Forced psychiatry functioned as a kind of guiderail in my life even though it was unbelievably destructive. I mean that I was digging myself into a whole/hole, but losing my way. I’d like to think that if I’d been born into a family and community where I was seen and encountered, where love meant taking emotional risks of truth and vulnerability, any such situation would have been seen and I would have been caught up in the arms of love and set on the path again. Or to put it another way, that I would have had access to wisdom of elders, to my own inner knowing, to the teachings of the Earth and all beings that are given freely to us but non-indigenous societies have alienated ourselves from.
That even if I was lost, there would have been someone else or a whole body of community and wisdom that was there for me and that would reach out to me, that if they failed and I failed it was all of us together. Not just the frightening lonely path and anxiety of being responsible for myself alone since no one was witnessing my struggle, even when I did reach out. Or rather the only witnessing and response was to feed me to the psychiatric machine.
That machine destroyed everything I knew, almost everything of me. It destroyed my illusions and it also destroyed what I had created in myself of value up to that point. It would be nice if there could be guiderails, to turn my life around without violence, to destroy the illusions without destroying what was good. And I don’t know whether what I mean is just elders and wisdom, or something more like a social custom or practice. I don’t know if the instantaneous destruction of illusion had to go along with the greater destruction. Or whether some other kind of guiderail would be kinder but also slower, and maybe of less power to create something different and new. Whether I am who I am today, liking myself, because of the encounter with a violent, destructive force, and whether, when a person is struggling with her life path, with illusion and transformation, there is any way that some form of violence is not inevitable. I wonder. And whether there is a social responsibility to manage the violence, to create some outlet for it, to really manage the emergence of something new in its conflict with the old in and through one person’s life (which is a meta-social institution as it would be addressing something that relates to existing ones and a person’s relationship to them). And I think that is more correct to say that society is responsible for meeting each such situation with the best kindness and wisdom it can offer, with risk of truth and vulnerability towards the person who is struggling.
What I experienced in psychiatry, the transformative power, is what was needed (from a teleological point of view or hindsight) to shift my reality and make me an activist who could shift the legal paradigm within international law, with respect to that destructive machine itself and the social forces and needs it has been serving. I can say that and it doesn’t need to be a truth for anyone else, in the sense that I don’t need others to validate my teleological point of view which may as well be rationalization and my own creative imagination as anything else. It also doesn’t speak to anybody else’s experience in particular so I cannot know how it seems to others, whether you also felt that the violence of psychiatry in your life was transformative in a positive way or allowed you to let go illusions and relationships that didn’t serve you.
It wasn’t as if this was all roses, it was years and decades of anguish, etc., deadening, weaving and knitting myself, growing and nurturing, etc. But with hindsight and eventually, increasingly, moving more into my grounded body, I feel the parts of myself that know the path I’m on has been a good one, that I value who I am more than I value the self I lost.
Psychiatry is a particular thing, unlike other violent situations because it comes with an ideology of being what you need. So there is the gaslighting that addressing the transformative nature of trauma in some of our lives, in this particular instance, feels like it is accepting the violence and the oppressor’s judgment of me. Actually it is similar to when rapists and batterers say it’s just what you needed, but I suppose in the case of psychiatry society as a whole and law still believe this lie. And this is where the nature of psychiatry, like rape and battering, as violence, makes it never acceptable as a guiderail. Psychiatry is different not only because it claims to be good for us but because it specifically offers itself as a guiderail for troubled people. So if its violence serves that function in some of our lives, how is that different from being grateful for abuse?
The difference is that we are not grateful for having been abused, we are grateful for the destruction of illusion and the opportunity to create new value. Maybe this is making lemons out of lemonade, it is a creative act that knits past to present and future, at least I cannot separate the act that changed my life from the changed life I have, and I honor its presence in my life, I honor my experience of what took place without honoring the moral quality of the act or desiring it to take place against me or anyone else ever again.
The moral wrong of violating another’s personal boundaries, of playing god with their mind and body, of using violence to accomplish any purpose of good towards the victim, is what for me is key to understanding the harm of forced psychiatry as a guiderail. And that seems pitifully inadequate to capture all the rest of what I have said and advocated for, the destructiveness, the intolerable harm that I am contemplating at a distance of almost forty years from my own experience and that current victims do not have the luxury of reflecting on but simply need it to stop. It is likely that my reflection is about what I brought to the experience as much as anything else, that I was emotionally numb and psychiatry cut through the numbness and increased it at the same time, similar maybe to cutting as described by those who use it to deal with terrible emotional pain that can’t be let out any other way.
What I mean about moral wrong: I played with the idea of violence as being somehow necessary for transformation, until I figured out that kindness and risk of truth and vulnerability not only works better but creates the kinds of relationships I want to have with people. I mean violence in a sense of deliberately “intervening” with another person or allowing someone to “intervene” with me to change the person’s mental landscape. It’s harder and riskier or just more honest and vulnerable but in the end not really riskier, to be real and kind at the same time, to take a step back and take it slower, not to have to say everything I’m thinking, making space to hear what I’m not hearing and at the same time to allow and speak to the presence of disconnection or dissonance where I know we are separate and the separateness causes us pain, because there is a desire to be at one, a disjunction between my needs and yours or between our separate realities. To feel the pain of separateness and be together in that pain sometimes. Yeah not with everyone to the same degree, but the principle is the same I think. And yeah I cut people off who are actively harming me or who institutionally or structurally are set up to harm me. I do believe in and support and practice self-defense.
Psychiatry is this moral wrong a thousandfold or a millionfold. Not just individuals playing with risk in ways that are harmful because they disrespect the other’s moral autonomy. Though that bears repeating, it is especially disrespect for moral autonomy, as well as bodily and mental autonomy that characterizes psychiatry and again is probably similar to other forms of violence in this way but may not be as entrenched in law and societal thinking. Moral autonomy as the choice to undergo certain experiences and to position oneself and relate oneself to a particular way of thinking or experiencing the world, and especially with regard to experiences that are transformative and that have destructive power.
I want to look at the transformative and destructive power inherent in psychiatry to link the coercive and legalized violence of psychiatry with the methods themselves. If we look at what electroshock does and can do, what neuroleptic drugs and other psychiatric drugs do and can do, not from a clinical perspective that asks whether they are safe and effective treatments but purely from a scientific and experience inquiry that wants to know, what is this thing? Those who have an interest in figuring out whether and under what circumstances any of these methods can be used positively, guided by respect for moral autonomy, by kindness, and by risk of truth and vulnerability, can possibly come to conclusions guided by “reason and conscience” (UDHR Article 1, recognizing reason and conscience as attributes of all human beings).
Coercive and legalized violence in psychiatry is unequivocally a moral wrong and I have addressed this before in ways that I hope are implicit, and explicit, here and do not have to be reiterated. (Briefly: everything I have said about moral autonomy is by definition violated by forced psychiatry, by each act of forced psychiatry and by its existence as a social institution, custom and practice.) And of course the legal response to this moral wrong has been addressed in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its interpretation and application, see CHRUSP Resources page for links.
I return to the concept of guiderails in thinking about what I would wish for myself or another person navigating troubled times or troubled self. It can be like the bouncing walls of a pinball machine, keeping you in the game, or it can be like ropes for climbing or staying on a narrow path, or something you feel and create at the same time. I don’t know if there is a need for the walls of the pinball machine, to contain us in our lostness, or what that would look like and what it could be that is not violent, not a violation of our moral autonomy, not destructive of what is good in us. I want the availability of something to reach out for, to hold on to, and I want the opportunity and nurturing forbearance as well as eager and warm embrace, to tentatively and then more strongly create my own guiderails, my own lights on the path that opens up in front of me.
I’m going to close with something related that spun off from my thinking about guiderails, on criteria for a restorative/transformative justice process.
It assumes a community in which individual and collective autonomy and separatism is respected and taken for granted, including female autonomy and separatism, and the separatism and autonomy of people of color, and is not treated by those excluded as a threat to group cohesion or solidarity. I am thinking about potential ways to address conflicts in organizations and movements, as well as allegations of harmful conduct per se. I am drawing on my readings and brief training in restorative/transformative justice and my thinking about gaps in what is described there. I don’t claim particular originality for any of the concepts, but rather am putting together what makes sense to me as a whole process. Each of the pieces, and how they fit together, could surely be the subject of more writing, but that will be another time.
1. Prevent physical violence and harm, including physical and sexual aggression and deprivation of means of subsistence (food, water, clothing, shelter), and provide needed care and support, including assistance to end destructive relationships.
2. Ascertain claims, justifications, and counter-claims.
3. Affirm community for victims and also for alleged offenders.
4. Ascertain position of alleged offenders – acknowledgment, denial, justification, excuse, counter-claims.
5. Ascertain facts ensuring victims and alleged offenders and witnesses opportunity to be fully heard.
6. Address competing human rights claims on overall policy issues.
7. Address unfair rules, unfair process, and contextual discrimination.
8. Offer offenders guiderails for navigating path back to honor in the community.
9. Offer victims guiderails for navigating path back to wholeness.
10. Ensure that direct reparations are carried out by offenders and by community.
11. Ensure that community addresses its own responsibilities for harm, carries out needed actions on policy, and restores fair and non-discriminatory rules and processes.
12. End wider community relationships that are beyond repair or reconciliation.