Childhood Gaslighting: When Difference Receives a Diagnosis

I was six the first time I was diagnosed as “abnormal” by a child psychologist.

Let me repeat that age: six.

Let me repeat it one more time because now, almost forty years later, a part of me still cannot believe the hubris of an adult who had, most likely, utterly forgotten what it was like to be a child, and yet she deemed herself capable of understanding and then fixing someone WHO WAS NOT BROKEN… yet: SIX.

And now, let me repeat that diagnosis: abnormal. Because that is, in effect, what any type of diagnosis of “mental illness” or “mental disorder” is saying: you are not normal.

Truth be told, though, a diagnosis of abnormal never says anything. It screams. It is a maddening, merciless scream. And even if other people claim they can’t hear it, it doesn’t really matter, because you can, and you know it is just a matter of time until the proclamation, warning, and apology scorched into your soul are audible to all: SHE IS FAULTY. DEFECTIVE. NOT WORTH YOUR TIME OR CONCERN OR LOVE. MOVE ALONG. FIND A BETTER HUMAN BEING. THIS ONE WAS A MISTAKE. SHE SHOULD NEVER EVEN HAVE BEEN BORN. SINCEREST REGRETS.

“Gifts That Died Ungiven” by Jennifer Helfand

Let me tell you how I was made sick. It was a three-part process.

Then I’ll tell you how I made myself well. It took almost forty years.

How I was made sick: Part one.

I was born into a mad world. A world with holocausts and slavery. A world that forbids war crimes, but glorifies war. A world where people are convicted for the atrocities committed against them. A world where nature’s laws of liberty are repeatedly repealed, and swimming seas and crossing fields are punishable crimes. A world that sometimes sheds more tears for characters dying in movies and on TV shows than for real live human beings. A world that plants gardens, then clips the stems of buds and blossoms and sentences them to a life of tap water and vases, where they will pine for the sky and the sun and the rain until the last petal falls.

How I was made sick: Part two.

Some people in that mad world renamed madness. They called it sanity. And along with that renaming, came many other renamings. Wealth got called success even though riches only exist because of poverty and oppression. Beatings got called discipline, but only if the victim was smaller, much younger, and less powerful than their attacker. Sexual assault got called boys will be boys while consensual acts of love were labeled sins. Indoctrination was renamed education. Disagreement, misbehavior. Sensitivity, a weakness. Difference was designated a disease. Suffering was dubbed sickness. The unjustifiable was renamed justifiable.

How I was made sick: Part three.

The pain I felt from living in a mad world, pain which had, of course, already been renamed mad, was treated with madness. That madness, however, was called sanity.

Psychiatrist: “You like lying around the house all day. That’s why you’re like this. You don’t really want to work.”

Silent patient: Writing and making art ARE work. And I am not lying around the house. I am doing my best, every single second, not to end my life as it’s the only way I can think of at this moment to end this pain.

Psychologist: “You were on a crowded staircase when that guy put his hand between your legs. Why didn’t you just scream?”

Silent patient: You are a PSYCHOLOGIST! How can you not know the answer to that question?

Patient slowly regaining her voice: “My insurance doesn’t cover the cost of that medication. One pills costs $1300! I can’t afford it.”

Psychiatrist: “But don’t you care about your mental health? Isn’t it important to you?”

Silent patient, not yet fully reunited with her voice: Don’t you understand what “I CAN’T AFFORD IT” means?

And, of course, long before the long list of psychiatrists and psychologists that I saw as an adult, and the long list of abominable things they told me, there was the child psychologist and her nearly death-sentence diagnosis of abnormal.

There are a lot of things a six-year-old can do to land themselves a diagnosis of abnormal. Here’s what I did: I cried in first grade. A LOT. Every day. For two reasons.

Reason one: I missed my mother. (Abnormal diagnosis: attachment disorder.)

Reason two: I missed my freedom. I missed the sky and the sun and the trees and being able to stare at them without being reprimanded for not paying attention to what my teacher considered worthy of my attention. I missed being able to perform basic bodily functions without having to ask permission, permission which was sometimes denied, because, “Do you really have to go to the bathroom, or are you just trying to get out of class?” I missed being able to stand up when I wanted to and sit down when I needed to, eat when I was hungry and drink when I was thirsty. I missed being able to stop doing an activity that I found boring, and start doing one that I found interesting. I missed the freedom to imagine instead of regurgitate. To ask instead of answer. To make a mistake while reading out loud without having my literacy abilities compared to twenty-five other children’s. (Abnormal diagnoses: multitudes.)

“Indoctrination” by Jennifer Helfand

The adult that I am knows that there exist severe and numerous criticisms to the current education system. There also exist saner alternatives to it. But, apparently, the child psychologist did not know this, so it wasn’t the system that got judged and found wanting, but the child. Most disturbingly, this is still the case. Years ago I read an article written by a psychiatrist titled something along the lines of: Warning Signs That Your Child Might Be Depressed. One of those signs was: she or he doesn’t want to go to school. School for me was always one of the causes of my depression, a genuinely soul-crushing environment, from first grade to graduate school, where I got a degree in, can you guess? Education. (I wanted to make things better for others.) And having worked with students preschool age to adults in universities and adult-education programs, I can tell you for a fact: I am not the only one whose mental health suffered from school, nor the only one who considered suicide as a way out. Suicide is another renaming, a cruel euphemism for murder, and the responsibility for every life lost belongs to society as a whole.

The current educational model is a madness decreed sane, and it accomplishes exactly what it is meant to, from maintaining systemic injustices and obliterating creativity, to instilling cruelty and carelessness under the guise of competition as the natural order of things and pressure as a mandate handed down from the heavens. The ruling class rules on what is worthy of being studied. Self-worth is bound up in grades and it is inflated or decimated by the value society attaches to those grades. Any discussion of “improving mental health” that does not also include a critical look at how societies educate children, and profound compassion for the children themselves, will always revolve around the best ways to suture wounds but not prevent them. Aside from the home, school is typically where we learn our worth or lack of it, others’ worth or lack of it, life’s worth or lack of it. We learn empowerment or disempowerment. We learn what we are taught, and how we are taught is often what we are taught.

School, along with other experiences of living in a mad world, would take their toll on me.

The next diagnosis of abnormal came at age ten from a pediatrician: clinical depression.

The first suicidal thought: age thirteen.

At age twenty-five, therapy officially began with a psychiatrist who told me outright: “Society is fine. You’re the one with the problems.” He medicated me until my speech was slurred, and I was so tired I could barely stand. When I called him, telling him in a drawl that I thought I was overmedicated, he asked me my weight. As I’m barely five feet tall, he likely could have made a semi-accurate guess. After I told him my weight, he cut my dose from 200 mg a day to 25 mg a day. More numbers that bear repeating: 200 mg to 25 mg.

And so it went, in and out of doctors’ offices, on and off medications, and despite how horrific the episodes of depression and suicidal depression were, I consider myself lucky compared to other people’s experiences. I was only admitted to a hospital once, and only for several hours. The reason: I did exactly what the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time told me to do. I upped the dose I was taking again and again, because she insisted that I needed to, that I should be taking the highest dose possible without experiencing side effects. At 450 mg, noticeable “side effects” hit: I passed out. Came to. Passed out again. Oops. My dose was lowered back to 250 mg, which I was told was “your dose for the rest of your life.”

At age 37 I finally met the golden psychologist I needed who was able to explain to me, with intelligence, compassion, empathy, and dignity, what was happening in my head. She helped me heal numerous wounds. I also met another psychiatrist who would make more wounds, with a brand new diagnosis: bipolar disorder, and a brand new lifelong medication. I accepted a diagnosis that didn’t feel right. I took the medicine I didn’t want to take. I took the doctor’s word for it that my “disease” was finally under control. Then I set off backpacking around the world, a lifelong dream, to claim the freedom that the six-year-old me still longed for.

And I had it. I felt like I had it, until… the pandemic. And a few other difficult REALITIES. (If psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies could cure all the financial struggles and abject poverty inherent in unjust societies, I bet they’d fix a lot of “chemical imbalances.”) Everything came crashing down. And I realized, I wasn’t so free after all, because when shame still shackles you to the shadows and sets you begging, “Please, don’t ever let anyone really see me,” how free are you?

What would turn into a nine-month suicidal depression began. None of the therapy techniques that had helped me in the past were working, nor was the medicine that was supposed to “keep my mood stable.” My salvations were conversations with people I love, writing, making art, and conversations with trees in the woods, following the advice of a high school teacher: “If you’re ever sad, or scared, or don’t know what to do, go outside and talk to the trees. Listen to them. Hear what they have to say. They are so much smarter than people.”

But that was not enough. That could keep me on this planet temporarily, but not pull me up out of the abyss. This did: somewhere in the midst of that depression, I became involved with a mental health advocacy group with members who do not believe that suffering is a sickness. It was my entrance into a world that would heal me in a way that the medical model did not, would not, and could not ever, because if my diagnosis is “sick forever,” how can I hope to get well?

I stopped therapy because at some point, my voice had to be enough. I stopped judging the horrific pain inside me as abnormal and I just felt it, as excruciating as it was. I ignored all medical advice about needing additional medication and listened instead to my soul which said, “The only way out of this is through it. Hold on.” For the first time in my life, I looked at my “madness” and instead of asking myself, as I always had, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I asked myself, “What happened to you?” Instead of the relentless blows of “sick,” I treated my wounds with the salve of compassion.

I listened to the first part of all of my sentences about all my “mistakes” and “craziness” and all the things that I’d “ruined,” none of which would have happened if… if… if I had been normal. I asked myself, “How much of this pain and shame is due to the repeated diagnosis: abnormal?” The answer was: A LOT. I asked myself, “Who has the right to define what normal is?” I decided to define it for myself.

I kept feeling my feelings. I also started observing them. When the insanity in my head started again, what felt like madness, because I was planning to take a trip that my gut urged me to take but that echoes of diagnoses past were calling crazy, given my circumstances and the state of the world, I realized that the moment I clicked “buy tickets,” the moment I chose my gut over someone else’s vision of sane, the madness stopped. The division of self stopped. And I began to gain an insight into my mind and heart unlike any that I had experienced before.

I changed where I sat. I left the table in the windowless office with the psychiatrists and psychologists, DSMs in hand, and took a seat in a forest beside one of my saviors, the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi. I told him about my broken heart and what was torturing it. And that even how much I love had received a diagnosis of abnormal. (Missing people you love, it turns out, is supposed to have time limits.) I told Rumi I was crazy. He listened patiently to all I had to say. When I finished, he took my hands in his, looked upon me with eyes radiating the same light as the stars, and said, “NOT CRAZY ENOUGH!” He laughed out loud, and I laughed out loud with him.

I read more about alternative ways to view and heal from the agony I had long experienced, including the wounds inflicted by those who were supposed to help me. I read like my life depended on it, because it did. I listened to podcasts and lectures. There was not a handful, but a universe full of people who had stories like mine, diagnoses like mine, and then, they undiagnosed themselves. I did the same. Shame crumbled to dust because it understood that all its power was wrapped up in lies, and they no longer held sway. I swept the dust from my soul. Pride bloomed in a garden within me, soil moist and fertile from so many tears. It was pride at the strength, the almighty power of the six-year-old me who refused to stop fighting for my right to be who I am. She had won.

At the end of that depression, I found another psychiatrist, one critical of the system and happy to help me do one thing and one thing only: go off my medication. The lower my dose, the better I felt. I decided to leave my soul alone. No more efforts to fix me. Let me feel whatever grief and rage and pain exist inside me, for what could have been if… if… if my different way of seeing things had never received a diagnosis… if nothing had ever been renamed… if the world weren’t mad.

***

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.

LEAVE A REPLY