The incarceration of John

grjnBy Grainne Humphrys

(see the video I posted of Grainne and her family here and learn about a conference on alternatives happening in Cork, Ireland)

John Hunt is 28. He has spent the last 4 years, in the words of MindFreedom Ireland, as a ‘psychiatric prisoner’ under section in the so-called Carraig Mor treatment centre, a large, soul-less, depressing, modern, red-brick building situated on a hill set apart from and over-looking Cork city, in South-West Ireland. He has a diagnosis of so-called paranoid schizophrenia. He has committed no crime and yet he is locked up. In order to visit John, I have to go through three locked doors and then he is brought through into a locked visitor’s room. Above us, on two sides, are surveillance cameras. It is a paranoid climate but one would have to ask, who is more paranoid? If John was a bit paranoid when he was admitted here, he now has more reason to be. Fear breeds paranoia, and as I listen to the sounds of keys and see the cast-down eyes of the staff, I feel as if I can’t breathe in this stifling atmosphere. When I first visited John it struck me that there was something eerily strange and wierd was going on, a sort of collective lie, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Our gut instinct is usually right and my gut was trying to tell me ‘this is wrong’. John, like countless others, is caught in the net that is bio-psychiatry.

John is referred to as a ‘treatment-resistant’ patient; that is, he resists the label of schizophrenia and the anti-psychotic drugs that have then been forced upon him. If resistance is the first step to recovery, then John is on the first rung of the ladder. Not according to Carraig Mor. John has been a ‘revolving door’ psychiatric patient for the last 9 years, involved with the psychiatric services and their toxic drugging because he had nowhere else to go and because he was involuntarily signed in by people who mistakenly believed that it was the right thing to do. Living rough on the streets could have become a reality for John. I have often thought that he would be safer there than in the so-called care of the psychiatric services.

John is maintained by mood stabilizers and contained in a chemical straitjacket with barely any fresh air. When he isn’t sleeping off the drugs well into the afternoon, he is pacing up and down the corridors of Carraig Mor, smoking endless cigarettes, chatting to friends he has made or hassling staff for cups of tea. He feels patronized by occupational therapy, occasionally partakes in art therapy and, according to the mental health nurse, often gets in fights. He is frustrated beyond belief by being locked up for so long and he longs to do regular, everyday things that most of us take for granted and enjoy as our basic human right. John is a reactor and he is very defensive, having been a victim of bullying as a child. But that is just the tip of the iceberg of the traumas that John has had to endure in his young life.

His early childhood was troubled by his alcoholic Father who was violent and, being the eldest son, I have heard heart-breaking stories of how him and his next brother bore the brunt of this violence and poverty, witnessing awful violence inflicted upon their Mother. They took responsibility for protecting her, resulting in beatings, when they could and often had to steal food to survive. His Father left when John was about 7 years old, leaving behind a legacy of pain, violence and un-released trauma. He has one happy memory of his Father taking him to a funfair as a child. I have no doubt in my mind that John is Father-hungry. When John was 11, his youngest 4 year-old-brother, Michael, drowned, a devastating event that would traumatize the whole family with grief. John has had a very unsettled childhood, moving house and school a lot, with no real structures and boundaries in place. As the eldest son, he stepped into the role of ‘man of the house’, an un-natural role for any child. John has a lot of anger about being forced into this role so young while simultaneously finding it difficult to relinquish this role. He has a difficult relationship with his Mother. He feels emotionally responsible for everyone. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that John embraced an escape through youth culture and experimented with recreational drugs, like grass, cannabis, magic mushrooms and ecstasy as a teenager and as a young man. Indeed his first so-called ‘episode’ was drug-induced. In fact, in between stints in hospital he would swap his toxic legal drugs for illegal street drugs in a potentially lethal effort to self-medicate. I was taken aback by the hypocrisy of one of his psychiatrists at the time in that she didn’t condone the use of illegal, mainly soft drugs, but enforced the use of much worse (or at least on a par with) legal psychotropic drugs. There have been other traumas while John was growing up but it is not my place in this context to discuss them. I have never felt that any of this was taken into account by John’s medical team or his doctor/ psychiatrist. I have told John’s story to them but now I believe I was just given lip service.

I get the impression that John is not well liked by the staff or his medical team in Carraig Mor and is just about tolerated. They don’t ‘get him’. He is seen as chronic; that is, dangerous, deviant, volatile, impulsive, unpredictable, tricky and there is an element of fear in relation to him that I have picked up on. He is avoided because, I have been told, they don’t want to enter into his world of deceit and negativity. This astounds me. How is he supposed to heal in this climate? No one wants to touch John with a barge-pole. Everyone wants to wash their hands of him. No one wants John. He is seen as too difficult, too much of a challenge. He doesn’t accept things easily and is very anti-authority and questioning. He is ‘guarded’ with reason to be. This is the type of ‘patient’ the psychiatric services have learnt to dread and write off as ’treatment-resistant’ and ’difficult’ or ’non-compliant’. John is, in effect, punished for having his own opinions. He feels this, this insidious and subtle discrimination and prejudice. And I feel it. In fact, partners of so-called ‘schizophrenics’ are discriminated against. I have often felt pressure from people to stay away from John. It is very subtle but the message is there. It requires great strength to resist this projection. It is a very lonely place. When this is deeply understood and there is support, the relief is enormous. Discrimination and secrets make heavy burdens. John is considered more of a risk to others than to himself. I had never felt afraid or dis-trustful of John, until seeds of doubt were planted in my mind. I have spoken with him about this, as we are very open, and it has deeply hurt him. The psychiatric system destroys relationships of trust between people because of collusion; collusion between the service-user and service-provider, and a different kind of collusion between the service-provider and the service-user’s family. This feeds directly into unhealthy relating patterns.

It is this risk assessment that is the crux of his incarceration. It is not about caring for John in any real way, it is about shielding a society (who projects un-owned aspects onto this marginalized minority group) from him. In short, John makes people feel uncomfortable. Lock him away and no-one has to tolerate this discomfort. I do not believe that John is a danger to society. John is harmless but can be very annoying, it has to be said! I find his delusions more tiresome than dangerous per se. He has some peculiar ideas which can lead to strange behaviour which could deem him a pest by society. This happens when he is stressed and anxious. He can be easy to talk back down and the key is in the response he gets. If he is receives a calm, relaxed and confident response and is allowed to talk it out, it usually subsides. If you stay close and calm, ground yourself, suspend your judgement, encourage expression and allow the feelings to emerge, his energy changes. This can be time-consuming, exhausting and draining which is why he needs support outside. In the locked hospital staff are trained to avoid eye contact and fill a syringe that masks and puts a chemical lid on it all, stripping a person of all their dignity, metaphorically and actually. Coercion is what happens if you refuse to take medication. One doesn’t have choices in Carraig Mor, it is their way or no way. It would be wonderful if there were alternative ’safe’ houses built on a climate of trust and love for distressed people, where there was support but no forced medicating. John is deeply misunderstood by the system.

John is compliant these days in that he takes his medication, performs the basic daily requirements, like washing himself, and keeps his head down and out of trouble, but in the past, he has been held down, restrained and forcibly injected countless times, held down by up to four male nurses (I have seen bruises on his arms) just because he refuses to take medication and because he is terrified. This is a culture of abuse. In a sense, he has been crucified because of his refusal to comply, conform and play the game. I have often thought it to be a re-run of his childhood, re-visiting the fear, the chaos and the violence and so, familiar territory for him, maybe even, ironically, a comfort zone of sorts. John has developed, over the years, an elaborate and fortified defence system that is easy to de-code if one takes the time to listen. He communicates in poetic metaphors. His under-lying issues are that he doesn’t trust easily, he has very high levels of anxiety and it has been safer for him to exist in delusions and alternative belief systems than reality and he gets quite attached to these exciting ideas. They make him feel special. Many of these delusions involve him as a central powerful hero/ saviour who is more special than everyone else, or his Father as an all-powerful good force that communicates with him through technology mainly. His Mother is usually cast in the bad or shadow role. This has hurt her deeply because she loves and cares about her son. She has had a difficult life and has done the best she could but she struggled to cope raising four boys on her own. We can all only do the best we can. Blame serves nobody and all of us need to move away from the blame game and learn to forgive in order to liberate ourselves from the shackles of anger, shame and a plethora of negative emotions. This is a long and painful road though and John did not learn the skill of delaying gratification as a child.

John is very impressionable and he watched huge amounts of television as a child. I sometimes get the feeling he was raised on a consistent diet of TV, trauma and benign neglect. What happens if you leave a traumatized child to their own devices? What happens if that child is emotionally neglected and watches a lot of TV? I believe many of John’s problems are trauma-based and stem from this un-released trauma. He is still holding a lot of trauma in his body and psyche with the added layer of medication and the trauma and humiliation of psychiatric assault. Are these patterns any surprise then, considering what he experienced in his tender years of development? I think in remaining true to his internal reality, he is dignified, even if he does lack the internal coping skills to meet some of the challenges life presents for all of us. He wants to find his own way through. Is that a crime? After all, it has kept him safe through some gruelling times. Like a soldier returning from the battlefield, it can sometimes take years to not be on the alert for combat and danger. What if your childhood has been a battlefield? It can take years to process this blueprint or programming of abuse, trauma and neglect. What if you choose to find your own unique individual pathway through the aftermath in the form of delusions? Perhaps the delusions are trying to break through to a new way of being with new awareness. Perhaps he is still protecting his family by communicating in metaphors. John has up until recently been pre-occupied by protecting his family. It has been hard for him to let go of this.

The arrival of his son has shifted this somewhat onto a new family system. However, the original family system needs resolution for deep healing to occur. I have found that the psychiatric system does not look at these traumas as a systemic problem, rather as an individual problem. They talk more about ‘genetic’ but less about ‘energetic’. In my mind, from training in family systems therapy, I see the problem as ‘energetic’ in that the energy is passed down through families until balance is restored. Families exist as systems and when family secrets are not acknowledged, the whole system is out of balance. Usually the most sensitive member picks this trauma or secret up and carries it on behalf of the family. Many of these people are in psychiatric hospitals. This is no coincidence. More often than not, they are carrying difficult emotional baggage that no-one in the family wants to acknowledge or process and integrate. There is a collusion of denial between the psychiatric services and the family in these cases.

My experience of John is almost polar opposite to his medical team’s experience of him. I have always felt very comfortable in the company of John. I find him to be gentle, kind, loving, sensitive, deep, soulful, humourous and easy-going. He is introverted and intuitive and emotionally very intelligent. He is heart-led and a visionary leader-type who has adhered to the reality of One Love. He has the boundaries of a boundless sky (none!) and needs to learn a few things about the personal space of others, at times. He is intelligent full stop. He is also gifted, talented and original. By the same token, he is intense, complicated, passionate, persistent, stubborn, headstrong and, at times, irritating and obnoxious! (like many people). This is the persona he shows to most people. He only reveals his more vulnerable side to people he becomes very close to. He knows I love him and care about him so he trusts me. He can relax if he feels safe. He is wonderful with children, being very calm, patient and playful with them, totally absorbed in their world. He always says, “it’s never too late to have a childhood” or, “I‘m having my childhood now!” He feels that he didn’t have one. He taught me about unconditional love for another adult and how to see with my heart. Emotionally he is streets ahead of me and many people I know. He often feels over-whelmed by the responsibilities and stresses of life and struggles to cope with this aspect of living. He will try to avoid taking responsibility. He feels he had to take responsibility before his time and now he shuns it. In this way he gives his power and independence away too easily. He tends to retreat into delusions when he is anxious. He finds it difficult to really relax around people he doesn’t know well because he gets paranoid about their motives. He is very wary. He is also crippled by core low self-esteem and shame. He has a tendency to sulk. His delusions protect him from these uncomfortable feelings of powerlessness and replace those feelings with a false sense of security and power. Is this any surprise, though, taking his childhood into account? He finds it difficult to open up yet paradoxically he taps into the unconscious with effortless ease and helps others to reveal themselves to themselves. He is not uncomfortable in the realms of truth. It has been said that trouble-makers are truth-tellers. John is non-judgemental and tolerant. He is also very proud and anti-authority.

The amount of psychiatric medication John has been put on, over the years is staggering and worrying. It has incapacitated him and damaged his physical prowess considerably. He is currently on three major neuroleptics and a minor tranquillizer. He has been on some of the older types of major neuroleptics and some of the newer types of atypical anti-psychotics. He has been put through all manner of humiliating brain and blood tests. Not once has there been any acknowledgment that his, at times, bizarre behaviour was the result of being heavily medicated by mind-altering, brain-disabling drugs. I have seen John vomiting countless times (more often than not) and whilst on the phone to me, he has often dropped the phone receiver because he feels so weak, dizzy and faint. People tend to not believe him when he reports these worrying effects. He has kept a lot of this physical suffering to himself. Once when I visited him, he had turned bright yellow from kidney failure. I have experienced him as if he is in a straitjacket, albeit chemical, so rigid have his composture and facial expressions been. I have seen his hands shaking. I have seen him unable to sit still. I have had to hide my shock at his appearance many times. His teeth have all rotted due to the continuous use of largactil. In the past, he had tardive dyskinesia, an involuntary movement in his jaw, this particular adverse effect he was not informed about but which thankfully went away. He has had to endure the living hell of akathasia aswell. He walked with a limp for many years. Just when he stabilizes on a drug, his medications are changed, so he has to withdraw again and go through the whole difficult process of getting used to a new drug and new effects. This has led him to believe that he is being used for drug-testing. I used to think this too, in my weaker moments. Now I believe it is a very real possibility.

The more I discover about the mental health system, the wierder it gets. As far as I can see, in order to get out of a high-security psychiatric facility, one has to pretend to be mad. In this seemingly insane system, I think it fair to ask, who is sane and who is mad? But, more importantly, who gets to decide? Who defines the rules of so-called sanity? As far as I can see, it is not reasonable or logical what is going on. It’s crazy and would drive any so-called sane person crazy with frustration! The medical model is not a model of recovery. It does not have it’s roots or interest in true recovery. How is someone supposed to have a lasting quality of life on toxic mind-altering anti-psychotic drugs? There is no way the two are synonymous. How does it make someone feel deep down to be told they have a ‘chemical imbalance’? I could go on to explore how the system is under-funded etc, but I believe that the very heart and core of the matter is that the system is run on Fear instead of Love. It encourages dependency and learned helplessness. The Soteria network taught us that recovery can cost less rather than more. In short, the system as it stands lacks a heart. I know there are many good and progressive people working within this system who would like to change it, but the foundations upon which it is built need to be demolished before that can be achieved. It is still taboo to lose one’s mind. I believe this movement is the last great civil rights movement.

Much of John’s behaviour is attributed to his ‘illness’, his so-called ‘chemical imbalance’, but thanks to Peter Breggin’s ‘Toxic Psychiatry’ I know the truth. Otherwise, like so many others, I would have believed that his twitching face was a symptom of his so-called ‘madness’. There is no mention (and if there is, it is played down) how he could be experiencing the DTs as his depot shot wears off, or how he is going through a ‘reactive psychosis’ while his medications are being changed. How cruel the system is, how it destroys and crushes people, not only mentally, physically and socially but also people’s creativity, their spirit, the very things that make us human. I have left Carraig Mor in tears on many occasions, feeling powerless in the face of the heartless, mindless machine that is the psychiatric system. John is a victim of this system, and psychiatry is the perpetrator. Their energies feed off one another, they are locked in a co-dependent and destructive victim/ perpetrator relationship. It is a vicious circle, a trap. I believe this kind of approach only adds more damage to already damaged, distressed and vulnerable people. It reinforces the victim energy (not helpful for anyone). It forces already fragile people into dependency and does not liberate and empower. In fact, the system as it stands today imprisons and disempowers people. I believe that labelling is on a par with name-calling and forced drugging is inhumane. It is a violation of human rights. It is taking away our right to process our experience, be it psychosis, a spiritual emergency or a break-through to a new way of being. It denies us our right to suffer and grow. People need encouragement and support, not force and control. They don’t need pity either and yet it is either fear or pity that people express in relation to those experiencing mental/ emotional distress. The nature of pity is patronizing and this is just as damaging for people. Empathy is different to pity in that it’s based on an equal relationship, whereas pity is disempowering. Pity is more insidious than force and control but just as damaging. It is perpetuated by the ‘carer’ energy, the ‘I know what is best for you’ approach. The carer does not reveal their own vulnerability or capacity to suffer and so believes themselves on higher ground. This type of relating is co-dependant by nature and does not help anybody, and yet the psychiatric services are rife with it.

John is well-liked by old friends who have told me you couldn’t meet a nicer or kinder guy. His younger brothers all looked up to and admired John, he was their hero growing up. He sacrificed a lot for his family. His first serious girlfriend has told me what a deep, intelligent, gifted and interesting person she found him to be. John used to be very active and creative; he excelled at physical activities like swimming, dancing, running, skating, martial arts and soccer. He enjoyed art, writing, reading and computers. Why has this all this happened to John? The added layer of psychiatric assault, discrimination and over-medicating on top of his chronic anxiety and trust issues have further complicated his route through to a recovery, that could otherwise have been more straightforward.

The system limits and hurts people, both service-users and providers. It works from a false premise that mental/ emotional distress is an illness and a chemical imbalance. This is a deeply entrenched and powerful held belief and integral part of the system. It is treated as fact. If you find yourself unfortunate enough to be forcibly committed to a high-security psychiatric unit, to challenge is to provoke and endure the chemical wrath of it’s un-loving power. This is a system driven by fear, not run on love. At it’s best, it is insidious and patronizing by nature. I believe fear is the biggest obstacle to recovery, by this I mean a fear felt by the person experiencing mental distress from the general public, or indeed so-called carers. It is a collective fear that is subconscious and gains power in groups. Collective ignorance. The mental health system plays into this deep-seated fear and perpetuates it by the very nature of how it is ran. There is an over-emphasis on medication which is hailed as the solution, when it fact it is dangerous and destroys people and prevents them reaching their fullest potential or resolving their under-lying problems. Medication and the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory does not address the root cause and sends out the powerful message ‘you are not accepted as you are’. This is deeply damaging. I see this failure to acknowledge the truth as not only a mental health services problem but as a societal problem too. It is an arrogant assumption on the part of the mental health services that they think they can ‘fix’ someone. It is co-depenedent and self-righteous in nature. It does not give people their dignity.

John, like us all, craves unconditional love. It is something he has yearned for, to be accepted for who he is. To be loved exactly as he is. To connect. A more healing approach would do just that and watch him grow. But John found himself in the un-loving environment of the psychiatric services where he has had to fight for the very survival of his person. It is incredibly complex. Unfortunately, John has played into their hands because of his so-called denial of there being anything ‘wrong’ with him. By fighting them he becomes more disempowered. It is an astonishingly ignorant way to treat and work with vulnerable people. There was a time when all his experiences could have been worked through and integrated with respect and compassion whilst keeping his personal integrity and dignity intact. Tragically, he now trusts less and is more fearful than I dare say he originally was as a direct result of his experiences with the mental health services.

We need experts, including people who have experienced psychosis and emotional/ mental distress (often the ‘real experts’) and people who are passionate about this cause. We need to resist the urge to ‘fix’ people and allow them their own route through their personal experience. We need to move away from medicating the symptoms with life-destroying drugs and start exploring the hidden, symbolic meanings in madness. There is always meaning behind madness. Psychosis is a normal response to abnormal circumstances. Altered states of consciousness can be powerful agents for change and personal transformative experiences. We need to make ourselves available as loving, tolerant, non-judgemental, compassionate, understanding and supportive allies on people’s journeys of self-discovery. We need to recognise that so-called madness is in all of us and we need to own and acknowledge this fact. We need alternative routes to recovery. John would benefit from this holistic approach, the psycho-social model and he would benefit from some unconditional love. If connection is healing, then why is John separated from everyone behind locked doors? This only serves to isolate him more and make him feel more alone and discriminated against. This kind of segregation hurts people. Re-connection and integration into the community is vital for a full recovery. When people feel loved and held and really safe, the healing can begin and they can re-discover their passion for life and bring their unique gifts (and we are all unique) to the community. We need to give John a special place in our hearts, while respecting that he has his own journey. We have to give him the dignity to carry his own pain and to find his own answers.

In June 2006, I gave birth to our son, Joshua (a weekend release baby!) He is now 3 years old. John has missed out on all his childhood so far. But it is his love for Joshua that is propelling him forward to a more mature state and sustaining him (along with the music on his Ipod). When we were discussing middle-names for Joshua, John wanted to call him ‘Confidence’. At the time, I jokingly dismissed his suggestion but with hindsight it makes perfect sense. It’s what he wished for his son. Confidence for Life. John now wants to learn to take responsibility for his own life in it’s truest sense. However, he also wants to remain true to himself and honour himself. He wants to do it on his own terms. In order to escape the situation he is in, John has to swallow pills and, far harder for him, swallow a label that he doesn’t believe in. This is the stumbling block for him and why I think he is so brave. John knows and I know that he does not have a defective brain or faulty wiring or any other nonsense of this kind but try having the guts to tell that to the psychiatric powers that be. John keeps a lot of the suffering he has been through to himself but he has been deeply hurt by this system and by his childhood. He is coming round to the fact that he does have some serious issues he needs to tackle. He wants to slowly and sensibly wean himself off the drugs and work towards his own healing. He wants to be the Father he longed for, if people will give him the chance.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: