The Quiet Desperation of Never Being Caught
[Originally Posted on Mad In America – November, 2013]
I am sitting on a train right now, watching the rushes of orange foliage, on my way to teach a pilot workshop raising awareness about anti-oppressive mental health paradigms at NASCO, the national cooperative living conference. I hope to report on the experience next week, and before I do, I would first like to share something about my personal experience that has been bothering me since I first became involved in the movement for rethinking psychiatry.
My earliest interaction with psychiatry was when I was in the second grade. I was bubbling over with enthusiasm for life, learning, and play. I would rock precariously back in my chair during whatever devilish activity it is that requires 7-year-olds to sit still repeatedly throughout the day. I had been prone to rocking since I first began sitting in the odd contraptions. If it wasn’t attached to the ground, or a desk (and even sometimes then), I’d almost certainly have at least two legs of the furniture off the ground.
The act of balancing helped to ground me kinesthetically when the social situation required me to sit still beyond a certain point, which seemed like utterly foreign behavior to my body. Since I was a growing kid, every once in a while I would misjudge and fall back, banging my head on the ground. I would be startled, but quickly recovered. Falling never stopped me from doing it again, despite the grave concern of my parents and teachers.
I had a hard time making friends at school. My energy would erupt and fade, my timing was a bit different, and my interests were often from another planet. I’d hang out with a couple of the other more spastic and nerdy children when the opportunity arose, and with the neighbors who had known me long and well enough to be mostly forgiving of my quirks.
Not long into the school year my retirement-aged, draconian teacher, Mrs. Smith, who would have hit us with a switch if she could get away with it, singled me out for bothering her and the rest of the class with my constant movements, sounds, and general inability to get with the program. Off I went with my mother to a doctor, who in some short interview authoritatively diagnosed me with “mild attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”
I was always a curious kid, fascinated by novel experiences. I imagine I only appeared “mild” to this doctor because the whole exchange with him was so new and interesting that I was very focused on it. My behavior at school arose out of boredom. And at home, I tormented my mother with my inability to follow a chore schedule for my entire childhood.
After consulting with the pediatrician, my mother frankly explained to me that the doctors suggested I might take a drug (Ritalin) every day that would change the way I felt in my body and the way my mind worked so that I would fit in better in the classroom. She asked me if I wanted to do that, and I politely declined. Bless her, she fully supported my decision. I later confirmed that she never wanted me on the drugs at all.
Sounds good, right? Like most of us here, I believe that putting children on stimulants does more harm than good. The data suggests that they cause developmental problems, including an increased likelihood of mania and psychosis later in life. The negative side-effects are reason enough to avoid these drugs. And, due perhaps to the addictive and tolerance-building nature of stimulants, they do not seem to have any positive long-term effect on behavior or on academic performance.
Yet at this moment, in the process of dodging a potentially lifelong psych drug habit, something insidious starting growing inside me. I now had the doctor-approved confirmation of something I was already beginning to suspect, “I am fundamentally different,” is what the voices would say, “The other kids all have a gift, an understanding of how to be together and please the adults. I lack this gift. I am cursed. I am broken, deranged, deficient, unusual, and unfit.” I also had positive and heroic thoughts like “I understand something that none of the others do. I can see what a joke all this is. They would be liberated if they could see what I see.” Both lines of thought confirmed the same basic belief, that I am isolated, alien, fundamentally askew.
It is unsurprising in retrospect that that year, as an eight-year-old, is the first time I can remember doing something for which I despised myself. I threw a fit while rehearsing a scene in a play, I think it was about Paul Bunyan, when the other boy in the skit repeatedly botched his line. I grabbed the brim of his cap, violently shoving it, and his head, downwards while saying something mean. I was nervous about getting my lines right as well, of course.
From that point onward, I began acting out in other ways, and secretly punishing myself for being such an ignominious troll for all these “good” kids. I isolated and spent social time in school reading books instead.
This pattern coincided with an increase in bullying and teasing from peers who took advantage of my oddness, my poor timing, my funny clothes, and especially my gullibility. It would often take a very long time for me to comprehend a joke or detect sarcasm, during which I would be strung along, laughed at, or subjected to frustrated sighs.
In today’s diagnostic climate, I wonder if I would have been assigned an autism-spectrum label rather than ADHD.
Over time the voices in my head and the knots in my belly became more ruthless. I began preemptively assuming
I would be bad at new things, my passion for novelty turned into an insular fear when it came to social situations and I began early addictive tendencies with video games and later the internet. I remember around age 9 or 10 my best friend came over wanting to create and play while I was obsessively working my way through a strategy game on my Super Nintendo. He called me out, in anguish, because all I wanted to do was play the game and not relate to him. It was like a scene straight out of a day-time television intervention played out by an adorably cheery Puerto Rican boy and his sullen, quirky Jewish neighbor. It was a scene that would repeat, in one form or another, countless times during my life, as recently as this month.
By the time middle school rolled around, I was devastated, depressed, and increasingly dissociated. I went from being a kid who cried all the time, another vector of ridicule, to one who never cried at all. I developed a terrifying sexual attraction to younger girls (interestingly, around 8 or 9 in particular) that I shamefully stoked for several years.
I was haunted by vicious suicidal thoughts and had days when I refused to get out of bed, preferring to lie in it and imagine crawling myself to the bathtub where I could slit my wrists and end it all. My addictions accumulated — porn, caffeine, sugar (drugs and cigarettes would come later).
Much of my social life was spent with strangers, many twice my age, on the early internet. I’d spend hours with them on text-only servers after school until late in the night. I thought that these people did not really know me. They couldn’t bully me, and never had to know what a freak I was. My character in an online roleplaying game started dating someone else’s. A woman in her early-to-mid twenties. We spent hours having our characters flirt and play and interact with the game community. Over time, we began to know each other personally. Eventually, she admitted her fondness for me. I told her I was 13 and never heard from her again.
At a certain point I dissociated, literally feeling like my soul had left my body, and spent the remainder of my young-adulthood watching my life as though it was happening to someone else on a movie screen. I’m not sure anyone ever noticed.
As a young boy, a teen, and later as an experimental and “self-medicating” young adult, I was driven to extremes by the desire to pass as at least mostly normal. Some of my closest friends fell into the mental illness world. They took psych drugs. One ended up repeatedly in a psych hospital. I was determined to believe that somehow I was not like them, I wasn’t that sick. I could fit in, I could make it work.
And in a strange way it saddens me now that I did. I totally made it work.
Wracked with pain.
I leveraged every ounce of my white, male, heterosexual, tall, able-bodied privilege. In an effort to protect myself, I emotionally manipulated my parents, teachers, therapists, and employers to the brink of their breaking points, and sometimes over. I would make promises I knew I wouldn’t keep, never telling the whole truth about how I was feeling or what I was thinking. I gave up on loving myself and made use of every ounce of good faith, sympathy, forgiveness, respect, and subservience I could detect, while feeling like a total failure most of the time; frantically bailing out the sinking ship of my emotional resources on a daily basis.
I tried, I think unconvincingly, to fit in with a group of relatively “normal,” happy teenaged boys. At least one of or two of them genuinely liked me, particularly the ring-leader whom I had befriended before his rise to popularity. If not for his gracious disbursement of social invitations, I seriously might not be alive today.
I somehow managed a parade of girlfriends, and emotionally abused each one with clinging, codependence, a hamstrung capacity for empathy, an insatiable sexual appetite, and later on, harsh criticism. I discovered at the end of my senior year of high school that I had a secret moniker among some of my peers, “the emotional rapist.”
In desperation I sought out a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with, again, “mild” chronic depression, and spent a few weeks on Celexa until I felt the weird neurological zaps and sexual numbness I had read about on the internet, at which point I sighed and threw them out.
I carried this all with me, never talking to anyone about most of what pained me.
I went mad later on. I had my elevated, “manic” episodes where I talked the pants off big fearful eyes, and endless-feeling moments of psychosis usually on the downswing of drug binges. Somehow they happened in the right place at the right time, usually alone in an apartment that was paid for with a mix of my parents’ money and drug-dealing profits.
Nobody ever called the police on me. I stayed away from mental health professionals, especially at the peaks of my madness. I had no interest after having seen the inside of psych wards while dropping off and visiting friends. Again, I didn’t want to go there, and become one of them. One of the truly sick and hopeless ones.
The funny thing is that now when I meet psychiatric survivors who went through the hospitals, lived through forced drugging, believed the doctor’s stories about brain diseases, met others who saw through the bullshit, and were able to liberate themselves; I feel a little jealous. I have never felt like I had a true peer in the kind of distress I experienced. No doubt they are out there. Perhaps some of them were my neighbors. We never connected. Everything I did to cope, I managed to do at least feeling like I was doing it on my own. Everything I did to heal, I did alone or one-on-one with a practitioner. Meanwhile being ruled by my inner eight-year-old, resigned prematurely to a vacuous fate of never fitting in.
I have come to think of this scenario as the quiet desperation of never being caught. I often wonder, how many other boys and girls, women and men, must be out there, on or off psych drugs, who are given diagnoses and tacitly proceed with apparently normal lives while invisibly bearing cosmic volumes of despair; I imagine so many of them, barely managing to squeak by without freaking out others. How many think that they are the only one who is that weird and this different in a world of aloof schools and cruel children demanding vapid conformity.
On the other hand, with at least 1 in 5 children now being diagnosed with mental disorders, maybe today’s kids don’t feel so alone at all!
I hope nobody feels that their experience is being overlooked or diminished while reading this. Do I really wish I were locked in a psych hospital? Or heavily drugged? No, absolutely not. I do appreciate that one positive outcome that sometimes occurs in the system today is that it brings together in solidarity those who are suffering. Ideally, I think all such meeting should happen in a voluntary and horizontal way, like the Hearing Voices Network and the Icarus Project. If only there were a ubiquitous peer support group for marginalized children! Preferably one that does not require popping pills for membership.
How glorious it is to know now I am not the only freak — that I can be accepted and loved even if I once harmed people; and maybe even loved for being a bored little boy, passionate for a bigger life than could be contained with all four legs of the chair on the ground.