Five years ago today, while locked up on my last psych ward, I made the decision to give quitting alcohol a shot. By that time, booze had become the one and only reliable thing keeping me from killing myself: it made me stop caring—for a few hours at least—that my life with “serious and persistent mental illness” was as numb, empty, lonely, disconnected, and hopeless as it was… until it didn’t anymore, and there I was being kindly escorted by two security guards to the double-locked doors, where they offered me the “choice” of going “voluntarily” or “involuntarily.”
Choosing to give up alcohol gave me enough clarity of mind to realize I had no idea who I was on the five psychiatric drugs I’d been taking since I was a teenager. This realization (and the discovery of a book by Robert Whitaker) would soon spark in me the determination and courage necessary to come off all those “meds” and say goodbye to psychiatry, psychology, the rest of the “Mental Health” Industry, and, most importantly, a “Bipolar” identity. I am forever grateful for the unconditional love and support I received during the time it made sense to me to say, “Hi, I’m Laura and I’m an alcoholic”; though it’s been a few years since I identified with that label or with a twelve-step institution, I still choose not to drink today. This choice is entirely my power and agency at work—the power and agency that was stripped from me the moment my behaviors, emotions, and thoughts were medicalized into “symptoms” by “experts.” Never again will I turn myself over to any institution or ideology that tells me who I am and how I need to be in the world.
While I don’t know what the future holds for me, I do know that I spent enough of my past in a chemically induced haze thanks to a desperate fear of myself, an unlucky encounter with a psychiatrist’s gaze, and a handful of arbitrary words from the DSM. I also know that for the first time since early childhood, I have no interest in escaping the pain of my day-to-day life, or running away from myself. And as I continue to heal from “mental health treatment”, I know most of all that I have this newly discovered realm of my human being to explore, and that it feels way better than a case of Harpoon IPA ever did, now that I’m free from a psychiatrized existence.
For a long time, I believed that Psychiatry or Death were the only solutions to my life.
As I sit here in this coffee shop, the sun’s light coming in to touch my cheek through the vines of the hanging plant in the window, Andrew Bird in my ears, and a glass jar of bright flowers in front of me, I know this:
My life is not a problem to be solved, even in its darkest moments. My struggles and suffering cannot be reduced to a label, or “treated” with a bottle of pills—they are evidence of my humanness, of my connection to the world around me. I was always whole—I was never broken—and the peace I sought in psychiatrist’s gazes and psychiatric evaluations and the sound of double doors locking me away from myself was all a carefully constructed illusion that I, in desperation, bought into, believing it was my Truth.
This, to me, is psychiatric liberation: the reclaiming of what it means to be human, madness and struggle and fear and joy and all, and the letting go of the story that one’s life is a broken thing to be fixed, a problem to be solved, or anything other than whole and beautifully human.
I’ve watched Harold and Maude at least fifteen times over the years and at the many different stages of my life that I’ve moved through—from the darkest of the dark to the lightest of the light. While talking films with a friend last night, I mentioned to her that this was, perhaps, my favorite movie, and I awoke this morning with it on my mind. I decided to pull up the trailer, and within fifteen seconds I had tears of joy streaming down my face. I can’t say exactly why I have the powerful response that I do to this film—perhaps it’s because I remember watching it when I had death on my mind every minute of the day, when I was so completely hopeless and so utterly convinced that I had no place in this world that death seemed the only answer to my life. Watching it then, lost as I was in the depths of Psychiatry (though I didn’t yet realize it was Psychiatry, and not my so-called “Bipolar disorder”, that had swallowed me whole), gave me just a glimmer of hope, foreign and strange as it then was to me. When I watch it today, the tears I cry are not of desperation, but of joy, of connection, of life. The story of Harold and Maude is the story of a journey from darkness to light, from hopelessness to hope, from total disconnection and isolation to connection and meaning. If you’ve never seen it before—especially if you’re in a dark, or perhaps even the darkest, chapter of your life’s story—I encourage you to watch it. I hold it dear to my heart. In fact, I think I’ll watch it again this weekend, as it’s been a year or so since I last experienced it and undoubtedly it will give me a new gift, as it does every time.
I once yearned for Death like a weary, parched traveler yearns for a cup of water, this promise for a soothing end to unlivable existence. As I sit here in Vancouver, watching the morning sun on the red tiles of a neighbor’s roof, I am acutely aware of a different kind of yearning, one for all kinds of love and connection and meaning, for adventure and trust and intimacy and authenticity and fullness. For Life.
I’m currently writing a scene from the time in my life when Death first declared herself to me as my answer—I was fourteen, had just been labeled “mentally ill” for the first time, and was watching in a confused daze as my life got ripped away from me by the gaze of a stranger who claimed, after fifty minutes, to know me better than I could ever know myself. It’s a painful and sad memory, mostly because of the darkness of unknowing I was enshrouded by: there was no one to offer an alternative explanation for my suffering, no one to say, “Laura, the pain you’re in is a natural part of being a teenager. You are not alone. You are not broken. These pills you’re being given are going to shut your spirit down and turn you into someone you won’t recognize. There’s another way. Trust the unease you feel about all of this right now, and listen to yourself.” Death’s declaration would arrive soon after my introduction to Psychiatry, usually in evenings after dinner, when I’d be handed pills to swallow—Depakote and Prozac—and then go back to my room to finish homework and fantasize about what it would be like to die.
For all its darkness, that time of my life is incredibly beautiful to relive, for I’ve realized that my embrace of life today, and my surrender to all of these beautiful yearnings, could only have arisen with the power and intensity that it has because of how profoundly I once yearned for a dark and everlasting end. I could cry at the thought, tears of joy coming from the same eyes that once cried desperate tears of psychiatrized hopelessness. Ahh, to be human, to be this being who forever maintains the infinite potential for transformation.