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The Problem

April 28, 2008

Thanks to a poster on one forum for jogging my memory; I’d been meaning to go into this subject, but it had gotten lost in the (rather long) line. A thread came up on how psychiatry is used for social control, specifically how the biochemical model of depression is used to try to convince women that their discontent is caused by a wonky brain rather than by a society with some real problems. My intended reply just kept expanding, since I’ve had too much first-hand experience in this area. I’ve banished some illustrative anecdotes to endnotes, to keep things a bit tidier.

In retrospect, the nature of the problem looks pretty clear in my case. When I was in second grade, the school district’s psychologist called my mother in for a conference about my “anger problem,” advising scads of counseling, as well as medication for my hyperactivity. This was 1981 or 1982, well before it was called ADHD, and I’m just glad that Oppositional Defiant Disorder was not a popular diagnosis yet. Thank goodness my mom didn’t think medication was appropriate, and knew that it was illegal for them to force the issue.* The school district tried to shove blame onto my mother, citing her divorce as a probable cause of my unacceptable anger. This was only the first time they called her in.

Yes, I was angry. It did correspond to the divorce, in that my mom and I had moved into a different school district**. I was simply not accustomed to shoddy treatment–much less insistence that I deserved no better–and I got progressively angrier in response. Makes sense, no? I was raised with rather different cultural ideas about hierarchies, femininity, and how society is generally supposed to work. I went into that situation honestly thinking that I was as good as anybody else in the world, and that I deserved to be treated with just as much respect. Having a mental configuration pathologized as autism*** (as I learned just a couple of years ago), I did not quickly pick up on just what very different standards of behavior were suddenly being expected of me. I definitely did not Know My Place, and the escalating attempts to shove me into it just made me angrier. Obviously, I was the one with the problem.

It says a lot that anger was baldly identified as The Problem.

As time went on, I became more and more frustrated. Nothing I did helped the situation, and I wound up internalizing much of the anger as depression, with a side order of disordered eating. This was more socially acceptable, but I was still the one with the problem. Being naturally eager to please rendered me vulnerable to an amazing amount of harm, bombarded with psychotic expectations I did not really understand. I did sometimes question whether this was right, but increasingly came to regard these moments of rebellion as part of my Horrible Problem.

After I hit puberty, things got even worse. (Not surprising, just being a girl.) At 13, I entered the psychiatric system in a rather traumatic way, getting hospitalized after a violent meltdown episode brought on by horrendous stress. This was the heyday of for-profit adolescent psych units, and my parents were not sure what else to do; they honestly thought they were helping. The treatment in that particular place mainly consisted of confining us in a highly punitive manner–while lecturing us about being selfish, spoiled little jerks who needed to straighten ourselves up–until the insurance ran out. Two more hospitalizations over as many years followed, for the same reasons. Talk about dehumanizing experiences. I was repeatedly threatened with a return to the hospital if I did not regularly see a therapist and, later, take my antidepressants. My parents may have been doing what they thought best, but that doesn’t make it right in any way.

I got diagnosed with the old favorites, depression and anxiety. As time went on, more diagnoses got tacked on to try to explain away facets of my personality: PTSD (they had something there!), OCD tendencies, serious ADHD, a slew of anxiety disorders, and finally bipolar disorder with some psychotic features. I am probably forgetting something. More medications followed, not to mention well-meaning professionals ascribing motivations and thoughts to me which I’d never had. Not to mention being discredited as crazy by the school, by other kids, and by my family doctor. I came to believe it; there was obviously something very wrong, and people overwhelmingly pointed to me as being it.

My major meltdown episodes and diagnosis also happened when repressed memories of early childhood abuse were all the rage. Again, well-meaning professionals tried to convince me that my behavior indicated that I had been abused, and was obviously not remembering it. Nobody bothered to determine whether I was actually suffering abuse right then, not that I would have identified my daily rounds of Hell in school as abusive at the time. By that time, I mostly thought that was just The Way Things Were, including escalating sexual harassment and assault. I was showing symptoms of PTSD for many reasons, in none of which did they seem at all interested.

I stayed periodically suicidal and thrumming with anxiety for years at a stretch. Nobody wanted to listen when I mentioned the problems I was having from “unusual” reactions to medications, writing me off as noncompliant and “not trying hard enough”. Not knowing why I was having problems, I crashed out of college and mostly stayed in the house for a number of years. All the time, I was just “not trying hard enough.” All the medications in the world, combined with all the therapy based on faulty assumptions, is not going to change a person’s untenable life situation. One doctor was unintentionally more honest, insisting that what I really had was a not a mood disorder, but a whole slew of deep psychological problems which needed longterm, intensive treatment to put me in line with the Real World.

Looking back, the worst part of all of this is that I truly thought there was something seriously wrong with my brain until a couple of years ago. It did not occur to me that all the signs of distress might be just that; I could not identify my depression as situational, while trapped in depressing situations and futility like a fish in water.

Falling into a deep depression after a transatlantic move and marriage was what really helped wake me up. The connection was bleedingly obvious, and I found myself considering what might have triggered earlier depressive episodes. By now, I probably do get pushed over into depression more easily than some, but there has always been something pushing me that way. Antidepressants an antianxiety meds can help, IME, if one is aware of when and why to apply them. Trying to ignore the connection between physiological responses and environmental factors is ludicrous and intellectually dishonest. That approach owes too much to the good old Western body-mind divide, insisting that if it’s a “purely” physical problem, it must be legitimate. Some of the ones profiting off the pill-pushing prefer to dance around that fact, which is pretty ridiculous and dishonest in itself.

I also found out that I’m somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and reading about other people’s experiences opened my eyes even more. (And now that I know that I’m not just being a PITA, trying to avoid sensory overload, I have maybe a quarter the anxiety symptoms.) Ditto for finding radfems online, after moving into a society that reminded me disconcertingly of my elementary school. Ditto for learning more about colonialism, and seeing how it applied to me. I knew there were cultural conflicts, but did not realize how many of them were playing out in my own life. That applies equally well to being a woman in a patriarchal society. Now I can see how all of these types of oppression fit together, and are used together to keep people in line–and am seeing how this applies to me, as well as to other people. I no longer feel as if I am doing something, apparently just by existing, to bring all manner of mistreatment on myself.

I can’t help but believe that the cognitive blunting much psych medication causes is tutted at, while really being regarded as part of their charm. While people are feeling like zombies, they’re far less likely to “make trouble”. I’m not on meds now, but do have lingering memory problems from the years after college when I was absolutely saturated in an amazing variety of them, and could quite seriously feel bits of my mind just shutting down under the chemical assault. With time, things have improved, but whole chunks of memory remain difficult to retrieve (trying to access German grammar and vocabulary still gives me a stabbing headache, for one example), and my cognitive speed may never get back to where it was before. My executive function is worse than it used to be. The gears just don’t mesh very well sometimes. I try to consider myself lucky to have come out of 15+ years of having various neurotransmitters clumsily tampered with in no worse cognitive shape than I am now, but it’s hard sometimes. These lasting effects are rarely admitted, nor discussed–cognitive and memory effects are mostly dismissed as “acceptable” side effects while taking the drugs. I think this state of affairs is very convenient for some.

Before all this, I did not understand how many of my difficulties had come from (a) not comprehending hierarchical systems in the first place, and (b) not Knowing My Place in them. It finally dawned on me that perhaps the root of the problem was not my neurochemistry, but in my resisting attempts to be forced into a system that’s not particularly healthy for anyone involved. This system is creating a lot of misery, I’m not. I still tend to weigh myself down with blame for doing the best I could see to do for so many years, just to get by, but know that’s inappropriate–and just an echo of how we’ve been trained.


* One cousin was not so lucky, and also got treated as if he were crazy at home. The last time I checked, he was one of the working homeless, and still considering himself seriously crazy. (Environment and overmedication have been his main problems, AFAICT.) His two children are living with his mother now, and both of them are on psychiatric meds at the insistance of the same school system–at 6 and 8, IIRC. The older kid was first considered cognitively disabled to the point of being nigh ineducable, then somehow morphed into a dangerously bipolar genius who needs to take multiple antipsychotics, at the age of 7. Both of them just struck me as bright, active little kids, at least until the meds dulled them down. It makes me sick, the way their grandmother has rushed to buy into this crap, especially after seeing how it’s helped their father.

** As an illustration of just how hostile this environment was to local people (“hillbilly white trash”/actually mostly Native), one speech therapist they put me with–against parental protest, since it was completely unnecessary–made an appalling comment when my mom went in for a conference over why I burst into tears whenever speech therapy was mentioned. She actually informed my mother that she’d taken it upon herself to “work on” my accent because “the child sounds like she’s from West Virginia (*sneer*, *sneer*)”. We’d just moved from there. This happened in a town roughly 30 miles from the WV state line, where the therapist was presumably choosing to work. That woman kept her job, in spite of multiple reports of verbal abuse lodged with the administration. I did not continue to see her, thank goodness.

*** I can’t say that this is more common in my culture of origin, but it isn’t nearly as pathologized, nor are people placed under as much pressure to pass for “normal”. A wider range of thinking and behavior is still considered desirable, not just tolerable. In my case, I only became intolerably peculiar after finding myself in a hostile school environment. Nobody seemed to notice that I was weird before that, especially among a family in which the few neurotypical souls stand out.

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