therapists and clinical directors there always attribute this to the fact that either 1) I didn’t try hard enough, more commonly known as the “you haven’t fully surrendered” line (and if anybody ever tries to say that to me again, I will literally smack them in the face) or 2) (While they won’t say this) My brain isn’t capable of being fixed. Never once have I heard a treatment center consider the fact that maybe Western psychiatry’s (and therefore American culture’s) failure to reconceptualize “mental illness” maybe plays a role in my failure to achieve long-term health, that maybe the whole system of psychological diagnosis and labeling they subscribe to is fu—up in the first place.
And when I think about it, despite all these therapists’ purported belief in the biomedical model, I really don’t think they even believe it, at the subconscious level – probably due largely to the individualistic, pick-youserlf-up-from-your-bootstraps American mores we’ve all raised with and steeped in. What their actions and words have – if you read between the lines – said to me, over and over again – is the problem is me, my weak character, my poor work ethic, etc., not some inherent biological mutation I have no control over. You readers may find this hard to believe. But if you’re ever unfortunate enough to have to attend one of these centers, you’ll see what I mean.
How does all the stigma and entrenched, biomedical mindsets play out in real life? While I can go on at length about the various forms of oppression the “mentally ill” in America face. But I’ll try to save most of that for another article. For now, I’ll just briefly state that the aformentioned researchers have amply demonstrated the mentally ill remain one of the most disadvantaged and oppressed minorities in this nation. Decades of research has shown they experience extreme prejudice from employers, landlords, government institutions, medical professionals and counseling professionals themselves. While most chronically, mentally ill individuals wish to work to some degree, only 15 percent are able to obtain employment. A comprehensive review of more than 1,200 American With Disabilities Act cases filed by the mentally ill and which made it to federal appellate court showed that employers won 95.7 percent of the time (The analysis, by University of Miami law professor Susan Stefan, was published in the Alabama Law Review in 2000).The mentally ill also experience greater economic hardship, social isolation and social restrictions than almost any other minority group. While other forms of identity-based inequality (such as being “black” or “gay”) have made huge gains over the past 50 years, the “mentally ill” have reaped comparable rights. Rarely is prejudice toward us even acknowledged when we are made fun of, or made the scapegoat for some social ill. The prejudice toward the mentally ill is so entrenched and subconscious that even the most open-minded and tolerant of those in power, or those with celebrity, don’t even realize they’re buying into this form of prejudice when they’re doing it.
And what does all the above look like, when translated to the individual level? It looks like me. Ten years ago, I was a high-functioning journalist grappling with a variety of mental health issues, including an eating disorder. I entered a residential treatment program in a proactive attempt to stop things before the spiraled out of control. I entered the system – a system I was led to believe was my only route to “recovery” – a system that, on the contrary, turned out to be the beginning of my end.
Thus ensued 10 years of me cycling in and out of treatment centers, as I was brainwashed about the names and sources of my “disorders” and the rigidly-defined solution for solving them.
A little more than a year ago, I left my last treatment center – where, despite fully restoring my weight and mental stability after about three months, I was forced to stay an additional eight, as the center’s practitioners could never seem to agree I was “ready” to return to reality. Finally, in July 2013, I discharged myself “against medical advice” because I saw the debasing treatment the center subjected me to, on a daily basis, was only reversing the gains I had made, and setting me up for failure upon return home.
When I returned to the Bay area I set about trying to do the only thing I knew would really give me a chance at maintaining my restored weight and mental stability: finding a fulfilling job that not only related to my passions and provided me a sense of purpose in this world again, but that also allowed me to finally regain financial stability and self-sufficiency. But I had a ten-year job gap, was 40 years old, and no prospective employer would give me the time of day. Particularly since, if any of them even lingered over my resume, and then Googled my name, all that showed up were news articles – accompanied by emaciated photos of me – related to a landmark lawsuit I won bringing mental health parity to California health insurance. News articles which pretty much shouted out, from the glare of the computer screen, my status as one of those CRAZY ANOREXICS, one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses in the U.S.
In November, by pure luck – i.e., a sister’s connections – I obtained an excellent temp job in communications at Stanford University. Finally, I was high-functioning again, exulting in my return to the workforce, and while I can’t say I was in “full recovery” (I’m not sure “recovery,” in traditional psychiatry’s sense of the word, is achievable for me – but that’s a complex topic for another article), my OCD and eating disorder behaviors were mild enough to allow me to finally start living a relatively “normal,” fulfilling life.
I delved into the job – which involved, among other things, helping fill in for the department’s media relations director (then on maternity leave) – with enthusiasm and gusto, proved myself worthy of the job’s media-sensitive responsibilities, and worked there for four, very productive months. My supervisors praised the high quality and thoroughness of my work, and gave me increasingly more responsibility.