This is Day 9 of our 30-day blog on the Declaration of Principles adopted by the 10th Annual Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression held in Toronto, May 14-18, 1982. (More info here.) Today we are talking about Principle 9.
Principle 9 reads in full as follows:
We oppose the psychiatric system because it punishes individuals who have had or claim to have had spiritual experiences and invalidates those experiences by defining them as "symptoms" of "mental illness."
Basic RationaleIt is kind of absurd that any human being would presume to judge another's g*d. I mean, how can you really do that with the straight face of a human? In case the difference isn't obvious, human judgment is fallible and subject to error. Given limited experience and knowledge, we are poorly positioned to judge at all - much less someone's experience of what they call Divine.
After all, who but G*d can really know?
Unfortunately, that's not actually a rhetorical question when it comes to psychiatry. For decades now, psychiatry has been dismissing our religious and spiritual experiences. Even worse, they've been diagnosing and labeling such experiences pathological and insane. Even worse, they've been locking us up, drugging, 'treating', de facto persecuting us, for the sacred contacts we manage to make.
In actuality, psychiatry has a lot in common with the inquisition. You go against accepted doctrine and you are sure to be in trouble. The only way out is to confess error and recant. It is usually not enough to simply disavow what you believe to be true. You actually have to switch allegiances and feign gratitude to psychiatry for showing you their light.
The light of psychiatry is always the same. The interrogator's spotlight never misses a human flaw: Can't you see you are just another dismal mortal joke? Why on earth would g*d be concerned with the likes of you? You have no credentials, where is your pedigree? You're not a priest, nun, monk or scholar. You're no more special than anyone else. Just ask your family, friends, and neighbors - they're the ones who turned you in. Disagree and we'll show you exactly how insignificant you are. We'll erase any thought of g*d entirely, even if we have to take your brain out to do it.
Adding insult to injury, you could hardly find a profession less qualified to make this call. Psychiatry is a terrible student of spiritual literature. The Bible, for example, is replete with accounts of ordinary people being called by G*d. A hallmark of Christianity is that G*d appears to those voted Least Likely To Succeed by the rest of humankind. A hallmark of both Christianity and Judaism is that prophets and saints are commonly at odds with their communities. They are forever having to get rescued by divine means to avoid attempted stonings. Even Jesus had to pull a vanishing act to avoid disaster at the hands of his hometown church.
Equally disturbing is the wholesale lack of appreciation for the fact that spiritual development is a process. Most people start off with some kind of inspiring experience, a deep longing or a traumatic, tragic challenge. This gets them interested - It doesn't make them experts. The important thing is that people are getting a taste of the potential richness that a spiritual orientation could bring to their life. Any sincere helper - and anyone sincere in their effort to helpfully assist - would get that there's a lot of distance between the embrionic fumblings of a new inquirer and the seasoned development of a spiritual master.
As a case in point, Buddha's progression from inspiration to enlightenment had numerous fits and starts. It included extended experimentation with potentially life-threatening extremes. His story is replete with examples of risking, testing, trial and error. There was way more stuff that didn't work than did for a lot of years.
Anyone who has made a sincere effort into the spiritual journey knows that this is common. There are numerous crests and valleys en route to learning the spiritual road - like when to trust intuition and when to challenge it, when appearances are truth and when they are error, when guides are sound and when they are frauds. Along this path, the idiosyncratic is often a gateway to the personal and meaningful. It's almost a rite of passage that the utterly foolish has to be met and grappled with on the path to becoming genuinely wise. To expect instant success or the appearance thereof , as psychiatry does, is the hallmark of the immature. It devalues the significance of what is at stake - what could not but be at stake in any sincere pilgrimage to understand the nature of life itself.
Most damning above and beyond all this, however, is that history has already proven the limits of psychiatry and medicine in the spiritual arena. Conveniently no one talks about this much anymore. However, in the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) did just that.
AA basically came about because the medical profession - including psychiatry - had no answers. Prior to the 1930's, thousands of people were getting sent to institutions to dry out. Essentially, like today, the treatment system was a revolving door. People got dropped off by desperate loved ones and friends. They continued to deteriorate, eventually die, despite the best that medicine and psychiatry had to offer. Like today, mostly what medicine and psychiatry had to offer was to shake their heads and say, what a horrible disease.
In the 1930s, however, a couple of remarkable - and remarkably desperate - people found each other. They were drunks who, again and again, conventional treatment had failed. If they had limited themselves to what conventional medicine, including psychiatry had to offer, alcohol would have killed them. If they had simply been 'good patients' and limited their inquiry to the instructions of their doctors, alcohol would have killed them. It also would have killed a lot of other people, because there would be no AA or Twelve Steps today.
Fortunately they didn't limit themselves to what psychiatry and medicine had to offer. They also didn't limit themselves - even though they were very far gone - to professional opinion saying there was no hope. Instead, they continued their search for something that could work.
Miraculously, against all odds, they found it. Miraculously, it worked not only for them, but also for millions of others. Miraculously - at least to their physicians - the main ingredients had nothing to do with medicine or psychiatry.
Please also note: This is not just a story of 'spiritual experience' for which AA and the Twelve Step programs that followed are renowned. This is also the story - though not often told this way - of how a couple of drunks freed themselves and their people from the grips of a medical and psychiatric system that held no meaningful answers.
Their advice to newcomers:
Keep at it, keep trying. Answers comes to some quickly, to others slowly. The things you try first might look really absurd. In the beginning, you might make a lot of mistakes. You might try a lot of stuff that doesn't work or seems like it is really off the wall.
But, don't give up. Keep listening to the voice of your own conscience, keep asking the Universe to help you. Keep talking to others who have been there, and checking out your judgment with them.
No matter how bad it seems right now, eventually you'll be able to make sense of your intuition. Eventually you'll be able to understand the meaning of inspiration. Eventually, you will know for yourself and from the messages you are getting from Something beyond you, what to do and where to go from here.
Psychiatry will tell you that it has advanced much in the 80 years since AA. At the same time, our people are still dying miserable deaths. We are dying in psychiatric care, not just out of it. We are dying because of the best medicine has to offer, not because we can't access it. Like the 1930's, the best medicine and science can do for vast numbers of us is throw up their hands and say what a horrible disease.
I no longer believe that. I no longer believe we have to accept that. I no longer believe they have all the answers. I no longer believe their answers are better than our own.
AA is part of our history. AA liberated itself from medicine and psychiatry. Alcoholics and addicts freed their own people. It is time for the rest of us - with the other labels - schizo, manic, borderline, chronic - to look within ourselves, beyond ourselves, to each other, and to whatever other Powers may exist. It is time to stop letting ourselves be told we have no future and will never recover - with or without what they're selling. It is time to take our fates into our own hands, listen to our hearts, our intuition, our best judgment, our images of g*d or g*ds. It is time, in our own time, in our own way, according to our own reality or vision of it, to invent our own solutions and to set ourselves and our People free.
Questions for Reflection
We are building this work together. Your lived experience is needed and valued. It is essential to building our shared knowledge and expertise as a movement. Please comment on any or all of these questions or in any way that speaks to you personally.
1. Has psychiatry ever invalidated, punished or pathologized your spiritual experiences?
2. What was this like for you?
3. What would you like people of conscience to know about what you went through?
4. When you picture yourself in the worst of it, what aspects of your spirituality were you able to hold onto and how did you manage to do that?
5. What about your spirituality matters the most to you and why?
6. Compare the value of your spirituality to the value of psychiatry. Which do you prefer and why?
7. How can helpers support someone who is going through a spiritual experience? What are the most important things they need to know?
8. What changes do we need to make as a culture in order to support, rather than thwart, spiritual consciousness and human attempts to develop it?