What Britney Spears described in court last week has happened to many of us. With the sadness of her laying bare the terms of her life, comes relief at the cruelty being exposed. Predictably, and reassuringly, there was outcry at the misogyny and control. Her father, the paparazzi, the public, and the avaricious middlemen in her conservatorship came in for blame.
But what about the psychiatry industry that enables Britney’s coerced ‘treatment’? What about the ‘professionals’ who endorse the removal of her reproductive rights, who demand she take medication, and who hold up the mendacious yet persistent claims on ‘health’ that enable such a conservatorship to exert control? The media is giving them a free ride.
The conservatorship in question is a legal arrangement which leaves Britney with no control over her $60 million estate, and restricts her ability to make professional and personal decisions. Conservatorships are typically granted when individuals are severely incapacitated, or have dementia, for example.
In the 13 years since it was established over Britney, she has released three albums and spent four years performing in her own Las Vegas show, selling 900,000 tickets and grossing $138 million. Yet she is in a legal—and psychical—straitjacket. Speaking to court on 23 June, pleading the judge to end the conservatorship, Britney said she was being refused access to a doctor who would remove her contraceptive device so she could have a baby. Her “so-called team” will not allow her to marry her boyfriend of five years, she said, nor even let him drive her in his car.
“In California, the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking,” Britney told the judge. “It’s not okay to force me to do anything I don’t want to do.”
Fourteen years after one very public instance of distress, one of the world’s most successful musical performers is imprisoned in her own life. She is an eternal patient, perpetually prescribed. Her fate tells you all you need to know about psychiatric intervention.
Over the last few weeks, many women have recounted when they first heard Britney, and what she meant to them. I was nine when she released her debut single. I wanted to grow up fast. I wanted success, and my own money. I didn’t have the talent to make it as a musical star like her. But she proved that young girls, if they worked hard, could become adults quickly. She showed what lay ahead, and it looked thrilling.
Then, the narrative goes, it got too much. In 2007, she walked into a hair salon and asked them to shave her head. When they tried to talk her out of it, she took the razor and did it herself, the long lens of the paparazzi capturing every stroke of her scalp. Reflecting now, it’s not that bizarre a thing to do, and it’s none of my business why she did it anyway. If a hairdresser refused to do what I asked, I’d be pretty annoyed too.
Some time later, she was sectioned, the most euphemistic of words for psychiatrists declaring she would be safer with her autonomy removed. Last week, Britney gave us insight into what kind of life was created for her: forced visits to brutal outposts masquerading as ‘rehab clinics’, limited access to the money she earned, lithium so strong she couldn’t talk, and, of course, the removal of her children from her care.
It beggars belief that any of her unhappiness was considered a disorder, rather than an expression of the utterly extraordinary experience she had lived up to that point. But it is harrowingly sad, because it is what so many millions of young women have been condemned to in the name of ‘health’.
In 2006, aged 17, I saw my first psychologist. The cleverest kid in school for as long as I could remember, I had stopped being able to write essays. Every evening, I froze in front of the blank page. My family was collapsing, and I was under immense pressure to get into Oxford University, where I didn’t really want to go. But instead of asking any questions that might have led me to talk, the psychologist told me that if I changed my thoughts, I could change my feelings. He stood in front of a whiteboard drawing diagrams to illustrate cognitive behavioural therapy.
I tried desperately hard to get it right. But in his clinic, sitting in his chair, a ‘fact’ began to lodge deep inside. I was faulty. Something was dysfunctional about my make-up, the way my brain worked. If I was fully functional, I’d be having the right thoughts, wouldn’t I? I wasn’t normal anymore. I had to drink in all the help offered.
I believe the devastating transformation wrought by this interaction with that psychologist is partly responsible for a tragic chain of events in my own life that ultimately found me in what is legally known as a coercive and controlling relationship, suicidal daily. I realised, aged 29, that the ‘help’ I was getting obviously wasn’t helping. So I quit it all—the antidepressants, the ‘psychodynamic’ psychotherapist, the nonsense regimes of exercise and socialising and meal plans.
I found a psychoanalyst trained by R.D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association, who burst out laughing when I told him the problem was that something was wrong with my thoughts. And slowly, freedom settled. But had I found that analyst at 17, instead of 29, I may have spared myself years of horror. Had I not trusted people who taught me to fear and doubt and harass myself in the name of ‘health’, things would have been very different.
If Britney had had people hear her, instead of sedate her, things would have been different for her, too. And for all of us listening.
It took me 12 years to escape psychiatry. For Britney, it’s 14 and counting. I was amazed, and relieved, that she still has the fight in her after the deadening morass of what she has been subjected to. But it should be obvious that nothing done to her in the name of ‘health’ has made her happy.
So many of us young women believed the people who told us we needed them to make us healthy, who told us that without them, we’d be at the mercy of untameable ‘disease’. I hope Britney’s testimony shows dreams can survive those people, and life can be better beyond them.
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.