I am not immune to what I call weaponized empathy, which I see as the pure intention of compassion for another tainted with aggression around eradicating pain, pain that could be a source of growth for the sufferer if allowed to arise and pass away without force. I have shut down the suffering of those I love even as a survivor of the particularly lethal form of weaponized empathy that exists in psychiatry.
Sometimes the stronger my love, the more unmanageable the instinct is to end suffering—for my sake and theirs. Although it is so easy to confuse my own sake for theirs, because the pain that arises in me when seeing a friend, a family member, even a stranger suffering creates such discomfort inside me.
As I try to broaden my perspective on this aspect of human relationships that my life as a psychiatric survivor has offered me as an important lesson to learn, I see so many messages surrounding us that reinforce what seems like a prescription for how to suffer acceptably. The DSM-5 acts as one of those messages, telling us the “wrong” ways to suffer.
But there are more nuanced messages—ways we are taught to interact with suffering in social settings like schools, workplaces, families, and friend groups. Messages that are embedded in every aspect of our lives. Together they create this prescription, which, if we or people we care about are straying from, we must try to help them conform to. And, if we cannot do this, we must offer them up to the stronger restraints of psychiatry.
If we were to write out this prescription it might read: Do not suffer too loudly. Do not suffer too long. Do not suffer so much that you cannot work. Do not suffer existentially. Do not suffer so much you become defiant or confused. Do please suffer “proportionately” to stimulus.
The rules are potentially endless and can change with the circumstances surrounding the sufferer, particularly the demands of their life and the people in it—what kind of job they have, their family roles, their economic situation, their race, their religion, etc. This can be where a form of gaslighting can appear between a sufferer and a “healer” The “healer’s” demands for how one is allowed to suffer can become moving targets and improvised, making it very hard to conform at all.
Since I have come off most of my psychiatric drugs, I have had many conversations around what is the acceptable level of suffering my loved ones and I will bear before I will go back on them. I’ve had deadlines enforced for how long I can feel down, I’ve had suspicions raised around the appropriateness of grief and loss, I’ve had cutoffs for how much I can mention something I’m worried about, I’ve had limits set on how angry I can become. For myself, day to day, I have set rules for how often I can skip the dishes, how often I can take a nap, how often I can choose not to take a walk or cook. And I’ve decided what the threshold is for me to become concerned about my level of suffering.
I have been challenged to defend the normalcy of my reactions to everything and anything. As a survivor, I feel as if my entire job is to explain over and over again the reasonableness of suffering. Especially in our world as it is today, with so much pain. I try within myself to find a path, and to show a path to allowing the diversity of how we suffer. Somehow, it does come down to diversity, really. All these rules around pain reflect a society of conformity; we must conform even to how we suffer.
Since I was a kid, the phrase “pain is relative” has held a place in my memory, likely because I so often felt othered by the intensity of my engagement with the world, my creativity and empathy. I don’t know where it came from, or who said it. Sometimes it’s used to describe the diversity of biology and explain why some of us are “weaker” in the face of suffering. A pain that a “healthy” person deals with well could bring someone with a supposed chemical imbalance to their knees. Or so it’s said. But for me this phrase never set up a hierarchy of who suffered better, who was ill, just how different our hearts are and how our values are attached to different things. What matters to one matters little to another.
Buddhists call this mental conditioning. How we have been taught to think, how we have reinforced certain pathways of thought throughout our lives. Throughout our youth, from our parents’ youth and our grandparents’ youth, it seems our society has been shedding frameworks meant to help us cope with suffering, shedding the breadth of compassion and acceptance around it and replacing it with weaponized empathy that is subservient to conformity—in other words, psychiatry. Psychiatry becomes almost like a police force, enforcing the rules of suffering.
The gaslighting around empathy and compassion in the psychiatric industry was one of the strangest things about my experiences. I remember drawing a map of my mind soon after my third hospitalization, just before I went back to college. It was a combination of words and images all collaged together to make the image of a bird in a cage. On the bottom left, I wrote the words “I just want to say, from that point on, compassion was twisted, corrupt.”
To me, before being hospitalized, I could discern compassion from harmful intentions. But after, it became so tied to how others wanted me to behave it seemed even compassion or empathy could be weaponized against me.
Weaponized empathy is such a strong phrase and is hard for some to hear. It is hard to imagine that empathy could be corrupt, twisted to a point of inflicting violence against another. But, as with any intention, we can become lost in our own desires and pain and what we offer up to another can become harmful. I’ve experienced this many times.
Perhaps I have experienced this even more than the least insightful psychiatrist because the conditioning I received as a young 21 year old was eradication of suffering. I learned rules. I learned how to shut down suffering. I got the best education out there. And I internalized all of it. I shut my own suffering down by gobbling up pills, grasping at others for relief, desperate for my own complete eradication for years.
So I understand the instinct. But something has got to change. I am encouraged around every corner, as someone with a diagnosis, to follow the rules of suffering. My mother always used to say about art, you have to learn the rules before you break them, right? I am ready to break them. Because I know, maybe more clearly than I know anything else in this life, that you must allow suffering to be, and not just to be, but to be in a de-weaponized, compassionate, safe space.
We must really try to be that safe space for ourselves and each other. It is the lack of force, the lack of judgment that creates healing.
It is a lot of work, inner work, that I attempt every day and often fail. In a time of pandemic, racial injustice, intolerance of all kinds, financial struggles, relationship strains, I have had to remind myself over and over that my suffering around such a hard time in history is normal. I am not ill because I suffer. I am only ill if I turn the weapons, my own or those of psychiatry, against myself again. I am only ill if I choose to destroy myself because I am not following the rules of suffering. I will forever be ill if I do not de-weaponize my compassion for myself and I will continue to enforce illness on others if I do not de-weaponize my empathy.
Psychiatry will continue to create illness and compound suffering and trauma if they also do not de-weaponize their tools of healing. If they do not stop meeting suffering with such force.
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.