The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
-Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
When I began journaling in 2013, I had no intention of digging through my psychiatrized childhood. In fact, I thoroughly believed I could write around it, like a yellow-taped crime scene. After all…my objective in journaling was simply to bring depth and resonance to my memories for a memoir idea I had.
But after four decades of dedicated forgetting, focused journaling revealed my traumatic childhood memories to be neither as solid nor as accurate as I’d once believed. It wasn’t that any new childhood memories emerged, but rather that the ones that did were rather caricature-like, missing essential details I’d not fully experienced or registered as a kid. Granted, the memories that did come back to life in surprising and sometimes shocking detail were grounded in long-known traumas. But the most devastating discovery I made through journaling wasn’t any specific memory or traumatic event, but the realization that my lifelong confusion and bewilderment surrounding them was the direct result of the unwarranted psychiatric labels and drugs I swallowed alongside years of severe parental abuse.
Completely buried in my formerly repressed memories was the belief I had about the role and “life value” of my childhood psychiatric labels and drugs. This life-altering belief was born at Michigan’s Pontiac State Psychiatric Hospital (PSH) when, in February of 1975, my psychiatrist, Dr. P, removed me from the lithium I came in on, and my parental home soon after. At 16, and throughout my adult life, I came to believe that the psychiatric labels and drugs that had been foist on me for nearly half my childhood had been rendered negligible and no longer relevant by Dr. P’s vehement counter-narrative and by the affirming relationships forged throughout my PSH experience.
I can now understand how I spent 40 years believing that the seven years I’d been psychiatrically labeled and drugged as a kid had been corrected. I mean…what the hell is any 16-year-old kid supposed to think when a state psychiatric hospital takes him off all drugs and repeatedly tells him that he’s a “normal teenager”? When PSH had me taken from my parental home, adamant that my parents were disturbed and dangerous, these formidable allies were confirming my years of lived experience. So when PSH glowingly affirmed my “being normal” to my Marine Corps recruiter, and signed off on my enlistment when I turned 17, I left that chapter of my life and began writing a whole new book.
When I went into the Marine Corps, I’d thoroughly bought into the new psychiatric narrative my PSH psychiatrist and staff had communicated to me during my eight months there. Because my four years in the Marines were, up to that point, the most enjoyable and productive years of my life, my new PSH narrative replaced my childhood psychiatric narrative, well beneath the surface of awareness. As a result, I have lived my adult life believing I have no further reason to identify with that narrative, and no experience to suggest otherwise.
Journaling revealed to me just how profoundly misinformed this belief was. Though I now understand that I needed to believe this myth, journaling uncorked a deluge of archetypal betrayals and unattended developmental traumas that I’d suppressed and relived, at no small cost to the quality of my life.
The more critical moral and ethical issue that troubles me about my childhood psychiatric betrayal is my adult psychotherapists’ complicity in covering it up, and the curious fact that I can’t find a single article or study about the links between childhood trauma alongside this type of professional betrayal, and/or its subsequent impact upon the adult life of the person subjected to it. So…here’s my layman’s contribution to understanding this apparently unexplored dynamic.
Betrayal No. 1: My Diagnosis
In early 1968, when I was nine, my mother told me one morning that I would need to take a pink pill called Ritalin. She explained that my brain wasn’t like the other kids’ by way of being “hyperkinetic,” and that Ritalin would make it normal. The family physician prescribed it. I took Ritalin for two years before my mother explained that I now needed to take a new pill called Mellaril. Sometime later, and over the next three years, I was also introduced to Stelazine and Thorazine, all prescribed by the family physician upon my mother’s appraisal of my behaviors. During these five years, I never so much as spoke to nor met with a psychiatrist or psychologist.
In July of 1973, my mother admitted me to the Michael Reese Institute (MRI). She emerged from the closed-door intake meeting and immediately said, “Oh, Kevin…they know what’s wrong with you, you’re only missing a mineral called lithium.” Here again, beyond perfunctory greetings, I’d never spoken to anyone prior to my mother’s intake meeting. Not only did MRI (Dr. F and Dr. H) diagnosis me with “manic depression” solely on the strength of my mother’s narrative, but they also diagnosed my father (who lived 240 miles away and with whom they’d never spoken) with the same disorder! My then 12-year-old sister was in that closed-door intake meeting and can confirm my assertions and much more. As a result, I took lithium for the next 20 months.
This brings us back to PSH—where I was removed of all psychiatric labels and drugs, as well as legally removed from my parents’ home.
Betrayal No. 2: The Reasons for My Psychiatric Identification and Drugging
Through journaling, I examined the behaviors I presented that might have made anyone think I was “hyperkinetic” and needed Ritalin. Immediately, I recognized my teacher, Sister Diane, as the primary instigator of this idea. She not only complained incessantly about me to my parents, but also slapped my face no less than a dozen times that fourth-grade year, once making me pull my pants down to whip my naked keester in the boys’ bathroom. I understand now that Sister Diane was a profoundly damaged woman, in part through insights gleaned while reading Karen Armstrong’s beautiful memoir, The Spiral Staircase. Yes… I had a great deal of energy, was a bit precocious, prodigiously curious, and a little challenged sitting rigidly at a desk for eight hours a day regurgitating information. But before psychiatric drugs and trauma drove them south, my grades were As and Bs. Correspondingly, my aptitude scores indicated reading and verbal aptitude at a 12th-grade level, with math at a 10th-grade level (I don’t believe these markers are necessarily accurate, only the metric used in 1968).
This brings me to my damaged, working-class parents and their own fear of failure, unwittingly leveraged by my rather rigid and fear-based Catholic school. Given the breadth of material already written on the Ritalin gateway dynamic, the “why” of my psychiatrized childhood isn’t unique. But I strongly believe that if I’d had two different parents, or attended a more progressive school, I never would have seen a single day of psychiatric labels or drugs, save any consideration of needing them.
Betrayal No. 3: The Hidden Violence of Pediatric Psychiatry upon My Traumatic Youth
This is by far the most emotionally damaging and life-impacting betrayal journaling revealed to me. Previously, I believed my psychiatrized childhood and parental abuse were completely separate and unrelated issues. Journaling, however, showed me they were intimately connected, and that the psychiatric labels and drugs actually exacerbated my abuse at multiple levels (this dynamic alone deserves a book!). For starters, how is any labeled and drugged kid supposed to parse, sequester, and differentiate the perceptions of his damaged parents from parental abuse from psychiatric incompetence from psychiatric iatrogenic license and from their own normal behaviors?
Both my parents were profoundly damaged people. My father was an intractably depressed and violent man who exploited me for the emotional support my mother didn’t have to give, only to thrust me into the middle of their sick relationship, and later betray me by allowing and supporting my mother in institutionalizing me. I’m not sure what damaged him more: his Depression-era poverty and alcoholic family violence, or his war trauma? My mother was an unstable and severely depressed alcoholic and drug abuser whose depression turned to nightly rage when she drank. I, the oldest of five, was her scapegoat.
I only mention the above to sufficiently illustrate that my childhood home was a physical and psycho-emotional battleground. What makes this point critically important is that I was the one scapegoated as having psychiatric issues inside my parental home, with my parents’ scapegoating recklessly and obtusely confirmed and enabled outside the home by multiple professionals.
These are critical insights for several reasons. As I noted earlier, I had lived my adult life believing the issues of my psychiatrized childhood had been corrected and negated at PSH. So I unconsciously blinded myself to the connection between all the years I identified with having multiple psychiatric issues, and the mentally and emotionally distorting impacts of the various drugs I took, and the ways I navigated my overwhelmingly toxic and abusive home life. I also failed to see how I carried the debilitating cognitive and emotional impacts from both into all my social relationships while fully believing that I was relating, learning, and competing in the world as a developmentally grounded person.
I didn’t fully begin to appreciate how profoundly important these dynamics were, though, until one particular dynamic came back to life during the 2016 election. Because that election presented so many outrageous statements, lies, contradictions, and historical inconsistencies as facts, I kept tabs on my TV so I could view the circus in real-time rather than rely on my bubble of progressive, online print media for updates.
Soon after I began this routine, I found myself awakening in the middle of the night, bombarded by intrusive thoughts about, for example, the insane hypocrisies of Kellyanne Conway or Corey Lewandowsky. I knew, of course, that I’d been watching first-rate gaslighting. But why the hell was I waking up in the middle of the night angry at their vacuous, forked-tongued conjectures?
I asked this question in my journal soon enough. As is most often the case with journaling, my unconscious offered up answers my analytical mind couldn’t. Because I’d grown up in a home with two parents who were prodigious gaslighters, witnessing Election 2016 gaslighting day after day affected me well below the level of awareness. This is why, I believe, sleep forced it into my consciousness. Though I’d long had an intellectual awareness of my parents’ gaslighting, only through re-experiencing being gaslighted as a conscious adult could I fully feel, understand, and re-process its pernicious impacts on me as a psychiatrically labeled and drugged kid. These included damaging my sense of cognitive and emotional agency and interpersonal stability and trust. Such consequences last a lifetime.
Betrayal No. 4: Lies My Adult Psychotherapist Told Me
In February of 1995, 20 years after leaving PSH, I began my first course of psychotherapy. I only started therapy at the gentle nudging of my emotionally intelligent girlfriend, who understood that my self-conscious perfectionism, hypersensitive defensiveness, trust issues, and emotional aloofness (alexithymia) were masking significant emotional pain from experiences I refused to talk to her or anyone else about.
During my first appointment with Dr. D, I spilled the story of my psychiatrized childhood. Dr. D was the first person to whom I’d ever mentioned word one from that part of my life. I only told him this history because I thought not telling him was a sin of omission which, undisclosed, would leave a conspicuous hole in the therapeutic process.
Dr. D never appeared surprised by the details of my past. He didn’t have a single question about PSH or MRI and, as I vividly remember, made a casual statement that “too many kids have this kind of experience.” After that first appointment, we never again spoke of that part of my life, not once during four years of therapy. Around a year into it, I asked Dr. D what my diagnosis was. Dr. D said, “If I had to give you a diagnosis, I’d say PTSD and depression, but what I really think is that you were FUBAR’d.” He explained that my childhood home was so “psychotic” that I didn’t have the necessary foundation to sufficiently discover who I was and where I belonged in the world.
While I was in therapy, I believed Dr. D’s silence surrounding my childhood confirmed my own belief that it had been thoroughly corrected at PSH, and was thus insignificant. In place of exploring and healing the psycho-social and emotional consequences of my trauma (as addressed in works like Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery), Dr. D’s psychotherapeutic raison d’être was convincing me to quit my mover job and do something more befitting my education and potential.
During those four years with Dr. D, the words dissociation and unconscious never made a single appearance. I now regard Dr. D’s brand of therapy to be little more than applying CBT nostrums to motivate career striving as a means to achieve the emotional and relationship growth I’d sought. In short, therapy with Dr. D did absolutely nothing to help me recognize, feel (rage and grieve), or process the psycho-developmental consequences of my traumatic childhood and psychiatric betrayal. This discrepancy should have been glaringly evident to him – if for no other reason than I never shed a single tear or showed an ounce of anger during our time together.
I now regard Dr. D’s silence on my psychiatric childhood as an inexcusable betrayal, one I suspect is practiced with exponential regularity throughout adult mental healthcare settings. To suggest, as his silence did, that any child can spend seven years identifying with fictitious psychiatric labels while swallowing a cocktail of psychiatric drugs for childhood behaviors that never warranted psychiatric intervention, and do so in an environment as toxic and abusive as mine without being significantly affected, is a level of professional and intellectual dishonesty and moral vacuity I hope never to understand.
It was journaling that finally forced me to acknowledge and feel the layers of anger I’d stuffed down for decades due to my overwhelming fear and shame, emotions I’d safeguarded by repressing memories of trauma. As a result, journaling has affected my cognitive and emotional being in ways I could never have imagined. Though the impact has been thoroughly positive and constructive, it’s also been challenging at times— as I suspect the real work of integrating new awareness into our life and relationships should be. I just wish I could have done this work with a skilled psychotherapist as witness, but this wasn’t remotely possible.
I have no idea what mental health is or isn’t, but I personally believe that it’s never divorced from the reality of ones lived experiences and relationships. Reclaiming the lived reality of my childhood psychiatric betrayal may not be an essential psychotherapeutic process according to the American mental-health-industrial complex, but it’s been a most healing process for me. I will forever be grateful for my having finally witnessed the true story of my childhood psychiatric betrayal.
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.
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