Snakes and Ladders: How Psychiatry Took Away My Choices


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.


  1. I couldn’t help but think of the rod of Asclepius disguised as a ladder, leading one downwards at all points in the game.

    And this
    “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.”

    I was reading a little about the psychiatrist Robert Lifton and his work on Chinese brain washing. Funny how you can take something ‘we’ are doing and make it exotic by making it something ‘they’ are doing.

    It was at the point where the target was worn down and apologised that he describes the inner process that results. Before that apology their identity remained, but once they began apologising it was then eroded, they were now in a state of high dissonance where the only way out was to accept a new negative identity. This new identity was not based on them being bad, it was that their essence was bad. At this point the person loses all integrity, self worth, and a sense of true identity. And by disallowing any questioning of the new identity because that merely reinforces the fact your ill …….?

    So given that this process is exactly what we are doing in places disguised as hospitals, why is it attributed to the Chinese? I think it would be fairer to call it Psychiatric brain washing. And why brain and not mind washing?

    I wonder about the saber rattling by our Prime Minister towards the Chinese yesterday ($270 billion on new weapons, 500 cyber spies to go on the offensive). At what point will we as a Nation be brought to our knees and forced to apologise? And will we as a Nation at that point realise we are inherently evil, our new negative identity. The National Socialists who have taken over for now would need to look at themselves, and the systems they have put in place that have been so harmful to our community.

    I think that the dissonance in our Nation can be seen with our constant to and fro between China and the US. Whose our daddy? And we are constantly pointing fingers at China for doing things that we have been doing for some time. They actually have a right to protest, which is more than can be said about the ‘democracy’ I live in. We are torturing (and other vile acts) in places called hospitals and disguising it as medicine. The Convention easily overcome by changing the status of “citizen” to “patient”, and then refouling anyone who complains.

    And I don’t know why we have this fear of the Chinese taking over, didn’t they notice they bought the place some time back. Our politicians sold us out, and are now trying to get us to turn on the landlord. The 270 Billion will buy us a 38 special and three bullets, and were going to take on the LAPD lol. Still, this is the same guy that said Australians value a Rule of Law. He obviously hasn’t been into a police station lately, they tell me they don’t even have a copy of the Criminal Code, and are simply making up crimes to prosecute people for (eg they were going to arrest me for having my medical records that proved I had been ‘spiked’ with benzos before interrogation. Imagine the insanity of arresting the victims of crimes for having the documented proof? I’m assuming it was because it exposed their use of known torture methods that they are acting in this manner)

    Anyway, good article Jill, got me thinking about the identity they have tried to impose on me. I’m still not at the point where I am going to apologise for who I am. Better to die on my feet than live on my knees I say.

    • I second this comment. I have avoided “the system” for so long because I feel, like market researchers, they listen just long enough to slot me into a predetermined algorithm , then put me on a predetermined course of “treatment.” I cease to be a person. The last psychiatrist I had literally had a clipboard with boxes he checked off as he asked me the same questions! I have a Ph.D.! I know what answers they want/need to hear. Give me a break! Likewise, I know the things I should *never* say. As a consequence, I cannot be completely honest, and without that, what’s the point?

      “Infantilization” is exactly right!! I understand the legal reasons treatment has gone down this path.. Then again, I understand the need for *some* form of patient protection from outright malpractice. Thirty-odd years ago, i was sexually abused by a “medical professional” and when I told my psychiatrist, he only responded by stating that I was “21 [just] and could say no!” This, after three weeks in the hospital where I received repeated ECT treatments and thereafter released on heavy medication. I was in no position to “just say no.” And this person worked in his office! Oy vey….

      Anyway, I am definitely *not* “just 21” now and have been in and out of contact with “the system” since the 1980s. I have a respectable job, a spouse, a house ;-). I have problems to be sure, but I should not have to give up my person-hood just to received counseling.

      Thanks again, Jill, for your thoughtful article.

  2. Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking essay. So true about a lost sense of connection and purpose being important to understanding mental illness and its treatment.

    As someone living with mental illness, identity is something I’ve also been thinking about a lot the past few years. I used to identify as someone with mental illness, because 1) it helped me, as someone with severe social anxiety, to gain insight into my condition, to find self-acceptance and learn to respect my boundaries and needs; and 2) I thought that identifying as mentally ill would be a powerful declaration of that self-acceptance and almost strategic even in the sense of taking ownership of my diagnosis and allowing me to identify with similar others and thus better advocate for ourselves, much in the way that LGBTQ people and people on the autism spectrum have taken ownership of their identities and used that political power to fight stigma.

    In the past two years, however, I’ve come to realize that a diagnosis of mental illness is dis-empowering for much of the reasons you write about. It’s a label that is imposed upon us and is incredibly reductive. The label is fraught with so much stigma, and there is so much willful misunderstanding and negativity surrounding mental illness that even NAMI recommends that people should not consider it an identity. I’ve suffered tangible consequences of this stigma, having been harassed by police on multiple occasions. The recent murder of Elijah McClain for being black, introverted, and different really underscores the terror that neurodivergent people and persons of color living with mental illness often endure.

    It’s very interesting how you observed that there are certain people with mental illness who seem to trade in diagnoses like trophies. I’ve been hospitalized as well and can confirm that I’ve seen this phenomenon, but not much outside the hospital system. I wonder if compliance and race are key factors here. It makes sense, since being infantilized is the opposite of being treated as threatening by society. Must we be compliant with an incredibly abusive system in order to be accepted by society?

    Over the years I’ve found self-acceptance with my chronic depression and anxiety, and recognize that living in a society that causes people to suffer is an indication that the system needs to be fixed, not that there is something inherently wrong with me. It shouldn’t be surprising that people want to escape the systems that are abusing them, and when we can’t, we become broken. My problem with psychiatry today (and maybe the way it has always been) is that it is a very authoritarian system that tries to tell us that there’s something wrong with us, not with the society that abuses us.

  3. Jill, Well said.

    “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.”

    Psychiatry relies on people’s vulnerability and the non-informed public’s non-interest and gullibility.

    As you can see, by the years passing, we keep learning that what we were told, is not fact at all.

  4. Bowen,
    “In the past two years, however, I’ve come to realize that a diagnosis of mental illness is dis-empowering for much of the reasons you write about. It’s a label that is imposed upon us and is incredibly reductive. The label is fraught with so much stigma, and there is so much willful misunderstanding and negativity surrounding mental illness that even NAMI recommends that people should not consider it an identity. I’ve suffered tangible consequences of this stigma, having been harassed by police on multiple occasions.”

    If you give it even a few more years, perhaps you will see what a hoax psychiatry and much of what we are told really is.
    It’s not a compliment to NAMI that they speak of stigma or identity. It’s a joke to give someone a tag and then tell them not to identify with it. It is like me telling someone that they are an idiot but not to take my words to heart.
    And it is not “stigma”. Psychiatry and NAMI invented it, JUST to keep the paradigm going. It is rather “persecution”, as was demonstrated by relentless overpowering, coercions. The labels do NOT result in “stigma”. They result in PERSECUTION.
    And is the very reason the UN is talking about “human rights”. (not that it is more than talk) But why would they need to discuss “human rights violations” if not for persecution. Psychiatry likes to use words that make the accused feel as if they are on the same page as their accusers and abusers.

    See the whole thing is, you can have your issues without the labels. Why do you think the very system that labels is the one who mistreats? Does this make any sense?

    • “See the whole thing is, you can have your issues without the labels. Why do you think the very system that labels is the one who mistreats? Does this make any sense?”

      In a nut shell. Which is about all that is left of me (and many others) when they are done, a shell.

      “It’s a joke to give someone a tag and then tell them not to identify with it. It is like me telling someone that they are an idiot but not to take my words to heart.”

      I agree Sam. I had an experience recently with someone who made the claim that they knew people who could help me. What really hurt was that I believed them. It seems the idea was to have me sit on my hands, and if anything good happened they could lay claim to the good, but if nothing happened I would sit and wait while they did nothing. To me they are as bad as those who did the original harm by creating false hope. In fact, isn’t that what the ‘mental health industry’ does? Create false hope and lay claim to any good that manages to emerge from their negligence, fraud and slander?

      • I think pretty much people are onto them as soon as they enter the door. They are really not all that good at their jobs. In fact they suck. The reason they stay in the industry is because there are literally NO jobs they can do aside from the bullshit. On the other hand, many of their “clients” are pretty flexible and able to change jobs, able to learn new things in their lives.

  5. What did i just read?….funny, those ARE MY WORDS, but i don’t remember writing them…
    And i never used heroin. Why did i say i used heroin? My name is Bill, not Jill. I’m so confused! What did i just read? Those are MY WORDS! MY WORDS! And i’m so glad to see they fit you, too! They look good on you!
    Is it to soon to say, “Death to the psychiatric oppressors!”, or do we have to wait until 2021….????….

  6. “Often I’ve actively been discouraged from doing anything.” I was literally told to “Quit all your activities, and concentrate on the meds.” That’s when I knew to stop listening to my (I later learned from medical records being handed over, child abuse covering up) Lutheran psychologist. She did tell me she couldn’t help me, and I didn’t need to see her any longer, shortly thereafter. Which was fine with me.

    “Mental health labels are also excellent covers for what’s actually going on.” Yes, and the medical evidence is in. The primary actual societal function of our “mental health” workers is, in fact, covering up child abuse and rape.

    Today, “the prevalence of childhood trauma exposure within borderline personality disorder patients has been evidenced to be as high as 92% (Yen et al., 2002). Within individuals diagnosed with psychotic or affective disorders, it reaches 82% (Larsson et al., 2012).”

    And all this child abuse covering up is by DSM design, since no “mental health” worker may ever bill any insurance company for ever helping any child abuse survivor ever.

    Given the fact that all this systemic child abuse covering up by our “mental health” system has resulted in us all now living in a “pedophile empire,” where child sex trafficking and pedophilia are running amok.

    It sure does strike me that our society needs an industry that can actually bill to help all these child abuse survivors. And the truth is our, systemic child abuse covering up by mainstream psychologists and psychiatrists, and their many “mental health” minion, really are not providing a service which is beneficial to the majority of people in our country. Thus, we should get rid of the systemic, primarily child abuse covering up, pedophile aiding, abetting, and empowering, scientifically “invalid,” “mental health” industries.

    Especially since they’re murdering 8 million innocent people every year.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Jill. And I agree with bowen, “psychiatry … is a very authoritarian system that tries to tell us that there’s something wrong with us, not with the society that abuses us.” When the truth is, it is our “pedophile empire”/society, and the bad systems within that society, that are the problem.

    God bless in your healing journey, my fellow artist. And one has to ask the question, what percent of the psychiatric survivor stories on this website are written by artists? It seems like it may be the majority.

  7. It is too funny Steve.
    It is a good business, this whole MH racket. I have experienced them sitting there and trying to look all serious, but looking back, being older, I now am aware that the look I saw was one that was very preoccupied with checking to see IF I believed them, and also one that was busy trying to maintain a sense of authority. Perhaps it was their trying to convince themselves that I felt… I knew then that there was something deeply wrong and it set me on a path to observe back. “knowledge” is not something I found there and it was exactly what I was seeking.
    When it does not make sense or ring true, it most likely isn’t.

  8. Thanks for sharing your insightful story Jill.

    “Psychiatry and most of clinical psychology focuses all problems on the individual. We are encouraged to endlessly reflect on ourselves.”

    Yes, and that is what makes psychiatry (and some psychologists) so revolting. I saw a psychiatrist while in cancer treatment because chemo drugs and steroids were causing insomnia. I was reluctant but cancer docs lied, telling me the visit was only to “get help with sleep meds”. So I agreed to head right over to the psychiatrist believing she had more advanced knowledge about sleep meds than my family doctor. It was the biggest mistake I ever made. She slapped 4 psych labels on me and prescribed Seroquel and clonazepam. She mocked me for having side effects to Seroquel and actually labelled the well known side effects of 3 toxic chemo drugs a “Somatization Disorder”. Then she posted a very damaging report of totally shocking lies onto the widespread electronic health record system. In my province (AB) the electronic records are accessed by every health type of healthcare professional and this has severely impacted my health care. I’ve got copies of my records and would enjoy burning them but unfortunately they live on eternally in the electronic files.

    Keep up the excellent writing Jill and I wish you all the best in the future.

  9. Jill, I was prescribed 25mg of Seroquel per day and I was taking about 6 mg of Seroquel per day (I used to bite it in 4). When I stopped the Seroquel I still had years of unsuccessful sleeping.

    6mg Seroquel taken 10 minutes before I went to bed, used to knock me out.

    • Did you know that now UK psychiatrists are routinely forcing 400mg – 700mg even 900mg of Seroquel (Quetiapine) for anxiety which is probably akathisia that they caused. when I refused this, the maniac started balling and shouting at me saying it was licensed for this use and that thousands were on it. It’s not licensed for anxiety at all in the UK.

    • Yeah, gotta love that concept of “treatment resistant.” If our “treatment” doesn’t work, it’s not our fault, you are “treatment resistant.” Which justifies us doing MORE of the “treatment” that didn’t work or forcing a worse “treatment” on you against your will. “I KNOW this will work, if only she’d stop RESISTING…” Why do people believe this kind of obviously illogical nonsense? Hammering harder on a screw will not screw it in!

  10. “Well they were doing it based on how well we could focus, sit still, socialize, etc. They also took books away from me for being “inappropriate”. Looking out of windows, smiling or laughing at the wrong time, sitting awkwardly, etc, were also written down on my chart as inappropriate.”

    And THIS would be based on the “medical” model? 🙂 How very scientific. I’m SO impressed that they are not just being asses.

  11. “Well they don’t think they’re punishing us, they honestly believe they’re helping… because they don’t see us as people.”
    Sorry, but unless they are stupid, they know exactly what they are doing…..unless they have a similar “problem” that their subjects do, in that it takes time to learn the complexities of life. Must be why many shrinks do a turnabout after retirement.
    I think they just hate “weakness” as they felt “weak” so often in their early years. They have a complex relationship with their subjects and don’t know?
    I guess the mind is an amazing thing. No wonder they were interested at one time.

    I agree they do not see subjects as people, in the sense of their
    own caliber and wholeness, and their own lack of “mental illness”.