Why am I so mad? — by Chris Vogt
A nine year journey through the psychiatric system and complex discursive formulations saw this researcher go from paralyzed ‘patient’ to dissatisfied ‘consumer’ to a new phase of anger/ disbelief in coming to terms with his ‘survival’ of the psychiatrization process. This paper combines auto-ethnography, to show the social processes and causes of one specific case of a mental health diagnosis, and an iterative process of research on the ‘psychiatric survivor movement’. At once historical and current, this process fuses an awareness of past activism with current initiatives and orients the project itself as psychiatric survivor activism and identity politics in praxis.
In the summer of 1999 I had my first run-in with the psychiatric system. For a number of years I had been attempting to find employment as an auto mechanic’s apprentice to make use of my training and aptitude for such work. Directly after completing my entry-level training I got a job at a corporate auto shop in Surrey’s Whalley district. I had chosen to pursue this line of work because I felt that since I had always enjoyed fixing cars and motorcycles that a career doing so would be in line with my life’s purpose. This shop was set up like many others and featured a hierarchy descending from the store manager to the shop manager to the sales staff, mechanics and finally ‘technicians’.
As technicians our responsibilities were to perform tire, oil and battery installation and maintenance. Perhaps this was enough for many of my technician colleagues but I felt that I was wasting my talents performing tasks far below my skill level and ability. After repeated meetings with both the store and shop manager about the possibility of advancement to mechanic’s apprentice I was eventually told that, despite the need for an apprentice, the current mechanics did not want to have to train and compete for shop jobs with one.
So I started to question my options. I scoured the lower mainland searching for an opportunity to be hired on as a mechanic’s apprentice so that I could get my career ‘back on track’ but was told over and over again that the possibility of finding a ‘walk-on’ position was slim to none. Basically, what these shop managers were telling me was that despite my training and shop experience I would have to be willing to start all over at the bottom of a new shop hierarchy in the hopes of eventual advancement to apprentice.
This was not good news since I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with my living situation and desperately wanted to move out of my parents’ house. I needed the extra income and steady reliable hours that an apprenticeship would afford to be able to make this transition. I was 26, restless and frustrated that I did not seem to be achieving to age-graded expectations placed on me by my family and internalized through my socialization process at home and at school. I decided to take a chance that more training, specifically on automotive electronics systems, would be the ‘ticket’ to gaining access to my first ‘real job’.
After graduating from my program at the top of the class, I had high hopes, fanned by my instructor, that now it was just a matter of finding the right fit and place to ply my trade. The instructor provided me with several good leads, using his informal contacts with the industry, and I followed all of them only to be told the same story that I had heard before: “start at the bottom and maybe you’ll get lucky”.
At this point I was very disenchanted and when called by my old job in Whalley, accepted my fate and went back to work a bitter young man. The events that happened next are crucial for understanding the context of what would be later called my ‘mental illness’. A union drive occurred at the shop and I was a very enthusiastic supporter, handing out leaflets and talking to other store employees on my breaks and lunch hour. My motivation stemmed from assurances by the union organizers that if we unionized, the shop would again start hiring apprentices. We were outvoted by a large margin, since the store’s inside workers (largely older married females who believed the store’s intimidation rhetoric about job losses to make room for unionized staff from outside and the threat of egregious union dues) were unsympathetic to our cause.
Hopes once again dashed, I simply resigned myself to an indeterminant sentence of dismal drudgery, while still searching for the ever-elusive walk-on apprenticeship. The last straw in this phase of my life was the store manager’s about face on hiring apprentices. He hired a younger guy who had the same training I had but who hadn’t participated in the union drive. When I learned the news I stormed into the store manager’s office and gave him some choice words about hypocrisy only to be told that life is unfair and the sooner I get used to it the better. The manager’s words did not sit well with me and I went back to the shop, tore my toolbox from its foundations and waddled it over and into my car. My career seemed in ruins and I had absolutely no idea what to do about it. I went home threw together some clean clothes and supplies and drove my car North not knowing what I would find.
My entire consciousness was rocked by serious doubt and I was questioning everything I had ever believed or been taught about the world and about how to make a living. My trip North was punctuated by frequent detours into the woods and observations of people from all walks of life going about their daily routines. I felt very detached and entered a state of what I call interactive symbolic consciousness, where ordinary objects and people from my immediate surroundings linked conceptually or symbolically to past experience and possible future practices.
I began to believe that I was on the most important journey of my life, one in which all the various contradictions of life and limiting factors in my advancement would be revealed. I did not believe that I was crazy because all of the images, voices and realizations were coming from within me. I recognized them as odds and ends of myself that I had for practical reasons left behind in order to ‘grow up’ and to take my place in adult society. Yet this process was revealing to me how important many of these discarded practices were to my sense of identity in earlier phases of my life.
I also started to recall specific incidents that led to my abandonment of some of these practices or to my usually sudden devaluation of their importance. I realized on this journey how I had been led astray by well meaning parents and teachers who believed that, despite the early recognition of my potential as a musician and writer, given my working class roots I was unlikely to advance in either of those fields. I held no animosity at this time to either my family or to counselors/teachers who continually advised me to ‘aim low’ since these folks were likely trying to focus me on what they thought were realistic goals.
My experiences got more intense the longer this process went on and the closer I got to a familiar interior town from my childhood. I had been picking up hitchhikers and was invited for tea on a First Nations reserve. The old man told me to be careful and find a place to complete my quest where the police couldn’t locate me. I thanked the man and left his house. I was confused as to why the police would have any interest in me since I had committed no crime. I decided to press on to my parents’ summer retreat and take his advice to be on the safe side.
My car broke down about fifty miles from my destination and I was forced to continue on foot. I left everything in my car and attempted to flag down a ride. I got to the outlying town near my parents cabin but it was now after dark and there was still quite a distance to travel across a landscape teeming with wildlife and other hazards so I decided to wait until the sun rose. I spent a long restless night in the advanced phases of this altered state of consciousness and when the first light broke I made for the cabin. This was a particularly bad summer for mosquitoes and I had to walk beside several beaver ponds to make it to my destination. After walking for what seemed like an eternity through a blood red haze of buzzing mosquitoes I laid down on the side of the road unable to continue.
I remember that it was not long until a police officer collected me from the side of the road and drove me to the regional hospital. I was sedated and strapped to a gurney and left in the chapel. After many days in a drug induced stupor, the nurses figured out that I was allergic to the drugs they were giving me and gave me several more to try to control my adverse reaction.
At no time did anyone explain what was going on and when I tried to leave I was forcibly restrained again. Eventually the psychiatrist assigned to the region was in town and came to see me. I was excited and began to tell him about all my powerful realizations about how I could live a life more in accord with the faculties and talents that allowed me to create some meaning or purpose in my life. He listened carefully and attentively, stopping occasionally to have me clarify some details, and then informed me that he would like to say something. He told me not to be afraid, that all the things I did and saw were the result of delusion and psychosis, that I was mentally ill but that it was okay because he could treat it with medication.
Just when I thought I was starting to figure things out he hits me with the diagnosis of schizophrenia. I was appalled and told him that he was wrong, that I was on some kind of vision quest that was allowing me to reorganize my personality and my way of life. He said that ‘normal people don’t believe that they can talk to dogs’, looked at his watch and referred me to a staff doctor.
What followed was a gradual process beginning with my transfer to a hospital in the lower mainland for observation, the assignment of a mental health team and my construction as a disabled person.
The psychiatrists were very consistent in waving away my attempts to have them consider the social context of this ‘episode’ of my life and in reframing my account of events in the terms of DSM criteria. My case manager was adept at transforming me into a dependent child who relied on her to oversee my new activities. The first step was to get me onto medical disability benefits. She arranged for a social worker to meet with us at the centre to facilitate the process.
I had serious reservations about going on disability since I felt that I was capable of working. Both the case manager and psychiatrist disagreed and convinced my family to exert pressure against my return to the work force. Though I did not at first agree with either my diagnosis or my new status as disabled person, I soon entered a prolonged depression that started to change my mind. I became my diagnosis even though that diagnosis changed several times…I believed that I was schizophrenic, that I was bipolar. And would identify myself in this way. I usually used this identification to explain why I could no longer do things with my friends or family. I believed that since I embodied mental illness and was now a disabled person, I could not do much of anything.
I became a patient, almost totally dependent on my psychiatrist and case manager and was very sick. Whether I was sick from my circumstances, my biology or the drug therapy the doctor was prescribing did not matter much to me at this time as I firmly believed that my realms of possibilities were now so narrow, in terms of what I could expect out of life, that as long as the medical profession could ‘manage’ this ailment of mine, I would not have to endure that terrible state of consciousness again. The psychiatrist and case manager had all but convinced me that my analysis and interpretation of my ‘psychosis’ was the product of delusional thinking. As such I lived in terror of relapse until it happened.
My ‘relapse’ was caused by a mounting frustration with the team’s ministrations when it became apparent that the only way out of my depression was to go back into the work force. My doctor tried to convince me that ECT would cure my depression and would be beneficial before I reentered the work force. This was when I started to seriously question the medical profession’s knowledge of ‘mental illness’ and to seriously start questioning the chemical treatment that I was taking.
As I began to work, I began to feel better though I had a terrible job. I started to cut back on my meds believing that the team was wrong about my case and that my original realizations made on my visionary journey could serve me to reorganize my life. I did not know a thing about ‘rebound psychosis’ and started to feel that something was not quite right. In 2001 I was picked up by police after another interactive symbolic journey into realms of consciousness that once again seemed very helpful in terms of what I was discovering about myself. I was hospitalized for over a month and experienced many forms of physical and mental abuse and witnessed countless more. I became very angry about psychiatry and irate that nobody would entertain for a second the social contexts in which these ‘psychotic breaks’ kept occurring. It was not until 2003 that I started to find evidence of other people who held similar views about consciousness as I did and about other people who had been persecuted by the psychiatric system. It was in 2003 that I entered community college as a ‘mature student’.
Over the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies to date I have read about alternative takes on ontology and epistemology that have given me hope that one day some advancements in the understanding of human consciousness may be made.
The concept I find most useful is Marx’s argument about alienated labour. In both periods of hospitalization in my biography I worked at jobs that were so menial and so meaningless that I truly became increasingly alienated from my sense of self, from any sense of my connection to nature or to broader society, from my life’s purpose, and from other people.
This profound sense of alienation led me into behaviours that I consider out of character, such as chronic alcohol and drug abuse, which I would never had engaged in had I a sense of my true values and a strong sense of identity maintained by work that I could identify with. When I became unable to continue living this lie my body responded by cascading into a state of consciousness that sought to reveal this alienation to my awareness.
My studies in sociology, anthropology and philosophy have confirmed my belief that Western psy knowledge is dominated by the need to control consciousness and to uphold the status quo. Rose argues that psychiatry’s claim as a healing profession is debunked by their increasing involvement with ‘risk management’. It is risky to allow people to enter states of consciousness where it may be possible to ‘see’ by some interactive symbolic process how and to what degree the economic system alienates. Recognition of such processes as a valid and hence normal process of consciousness would obviate the need for psychiatry as agent of social control and could lead to a critique of capitalism as the mass producer of mental illness through the process of exploitative alienated labour.
I now self-identify as a psychiatric survivor, largely because education has exposed me to survivor accounts and medical sociological critiques of the mental health care system. However, I am still unable to put into practice many of my theories relating to the function and self-management of interactive symbolic states of consciousness due to the extreme resistance of my doctor. He is only a family physician and as such is no expert on the phenomenon he knows as ‘mental illness’.
Regardless, he interprets all my requests to gradually withdraw from my medications as symptomatic of my ‘illness’ and uses thinly veiled threats of involuntary committal to keep me committed to my prescription. My research into the survivor movement in Canada has offered many inspirational stories and examples of activism that I can use to help ground my activism related to mental health.
I am now involved in survivor activism and have already had many opportunities to share information with other local survivors about issues that affect us. I have met people who have successfully withdrawn from their drug treatments and others who do a variety of activities that could be described as alternative treatments. My plan for my master’s thesis is to do a qualitative study exploring the process that others have gone through before coming to self-identify as psychiatric survivors.
I hope that in the course of this research I will not only provide a means for the voices of other psychiatric survivors to speak out on their treatment by mental health professionals but also to consider the inner process guiding their journey. To return now to the question asked in the title given for this piece: Why I am mad? I am mad because under this economic system it is extremely difficult for me to find work that allows me to create meaning in my life, I am mad that it cost me upwards of 60 000 dollars to learn about the mad movement and other conceptions of consciousness and the nature of reality, I am mad that my doctor still has the power of involuntary committal over me and I am mad that due to the grip of alienation on many of my contemporaries my self-identification as a mad activist or psychiatric survivor immediately invalidates me as ‘crazy’ in their eyes. I refuse to pretend that I am just like them.