Monday, December 5, 2022

Comments by Mike Alvarez, MFA, MA

Showing 23 of 23 comments.

  • I agree that Williams’ suicide was agentic, in that he took control over the trajectory of his illness by ending his life. It was the ultimate declaration of self-determination. But I am uneasy with positioning rational and emotive as a dichotomy. The tendency to dichotomize is a very Western thing, and I believe that every decision (including suicide) is *both* rational and emotive. This idea is supported by studies in neuroscience (*not* biopsychiatry), which found that persons with compromised emotion regulation have *greater* difficulty arriving at decisions. In other words, even the most “rational” or “logical” choice needs that gut-level feeling to put it into motion.

  • Alex, I am so glad to hear that you are living a highly creative and richly fulfilling life! Your comment about artists creating circles around the system made me think of Rollo May’s “The Courage to Create,” a book that was (and continues to be) very dear to me. In it he writes about artists and creatives as insurgents, able to envision new patterns, symbols, and foundations upon which a better society can be built–which the ‘gods’ of contemporary society (patriarchy, materialism, conformity) cannot abide by, because the artist would render them irrelevant and obsolete.

    Anyway, I’m ranting, but I just wanted to say that it made me smile hearing someone describe their life as a “burst of creativity.” I think all lives should be led that way.

  • @streetphotobeing: Thank you for sharing these resources, and for mentioning Peter Breggin, whose books–especially, Medication Madness & Toxic Psychiatry–I found eye-opening when I first read them. While I maintain the view that Robin Williams’ suicide was his final act of agency, I also concur that antidepressants and antipsychotics very likely had a hand in his death.

    @ceileena: Your partner’s son’s description of forced treatment as “rape” made me think of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is how I felt when I was on Zydis and Zyprexa (fortunately, I weaned myself off of them). It felt like my body was not my own. In the middle of the night, I would wake up extremely agitated and restless, as if I had “butterflies” in every tissue of my body. It was pure torment, and I hope your partner’s son can safely wrestle himself free from (as you put it) the cycle of abuse.

  • No need for apologies, kindred spirit. Thank you for your kind words, and for sharing your story. It means a lot. And I agree that using Williams’ death as a “call to arms” to raise awareness of “mental illness” stigma–with the ulterior motive of funneling ever greater numbers of people into a severely compromised system–is, as you say, disgusting, and utterly disrespectful. He never saw himself as “mentally ill,” and there is no reason for psychologists, psychiatrists, and the general public to override his own views of himself and diagnose him with one.

  • Very much agree, Julie. In Robin Williams’ case, the desire for human connection in the face of unremitting loneliness, I think, made him an empath like no other–able to relate to, and embody, persons from all walks of life, real or imaginary.

    So glad to hear that you have fond memories of your childhood experiences! Although I see my own childhood as bittersweet, I too have no regrets in that it made me the fiercely determined person I am today.

    Alex, thank you for the excellent Oprah Winfrey example! She truly is a force to be reckoned with, one whose triumphs were fueled by her own traumatic past. I agree that trauma is not a necessary precondition to creativity (all humans are inherently creative, it’s just a matter of discovering–and appreciating–the myriad ways in which we are so), but of course, trauma can ignite the creative spark.

    Your statement about sabotage made me think of chemical attempts to castrate the creative individual. I cannot help but feel that dogmatic biopsychiatrists do just that, because the creative person who embraces their gift is a threat to definitions of normalcy and to hegemonic sanity. Maybe there is even envy there. Unable to realize their creative and authentic selves, they proceed to tear down the creativity and authenticity exhibited by others. Nothing drives sabotage more fiercely than envy. Just my two cents.

  • I am so sorry you had to witness your grandfather’s painful deterioration. We live in a death-denying culture that, sadly, lapses into humiliation and degradation in its attempts to prolong life, the consequence being violation of a person’s bodily integrity and right to self-determination. Unlike past eras in which the elderly and terminally ill died in the company of loved ones, in this day and age, many are left to waste away behind institutional walls, soaking in their own excrement. I agree that the current paradigm of end-of-life care needs serious reworking; one can make sincere attempts at prolonging life (where possible), without violating the person’s dignity and autonomy.

    I’m not sure I understand what you were responding to when you wrote, “Robin Williams suicide had nothing to do with his being a creative,” but I want to make clear that I was not at all suggesting that his creativity contributed to his suicide. On the contrary, as I illustrated throughout the piece, his creativity was his breakwater against deep depression and anxiety (I use these terms in an existential rather than biological sense). PD and LBD robbed him of that, along with many other things that he cherished about his life and his self.

  • I’m glad that you liked the piece. Thank you. In response to your question of ‘why’, one significant barrier to a deep, humanistic understanding of suicide, is the tendency of many mental health professionals to impose their own framework of understanding onto the experiences of suicidal persons. They are not trying hard enough to understand suicidal persons in *their* own subjective terms. Rather than ask, “What does it mean to be suicidal?”–to which “mental illness” is often the answer given–perhaps we should be asking, “What does being suicidal mean *for* the suicidal person?”

  • Hi. I was agreeing with the general part of Steve’s comment that there’s a need to explore childhood adversity’s relationship to “mental illness” onset, which biopsychiatry seems averse to doing. Nowhere in my post did I write that Robin Williams specifically was abused as a child, although my case study does point to a childhood of neglect, and to bullying and harassment by peers (which one could interpret as a form of peer abuse, and which I understood Steve to be referring to when he spoke of abuse).

    Having said that, my purpose in writing about Robin Williams’ childhood was actually to explore the genesis of his creativity (which you acknowledge when you wrote that “his sense of humor came from his mother”), its myriad emotional and ontological functions, and later, to underscore what was at stake when his mind and body began to disintegrate.

  • I agree that we cannot underestimate or take for granted the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (be it parental neglect, peer abuse, etc.) and the onset of so-called “mental illness.” Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child (among many other influential texts), suspected that biopsychiatry’s dismissal of childhood adversity and trauma, could itself be a reflection of its adherents’ reluctance to take a hard look at their own childhoods. I’ve always found this to be a fascinating thought.

    And I concur that Robin Williams’ “mental illness” was a natural, human response to the myriad catastrophes that had befallen him. Thank you for reading my piece, Steve.

  • Thank you so much for the generous words. In preparing to write this piece, I read every biography on Robin Williams I could get my hands on; tracked news coverage of his suicide in high-circulation papers; read the accounts of persons with neurodegenerative diseases (PD, LBD); and for a whole month, watched at least one Robin Williams movie each day. While the portrait I offer is but a humble exercise in empathy, I did my best to immerse myself in what I imagine to be his life-world, and reading comments like yours has truly made my day.

    Speaking of empathy, I agree that use of the words “mental illness” in a biologically deterministic way (or perhaps in any way) precludes understanding. As you so poignantly write: “It shuts down, it does not listen, it does not feel.” Despite claims that invocation of the word “mental illness” destigmatizes, like you, I would argue that it often achieves the opposite: it casts the other as wholly unknowable, inherently flawed, burning the bridge to empathy. While I do occasionally use it in my writings, I preface it with “so-called” to bring attention to the concept’s socially constructed nature (I inherited this habit from my mentor, George Atwood, who has also written for MIA and has recently been featured in a podcast).

    I do find it interesting that you think discussion of Williams’ childhood could have been left out. I included it in my attempt to provide a holistic picture–specifically, the myriad functions creativity fulfilled across his lifespan, and how the deterioration of his mind and body snuffed whatever emotional fulfillment he’d derived from his work. It was not only his present self that was under threat of erasure, but the rich personal history that preceded it. My apologies if that did not come across clearly in my writing.

  • Thank you for reading the piece. I am aware that Robin Williams had been prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics some time before his death. I also agree that in many unfortunate cases, psychotropic drugs can and do contribute to suicidality. However, I take issue with attempts to isolate a singular cause for suicide, whatever that cause may be, that discredit the agency of the suicidal person in question.

    I think you and I can agree that the biopsychiatric model discredits suicidal individuals’ capacity for self-determination by attributing their problems to so-called mental illness, defined by organized psychiatry as a “biochemical imbalance in the brain.” You’ve heard the rhetoric: “Depression killed him,” “Bipolar killed him,” etc. The model does away with the *human* context (familial, social, cultural, etc.) in which much suffering becomes intelligible.

    But here’s a question: By saying drugs, and drugs alone, are responsible for the death of Robin Williams, are you not also committing the same fallacy as the medical model? Are you not also reducing the complexity of his lived experience, his life-world? What of Williams’ attempts to exercise control (tragically, through death) over the trajectory of his Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia (which, unlike so-called mental illness, are bona fide diseases)? What of the loss of his creativity in the face of imminent deterioration?

    As someone who’d suffered the adverse side effects of antipsychotics (namely, akathisia), I can empathize with the desire to pin suicide on psychotropic drugs. And again, I agree that the role of such drugs in suicides should be investigated further. But this does not mean we should discredit the all-too-human circumstances that drive people to seek treatment in the first place, or to end their lives.

  • Your comment about the assumption of sexual interest in any patient contact just brought back a memory long forgotten.

    One afternoon in the dayroom, my friend ‘Tamara’ came out of her 15-minute meeting with her psychiatrist, looking very confused and disturbed. I asked her what was bothering her, and–I kid you not–she said that Humpty Dumpty, the egg-shaped doctor, inquired how often she masturbated.

    To this day, I fail to see how that has anything to do with her healing/recovery. In this particular case, the doctor is the one with (as you so perfectly put it) “messy stuffy” inside of themselves–not my dear ‘Tamara’. What a sick bastard that man was.

  • It’s unfortunate that the staff member who treated “patients” as equals no longer works there. I hope that she has not become jaded by the industry, and that she continues to touch the lives of others. Of the staff members working in the hospital I was in, the most compassionate were the undergraduate nurses-in-training in their late teens/early twenties. I’d like to think that time did not erode their compassion.

  • Thank you for the heartfelt words. I’m actually lucky to have met a few mental health practitioners who are overflowing with compassion and empathy, but you won’t find them within the walls of sanatoria, and they are often criticized for lacking “objectivity” (as if humanity and objectivity are mutually exclusive).

  • You know, I didn’t even think about the implications of that staff member’s statement. It’s as if patients’ lives were inconsequential once they were out of the revolving door of the mental health system. But yes, I have a lot of goals that I am striving to achieve, and have mercy on the fools who stand in my way! 🙂

  • Thank you for reading my essay. While the hospital was cold and dreary (literally and figuratively), I am also thankful I didn’t end up someplace worse, and especially grateful for the warmth that emanated from the other “patients.” But I do agree that there has to be a better way, one that ensured the safety of “patients” while respecting their autonomy as human beings.

  • Thank you, Steve, for reading my piece, and for the kind words. I agree that the notion of “boundaries” has become an excuse for depriving others of empathy, and for exercising paternalistic control over those “others.” It’s terrible enough that patients/inmates cannot get hugs from staff, as Stephen points out, but it’s even worse when patients can’t touch one another. As you say, genuine human contact is a true antidote to so-called mental illness, and yet, in defiance of logic, human contact is denied within institutions that purport to administer care.

  • The groups were always boring, if not insulting. In addition to groups on the food pyramid and on drinking 8 glasses of water per day, there were groups where we were told what the symptoms of major “mental illnesses” were, as if we didn’t have first-hand experience of them. I’m glad that you, too, found camaraderie and hope in your fellow inmates, and that you were able to emerge from the horrors of state hospital. Thank you for sharing your story, and for reading my piece.

  • Thank you for reading my piece, Stephen. I’m so glad that a young man not unlike my “Glenn” (a pseudonym, of course) entered your life at the right moment and told you everything was going to be alright. Even though it has been a decade since my time in the hospital, I still vividly remember the good folks I met there, and I will cherish my memories of them always.