Escaping from AOT: The Importance of the Incident with the Candle

Eric Coates
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1450

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.

27 COMMENTS

  1. After reading this I thought about lighting a candle on behalf of anyone who has experienced anything remotely resembling this but realized if non existent incidents involving candles can be used as a vehicle to violate human rights, I can only imagine what the consequences of my thought might be. In my defense however, my thought included watching 17 1/2 candle lighting safety YouTube tutorials and my dad was there to supervise the entire process but at this point I’m just incriminating myself. All satire of the mental health system aside, thank you for writing this. Very beautifully written. If the thought police ask tell them I just lit a candle on behalf of all psychiatric survivors without the supervision of my father.

  2. Every time I read your latest personal installment I am filled with astounded outrage. What country are you in (though I know I should know by now)?

    You must have a bad — or ill-informed — lawyer, not that this would be a shock, as few lawyers know how challenge the catch-22 nature of the psychiatric system or its deceptive use of the “mental illness” metaphor and its metastases, or how to cross-examine a shrink without accepting the psychiatric narrative as representing a legitimate field of expertise.

    You are totally lucid and your rage totally rational, and I think you are being exceptionally patient.

    I also think that, if people like RW and some of the “progressive” psychiatrists and mh people who write here would directly intervene by contacting his overseers, Eric’s situation might change for the better. Especially if an expose is published (or feared) citing this institution’s name and the way people are sucked up into essentially a torture program.

    As for the candle, I think I would have insisted my lawyer demand an explanation, and in lieu of that would have stood up and politely asked the judge to do so himself.

    the second is that I use my intelligence in service of my own ideas

    I think this means to him that your independent thought, i.e. your “delusions” are harder to invalidate because you have them so well thought out. Otherwise he is accusing you of being a functional human being.

    Do these people read your MIA articles and people’s responses?

  3. I love your articles, especially this one. The anger and extremes of power inside that courtroom were palpable. I’m familiar with that experience you describe of wanting to protest but having to stop yourself to avoid digging the hole deeper. I really hope that things work out for you.

  4. OH,
    I think you know the progressive psychiatrists are not going to intervene. But I like to imagine that Eric’s clarity and composure in reporting what happened on here might help.

    Years ago I had what was to be a series of conversations with a psychiatrist about abuse I had experienced in the system. He told me of horrendous abuse he had witnessed working in the system. I guess it would have been wise to accept the ‘support’, in his response, but instead I felt outraged and kept saying “why didn’t you do anything”?

    I guess I knew the answer, and that strategically, it was probably better for me to keep my outrage to myself, and that maybe it was better to have doctors like him within the system, hopefully doing little things to help patients behind the scenes, and continuing to pay attention, and be grateful for that.

    But I didn’t feel grateful, and part of me is glad that I expressed what I felt about his disclosing cruelty and human rights abuses and expecting one who had been on the receiving end to be grateful and admiring that he was prepared to admit he knew what I was saying about my experiences was true from what he had witnessed.

    I know a single doctor speaking up wouldn’t last long, but we have a situation in which the people with the power to make a difference feeling proud of the fact that they still have enough of a functioning soul to just notice while doing nothing to intervene – that’s not part of a solution, it’s part of the problem. it’s gutless and will always end in complete co-option anyway.

    • Yeah, what to do about the people who complain about all the horrid things they “have to do”?

      I did have an ethical psychotherapist who quit the state institution I was in following an oppressive incident and after that taught her students that the best way to make someone crazy is to put them in a “mental hospital”; such people are the exception but they do exist. Which is why we’re fighting a system, not individuals trapped in it.

      I do think one or two letters from MIA pros could have a valuable effect here.

  5. Eric brilliant piece as usual so many reminders in here for me of how this evil world wide system works, its lies ,fabrication, indifference,manipulation . and abuse of power.And as much as we can all express our sympathy or empathy to you nothing most of us can do to help you in any way. that is the bitter reality you are the person living thru this horror. Earlier today i was reading a uk piece in the guardian by a psychiatrist about how terrible and upset sectioning people makes them feel _ yeh sure!! anyway thinking of you today from the other side of the world with intense admiration for your bravery and eloquence.

  6. Eric. Maybe, when the junior shrink brought up this item about the candle, you should have told the panel that you ate it, and launch into some spiel about why, bringing up some imaginary incident in which you induce your accuser to supply imaginary details of the nonexistent incident, “helping” him remember the imaginary details. Remember- an imaginary incident needs a preposterous explanation and who better to supply it than our man of mental health?

  7. Eric. It just hit me a few minutes after my post. You’d tell the inquisitors you ate the candle because the guy who broached the issue bet you $5 you wouldn’t eat it, and you’re surprised he brought it up at your hearing. Now, if the staff finds this an issue, you can reveal it was one of your scurvy MAD buddies who suggested it, proving it by sending the Men of Psychiatry here to find out for themselves. Best of all, if the accuser denies the Tale of the Candle was real, his argument for keeping you around is gone.

  8. Eric, It is disgusting psychiatrists resort to lies and fabrication to prop up their so-called opinions and their hold on someone’s life. It is difficult to find any lawyer to take a case dealing with psychiatry because the odds are so stacked against justice in these matters, but as I read your blog I thought the same as Oldhead, as in, your lawyer intervened in the validity of your statement about working in publishing in NY so I wondered why your lawyer didn’t ask for an explanation and proof of the alleged “candle incident”? They need to be held accountable for making such an assertion, could you have your lawyer demand the details/proof of the incident they alleged?

  9. The caging process is nearly as unbearable as the “care” you’re subjected to, once you’re locked-down. To have all your liberty erased by a lie is a deep and inexcusable injustice. It’s so easy to perpetrate that terror, and virtually impossible to escape it. An abuse of power is at least comprehensible and, possibly, vulnerable to counteragression. But, outright fraud is an ambush, not the start of a fight. Extreme retribution is the only hope to rectify it.

  10. The community mental health clinics are a joke. They do more damage to people than they ever help. And I believe that the day treatment programs are just a way for them to make money because everyone who is discharged from the state “hospital” where I work are assigned to such treatment programs. Everyone is assigned. These programs meet five days a week from 8 am to 3 pm and are totally useless. And they want to keep you in said programs for months. They just string people along. The only good thing is that they can’t make you attend them unless you are in trouble with the law. Unfortunately, almost everyone these days is in trouble with the law because of the way that the system has arranged things.

  11. Eric, I am so sorry and hope to hear about a positive outcome.
    Stephan G yes the Day Treatment – Old Partial Hospitalization programs are a good example of professional “ babysitting”
    Waste of time for all. I don’t know who was more bored the staff or us clients. Both were cigs in the system.
    Developmental Disability programs at least back in the day had better program planning. But once back in the day some MH Clinics did do more. Depended on staff.
    Also the Green Door Program in DC with the club format. But then was then, this is now and it’s like looking back at former leaders of our country and thinking wow maybe they were better than I thought because the now leaders are beyond reprehensible.

  12. Absurdity and evil often knock elbows. Thank you, Eric Coates, for writing about what you have endured so far. Your way of conveying your experiences and the actions and edifices of others is unique, refreshing, angering-causing, and sadness-causing. Most writings, no matter how heartfelt and truthful, could have been written by any number of authors. Not yours.

    Psychiatrists and their ilk are the perpetrators, but ultimately, we have laws in the US that allow it and guide them on what they can get away with. Law makers have to change before doctors will. FDA too. They’re behind every drug that’s ever harmed anyone. Every device, too.

    Which reminds me of three psychiatrists’ desperate bid to have the entire world submit to a definition of torture that doesn’t include the things they do for a living. Draw up a chair (or just read the letters I’ll try to briefly summarize, which are at this link, starting on page 141: http://antitorture.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/PDF_Torture_in_Healthcare_Publication.pdf ).

    When Jeffrey Lieberman was president of APA, he and two other highly placed psychiatrists wrote to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a lawyer who’d been tortured while imprisoned in Argentina for the crime of providing legal assistance to activists (Juan Mendez). They’d read a sort of white paper he’d produced (with contributions from former “patients” who self-identify as psychiatric survivors, among others, which you can read here: https://www.ohchr.org/documents/hrbodies/hrcouncil/regularsession/session22/a.hrc.22.53_english.pdf ) and

    In the span of ten pages, they told him all about psychiatric practices and how they justify them and included the official positions of the APA on various controversies. They asked him if he could possibly omit from the list of practices that his paper classified as torture or inhumane certain practices that they regard as therapy. They tripped over themselves to communicate with courtesy and to demonstrate their magnanimous natures and love for humanity. That effort came across like Wayne and Garth or Beavis and Butthead, coached by Eddie Haskell, wrote it.

    Mr. Mendez wrote back to say that first of all, the paper they were responding to wasn’t a report on actual or pending UN policy. It was just a meant to represent his views, which are informed by his experience, the experiences of others, and his general knowledge, for the purpose of stimulating discussion. He too was very polite, praising them for the aspects of their 10-page letter (which included 5 pages of point-by-point critique (including helpful suggestions)) that suggested they might be capable of acting on urges that are non-control-freak/sadistic in nature, in some situations. I’m sure they were feeling like he was a bro, a guy they could work with, until they got to his punchline. He wrote: “It seems to me that, in general at least, your associations [APA and WPA] are comfortable with the existing normative framework; if so, yes there is a disagreement between us.”

    Psychiatry’s official organ published some commentary that was, predictably, indicative more of truculence than tractability. Brilliantly, they titled it “UN Report Says Common Psychiatric Practices Amount to ‘Torture’” which is like something out of the Onion, and which will forever show up in Google searches as an informative statement, scare-quotes not withstanding. I guess they didn’t have many options. “Here’s Proof Whole World is Against Us,” while true, sounds even worse. Here’s that: https://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.pn.2014.5a11

    Please forgive any typos or other mistakes. I spent more time than I meant to on this and now I must get on with the day.