Victimhood as Expertise

Victimhood as Expertise

Every so often, I am told that I am "harping on my trauma" or "wallowing in self-pity" for speaking at length about the times I've been victimized.

Much more often, and more benevolently, I am told that I am so "brave" or "bold" or "strong" for my willingness to be vulnerable and share personal details about my life.

But it is very rarely, if ever, that I am treated as an expert.

If I am treated as an expert, it is not because of my victimhood. It is because I am a PhD student, or an editor at a critical psychiatry web magazine, or a founder of a grassroots group that raises awareness about human rights violations. It is because of some position or title I have that is equated with productivity or empirical knowledge, with serving a population or doing work within the capitalist framework that is viewed as respectable, valuable, or, most commonly, monetizable.

The reality is that while all of the above experiences have contributed to my knowledge about mental health, human rights, and cognitive liberty, it is my deeply personal experiences of human rights violations and victimizations that have given me the bulk of my expertise. It is not study, readership, or editing that enables me to viscerally feel the impact of psychiatric coercion and paternalism in every bone of my body; it is not intellectual or empirical knowledge that drives me to speak out. It is only my subjective experiences of victimization - which I feel and relive over and over each day - that leave me with no choice but to take action.

Usually, trauma is seen as something that needs to be healed. Something to be "processed" - to be dealt with privately, in therapy or among a circle of close friends, to be addressed as a problem and solved. To be neatly and tidily compartmentalized, separated from oneself, shrunk smaller and smaller until it no longer affects one directly, until it is altogether stored away. "Your trauma should not define you," clinicians will say.

If an event or circumstance is harmful to or painful for a trauma victim or survivor, it is framed as "triggering." It couldn't possibly be that the event or circumstance is in of itself harmful, and that an individual's trauma has provided them with insight into the event's harmfulness. No, the issue is that the victim has not dealt with their trauma effectively enough, that their trauma is still affecting them.

In this sense, trauma is framed as a singular and isolated incident, as an exception to the rule. The world is a generally safe, just place, but victims and survivors have been falsely convinced by their traumatic incident that the world is unjust and unsafe. It is not possible that trauma could be an ever-present constant, perpetually occurring in every sphere of life.

Not only are experiences of victimization not seen as expertise, but they are seen as pathology. As something that causes victims to see the world less clearly, to think less rationally.

Yet for me personally, my victimhood has only allowed me to see the world more clearly. I grew up in a fairly conservative, capitalist family and shared and embodied those values for a large part of my life. I had been taught, and so it seemed to me, that the world was a fair place, and people who were economically marginalized (for example) were just not working hard enough. My victimhood fundamentally rattled my trust in the safety or justice of the world, and as a result I increasingly developed empathy for other victimized populations. My victimhood did not cloud my judgment or get in the way of my thinking clearly; rather, it radicalized me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for victimization or attempting to justify victimizing people because it gives them expertise.

But I wonder how our communities and contexts might change if, instead of always asking people how they plan to treat or heal from their trauma, we gave them more opportunities to share what they have learned about the world, about the human condition, about power structures, about the impact of ongoing and pervasive systemic issues. What if, instead of asking, “What happened to you [as an individual]?” we gave victims more chances to situate their traumatic experiences within a broader framework of systemic injustice and contextual power imbalances that they now have insight into?

In some cultures, people with lived experience who take on paid roles within the mental health system are referred to as “experts by experience.” I have seen some organizations in the U.S. adopt this terminology, but I have seen it adopted in name only. “Experts by experience” in the U.S. are still the employees who are paid the lowest, who have the least decision-making power, and whose opinions and perspectives are given the least credibility. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals - those whose knowledge comes from text-based and empirical sources - are the ones at the top of the hierarchy. I have even seen the perspectives of “experts by experience” pathologized. For example, their desire for a client not to be involuntarily committed may be seen as “projecting” their own negative experience of hospitalization onto others.

What would it mean for “experts by experience” to be valued as actual experts? It would mean viewing the victimization they have undergone not as “negative experiences” or “projection” but as a rigorous process through which they have arrived at knowledge and insight into the mental health system and the world. It would mean giving equal (if not more) weight to the knowledge gained through lived experience to the knowledge gained through study.

Ever so rarely, I am asked questions that point to others’ framing of my experience as expertise: “What changes do you think need to be made to the mental health system?” “What are the power structures and power imbalances in the mental health system and the healthcare system that the general public might not see?” “How have these power imbalances impacted your life? How do you think they might be impacting others’ lives?” It’s a start, but I am still always aware that my responses to these questions may be taken more seriously or trusted as expertise more so than others’ because of my relative privilege compared to many other victims and survivors - my white privilege, thin privilege, economic privilege, and educational background. It is time for these kinds of questions to be asked more regularly to all victims and survivors who have expressed willingness to answer them. And it is time for victims and survivors to be compensated for using their expertise to answer these questions just as much as psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are.

As for me personally, I do not plan to stop “harping on my trauma” any time soon. I plan to beat it up from every angle, examine it within every philosophical and sociological framework, and explore its meaning in every context. I do not plan to ever stop viscerally experiencing and re-experiencing the crazy-making isolation of being locked up and separated from my loved ones, the paralyzing terror of losing my bodily autonomy and not being able to say “no,” the waves of nausea and fear upon realizing I could be forcibly injected or restrained if I didn’t cooperate, the shame of being discredited and seen as mentally incompetent by my family. I do not plan to ever compartmentalize these experiences, to ever push them aside or let them stop allowing me to better understand the ongoing coercion within the mental health system and other systems and institutions. It is my hope that I never stop being defined by my victimhood, and that my victimhood remains an ever-present constant in my life, always providing me with insight and compelling me to take action against the victimization of others.

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