I have written before about the principles of bodily autonomy and embodied personhood, which are the root of how I understand myself as a woman living under male supremacist oppression, the most intense form of which for me took place as psychiatric commitment and forced drugging. The words are inadequate and do not convey the terror and shame, grief and anger, cold rage and death to love, that took place in me within those six weeks. Nor do they convey the specific nuances of who did what and how, the ending of one world and beginning of another, the monumental changes that also took place inside me where a new self was taking root that I had to nurture into being from the death of the old.
This all happened in my body, and as dissociation from my body. Neuroleptic drugs, and in particular haloperidol which was forced on me, cause a person to dissociate from their body and their sexuality. They cause psychic apathy (numbness). They further cause intense psychic and physical anguish known as akathisia. These effects have been known to psychiatry since the first use of the neuroleptic drug thorazine, and David Cohen argues persuasively that the numbing and akathisia are not side effects but the signature effect of neuroleptics and the intended result. This all happens in the body. It happens where the body meets mind, in the mystery of the brain. When it is happening you as a person become split between the effect you experience and some core awareness of yourself that needs to remain untouched. In my case I felt my soul flee to a part of my body on the left side, the point at which years later I read that the soul leaves at the time of death. That was also the place where the earth began speaking to me. But I had no access to that core self during the time of forced drugging and for long years after. The most intense part of what happened to my body was to find myself looking upwards without having any reason to do so, which I later learned had a name, oculogyric crisis. It happened slowly enough that it felt like my will was hijacked by the drug, rather than feeling like a physical spasm. There was another drug to relieve that, one that I enjoyed the effects of, as it felt like it obliterated not only some of the neuroleptic anguish but also a little bit of an artificial high itself, like what I imagine might come from sniffing glue. At the time it was enough, a relief from the oppression and almost unimaginable, uninhabitable, feeling of being locked up and going through this absurd situation. Finally all the drugging was ended after I asked for more of the haloperidol to sedate me out of my misery, which they readily acceded to, and I promptly passed out cold and woke up with an IV in my hand.
Telling all this almost forty years later feels strange, a story that I remember clearly and that is so specific, so much still living inside me, and yet distanced, as I feel my body now intact, relatively, I am able to feel what I couldn’t then, more feelings come through my body each time I remember. Physical, acute memory. Of a time when the signature effect was dissociation from my body instigated by a violent assault on my body that left no bruises.
The hospital was men’s space, defined and controlled by men, named by men, sterile as a machine or simply drab and sad, bars and fear. A prison for women where bodies were rebellious entities to be subdued. Where souls were intimidated out of sight out of mind, or drugged into shocked submission. I will never forget Shoshanna’s eyes looking at me from her straitjacket, over the blue and white back to front front to back hospital gowns they finally made her put on. I will never forget Edwina who fought, who would not be cowed, and maybe she never did give in. Or Stephanie, who was kind and was only there because she had epileptic seizures. Or in the other place, the woman who played piano fluently but with no feeling, heavily drugged. Or myself, how would I have seemed to anyone else? Young and frightened and aloof, doing what I had to do to survive including becoming the president of the patient’s council selected by the nurses to talk about the other patients and agree to their selection of the next patient’s council members.
Can you imagine that saying all this now, thirty-nine years after the fact, still causes me to cry and brings up new feelings in my body? That it brings up new awarenesses and things I didn’t understand before? Compassion for my young self that I needed and didn’t have at the time. And how long it took me for the parts of this awareness to fall into place. And what happens to the women who are locked up for decades, who lose decades of their lives to being mental patients inside or outside the walls, losing one home after another and being outpatient committed in the end, and it is still not the end, still living and struggling and surviving and creating. How do you heal when they are still poisoning you? When they are still controlling where you live, what you do with your time, when you are in all kinds of databases and the authorities know you are a mental patient and treat you as such in any interaction you have with them.
Still oppressed, still constrained, is also how I live in the ordinary dreary free world of patriarchy where I am privileged enough to live in an old grumpy house in the woods, with my wife, in a place that called to me and would not let me go. A place that teaches me and talks to me. And that I retreat to and want to also be a healing space and sanctuary to bring other women to, to bring women’s energy and not feel that I have to go out into men’s world in order to have the world of human beings. I am a lesbian and my body is female, I love other embodied females as a lesbian, that is what being a lesbian means. My female body is not an afterthought, and it is not a prejudice.
My having lived as an embodied female, in a world where men – embodied males – are legally licensed to act as if the world, all of it, is theirs and I am only a guest, object of prey, or presumed servant in their lordly house, matters. It is not an afterthought and it is not a prejudice. My choosing women – other embodied females – by passionate choice and celebration, not only as a sexual orientation or “preference” but as a life path and spiritual calling, is not an afterthought and it is not a prejudice.
My world is female. My experience of the earth talking to me, the mother present in everything I do, reaching out and touching and touching back, over so many loving decades now, is a female to female touch. Male presences come and go, they are ephemeral in this space. It is part of who I am, my embodiment in this life, on this earth, to be a lesbian and to be fully within female energy and space. My work takes me outside that in its service, and I follow my calling to law school, to the United Nations, to rooms and rooms, hotels and streets where I have to dissociate again, where I have to find myself focusing words and ideas to make a new path that is coherent with female autonomy and power, through men’s world, that will either change it or be there for a new world to use when this old one we are living in is destroyed.
Those who read this will dismiss me on a number of grounds, as a witch, as a crazy bitch, as a terf, as a dangerous fool who shouldn’t be let loose or given a speaking platform. And I can take that risk now, hoping that there is love beyond the denial of female autonomy that is spewing in this present time. I won’t be silenced or be silent, and I will choose where and how to engage.