my life is a *trigger warning* – diagnosis and analysis: the personal is political

my life is a *trigger warning*

notes on surviving ritual abuse

part 7

diagnosis and analysis: the personal is political

i am going to use the feminist insight that “the personal is
political” to explore the issue of mental health, working from what
mental health has meant and means in my life to how this shapes my
understanding of what mental health means at the structural and
cultural levels.  i want to emphasize that my analysis comes from my
life experiences as a ritual abuse survivor and a “crazy” person.  i
am not an “expert”, not an academic or a psychiatrist, and i do not
have a large amount of general or theoretical knowledge about mental
health issues.

i am a 35 year old white cisgendered male (i was born a biological
male, and i am comfortable in my birth sex and gender).  i was born
into an upper middle class family.  my family raped, tprtured and
abused me from birth until adulthood.  since i left home at 18, i have
lived in poverty.  i am heterosexual.  i have 3 minor disabilities,
and due to this experience low level chronic pain on a daily basis.

i find it hard, at a certain point, to decide where to begin and end
when describing my identity and social location, but this should be
sufficient. do you also need to know that i’m a recovering alcoholic
who has had sex with 70 – 80 women, and 2 men, and that i once caught
chlamydia?

chlamydia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlamydia_(bacterium)

diagnoses and prescriptions

my initial diagnosis was “paranoid schizophrenia”.  the doctor who put
that label on me had observed me for about 15 minutes, and we barely
spoke.

after i was deported from the psych ward in catalonia to the psych
ward in ottawa, algonquin territory, i had different doctors who
were/are part of a slightly different mental health regime, with
slightly different standards, and they changed my diagnosis to
“schizoaffective disorder”.

later, during the months after i had been released from the royal
ottawa hospital, and while i was still seeing my psychiatrist on a
semi-regular basis, he told me that he thought my diagnosis should be
changed again to “bi-polar disorder”.

i have been put on and prescribed: olanzapine (zyprexa), quetiapine
(seroquel), risperdone (risperdal) and lorazapam (ativan).  the names
in brackets are the brand names of these pharmaceutical drugs, while
the other are their generic names – same as ibuprofen (advil).
pharamaceutical drugs are big business, and the corporation that
creates and patents a new drug, and the new brand, stands to make
massive profits.

i was prescribed one of the first three drugs on different occassions
with the intent of managing the symptoms i was experiencing from the
different “disorders” i have been diagnosed with, and i was prescribed
lorazapam after my last hospitalization to cope with a large increase
in the amount of anxiety i was feeling.  i put the word disorder in
quotations as i do not think there is anything disordered in how our
bodies, minds, feeling and souls respond to whatever it is that is
causing someone’s mental health issues.  these so-called disorders at
actually the natural and normal ways that human beings survive and/or
heal.

of these drugs i have found both quetiapine and lorazapam useful, and
i still take both of them, although it is also my intention to get off
of both of them when i can.  i don’t take the seroquel for any of the
reasons it was prescribed to me, though, such as its anti-psychotic
properties, etc.   i take it so that i can sleep, and because it only
has two side effects: some minor and brief anxiety, and some weight
gain: i have gained 30 – 40 pounds since i have been on it.  there
are, of course, a many potential side effects that are invisible, such
as changes in brain chemistry, or liver problems.

i do take the lorazapam for anxiety.  it is also addictive, and, at
this point, i am also addicted to it.  this doesn’t mean that i abuse
it, or take it recreationally.  drugs are drugs, whether they are
legal, illegal, prescribed, herbal, etc., and people get addicted to
legal, prescription drugs as easily (and maybe more often?) as they do
to drugs that have been criminalized.  in fact, although quetiapine is
not supposed to be addictive, i know this isn’t true as i have been
forced to go off it temporarily on more than one occasion, and i have
always experienced withdrawal.

i also have an interesting story about lorazapam that i think
illustrates the random aspect of presriptions, and the vagaries of
doctors’ opinions:  after my second hospitalization at the jubilee
hospital in victoria, british colombia, i began experiencing extreme
levels of anxiety.  it got to the point that i spent all day, every
day simply trying to manage my anxiety.  i became agoraphobic, and i
was beginning to get suicidal.  i decided to go to the hospital (by
this time i was back in ottawa), and i went to the civic.  after an 8
hour wait, i was finally seen by a psychiatrist.  we talked briefly,
and she decided that as i, in her opinion, drank too much, she wasn’t
going to prescribe me lorazapam or any other benzodiazepine.  instead,
she increased the amount of quetiapine, with the effect that my
anxiety got worse (quetiapine reduces anxiety for some people, and
increases it for others).  fortunately i found some lorazapam in my
biological mother’s medicine cabinet, and, out of desperation, took
it.  my anxiety levels dropped to where i felt almost no anxiety in a
short period of time.  my agoraphobia disappeared.  i kept taking
lorazapam, and within a day and a half, i had virtually no anxiety.  i
had an appointment with my regular psychiatrist, who has the virtue of
listening to his patients, and after i told him how effective i was
finding the lorazapam, he wrote me a prescription.

i’ve written this brief history of my diagnoses and prescriptions to
examine four points about mental health, and the social structures
that exist around/about mental health:

a) the individualized and medicalized model of “mental health”

b) the power that (mental) health professionals have over disabled people

c) the massive profits made in/by the medical-industrial complex

d) the depoliticizing and deradicalizing impacts of the medical model

 

analysis and structures

 

a) the individualized and medicalized model of “mental health”

mental health is usually talked about only as an absence, in the form
of mental illness or psychiatric “disorders”.  the people who are
labelled as mentally ill, crazy, or insane are usually then considered
to have something wrong with them, to be incapable of making
responsible decisions about their lives, and mental health.  the label
of “mentally ill person” pushes people into the purview of the “mental
health professionals”, many of whom are paternalistic in their
relationships to people they conceptualize and relate to exclusively
as patients, clients, etc., people who are incapable of taking care of
themselves, and who require to assistance of “experts” to live their
lives.  a better relationship is to see all human beings as the
experts in their own healing process, and the role of knowledgeable
allies is to help as is requested and required.

these days mainstream mental health professionals, following the lead
of psychiatrists, for the most part, explain “mental illness” as being
about biochemistry, and the (highly profitable) solution they offer is
pharmaceuticals that are supposed to address these biochemical
abnormalities.  this is what i mean by the medical model.  the medical
model is also highly individualistic: it fails to address social
causes of “mental illness”, even though it is widely acknowledged that
social factors, such as poverty, greatly increase the likelihood that
someone will experience “mental illness”.  any factor that
significantly increases the amount of stress that people experience,
and/or the likelihood that they will experience trauma will increase
the chances that they will experience “mental illness”.
the medical model focuses almost exclusively on biochemical processes,
and conceptualizes individuals and their mental health in a way that
ignores social, geographic and historical context.  it offers some
alleviation of symptoms for some people some of the time, fails to
address the root causes of mental illness and, therefore,  fails to
really heal people, creates structures that privilege mental health
professionals and oppress crazy people, and produces massive profits
for the medical-industrial complex.

b) the power that (mental) health professionals and institutions have
over the lives of disabled people

a diagnosis is simply a diagnosis.  they can, and do, change.  and
they can be, and are, sometimes (often?) wrong.  despite these obvious
truths, the labels put on people, through the structures that exist to
address mental health result in people who are labelled as disabled
being oppressed.  the power imbalances that exist between disabled
people and the people and institutions that “care” for them results in
all sorts of abuses.  disabled people regularly experience violence by
the people and institutions who are supposed to help them.

for example, in my own experience, i have been physically restrained,
tied to a bed and injected with drugs.  all of this was simply the
violence embedded in that hospitals operating policy.  the sexual
violation by the nurse while i was unconscious and strapped to the
hospital bed was an individual act of violence, and one that would not
have been possible if it were’t for the regular operating policy of
the hospital.

another example comes from the fact that i the social service that
exists to support disabled people in ontario (ODSP) gives me an income
that is a bit more than half of what i would need to be living AT the
poverty line in ottawa.  first, i must say, that having access to a
guaranteed income every month ($1100) through odsp has been absolutely
essential to my wellbeing and mental health.  secondly, the amount of
money i receive is completely inadequate, although it is much better
than welfare ($550), which is an amount that would be a joke, if it
wasn’t really tragedy that leads to so many bad ends for so many poor
people.  i am fortunate to have an apartment, and to be able to afford
healthy food every month, although i still stress every month about
how to make it to the end of the month with any money in case i need
it, and having food to eat.  more money, or even access to any
programs for additional types of mental health support would make a
significant difference in my quality of life.  due to the low amount
of money available, i have been put on many occasions in the position
of breaking the law, or eating, of breaking the law, or being able to
pay my rent, of breaking the law, or having money for clothes, or
even, sometimes, to have money be able to have some fun.

there is also the question of who is understood to be mentally ill and
who is understood to be criminal.  when will someone call the police,
and when will someone call an ambulance? police often decide that a
person of colour or an indigenous person experiencing mental health
problems is a dangerous and violent criminal, while a white person
behaving the same way is someone who is suffering and needs help.

racial oppression and/or class oppression results in people

of colour and indigenous people and/or poor people who are experiencing
mental health problems being killed, attacked and incarcerated much
more often than white people, and/or working-class, middle class and
owning class people experiencing identical mental health issues.  i
wonder, if i was not born white and into an upper middle class family,
whether i would be in prison today, or dead.

c) the massive profits made by/in the medical-industrial complex

pharmaceutical corporations regularly make massive profits, and the
drive to make more money is one of the factors in the increases in the
number of diagnoses, and the proliferation of “disorders”.  all, or
most, mental illnesses can be “cured” through various pharmaceutical
drugs.  new drugs, or new patents on old drugs, ensure that
profitability, regardless of whether they are actually more effective
in addressing symptoms, and have less side effects.  the profit motive
in (mental) health industries results in more attention being paid to
how profitable a pharmaceutical drug can be, as opposed to how much it
might actual help suffering and vulnerable human beings.  examples
gross violations of human decency in the name of corporate
profitability are easy to find.  one such includes corporations that
had developed and patented a new HIV/AIDS medication that was a
substantial improvement over anything else available refusing to allow
the south african government to access these drugs, either at a
discounted price, or to use the generic drug to combat the HIV/AIDS
epidemic in that country.

while the various corporations that are involved in the
medical-industrial complex make large profits off of people in need,
the reason that i am using the term medical-industrial complex, is
that there are a whole series of service providing industries and
other subsidiary industries that are involved, and that get power and
money from their participation in the industry, and at the expense of
(mentally) disabled people.

it is certainly better to understand mentally ill people as sick and
needing help, rather than as dangerous, or evil, and it is better that
we have access to social services rather than police batons and
prisons.  however, none of these options are really the best for us,
at least not as they are currently organized, which is to make a
profit, and to maintain structures that privilege mental health
institutions and professions and oppress (mentally) disabled people.

d) the depoliticizing and deradicalizing impacts of the medical model

one of the reasons that the medical model was developed, and the
medical-industrial complex has proliferated is that they are part of
an effort to alleviate the symptoms of an imperialist, white
supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchal society without addressing
any of the social causes of mental health issues – that is to say
without addressing the oppressions that are foundational to american
and canadian society, and foundational to “mental illness”.  aldous
huxley, in his dystopian novel about the future, brave new world, made
sure to include a pharmacological aspect to the maintenance of a
profoundly oppressive society.  while SOMA was taken recreationally,
not for “medical reasons”, and while current society is nothing like
brave new world, his vision of a depoliticizing role for pharmacology
was prophetic.  the fact that workers are prescribed anti-anxiety
drugs, and anti-depressants because their work is little more than
drudgery, and/or they are afraid of losing jobs, and/or they are being
harassed, and/or etc., is a perfect example of the role that
medications are playing in the maintenance of capitalism and
oppression.

conceptualizing mental health issues as being the result of faulty
biochemical processes in individuals removes, as i said before, the
social, geographical and historical context.  and it is, in fact, this
context, that in most instances, is the actual origin of people’s
mental health problems.  not surprisingly, racism, sexism, poverty,
transphobia, etc. all negatively effect people’s mental health.  not
surprisingly, the violence that people experience from other people,
from institutions, and at the cultural level, results in greater or
lesser trauma and stress, and result in “mental illness”.

the medical model denies these realities, and the extent to which
“mental illnesses” are caused by the political realities of canadian
society.  this depoliticization prevents us from engaging in the sort
of individual and collective healing that we need to do, and from
seeing that individual and collective healing is necessary both for
and as collective struggle for liberation.

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