It is my contention that “trauma/addiction experts” and psychiatrists cause unnecessary harm to people who are suffering and feeling emotional pain by categorizing them, generalizing about their unique behaviours and by labeling certain types of behaviours as “addictions” and “mental illnesses”.
Also, the validity and relevance of describing people’s behaviours in terms of their “mental health” is questionable as I believe that people suffer when they are mistreated and not loved, and it is a normal response, not because there is a problem within or something wrong with them.
I will also attempt to demonstrate that “trauma experts” do not correctly define what trauma is, and that the language they use for describing and explaining “trauma” is not accurate. In my view, people’s unique traumatic experiences should not be generalized, and the focus on the generalized healing of people’s traumas is mistaken and irrelevant.
Nowadays, it is just as common for people to talk about emotional health and well-being as they would talk about physical health.
Two of the most popular concepts these days are “mental health” and “trauma”. We tend to believe that our “mental health” can be controlled and managed as long as we practice a healthy lifestyle.
Seldom do we talk about “who does what to whom” when someone behaves out of the norm. Rather, we mystify our experiences by not paying close attention to what’s going on between us. We readily accept that psychiatrists and other experts can observe with an objectifying gaze, diagnose and classify people and note their behaviours to determine if they are behaving normally or not, and this way of examining people has filtered into the mainstream so that we often find ourselves fluently discussing with one another the states of our “mental health” as if there is such a thing.
Yet, if people didn’t treat one another in unloving and cruel ways at times, there would be no need to believe that there are “normal” and “abnormal” mental health states which can change if we suddenly “lose it” and plunge further along a continuum between normal “mental health” and “mental illness”.
Hungarian-American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote a book in 1961, The Myth of Mental Illness. He believed that people’s strange behaviours were not mental illnesses. They represented “problems in living”. Unfortunately, not many “experts” and other psychiatrists took him seriously.
Prior to the days of pharmaceutical companies, there was no such thing as “depression”. People were deeply saddened, melancholic, heartbroken, all caused by terribly disappointing life circumstances. However, when the drug companies produced a new drug, they wanted to market it and so they brilliantly reinvented melancholy under a new name, and called it a “disease”. From then on, “depression” has become one of the most widely known “mental illnesses” worldwide.
Health experts advise us to pay special attention to and prioritize our “mental health” and avoid “mental illness” at all costs, as if we have a choice in these matters.
Yet, no one wants to acknowledge that all sorts of strange behaviours cannot be avoided by someone who has been sexually assaulted, abused by a stranger or betrayed by someone whom they had put their trust in. These unique and incomparable responses and behaviours of vulnerable individuals who get hurt in a cruel manner by others is the main reason why people’s unique traumatic experiences cannot be compartmentalized, categorized, labeled or generalized.
How can I or anyone else know or comprehend someone else’s infinitely other personal experiences?
How does labelling, objectifying and shaming people who are suffering by saying they have “addictions” and “mental illnesses” benefit them in any way? Yet, labelling and categorizing people’s unique suffering has become so widespread over the years that hardly anyone stops to think about how absurd it is.
Well-known “trauma/addictions expert” Gabor Mate tells us that “addiction is the most human thing there is.”
Not love, not devotion, not desire, not spontaneity, not authenticity, not fear, not attraction, not alienation, not compassion, not excitement, not sadness, not respect, not wanting connection, not frustration, not jealousy, not anger, not admiration, not caring, not curiosity… Addiction is more human than anything else!
Dr. Mate defines addictions and tells us how we can “heal” from them. He describes the cause of our problem, our disorder, our addiction, and he explains that we can all heal, and how to do so. He explains that addictions are something we do which provide pleasure in the short term, but cause harm in the long term, and we can’t stop. Addictions are caused by trauma (when we become disconnected from our authentic selves).
Although this explanation has some validity (that trauma causes all so-called “addictions and mental illnesses”) it is not entirely accurate and it serves little benefit to people who are suffering and feeling emotional pain.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and “addiction experts” categorize and label every possible human behaviour under the sun which results in people comparing themselves to “normal people” and feeling ashamed about themselves.
A person doesn’t just eat, shop or drink a lot. He or she is told and believes that they have an “addiction” or “a mental health problem/disease”. Yet, many people who drink too much alcohol, eat compulsively or gamble can make a decision to stop doing so. They can decide to change their habits.
Also, if I am told that I have an “addiction”, and I believe that I have an “addiction”, how can I not feel more shame than I already feel about myself?
I am not suggesting that people who are in pain would not benefit from having loving support from others. Rather, they simply don’t need “experts” labelling them as having an addiction, a mental health problem or that they need to heal their “traumas”.
Dr. Mate explains that to have an addiction is not a moral deficiency, yet to say that I have a drug or alcohol addiction automatically labels and objectifies me as someone with a “problem”, a disease, a disorder, a “mental health problem”. Who could feel good about that?
Also, you can’t see a person clearly if you label them as a schizophrenic, an alcoholic, a drug addict. You are one of “those”! Where is the individual, the person who has this so called “addiction”?
The only people it serves are the “experts” who know best and apply these labels.
Trauma has also become a misused word. In my opinion, “trauma experts” do not define it correctly and they over-generalize trauma as a uniform experience for everyone, when in reality people’s experiences are incomparable. When a person becomes traumatized, it is devastating, and deeply personal. It’s a very sensitive, painful and fragmented territory to delve into. That is why it is paramount to have a safe, private and trusting supportive environment to be in, not to be influenced by online “trauma experts/healers” who are selling their therapy techniques, giving lectures about trauma, and offering promises about healing the world.
When I get hurt, my “trauma”/experience is not the same as anyone else’s “trauma”, and there is no “wisdom of trauma” or glamourized fantasy of universal healing. Someone who has been traumatized does not need to be taught anything by a “trauma expert”. What he or she might want is a witness.
According to Vancouver therapist Andrew Feldmar (who has been practicing for 50 years) “the word ‘trauma’ has become a mass-produced, hackneyed, meaningless word. It’s worthwhile to search for a language that’s more accurate, precise, idiosyncratic, personal in describing and depicting the lived minute particulars, the exact vicissitudes and sequelae of a person’s continuous encounter with the environment, human and otherwise”.
He also says that a person does not heal from trauma like one can heal a broken arm. You don’t get over it. At best, you can struggle through it with the support of others, and you don’t do it by going inward to find yourself as Gabor Mate’s “compassionate inquiry” would imply.
Trauma is a disaster and if one is able to get back on his or her feet again (and has a strong enough desire) at best one can struggle through it by finding solidarity with others and finding community. You find people who treat you well and stay away from people who treat you badly.
It is true that “addictions” are behaviours that people engage in to cope with their suffering (as humans we have this suffering in common) but there are countless other ways in which people cope with their suffering caused by disasters, betrayals and cruelty.
Their experiences are unique and the behaviours can manifest so differently in each individual.
So, there is no need to focus attention on behaviours, nor to apply labels to the behaviours.
In addition, this suffering (that most often originates in childhood) is not simply caused by “stressed out”, busy parents or by needs for attachment conflicting with one’s need for authenticity.
All so called “mental illnesses”, “addictions” and strange behaviours are the result of people being treated badly.
Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing described such actions done for one’s own good as “violence masquerading as love”. If I am hurting you, I do not love you. One of Andrew Feldmar’s definitions of love is that “I could hurt you, but I won’t”.
Before the disaster, we have innocence. Our hearts are open and we trust others. We expect people to support our best interests so when we are betrayed by people who hurt us, we are devastated.
The cruelty and mistreatment includes betrayals, verbal, physical, sexual abuse, exploitation, coercion, being dismissed and invalidated, being neglected, teasing, shaming, being compared to others, and many other disrespectful and other harmful behaviours. This type of disaster and cruelty is the “trauma” that people carry with them.
The coping/learning mechanisms that people use to distract themselves from the pain are referred to as one-time learning. They get burned by touching the stove and immediately learn never to touch it again. They go into survival mode. For some people, over time, there may be other options. Some people seek out the support and company of others.
In therapy (in the safe company of a good therapist) one can inquire into what to do after loss of innocence, after the disaster.
Each person decides on their own if it is possible to trust again, and to live in a world without justice. Can we find solidarity and belonging again?
If not, when people remain in survival mode, there are so many different ways to cope with their pain and to carry on. They may drink alcohol excessively, overeat, take drugs, gamble, hear voices, isolate themselves, become “depressed”, become delusional or display an endless array of “strange” types of behaviour (listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, published in 2022) that disconnect and distract them from the pain they are suffering.
However, what purpose does it serve them to be diagnosed, categorized, defined, and objectified as one of them? Psychiatrists and “trauma experts” further alienate the people they intend to help.
Although Gabor Mate says that people’s emotional suffering is caused by “trauma”, he has also glorified and sensationalized “trauma” as a phenomenon that has inherent wisdom and he implies that the entire world can heal from trauma. He starred in a movie titled The Wisdom of Trauma.
Dr. Mate also critiques our capitalist society for causing people to adapt to false needs that also cause trauma. In my opinion, people’s traumas are much more catastrophic than the stress, the competition and the inequities that capitalism can produce. Traumas are horrific, and the worst type of trauma is caused by people treating other people very badly. Betrayal, cruelty and evil acts are often closely associated with people’s traumas.
In my opinion, Dr. Mate’s teachings (in regards to healing from trauma) are mistaken. A pioneer in the study of trauma (psychiatrist Judith Herman) wrote in her book Trauma and Recovery that the first and necessary requirement for recovery of someone who has been traumatized is for him or her to re-establish safety, security and trust, and if this occurs, it takes as long as it takes. With this in mind, it is the power of relationships that make recovery possible, not looking inward to reconnect with one’s authentic self.
If one feels safe in another’s company and trusts someone completely, traumatic memories will most likely become available, and can be dealt with at that time. Otherwise, you don’t need to try to heal from trauma. More importantly, people who have been traumatized don’t need to “heal” from past trauma in order to love oneself and life. They only require connection, support, solidarity and relationships with loving people who treat them well.
Also, if people believe what trauma experts tell them about healing (but are unable to heal because they are haunted by horrific memories, nightmares, unable to sleep and cope with life) won’t they feel more inadequate and ashamed of themselves?
In my opinion, to suggest that people can and should heal from trauma will end up doing more harm than good.
I think each individual needs to be somewhat tentative by contemplating what one can do after a disaster, and to carefully choose who they seek out for help if they decide that they want to have support from others.
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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