Some months ago I was in the hospital. The question of what I’d do once I left came up. My idea was to go to a daytime addictions program. No options were ever mentioned that didn’t involve mental health and addiction. After years in the system, I have no other options.
I was then questioned on whether or not I’d actually make it, and the offer was made to have someone from the system go with me. After weeks in the hospital and years in the system, this type of infantilization was too normal to be noticeable. For most people, if someone offered to hire someone to take a cab with them to work for support or to make sure they got there, they’d probably want to tell them to go where the sun don’t shine. Our choices are only meaningful because we have the option of not following through. Going to the addictions program was my idea but it was taken away from me. Indeed, I almost forgot it was my idea. At least in my life, being infantilized has been far more damaging than violence. Any time something was my own it was taken away.
Due to desperation for something to do I ended up in another program, one that’s supposedly there to increase engagement in the community. Even though I specified I wasn’t interested in being taught coping mechanisms over the phone, this is what we ended up doing. If I say I’m already aware of something, I’m told it must be due to previous counselling. The fact that I could be educated or that much of it could merely be common sense is not considered. Whenever I’m asked what I think, I know that mental health workers plan to argue with whatever I say.
The condescension the system offers us is never-ending (“chronic” in medical terminology). For example, once, after I told an outreach worker that I’m a writer, she asked if I owned any pens and if I needed help filling out a form!
Needless to say, I found no engagement with the community from any of these programs. Psychiatry justifies alienation rather than repairing it. According to psychiatry, one struggles because of illness rather than any societal problem, and being given a team of glorified babysitters doesn’t exactly inspire one to find a new vocation—not to mention all of the abilities lost from psychiatric medications.
The pandemic has forced me to step back from mental health and addictions programs, and this has actually benefited me greatly. I was always told that anything was better than being alone, but it’s sometimes only through being alone that we can find ourselves; only then can we find the courage to see where we belong in the world.
When lockdown started I believed I had gone along with being infantilized for so long that I had no options. I enjoyed being free of the system, but I believed my only option apart from the system was permanent lockdown. Now I realize that the system robbed me of my ability to see options. I believed there was no method for me to meet intelligent people, even though I’m an author. Often I’ve actively been discouraged from doing anything. “Your recovery comes first,” I’m told, or “Who says you need a life?” I don’t even know what recovery is anymore. It appears to be just another way of separating people.
Those who take opiates for pain are not required to take decade-long time-outs, so why am I? I feel like I started off in a kiddie pool and was knocked over with a lifesaver thrown at me.
I know that writing is one thing no one can take away. Editors don’t care what my work history is or how many times I was hospitalized. However, there are times alienation can override the ability to even write. I’m angry because I could’ve done so many things.
Existential dread serves an important purpose. Without the freedom to be miserable, we can’t know happiness. Without freedom, we can’t possibly stop to ask ourselves what we want in life. I’m glad I finally stopped to ask, What now?
Of course, sometimes I’ll want to die. I can’t promise you I won’t do it because then living is no longer a choice. Nietzsche wrote, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” All of these choices are more meaningful than people realize. But they are constantly being removed by people who use the word support like it’s a shield.
Psychiatry as an Identity
Identity is such a key part of what it means to be human, and yet it is the one thing almost always overlooked when people discuss diagnoses.
When I complain about psychiatry, people often think it’s about semantics. Frankly, I don’t care if you call me “mad” or “abnormal,” and I would much rather be called “depressed” than “a person with depression.” It’s only a privilege of normal people to deny the existence of normal; it is the notion that normal is the preferable state that we need to be rid of. Without this assumption, there would be no need to cover-up the concept of normal. The negative effects of psychiatric thinking didn’t go away when I was actively fighting their ideology, I was just conforming by taking on the role of the defiant patient. I was just being too much of a coward to walk away. It could only go away if I had walked away entirely, which I never had the guts to do.
After all, being in the system often becomes one’s entire role and identity in life. I alternated between getting bipolar, depression, and borderline diagnoses and this forced me to see myself entirely through the prism of psychiatry. But now I see that I just got lost in a mad world. Now I think I’m a survivor. That’s my assessment. I’m on the borderline between hope and despair; anger and peace.
I was once in a youth program where we were paid to give speeches on our mental illnesses. The young adults in the program appeared to all be in a state of identity diffusion, where they appeared to be without a formed identity and without actively exploring possibilities. Erik Erikson said, “many a late adolescent, if faced with continuing diffusion, would rather be nobody, or somebody bad, or indeed, dead—and this totally, and by free choice—than be not-quite-somebody.”
It takes courage and a supportive environment to explore, and for whatever reason, the necessary safety was lacking. They were rewarded for playing a role and they played it well. So well, in fact, that I often wondered how it wasn’t obvious what was going on. They would brag about having an illness that was more serious than other illnesses. They would give pharmaceutical propaganda. Their speeches would change entirely to align with their new labels—labels they wore like fashion accessories. It was always the diagnosis that changed first, never the story.
Along with being paid for speeches, we were given scholarships and bursaries for playing along. I once received a cheque straight from Pfizer and had lunch with a pharmaceutical rep and retired cop. At the time someone was choosing all of my courses in university and I was writing graduate papers for a friend/client of a counsellor.
Addiction saved me from this life where I was nothing more than a prop, and where I constantly observed hypocrisy and was too enmeshed to escape. I knew that I needed some way of coping with pain, and at least with heroin I still had autonomy. I could function better on heroin than I ever could on psychiatric medication. Addiction was like a friend, psychiatry was like a jailer.
Mental health labels are also excellent covers for what’s actually going on. Questions of identity, trauma, attachment, and lack of opportunity are far more terrifying than a sanitized list of symptoms. And after all, what other options existed? It requires healing to even see the paths available, and when your identity involves believing that you are not capable, how could you ever possibly find the courage to explore?
For a person who finds no reason to get out of bed or shower, to instead be labeled as non-functioning misses the whole point. But once one has been labeled, one’s reason for staying in bed becomes that one’s non-functioning.
The reason that many people during coronavirus lockdowns aren’t getting out of bed or showering is that their opportunities have been taken away. To say they’re suffering from a mental illness is to be completely blind. To function is to fulfill a purpose. What’s happening now is those purposes are no longer present and people are forced to re-evaluate/find a new purpose.
Watching this happen to other people has only solidified what I already believed. We need meaning, purpose, autonomy, and connection to live a fulfilled life. I had those taken away a long time ago.
We can’t escape suffering, and we shouldn’t try to. We can find a reason to make the suffering worthwhile. It seems like people needed for me to be broken, and I gave them what they wanted. Perhaps I was a coward for playing along, or perhaps I was in a game of snakes and ladders where the board was turned upside-down.
Psychiatry and most of clinical psychology focuses all problems on the individual. We are encouraged to endlessly reflect on ourselves. This is surprising since people are often distressed because of a lack of community. The issues of globalization on mental health and addiction were brilliantly presented in Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us: The globalization of the American psyche and Bruce Alexander’s The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. Globalization has had many benefits but it has also robbed us of community, and the harmful Western ideologies surrounding mental illness have rapidly spread like a virus.
During the time of coronavirus, people say, “We’re all in this together,” but are we really? What does it say about us that we’re willing to be in a crisis together but not at any other time? I know that I personally haven’t talked to anyone other than mental health professionals in weeks. Whatever it is I’m in, I’ve been in it for far longer than three months and I’ve been in it alone. The isolation and chaos you are dealing with I’ve lived with for my entire life. I was pathologized for my responses, you receive ongoing peer support and understanding. Don’t patronize me by telling me there’s a ladder here. Being critical means I own myself again, and we must start with being able to see the board we’re on.
When I started writing this article I believed that I merely got caught in the system for my eccentricity and that the system prevented me from having any opportunity in life, but by taking time out from the system I’ve managed to heal myself and see that no one could live with the trauma I lived with. I refused to see the opportunities available to me because I was afraid of being hurt and because I was treated like I couldn’t possibly be capable. It takes courage for me to search for a successful and meaningful life because I have been hurt so often, but I’m starting to make tiny steps. I’m focusing on writing and on making meaningful connections. I’m trying to learn who I am after decades of allowing other people to impose an identity upon me. A lot of people used my eccentricity to hurt me, but I no longer believe that to be different means we are doomed. We are survivors. Sometimes it takes being different to find an escape on an upside-down board.
One thing’s certain: Next time I’ll take the cab alone.
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.