I have a friend who believed all his life that in his previous incarnation he was Napoleon. Nothing is wrong with this belief (which might be true as a matter of fact), but be careful to whom you reveal your deepest secret. My friend started to talk about his Napoleonic ambitions at his work. Well, he ended up in the hospital.
As for me, I freaked out on a rather ordinary day in November while sitting behind my desk at my job in Amsterdam. It was pouring with rain – but that’s a usual thing in that city. Starting from October till April in general, almost everyone in the Netherlands is battling with the feelings of depression due to strong wind, constant rain, and grey sky.
I wasn’t battling with depression though, but rather with euphoria. I had this feeling that something magical was awaiting me in the near future. That the life I knew now would be transformed into something much more interesting and fulfilling. I suppose that practically everyone reaches this point in life nowadays. The point when life appears to be worthless and one starts asking oneself serious questions about fate, the purpose of life, and one’s own role in society. I wouldn’t assume that so many people reach this moment in life, if the amount of self-help books in the stores didn’t testify otherwise. Nowadays it’s the biggest selling market in the book world.
I reached this point rather early in life, at the age of twenty-seven. Maybe because I was born in the Soviet Union, and witnessed first-hand the demise and collapse of the most beautiful land (from my experience). Or maybe because I worked in finances. Bankers are the first to react despairingly in crises.
I wasn’t a banker, but I was a financial analyst of banks. In between lunches at banks, where I could at least indulge in my love of food (when I was allowing myself the pleasure of eating), I was battling with overwhelming boredom. Analysing figures and reading annual reports of banks for five days a week for two years straight can drive anyone mad.
But since quite a lot of financial analysts of banks don’t go crazy, I guess that in my case there was something else besides simple boredom. Now, looking back with some perspective, I suppose that it wasn’t just the job – it was the whole routine of organizing your life when you have to sit the whole day in an office and aren’t sure what to do productive with your life afterwards.
Just think, for a second, about what exactly I mean. Maybe you are familiar with this routine, and can quite easily visualize the picture.
Your day starts with the terrible beep of an alarm. Not only are they really unpleasant, they also intervene, in a nasty way, into the natural functioning of your body. You would love to continue seeing that last dream (something like enjoying a holiday in the Bahamas) for five minutes more, but eventually you end up dragging yourself out of your warm and cosy bed to attend to your responsibilities.
Then you grab, from the fridge, whatever is available for your breakfast (assuming you are well organized and do have something in your fridge), take a quick shower and run towards the underground station as you realise that you might be late. As usual.
In the underground station (or… on a bus), once having managed to battle through a crowd to get onto the train, you have to endure standing close to irritated and sleep-deprived fellow passengers, who are more than happy to invade your personal space as you do theirs. And in case you go by car to work, I bet you spend some quality time in a traffic jam.
By the time you rush into the office, it’s rare that you are in a cheerful mood.
And it’s just the beginning of your day. You still have to face eight long hours (at least) in the office.
From these eight hours, as a general rule, you need to be productive for the majority of them. You do have to show that you are doing something useful, in between coffee breaks, chatting with colleagues, checking Instagram or your Facebook account.
You survive till lunch (the best part of the working day by all standards), but then the worst part of the day lasts for eternity. Our bodies are programmed in such a way that the most natural thing to do after your lunch is to have a good nap.
But no, in your case you have to drag yourself back behind your desk and struggle with a terrible desire to sleep for the best part of the afternoon. You try to focus on your job (with difficulty), while at the same time constantly checking the clock to see how much time is left till you are free to go home.
Still… at this point, you try to think of doing something positive about your life once out of the office. Instead of watching the next episode of Eastenders or sabotaging your brain with something like Big Brother, you envision yourself doing something more productive and useful, like joining a course in creative writing, starting to study a language or simply reading an intellectual book.
Unfortunately, this positive thinking usually stays in the realm of a fantasy vision, since as soon as you are out of the office, you can’t wait to end up on your cosy sofa watching endless TV until it’s time for bed.
And the next day it starts all over again, and the day after, and the day after, until it’s weekend – the only time we seem to really enjoy ourselves nowadays.
On that particular November morning, when I was trying to do some estimates for banks, I got, for the first time, a glimpse that life could be something else entirely.
Doctors blame it on the chemical imbalance in the brain, David Icke says that we are invaded by reptiles, and some call it enlightenment.
Whatever the name of the phenomenon, on that day I took my first ride into a magical world, which is hidden from us behind job responsibilities, money worries and the burden of everyday routine tasks.
Who knew that this adventure would land me right in the nearest psychiatric hospital?
According to the Chinese ancient wisdom, everything in this universe evolves within yin and yang energy. Yin represents the feminine, water and passive. Yang is the male, fire and active. Both have to be in harmony, which exists to maintain balance in our universe and within each of us.
My body had to undergo a major shock at the age of twenty-seven to recognize that my yin and yang balance was severely distorted. True, at my birth I received the perfect fire and water combination. I was born in a female body on the tenth of July in Moscow during the Soviet stagnation period. My zodiac sign is cancer and my year of birth is the dragon. The cancer is water and the dragon is fire. However, as one Soviet politician once put it: ‘we tried our best, but you know the rest’. The hospital where I was born did not have any hot water on that lucky day, and my small body was washed with cold water. This first event in my life is reflected in the picture taken immediately after the cold water procedure. Everyone looks happy and cheerful, except me. The creature in the photo has a blue face and looks like it is going to die. Which almost happened, as according to my mum, I developed a terrible flu and was lucky to live. What’s lucky is a big question, since I am not that sure that my life has been particularly lucky.
In any case, after the cold water and the flu, the yang element took over, and I developed the strange idea that life is about survival. One has to put in enormous efforts in order to be alive, feel happy, and receive love.
By the age of twenty-seven I was convinced that I had everything one was supposed to achieve with this kind of thinking. I had a nice job by society’s standards, was exercising my body like mad in a very good gym and was dating all kinds of weirdoes, which as far as I could see, was the case of almost all of my friends. And I strongly believed that I had put in enormous efforts in order to have the life that I had.
Then, what was wrong with me, you might ask?
One sure thing was that I had terrible problems with my mind. It was unable to shut it up. Although I seriously doubt that my power animal was a little mouse, I have the impression that my mind was constantly busy with analysing and scrutinising. Once I tried a trick, I made an attempt to get rid of my thoughts. I was even able to watch them at some point, like dark heavy clouds around my head.
‘Ekaterina, you are not worthy!’
‘Ekaterina, you are stupid.’
‘Ekaterina, you are a failure.’
‘Ekaterina, you are a total failure.’
‘Ekaterina, you are bad.’
‘Please, god, take away my mind.’
‘There is no god!’
‘I need a cigarette.’
‘You are mad!’
‘Please, god, help me.’
‘According to Nietzsche, god is dead.’
‘Nietzsche was mad.’
‘So, are you.’
You see, I did have a problem.
Another black spot in my biography is my name. My name, Netchitailova, is the size of a skyscraper in New York city and caused me only trouble while subscribing to libraries or opening a bank account. Netchitailova is unpronounceable in other languages other than Russian and means unreadable. This in itself is quite a pity, since my biggest passion in life is reading. Though it is not as bad as some other names in the Russian language. Imagine if you have the name Netchactlivaya, which means unhappy, and try to convince strangers or your friends that you might be in a cheerful mood.
The third thing, which is for sure, is that officially I am indeed mad. A certificate from psychiatrists that I’ve been psychotic is definite proof of my madness.
What is psychosis, you might ask? The usual scientific definition explains this phenomenon as a state of mind which is characterised by a loss of contact with reality, accompanied by delusions and hallucinations (including hearing voices). Well, it probably does not say much to you as, according to this definition, the majority of the world population is in constant psychosis. Someone is suffering from a delusion of being on a mission from god to teach others about healthy eating, another believes in extra-terrestrials and I know a woman who makes millions of dollars by claiming that she can communicate with dead people.
A real psychosis is when your madness is confirmed by a certified psychiatrist.
The psychiatric hospital of today might appear as a foreign, scary object to the mind who has never visited the institution. It represents the unknown, the territory that one is terrified of, but at the same time attracted to with natural human curiosity. Let’s be frank here: we want to know what is inside and who is “hiding” there.
In the eighteenth century, in Europe, many mental institutions called “asylums” were open to the public. In exchange for some entrance money, interested visitors could have a peek: they could stroll in the corridors and observe the patients inside. It was a popular destination by all accounts. People found “madness”—or rather, what is assigned to the term—interesting and irresistible.
Michel Foucault wrote about it extensively, presenting a picture of a typical Sunday morning in Paris for a middle-age couple. They wake up, have breakfast, and then go for a visit to a local asylum for entertainment. Doors were open to the eager public, and the asylums never lacked in visitors. It is indeed interesting, and probably more attractive than going to a theatre or the modern cinema. People aren’t acting there, and they are real.
Today, that same curiosity about manifestations of “madness” is satisfied via books or, more often, via movies. It isn’t by accident that such movies as Girl, Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind were such a big success: “madness” has always been fascinating, and will always attract and terrify the human mind at the same time.
But let’s look at the psychiatric institution of today. It isn’t by accident that doors to it are closed to the curious mind, and only those who are unlucky end up being inside, on the wrong side of the equation—being a patient. The psychiatrists are the ones who walk really free there, looking, observing, analyzing, and then administering the cocktail of modern drugs. We read some stories, we get some news, but it is all presented to us as “mental illness,” part of the bigger discourse on “mental health.”
These stories hide the truth of the modern psychiatric narrative: that real, nice people end up there, and the psychiatric experience is likely to ruin one’s life for good. The drugs they prescribe don’t help with anything, and the stigma which gets attached after one receives a label or diagnosis is forever a scarlet letter on one’s life CV.
I have been unfortunate enough to deal with the psychiatry from “inside” and thus, am an unfortunate witness to the horrors behind the machine. I am also an academic and thus, am interested in the narrative—how my own personal story becomes part of a bigger picture. My story is unique, as are many others, but we all become just statistics in the psychiatric tale. We are all “patients” and we are all “insane.”
The mental health narrative of today is the continuation of the history of the psychiatry, beginning with the age they call “enlightenment,” when the doors were closed to the curious, and only the patients and treating “doctors” were allowed inside. I am not sure it was done out of good will, because it banned the witnesses of the injustices happening there. It is really taking the truth out of the terrifying tale hidden in the modern mental health narrative. People are often held against their will inside these institutions, though their only “crime” is that they dared to have weird thoughts or hear voices.
The modern mental health narrative is the recycling of the psychiatric song to present it to us as something innocent, mundane and even good. Yes, we should think about the sanity of our minds, take care of our bodies, sleep, eat well, and exercise our bodies and minds. However, this tale that appears innocent hides the fact that it simply scares people into a pattern of normality. A pattern where everyone should be the same, behave the same way, and do the same things as everyone else: think about which car to purchase, where to spend the next holiday, and whether to swipe left or right on Tinder. Once you start questioning the so-called normality of student loans, paying mortgages, marriage, kids, gym membership and the like, you will exhibit “abnormal” behavior, I can guarantee you that. You will start questioning things and stop and wonder: Why are there so many homeless people on the streets? Why is Africa so poor? How can I think of the next holiday when there is so much poverty in my otherwise rich land?
Your weird thoughts will scare you, and you might become what they call “depressed.” Depression is definitely not an illness, but it is a fact. It is nothing else but a natural reaction of a mind that wants more from life than the boring tale of “normality.” If you dig deeper, you might even get onto the scale of what they call “bipolar,” and if you embrace your weird thoughts with zeal, and voices finally reach you (the real spirit world hiding behind our “normality” narrative disguised as “the age of reason and enlightenment”), then you might get the label of “schizophrenic.”
All these labels are just words invented by the twisted tale of psychiatry to deceive our minds and prevent us from thinking and behaving differently. There is no mental illness, and there never was. People simply get unwell, and bad things happen in life.
But the psychiatric institution of modern times, with its closed doors, lingers on top of our minds as the forbidden bad fruit that no one should touch, terrifying us and scaring us, because let’s be frank and honest here: no one wants to end up there. And not because one is afraid to become “ill” (we are all prone to “madness,” let me assure you), but because of the narrative of mental health.
Trump demonstrated the scariness of the narrative to perfection when he condemned all “mentally-ill” people. He showed how strong the stigma is and that the slogan “mental illness is like physical illness” is just words into the air. Trump demonstrated the real attitude toward people with “mental illness.” He simply doesn’t know who they are, and what is really taking place—behavior and thought control by the psychiatric institution.
And only a few of us know and see the truth.
The psychiatric institution is mostly an abstract body hanging over our head, sort of a bad headmaster telling us what to do and how to act—a behavioral control manager. It terrifies us with its promise of inflicting a label on the innocent mind, but at the same time, lures us for a peek inside.
Today we don’t have the possibility for a peek inside, but we remain, nevertheless, very curious. We do wonder what is taking place inside, who is held inside, and what it looks like. Mental health patients are your biggest celebrity story, hidden behind the bars of the psychiatric system, which doesn’t want to reveal its badly written script.
I was once inside and thus, am inviting you to have a look. I will take your hand, and encourage you to join me, on an exploration of the inside of the psychiatric institution.
Let’s open the door.
Once we manage it (and it isn’t easy as the doors are really locked), we proceed along a corridor. Psychiatric hospitals operate according to the principle of the panopticon, as Michel Foucault describes in his brilliant book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. He tells us about the emergence of the modern prison system, operating according to the principle of surveillance. “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication,” Foucault tells us, referring to the fact that in our current behavior surveillance system, we act like everyone else due to fear of being observed and punished if we do something wrong. The panopticon has a structure: you have a central vintage point through which you can see everything, scaring the subjects into compliance. The subject is always observed.
Modern psychiatry operates according to the same principle, and so do its facilities, such as mental health institutions. In each long corridor of its facilities you have a central point, where psychiatric nurses hold their watch. It is indeed a watch, and if you think that they provide care and show love, then you are wrong. Most of the time they write notes and if we glance inside the notes we will see the following: “Today M dressed more appropriately and was nice to the staff,” or “This morning G stopped his uncontrollable laughing and showed some insight into his behavior.”
Trust me, school is a piece of cake to pass in comparison to what is happening in the notes and observation techniques of the staff in psychiatric hospital, and none of them ever shows any insight or comprehension into their own idiocratic stance. They simply don’t know what they are doing and why, because of the system of the psychiatric establishment. Those who show any weird thought pattern or exhibit strange behavior should be put inside the mental health institution and be re-trained as to how to behave normally.
The nurses sit at their central point, visibly bored and annoyed. They don’t like the patients who come with constant demands, which are always the same and don’t change. “Can I go out, please?” “Can I have a bath?” “Can someone, please, take me on a walk?” “Can I call my friend R?” “When can I see the doctor?” “When will I be discharged?” These are the irritating demands of the patients, taking the attention of nurses away from their notes—and notes take most of their time and attention, because of someone out of their mind who invented psychiatry: it isn’t the patient that matters, but what is written about him/her in the notes. The notes are shown to the treating psychiatrist and stored on shelves, although no one will ever glance a second time into the books and volumes describing us, describing the behavior of those unfortunate enough to step outside the scales of normality.
But let’s move away from the central post and look at the room next to it. It is a room with a phone, where patients queue (when they are allowed) to make a call, and where the treating psychiatric consultant deals with the patients, if other rooms are occupied. It is a small, stinky room, with a closed window, where both the consultant and his patients feel suffocated and mal-at-ease. The doctor doesn’t want to be there, it is the patient who asks to see him again and again, with the same annoying demand as always: “When can I go home?” she asks.
You might think it is funny, but it isn’t funny at all for the patient on the wrong side of the equation. The power machine is firmly in the hands of the consultant psychiatrist and only he can decide on your fate. And it is indeed a fate: one day longer and the patient can be driven to such a despair that he will try to take his life. And if this happens, the cycle becomes much longer, because in that case, the patient is proclaimed as a risk to himself, and is kept behind the doors for much longer. Then it is just survival instinct that might save the patient and give her the strength to endure it all longer.
Let’s walk away from the room and have some fresh air—in the garden that is usually present (thank god) in the facilities. The garden is used for the patients to have a cigarette and to pray. It is here that most interesting conversations take place, away from the observational post of the nurses. It is here that they dare to quickly exchange their own thoughts, such as sharing the voices they hear and the visions they see. It is here that they also get advice from someone who is more advanced in their knowledge of the panopticon, such as, “Don’t say all this to the doctor.” One needs to comply, behave as normal as possible, and not reveal one’s mind to the psychiatrist. Following the rules also means being extra-nice to the nurses who are not nice back to you, wearing presentable clothes, and acting like you are at an office meeting, definitely not as if in the hospital, oh no. I feel much more relaxed in my working place than I ever was inside a psychiatric hospital.
The psychiatric hospital of today, to conclude my narrative, is a panopticon, a modern prison for the daring mind and for weird behavior. We had a small peek, but in reality, it is much more distressing for the one who is being observed. In some hospitals they have cameras in the rooms to supervise the “patient,” and in some establishments, there are people who stay there for years, injected with drugs against their will, losing all hope and desire for living.
It isn’t funny, it isn’t entertaining, and it is bad.
But all who are lucky enough not to end up there march past this monstrosity, oblivious to the torture of the mind happening behind those walls.
(This article was first published by me on Mad in America website and can be found here.)