In Search of Reason: My Path to Antipsychiatry

Bojana Popov
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Remember those women who walk the streets a bit too gracefully, a bit too lightly, like ballerinas? Those childlike female creatures whose playful steps subconsciously crave attention? And when you look them in the eyes, they communicate something very remote and intimate at the same time? Maybe you are not a great observer of people and fail to notice details. As an artist who appreciates individuality, I like to observe these moments of eccentricity in the streets. They flash by, important bits of the magical atmosphere of urban landscapes. I used to enjoy them until one day I read in a psychiatry book that “schizophrenic people are conspicuous in a caricaturistic way.” Their schizophrenia is said to be characterised by the so-called “oceanic feeling” described by William Blake. They suffer from disunity: no reconciliation of bodily and spiritual levels is attainable. As a great admirer of Blake, I felt uncomfortable upon reading this. Me, too: I am one of those people who wonder, from time to time, “Are my body and my spirit really the same thing?” Finally, what’s wrong with the desire to walk like a ballerina, if that’s the way you feel and you just happen to have bought new shoes? Should I pity those people who went mad and lost a sense of self-perception, or should I despise the so-called “normal” folks who don’t seem to wear a special sign of divinity in their faces?

Let’s forget about this romanticism and the over-emphatic approach and ask a commonsense question about psychiatry, antipsychiatry, and the perennial sad issue: “What happens to a person who gets a bit crazy and seeks help from the psychiatric system?” This is one of the questions we can’t help thinking about, although we might consciously avoid them unless the drama is happening in our own head or in the mind of someone we love. Now and then we encounter people who are obviously “different” and most of us have friends and relatives who have been in a psychiatric ward. For this reason, I want to tell an authentic story and convey a message. Since I have been in a hospital four times and have spent six years in psychiatric settings receiving treatment for my Bipolar Disorder, I feel like a poor little mouse who should address other fellow mice for the sake of telling the truth or, maybe one day, attaining justice through joint effort. These are really hard times and the mice should stick together. So I ask: Do the helpers, as a collective body of professionals, do their best or really cherish human values in trying to help us? Isn’t this a condition sine qua non of successful treatment?

During the pandemic, when the Serbian government decided to start a very long lockdown, the Clinic for Psychiatry where I used to be a patient offered no services. In other words, no telephone or Skype line was established for helping patients whose condition, as we all know, can get worse due to isolation. I once phoned the Clinic demanding a conversation with a doctor on duty, but the nurse who picked up the receiver told me that the doctor had no phone in his office. What prevented them from opening a telephone line, or were they just neglecting the gravity of the situation? Was it callousness? I still can’t tell. While the other two main clinics in the city provided SOS phone lines, the Clinic almost stopped providing any services and I did not feel like talking to anonymous professionals at the other two clinics, whom I had never met personally. I keep considering this absence of initiative a symptom of civil and professional irresponsibility, one of the reasons for my consequent decision to shun every further contact and abstain from seeking help. Step by step, the puzzle grew to be a full picture of a catastrophic situation: If you want to get genuine help in Serbia, you have to pay and go to see a private doctor.  During these private sessions, you are more likely to be approached in a dignified way.

Six years ago, when I was hospitalized at this clinic, I was obviously feeling very bad, developing the fanatical desire to keep praying— although three previous years of prayer in the synagogue had joined with terrible PTSD to produce the appearance of very serious psychosis. I was recommended to get disability. The last document I needed for this was the opinion of the doctor in charge of the ward. A part of me, deep down, naturally hoped for a miraculous solution, healing, and an optimistic prospect. I was alert and expecting a positive voice who would say something along these lines: “You will recover; you have a life to live!”

The pretty, well-dressed doctor that I had been appointed had an appearance and personal aura that wasn’t typical of a medical worker. As an expert in neuroscience, she did not insist on getting to know me well. Of course, I looked like hell, felt frustrated and angry,  and the testing she gave me led to the conclusion that I  had a radical impairment of working memory. The consensus was clear that no recovery was likely. The rather foxy-looking doctor kept insisting that my sex appeal was, in a way, the best quality I could rely on. One day, I was feeling such humiliation walking up and down the hallway with no windows and absorbing the murmur and movements of other patients in their rooms. There was a big television set in the middle of the hallway. On the brink of tears, I rehearsed in my mind all my positive thoughts, contemplated my successes and the bitter failures that had by that time outnumbered the achievements. The doctor approached me condescendingly and asked me “Bojana, why don’t you watch TV? A good-looking guy is starring in this movie.”

Being totally out of balance, I couldn’t help hating her and all I wanted was MY LIFE BACK, my capacities restored. As a great reader of Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, I kept dreaming about going to university again, because it seemed to me that without personal growth and a constant effort to attain excellence, you would get nowhere in life, neither socially nor spiritually. The big void was, of course, already gaping wide, threatening to swallow my soul.

After 30 days of chain-smoking and swallowing a handful of medication, I was summoned back to her office for the final talk. The doctor’s unmistakably expensive outfit was somehow incongruous with the context, but I could have never predicted that she would hurt me intentionally. Usually, I presume that people who emanate power and authority lack this desire, especially if the interlocutor is fighting for her life. She kindly asked me what I would do upon getting on disability and I naively opened up and said that I wanted to go to university again because this was a legal option in Serbia, assuming that I paid the fee. Shocked and bewildered, she replied that my right to study was as meaningless as her right to stand out in the street and yell— although, of course, there is nothing illegal about it. Was the scene I was taking part in just an instance of paternalism, of a benevolent attempt to stop me from getting frustrated in academic life, or just mental bullying?

After changing doctors, I talked to her a year later and the situation was finally brought to a satisfying level of clarity and intelligibility: For most psychiatrists, people belong in one of two categories: 1) those who can work and who can get a placement in the work market and who should, for this reason, have access to education and 2) the poor little psychiatric mice with invalidity, who should stay home. Actually, what was at stake here was an ideological question: the social-democratic idea that education is a public good accessible to all equally. Any purpose for education except placement in the work market was seemingly inconceivable, almost unreal in the mental space of my helpers. Inclusive education and facilitation of the learning process for people with mental illness are not topics that professionals in Serbia want to address.

For three years after I left the hospital and got on disability, I was completely lost and desperate. Not only that, I was dealing with symptoms, but I also asked myself: “What is the meaning of my life? Am I really so sick that people are justified in ridiculing my idea to take part in academic life, not very ambitiously but for the pleasure and gratification the academic community provides?” Ironically, bearing in mind the previous doctor’s insinuation that my good looks were my best asset, I started seeing a handsome young male doctor and began having histrionic tantrums of rage and love, believing I was Elizabeth Taylor’s little sister stuck in an asylum. None of this made me happy. I was going even more crazy and the young doctor only kept repeating the attitudes and opinions of his superiors.

And another humiliation was lurking in the background: He kept insisting that I should plan my day no matter how meaningless it was. In the beginning, I complied, but the plan was not something like going to Paris or doing anything really creative. Rather, it consisted of “doing small things,” those petty little things that are routinely done by the “normals” but which, poor nonfunctional little mouse that I was, I should take great pleasure in doing, emulating normality. It is as if I had a policeman or a guard in my apartment and the doctor’s voice permeated every muscular tissue in my body. Of course, this “help” was necessary because he had wisely noticed that my diagnosis also consisted of  “nonspecific insufficiency of the ego.”

At that point, I realized that both Foucault and Virginia Woolf were right: Psychiatry was a battlefield for two wills, and the submission of the patient’s will to the doctor’s is the only marker of its success. It was only later that I heard the same method of submission had been exercised over other, more vulnerable patients, those poor people who had no legal capacity. One girl’s pocket money had been taken from her and she was contrived to do housework in order to collect coins. Deprived of the liberty to own any money, no matter how insignificant the amount, the girl was actually a survivor of psychological and physical torture. When I talked to her, she obviously had no desire to rebel against this treatment. Uneducated and uninformed, oppressed by both her mother and the psychiatric system, she accepted a life of absolute anonymity.

Paternalism, negation of human dignity, lack of informed consent.  Antagonistic strife, the domination of the stronger and healthier will over the weaker, supposedly “sick” will. The imposition of a liberal capitalist sense of meaninglessness and isolation and the intrusion into the domain of basic human rights… these were just the first impressions painfully carved into my nervous tissue when I heard her story and summed up my own experiences. This led to my getting interested in psychiatry and antipsychiatry because, apparently, I am one of those “masochistic” people who, after being raped, want to look at the rapist’s face again. Or maybe it is that I have a desperate hope that one day, things will change for the better.

I started doing research on my own because I realized that nobody would be able to help me if I didn’t help myself. Simply because society wants a technical solution, a cheap solution that will leave me in a state of dependency and frustration for the rest of my life. Every patient has an idiosyncratic story to tell. Often we meet in hallways and happily find relief in confessions and identifications. We stick to diagnoses and labels, although we can sense that the theory that founds the classifications and dictates the treatment is way too complex for our understanding. Making things simple, submitting and complying, are sometimes the only ways to avoid a personal existential crisis. Still, this mutual recognition is a mimicry, a veil shrouding our personal dynamics. The psychiatrists know how complex medical science is and refrain from giving too much info. It is preferable to talk about small things each patient can do to ameliorate the quality of her life.

Fortunately, I have always been a very non-compliant patient, resolutely fighting for substantial change, a ray of light, hoping I ultimately wasn’t sick for life, praying for a real solution, real healing. Of course, the use of psychotherapy for psychosis is not predominant or frequent in this era in which medication flourishes. Still, I have always had an inner voice, which related to me that the prospects could not be so gloomy as presented by the so-called “professionals.” The first spark of intellectual curiosity and the impetus to know more and get well induced in me a desire to keep reading and experimenting with myself. The first question I wanted to answer concerned audiovisual hallucinations. What was it that I heard? Intrusive thoughts or voices?

After reading a text on criteria relevant for the differentiation of these two symptoms and the philosophical controversy in the domain of philosophy of mind, I decided to go and talk to a doctor to help me decide what was it that I had. Despite all my negative experience, a part of me was seeking communication with people who claim to be experts. The fact I could not taper off made it necessary for me to keep consulting the professionals. When I entered the doctor’s office I had two questions in mind, one concerning the general cause of my symptoms, the other one on the exact nature of the symptoms.

“Is it possible that three years of fanatical prayer contributed to a dopamine imbalance in my brain?”

The doctor was visibly irritated by the first question and gave a short reply: “You are not supposed to be interested in dopamine.”

Sensing that I was stepping into hostile territory, I nonetheless had the courage to ask the second question: “What is the difference between intrusive thoughts and voices?”

Although that was the first time we had met and she had no idea as to the contents of my thoughts, she spoke a sentence that sounded almost like an order: “I can see that you are hearing voices.”

Upon being asked whence came this magical intuitive or supernatural knowledge, which gave her the authority to deal with my case in less than a minute, she calmly replied, “I am good at diagnostics.” Of course, just as I presumed, reading the relevant literature finally led me to discover that what I suffered from were neither just voices nor intrusive thoughts. Instead, I had the symptoms of a phenomenological variance of the syndrome of mental automatism (probably triggered by an excessive, three-year-long period of fanatical prayer.) This consists of pseudohallucinations and their intensification, the peak of which is best described as a sense of hostility. This is something I had been experiencing for years, hearing thoughts like “You are disgusting, I will kill you, jump out the window,” etc.

It was a great comfort for me to find out that philosophers like Lacan wrote about the syndrome and that it was discovered by a Russian psychiatrist who had himself survived an episode. Luckily, the “diagnostic” intuition of the doctor was not relevant anymore and my work had paid off, since the outlines of my condition have finally been set. It was really rewarding to discover the truth after six years of confusion. The fear disappeared and I started to recover and gain intellectual self-respect.

This moment marked the beginning of a new phase in my life. I no longer had any fears concerning what psychiatrists might say. I don’t need helpers anymore. Nobody will ever again define me without knowledgeable insight. Except for a few extraordinary people who wholeheartedly invest their time and energy in both research and healing, endowed with a moral capacity that prevents them from doing harm, the self-proclaimed “professionals” are almost always a failure. An average user of psychiatric services could guess that they care more about getting published than about treating people with dignity. Due to carelessness, their so-called “professionalism” easily transforms into its opposite.

 

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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.

29 COMMENTS

  1. The psychiatrists and psychologists I have worked with do like to attack the pretty young women, and especially the artists. Just an FYI, if you were ever put on the antidepressants or antipsychotics, both drug classes can create “voices,” or “psychosis,” via anticholinergic toxidrome. Plus, being weaned off of them can result in a drug withdrawal induced “super sensitivity manic psychosis.” I also had to do my own research. Glad you, too, escaped, Bojana.

    And I must agree, I don’t know what’s “professional” about claiming to know nothing about the common adverse effects of the drugs one prescribes. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Well done Bojana, not just the writing but also the reasoning.

    And no, in observing people, psychiatry does not have an edge. Every single observation has bias. A baby makes an observation and so on it goes.

    “As an expert in neuroscience, she did not insist on getting to know me well”
    There is no such thing as an expert when it comes to people. Even though amazing things can happen
    within relationships, but those are always relationships where there is space and free flow, with abundant safety. Many a man could be helped with his confusions and fears if he had relationships.

    Being an expert at terminology, language only equips people to sound valid, and in no way makes them an expert in people.
    There are only certain ways to support and move people through life and that is by setting up structures that let them see success to celebrate, and failures to tolerate, wash and repeat.
    Success is not measured in making collages in group sessions, or providing crayons to people who hate to draw.
    Psychiatry wants nothing to do with what actually contributes to quality of life. They do not understand what it is I guess. When a kid grows up, he’s understanding that he better do something and that is how many people arrive at “caring” for people.

  3. Bojana, this is phenomenal. You possess a great intellect along with the capacity for extraordinary creative and illustrative expression.

    Furthermore, I couldn’t agree more with your premise regarding the value of education in its own right, regardless of what one might go on to DO with the knowledge gained. Education, both formal – I have an associate’s degree earned over 14 years of slow and steady pursuit – and informal – time used wisely to learn as much as I could – have served me in many ways above and beyond any work I might have performed instead.

    Additionally, the self—awareness that one’s innermost experiences do not align neatly with the ways they are conjured by others is healing in and of itself. For example, hearing voices versus experiencing obtrusive thoughts or urges. The difference in framing changes everything about how you are treated. My own experience was that various diagnoses were applied depending on how I appeared – they were snapshots in time taken out of context. I have always been kind of shocked that I got the DID label and not the schizophrenia label, though these are each differential diagnoses for the other. My daughter got labeled with RAD which has been changed to Autism. In one, the mother is blamed, the other is seen as a “neurodiversity”. Exactly nothing about her experience changed. As a child, I was labeled as “culturally deprived” for not knowing who Bugs Bunny was at the age of 5, when I had little access to cartoon television and spent most of my time outdoors or with my nose in a book. Again, these labels are others subjective observations of our lives based on their experiences of their lives. It approaches a form of professional bullying and misunderstanding.

    I left psychiatry and therapy for reasons very similar to your own. These systems do not serve me well. They label, pathologize and judge experiences they don’t understand. They “other” and stigmatize what ought to be seen as completely normal. Of course, we all step lightly on a new pair of well-fitting and comfortable (or just adorable) shoes!

    I have always wondered how WE (in the greater cultural sense) can both appreciate creative arts and simultaneously vilify the artist. Van Gogh is at once a creative genius and posthumously diagnosed with every MI label in the book.

    Anyway, “The fear disappeared and I started to recover and gain intellectual self-respect.” This strongly resonates with me. Please keep writing here. I feel a strong sense of identification with what you’ve expressed so far and can’t wait to read more from you. We need more voices like yours in the AP movement.

  4. Thank You Bojana, this is an interesting article.

    I’ve heard it said that in England people celebrate eccentrics but I don’t know if this is exactly true! I think it might depend on the eccentric!

    Some Psychiatrists I have personally observed, have appeared to be quite odd themselves!

  5. Psychiatry was my path to antipsychiatry, if by psychiatry you mean confinement, drugging, and torture. First it begins with this notion that a person needs “help” whether the so targeted person wants “help” or not. Then that more or less innocent person, seen as needing “help”, gets assaulted by swarms of toxic “helpers”. If by psychiatry you mean force, oppression, numbed minds, etc., then antipsychiatry must mean liberation, joy, and clarity. If madness, the thing the mental health overlords want to suppress, were to resemble a slave rebellion, I stand with Spartacus, I stand with Nat Turner, and I stand with Toussaint Louverture, give me madness any day of the week over slavery.

  6. Welcome Bojana!

    Looking forward to more of your highly creative and lucid writing.

    It’s encouraging to see you don’t feel compelled to posit an “alternative” to psychiatry — other than no psychiatry — any more than an anti-slavery abolitionist in the 19th Century would have felt compelled to find an “alternative” to slavery, other than no slavery. Insisting that we do so is a disingenuous guilt trip imposed on those of us who are gullible enough to fall for it, so I’m just warning you in advance in hopes of nipping it in the bud, as you’ll no doubt be hearing this one sooner or later.

    I also have to give credit where due to Frank, who probably summed it up for many when he said, “Psychiatry was my path to anti-psychiatry.” Though I’d say what the system really wants to suppress is clarity and consciousness teaming up with resistance and revolution.

    • oldhead,

      I wouldn’t dare speak for the author, but I’d note that she didn’t simply abolish psychiatry as a convention or system, but gained insight using the words ‘symptom’, ‘syndrome’, and ‘condition’, while maintaining an openness to ethical research and healing of her psyche.

      Psychiatry as slavery should be banished, but healing of the soul should not. My immediate impression is that you would agree.

        • oldhead,

          Under usual circumstances, I see the mind as being real as my hand. So I have no need to fritter it away, cheapen, or desubstantiate it — consider it an ‘only just’ or ‘as if’ — by calling it metaphysical or metaphorical. I’m talking about real healing, real mind. Maybe metaphysical in the most hardcore sense.

          The etymology of ‘psychiatry’ is simply healing of the soul or psyche, so I also don’t feel a need to deconstruct the word because of how it’s been misused. However, no one feels the weight of conventional psychiatry’s fraud and malpractice more than I do.

          • I see the mind as being real as my hand.

            I seriously doubt you “see” anyone’s mind, which forces the issue from the start regarding metaphor vs. literal reality.

            “Material” and “real” are not synonyms. Abstractions may be considered real but they are not material, and “disease” is a material term unless used metaphorically, which is the sort of confusion and conflation psychiatry takes advantage of to make people believe that minds can have literal “diseases,” which can be “treated” by physicians.

          • Steve,

            That’s one reason why I qualified my statement as including the ‘hardcore’ definition. I’ve found that metaphysical can be used as non-empirical, non-experiencable, unprovable, or as flights of abstraction. In this case, I meant none of these uses. My impression is that the response was using it in a way that was reducing or limiting my original comment, and also associating my phrase with metaphor. I wasn’t trying to be metaphorical.

          • oldhead, I know the mind as something actually physical. But it is made out of energy that is not visible to the eye. The being, though, can “see” it (perceive it). That’s a common way we remember things. Experience is stored in the mind as “pictures” and the being can locate pictures he wants and “view” them. So in that sense, I can agree that the mind is as “real as my hand.”

          • Maybe adding “metaphysical” to my comment was unnecessarily confusing. Nonetheless references to “mental illness,” “spiritual healing,” etc. ARE metaphorical regardless of one’s intent. Unless the longstanding definitions of “healing” and “illness” are changed. Or until someone can produce a post-autopsy mind in a sealed plastic bag for examination — which would change a lot of minds for sure, including mine.

          • When I have a broken finger, or a cut on my hand, there is something objective that other people can perceive. I can go to a doctor to get it fixed.

            When I have a disruption of mind, only I can see it. It is subjective, and it is not something which I do not want anyone outside of myself to tamper with. I can talk about it, I can tell someone, but only *I* can perceive what is in my mind. It is subjective. Personal. Not subject to “consensus reality.”

            My mind is certainly real. But it is only within my perceptions, consciousness, attention, and awareness. I don’t think humans have fully developed the capacity to engage telepathically and therefore perceive accurately what is in another’s mind.

            Therefore what we call “mind” is a metaphor for this direct but subjective human experience.

            Is this what you mean, Oldhead?

        • oldhead,

          A fireside chat would be useful, wouldn’t it?

          Yes, I chose ‘see’ to emphasize my point of view, stay away from ‘believe’ or ‘feel’, and to add a level of familiarity, concreteness, and even a common aspect of the mind itself. I didn’t mean to use a material example as simply code for ‘real’, but I assumed there would be no question of the reality of the hand. There doesn’t seem to be a need to describe the hand as metaphysical or metaphorical. When I see color, see a dream image —or someone’s description of their own — or see someone crying, I’ll maybe consider your suggestion that I can’t see the mind. Perhaps I can see my own but not someone else’s? Or only indirectly or by inference? But I won’t linger next time I see and hear a baby cry, whether it be from hunger, sheer loneliness, or fear. Either way, I’d prefer if the mother, or father, ‘treat’ the baby accordingly.

          In many ways for people, mind and body are two sides of a coin and infused throughout rather a ‘real’ dichotomy.

          But again, what I’ll call ‘conventional psychiatry’s worldview’ is not my friend nor colleague, so I sympathize with you.

        • Yes, truth. But this human skill is not nearly as refined as our other, more “concrete” senses.

          I hear what you are saying, that to you – this is a concrete.

          But that person who “reads my mind” – still does not have my perspective. And perspective is a vital part of mind.

          It is what makes mind subjective.

          • Of course how you interact with your own mind is very personal, individual to you. But that is you as a being.

            But I think we get your point. You have an intimate relationship to your own experience and how you recall it that is unique to you.

  7. This piece is thick with life!

    I believe many more people would write like this if they could find the words and the voice.

    My young friend who has been trying to sort through issues like this is more than ten years younger than Bojana. She knows there is something wrong, but everywhere around her there is agreement that it is she who is wrong, and everybody else is just fine. That it makes perfect sense to take a pill whenever you “feel bad.”

    The social pressure brought to bear on a person who is a bit more perceptive, a bit more sensitive, a bit more creative (a bit more alive?) can be anything from moderate to openly threatening depending on how close one is to the nearest sociopath. In the worst cases the sociopath will try to kill (or bring to death) their target and often succeeds. And so it is that I fear for my young friend, and for so many others like her in similar situations.

    I wish Bojana well, and hope she continues to learn what is most useful to living a full and happy life and manages to do so.

  8. Dear Bojana, as somebody who experienced forced psychiatric treatment in Serbia I read your account with great interest. My hospitalisations took place many years ago but what you desribe resonates with my horror memories. Not much has changed since and I doubt that it ever will. The advice not to study and do little things instead so that another day passes by, seems to be a professional mantra there. Wishing you a good, psychiatry-free life that you (and all of us) deserve.

  9. Nice work Bojana!

    It is sad to see the state of psychiatry in so many different countries. It really is a cult.

    I encourage you to think beyond your diag-nonsense. You are NOT a “Bipolar” whatever that means, you are a human who has been through certain experiences which have affected your presentation to society.

    As you walk the path to clarity, you have seen that “experts” know little or nothing about your internal life (mind, emotions, etc.) – and you will find that you have the power to change your own behaviour, your own response to your feelings and thoughts. In fact, only you have this power.

  10. Hi Bojana,
    I was really interested to read your piece. I have had many experiences similar to yours and, after 11 years of serious struggle, have been able to make sense of them.
    I have spent a lot of time praying to the Hebrew God YHWH and made some amazing spiritual discoveries that I cannot, and will not, discount as “illness”.
    Nowadays, I rely on my own direct experience of reality alone and do not accept what others tell me is truth if it contradicts what I know. There is no such thing as “objective truth”. There is only subjective experience and “consensus reality”. I am always acutely aware of what is going on in “consensus reality” and can act as if I am part of it to keep psychiatry from interfering in my life. Some people call it “presenting well”.
    Much love to you
    Elizabeth Baird xxx

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