The Incredible Shrinking Phallus

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Meditations on privilege

The mental illness system

This post on the Canadian mental illness and justice systems, a long with talks we have been having in one of my classes about prisons, stirred a lot up for me.

When I was in the hospital when I was eighteen, a man in this thirties or forties arrived who said that he had agreed to check-in while having a panic attack and hadn’t fully understood that he was going to be held for seventy-two hours. He’d constantly demand to talk to doctors and social workers and to be let out. When his partner visited, they’d sit in the corner with their heads together, plotting how to get him out. I was, as I said, eighteen, and full of world-weary bravado and told him that the more he ranted and raved, the longer they would try to keep him.

He did not appreciate this comment.

But this was a scene that I have often returned to. My own institutionalization was also voluntary– until I finished signing my name. Then it didn’t matter what I wanted any longer. I was checking in for PTSD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, stress, and above all, self-harm. My social worker at my out-patient program had sat me down at the end of my first week and said that they couldn’t keep me, for what I’m sure would be the insurance complications of me killing myself in their building.

So they loaded me into an ambulance (which my insurance later tried to tell me I didn’t need, asking if I couldn’t have taken a taxi). And they strip-searched me. And they put me, an eighteen-year-old girl with trauma issues, on a ward with men taking Haldol, who threw chairs and endlessly paced the hallway in front of my room, the only stretch of open space on the ward. We got fresh air only on cigarette breaks. I smoked more so I could go outside more.

I, too, felt trapped, but I had seen enough movies to know that pleading to your captors in the loony bin only makes you look more crazy. I didn’t believe him about not needing to be there; I barely believed myself. I played by the rules. I wore my own clothes. I came out of my room. I participated in check-ins. I was thankful for things. My panic attacks decreased from five or six a day to three, then two, then I just wandered around in a numb haze called progress.

I suppose I must have met with a social worker once (to whom else could I calmly communicate my desire to leave?), but the only one I remember is the one as I signed the papers to be released again, who ran down a check-list, asking if I thought I might be hospitalized again. I told her that next time I needed a break, I’d just unplug my phone. I didn’t add that I would make sure it was some place where there was food other than peanut butter with too much jelly and where I was not afraid to sleep.

Though I have fortunately never been in the prison system, I see echoes of my own psych ward in so many of the accounts I read. No help, no rehabilitation. The threat of violence. The isolation that works its way into your bones. The isolation from the very society they are supposed to be preparing you to reenter. The shame. The knowledge that they want to keep you there because you are more profitable to them inside than out. I was fortunate that they only held me a further three days after I asked (calmly, politely, like the good little girl I was), if I could please go home, please. But I do wonder still about that man. How long did they find it convenient to keep him? Did they find it worth it to go to a judge and have him ordered to stay? What does it feel like to have that kind of power?

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There are times when we are absolutely nowhere 1

I just saw this clip via The Angry Black Woman:


(embed is fickle. If it’s not showing up, click here.2)

This is just the latest of videos of truly violent3, jaw-droppingly appalling, often racially- or ethnically-charged4 conduct at town halls on health care reform. But sometimes, I see stuff like this and it is just too much.

Because are you fucking kidding me with this? To say “heil Hitler” to an Israeli Jew, as an accusation, as an insult because you disagree with him on how large the government should be, and whether it should provide health care for its citizens. There is still so much work to do and there are times when I am not up to any of it. I understand anger-baiting, but I also understand cruelty, malice, bad faith, and evil. And there is something evil in this. Rabbi Menachem Mendel said:

Intolerance lies at the core of evil. Not the intolerance that results from any threat or danger. But intolerance of another being who dares to exist. Intolerance without cause. It is so deep within us, because every human being secretly desires the entire universe to himself. Our only way out is to learn compassion without cause. To care for each other simply because that ‘other’ exists.”

Several protesters hold signs against health care reform. One man holds a sign that says 'we have not idea what they we are talking about.' On the sign, several arrows point at the people around him. In front of him, a girl holds a sign reading 'sorry, we thought reading the bill was ur job.'

This quote always brings up another for me. In “Mother Night,” a book about a playwright-turned Nazi propagandist, Kurt Vonnegut writes

There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that G-d Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with G-d on his side.

I watched the above video with a good friend of mine, who is not Jewish, but whose gay great uncle was killed in the Holocaust. He, too felt flabbergasted, but a short while later we were trying to light a fire which kept dying. He called the efforts lame and I told him that was an ableist term. He gave me such a look of annoyance, though occasionally he will apologize when I call him on “retarded,” and has learnt the term “hipster racism.” Where do you go with this? What do you do in a world that wants to hate without limit? I can understand wanting a small government. I can understand not trusting politicians. To disagree what sorts of programs a government should provide. To get upset when you see people stand in opposition to your ideals, even to lash out occationally.

But I cannot understand the baseless, monstrous comparisons to Adolf G-ddamned Hitler; strapping on guns and publicly, proudly threatening the president; I cannot understand a willful abandonment of humanity for inhumanity, the hatred of the other who dares to exist.

So. Where do you go with this?5 Where do you find that compassion without cause? How do you care for the other when the other is against (health) care? Where do you find love to combat intolerance so visceral?

________
1. “The West Wing,” “Take This Sabbath Day.” Sam Seaborn to Leo McGarry on the President’s refusal to take a stand against capital punishment.
2. For those unable to view or hear the video, the title tells you the long and short of it. An Israeli man is talking about how in Israel, they care for people, particularly soldiers, and provide everyone with health care. As he speaks, a woman off camera shouts “Heil Hitler.” He says to the reporter “did you hear that? She said to a Jew ‘Heil Hitler’.” He then confronts her: “I’m a Jew, you’re telling me ‘Heil Hitler?’ Shame of you! Shame of you!” Full transcript when I have headphones.
3. Hate crime-tracking groups report upswing in activity against President Obama, a health care protester uses Twitter to encourage people to carry and even use guns at town meetings, a Tampa town hall turns violent and is cancelled
4. Black Rep. David Scott (D-Georgia)’s offices are vandalized with a four-foot swastika following a town hall meeting, a woman has her poster of Rosa Parks ripped out of her hands. If you’re not quite sure about this racial undercurrent, I invite you to take a look at the comment section of virtually any piece about health care reform.
5. Me? I intellectualize.

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