On Recovering from Psychiatric Labels and Psychotropic Drugs

This speech on Laura’s experiences of recovering from psychiatric labels and psychotropic drugs was given on May 5th, 2012, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the Occupy APA Protest.

It is an honor to be in Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly love”, as one voice among many in this Occupation of the American Psychiatric Association, brilliantly organized by MindFreedom International.

It is an honor to be a part of a civil rights movement so vital to our age, yet still so invisible to the majority of our country and much of the world.

It is an honor to be able to call myself a psychiatric survivor, especially one representing my generation— the medicated generation, a generation in which facing the emotional upheaval that comes with hitting puberty has meant being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia and subsequently medicated with brightly colored capsules and bitter-tasting tablets.

My generation has grown up believing that if we can’t focus on our work because we’re distracted by the boy we have a crush on, by the upcoming game we’re playing in, or by the constant bombardment of media from which we can’t escape, we have a brain disease.  If we find ourselves experiencing intense emotions that seem, at times, unbearable, we must go to psychiatry to tell us how to bear them.  If we have thoughts too intensely creative, we are ‘grandiose’, ‘delusional’, or even ‘psychotic’.  If our thoughts move so quickly that we chase after them with our spoken words, we have ‘pressured speech’ or ‘tangential thinking’.  If we feel misunderstood, marginalized, isolated, or disillusioned by this complicated thing called life, we have a chemical imbalance with only one solution—a solution that means turning our agency over to a psychiatric label and our sense of self— our livelihood, our ability to feel innate feelings and think innate thoughts— to a bottle of lifeless pills.

To stand here before you as a person who ingested the intoxicating language of psychiatry and began to speak it as her own, who incorporated the clinical gaze and began to see herself entirely through its lens, brings a flood of emotions that I am proud to say today is completely, entirely human.  My feelings are not ‘symptomatic’ of illness, and I do not ‘lack insight into my mental condition’.  These emotions bring with them the pain that came with being labeled ‘abnormal’ and unacceptable by society for my most formative years; with carrying a diagnosis after my name that meant I would always be different, always fighting to appear like everyone else, struggling to manage life instead of living it.  I was bipolar, from my teenage years until age twenty-seven, and I was convinced it was all I ever would be.

I became adept at staying on top of my ‘symptoms’, of letting my psychiatrist know when I was having ‘racing thoughts’ or ruminating too much on the meaning of life and my part in it so that she could adjust my medications appropriately, or maybe throw a new, more ‘sophisticated’ prescription into the mix.  I thought I was making my psychiatrist proud by learning the language of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to describe myself, and knew that because I’d never be successful at anything else in my life due to my ‘chronic mental illness’, I could at least excel at becoming good at being a patient.

During my thirteen years in the mental health system, I believed that I was broken and incapable of being fixed.  That I needed psychiatry to create a life that came anywhere close to being considered ‘normal’.  That my emotional suffering was due to something wrong with my brain, and not to the fact that I was a young girl trying to make sense of herself in a culture based so much on performance, achievement, and perfection.  That the emptiness I felt inside, beneath the masks I wore and the parts I played to keep up with everything I saw around me, was because I was severely ‘borderline’.  I kept waiting and waiting for the day to come when my psychiatrist and my medications would give me a life worth living, and that day never came.  Instead, my life became lonelier, emptier, and number than it had ever been before, and living it grew increasingly more challenging.  Desperate for relief, I spent more and more hours in psychiatric treatment and left many months with an additional prescription in hand.

I am proud of my story and at peace with my past, with the dark depths to which I went before I found my way to the light of my recovery from psychiatric labels and psychotropic medications.  This is the beautiful paradox of it all— that in order for my life to be what it is today, full of meaning and purpose, everything that happened on my journey into psychiatry and out of it had to happen just as it did, from having dreams and aspirations for the future fizzle to being entirely stripped of any meaningful sense of self.  I have accepted my past, and, in a strange way, am grateful for it.  The profound anger I have today, for those still labeled and still trapped within the biomedical paradigm of psychiatry, is a healthy one that fuels me and motivates me to do whatever I can to make a change, from sharing my story at madinamerica.com, to working as a peer specialist in the belly of the beast, the mental health system itself, and to participating in amazing events like this one, today.

It is one of the greatest existential insults to slap a biomedical label onto the experience of being an emotive human being, no matter how well-intentioned the labeler may be. Today, label-free and in recovery, I am genuinely connected to a sense of who I am and of what I believe in, and I experience my emotions with the beautiful knowledge that I am no different— no better, no worse— than anyone else.  I am a thread in the greater human fabric that weaves us all together and unites us, regardless of the emotions we feel and the thoughts we think.

If you are here today and believe that the speech I just gave is all the more proof of how ‘mentally ill’ I am, I respect your right to believe what you want, and only ask that you keep an open mind and an open heart to what we have to say today.  If you are here today and have freed yourself from psychiatric labels, I send you a deep and loving congratulations.  If you are here today, still enslaved by your labels and the ‘treatment’ they require, and want liberation, join this movement and find your own path to recovery.  We are here waiting for you, to walk together on this journey towards equality and justice for everyone, regardless of how uniquely each of us experiences this complicated, painful, and unbelievably beautiful thing called life.