As I introduce my next guest, I also warn you, Vince’s story is a harrowing one. There is no sugar-coating what Vince has been through and how the mental health system has failed him.
This is Vince’s story.
Why I’m Done With the Mental Health Profession
I want to talk about failure.
Most people who struggle with psychiatric symptoms are probably quite familiar with the feeling of having failed – of being ‘wrong’ on a fundamental level. If you’re anything like me, this feeling persists whatever you do or don’t do. The thoughts that go with it reshape themselves, like the Borg adapting to phaser fire, around whatever means you employ to combat that underlying feeling. So if you have a career that pays well, then you’ve failed because you’re selfish and materialistic. If you’re doing something you love for free, you’ve failed because it’s not making you rich. (In fact, it might not even count as doing anything, which means you’re a slacker and once again, hello failure.) If you decide not to have children, it’s because you’re cold and unloving, and you are obviously going to die alone. If you do have children, you’re a mindless breeder and you’re passing on your own dysfunction to another generation. Self-blame is an adaptable beast.
We are indoctrinated, by society and by the medical profession, to look to ourselves as the source of that ‘I’ve failed’ feeling. Even if we disclose a traumatic past, addressing that isn’t usually the physician’s top priority. They’re far more interested in our symptoms – how we relate to others, whether or not we use drugs and alcohol, how many sexual partners we’ve had, how we did academically, whether we indulge in criminal behaviour. If this sounds an awful lot like the victim-blaming that happens far too often after someone reports a rape to the police, that’s because the two are absolutely part of the same cultural problem.
I was in and out of the mental health system for ten years before I found the courage to disclose that my uncle had sexually abused me when I was six. I’d recently been hospitalised for a suicide attempt, my uncle was now dead so there was no perceived need to protect his reputation, and I was starting to come to terms with the fact it had happened. When I told the doctor I was seeing at the time, I was still idealistic about the mental health profession and I expected him to go “Well, this explains everything” and to offer me some counselling or something. Instead, I was given the psychiatric label of Borderline Personality Disorder and sent on a course called The STEPPS Programme, which teaches emotion management and relationship skills to people diagnosed with BPD.
I have to say, I got a lot out of STEPPS on a pragmatic level. In fact, it was useful to the extent that I think the techniques should be taught in schools. But the major flaw of STEPPS’ ethos was that it treated us all like we were fundamentally different from other humans. Our ‘out of control’ emotions, we were told in not as many words, needed careful management so that we could fit in and not make waves in this nice, normal, issue-free society we’re all supposed to be a part of. Most people with BPD have been victims of rape, sexual assault, alcoholic parents or domestic violence (I alone tick all four boxes). But never, during the twenty weeks of going to sessions and rating our emotional intensity on a scale and studying which filters we had viewed our experiences through this week, was it suggested that it might be a good idea to heal those underlying wounds as well as going out into the world with our shiny new coping strategies.
OK, so I didn’t disclose the incest until my early 30s. People can’t help you with something if they don’t know it’s happened. But between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, I was targeted and groomed for a sexual relationship by a grown man ten years my senior, and plenty of people knew about that. My parents, when I first told them, initially forbade me from seeing him and then took me to a private psychiatrist, because being preyed on by a child molester means there’s something wrong with me, I guess. The shrink asked me a whole bunch of questions (including whether I masturbated while thinking about my boyfriend, which is a whole other level of what-the-fuck) and then told my parents that I clearly had ‘some emotional issues’ but that he didn’t think anything was wrong with the situation. I was fourteen, my ‘boyfriend’ was twenty-four, and the doctor knew this. He had a duty of care to inform the police and he didn’t. And my parents? They decided that since the shrink was all right with it, it was obviously alright – and instead of going straight for the restraining order (which is what I will unhesitatingly do if either of my kids is ever targeted this way), they welcomed him into the family fold, even taking him on holiday with us one year and letting me share a room with him.
I honestly had no clue at the time how fucked up it all was. I just thought I was cool because I had an older boyfriend who had a car and a job and money. That kind of thing gives you serious status when you’re a school kid. But my parents, my twenty-something siblings, my teachers and the grown-ass men I trained in martial arts with…they all knew, and they all stood back and let it happen, giving their unspoken approval to the idea of a man in his mid-twenties fucking a child.
Is it any wonder I have suffered years of debilitating psychiatric symptoms when I was repeatedly betrayed by every adult in my life throughout my adolescence? And my experience is hardly unique. I am well aware that people can be mentally ill without having had any kind of traumatic experience, and for many of those people the mainstream model of treatment might be very effective. There are, however, many more of us out there who are fundamentally mentally healthy, but have been screwed over time and time again by people who were supposed to be looking out for us – only to then be accused of failure because we find it nigh-on impossible to integrate into society.
We have not failed at anything. Being traumatised by traumatic events is not a personal failure. The failure and the blame belong to the ones who have abused us, and to the system that is supposed to help us but instead treats us like we’re sick rather than injured. A physical doctor can tell the difference between a severed limb and cancer, so why do psychiatrists play dumb when a person’s distress has an obvious external cause?
I’ve spent too long hiding myself away because I believed I was some giant loser, and I’m done. I reject my diagnosis, I reject psychiatry (which I will henceforth call ‘quackery’), and I reject the legacy of shame handed down to me by those who abused me. I don’t know whether I will sink or swim as I look for ways to heal my wounds outside of the system, but I do know this: I am not a failure. And nor are you.
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