Why I Identify as a Psychiatric Suvivor
When I open my workshops I have begun telling people the following:
“I identify as a psychiatric survivor. What this means to me is that at a one point in my life I was offered a single explanation for what was happening, a way of making meaning about my life, that said I had an incurable brain disorder that was only treatable by taking a drug indefinitely. Later on, I found that this narrative was no longer useful, inspiring, or accurate.”
When I received my first diagnosis at 8-years-old, nobody offered me any alternative way of thinking about what was happening. No one suggested I might be an normal kid in need of more time outside, a more understanding teacher, or explicit lessons on how to work with my impulses and bodily sensations.
I do not know if I ever fully bought into it, but enough of me did to begin a trainwreck of self-doubt and self-hate.
I never knew that anybody saw “ADHD,” “chronic mild depressive disorder” or “anxiety disorder” as being labels for states that can be seen as full of meaning and gifts until my early twenties. By the time I began to have experiences of more extreme states, I was more curious about them than scared, and conscious that no good would come of reporting them to the medical system.
I feel grateful that I was never incarcerated in a hospital, coerced into taking drugs long-term, or put under the needle against my will. I have not survived the sort of intense physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse that many of my comrades have. Thus, I have been reluctant to use the word “survivor” before this.
I have merely had to find my own way to survive in a culture dominated by the psychiatric paradigm, with no institutions to turn to for help with my significant emotional and social distress.
My survival strategy has taken me through many different paths, costing me thousands of dollars, in search of an understanding and strategy for social and emotional wellness that honors my experience, helps me heal, and nourishes my growth as a person. I have swum amongst shamans, gurus, healers, prophets, support groups, and, most helpfully, peers who have been through similar experiences as me.
The one thing I have never done since I was 18 is gone to a psychiatrist or mainstream psychotherapist. No insurance has ever covered my recovery. No notes about me exist on any permanent record that follows me from place to place.
In the course of my sometimes extreme distress and chronic emotional difficulties, I have, through luck and choice, found myself in a life defined in no way by being a mental patient. I live this way despite the pathologizing will of psychiatrists past and the plethora of diagnoses I would likely receive if I spoke to one now.
Additionally, and not, I think, insubstantially, I have witnessed several loved ones have their lives dominated, and I would say diminished, by the singular coercion of the psychiatric paradigm.
All this is why I now identify myself as a psychiatric survivor.
I am not certain that “survivor” will continue to be the most accurate word for my experience. It is the one I currently most identify with out of the commonly available choices. I am hardly an ex-patient, and certainly not a consumer. I could consider myself “peer” and perhaps “in recovery,” but neither option embodies the sense of political and human struggle that “survivor” does.
For a while I thought of myself as an “ally,” but that failed to capture the deeply personal way I have felt, and continue to feel, the effects of a dominant psychiatric paradigm. I am curious what my colleagues and comrades might have to say about this. Please feel free to let me know!