labels, these arrangements of letters put upon us by oppressors of all kinds– especially ourselves. “happy”. “sad”. “manic”. “balanced”. “sick”. “well”. “functioning”. “unproductive”. “mentally ill”. “mentally healthy”. “acceptable”. “normal”, or otherwise.
a word, today, i see as nothing more than a cloak: one thrown over the mind, the identity, eventually the soul. some are deceptively well-meaning– word-cloaks that imply you’ve “made it”, that you’re properly “fitting in”, “acting acceptably”, “being appropriate”. others, of course, are so thick and heavy that they smother, in the snap of a finger, the very essence of your being: “bipolar”. “depressed”. “schizophrenic”. “borderline”, to name a few.
these words i’m using to write these very sentences– it must be said they barely touch the essence of what i really, truly, feel about this matter. for all words make sentences, sometimes lifelong ones.
becoming an ex-mental patient is about far more than shedding the psychiatric labels that have come to define our lives and determine what psychoactive chemicals may be circulating in our bloodstreams, electrical currents through our brains, restraints around our ankles or wrists, plastic mattresses beneath our backs.
it’s also about shedding the labels on the flip side, the ones that arise out of the Myth of Normality, this false prophet we’ve come to worship as though it’s only before its knees and in its phantom mold that we might feel like we’ve finally “arrived”. for it’s there– beyond not just the dark prison bars of the so-called “mental health system”, but also the bright, glistening, well-manicured lawns of the put-together-high-functioning-smiling-with it-successful-accomplished-perfect-happy American Dream– that we become truly free. free to feel it all– all that comes with being alive in this world, especially the agony and despair and angst. free to simply be. not to Be Something. just to be, whether that being agonizingly hurts or feels entirely peaceful or quietly aches or sends surges of pleasure through every cell.
freedom is when you have no words that follow your being, for those lettered cloaks that once covered the indefinable essence of what it is to be alive have been shed in your wake.
i am grateful that i’m free to yearn and struggle and suffer and feel peace and joy and purpose and passion and cry and scream and ache in those fields beyond all words. if we’re to build a future beyond the Mental Health Industry, it’s there. and they run on and on and on, unendingly. there’s space for all of us there, to be indefinable.
Six years ago yesterday, I came to in a glass-walled observation room on a psychiatric unit of a hospital, faced with a choice: get myself out of there so I could kill myself, or make a change. A big change.
My life by that point had disintegrated into hopelessness, despair, alienation, and overwhelming emotional pain— most of this, I couldn’t see then, arising from my fourteen-year relationship to the mental health industry. Countless “professionals” had taught me to see myself as “sick”, as a broken brain with a lifelong need for “meds” and expert intervention who’d never be fully human. A life sentence of “serious and persistent mental illness”… what a perfect recipe for suicide, I now see.
Booze, by then, had become the one thing keeping me from killing myself—after all, drinking yourself into oblivion on a near-daily basis is a pretty effective way of forgetting that all you really are is a defective mental patient. But it also, as one might guess, had become a bit of a…. well… problem. And so on that morning in the psych unit, as I lay there wracked with a hangover and my typical morning-after despair, something deep within me—my human spirit, I now see—made me realize it was finally time for The Bottle and me to go our separate ways.
For a long time afterwards, I thought of myself as an “addict” or “alcoholic”. After all, I’d been indoctrinated into a labeled existence where every painful emotion or scary thought or problematic behavior could easily be defined as a “symptom” of something, whether that be “bipolar disorder”, “borderline personality disorder”, “major depression”, “eating disorder”, or “anxiety disorder”. So “alcoholic”? Totally, I was an alcoholic. Met the criteria to a T. Throw it right down there on the list. It would take me nearly three years—long after I’d left behind my mental patienthood—to realize I was still boxing myself into just another category of “other”.
It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of myself as an “addict” or “alcoholic”, and even longer since a psychiatric label has enslaved my identity. I still choose not to drink today, but it’s not because I think I “have a condition” or “am” some “illness”. It’s because I spent enough years saturated in psychoactive chemicals—most of them called “psychiatric medications”—and it feels pretty damn good today to just be. To be in my body, in my mind, in this world. Don’t get me wrong… To be can really hurt—holy hell, can it really hurt—but in life beyond the mental health industry, I know now that the hurt in being human is nothing to be gotten rid of, whether through a shrink or a pill bottle or a bottle of booze. It’s something to listen to, to explore, and to celebrate, because I’m alive. I’m fuckin’ alive.
In November 2015, I traveled to Anchorage, Alaska thanks to the generosity and support of Jim Gottstein and the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights. I met a bunch of really wonderful, inspiring people, including ex-patients, folks currently in the process of coming off psychiatric drugs, and family members of people who lost their lives to psychiatric treatment. Here’s a video of my talk, Recovering Myself: A talk about journeying through the mental health system, in which I share some of my story and reflect on how I came off psychiatric drugs and left behind my psychiatric labels.