I went to a lecture last night by Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic, put on by Rethinking Psychiatry. While I was expecting something of a crank, I found, instead, a nuanced, fairly reasonable, persuasive (if imperfect) presentation, and if I get the chance (hah!) I’ll tell you more about it after I’ve read the book.
But right at the end (let’s call it the Inspiring Rhetoric portion of the evening), he argued that everyone has the capacity for mental/emotional disturbance including psychosis (true), that we — humanity — have amazing capacity for resilience (true), that societies play a significant role in both creating and healing mental/emotional disturbance (true), that we have never found evidence of a gross, simplistic “chemical imbalance” for mental illness (surprising, but true), and thus there is no need for stigma, because there’s no such thing as a Broken Brain.
Now, my hard moments aside, I am the last to argue that I am a Broken Brain — but setting up this false binary (either we buy the theory of the Broken Brain or we are crazy-blind1 and sing Koombaya we’re all exactly the same lalalaaaa) sends me to sputtering at speakers, sounding remarkably like the babbling baby tied on my chest. Except rather less cheerful.
Because it is a false dichotomy. We can, and must, recognize the humanity of psychiatric patients; we can, and must, acknowledge the truth that our unjust society has significant influence over who experiences “mental/emotional disturbance” and that it’s often more a case of bad luck (to be born poor, or female, or trans, or nonwhite, or or or — or especially and and and) than of bad genes whether one winds up needing intensive psychiatric assistance; but in doing so let us not erase the existence of those of us who — while not fundamentally different than anyone else — are more prone to psychosis, to mood swings, to obsessive thoughts, to bleak outlooks.
Because while I am not some inhuman Other, some untouchable with wholly different (broken) neurology, I am not the same as the neurotypical/emotypical either. Everyone has mood swings; I swing harder, and faster, and more frequently. Everyone has worries; I have fears that stop me in my tracks and race my heart and quicken my breath and will not be dismissed with a simple shrug or rational risk assessment. Everyone has high energy days; I have nights I cannot stop my brain or my body from circling ceaselessly and uselessly, expelling energy I do not healthfully have. Everyone has wonderfully human, quirky, interesting, imperfect brains; mine is just more so.
I work exceedingly hard at achieving stability, at reducing the difference in functioning between my mind and “everyone else’s”. But I will never be “normal”. I will never have a brain without the tendency to take the entirely human capacity for emotional experience to a near-unbearable extreme. I will never be not-bipolar.
The revolution I long for isn’t one that erases the amazing ways in which I am different; it is one that embraces and celebrates those differences. The revolution I long for doesn’t homogenize everyone and pretend we are the same; it humanizes everyone even though we are not. Like nearly all those who attended Whitaker’s lecture last night, I am not content to accept society’s stigmatization of people like me; unlike many there, I will never accept a “revolution” that erases me.
- A la “colorblind” because that’s worked SO WELL for race. (Note: It has not worked well for race.) ↩