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Trauma of activism

Trauma of activism
Tina Minkowitz - Fri Nov 11, 2011 @ 08:27AM
Comments: 181

At Occupy Wall Street, a few people working on radical mental health, including folks from the Icarus Project, headed off an attempt to medicalize people's trauma - the trauma of occupying, confronting police violence, etc.  This is a great thing, that they are bringing peer support and alternative/radical mental health practices to Occupy.  When We are there, we are occupying a space that otherwise would be taken by those who negate our reality.  

Within our own movement as survivors of psychiatric abuse, how do we take care of our trauma?  There is the retraumatization of encountering reflections of our individual abuse again and again in our advocacy, in the stories of all our comrades, in the stories we have to tell to do the work.  There is the overlay of discrimination that trivializes our experience, objectifies us as victims and most especially, simply refuses to encounter the reality that the acts were abuse.  We constantly have to fight to insist on the fact that we were victimized, which risks fixing the abuse as a static and immovable fact about ourselves.  We encounter not just disbelief but a worldview that is so alien to our own that it cannot see the acts of abuse as abuse.  This worldview predominates around us to the extent that we can even think we ourselves are "crazy" for experiencing it that way.  All this leads back around again to the labeling that begins the cycle of psychiatric abuse in the first place and serves as its justification.  

I am about to attend a series of three meetings this month that I expect to retraumatize me.  How do I even talk about this without using language, or evoking responses, that frame my experience in terms of "mental health" needs, which, because I am a survivor of psychiatric abuse, a once-labeled mental patient, carry connotations of risk, fear, danger to myself and those around me, needing to be contained?  All activists experience trauma when we confront abuse and discrimination, in any system.  The difference for me and for our community, is that acknowledging the trauma of activism risks discrediting us, risks being labeled as "oh too bad she can't handle it, that psychosocial disability/mental illness must be kicking in".  Perhaps this is why some of us explicitly dis-identify, stay closeted or disavow the identity even while working on these issues.  Distancing can be self-protective in many ways and it can be recognized as a response to trauma.  Living one's life so as to avoid ever being psychiatrized again is another distortion of living as a response to trauma.  So is repeatedly fighting back and trying to win despite getting locked up, force drugged, outpatient committed every time.  

How can we talk about, both politicize and personalize, the trauma of activism in the anti-psychiatric abuse movement?  By personalize, I mean to tell our own stories in a way that examines one's own heart and soul, and questions rather than taking for granted any shaping discourse:  whether the discourse of abuse, of mental illness, of political correctness.  This is also for me the key to telling our stories of life and the place of the psychiatric abuse within our lives.  By politicize, I mean something actually similar: to question all the discourses that cause us pain and shape a truth that will contribute to ending the sources of that pain.

With the adoption and entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in some way it often seems to me that a great hope is both being born and receding at the same time.  My experiences with the CRPD peaked as a member of the drafting group, the Working Group of 40 individuals from civil society and governments selected to hammer out one text to be the basis of negotiation.  It was there that I felt most seen, heard, accepted, listened to, as a learner and teacher in a community that looked into each other's eyes.  For whatever reason that experience could not last, the idealism and even the willingness to overlook disagreements in a spirit of hope gave way to pragmatism and isolation that increased over time.  The achievement of the CRPD text as adopted, the removal of the footnote, the good interpretations made by relevant bodies of the UN, were hard won and were worth fighting for.  The CRPD has accomplished something in our community also, setting a standard of what we want and what we can now contemplate as being more achievable in practice, because it is said by the UN and not just in our own heads or small groups or demonstrations by crazy people who don't want to be treated as crazy.

But for all that, the CRPD remains hovering in the air, it needs to come to earth with some real changes being made because of it.  By real changes, I mean changes that are attributable to the standards of the CRPD - equality, abolition of forced psychiatry as a degrading, inhuman and torturous practice without exceptions, abolition of any practices or laws defining us as inferior, especially and most insidiously those that claim to be for our protection.  

The CRPD gives rise to more trauma for us as well, because it raises our hopes.  I experience this on an almost daily basis in my interactions with various groups and individuals via the internet.  I experience it when I see how much money talks and bullshit walks, as what we fought for gets co-opted by those who feel themselves to be the real experts on disability entitled to take this gift and make of it what they will.  In the Working Group and in the Ad Hoc Committee (the open group of governments, with NGOs and others as obervers, in which the CRPD was negotiated) and International Disability Caucus experiences, it was people with disabilities as we organized and represented ourselves, who owned the Convention.  

You can tell me that this is a rosy picture, that we faced painful discrimination throughout the Ad Hoc Committee, that my time in the Working Group might only have been so triumphant because I was new to this level of advocacy.  But I want to recall for the record that something was there, that needs to not get lost.  

At the same time, the spiral out also continues.  So many of us are working on this now in so many different ways on every continent.  Psychiatric abuse survivors/ users/ people with psychosocial disabilities sit on the Committee that monitors governments' compliance with the CRPD, and so far this influence has been beneficial.  

If I can offer anything of hope in talking about the trauma of activism, I would like to see us get past whatever has been dividing us, whether competition or jealousy, failure to acknowledge each other, sexism, racism, dominance of the north and west, elitism, fear of things we don't know.  We all have different perspectives on what happened in the Ad Hoc Committee, and even on what happened in the "team" of psychiatric abuse survivors / users/ people with psychosocial disabilities that came together at the UN.  The CRPD belongs to all of us, to WNUSP, PANUSP, ENUSP, all our national and local organizations, each one of us whose human rights has been violated, even those who don't self-identify.  I will always fight against co-optation and any attempt by anyone even another survivor/user/ person with psychosocial disability, to suggest the CRPD is no more than a restatement of the ugly and abusive MI Principles (Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness), which says all the abuses can be lawfully done so long as the rules are followed.  I don't say this to put myself forward as being above anyone else, I do recognize democratic organizations as speaking for the majority voice of the community whatever it turns out to be.  But I say that I will fight for this, as a survivor and as someone who was briefly in a privileged position of representing our community at a watershed of its history that may still represent a hope for freedom and equality - at least while that hope lives in us, everything the CRPD really stands for cannot die.

Meanwhile, to nurture ourselves as we find ways to bring the new world into being, I want to suggest that we need a "robust civil society" of psychiatric abuse survivors/ users/ people with psychosocial disabilities.  We need our own academic departments, law departments, conferences, opening up conversations in politics, places of worship, libraries, arts and culture.  We need to come together in ways that aren't about either "giving and receiving support" on the one hand, or "advocacy" on the other.  We need to nurture and cultivate whatever is our mad culture, whether a culture of resistance, spirituality, humor, truth.  Much of this is already happening, and in saying it here I am honoring it wherever it happens.  I have always understood "law" itself to be a part of culture, and working with law as cultural work.  Law shapes perceptions and values as well as, at least in state societies, functioning as a justification and regulation of the state's monopoly on coercive power.  Just as we have begun to reshape international human rights law on the rights of people with disabilities, we may need to reshape law itself and legal institutions, if the vision of freedom and creativity expressed in so much of mad culture is to be made real, not for a privileged few but for humanity.  Such a vision seems out of reach but is a conclusion necessitated by the same logic that says forced psychiatry is torture and deprivation of legal capacity is a violation of fundamental personhood.  

Whatever we all do as we go forward, however we find to nurture our visions, strengthen our communities and organizations, and persistently and patiently teach others our visions and our truths, this is a hope and prayer for wisdom, courage and healing.

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