Friday, September 25, 2015

Demons in White Coats

by Jean Roberta

It’s a vicious cycle: I’m still afraid of being diagnosed with a mental illness, as I was at age 19, after I had been raped. (Supposedly, I was a “borderline schizophrenic,” which seemed to mean that what I told the male doctors after my attempt at suicide was unbelievable to them.) If I still haven’t learned to “trust men,” as I was encouraged to do, and have even less faith in the “mental health” establishment, this must mean I’m still paranoid.

My nightmares about men in white coats are slightly worse than my nightmares about men in uniforms. At least if members of some police or military organization came to haul me off to prison, it would be clear that I was being charged with a crime. And if there was no objective evidence that I had done the deed, I would have at least a slim chance of getting acquitted.

On the other hand, if someone representing “health” and “sanity” came to take me away to get “therapy” or "help," who would support my protests that I like my life the way it is, and would rather go on doing the things I do?

I know what the “experts” would say. If I claim I’m not hurting anyone, they would point out that I’m a danger to myself because I’m out of touch with “reality” as the mind doctors see it. They would claim to be acting in my own best interests. I could explain that I’ve taught English in a university for over a quarter-century, and have had glowing reviews from students who find me knowledgeable, logical and helpful, but none of this would prove beyond a doubt that I’m not crazy. Students as witnesses don’t have a lot of credibility themselves. And mind doctors don’t like to be contradicted. The more I would protest my innocence, the more obvious it would seem to them that my rebellious attitude is a dire symptom.

Over a year ago, I wrote the following short piece and sent it to Alexandra Wolfe, a sci-fi writer who runs a site, The Spec-Fiction Hub. She seemed to accept it for posting on the site (as far as I could tell), but I don’t really understand how or when that was to happen. So this piece is still unpublished.

After the Cure

In 1961, the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee of the Judiciary of the U.S. Senate conducted hearings on “The Constitutional Rights of the Mentally Ill.” Francis J. Braceland testified: “It is a feature of some illnesses that people do not have insight into the fact that they are sick. In short, sometimes it is necessary to protect them for awhile from themselves”
(an actual passage from Constitutional Rights of the Mentally Ill, quoted by Thomas Szasz in The Manufacture of Madness, 1970.)

How far medical science has progressed in less than two centuries. Now, in 2065, “we the people” have outgrown the awkward process of electing a government, supposedly so characteristic of an adolescent state of development. The disease of free will has almost been eradicated.

In my youth, I had a favourite T-shirt that said: “I’d rather wallow in my pathology.” I would venture outdoors with this slogan spread proudly across my breasts. Of course, they took it from me when I was committed.

I hope this message reaches you. I don’t have much time left. I learned that I am scheduled to be euthanized in thirty days. I was diagnosed with Feminine Senescence (being an old woman) years ago, and now it’s been determined that my condition is terminal. There is no point, according to the Director of the Clinic, in forcing me to suffer until I die of natural causes.

What they don’t say is that the government can’t find a use for me, since I can’t have babies who would raise the declining birthrate. No new fruit of my womb will be socialized according to the principles of Mental Health or report all signs of illness in their mother to the proper authorities. I won’t be missed by anyone who counts.

So many of those I loved have gone. Most didn’t go willingly. Some were diagnosed with Feminine Juvescence (being young, immature women), some with hyper-pigmentation of the skin. Most of those I miss were found guilty of sexual perversions, including a desire for sex without a corresponding desire for pregnancy. Those diagnosed with Masturbatory Insanity were euthanized first. Last year, the World Health Organization announced that thanks to an effective educational campaign, masturbation has been wiped out.

I fervently hope I get to see my loved ones again, somewhere beyond the physical world. I don’t really know if there is an afterlife. My willingness to consider the possibility has been written up as a sign of Senescent Heuristic Impairment.

If, against the odds, this reaches someone who has not yet been brought in for diagnosis and treatment, here is my advice and my blessing: believe your own senses, and cherish your feelings. Don’t let them tell you what to think, and what your experience really means. Cling to hope, even when all the evidence is discouraging, and your closest companions tell you (for your own good, of course) how neurotic you are.

As they said in the Dark Ages of universal madness: Where there’s life, there’s hope.

Rereading this, I realize that it's not exactly about "personal demons," but about the impersonal demons of enforced mainstream values and social control. However, it's hard for me to separate those things. Moral panics can force any handy scapegoat onto the defensive, and it's really impossible to prove that one ISN'T a psychopath or a terrorist. In a society in which teenage girls can be harassed to the point of suicide simply because they've committed sex (which was debatably consensual), who would defend a much older woman who has done much more? These questions keep me awake at night.


  1. Chilling, Jean, all the more because it's so plausible. Indeed, falling into the hands of the psychiatric establishment is the classic Catch-22. If you admit you need help, you obviously need treatment. If you deny you need help, then you're clearly delusional or in denial and need treatment.

    Your post, though, made me think of a parallel, or maybe a mirror, to this demon -- the creeping, terrifying fear that you ARE insane, or are likely to become so. I know people who have a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia. They scrutinize their every thought and action for signs of the disease in themselves. When you have reason to believe you might go crazy, normal emotions like grief, anger or the blues become threatening and suspect, because they might be symptoms of the pathology lurking within your mind.

    Very scary.

    Sounds like the germ of a story, though...

  2. As frightening as this is, there are elements here that our religious belief systems (fairy tales) would just love.

  3. A chilling look at the future, and I wish I could say it will never happen.

  4. Thank you for commenting, all. And Lisabet, you are right: being diagnosed with a mental "disease" raises all kinds of self-doubt. My spouse Mirtha once suggested that I might have mild Asperger's (like Dr. House on TV), a condition in the "autism spectrum." She was referring to my sometimes (not always) uncanny memory for details, even years after an event. I don't think I was born with this "condition." When I was young, I started writing things down, trying to be as objectively accurate as possible, because I was so often "gaslit" by adults. If I came home from school and complained that the teacher was mean or some other kids left me out of their games, my parents (& other relatives when they were around) usually told me I was wrong, I was letting my imagination run away with me, and I must have misunderstood because no one would ever deliberately mistreat me. When I began dating boys who made remarks about the general stupidity of girls and expected me to agree with them, once again, my parents suggested that my vivid imagination caused me to hear things that weren't said. This continued into my adult relationships, including my melodramatic (but not imagined) marriage. In that case, my husband would accuse me of lying, then after I escaped, other people (mostly acquaintances) accused me of lying about him, or grossly exaggerating our cross-cultural misunderstandings. I still have my own detailed written account of the last week I spent with him before escaping. I wrote it in the women's shelter where I found sanctuary, and included everything I could remember, thinking this document might be useful for legal purposes. (It was never used for that, but it served to remind me of what I had left.) Since I started teaching a generation ago, I've been very grateful to colleagues and students, who tell me I interpret written material (literature and student assignments) logically and impartially. So demons can apparently become angels.

  5. There seems to be a movement, if not quite a trend, toward challenging the "rape culture" and believing what victims say, but it's a tough battle. Even in "progressive" areas like colleges in New England there's foot-dragging, but at least they get called out on it. Maybe there's hope.

  6. That's what I think too, Sacchi. At least now there is particular focus on rape in colleges/universities, where a concentration of young women & young men makes it more likely than in, say, nursing homes for the elderly. And now some critics are pointing out that colleges are money-making institutions that tend to suppress any news that might damage their reputations and thus their ability to attract paying students. Use of the term "rape culture" gives me great relief, because that's what I was trying to describe (probably in a fairly incoherent way) at age 19, when I was asked over and over again why on earth I would try to kill myself. (It wasn't just a reaction to one event.) At the same time, post-secondary education seems to be quickly becoming more corporate and profit-oriented than ever before, so I don't expect the conflict to be resolved any time soon.

  7. Jean, this is an incredible and chilling post, as people said above. The spec fic story hits hard, and your personal fear of demons in white coats hits hard, too. I have had the experience of having my experience questioned so much I began to doubt myself, and I often now start doubting myself right away—did I perceive wrong? interpret wrong? Etc. It is scary to think that I live in a world where people would sometimes rather I think I'm crazy than see the truth of an event. I've sometimes thought it's worth questioning that often-applied adjective "healthy." I spent a while scrutinizing myself to determine whether my reactions were "healthy" or "unhealthy," and later came to feel like that was just throwing me into weird circles. Anyway, thanks for writing this!


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