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AND GETTING MAD ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT
from the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
LIKE TOO MANY other people, I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t been bullied. I’ve always been the weird, uncool, socially awkward girl. In middle school, I was made fun of for being ugly and for being one of the only Jewish students. In high school, I was almost universally hated as a nerdy weirdo with a huge crush on her Spanish teacher.
A natural reaction to being bullied is to feel sad, lonely, worried, self-conscious, and rejected. But throughout my adolescence and teen years, my natural reaction was diagnosed by mental health professionals as a lot of different illnesses: depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, cyclothymia, and dysthymia. Every psychologist or doctor I saw had a different opinion of what the correct diagnosis, course of treatment, and medications should be. Not one of them mentioned the actual problem: bullying. Nor did most of them ever really ask me what I thought might be best for my own mental health.
My life got better during college. I was still the awkward, weird girl, and I did struggle to make friends at first, but eventually I found a group with whom I could be myself and who liked me for me. I found my place in my college’s Reform Jewish community and theater department. I saw a therapist who validated my feelings and understood my emotions to be a natural reaction to a series of events, not a diagnosable disease.
My college years were not without struggle, however: I experienced more bullying and my first heartbreak — and I was raped. Yet none of that felt like too much for me to handle.
During my senior year, I started dating someone seriously. P. treated me with respect and kindness, made me laugh, supported me, stayed up all night with me talking about the plays I wrote and our philosophical ideas. I couldn’t believe that a guy I loved actually loved me back. It was incredible, but also terrifying. I became convinced that I would somehow screw it all up. I couldn’t believe that someone like him would choose someone like me, someone who had repeatedly been told that she was ugly, awkward, weird, just not normal.
Coupled with this anxiety were the anxieties of senior year: What would I do after graduation? Would I get into a graduate school in a city where P. would move with me? How would I deal with the graduate school application process?
P. wanted to move to Los Angeles, so I decided to go to school in Los Angeles and received a scholarship to attend a joint Jewish nonprofit-management and social-work program there. But what if I moved to L.A., hated school, and then somehow screwed up my relationship with P.? I was so paralyzed with anxiety and fear that I decided to see a psychiatrist. I was prescribed Zoloft and Xanax.
Xanax became a great way to numb some of my anxiety and self-doubt. I loved the feeling it generated, and I was quickly taking more than prescribed.
DURING MY GRADUATION weekend, I got into a fight with my boyfriend about whether or not to say goodbye to an ex before leaving, and I was very anxious about my family visiting. I doubled my dose of Xanax. I woke up in the emergency room at the hospital, surrounded by P. and my parents.
Thankfully, the psychiatrist on call, after spending an hour evaluating me, deemed that I was not a danger to myself and discharged me from the hospital. As we were leaving, however, my mom made a hurtful comment that my graduate school choice wasn’t “prestigious” enough. I felt so upset that I went back to talk to a resident about the anguish I was feeling. He asked if I had thoughts of hurting myself. I said that I did not want to hurt myself, but that “it would be nice to get hit by a car on my way home.” Because of that single facetious comment, this resident, only recently graduated from medical school, had the power, unilaterally, to sentence me to an involuntary hospitalization.
That hospitalization was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. It felt a whole lot like being raped. Your body is someone else’s to control, strip-search, examine, confine, restrain. They decide whether or not you can wear your contact lenses or take your pain medication or wear your clothes or even speak. They shove things down your throat and force you to swallow.They put their hands on you and force you to stay silent.
When I left the hospital, I felt such shame and sadness that it was hard to bear. I continued to take Xanax, which helped me numb the pain a bit, but not nearly enough. So I started drinking, too.
Grad school proved to be awful. Again I was the socially awkward, weird, ugly girl. I was terrible at small talk. I felt solidarity with no one. My classmates were hypersexual and talked nonstop about their escapades. They did not stop when I told them that their conversations were triggering traumatic memories for me.
I wanted to become an emotionless zombie. I took a Xanax before each class. I also asked my psychiatrist to prescribe me Thorazine, a drug known as a chemical lobotomy. She refused, but instead prescribed Gabapentin, which she instructed me to take daily in addition to the Xanax. She also prescribed a higher dose of antidepressants.
I became cynical, apathetic, angry, and pessimistic. I felt an absence of passion, drive, and hope, emotions that had, up until that point, been a critical part of my identity. I lost my optimism and my enthusiasm for the causes I believed in. Suicidal thoughts began, but the fear of being hospitalized again was paralyzing. I took more Xanax. I took more Gabapentin. I drank.
One night, toward the end of the summer, I woke up in the emergency room again. I remember the sheer terror when the technician told me I’d have to be hospitalized. My whole body was shaking, and I was hysterically crying and begging for them to let me go.
THIS TIME, the psychiatric hospital was even worse. The strip search was forceful and aggressive, and I couldn’t relate to any of the other patients. The visiting hours were short, and there were no real therapy groups. The nurses forced us to open our mouths and would check the back of our throats to make sure we had swallowed our medication — something that is very triggering for an oral rape survivor.
The bathroom doors didn’t lock or fully close. If the hospital staff heard patients crying or showing emotion, they would coerce us into taking medication (not taking medication would get you marked as noncompliant). I cried in the shower to hide my emotions from them.
My autonomy was not restored even after I returned from the hospital. No one trusted me. Everyone was on edge, looking for signs that I was suicidal. Even P.’s therapist, who had never met me, told him that I was not well and needed intensive treatment.
My school’s administrators felt similarly. When I tried to register again, I was interrogated by the directors of the Jewish nonprofit-management program about my psychiatric history, diagnoses, hospitalizations, and medications. When I started seeing a psychiatrist who believed I was well enough to go back to school, the administrators interrogated me about why I had switched doctors, then suspended me for one year.
I was terrified that I might be hospitalized again. There were days when I felt too paralyzed to drive for fear that a stupid driving mistake would be perceived as a suicide attempt. I constantly felt the need to censor myself around my friends and family, afraid that the mere mention of mental health would be perceived as a suicidal remark.
Still, each day of survival was a baby step toward regaining their trust. I soon got off the Zoloft and Gabapentin. I joined a twelve-step program to help me with my Xanax addiction and alcohol problem. I began to feel like myself again.
Soon, P. began to trust me again. I’ve also had an amazing conversation with my mom, who has become more than willing to work with me on a recovery plan in which I can maintain my autonomy and freedom. My father, a physician himself, has also come to understand the dangers of overmedication. I now feel that I could not have a more supportive and understanding partner and family.
FOLLOWING my recovery, I could begin to reflect on what had led to all of this torture. It had begun when my childhood classmates bullied me for not being “normal.” The teachers and administrators at my schools could have intervened by educating them on how harmful it is to tease and ostracize an innocent child, and how we can all learn from each other’s differences and celebrate our diversity. Instead, they labelled me with a half-dozen mental illnesses and prescribed me a smorgasbord of drugs. They ingrained in me the message that the bullies had done nothing wrong, that I was in the wrong — and they sent me into a revolving door of doctors who would hear about my struggles, prescribe me drugs that made my problems worse, then give me more drugs to try to solve the problems that the drugs had caused in the first place. At no point did anyone consider that perhaps the drugs were causing my problems, not solving them.
Once I got off those medications, my life immediately started to turn back in a positive direction. I found a job at an Orthodox Jewish nonprofit that is dedicated to helping individuals who are incarcerated in prisons and psychiatric wards — including youth facing incarceration due to addiction and mental-health problems. My coworkers are kind individuals who are passionate about giving others a second chance. At my workplace, I began to understand what it is like to fit in and feel accepted for who I am.
I learned about the mitsve of ahavas yisroel — love for one’s fellow Jew — which my coworkers embody. Feeling loved and accepted did wonders for my mental health. I have not only been trusted with responsibilities, but welcomed with open arms at my coworkers’ social events and Shabbat dinners, despite my background of psychiatric labels.
I also learned about the mitsve of pidyon shvuyim — freeing captives. Reading about Judaism’s view of captivity really helped me find validation for the dehumanizing trauma I had experienced. While the medical system ceaselessly repeated that my captivity was for my own good, I felt that my point of view was actually better understood by Jewish sages. Of course, getting the opportunity to carry out the mitsve of helping others who are experiencing the trauma of captivity has been one of the most important parts of my healing. I have gone from feeling powerless against an unjust system of institutionalization and imprisonment to having some degree of ability to correct this injustice.
In addition to my job, I’ve become involved with mad pride, a movement that promotes individuals’ autonomy over their mental health and recovery. I’ve begun to surround myself with the voices and perspectives of people who, like me, refuse to give up their autonomy to psychiatric institutions, and instead fight for their right to define their identities and decide on their own recovery. I became a member of Mind Freedom International’s Shield Program, which helps me feel safer and secure in the knowledge that in the case of another hospitalization, I would be able to call on a team of advocates to stand behind me.
THIS IS A STORY with a happy ending. I am one of the lucky ones, because I found the mad pride movement and gained access to all the information I needed to successfully wean off Zoloft, Xanax, and Gabapentin. My parents and boyfriend ended up supporting my decision to choose my own recovery, and I found others who helped me regain my individuality and humanity.
What if every individual grew up in an environment in which they were accepted and embraced, with all of their differences and unique quirks and personality traits celebrated? What if every single person were treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, appearance, or ability? That, to me, is the fundamental solution to our mental health problems. It was not institutionalization or forced medication that led to my recovery. It was finding a warm, welcoming community and choosing to align myself with individuals who validated my experiences and saw me as a human being, not as a diseased being in need of diagnosis.
During my mental-health crises, not one person in my life asked me about what I thought would help me recover. My psychiatrist, who had met me all of four times for one hour during my entire twenty years of life, was considered to be far more of an expert on me than I was because he had studied enough diagnoses and medications to receive a medical degree. So I became my diagnosis, a group of symptoms in need of fixing, not a unique human with various strengths as well as traumatic experiences.
My hope for the future is that mental health will not be viewed as either the presence or absence of specific diagnoses. Instead, mental health should be seen as something that every single person struggles with and strives to improve. I do not believe in the dichotomy presented by traditional psychiatry that categorizes an individual as either mentally ill or mentally healthy. Almost everyone experiences hardships and traumas that exacerbate their mental-health problems, and absolutely everyone has strengths and sources of support that help them recover.
I believe that improving mental health in our society requires, first, the building of communities in which individuals are accepted, embraced, and respected. Not all hardships can be prevented, but there are so many that can be! If we work to build communities free of all forms of violence including bullying, gender-based and sexual violence, racism, and prejudice, just imagine how much happier and mentally healthier people would be.
The second step is to provide support for all individuals who have experienced hardships that affect their mental health. Support does not mean hospitalizing or medicating a person against their will. Support, rather, means empathy, rooted in Hillel’s famous quote that is said to capture the essence of the Torah: “That which is hateful unto you do not do unto your neighbor.” Your neighbor who is struggling with their mental health is like you: a human being, an individual, with unique goals and desires. Support means encountering a person as your equal and asking, “What do you need to get through this? What can I do that would help you most right now?”
Sometimes their answer will be therapy. Sometimes their answer will be medication or staying at a psychiatric hospital known for humane and compassionate treatment. Sometimes it will be a peer respite, a place where people struggling with their mental health can go to rest, stay safe, and choose a course of treatment that is completely run by other individuals with mental health disabilities.
Other times people need to build friendships and find a loving, accepting community. Or they may need a stable job or legal aid to seek justice for whatever injustice they may have faced.
Almost every person I have met in the mad pride movement has had a much worse experience than mine, and has ended up without the support of their friends or family to choose their own recovery, or continued to be labeled as sick, ill, disturbed, abnormal, when in reality they are having a natural reaction to traumatic events.
There are so many, too, who never find the mad pride movement. The only mental health movement they can find is the endorsement of traditional psychiatry and the false dichotomy of “mentally healthy” versus “mentally ill.”
That I am one of the lucky ones pisses me off. On behalf of everyone who is still struggling to regain their autonomy, I am asking people to get mad with me. JC
Our writer is a mad pride and mental health activist who works to promote autonomy and choice in recovery. A recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, she serves as a mental health peer specialist and works with the Healing Voices Social Action Team, which promotes the narratives of individuals with experience in the mental health system who have recovered without involuntary psychiatric treatment and who have found support through alternatives (www.healingvoicesmovie.com).