Editor’s Note: This article represents the perspective of an individual who identifies as a psychiatric survivor and whose experiences with the mental health field have many times been traumatizing. It is not meant to dismiss the valuable aspects of psychiatry, psychopharmacology, or therapy, or to suggest that others don’t benefit from these (often life-saving) resources.
I have been locked up, against my will, four times in my life.
The first hospitalization was at 16, and I had never had any kind of episode before. The next three somewhat had to do with my ambivalence towards medication, but they were also impacted by incompetent psychiatrists.
For example, I’ve been in cop cars. The code for a mental health legal violation is “5150,” which can be made into a verb: I’ve been fifty one fiftied. Supposedly, this can be done when a person is deemed a “danger to self or others.”
And yet, oddly, I have never been homicidal. And while I’ve had suicidal ideation, I’ve been far from the brink of attempting or even seriously considering suicide.
So what gives? Why lock me away? Why separate me from society like a contagious pathogen?
My Experience With An Altered State of Consciousness Commonly Known as Psychosis
I’ve had some pretty intense delusions. Some were typical fare; others, not so typical. The NSA being everywhere, some ideas about being connected with God and/or the Antichrist and seeing “The Truth” about everything. Some Truman Show type of conspiracy theory that my imaginative brain elaborated into a dizzying web of symbols.
My psychosis is, as you may be gathering, not a lot of fun. In fact, it can be excruciatingly painful. It’s dysphoric mania, not euphoric mania, according to the textbooks.
The little spider that we all have in our minds, the one that spins stories about ourselves and other people, gossips, gets creative, makes sense of reality — when I am manic, that spider spins out of control and I can’t tell what’s cobweb and what’s window anymore. I can’t see people clearly. I can’t see myself clearly.
I know I’m doing harm to myself when I’m in this state. But when I’m held against my will in a facility with many other people whose internal story-telling spiders are also in overdrive, hospitalization turns into a big fucking Halloween frat house mess.
Michael Cornwall, who runs the Mad in America site and has been practicing radical, compassionate therapy for folks in altered states of consciousness for years, said that what we label as psychosis is a distortion of latent feelings longing to be expressed.
Western medicine’s attempt to manage the trauma in my body when it was at its most acute expression was a massive fail for many reasons. They try to clog up our emotional urges with chemicals that have devastating short- and long-term side effects. Psychiatrists in and out of hospitals still use nineteenth-century Freudian models in their “treatment.” Hospitals have an even more outdated Middle Ages model of separating the “sick” from the “well” that originated with leper colonies. And there are all those big mirrors everywhere. They were tracking our every move, putting it all in our charts, and they wonder why we think we’re being spied on.
The panopticon is real.
What I really feel like I need when I’m in those states is a place to rest and someone to listen until I run out of the story and land with the necessarily rugged emotion. And then people to hold me with care as I release those feelings, not an orderly to hold me down to a bed and inject me with drugs in the hip.
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There is rarely individual therapy in those places. And group therapy is a joke. As for rest, while I was sleeping, someone opened my door every hour and shined a flashlight on my bed and my roommate’s bed to make sure we weren’t hurting ourselves. Or fucking.
Hospitals are hotbeds of weird flirtation and sexual compulsion and frustration. If that sounds fun, trust me, it’s not.
So you may be asking yourself, what’s the solution? The truth is, I’m not sure.
Where Do I Find Relief?
I have already written about how I’ve made an uneasy peace with taking medication, and I’ve mercifully found a kind, competent psychiatrist. I work hard to stay out of the hospital. I have no plans to return, but I also recognize I have a chronic illness. I am vigilant about my self-care, but life circumstances could push me over the edge again. I don’t know.
And that’s terrifying, because I know that currently there’s no place in our culture that would help me heal from a manic flare-up in a measured, helpful way. I know there’s no place that wouldn’t do me more harm than good.
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It’s more than the mini-history lesson I’ve given you, though. It’s more than the fact that I know intellectually that these institutions are built on a foundation of separating the “good” from the “bad”, the same principle fueling our broken prison-industrial complex.
I don’t want to say all the nurses, doctors, orderlies, social workers, group therapists, and so on are missing the mark. But so many are.
When I was locked up, or in an outpatient treatment program, so many of them looked at me as the Other. So many of them treated me with condescension, rudeness, syrupy false kindness, and many other tactics that regarded me as sub-human.
I was terrified; I was disempowered. I was literally not allowed to leave the premises until they decided my metaphors were not so hysterical. I never threatened to kill myself or anyone else, but my rants were deeply unsettling to me and everyone around me. My language and behavior stopped making sense.
Why is that a crime? And what is the alternative?
Healing and Accountability Through Restorative Justice
I want to question the whole notion of crime and punishment. It’s important to acknowledge that this is not an academic point. So many of our country’s prisoners have severe mental health struggles, and their experience being “treated” with psychiatry while imprisoned makes my experience look like a cake walk.
This means that mental health reform is also about prison reform. They are inseparable.
The restorative justice movement seeks healing and accountability rather than separation from society and punishment.
How can this inform mental health reform? Instead of a 5150, instead of separating out the “sick” from the “well” and insisting on “compliance” with medication and other “treatments,” couldn’t we have restful places with healthy food, herbalists, acupuncturists, and art therapists that help those in an altered state come to terms with the symbols rattling around in their brain?
This approach would take more time. People would not be able to return to work as quickly. But they might be able to heal the root of their problems by expressing the deep, primal emotion(s) shaking them into psychosis or major depression. They might not need medication. They might not keep going into and out of hospitals and prisons.
Something similar to this kind of model was attempted at Diabisis House in the 1970s. Sadly, these kinds of sanctuaries don’t exist today. But they could.
From a cross-cultural perspective, too, there are many places in the world that don’t treat psychosis as an illness, but rather as an expression of a problem, or even as an expression of a gift — that the person experiencing this altered state has insight into the world. I mean, I was pretty sure the NSA was up to no good before Edward Snowden’s big day. Sure, I went too far with it and hurt myself, but there was a grain of truth there that a respectful guide might honor, not ridicule or punish for betraying sacred rationality.
Ethan Watters published a book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, which details how psychiatry and psychopharmacology have collaborated to basically make the rest of the world as miserable as America, even in places where mental health has historically been treated much more holistically, or where those undergoing altered states of consciousness were actually revered.
The symbol for western medicine is the Rod of Asclepius; you know, that snake winding itself around a stick. Snakes are poisonous, and the Greeks knew this. Pharmakon means drug, medicine, poison. I have to get my blood drawn twice a year to make sure the drug/medicine I’ve been on for eighteen years isn’t poisoning my liver.
As a child abuse survivor, I hold a great deal of ambivalence in my body — love for my perpetrators, as well as justifiable anger. They are both there. Medicine, poison.
As a psychiatric abuse survivor I have gratitude that I can function as well as I can in society and in my various communities of work, creativity, and friendship. I also have justifiable anger at all the ways the psychiatric system has disempowered me, sending me the overt and covert message that I cannot be trusted with my own life. That I cannot be trusted to make decisions, and that I am irreparably broken.
On my best days, I’m proud that I’m as well and successful as I am despite all my traumas. On my worst days, psychiatry’s messages land: I believe that I’m broken.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I am fairly happy and successful; I’m healing the fractures inside me and inside my family. But a system that tells me I need them forever, that my condition is chronic and that I will probably have to endure traumatic hospitalization again if I’m not hypervigilant — this makes the little spider in my mind anxious and weave faster. And you already know how that goes.
So what do I do? I cultivate community. I cultivate spirituality and mindfulness. I go to therapy. I am creative. I do loads of self-care. When will it ever be enough to drown out the voices that whisper I shouldn’t be where I am? That any success I’ve had is an accident of fate, that at my core, I can’t be trusted to take care of myself, that I’m dangerous to myself and others?
It’s just another story. Another web. I wipe away the mess. I see my reflection in the glass. I smile, open the window. I tell myself a different story.
[Feature Image: A person with long brown hair and light skin is looking into the camera with a furrowed brow, their hand holding the side of their head. Source: Meciek Lempicki]