On the Concept of “Mental Illness,” the Harms of Psychiatric Labeling, and the Most Unrecognized, Oppressed Minority Group in America

I felt I had value again. I felt capable, for the first time in ten years.And then, the job ended. It had looked almost-certain I had nothing to fear – a writing position had opened up in another unit of the department; I breezed through an excellent interview. But it turns out I never had a chance. There was an institutional shake-up going on at the time, and they gave the job to someone internal so she wouldn’t lose her job.While I tried earnestly to find a job for the next 2 – 3 months, after failing to secure even another temp job, I gave up. I knew nobody was ever going to hire me; I mean, who was I kidding? Left alone in my studio apartment for days on end, not talking to another living soul, my OCD, eating disorder behaviors, and depression progressively worsened – and my hope evaporated – to the point where now (as everyone knows) I can barely function on a day-to-day basis.What America’s misinformed prejudice and fear toward the mentally ill looks like, in very concrete terms, is a 40-year-old, perfectly capable writer who can’t even get hired as a barista (I’ve tried, several times). A woman who hates herself and her life so much – its lack of purpose; that she not only helps no one, but burdens many – that she spent the majority of last week in her pajamas sleeping in the sanctuary of her dark closet and fantasizing about various ways she could kill herself. Except she doesn’t (and never will have) the courage to do so – which simply makes her hate herself all the more.

I never thought of myself as one of the “mentally ill” until 2004. I knew I had issues, I knew I had to address and deal with them. I knew I had “anorexia” – I had been saddled with that label in high school – but I refused to let it define me. I hid it from my colleagues, and most people not close to me probably thought I was rather “thin,” but never thought of me as simply ANOREXIC – as most do now.

I never thought of myself as a defective person, or a bad person until ten years ago, when I officially entered The System, was branded, and never escaped. I never thought of myself as “crazy.” Now “mentally ill,” “defective,” “crazy,”vand “morally bereft” are all I think of myself as.What Western society’s messed up psychology looks like in practice is a woman who has to pick and choose which bills she’ll pay and which she won’t each month, and a woman who would be homeless if it weren’t for the charity of her family. A woman who’s tired of not being able to afford simple things like a new paperback book (she only uses the library now), and had to sell more than half of her most beloved books a few months ago for a mere $25, so she could purchase a bit of food. It looks like someone who can’t do little things that most of you take for granted: replace the $15 Walgreens blowdryer that broke four months ago; indulge in the occasional cappuccinos she used to enjoy; or even get a fu–ing trim at Supercuts.

It looks like a woman who as of Nov. 27 – as always occurs at the end of the month – had $20 to last her until her Nov. 3 disability money arrived, and had to decide whether to spend that on toilet paper and toothpaste, or some minimal amount of food. And since she obviously can’t go without the former but has lots of experience going without the latter, the choice was obvious. This woman was hungry and would prefer to eat, but she really could NOT tolerate the utter humiliation and shame of asking her family for yet another hand-out, so she decided she’d go hungry – for real – instead. And hey, there were bonus points too! Maybe the not-eating-for-a-week would kill two birds with one stone. Maybe her heart would finally give the fu—out, and she could die after all.

It looks like a woman who by late Wednesday was so cognitively out-of-it, due to lack of food, she found herself spontaneously screaming at a stranger staring at her – because she felt the stranger was judging her wretched appearance and dented jalopy – as well as sending off a scathing, profanity-laced email to a big-wig, eating disorder researcher who had failed to respond to her interview request.

It’s a woman who had to swallow the last crumb of pride she possessed and ask for another financial hand-out last Thursday, so that she didn’t end up so food-deprived she landed in jail for doing something even stupider and more deranged than the above.

The stigma, labeling, misconceptions and mistreatment of the “mentally ill” looks like a woman who is starting to wonder whether she cares anymore about writing for a Web site that only a tiny handful of friends and family actually read. Because as much as she loves and appreciates the people who are listening, they’re not the ones who can get her a job or change The System. A system she wants to be taken seriously in – and isn’t – for once.

It’s a woman who has done a lot of research and studying about all of the above, but has heard so many stories about other people overcoming exponentially worse adversities – like horrific trauma, or cancer, truly wretched poverty, or more severe mental health struggles – that she knows, at root, she’s the one to blame in the end for her immoral, pathetic life and failure to simply turn things around.

A woman who when she does, on good days, find the will and ability to try and “work” and eat, is soon besieged by so many chains of thoughts detailing her failings & loneliness, down to the tiniest minutia, that she eventually returns to either drinking, or sleeping, or most often a lot of both, to shut it all out again.

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4 comments

  1. Diane R. Anderson says:

    Good morning Jeanene,
    I am eager to read your entire article and I copied it into Words so I can have it with me at all times even when there is no internet access for me here.
    I did read the first page quickly and the last paragraph… My heart felt and my eyes are crying for the pain that you are going through. You are a wonderful writer and you have a lot to offer that the world sees and recognizes it or not. It takes more courage to fight and that is what you are doing right now. You have started a fight for you and to help others by making this disease more visible. Scientists can go to the moon but can’t figure out the intricacy of the human brain to cure mental illness. I can’t wait to dig further with you in understanding the dimension, the fears and the nutritional effects that could make a small difference.
    Always listening,
    Love,
    Diane

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  3. Jeanene, Just because we choose not to call it “mental illness” doesn’t mean we don’t believe the suffering exists. Your friend was using faulty logic. You did not state, “People aren’t really suffering.” What you did state, and I do too, is that we choose not to call this “illness.” We don’t deny the existence of suffering. As I said in my blog post, calling it “illness” actually diminishes our recognition of suffering, boxing us into categories and pre-determined “treatment.”

    As for the discrimination against ED, I see that everywhere. It even exists in the Movement. How many times have I heard, “My bipolar was real. Your eating disorder was a choice.” So a manic person doesn’t “choose” to waste thousands of dollars on a plane ticket to Hollywood, thinking he/she is having a love affair with a movie star due to either “I can’t help it it’s my illness” or “It’s not an illness but I was really suffering.” Either way, calling it “illness” or not, ED gets left between the cracks.

    Yes, ED impacts us physically and is often caused by something amiss in the body. How often have I heard, “After 20 years, I found out the cause was a food allergy.”? Or, “My kid wouldn’t eat, but we found out he had dental problems that made it impossible to chew.” The treatment centers don’t even address these things. They don’t care what the cause is, they only force-feed and monitor every function of the human body as if we are caged animals.

    I suffered from both anorexia and binge eating. The binge eating went ignored in the treatment center and the focus was on forcing food, or even fake food, into me. They assumed the binge eating came from hunger. If only they’d listen to patients and realize that it doesn’t. In fact, I’ve had uneducated doctors and well-meaning friends state that it’s good to binge because it puts weight on a person.

    Say, what? Is no one speaking out on this? I think there are more deaths from binge eating (stomach rupture, car accidents, suicide) than anyone wants to admit. I know that in 1986 and 2012, when I really did want to do myself in, it was because no one presented to me any reasonable solution to binge eating. I was either turned down, blamed repeatedly, or given pat answers by “staff” who really didn’t know what I and other men and women experience who do large-quantity binges.

    Even outpatient treatment is slavery. People with bipolar or OCD might see a therapist once a week, maybe twice, and the psychiatrist once a month, but with ED, you have to see not only a therapist who runs your life, but also a nutritionist, often weekly, and a PCP for the forced weigh-in, plus the psychiatrist. Some must endure the forced weigh-in twice weekly. For many, this means at least three appointments per week, and if you don’t show up for one, you risk sectioning, that plus living with constant threats, “If you don’t gain 1/2 pound by Friday, you’re sectioned!” That’s not a life. It’s hell. It’s treating an adult like kindergarten, basing “care” on distrust and suspicion. I’ve been told, “All ED’s lie.” That, too, isn’t true. We don’t lie any more than anyone else. When i see it in a young ED, it’s usually the result of repeated scaletime bullying.

    • Jeanene Harlick says:

      Julie, I can’t respond in full right now – but I am very much in agreement with so many of your points! I am not sure how people can be so clueless… Like I said on your blog – Western society is pathologizing what are natural human emotions and behaviors which stand outside what they deem “normal” – because they’re uncomfortable with people who choose to live authentic lives; who feel intensely; who are in touch with the true nature of world, being human, the faulty parameters of “success,” etc. I.E. people who are akin more to artists and seers, and choose not to take the easy route by trying to squeeze ourselves into the cookie-cutter living and emotional range that is considered “acceptable” today …. That’s one reason why it’s very informative to look back at the history of “mental illness” – by reading people like Foucault, Goffman, R.D. Laing, etc., and understand how much a construct mental illness labels are… And how society exacerbates what is actually normal human suffering – suffering which could be manageable if it weren’t stigmatized because we express it in unconventional ways…. That’s not to downplay that there is also a lot of struggle arising from past trauma, too, and that that is deserving of help and working-through — but not the stigma, labels, and prejudice which sometimes come with that…

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