirements.
So at this hearing, my psychologist/counselor from the “community mental health center” that has the contract on my life — an institution that I loathe with every fiber of my being — was on the stand. Now, I like my counselor well enough as a human being, even if his professional presence in my life has virtually zero impact. Any dislike I have for him is related purely to his employers — to the “community mental health center” that he works for and that pretends it is somehow helpful or effective in overseeing my life while in reality it is a nuisance at best and a potential source of my imprisonment, drugging, and early demise at worst. So while I don’t have a problem with him personally, I am annoyed by my counselor’s presence in my life. People say, “What’s the big deal? You go in, you talk for an hour, you leave.” What they don’t realize is that every minute spent in bondage in this way is a kind of insufferable insult. To be subjected to others’ examination, subjected to the consequences of others’ approval in this way, is to be subjected to the worst kind of humiliation, and it is something that I will not simply shut up about and tolerate.
So, with all that said about the situation, what happened in the courtroom today was that my counselor was on the stand, being questioned by the lawyer who represented the hospital and whose job was to make sure that my conditional discharge was continued. In other words, he was looking for dirt on me, and my counselor’s job was to supply it. In response to a question about whether I had had any problems with substance use (which I consider to be none of their business or, for that matter, anyone else’s) he said that there had been “an incident with a candle.”
Immediately, a host of images entered my mind: a man, drunk, falling down, knocking over a candle as he falls, the rug or a curtain set on fire. And I know that everyone else in the courtroom sees the same sort of thing, one way or the other, in their mind’s eye.
But really? “An incident with a candle”? Even though I had been expecting problems, I have to admit that I hadn’t been expecting precisely this. And why is that? Well, if for no other reason than because there has never been an incident with a candle. I mean, what incident? I only have three or four candles, and you can see by the dust that lines the tops of them that they haven’t been lighted in years. So what could this “incident” possibly have been? The lawyer didn’t ask what it was and my counselor didn’t expand on his answer. We were all left to imagine whatever our imaginations might conjure up in the way of what this “incident with a candle” might have been.
So I have no idea where this idea of my counselor’s comes from, but now it is enshrined in everyone’s mind. It is so vague and so general that it could mean anything — “an incident with a candle.” It is the mystery of it that makes it compelling (“But what was the incident?” “Shhh, they’re talking!”). It would be harmless, except that this is testimony that went into the judge’s ears and into the record — not for a moment, but permanently. It is the kind of routine distortion or outright falsehood about what one has done that I had known to be on my guard against, especially because it sounds so plausible coming from this reasonable, soft-spoken man. They have taken hold of the narrative and defined who I am: a drunk and crazy fire hazard. Obviously I need supervision.
I have to sit there in silence while I am depicted this way. It will be my word against a professional’s once again, even though it should be obvious by now that I know more about my own experience than any professional does. It fills me with a kind of outrage that just expands and expands and expands until I am practically foaming at the mouth and I can barely keep myself in my seat.
It makes you understand why you are required to sit in silence in court while someone else is testifying. If my silence wasn’t required, and if it wouldn’t hopelessly prejudice the case against me, I would be babbling, hissing, shouting — protesting with every resource at my disposal. I would be repeating nonstop how there has never been an incident with a candle and that this whole process is filled up with lies and misinformation and that it all goes into the record and then it is almost impossible to weed out and it drags down on you for the rest of your life which is something that no one should have to deal with, and I am not going to sit by and watch it happen again. I have had several false reports about me crop up in the past, some of them distantly related to the facts but so distorted that you would hardly recognize the reality if you saw it, and these kinds of caricatures of your behavior, which seem dreamed up by some fantasist who credits every semi-plausible scenario that anyone can whip up out of rumor and speculation, cling stubbornly to the record. Every new person who comes along sees them and repeats them. It all becomes a sort of urban legend that has to be combatted at every turn.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t much care if I look bad, but I since I care about living in the freedom to do and to be whatever I like, it matters when you do. When you are made to look bad in these circumstances, it can change what happens with your whole life. There is someone — a judge — who has been put in the position where they need to be convinced, against all opposition, that you should be released from your conditional discharge. The fewer false assertions that she has to see through about you the better.
So what will the importance of the “incident with a candle” turn out to be?
It’s like other things in your life that are outside your control, things that other people are responsible for putting together — like the reports that are written about my counseling sessions, which are clearly not written by me, in my own words that are carefully chosen to fully and accurately describe my experience, but in hurried sound bites jotted down in a couple of minutes by my counselor, sound bites that serve not to convey what my state of mind really is but that simply to sum up how I fit into his prejudices at this moment, prejudices that I might be judged by for the rest of my life.
In fact, it has the potential to more or less block out my world. Like those inmates who move their chairs in front of the windows and block out the outside world, what these people who make these false statements are doing is blocking my sunshine and my freedom to live in the world as I wish. This is what you always have to watch out for.
Yet one must sit there and say nothing.
The hearing goes on, of course, and I sit there and listen carefully to every distorted word of it. You can’t help picking it all apart. There is the expert testimony, of course. Expert testimony — i.e., psychiatrists — often descends into a sort of parody of itself. For instance, the consulting psychiatrist who has given his report on me after an hour’s interview and a review of my records, says that I have two problems he is concerned about, which of course gets the attention of everyone in the courtroom. The first is that I am very intelligent and articulate (why, thank you!) and the second is that I use my intelligence in service of my own ideas. In other words, he has just convicted me, absent any evidence, of being a freethinker who has the brains to reach his own conclusions and the guts to stand by them. Apparently this makes me unstable, or dangerous, or something — the psychiatrist is careful not to say — and all that matters is that it’s something that the psychiatrist considers a problem.
It is not the fact that I am a freethinker that makes me dangerous, of course; it is simply the fact that I disagree with him. Simply disagreeing with him does not mean that I lack insight into the situation. Being a freethinker is not evidence of instability. But that is the false idea that this psychiatrist wants to get into the record. What is most pathetic about it is that it is the same old cliché about being too smart for your own good, only dressed up in psychiatric language, and the idea is that everyone will hear those words and shake their heads and moan over the difficulty of it all as they take my freedom away. Oh, how they suffer.
That was only the beginning, of course. Expert testimony went on, descending to the most trivial of considerations. Even the most routine and ordinary of ambitions, for instance, was described as “grandiosity” — another so-called “symptom” of so-called “schizophrenia.” And what was the grandiose delusion I had displayed that made the psychiatrist reach this conclusion? In our interview I had said that I might move back to New York city and potentially get a job in publishing and make a hundred thousand dollars a year. In his estimation this made me grandiose. Thankfully, my lawyer, on cross examination, had the presence of mind to ask whether the psychiatrist knew that I actually work in publishing, and to ask him whether he considered one hundred thousand dollars a year in New York city to be an unreasonable wage? (When I lived there, it was practically a poverty wage.) The psychiatrist quietly demurred without admitting to any flaw in his summation of me. And so psychiatry marched on, regardless of the facts, much as it always does.
There is nothing you can do about it except to stand fast and to insist relentlessly that it is wrong until someone realizes that what you say might be true and that others’ reports about you are distorted or mistaken. The problem is that it takes a great leap of faith and a compassionate and open heart for someone to really listen to you and correct the record. It does happen sometimes, even if those times are rare and must be carefully dealt with. The only question is whether you have the stamina to keep fighting back, to keep stating your position when it matters.
There is nothing like having your reputation, your health, and your freedom on the line to teach you the true importance of these considerations.
It takes a while for the true importance of these things to become clear, and though some of them never become clear at all, there are still the moments where one considers what their significance may be. The importance of the incident with the candle, of course, is clear. It is that it never happened, that there is no basis for it in fact, and yet its presence is still with us. People have the image of that candle in their minds, and they imagine the smell of the smoke of it burning, and until someone clears the smoke out of their faces, none of these busybodies will rest. They will swarm over you, and they will never willingly go away.
You have to just keep plugging away at it, just like you did when you paced up and down these hallways, waiting them all out. When you had a chance you stood at the window. During the day, at shift change and lunchtime, workers moved back and forth between their cars and the building, hurrying to make the best use of their time. At night, when the day workers had left, the lights of the empty parking lot lit up everything in the most ghostly of ways. In the half-light, the white-blooming tree seemed to come out of some fantasy world. And you stood and looked out at the freedom that used to be yours, and you wondered how you would ever get it back.
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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