One day, at the age of 15, I was sitting at my desk in class. An abstract thought suddenly appeared in my mind. “Something is wrong.” That is the moment I see as the start of a lifetime of living with something that, though I don’t know what it is, I’m also convinced no psychologist or psychiatrist knows either. I’m quite certain I’ll die with it, too.
This feeling may have been triggered by a prior traumatic event which does not need mentioning; regardless, I have been increasingly “lost” ever since.
By the age of 17, things were hellish for me. Angry sometimes. Sad sometimes. Suicidal sometimes. Always, mentally, in a bad place. My 18th year was little better, but I was still in a dark place. I was writing about dark things and death a lot. I think I scribbled some of it on an exam paper once, which prompted the principal to call my mother in for a chat and led me to start seeing the school counsellor.
What friends I had were, with little exception, of no help. I wish I had never tried smoking grass. Unfortunately, I did. Only a few times, but I often wonder how much damage that has caused. Some brains do not take well to the stuff.
At the time, I was thoroughly convinced that psychologists and psychiatrists were experts who could effect cures for these problems. I wanted to be one. Wanted to help people. I thought the school counsellor probably could, too, but it wasn’t long before I realised the sessions were just talking. When the sessions with the school counsellor finally came to an end and I left school, the counsellor said, “It won’t be the same without you.” I replied with something, admittedly dismissive and regrettably smart-arse like, “Things are never the same each day, so that doesn’t mean much.” A stupid thing to say, but my state of mind was dreadful. She got up and opened the door for me but didn’t say a word. Obviously and quite rightly my downplaying of her nice statement had offended her.
Around this time, I had a beer bottle accidently smashed on my face. A broken bottle at a party was haphazardly thrown, hit me, and shattered. Half my face was covered in stitches. I couldn’t see out of one eye for many days. Two sessions of plastic surgery followed but big scars remained.
I began seeing psychologists regularly. Sometimes psychiatrists as well. Sometimes even general practitioners would be interested in talking to me about my situation. I was prescribed Zoloft and Luvox, but they made me feel so much like a zombie I stopped taking them.
As the years went on, I still kept seeing psychologists but grew ever more cynical. Things were not improving. I had no real direction. I did get jobs, but probably had thousands of job interviews. I did complete courses. Had enormous crushes on a few girls I met but was too shy to do anything about it. I finally got to work in a TV studio as a camera operator but, once there, thought, “Why did I think this was something I wanted to do?” I later got a job as a camera operator at horse races but, after seven or eight years thought, “This isn’t helping anyone.” In fact, seeing horses break legs and be euthanized was making me think I was in a stupid job. What clinched it was when a punter (gambler) hanged themselves close by after a race I was working at. Through work, I got three free visits to a psychologist, but nothing good came of that.
I left the city, travelled overseas for three months, and returned home once again to be lost and depressed. Unable to get a job, I saw psychologists again. The only time a therapist helped me was when a social worker got me volunteering in a woodworking room. At the time, I viewed that as a genuine lifesaver. Painfully shy and lonely, I did meet someone while travelling and finally, at the age of 30, experienced having a girlfriend. The relationship didn’t last that long. There was something about me that wanted to push people away. I’d long wondered if I’d ever understand what love was. By this stage, I really had no friends, either. Just acquaintances.
I started working with disabled populations and continued for 15 years. During that time, I would still see psychologists in the hope that one of them might be helpful. This job allowed me to sit in with a psychiatrist when they were seeing clients for whom I was responsible. Observing the psychiatrist making mistakes and applying “therapy”—which amounted to little more than trial and error—began entrenching my evolving belief that psychology and psychiatry were largely incapable of helping anyone. But even if they did, it was just through luck and chance, not skill.
I then managed to get through six months of studying psychology at university. I was interested in trying to become a school counsellor, but also wanted to see if there was anything convincing about psychology itself. This experience only helped to further entrench my thinking. I remember being told that “nothing is proven in psychology,” that psychology grew out of philosophy and thus had “white coat envy,” always wanting to be recognised as a science. That wasn’t helpful. I also remember a study in which a girl had been suffering dreadfully. Psychologists/psychiatrists had been trying various methods to help her without success. The girl, however, thought she would be fine once she returned to her mother. Eventually, she did just that, returned to normal, and was fine. The so-called professionals had basically ignored the girl, tried to effect a cure using their own methods, and failed dismally.
I later became aware of Thomas Szasz. Saw Tom Cruise attacking psychology, albeit inspired by Scientology. Noticed that other people shared similar views. Still, I kept seeing psychologists without success. The last two disappointed me greatly. When one asked what turns me on sexually, I was mystified. Weird question. Irrelevant. I then consulted a general practitioner (GP) about a medical condition that we both felt was contributing to my poor mental health, who then referred me to another psychologist. When that psychologist paid no attention at all to this condition and instead wanted me to touch various objects and describe them, I finally realised this was all going nowhere and never would. This was further reinforced when I read how psychology training changes so frequently that program graduates are out of date before they even start practising. About the crisis in psychology over poor replication rates for studies. My own experience never seemed like anything more than “a chat.”
When another psychologist I had been seeing for a while told me we had been trying Cognitive Behavioural Therapy all along, I was astounded. It seemed like nothing more than what any kind stranger in the street would do. I truly believe that more wisdom comes out of the mouths of laypeople than these trained professionals. It is also interesting how psychology is drawing in Buddhist mindfulness elements now, always trying to find something that gives it validity. Lately, I’ve often thought that psychology is the biggest fraud ever foisted upon the world. I remember one online discussion where someone was defending psychology and trying to point out the subtle nuances of how to ask, “So how did that make you feel?” As if subtle variations in wording would even register with a patient trying to get help for what’s troubling them.
If 34 years of failure counts for anything, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that some psychologists/psychiatrists may genuinely want to help people, but they certainly don’t have a good toolbox to do it with and, quite likely, never will. Despite years of trying, psychology and psychiatry have made very little progress in understanding the mind and even less in trying to fix it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) seems very flawed. Being gay was seen as a mental illness until recently. Fortunately, “drapetomania” was never in the DSM, but the same kind of thinking seems to exist. Academics keep trying to invent things. I remember contacting a psychologist who had come up with a brand-new disorder call SPIED (Severe and Persistent Interpersonal something Disorder). I eventually said to them, “You’re just making this stuff up!” I don’t know if that one ever got into the DSM, but other staff I worked with in the disability-care organization swallowed it—as well as the “chemical imbalance” line, which now seems to have lost all its adherents.
If psychologists/psychiatrists achieve success, it’s not through the use of an exact science but trial-and-error methods. Without doubt, some people simply benefit from talking—but talking to such professionals involves a power imbalance and therefore has a reduced chance of success. Psychologists/psychiatrists that I have seen have all been detached, showing no real interest in me, often not even knowing what I was talking about. Definitely not listening. So often, I have had to repeat things I’ve said because the therapist simply wasn’t paying attention.
Imagine a team of experts trying to fix your car for 34 years, never getting anywhere but getting paid well all the same. All failures are brushed aside. You are belittled and told to give it more time.
How does that make you feel?
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.