A Transformation Story
In our culture, we are often inundated with recovery stories - narratives of individuals who have overcome mental health challenges or disabilities. These stories usually frame distress or disability as located within an individual, and something that the individual needs to overcome by taking responsibility and choosing to get well. The focus is on individual transformation and is often closely tied to bootstrap theory - the idea that if an individual just works hard enough, they can overcome any obstacle.
Rarely do we hear stories about contextual transformation - about the impact that addressing issues within our environmental and social contexts can have on our well-being and quality of life.
When I was 20 years old, in 2015, I was in seminary at Hebrew Union College pursuing my master's in Jewish nonprofit management. I found the program's focus on the charity model and emphasis on in-marriage, as well as the neoliberal, misogynistic culture of my cohort, to be incredibly alienating. As a result, I acted out in some major ways, some of which I am not so proud of, and some of which I am pretty proud of. I combined Xanax and alcohol, was confrontational toward some of my classmates, bashed Jewish practices and policies including calling circumcision sexual assault in front of professors, and even passed out from the effects of substance use in the middle of a site visit at AIPAC (that one I'm pretty proud of). Ultimately, I was forcibly hospitalized and placed on a leave of absence.
When telling others about what I was going through, I was heavily blamed and pathologized. I was told that I was clearly mentally ill and in need of treatment. The problem was seen as purely individual - everything in my context was considered to be just fine; it was my reaction that needed to change.
When I reached out to another student for advice, who had also faced disciplinary action previously, he responded with harsh judgment:
The article he was referring to was a piece I had written earlier about my first psychiatric hospitalization, which occurred prior to starting seminary. It can be found here.
As you can see, I did not respond to Aaron by calling him out on his meanness or judgment. Instead, I thanked him for his honesty. Because at the time, I thought that his words were what I deserved to hear. After all, I had acted out in disruptive ways and needed to be punished. I was so incredibly ashamed of myself and felt certain that Aaron was in the right.
I eventually began working full-time. For the first three months on the job, I was absolutely terrified that my co-workers would find out about my history and I would lose my job or be ostracized. I was completely sure that if they knew who I really was, they would have every reason to dislike me. Every day felt like I was carrying around an invisible boulder - a secret I needed to guard with my life.
One day in a state of intense panic and self-hate, I let it slip to a co-worker that I knew that if he Google searched me, he would judge me. Of course, he Google searched me and my aforementioned article came right up. Here was his response:
I couldn't believe it. I remember laughing and laughing in response to his text. I was so completely shocked that I thought I had to be dreaming - it felt so absurd. Before receiving this text, I hadn't been able to fathom that the idea that there might be people who wouldn't see my history as something to judge.
My co-worker's response encouraged me to continue speaking out about my experiences. And as I spoke out more and more, more and more people reached out to me to tell me how much they appreciated hearing from someone with a similar story to their own - how I helped them feel less alone. I quickly began to enter the world of the mental health consumer/survivor/ex-patient community, where I was not seen as horrible or "disturbing" for my history of psychiatric hospitalizations.
Don't get me wrong, the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement is flawed and problematic in a million ways, which I have written about on this blog before. And I am certainly seen as horrible and disturbing by many in the community due to either being too radical or not radical enough. But, there is no doubt about it that this community transformed me. It was a community in which I was accepted not despite my history of psychiatric hospitalizations but because of my lived experience. It was a community of people who found solidarity and connection due to our experiences in the psychiatric system. For the first time in my life, I began to not hate myself.
My involvement in the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement led me to find the Mad Pride movement, which is sometimes considered a subset of the former movement. It was here where I began to not only not hate myself but actually kind of like myself. Not only did I not need to be ashamed of the ways I had acted out, but I could actually be kind of proud of them. It was here where I began to discover that being maladjusted to oppressive dynamics, neoliberalism, and misogyny might actually be a good thing.
Fast forward to today. Today was the last day of the national Alternatives Conference, a conference led by and for mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors. While the conference isn't perfect by any means, I can say without any hesitation that every day this week, I have felt surrounded by people who accept and support me for who I am - not despite but because of my madness. I had so many incredibly meaningful conversations with fellow activists who I felt understood and appreciated by in ways I never thought would even be possible back when I was in seminary.
Here are some photos of me with just a few of the activists who I feel so incredibly grateful to have connected with: Ginger Hoffman, a professor who teaches students about Mad Pride and has been an incredible role model to me; Jess Stohlmann-Rainey, an educator and activist who I only met just this week but found such a deep level of solidarity with; and Kaz DeWolfe, who co-founded Radical Abolitionist with me and inspires me every day.
Meeting and hanging out with activists like Ginger, Jess, and Kaz has given me so much pride in who I am. Meeting other Mad activists who I admire and respect has shown me just how awesome madness really can be. How could I possibly hate myself for being Mad when there are so many Mad folks who I love and feel supported by? As Cal Montgomery writes, pride is "love, and a recognition of humanity. You say, 'I am like these people in the following ways ... and if I am without value because of those things, then so are they, and I *refuse* to concede that about them.' You don't stand out that much; you can't be the only person who should be ashamed. If you concede that you should be ashamed, then, you concede that so should other people. You say, 'I am required to act as if I have value, even on days when I don't feel that way, because that is part of expressing a belief that *they* have value.'"
I want to be very clear: I have not "recovered." I am still suicidal, I am still an active self-harmer, I am still suffering intensely much of the time, and I am still very fragile. Capitalism still exists, sanism still exists, oppression still exists, and I am constantly struggling with the effects of those. This is not a recovery story.
This is one example of the impact of contextual change. Connection, solidarity, and feeling valued and appreciated are not a means to an end. The moral of the story is not that with enough connection, solidarity, and appreciation, people will get better. These things have certainly improved by quality of life, and have helped me like myself better, but they do not mean I am well. Rather, I am accepted despite and because of not being well.
In many ways, this story is one of luck and privilege. It takes privilege to be able to come out without facing serious financial and social repercussions. It takes privilege to be able to attend conferences and start blogs. It takes luck to find people as quickly as I did who accept me for who I am.
As I reflect on my experiences over the past few years, I wonder how many others are out there who can't possibly imagine that there might be a community of people in the world who would accept and embrace their madness. I wonder how many are out there who are forced to hide their madness and carry around that invisible boulder due to sanism and other forms of structural oppression. I wonder how many people hear words like Aaron's every day and internalize them so much that they want to treat or cure the parts of themselves that make them who they are.
And I wonder: what would the world be like if people could embrace their madness? If madness were truly allowed to thrive instead of being silenced?
As I continue my work in the Mad Pride movement, I hope to always remember the 20-year-old girl who was completely certain that everyone would always find her madness to be burdensome and her perspective to be disturbing. I hope to keep her in mind as a reminder of all the people who can't catch even a tiny break from the world's sanism, or even from their own sanism. It is these individuals who I want to keep at the center of my work. It is my hope that more and more of my Mad brothers, sisters, and siblings will realize that it is not they but the world around them who needs to transform.