November 3, 2014
Three weeks have passed since Mad in America’s International Film Festival took place at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts, USA. I’ve been spending a lot of time in solitude, reflecting and processing the whole thing, for in the Festival’s wake, I was taken over by a powerful, albeit interesting mix of great physical and mental fatigue and even greater emotional energy. Most importantly, what the Festival has set off in me is a resurgence of hope—hope for Mad in America’s future as an organization and an ever-growing space for people to come together in community, hope for this mission we’re on to transform the way the world makes sense of the experiences that get called “mental illness”, and hope in our collective human capacity for personal and collective transformation.
It’s been difficult for me to write this post. When I say ‘difficult’, what I really mean to say is nearly impossible, as though something inside of me has been holding me back from trapping something so big and meaningful behind one telling with the written word. I’m also aware of how important it is both to me in my own personal process of meaning-making and to our community as a whole—both those who attended and those who couldn’t make it to Arlington—to have a written record of our time together. But over the past few weeks I’ve had moments of feeling totally disconnected from the whole thing, as though it was all just a dream. It’s so strange, because in the months and weeks leading up to the weekend the Festival was my life, like I was it and it was me and now, it’s as though we’d never met each other, those four days and I. But perhaps, as has been suggested to me, it’s quite the opposite— that this post has been so difficult to write not because I’m disconnected from the Festival, but because I’m so deeply connected to it. Whatever the case may be, I’m pleased to say that my sense of determination has now outweighed my desire to avoid writing this piece, so here I am, at my computer, typing away. I’d like to share with you some reflections on my experience of the Festival from two perspectives: first, as the organizer of the event and as a part of the Mad in America team, and second, as an ex-psychiatric patient.
Through my lens as organizer
Over the course of our Festival, I’d estimate that over four hundred people were in attendance, some for only part of one afternoon, others for the entire weekend. We knew from the beginning that we were asking a lot of our attendees: fourteen-hour days, non-stop screenings and talks and panels, and short, sporadic breaks from an unrelenting stream of intense pain, joy, darkness, light, despair and hope on the big screen. Just as we hoped, people came and went as they saw fit, carving out time with old friends and new acquaintances to sneak away for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee or a drink, but there’s no doubt about it: our four days together required a huge amount of mental, emotional, and physical energy. That so many people spent so much of their time sitting in that one space together, I believe, is a powerful testament to the commitment our community has to challenge the current medical model paradigm. It speaks to a deep sense of humility in the presence of personal narrative, for many of our films highlighted the stories of individuals who’d been psychiatrically labeled and individuals who work in The System in alternative ways. It speaks to an earnest desire for a continual expansion of learning and knowledge. It speaks to a passion for social justice and human rights, which sat at the core of our Festival’s mission. And it speaks, I think, to an appreciation of and respect for one another and for the communal space we created together.
This, I’d say, was the most impactful for me as the Festival’s organizer: the undeniably powerful sense of community that blossomed over the course of those four days, which I’m still feeling the stark absence of in my physical surroundings, but the strong presence of in my heart. We came from Iceland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, England, Ireland, Canada, Costa Rica, and all across the United States. Among us were ex-psychiatric patients; current users of psychiatry; family members of current users; critical psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors; Boston-based mental health lawyers; local mental health practitioners and nurses who’d been previously unaware of Mad in America or the ‘Psychiatric Survivors Movement’; journalists; and local undergraduate and graduate students. It was an eclectic mix, and this, I believe, is what made the growing sense of connection all the more meaningful. Here we were, people from all over the world, with all different kinds of life experiences and varying opinions on psychiatry and the “mental health system”, intersecting in this one space in Arlington, Massachusetts, to spend four full days together around one shared mission: to rethink psychiatry. One could imagine the many ways that this gathering could have fallen apart into chaos, but quite the opposite occurred, even at the most heated moments of tension during our weekend: we came together in solidarity. I can only speculate, but I’d say that at an energetic level, our alignment with one another was driven by a shared love of truth, justice, and humanity, which outweighed any ideological differences that existed between us.
When Bob Whitaker and I first began to discuss this Festival nearly two years ago and I agreed to be the organizer, I never in my wildest dreams could have anticipated what I was in for. I’m chuckling as I write these words, because on more than one occasion, as we sat across from each other in his office, Bob asked, “Are you feeling confident in taking this on? Do you feel ready and prepared?” I’d always look back at him and say yes, I was, I was ready to take it on. But I had no idea what I was doing—really, I didn’t—and as the months passed and we moved closer to October 9th, 2014, I realized that the task I had before me was going to be one of the biggest and most complex I’d ever taken on in my life. I can tell you without a doubt that if Bob had asked me to organize the Festival a year or two prior to when he did, my answer would’ve been a resounding no, for then, at the start of my relationship to Mad in America and to a life post-Psychiatry, I was full of fear and insecurity and self-doubt. But this is the beautiful thing about my experience of coming off psychiatric drugs and leaving behind a “mentally ill” identity—the progressive nature of my coming alive, and my growing surety of self. And so, when Bob asked me if I felt prepared to take on this tremendous responsibility, while the residue of my psychiatrized self whispered No, you can’t handle this! my reclaimed humanity called out, Yes, you can.
I listened to that part of myself. I am so grateful that I did.
I’m not going to lie: over the past year, there were many moments in which I felt horrifically afraid and unsure of my ability to get this Festival off the ground. There were many moments in which I curled up in a ball on my sofa and felt bombarded with anxiety about the seemingly unending list of responsibilities I had on my plate to pull this thing together. Bob, of course, was right there beside me throughout the whole journey to collaborate with, but what impacted me most of all was his sense of faith in me—that he was trusting in me to organize something that would help Mad in America grow as an organization; that he believed I was powerful and strong and capable enough to do it. His faith in me helped me get through those many moments curled up on the sofa, when I’d be terrified of going forward. I’d think, If Bob believes in me, why shouldn’t I believe in myself?
What I’ve come to realize about the experience of organizing a large community event like the Festival is that it’s a kind of birthing process. I carried this thing in my mind and my heart for a long time, cultivating it daily with the support of my colleagues at Mad in America. It existed solely in my mind throughout those many months, until time brought us to the unlocking of the theater doors on opening day and the Festival freed itself from me as an idea and became its own living, breathing thing in real time and real space. I, too, felt free as I realized that I no longer had any control over it; that I’d done everything I possibly could to bring it to fruition and now here it was, happening on its own terms. As people began to stream in for the opening night cocktail party, I felt a profound weight lift from me, and a sense of calm take hold. I watched the waiters pass hors d’oeuvres and people sip glasses of wine and the circles of dialogue slowly growing larger and the sound of conversation slowly growing more lively and I realized, Wow, this thing has its own beating heart: the festivalgoers, themselves. People came up to me throughout the weekend asking how I felt, if I was handling it OK, if I was totally stressed out, and my answer every time was, “I’m totally good, actually. It’s its own thing now.” I was aware that I could have full trust in our community to build this thing moment by moment, together—strangers and friends and coworkers and allies and even ideological “enemies”, alike.
I have so many snapshots of memory circling through my mind from the weekend. I can picture individuals embracing each other for the first time in person, celebrating the occasion of their face-to-face connection after knowing each other for years on the internet, or through the commenting section of Mad in America.
I can picture a woman walking down the aisle towards her seat, proudly wearing the Mad in America hoodie sweatshirt she’d just purchased and pulled right out of the bag to put on.
I can picture Richard Adams, the cameraman for ASYLUM, shedding tears of love and gratitude from the stage as he spoke about how meaningful his six weeks in R.D. Laing’s Archway community were in the 1970s as he shot the film.
I can picture Evan Goodchild, Earl Miller, Caroline White, and Wyatt Ferrera of the Western Mass RLC as they sat on stage for the Non-Compliance Panel in a pitch-black theater (our one technical snafu of the weekend), their faces lit up by cell phone flashlights as they spoke about resisting psychiatric oppression with humor and camaraderie and confidence and a commitment to human rights.
The Non-Compliance Panel after the lights came back on.
The Non-Compliance Panel after the lights came back on.
I can picture the brave woman who traveled all the way to Arlington by herself from central Canada after discovering that she wasn’t the only person in the world who’d been harmed by psychiatric “care”, and that she needed to connect with others about what she’d gone through.
I can picture twenty mental health practitioners from a nearby community mental health organization as they lined up to take their seats towards the back of the theater to watch a day of films about the history of psychiatry, anti-psychiatry, and alternatives to the medical model.
I can picture a packed theater absolutely riveted to the stage and so quiet you could hear a pin drop as Elizabeth Kenny performed the climax of her play, SICK.
I can picture the tears I saw going down the face of a woman sitting near me as she listened to Dylan Tighe tell the story of how he reclaimed himself from a “bipolar” label through his musical performance of RECORD (REMIX).
I can picture the hugs—the countless hugs—that I witnessed over the weekend, and the countless exchanges of eye contact as people shared their passions with one another.
I can picture the Gala dinner with the hanging lanterns and the tea lights and the blue tablecloths on the twenty round tables and I can hear the jazz music and lively conversation and laughter.
I can picture Bob on the stage next to me at the Gala dinner as he asked the audience if anyone had attended every single one of the thirty films over the weekend, and the collective inhale of surprise and respect as Richard Adams and Bill Steele, cameraman and soundman of ASYLUM, raised their hands, stood up, and received a hearty round of applause.
I can picture the sight from the balcony above as David Oaks gave an inspiring recorded talk to the Gala dinner and the crowd listened and laughed and cried and reflected on the history of “The Movement”, and on the significance of David’s decades of activism and of MindFreedom, International.
The Gala dinner
I can picture my hands on the steering wheel as I drove away that last night, realizing that the next morning I wouldn’t be watching people roll in to start the day, some with slightly disheveled hair and nearly all with coffee cups held tightly in their hands.
On one of the evenings, Bob and I leaned side-by-side in silence on the wall behind the last row of seats in the theater, our chins resting in the crooks of our folded arms as we looked out over the vast sea of bodies before the big screen. I don’t know what he was thinking about in that moment, but I remember vividly what I was. I was thinking—and feeling—that these two hundred and fifty human beings before us were all oriented towards that one big screen and everything it represented over the course of those four days. I was thinking that each and every one of the festivalgoers had carved out time and resources in their lives to be there in that moment. As we bore witness to this, it hit me, as well, that I’m a part of something—something so important to the future of our human family. I’m a part of a mission that is meaningful and just. I’m a part of Mad in America, a realization that I imagine many of my fellow festivalgoers also felt in conscious and unconscious ways throughout that weekend. I’d never felt a part of something as much as I did in that moment. There were tears quietly moving down my cheeks as I savored it, and reflected on the fact that had my life not unfolded exactly in the way that it did—had I never met psychiatry and fourteen years of psychiatric labels and countless bottles of psychiatric drugs, I’d likely never have been there at the back of that theater with my dear friend and colleague and a whole roomful of people who share the same commitment to social change as I feel.
Through my lens as ex-patient
When I reflect on the many years I spent as a mental patient, one of the things that stands out starkest to me is the absence of space I had to explore my thoughts, my feelings, my sensations, and my identity outside the confines of the medical model. What’s most concerning to me is that I can look back to see that at some point along the way I was no longer even aware of this imprisonment, for I’d been so indoctrinated into thinking of myself as a “chemically imbalanced”, “sick” person (and of course, my cognition was so impaired by the “meds”) that I’d completely lost sight not only of any other framework to make sense of what I was experiencing, but also of the fact that there even were any alternative frameworks, at all.
In my work as an activist today, I can say without a doubt that the message I put forth more than any other is the importance of self-education. I speak this message strongly because it’s been my experience that liberation from the medical model has come through a process of de-educating myself of the many stories I was taught to believe by psychiatry about who I was and what my suffering meant, and re-educating myself through immersion in critical perspectives on the current “mental health system” and broader social forces of oppression in our world today. To me, there is nothing more sacred than entering into this space of questioning, a space in which there’s no ideological model incarcerating you within its bars. I view this as a human right, in fact.
Had I stumbled upon Mad in America’s International Film Festival during my time as a mental patient, I can’t say for sure whether I would have been receptive to it, or entirely threatened by it. For many years I felt incredibly protective of my “mentally ill” identity, because it gave me an understanding of myself, and even a sense of belonging somewhere. At that time, a challenge to its legitimacy or validity would have left me feeling offended and invalidated (i.e. “How dare you tell me my suffering isn’t evidence of illness! Are you saying you don’t think I’m really in pain?”), and it also might have pushed me further into reliance on the “mental health system”. I imagine there are many out there in the world today who’d respond similarly—for whom, in other words, the time is not yet right to hear about “a different way”—but this doesn’t mean that we mustn’t strive daily to force open spaces for dialogue in our communities, whether they’re four-day film festivals like ours, or one-hour panels in community centers, or a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line for a cup of coffee. Speaking for myself, I see it as my human obligation to be a part of making these spaces available to people, and this is one of the many reasons why I became a part of Mad in America.
When I first left the “mental health system” four years ago, I needed to go through a process of grieving, of reckoning with everything I’d lost during my time as a patient. I needed to be full of rage and indignation at what happened to me. I needed to be a victim. I needed to want nothing to do with any person who had any “mental health” degree of any kind… In fact, I needed to feel hatred for them. I needed to change the channel when I saw an ad for Abilify or Prozac on the TV (OK, I still need to do that, actually!) and I needed to tell myself that any person who had anything to do with psychiatry was fundamentally bad. Over time, however, I began to heal from the physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual trauma I experienced at the hands of my “mental health treatment”. I slowly began to recognize that just as I had been misled by the medical model, so had countless numbers of good-hearted people who’d pursued careers on the other side of the double-locked doors and the prescription pad and the clinic window. I slowly came to understand that it is at the institutional level of the Psych-Pharma-“Mental Health” Industry that I should target my protests and activism, not at the level of individuals, for they’d been educated the very same way that I’d once been: to unquestionably believe in and have faith in the medical model. And if I’d come to a place at which I’d let go of the anger and self-loathing and disbelief I’d felt towards myself for buying into the medical model as much as I did, how could I not let go of those same feelings for the many individuals who’d done so as practitioners? Over time, I began to develop relationships with social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who today have become some of my closest friends. Many of these folks are aligned with me ideologically, but many of them aren’t, and that’s OK, for just as I’ve reclaimed myself from psychiatry, I’ve also reclaimed my ability to feel love and empathy and respect for my fellows, even when I have different ideologies and beliefs. They are on their own journeys, too, just as I am, and we are constantly evolving as human beings.
You might be wondering why I’m sharing all of this here, and what it could possibly have to do with my experience of the Film Festival. What I find so valuable about Mad in America is that it is a meeting place for all kinds of people at all different points of all kinds of personal journeys to come together to rethink not only psychiatry, but the world we live in. When I reflect on how much transformation has happened in my own life since I’ve awakened from psychiatric indoctrination, I can’t help but be full of faith in the capacity of every single one of my fellows to have his/her/their own transformation, as well, even those who’ve been total believers in the medical model as patients or practitioners—for that’s who I once was, too. I believe that we’re all on journeys of discovery, and that even those who appear to be the most closed minded are always capable of change. You just never know, so why not believe it’s possible? And it is in spaces like ours online at Mad in America and in “real time” at our Film Festival that conversations happen and openings widen and people begin to reflect on themselves and the unfolding of their lives.
I hope that as Mad in America continues to grow, our community can come together around this sense of shared faith in the human capacity for growth and change, even when evidence of it isn’t necessarily visible. This isn’t to say that we have to like one another’s view points— for I surely don’t much of the time—but more to say that respect and dignity and empathy, I believe, must sit at the core of the dialogues we have and the debates we engage in if we are to forge a new, humanized way forward out of the dehumanizing medical model. I know what it’s like to be invalidated and silenced and made to feel like a subhuman specimen—I had countless psychiatric encounters that left me feeling this way, until I internalized those feelings totally within myself. It feels important to me to not replicate the harm that was done to me via ideological domination when I engage with others who are at a different point in their journey. And I believe this was one of the most valuable parts of our Festival—that despite the many differing ideologies that were articulated over the course of those four days, our community stayed connected to this deep sense of faith in and respect for our common humanity, and we didn’t resort to dominating each other via ideology, but rather listening to each other and tolerating the discomfort of difference.
I am honored to be a part of Mad in America, and look forward to nurturing it as it grows over the coming years both here on our website and increasingly out there in “real time”. Already, for example, we are strategizing about how to take our Film Festival on tour to other states and countries in a variety of different formats. (If you’re interested in screening films in your community, or in having a Mad in America-produced Film Fest of your own, stay tuned…) It is my hope that all of us—ex-patients, users, practitioners, family members, lawyers, journalists, students, et cetera—can work together to create space for dialogue, for this is what will lead us towards a society free from psychiatric oppression. There’s a long road ahead of us, and undoubtedly there are many obstacles big and small, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that we can change the world… One Film Festival, one blog, and one dialogue at a time, if we cling tight to a faith in and respect for our common humanity.
Laura DelanoLaura Delano
Journeying Back To Self: Laura Delano is an ex-mental patient who writes about her thirteen years of psychiatric indoctrination, how she woke up in 2010, and what it’s been like to come off psychiatric drugs, leave the “mentally ill” identity behind, and rediscover an authentic connection to self and world.
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