Anti-psychiatry? Maybe.

This blog post (my first in nearly two and a half years and my first ever which doesn’t include a poem) is a response to Dariusz Galasinski’s ‘Anti-psychiatry? Not for me.

I grew up in the 1960’s with madness figuring only distantly in my universe. In 1977 I became worried that someone close to me might be suffering ‘mental health problems’ (whatever that meant I wasn’t sure), and therefore requested a session with my mother’s Jungian analyst. It went very well. But subsequent sessions went less well, and I ended up being recommended by him for psychiatric treatment — voluntary at first — then in 1980 I was ‘sectioned’ in a particularly brutal and underhand way. I was offered a ‘bed for the night’ in hospital by an ambulance driver, which I understood as a voluntary admission. When I woke up the next morning my clothes had disappeared. I asked where they were. By way of reply, I was ‘restrained’ (great word, by the way, and so civilised in its connotations; a bit of an irony, that) and injected, straitjacketed and left in a padded cell for a couple hours. Fortunately that was a one-off. But the dosing with chlorpromazine continued and I was soon dribbling away merrily and doing that shuffling thing with my feet, unable either to keep still or to rest. This went on for a few weeks — but my intense anger and resentment persisted about ten years.

Gradually I learned to let go the anger. Through the eighties I became deeper and deeper embroiled in my own paranoid fantasy life, through which it felt like I was in direct encounter with pure evil — located neither in me exclusively nor in the universe exclusively but somewhere in between. ‘Hell’ is a cliched metaphor but a good one. Because I knew this hell, this pure abstract but immanent evil — by the early nineties I no longer estimated psychiatry as a particular evil at all. It was just misguided. I was homeless 1980-95, and therefore completely out of touch with services (thank God), but I was sectioned for a second time in 1995. This changed nothing. I still thought of psychiatry as simply misguided, and even began to find value in some aspects of the ‘treatment’ I was being given. Over the next 10 years I had some wonderful conversations with people whose job it was to help me.

What does it all amount to now? Am I ‘anti-psychiatry’?

I do think the entire notion of illness and treatment is quite simply a metaphor drawn from the physical realm, which has been somehow concretized into something supposedly literal and objective. We talk about ‘mental pain’ and we all know what it means. It doesn’t mean you’re literally suffering stimulation of the physical nerve endings that cause physical pain. It’s a metaphor. But we talk about ‘mental illness’ and the metaphor suddenly grows wings and flies off into the realm of the literal. So much damage is done by this basic mistake and carelessness. A metaphor is something I *choose* to employ, in order to help me communicate and help me think. But there is no choice in having an illness which a doctor has decided you have. In this sense, I am anti-psychiatry, because I believe psychiatrists to be deluded about the objectivity of their invented constructs. An invented construct can be incredibly valuable, the idea of myself as mentally ill can be incredibly valuable, but it is still an invented construct.

I also believe so-called antipsychotic medication works 100% by placebo. It has other effects of course but none of them are beneficial. To me at any rate. So I’m pretty antipsychiatric in that sense too.

Nevertheless I am also quite anti-anti-psychiatry. I don’t like the unreflecting antagonism that characterises so much of the debate, e.g. when calling out psychiatry for its failings becomes a systematic crusade. I wish the crusaders well in a sense. But I can’t identify with them. It’s unbalanced. Even if psychiatry does more harm than good (I think that’s entirely possible) it’s ungracious to ignore the good.


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