Counterpoint Winter 2018 • Commentary • Page 19
I have been representing Vermont Psychiatric Survivors on a legislative study committee looking at orders of nonhospitalization, or ONHs – Vermont’s involuntary outpatient commitment laws.
In simple terms, it’s a court order that says a person has to follow certain conditions – often reporting to a case manager, seeing a psychiatrist, taking prescribed drugs, and/or living in agency-approved housing – otherwise they can be called into court and potentially hospitalized.
Serving on this committee has been one of the most emotionally challenging experiences I’ve had in my job, and there have been plenty of those. Why emotionally challenging?
It’s not often I’m tasked with sitting in a room among people with a wide range of views about the basic human rights of autonomy and cognitive liberty, and rationally discussing with them the “strengths” and “weaknesses” of a paternalistic system that seeks to monitor and control people’s minds and bodies.
The rationale behind this control is ignorant and hateful. It assumes that, without the “treatment” prescribed by a clinician, a person’s life will crumble and take down everyone around them. There is no room for informed consent, for the dignity of risk, for personal agency.
This is the kind of thinking I’m supposed to be debating with.
The first meeting I attended, I didn’t even speak. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true.
From one moment to the next, either the conversation was so bogged down with legalistic details that I didn’t have anything to contribute, or I was so angry at what I was hearing that I was speechless.
One member of the committee, a judge, kept using an anecdote involving a fictitious “Aunt Suzie,” whose family members all know that when she begins wearing her purple sweater and eating cat food, her condition is deteriorating, and she needs to be brought back into compliance with her treatment plan.
They know that before long, she will be needlessly calling the police, or assaulting people. (These family members, evidently, have the ability to predict future behavior, something that clinicians, with decades of research and fancy measurement tools, cannot do.)
The first time I heard about Aunt Suzie, I felt my heart leap out of my chest, my hands began to shake, and all I wanted to do was find Suzie and tell her to wear eight purple sweaters if she wanted to, and bring her a case of her favorite cat food.
I wanted to station myself outside her apartment with a baseball bat to ward off anyone who tried to come and haul her into court and make her take harmful neuroleptic drugs she didn’t want.
I wanted to scream, and I wanted to sob.
But I sat still and said nothing. I wasn’t going to ruin it for everyone by being unprofessional.
Honestly, I wasn’t afraid for my own safety. Sure, I was in a conference room at the state office in Waterbury, in a locked building where I needed to show ID at a security desk and get a temporary badge to gain entry, a building that houses government agencies with the power to alter the course of hundreds of lives, on the campus of the former state hospital, which closed right before I moved to Vermont but which has a reputation for being a horrible facility.
But I’m able to pass as “sane.”
The form my madness takes most often is silence, despair, surrender. I fall into a deep hole that my screams could never escape. I detach from myself and my surroundings and burn up from the inside, the smoke and flames kept carefully from view.
I haven’t been subjected to the kinds of force and surveillance that my friends and colleagues have.
To the extent that voluntary hospitalization is possible on a locked unit where no one leaves without permission from the psychiatrist, I was voluntarily hospitalized.
To the extent that voluntarily taking psych drugs is possible while being lied to about their risks and benefits, I have taken psych drugs voluntarily.
I have never been held down, strapped down, forcibly injected, or stuffed in a “quiet room.” I have never been legally committed, either inpatient or outpatient.
These are all things I’m afraid of, but I am at pretty low risk for them actually happening. I’m relatively very privileged in this way.
The threat of an ONH is not personal to me, and yet I take it personally. I am closely identified with my comrades who have been subject to force and coercion in greater measures than I have.
I know how hard I have struggled against paternalism for mind and body autonomy, how much I have lost and how much is still at stake.
How much more terrifying, then, how much more excruciating is it for someone who has been – or still is – wriggling in the clutches of this oppressive system to enter a conference room and argue this or that point with nuance and grace?
How is it possible to liberate ourselves from structures that harm us while actively trying to survive that harm?
Those of us doing advocacy within the psychiatric and/or legal system do the impossible every day.
We go into locked units and have impossible conversations with psychiatrists who are often rude, dismissive, and dishonest.
We give impossible presentations and trainings, laying bare our most painful experiences for clinicians, law enforcement, researchers, and others with keys, guns, prescription pads, and more power than us (and often bigger salaries) who deny our expertise, derail the conversation, or slump in their chairs looking angry.
We give impossible testimony to the legislature, hoping that our personal stories backed by careful research will outweigh the input of lobbyists we can’t afford.
We write impossible letters to administrators, asking them to undo decisions that have already been sealed with a handshake at a meeting we weren’t invited to.
We do it until we can’t anymore.
I realize that all of this might sound really discouraging to anyone who’s doing or thinking about getting into this type of advocacy, and I don’t want to discourage anyone. I think it is necessary work, or I wouldn’t be doing it.
But I doubt that advocacy alone has ever resulted in significant change. I do think that systems advocacy in conjunction with nonviolent direct action, cultural work, militant disruption, constructive alternatives, education initiatives, and mutual aid programs can bring about liberation.
The gains that our movement has achieved have been through a multitude of approaches, through attacking from all sides.
That’s a lot of organizing! And there are so few of us doing it, and so many of us are struggling just to show up every day, just to get out of bed, get out of the ER, stay housed, stay focused, resolve conflicts with each other, take care of each other, stay alive.
One thing that might make it possible for more of us to do more of this work is to increase support infrastructure like community centers and peer-operated respites. The more access we have to safe spaces and supportive community, the more capacity and resiliency we will have to keep fighting.
I know that I have been able to attend these meetings, give these presentations, do these trainings, and write these letters in part because I have not had to do it alone. Whether I had a coworker by my side or was able to debrief with a friend or get validation from colleagues online, some kind of support made the impossible possible.
I can do this work, too, because I know that others around the state and country – maybe including you, reading this now – are filing lawsuits, marching with signs, holding organizing meetings, visiting one another in the hospital, playing punk music, doing childcare and pet care, printing pamphlets, trolling Facebook groups, organizing conferences, writing news stories, making films and memes, and so much more.
So I go back and scream into the void, again and again, and sometimes the void screams back, but it doesn’t swallow me up.
Because my community holds onto me. Because one legislative meeting is just a drop of water in a huge wave that is eroding the immovable mountains of oppression, bit by bit.
Calvin Moen is the director of training for Vermont Psychiatric Survivors and does grassroots organizing for mutual support in Brattleboro.