When I spoke about having been locked up and how awful it was, people would be very sympathetic and say a mistake had been made in my case, as I obviously wasn’t mentally ill. Even though I would explain that I had been as crazy as anyone had ever been, with all the classic signs of what is called schizophrenia, I don’t think people believed me. They didn’t understand. Yes, I had been mistreated as an individual, but what had happened to me was still happening to thousands of others.
Irit Shimrat is a Canadian activist in the mad movement, who wrote the book Call Me Crazy from which that quote is taken.
Prior to being locked up, she had believed that there was a massive worldwide conflict in which she could tell the good guys and the bad guys at a glance. She wore sunglasses because she believed that looking someone directly in the eye could kill them, and she believed she was invisible when she stole the sunglasses to use for this. God talked to her through an alarm clock. When she was locked up and put in an isolation room, she stuck her finger up her butt and wrote symbols in the wall in crap to try to unlock the door and free herself. She finally agreed to take the drugs they wanted, which didn’t stop her from being crazy at all, but did get her out of seclusion.
She eventually started thinking straight again, but it took months. Much later, when she was doing a lot of work against psychiatry, she went crazy again. As she put it:
I thought it was interesting that the first and second time I went mad, I got professional help — hospitalization and drugs — and stayed crazy for months, and the third time I got help from a friend who wasn’t scared because she’d been there herself — and it was over in a few hours.
There is something very interesting in all this that is not supposed to be mentioned, somehow: That a lot of people do better without psychiatric drugs than with them.
The classic response, so classic that it is to me a cliché, is to say, “But there are severe mental illnesses for which medication is necessary,” or else “These people did not have the real version of these illnesses.”
Note that I do not believe that “mental illness” is even an appropriate term for these experiences, because it is loaded with assumptions about the causes and nature of the experiences, that are simply not proven or true. For instance, as I am reading the text on this screen, I am sure that if you scanned my brain, you would see certain regions lighting up that are not normally lit up. Yet you would not say “These brain regions lighting up cause the text to appear on the screen.” Saying “These brain regions lighting up cause the text to appear on the screen” is exactly equivalent to what people are doing with terms like “depression” and brain scan studies. They are saying the brain spontaneously causes a disease called depression, therefore treating neurotransmitters will cause the brain to stop causing this disease, basically.
This is not to say that neurological variation doesn’t exist, but that the assumption that all things classified as “mental illness” are true diseases and truly caused by neurological variation, is incredibly suspect in many areas, including in terms of the so-called “treatments”.
But one of the most damaging aspects of this model is this:
When I say that I handle life without psychiatric drugs, it is assumed that:
- I do not share certain experiences with people who “need” psychiatric drugs.
- I do not share as extreme experiences as people who “need” psychiatric drugs.
Just like Irit Shimrat and the nebulous concept of “schizophrenia”, I have experienced every recorded aspect of what psychiatry calls depression.
I have not just “gotten sad,” I have felt that life has no hope and that every instant was taking a century and that soon I would find it unbearable. I have felt too bad to even cry. I have been unable to move, not because of the difficulty I have with movement ordinarily, but because I could not muster the will to move an inch. I have made serious, but fortunately clueless, attempts at suicide. I have felt like I had no mood at all, no interest in doing anything. I have felt like I am the most horrible person on the planet and deserve death to rid everyone of my presence.
I experienced those things for many years of my life. I do not now experience any of those things.
Here is the part where I am supposed to tell you about the wonderful drugs, or the wonderful electroshock that would help me. In fact, I would have made a good candidate for electroshock by psychiatric standards, because I was totally unresponsive to anti-depressants of any kind. They screwed me up several ways at a time, and did nothing to alleviate my overall mood.
And that is the part where everyone says “Well misdiagnosis occurs and that is really horrible and all but it doesn’t have anything to do with people who have real, severe depression. You did not have a real mood disorder.”
Well… no, that really sounds like a cop-out to me, a quick and easy but wrong explanation. I experienced those things because of a combination of circumstances and learned reactions to circumstances. When I changed both the circumstances and the reactions, suddenly I began to be genuinely happy (not just a mood, but an overall sense of things) for longer and longer.
This did not happen overnight, and it was not an easy “snapping my fingers and it’s gone” thing, it took years of concentrated effort, and the effort had to be in the right areas. I had made an effort in the past, but trying really hard to run north, east, or west doesn’t help when your destination is to the south. It’s not just a matter of how much effort is put in, but of whether you know where to direct that effort. Otherwise you end up exhausted and feeling just as bad as when you started.
But I’m not supposed to say any of this, because saying this supposedly relegates “depression” to “a matter of willpower” and therefore “the fault of the person”, or that “only weak people take psych drugs”. No, not really, that’s not where I’m coming from. At all.
I don’t blame anyone for being, or staying, within the experience that some people call “depression,” because I don’t think that anyone would willingly subject themselves to that. I also think there are external factors that can make such an experience far more likely, and patterns of thinking that perpetuated it are not something to be hand-waved lightly away, or else they would not cause so much suffering, the person would just wave them away themselves.
But what do I know? I couldn’t really have been “mentally ill”, or else I would have taken my drugs like a good little girl, talked all about my “debilitating mood disorder” that was a “neurobiological disease”, gone to NAMI meetings and shut up about what really made me feel better. But my experience, and the experience of Irit Shimrat, are not isolated, random experiences, but incredibly common ones. The main uniqueness in any of our stories is that we have managed to stay away from the system long enough for this to happen, not the sort of people we are intrinsically.
(To be clear: I don’t care what anyone puts into their bodies, I’m pro-choice on that matter. But I do think that there is massive persuasion going on, that tells people they “have to” put certain things in their bodies in order to feel better, and thus “informed consent” often is neither informed nor consent. Telling someone that if they do not take something, they are likely to die, is not choice, especially when it is not true and the opposite may be true.)
So if you see someone talking about how a drug made them feel worse, or talking about how they stopped being a certain way without drugs, or talking about how they accept the way they are, please don’t say, “Oh, here comes another misdiagnosis” or “This person clearly doesn’t understand the suffering involved in severe insert-psych-label-here.”
It may be that they have had all the experiences that traditionally are a part of that psych label, but bad experiences with drugs or good experiences with things that are not drugs. As far as I know, human experience is not defined by whether people having that experience respond a certain way to drugs thrown at them by a profession that really has much less clue what it’s doing than it claims to have, and that is not even a true branch of medicine to begin with.
I am tired of, on the one hand, having my life experiences categorized as a form of illness, and on the other hand, being told that I don’t actually have those experiences just because neither my mind nor body toe the line in response to pseudoscientific “treatments” of said experiences. (Oh, and please don’t call me a $cientologist for saying this, they’re just as bad as psychiatry, thanks.)