Editor’s Note: A young psychiatric survivor named Leah Harris gave this eloquent plea for freedom from psychiatric oppression at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual convention.
As the proud crazy daughter of two crazy people, as a survivor of psychiatric abuse and incarceration in my youth, as an ex-psychiatric inmate who made it out of the asylum and now lives undercover amidst the ranks of the “normals,” I’m here today to raise my voice in protest against corporate psychiatry — to speak truth to the power in that building over there!
I’m also here today to honor my mother, Gail Harris, the most wonderful crazy person I ever knew, who died way too young, at the age of 46, after nearly three long decades of psychiatric abuse. Her crime was to run away from suburban Milwaukee to come here, to San Francisco, in 1968 at the age of 18, to join the hippie movement.
No matter how many times they locked her up and how heavily they doped her up, she never stopped being a free spirit and a revolutionary. I wish that she could be here by my side today, but I know that she is here with all of us in some way, shape, or form, cheering on our movement and its vision for empowerment and human rights for crazy people.
I’m glad that we are here today to challenge the hubris and hypocrisy of the American Psychiatric Association. The APA claims that it works to “ensure humane care and effective treatment for all persons with mental disorders,” and says that “it is the voice and conscience of modern psychiatry. Its vision is a society that has available, accessible, quality psychiatric diagnosis and treatment.”
You are exposed, you psychiatrists of the APA. We know that psychiatry has long ago lost whatever conscience it may have possessed. We know that you are snug in bed with the drug companies, that you couldn’t even exist as a professional association without drug company funding.
We know that you are in there right now listening to drug-company-funded research papers that masquerade as real science. You are picking up your Prozac keychains, your Effexor clipboards, your Adderall post-it notes. You have succeeded for the time being in selling your medical model of chemical imbalance to the American public, but we know that it is bunk science. We know that someday your lies will be exposed, and people will learn the truth. That you are trying to cure “mental illness” by destroying people’s brains with powerful chemicals, by zapping them with electricity.
Psychiatry does a very good job of blaming the victim. It is the colonization of people’s minds. We are told that all of the blame for our problems lies within us, when we know that more often than not, it is our society that is driving us crazy. It is too many hours of overwork and underplay. It is the way we are isolated from one another, with no sense of community. It is poverty, it is homelessness, it is injustice, it is racism, it is sexism, it is homophobia and gender discrimination, it is rampant materialism, it is abuse in the home, at the hands of those who claim to love us. It is trauma. Our trauma has never been addressed with your medical models.
We know that it is easier to lock up and drug the victim, to isolate the so-called crazy people away from society, than to confront the evils of the society we live in. We reject your vision of a diagnosis and a drug for every American.
We seek choice in mental health, we seek a variety of tools to help people empower themselves, to help people initiate their own healing. We believe the so-called patient knows what is best for her/himself. We believe that the people best in the position to help those who are suffering emotionally are people who have been there, who have been in that hell, and have found a way back.
We articulate a real vision for the future, a society where all people are treated with dignity and have access to basic human freedoms.
As ex-mental patients who have found the voice of reason, we represent a threat to what is going on at the APA conference. We know they will not give us anything other than a token seat at their table, nor will they share their power, and that they refuse to understand the concept of “nothing about us, without us.”
But we will not give up, we will continue to fight from within the mental health system, and from the margins, and we will not be silent, ever!
We will never forget. I will never forget that my childhood was robbed of me by psychiatry. I will never forget that I do not have a mother today, that she was taken from me way too young as a result of the years of harmful treatments and systematic disempowerment that she received at the hands of psychiatry. We will never forget all the victims of psychiatry past and present, and we are here to speak for those who have been silenced or destroyed by the psychiatric profession.
There is no moment of silence long enough to honor all those who have died, whose spirits have been broken, who have been convinced that they are defective human beings who do not deserve to live free and control their own destinies.
We will not be silent. We will honor those whose lives have been stolen; we will honor them through our everyday fight against the corrupt psychiatric gulag in this country. We will honor them as we attempt to build alternative models of healing and true empowerment.
We are victims, yes, we are survivors of horrible experiences; but we are so much more than that. We can never regain the years and the freedom that were stolen from us; but today we are living lives so full, and so rich, and we say: Living well is the best revenge. We have proven them wrong, their diagnoses and prognoses wrong. We are the living proof that their theories are bunk and their “treatments” are most often torture in the name of help.
We are healing ourselves and each other. Every day, we are healing from the harm psychiatry inflicted on us. We were lucky to make it out of the asylum, but we are not anomalies. Our very existence is proof that anyone can do it under the right circumstances. We are grateful for our (relative) freedom, but we know we are not truly free when so many others remain imprisoned.
I’d like to share with you a quote from a teenage woman psychiatric inmate: “I want to see the sky again. I want to walk on the grass barefoot. I want to smell the flowers and feel the breeze. No more stale filtered air! I want to touch dirt and rocks…. I want to hear birds sing. I know it sounds stupid, but I want to go outside.”
And that is how I see our movement, as working to help others see their own personal blue skies again, to get back in touch with the beautiful possibilities that life has to offer. Having found our way out, we want to help others to go outside, to help people free themselves from confining diagnoses; to literally help them get out of and stay out of institutions, and disentangle themselves from chemical prisons; to get our society to go outside its own narrow conceptions of sanity and insanity, health and illness.
Our movement is not just about human rights in mental health. It is a deep philosophical critique of our entire culture, our entire society. I am proud, so proud, to be with you today struggling for and articulating a vision for a different kind of society, and laying the foundations for a more humane world.
First published in the June 2003 issue of Street Spirit.