Surviving the Side Effects of the Class Struggle

Some of our brothers and sisters have been struggling with physical and emotional injuries after recent confrontations with the police state. In response, many of us gathered at the Long Haul community center in Berkeley, Calif. to brain storm about coping with the psychological effects of police brutality. We agreed that a better support network is needed to help activists stay alive and active.

We are good at preparing for all the possibilities of any protest or direct action. We lend solidarity outside jails, inside court rooms, mobilize roaming medics and write phone numbers of law collectives on the back of our hands. We have empathy for anyone who has been shot at, tear gassed, beaten bloody, or had their limbs twisted and yanked out of their sockets by the cops. But once the visible wounds are healing, many of our friends are left alone with their fears, their sense of defeat, their suicidal despair, or the resulting addiction to pain pills. Those of us who cry openly are often told we shouldn’t be surprised that we got hurt fighting the system. But such response grossly misinterprets and invalidates the feelings we are expressing. We are not surprised. We are shocked. We are traumatized. Nor is trauma something we choose to indulge. It is the typical human response to violence and injustice. In fact, in a community of activists who actively confront the capitalist system, trauma is inevitable. An emotional support network should be part of protest preparation right along with the medics and legal aid.

If we want to prevent burnout, and keep our activists from recoiling in fear of the next confrontation with reality, we all must learn to recognize trauma, develop a better understanding of the emotional impact it has on ourselves and on the community at large, and take the recovery of the individual out of isolation. Right now it is common for comrades who don’t know how to deal with emotional crises, to encourage us to seek professional help, unaware that they are sending us into a mine field.

Having battled my way through the mental health industry, I am well aware of the difficulty and even dangers of finding professional help for mental and emotional needs. Unlike medics and legal aid who simply must have knowledge of medical science or written rules, psychology is a surprisingly menacing field, and available support systems are hard to distinguish from cult-like communities and mind sets. The time to prevent further injury at the hands of these “professionals” is before we are traumatized to the degree of desperation, when it becomes especially easy to fall victim, and to research what type of safe support is available.

Hijacking Science to Justify Oppression

To understand the mental health system in place today, it is important to understand that psychiatry was never a medical profession, but has always been primarily a tool of oppression. It was first established as the Holy Inquisition was coming to an end, indeed actively replaced it by reclassifying “witches” as “mentally ill”, and apologizing for the church sanctioned mass murders by explaining that the inquisitors were well-meaning but misguided by superstition, all the while validating their persecution of the endless victims of the witch hunts by continuing the same persecution under the guise of science. Early psychiatric literature is eerily similar to the writings of Holocaust revisionists and apologists of today. Let us never forget that the very first deaths in Nazi gas chambers were psychiatric “patients”, this time under the guise of euthanasia.

Psychiatry was never based on science, nor is it today. There are no physiological tests to diagnose disease in psychiatric “patients”, not even to find the chemical imbalances, which the current “scientific” fad attributes “mental illnesses” to, nor its supposed genetic origins. Diagnosis is based on talking and observing behavior, classifying culture and personal expression into categories according to the physician’s own culture and personal opinions. It is not unusual for psychiatric “patients” to be diagnosed differently by each psychiatrist they see. The diagnostic standards themselves seem to change according to whim, weather, and regime change. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) for psychiatrists listed homosexuality, for example, as a mental disorder until the 1970’s, yet even though it was removed and invalidated as a disease at that time, queer youths are being incarcerated and drugged in psychiatric institutions to this day.

I don’t doubt that many people feel they owe their lives to psychiatric drugs, or at least feel the drugs have been useful tools to help them function better. I certainly defend people’s rights to take psychiatric drugs, or illegal street drugs for that matter, if they choose. But I won’t legitimize these substances as medicine. Medications claiming to treat illnesses for which there are no medical evidence are experimental at best. All the tests of these drugs are designed, funded, and supervised entirely by the pharmaceutical companies themselves, with outrageous scientific protocols and manipulations of data. The side effects are rarely disclosed to “patients,” especially those who are forced to take them. Aside from tragic changes in people’s personalities and creative abilities, the most severe side effects range from tardive dyskinesia, a disorder similar to Parkinson’s, and indicative of permanent brain damage, to seizures, coma, and unexplained death. Psychiatrists usually claim that the side effects or even the withdrawal symptoms are further symptoms of the “mental illnesses” the drugs are supposed to treat. As a result, larger doses are often administered, with the victim caught in a vicious cycle, treating a disease caused by the drugs intended to cure it.

One should step inside psychiatric offices with great caution. No matter how good the intentions of individual psychiatrists, the system they work for is structured more like law enforcement than medical practice, and treats people who are labeled “patients” like they are criminals. People with a psychiatric diagnosis can be incarcerated and drugged against their will. The stigma alone has permanent effects on many people’s ability to get health insurance, jobs, into school, be approved to adopt a child, or be believed as a witness, not to mention be free from prejudice from their own families and friends. It is nearly impossible for psychiatric survivors to win a case for injuries inflicted by psychiatrists, because they are easily discredited as “unstable”. Unlike medical records, access to ones own psychiatric records can be denied “for the patient’s own good”. Freedom of speech also does not apply to psychiatric “patients”. A psychiatrist is required by law to lock up anyone who admits that they feel suicidal, for a minimum of 72 hours. Psychiatric institutions are prisons where we get put into straight jackets and isolation, and get our brains washed, doped, lobotomized, and/or electrocuted, as the case may be. 2005 in Berkeley, and you can still get your brain fried at Herrick Hospital by people who are paid living wages for the privilege.

And the oppressive legacy of psychiatry continues as the Bush administration’s “New Freedom Commission on Mental Health” is lobbying to screen all Americans for mental illness, beginning in the schools with children and their teachers, and eventually extending to everyone at routine annual doctor visits. This would result in psychiatric treatments with only the most expensive psychiatric drugs on the market, as the proposal is backed by pharmaceutical companies. It is already implemented in school districts in several states. Teachers all over the country have been pressured into dispensing drugs for some time now, and there are financial incentives for underfunded schools and families on welfare to label children as mentally ill. The number of ADD/ADHD diagnoses in schools have been increasing
at an alarming rate. Sally Satel, the psychiatrist Bush appointed to the “National Advisory Council for the US Center for Mental Health Services”, the committee that reviews federal grants for mental health services, is advocating for more coercive psychiatric treatments, including more outpatient commitment, which court orders people to take psychiatric drugs against their will, and is already well established in most US states.

In contrast, psychoanalysis, even though it evolved out of psychiatry, is practiced mostly by people who do not claim to be doctors. Freud’s “talking cure” developed from the discovery that traumatic experiences cause mental confusion (now called “dissociation”), and are often acted out unconsciously, without any conscious memory of the traumatic event itself. He found that the confusion could be alleviated to varying degrees by bringing the traumatic memories into consciousness and by talking about them. But in an oppressive society that normalizes abuse, the truth is inherently unwanted, and secrecy is part and parcel of psychiatry. The psychiatric community threatened to ostracize Freud for revealing the frequency of child abuse, and he abandoned his most relevant psychological findings, and replaced them with the theory that memories of abuse are really fantasies of the victims. This act continues to have lasting, devastating repercussions on how our society defines feelings, actions, and truth. Since then, the validity of repressed memories has been repeatedly challenged, debated, and confirmed, but attempts to squelch the truth continue. In 1992, shortly after changes in the judicial standards of evidence extended the statute of limitations to accommodate survivors of child abuse who had repressed all memories of the events until well into adulthood, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization of parents accused of having sexually mistreated their children, began to wreak havoc on the support network established by survivors. Its attacks were aimed directly at therapists, who are often the first to provide survivors with a relatively safe place where the truth can be expressed.

Speaking our Minds

When self-articulation is chronically discouraged or made impossible through the imposition of secrets, confusion and lies – especially in abusive homes where the abusers’ priority is to conceal their crime, but also in schools, at work, and in combat – our communication can no longer follow traditional patterns and we find ways to express our truths any way we see fit. Some of the resulting patterns and behaviors are considered awkward, unintelligible or even frightening, and rather than attempt to truly understand the troubled person’s plight, our society readily stigmatizes us by labeling our communications symptoms of mental “illness”. But no matter how cryptic our “craziness”, to those who try to decipher the meaning, the same message keeps repeating: unresolved trauma causes ongoing disorientation, with the degree of disorientation being in direct relation to the degree of trauma. While it may seem disorderly in its extremes, this disorientation, or “dissociation”, is something all people do to varying degrees. It is in fact fundamental to human functioning: it filters useless or overwhelming information by fragmenting from consciousness experiences, feelings, memory, other people, ones own body, sense of self, reality, and more…

Trauma and the difficulty of working through it, are at the core of why individuals are labeled “mentally ill.” When we are traumatized we are confronted with a reality too overwhelming to cope with. Sometimes the shock is so great that people can’t find words to tell their stories, are in fact speechless, catatonic. After the traumatic event is past, some of us begin to behave strangely, while others continue seemingly unaffected. But regardless of how it looks from the outside, traumatized people frequently feel a sudden disconnection from reality, often re-experiencing the event as though it was still happening in the present. We are easily triggered by reminders, and defend ourselves against the intrusive flashbacks by numbing out the present along with the past. The resulting confusions distort reality to varying degrees, sometimes to the degree of hearing voices, having visual hallucinations, and body memories. Many develop insomnia to avoid nightmares, and are too frightened and depressed to participate in life.

I personally didn’t leave my home for several years because I was overwhelmed with several deaths among my closest friends, one due to police violence, which was followed by a threat to my livelihood by my abusive boss, and then a sexual violation, which catapulted me into flashbacks of a terrifying childhood. I became suicidal, fluctuated between manic anxiety and exhausted grief, and starved myself into the hospital. My dreams were so vivid I couldn’t tell if they were real, or if I was in the past or present. I heard voices inside and outside my head, hallucinated spirals opening up in front of me, and one day I looked in the mirror and every time I blinked someone else looked back at me. During that time many people offered me remedies ranging from pills to prayers, none of which I trusted, so I researched what support was available to me. The stories and solidarity of people with similar experiences helped me realize that my coping mechanisms were perfectly understandable, even predictable in the context of my life, and I learned to adjust them according to my present needs.

Among the available tools for recovery are a wide variety of therapists (psychologist, social worker, eco-psychologist, shaman,…) with a wide variety of methods (EMDR, bio-energetic, transactional analysis, non-violent communication, primal scream,…), guided and anonymous groups with specific focus (addiction, abuse, grief,…), peer counselors, herbs, massage, meditation, yoga, tai chi, dancing, capoeira, martial arts, self-defense, art and music, keeping a journal, changes in life style, such as nutritional, sleep, home or work environment, and finding supportive relationships and ending abusive ones. One of the more interesting approaches is Soma, which was featured in a recent edition of Slingshot, but to the best of my knowledge is available only in Brazil. But the most important consideration in seeking help is personal rapport with therapists and allies, and agreement on fundamental boundaries and concerns. Method (if any) and structure can then be negotiated. It’s best to go for a mixture of approaches that work for you.

Trauma is both universal, yet deeply personal, and psychotherapists come in many flavors. Many therapists believe in psychological categories of how humans function, either based on the biological reductionist models of pathology or drive, or on personality typing or ego states, or according to various vague religious explanations of destiny, fate, or karma. Their solutions range from remedies intended to “cure illness”, to modifying behavior, to talking and supporting their clients in developing insight, self-awareness, autonomy, self-esteem, hope, and self-determination. In order not to be retraumatized it is essential to get some questions answered before entering into a therapeutic alliance. One of the potential pitfalls of searching for allies is that the anti-psychiatry movement is comprised of a wide political range, from psychiatric survivors, Marxists, Civil Libertarians, to the Church of Scientology (as the Citizens Commission on Human Rights). Even Co-Counseling seems to have its origins in Dianetics, and has been criticized for their sectarian practices, and history of sexual abuse and abuse of authority by its founder. Another issue most people will be confronted with when exploring therapy options, is the trend to apply the term “codependence”, which originally implied a partner of a person dependent on alcohol or drugs, to all interdependence and to thereby discourage any truly intimate relationships. Fundamentally, the first st
ep in recovery is finding a place where it is safe for the fog to lift, so that the truth can be integrated into conscious reality, and can then be acted upon.

Truth telling is part of both recovery and revolution. Language can be either oppressive or liberating. Many people who have been labeled, feel that the labels are useful, because it provides them with a language to put their struggle into words. While it may be helpful to embrace some of the psychiatric labels as metaphor, we have to take care not to actually pathologize our struggle and our humanity in the bargain. Reclaiming labels is a powerful act, but just like the swastika is too loaded a symbol to appropriate for any meaning other than fascism, talking about “mental illness” at a time when people so categorized are stripped of their human rights, is using not only the symbols, the language, but the very attitude and perpetuating it. In this system differently-abled people may have to accept being labeled, just to provide for such basic needs as housing, food, and health care. Plenty of people would love an excuse to take away the meager disability benefits some of us receive as a result of our inability to function in this abusive system. Our political objections may make us feel like liars, so we push ourselves beyond our limitations to prove we are not disordered, or we validate the labels by acting them out instead of our own experiences. Either way it is fundamentally problematic to use labels that define our humanity as a medical problem, because it adds to any mental confusion we are struggling with. We must dismantle the language that oppresses us, while somehow keeping what little support is available to us in place.

Since the brain storm at the Long Haul, some of us are in the process of putting together a resource guide to help activists in crisis navigate the system, including emotional and mental support, advocacy, legal aid, access to medical care, disability benefits, and other basic needs, information and personal stories about recognizing trauma and how to survive it. We’d also like to create a safe space where activists can share about their struggles and network for support, both casually over tea, or more formally in workshops, support groups, and one on one peer support. Ideally we would like our own free emotional crisis clinic for people not willing to be labeled “mentally ill”, that is politically conscious of class, gender, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. But until we can accomplish such an ambitious task, we must start small. I urge you to do your own research of what support options are appropriate for your situation, share resources, educate your co-ops and affinity groups, talk openly and honestly about your experiences, and always defend your full range of emotions. Most importantly, be good to yourselves and each other: this rotten to the core system won’t do it for you.

Sources for my analysis are too many to list here, but the books I recommend most are: Trauma and Recovery – The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror by Judith Lewis Herman The Manufacture of Madness – A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement by Thomas S. Szasz The Assault on Truth – Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson For questions, further dialogue, or if you have resources you’d like to share with the community, Dr. Ruthless can be contacted at